Not Far From The Tree

Photo by Robin May

This all began on Pie Day last year. Most of you know Pie Day as Good Friday. In Catholic tradition, it is a day of fasting. But at Greg Guirard’s house, the one meal allowed on Good Friday comes in a hand-baked crust. Dozens of cousins and a lifetime of friends arrive at his house on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin bearing pie. Blackberry, strawberry, coconut cream, Mississippi mud, lemon meringue, key lime and luckily for hungry visitors, crawfish pie. It is a feast of tasting and a renewal of old friendships under the budding pecan trees.

All the pies last year were laid out on cypress slabs, cut from the sinker cypress Greg drags out of the swamp. For a while all anybody did was eat. But after most folks were heavy bellied with crawfish pie and sweet potato sweet dough, the women cleared off the tables and packed up the pies to send home with people departing in the late afternoon light.

I was sitting on a bench sipping some wine and just breathing. I glanced over at one of the cleared table tops and heard a whisper in my ear. Was the wood speaking to me? Well of course it was, the wine giving it voice, and I walked over and ran my fingertips along the wild uncut edge of the board. Let my thumb stroke the deep holes that indicate pecky cypress.

Greg Guirard is a giant in his own right. His grandfather homesteaded the land he now lives on, his grandfather and father built the houses he grew up in out of cypress. Greg, photographer, naturalist, environmentalist, author, has planted 40,000 trees on his property as a way to repay his family’s debt to the land. Most days, he goes out in his crawfish boat, fishing and finding the big logs, which he pulls into basin landings and, with a portable sawmill, slices them into 2-inch slabs that will become table tops.

I ran my fingers along the edge of that particular board, 7 feet long, 30 inches wide, pierced by the fungus that creates pecky cypress, and I fell in love. The board came home in the back of my pickup.

I interviewed Ralph a few years ago for an article in The Independent. He’s a metal worker, forging balconies, bannisters, doors, chandeliers, fountains and an occasional side table. He loves Renaissance curlicues and Art Deco geometrics. But I’d also seen some of his playful pieces, filled with birds, elongated humans and sometimes a family dog. I invited him over to look at my cypress table top. I told him I wanted it to rise from the swamp. I wanted creatures to delight my grandchildren. I wanted art.

When the table returned, several months later, I was literally struck stupid by Ralph’s vision. He had executed the lines of leafless branches with the same remarkable abstractions that nature does so effortlessly. Irregular steel trapezoids support the table. A coy serpent twines his length through the bars. A dragonfly lights; a small bird huddles for warmth. The cypress slab, sanded and waxed by Ralph, floats above the metal structure as if it had been growing there, all along, in my kitchen.

The table feels both very old and very modern. When the morning light hits it the waxed cypress gleams. It makes me want to cook dinner for my friends and sit long over champagne, or good coffee and better talk. It entices my fingers to trace its wild edge every time I walk past, or to eye the serpent, who speaks in tongues of changes to come. I sit at my table and write. I hear the chuckka call of the deep swamp. I feel the merest frisson of a breeze. I hear the creak of a rocker singing sunset at the dark of day.