An Enchanted Weekend! by Deborah Kermode
This is a story of timing, guidance and intention. Over the fifty years Jerry and I have been married we have often allowed possibilities to guide us. This is our latest adventure and learning.! ! Probably 25 years ago, while in our craft booth at a fair in Honolulu’s Thomas Square Park, Jerry saw a blind man walking by. Always eager to meet a new friend, he invites the man into our booth. Our lathe-turned wood bowls with their various shapes and styles are lovely to look at, but even more meaningful is their tactile connection to nature. Our visitor and his wife are fascinated and taken with them, picking each one up to examine it, he with his hands and fingers, she adding eyes and description. We enjoy their company and compliments; They buy a bowl from us. Their names are Jerry and Theresa. For the sake of clarity, he will be JK in this story. We appreciate JK’s face as he “sees” each piece.
Some years later we leave our 22 years in Hawai’i, moving to the San Francisco Bay area and landing in Sebastopol, about 50 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. At one of our first San Francisco shows who walks into our booth but our friends from the Hawai’i show, JK & Theresa. It is a happy reunion and another moment of wonder watching the depth of joy as JK again discovers each piece. They take another bowl home. During their visit, the two Jerrys discuss the possibility of teaching woodturning to interested blind people.
The years pass. We are busy establishing ourselves and our business on the mainland. About ten years and many shows later, JK and Theresa again visit in our booth. They are unexpectedly and serendipitously joined by a group of high energy friends, all blind or visually impaired. Bowls are passed around; the fascination and excitement is palpable.
The tall, long-haired, bearded and buoyant member of the group is George Wurtzel. We later learn that George is an accomplished professional woodworker who relocated from Minnesota, recruited by The Lighthouse for the Blind as their Camp Construction Manager at their Enchanted Hills Camp above Napa, California. We also learn that George’s passion is his woodworking and teaching others. Again the talk turns to teaching and serious discussion begins. ! ! Later in the summer Jerry drives up to the camp, which sits at 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley on Mt. Veeder. He visits a class George is teaching called Woodworking for the Blind. Projects include joinery and marquetry and Jerry is hooked. He is soon working with a few people on one of the lathes, showing them the joy of proper cutting: riding the bevel of the chisel as the wood spins.! ! Plans are made for us to take our five student lathes up and teach a four day workshop for eight people, using the three lathes already in the shop. Before a date is set the horrendous, wind propelled October 9th fires rip through Sonoma and Napa Counties. The fire blows up and over Mt. Veeder. The lower camp area is decimated. Most of the upper main buildings are saved but for smoke damage. Staff housing is lost and months of repair and rebuilding ensue.! ! Our class is on hold. George and Jerry stay in contact until a date is set for February 1, 2018, the first event at camp following the fires. Little do we know how significant this weekend will be to all of us. For weeks prior to class Jerry sleeps little. It is one thing to spend a couple of hours one on one, as he did in the summer, but a shop full of blind woodturning students is daunting, even with his 30 years of teaching woodturning and George’s gregarious assurances that blind woodworkers are just like others, only nicer. We laugh, then find this to be true.! ! We drive the winding Trinity Road up the mountain, pulling our trailer of lathes and enough wood and tools to keep eight students happy for four days. Seems we miss seeing the sign advising against trucks and trailers on Trinity Road. ! ! Our anticipation, nervousness and excitement become tempered by the blackened swaths through the mountain forest: some homes standing where they shouldn’t and others destroyed in the midst of untouched green. Fickle fire! And then a path of pure destruction, where nothing is left.! ! We turn left off of Mt. Veeder Road, heading down into the camp, with burn on our right and green to our left. We come first to the Art Building, where the wood shop sits above George’s tactile gallery and what will be the pottery studio. Here visitors are invited to touch and explore the turned and sculpted work, unlike most galleries with “Do not touch” as the watchword. Though on the right side of the road, the building is untouched by fire. Some say it was saved by the woman carved from a redwood stump that sits in front of the building. She is called Theresa, for our original contact JK’s wife, who died just months before the fires.! ! I meet George and Jennifer, his assistant and partner, more often known as Jennifire. George has been blind since early childhood. He owned and ran a furniture building company with 20 employees for 20 years. He broke horses professionally, skied across Lapland and is now a valuable member of a dedicated group on this mountain. Jennifire certainly meets his energy with creativity, joy and enthusiasm. She is visually impaired.
