There is a crisp moistness in the air surrounding Zach LaPerrière as he bends over the large block of yellow cedar sitting motionless on the table in his workshop brimming with woodworking tools. He gazes at the surface of the cedar for moments that seem to stretch on forever, his eyes taking in each layer of grain and texture. Then, finally, he stoops close, his long beard filled with woodchips, and brushes the surface of the centuries-old wood. His eyes light up. Outside his open-air shop, the forest gently sways in the breeze, and the ravens rip through the air singing their song, but all of that is muffled for him, a distant buzz. At this moment, he feels the story emanating from the log in front of him, a story that he feels he can release over the next few months as he slowly strips away layers of wood by hand to create a beautiful work of art.
He has been dreaming of working on this piece of wood for weeks, ever since he spotted it deep inside the Tongass National Forest surrounding his home and workshop just outside Sitka, Alaska. Covering the southern part of the state on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the forest is the largest in the United States. It is renowned for its ancient trees that blanket hillsides and a temperate rainforest climate that is home to a teeming ecosystem.
Living in a small cabin immersed in the virgin old-growth with his family for the last twenty-five years, LaPerrière is a part of the wilderness. There is no television or road into it. Visitors park off the nearby road and walk in. As a result, they spend as much time outdoors as indoors. He spends long hours in his woodshop under the cabin, and he will spend months working on the creations that come from a single tree, turning it on his lathe, peeling back layers, and discovering the story in the wood.
“Every time, it's a process of finding the tale ... The true artist is the tree. It's the wood. I am just uncovering what is unseen. It might be the remnant of a bear slash from decades ago buried under the bark or a spot where a branch fell off centuries ago. Each step in the process reveals a bit more of the tree's life.”
“Every time, it’s a process of finding the tale,” he says. “The true artist is the tree. It’s the wood. I am just uncovering what is unseen. It might be the remnant of a bear slash from decades ago buried under the bark or a spot where a branch fell off centuries ago. Each step in the process reveals a bit more of the tree’s life.”
Getting the wood into his shop is no easy matter. He does not go to a woodlot to peruse fresh-cut trees. No, LaPerrière spends hours scouring the sloping hillsides surrounding his house on Sitka Sound. Since there are few roads in the area, he enters the forest from the waterside, motoring from his house into remote beaches on his small silver skiff, his outboard motor quietly sliding him across deep green waters.
Working only with dead trees, he roams into the murky darkness of the forest armed with his battered chainsaw, looking for a tree that calls to him, one that might have another phase of life in it. Sometimes it can take him weeks to find the right one. One particular dead red alder was standing silently over a mile up a steep valley when he discovered it. He knew it would be perfect and applied for a permit to harvest it. He had to wait until a deep winter storm came to fell it and then he sledded it over animal trails and frozen streams to the saltwater and his waiting boat.
“I am in the incredibly privileged position of connecting people to the woods. It's something that resides in all of us. It's part of our DNA. It has fed us, protected us, and watched over us forever. I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing than this."
Each piece of art he creates is wholly unique. It can often take several years to go from raw wood to a finished item. Untold hours of sanding go into drawing out its beauty. Oils highlight small features. The layers of the wood draw your eye in.
LaPerrière feels that each of his creations is an homage to the forest, to the place he calls home. His work reminds people of the wilderness that man has tried so desperately hard to tame, yet still exists across the planet. “We have been forest people from the beginning of our existence. Our ancestors came from them,” he says. “I am in the incredibly privileged position of connecting people to the woods. It’s something that resides in all of us. It’s part of our DNA. It has fed us, protected us, and watched over us forever. I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing than this.”