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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

I Am the Boat

July 2020

As I walked through a larch woods in Mongolia, I thought—I am the boat. Why would I have such a thought in a wood in a landlocked country? It is a country so beautiful I could live here, except it is without an ocean. I cannot live far from the ocean because I am a boat. I kept walking among the trees. This one said, “I am the boat.” I walked farther. A slight breeze moved the needles of another tree who said, “No, I am the boat.”

The tamarack, or American larch, grows in New England and the Maritimes, in other eastern and central states and provinces, and extends a broad swath on to Alaska. From Maine to Nova Scotia, a tamarack is also called hackmatack. The tree likes boggy areas with lots of sunshine. Its roots lie horizontal on the top of the bog or damp forest, or sometimes inches below the surface, each root bending at a right angle. From there, grows the tree’s tall straight trunk. It is from these trees that the knees of wooden ships come. Unlike all conifers but two others, the tamarack needles turn yellow and drop in the fall. Its first shoots of spring are soft and blue. The two other deciduous conifers are from the cypress family—one that grows in the southeast States, whose needles turn bright red, and the other in China and Mongolia. Walking in a woods in Mongolia’s Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, I was surprised when I came across a copse of larch. I looked at them, smelled them, took pictures of branches and needles as being there stimulated a remote memory of Maine’s larch trees.

Back in the States, I fantasize walking through a tamarack forest in a dory-building area. I see a small section of the tree missing its bark and some wood about a yard up. Looking down, I see one of the roots is missing. Three feet long, inches deep, and the root of the tree can form the knee of a hand-built dory. When building a sailing ship of old, the boat builder used the whole tree. Digging to loosen the roots, the roots remained intact when the tree was felled. Such a tree yielded several natural knees. Some knees are sawn and attached to a beam. These are not, however, as strong nor as graceful as the natural knee whose beam extends the width of the ship. The hanging knee fastens along the side of the boat and the trunk becomes part of the substructure for the deck.

A recent builder of wooden sailing dories and rowing skiffs lived in the village of Ouzinkie on Spruce Island, Alaska, an island of spruce trees. He estimated he had built around 1,300 dories and skiffs in his lifetime. When Fran Kelso, also a resident of Spruce Island, asked his son, Nicholas Pestrikoff, what he did in winters when he did not salmon fish, he replied, “I look for dory knees. When I find good ones, I cut them.” So the son, now an elderly Alutiiq man, helped his father make dories—wooden dories, the dories of  recent ancestors—and continued to make his own dories and skiffs.

I first saw the bent root and partial trunk of a knee tree in Tutka Bay, a small offshoot off Kachemak Bay, Alaska. As I hiked through the woods, this oddly shaped and refined piece of wood, the knee tree, rested against a spruce tree. The trunk portion was long enough for a dory. Its story was that it had come from Nova Scotia, was taken in a van to North Carolina and from there, the person wrote on the wood, addressed it to Karyn at Tutka Bay, took it to the post office, affixed the appropriate postage, and mailed it to Alaska. I didn’t know you could mail a board as long as you addressed it, wrote the return address and had postage on it.

As I held this knee, I pondered that these are the trees that built the Lunenburg ships of the nineteenth century, the ships that went fishing with their kneed dories let down into North Atlantic waters. These are the trees that built the ships that plied the waves to Boston, New York, Puerto Rico, Barbados, and back. These are the trees that supplied the knees for yesterday’s brigs and schooners and for the wooden boats of today. These are the trees of the knees of the ships my great-grandfather, Captain Tom Acker of Lunenburg, sailed. These are the trees that someone told a young Abigail are larch or tamarack. I liked both words. Whichever it was, it sounded like its own song. Larch sings like a lark. Tamarack is a line from a song—tamarack-tamarack. Thus, my childish thoughts knew why they sang songs at sea—larch and tamarack, larch oh tamarack—and still sing them now. It’s not just the motion of the water and the boredom of long becalmed times; the structure of a boat is a song.

The tamarack tree grows fast, yet resists decay and decay is never wanted on a ship. A shipwright hangs knees vertically to support the deck above. He bosoms them horizontally to curve to the boat’s side structure. To keep the mast steady in a storm, Captain Tom’s ship, the G. W. Pousland, had two masts and each one was held fast by four standing knees above deck, and four hanging knees below deck. To picture the structure of this or any boat, picture a person lying on her back, for a ship is always a she. Her backbone is the keel. Her ribs are the knees and her chest the deck. Her head is the bow and her feet the stern.

When Captain Tom boarded his ship, he made the rounds. Looked at the decking, the beams, the knees, the caulking all to make sure his vessel was shipshape. He was about to take this tiny wooden structure into a vast sea of chaos; the ship’s order was imperative. As the ship moved in calm or storm, more than one person might need a tool. The life of his ship, the lives of his men, the lives of his wife and three children, George, Will, and Mary when they accompanied him, his cargo, and of his very self depended on orderliness. If new grommets were needed, every man aboard needed to know where the grommet sets and tools were. If a line needed replacing, or a sail mending, every man aboard needed to know where the tools were, and he needed to know immediately.  There was no hollering about where was the whatchamacallit for the thingamajig. Every drawer had its name to hold hammers, grommets, chisels, saws, needles, and everything needed for the maintenance and safety of the vessel. No, Capt. Tom and every other captain knew the sea could be disordered, but not his wooden container nor the crew it held. The inventory after every trip was all to keep it shipshape. He must require orderliness of all he could control, a habit he passed on to his offspring and I still live as if aboard his ship. My spices stand in alphabetical order on the three shelves I made. Even if the bureau is different, my clothes are in the same order in four bureau drawers as they were when I was four years old. I keep my poems on the same shelf above the stories about the military, which are above the fishing and sea stories on the left side of my desk. On the right side are the shelves that house my writings on suicide research, post-traumatic stress disorder, inner behavior, and articles and books about standard celeration charts, and behavior analysis. To keep me from panicking when about to leave in my kayak or our skiff, I keep my life jacket on the same hook in the boatshed. I like the ship of my life in order. 

A poem to the shells of boats and ships that hold us safe on water:

I Am

I am the boat that has carried men to sea
each day since someone first crafted board to board,
calked the in between long before Odysseus in
sight of home, was blown to foreign shores, troubled
by deeds of war, sickened deep in his bones.

I am the boards that separate you from
cold dark ocean currents, curls,
and breakers, those breakers that challenge each board
to remain in place, each manmade seam to hold
fast. I am the oaken boards that shape your home.

I am the vessel of your beginning, your
launch in life, the secret of your soul burdened
with each day—fish or cargo,
men or munitions. I am the vessel you clung to in yesteryears,
whose planks tide your journeys from shore to shore.

I am, today, that vessel of fiberglass
or steel ‘though some still make me with wooden knees.
I am that woman lying on her back who
holds you in the belly of her curves, supports
you when you stand on deck. I am the tissue

between you and the murk of dark water and
the blank space of nothingness, that thin line of
place that keeps your body in oxygen, keeps
you alive even as beams creak and threaten,
holds you fast, preserves your cold hands and beating heart.

You trust me as I support your life and skills.
You rely on me to keep board and beam
knit together, rely on me to hold you safe.
I am the wood and the calk, the steel and rivets.

I am your survival.

(These thoughts are from my historical novel about my great-grandfather, Lunenburg master mariner, Capt. Tom Acker. At present, the book comes to me in bits and pieces.)



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