Mile 777 Ohio River at Newburgh, Indiana.
“THE RIVER PROVIDES” By Rinker Buck
Living for a month on one of America’s largest rivers is a lesson in hydrology and the natural cleansing power of water. The Ohio, which flows 991 miles from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, is the largest single contributor to the volume of the Mississippi. It’s drainage covers 15 states, and the river annually sweeps millions of board feet of fallen timber from a vast mosaic of forests upriver. The detritus of huge trees is everywhere and the largest job every spring at riverside farms, campgrounds and marinas is the clearing of log jams that have accumulated all winter, when the river rises as much as 30 feet above its summer banks.
Curtis Wasmer lives for this. A small contractor from Newburgh, Indiana, Wasmer spends most of his free time plying the river for massive chunks of driftwood, which he fashions into artful, visually intriguing coffee tables, chairs and benches. I have seen my share of “driftwood craftsmen” over the years, but few who work on the massive scale and attention to natural beauty as Wasmer.
Wasmer, 51, began plying the local banks of the Ohio when he moved to Indiana from Maryland five years ago so that he and his wife could be closer to their grandchildren. Friends he had made in Indiana took him out in their boats to see the river and Wasmer was staggered by the size and twisted beauty of the oaks, cedar and locust jams along the shore. The artistic yearning that many carpenters feel drew him again and again to the river, and he began skidding out huge root balls and tree crowns with his pickup and trailer.
“Oh wow, I thought,” Wasmer says. “Here is a resource free for the taking that I would love to tap. I’ve always searched for a way to express the creative side of the carpentry work I do. This was it.”
Wasmer carefully sorts among the wealth of driftwood along the shore for unique formations created by river erosion after a log has spent several years being tossed around and burnished into striking patinas. He looks for solid, relatively cured pieces formed by the natural process of water erosion and then bleaching by the sun once the piece has been trapped on the banks. Black walnut, cedar, locust and oak are exceptionally hard and durable species which best endure the immersion then drying process.
His shop in a small industrial park in Newburgh is a feast for the eyes–oak so perfectly fissured by water erosion that it looks like cut marble, red cedar richly died purple and yellow, and black walnut so hard and basalt-colored that it reminds me of the fossilized stumps in the Petrified National Forest in northern Arizona.
“I’m looking for something that so obviously suggests a use that you almost can use it as is,” Wasmer says. “You look at a stump on the banks and can instantly visualize it as a coffee table base. Other samples I may bring back to the shop and look at for months before I decide what to do with it. Old root balls are particularly challenging because they are so three-dimensional.”
Wasmer has been increasingly successful with pieces he has sold to private collectors and buyers–a coffee table sold to a New Yorker, a patio bench that now graces a garden in Florida. His largest project so far is a wondrously massive and attractive set of 17 pathway benches that will line a walking trail in a community park in nearby Warrick County.
Samples of his work can be found on Wasmer’s Built on the Rock Facebook page.
But there is one other quality about Wasmer that I like quite a lot. The Ohio River Valley is a region of loud and dogmatic conservative Christians. They deliberately act out whenever a Yankee is near, rarely bothering to inquire about his views first. It’s tiring. It’s redundant. The chapters in the New Testament when Jesus confronts the Pharisees or the money-lenders in the temple have, seemingly, been redacted for local consumption. But Wasmer, a member of the Church of Christ, is modest and understated. He’s a devout Christian, but he doesn’t feel the need to apply a ball-peen to my skull to express his beliefs.
“The river provides,” he says, sweeping his hand around his shop at his driftwood treasures. “When I walk the banks and find the perfectly eroded tree, I am so thankful. I feel at one with nature and universal bounty. I am so blessed. The river always provides.”