Three members of an AmeriCorps team, living at Enchanted Hills Camp clearing/ renewing/rebuilding the damaged areas, arrive to help unload the lathes. This group of 18-24 year old dedicated workers shines as an integral facet of the diamond that these four days develop.
After we all work setting up the shop teaching area George invites us to his home down the hill for lunch. He mixes up delicious barbecue chicken sandwiches and we sit out on his deck. It’s a beautiful, warm Thursday afternoon, really too warm for February but great for our time on the mountain. Joining us are a few early arrivals for the class, among them JK and a friend, the only other fully sighted person at the table. I dive into the joyful humor and camaraderie we are to experience over the weekend.
Following lunch I move us into our comfortable cabin, put our beer in the little frig and head back up the hill to meet more students as they arrive throughout the afternoon. Jerry and George already started showing them the parts of the lathe and some are already turning beads and coves, the two main shapes that a turner produces. I join in greeting new people and introducing them to their first experience of woodturning.
We know the challenge for blind people is to find where to start and end the cut, and we are at a loss as to how to help. Josh and Bryan, two of the students with especially quick mental visual acuity, step in to help. They are able to use their hands and fingers against the spinning wood in a fashion I will never try. They have such sensitivity of touch that they can feel just where to be without getting pulled into the tool rest. What a lovely reflection to realize we have blind assistants to help teach the concepts for which we are ill equipped.
Until now Jerry’s introduction to each project is a demonstration but in this class he needs to find another way to impart the steps to completion. So it becomes that he stands in the middle of the room, closes his eyes and describes the process verbally as he pictures it in his head. Then the group goes to work figuring out what they need to do to make it work for them: scratching marks they can feel into the wood, measuring with nifty clicker rules made for people needing to use senses other than sight, setting the tool rest to tell them where to start or end a cut. Involvement with such group mind working toward a goal is mind-expanding.
The class begins. Thursday afternoon and into Friday: Beads and coves, then a carving mallet. Saturday: Bowls and duplicating a spindle. Sunday: Finishing up the bowl; turning a plate. Everyone completes every project, helping and supporting one another.
On Friday student number eight joins us, a visually impaired artist on a government grant from Australia to collaborate with visually impaired artists and dancers in the Bay area to create performance art installations. Fayen is here to collaborate with Jennifire, an accomplished artist in her own right, and to take the woodturning class. She and Jennifire spend some of the class time making various turned and carved or notched sticks for exploring spaces with the various sounds the sticks make, more than tap, tap, tap. I am enthralled by pictures and videos of her work, realizing that this is just the beginning of a deep and mind opening project and performance.! ! Because the camp is newly re-opened following the fires, a group of Lighthouse for the Blind administrators and benefactors are visiting to hear about the clean-up and to see our class. They, too, are emotionally dedicated and excited about the changes and the ongoing work.
Thursday after dinner we convene around the fire in the large, gracious dining/ meeting hall, talking and getting to know one another. And — ah — the meals. We pass family style bowls of delicious hearty food, learning how to tell our blind table mates what is before them and when to offer to serve. A dance, of sorts.
Friday night after dinner we are again around the fireplace. But this night Jerry brings his guitar and we sing. I dance a hula, and everyone enjoys the music. During the eve, when Jerry introduces a Kate Wolf song, our friend and student JK who has lived in the Bay area for most of his life, shares that he knew Kate. He talks of his devastation at her early death from breast cancer. While Jerry sings, I watch as JK, sitting across from me, breaks down crying. This is the same man whose wife recently died from pancreatic cancer. I cross in front of the fireplace to him and hold him in my arms as he breaks down sobbing. So much loss; he is such a part of the camp. The fire has affected him in the midst of even more loss. The fire has affected us all. We are fragile and vulnerable. He is thankful for my caring and I am thankful for his allowing me — it is healing.
