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Two poems


Reading from a coda inspired by my daughter's death
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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This is a coda that I wrote at the end of this long chapter on my daughter’s suicide, and the reason I read it also here is there’s an interesting British connection to it here.

Thanksgiving Day 1989. We’ve already been hiking for four hours in search of some felled redwood trunks at least five feet in diameter. It’s a minimum size David Nash requires for the three-part sculpture he intends to site around some of the burned-out giant redwood stumps that can still be found here or there on our property from 19th century logging. Nash is one of the most distinguished artists we’ve had in residence at the foundation. A British sculptor now working in Wales, first came to the foundation in 1987 at the time of his retrospective exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Wild wood, king of the vegetables he calls it, is his sole medium and chainsaw or axe his principal tools. He’d never before handled redwood or madrone, the two most prevalent species in our forest. During his first day he’d created a group of madrone sculptures for a highly successful show in Los Angeles. In addition, out of a huge redwood trunk that had lain for decades in Harrington Creek [a creek that bisects our property], Nash had fashioned Silvan Steps, a Jacob’s ladder rising at a steep angle out of the water into the sky. But he first selected that site, accessible only along the creek bed by clambering over rocks and fallen timber, he had no inkling that a few hundred feet upstream we had in 1978 scattered my daughter’s ashes. Within a minute some flecks of them must have floated past the spot where Nash’s steps now rise into the air. Silvan Steps is a magically simple sculpture, which many subsequent artists have drawn, photographed, or written about. But now, two years later, during his second residency we cannot find the massive... the massive log he needs. During our morning hike we’ve located four sites in the forest, but blackened trunks rise out of the bracken. Just the right backdrop for the scorched pyramid, cube and ball Nash plans to shape.

Interestingly enough if now you go to the Royal Academy off Piccadilly in Burlington House in the main square in the opening to the... to the exhibition you see a giant... three giant ones... giant ones by David Nash in black. Right now... right... that exhibition is right now on in... in London. So here.

During our morning hike we have located four sites in the forest where blackened trunks rise out of the bracken. Just the right backdrop for the scorched pyramid, cube and ball Nash plans to shape. But still missing is the right arboreal progenitor for these forms. Of course... we cross the shadow of many a living redwood giant, but cutting one is out of the question. Then I recall that some selective logging has just been completed in our neighbour's land across Bear Gulch Road. Only a few days ago I’d followed inpatiently a slow-moving truck stacked high with redwood logs. Perhaps 'our' piece [our in quotation marks] had not yet been removed. I don’t expect anyone to be working there on Thanksgiving Day but after climbing over the locked gate and walking down the forest road inches deep in dust (it had not rained for weeks) we hear in the distance a grinding of gears. Soon we come up on a mammoth tractor setting up erosion brakes to preserve a road bend during the winter rainy season. 'Have you moved out all the logs?' I shout up to the bearded driver after he’d shut off the thundering engine. 'We need', I say and then explain who David Nash is and why we’re searching for a special fallen redwood rather than a turkey for thanksgiving. 'All gone', he says. But then remembers, 'a big one fell across the fence near the property line probably years ago in some storm'. According to him it was partly rotten. Sufficiently so that it had not been worthwhile to haul it to the mill. Nash is dubious that it’ll do but I say, 'Let’s look anyway'.

We follow the man’s directions to the fence a half mile down the logging road. When we finally come upon it I’m dumbfounded. Eleven years ago, I’d hobbled here as fast as my stiff leg would carry me, but from the opposite direction. Down the meadow from our side of the property towards this fence across which the massive... massive trunk now lies broken into three enormous pieces. It is the spot where my daughter killed herself, where I had never dared to return. We find the rot to be only superficial. The wood is precisely what David Nash has been seeking all Thanksgiving long.

It’s a very beautiful sculpture that, of course, is still there in the woods. And it’s interesting that that is the symbolism that is done in many of his sculptures since that to this day, which is now 16 years later.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, madrone, redwood, Charred Sphere, Pyramid, Cube for Redwood Stumps, Sylvan Steps, David Nash, Pamela Djerassi

Duration: 5 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008