Saturday morning I receive an invitation from Janet, camp co-manager with her husband Donny, to take a tour of lower camp, the area totally ravaged by the fire. I am eager to get to know this vivacious and friendly woman, and to explore. We take off in their off-road jeep-type vehicle, past the upper area that is untouched: a playground with climbing structures and a large playing field, though here we see the remains of the burned out storage area.
As we wind further down into lower camp Janet points out all that is no longer here: the treehouse, the original camp cabins, dating back to the 1920’s, comprised of five girls’ cabins with adjacent bath and laundry houses, counselors’ cabin and a bit
further down the road: five boys’ cabins with bath and laundry buildings. Then we are upon the foundation of the oldest building in the camp built in the early 1900’s, originally a dining room, later a camp skating rink, and more recently condemned. George later tells me sadly that a project on his list was to reclaim and use all the first growth redwood from which it was built.
The further we head down and through the burned out areas, the more I re- experience the gray sadness of such devastation. We pull up in front of a ten foot long, old, many times burned out redwood log upon which is carved “Redwood Grove”. The carving is by JK. This was the entrance to the amphitheater built into the hillside. The stage area is burnt out, but still standing are the beautiful redwood benches, designed and built by George and friends, carved using a computer generated carving machine and then detail carved by George to enhance the texture. There is fire damage to a few of them, but most were untouched. George will clean them up and seal them and the they, along with the carvings they hold of flora, fauna, buildings and activities of the camp will tell the story of the camp, fire and all. Janet tells me that the fire fighters left a note on the Redwood Grove entry log which read, “We wish we could have saved it all.” The reality of those brave responders, from a Los Angeles fire company, surrounded as they must have been by fire, fighting to save the redwoods, the buildings, the art, touches deeply. Tears flow.! ! We walk further down the hill and enter into the forest chapel: simple benches face what was the chancel, now gone. Janet describes the simplicity that was this spot and how campers return here to be married. We sit for some time in this quiet, damaged yet eerily peaceful chapel of redwoods, and she tells me her story of how she
arrived here only two years ago. As her story unfolds, echoed in some of my story, we realize that she and Donny are very like Jerry and me, two people working together synergistically with results bigger than the energy of two. I share but mostly listen, which seems to be part of my role on the mountain this weekend.! ! Saturday night following dinner Jerry calls for hootenanny time with some of the AmeriCorps folks. We are happy that they even know some of our old time songs. They sing and play along with Jerry and then share some of their originals.
Sunday, back up at the wood shop, it is time to make plates and finish up projects; Challenging but all is completed, then a group picture and pack up time. Suddenly we are saying good-byes among a group that has become like family. As Janet says to me later in the day, “It’s not good-by; it’s I’ll see you the rest of my life.”! ! At the end of the day Donny and George take us on another ride through lower camp for Jerry to see. With Donny at the wheel it’s a wilder ride, down even further into the valley, though we do not cross the stream where the bridge is out, much to my relief.! ! I bring home so much from the experience. I’ve learned from people who do not see with their eyes but perceive so much with other senses and I am discovering what they have to teach me about the capabilities of all people with disabilities: they are not “amazing” as we so often say. They just use different tools and techniques. This understanding can be extended to anyone. We all have different strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the table. Using these differences to find solutions to problems is more productive than “my way is the right way.”
My biggest take away wants to burst from my heart, while at the same time I want to put my arms around it and hold it close. A balance of sadness/grief and ! wonder/joy, held at the same time, deep in my heart and soul.
Re-Printed by permission from Deborah Kermode and George Wurtzel, Lighthouse for the Blind and visually Impaired/Enchanted hills Camp