The description seems nonsensical at first. Redwoods along the Shawangunk Ridge? Driftwood redwoods, no less?
But there they sit. And stand. And stare back at you, in all their roughhewn glory: almost two dozen giant redwood roots, long-ago victims of a time along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, a time when uncounted redwoods as old as civilization itself were logged with impunity. The story of how these rescued roots came to find a home on a small patch of land on the edge of the town of Gardiner is Jim Dowd’s story.
Dowd, who’s 70 years old, grew up on Staten Island and attended NYU’s business school. He found out soon enough that business wasn’t for him. Woodworking was more his style, and in the peripatetic tradition of youthful wanderers, he got a backpack and lit out for California. His wanderings led him up the coast to the Pacific Northwest, where he worked in the building trades and got an education about the logging era.
Redwoods have long been prized for their durability and strength — prized almost into extinction. For nearly a hundred years, beginning in the mid-19th century, an estimated 90 percent of the all the original redwoods had been harvested.
Dowd discovered several additional facts about redwoods: As valuable as they’ve been to commerce, the loggers didn’t see fit to harvest the tree’s tangled root systems. Those ancient roots were treated with about the same interest and respect as a lumberjack feels toward sawdust; all over the region, giant roots lay scattered in stream- and riverbeds and meadows.
Any other tree would have rotted where it had been left. But that, Dowd discovered, wasn’t the case with redwoods. They’re all-but-immune to the insect and mold infestations to which other woods are prone. Neither did they deteriorate in water; they’re essentially waterproof. Even when local streams and rivers delivered these great rocklike boulders to the ocean shore, they kept their shape and defied nature to add to the damage already done to them by man.
Dowd initially found root systems washed up along beaches. He took the smaller ones home back East in his pickup. By now an accomplished sculptor in his own right, he envisioned these pieces as becoming artful furniture. But as time went by and he gradually became more entranced by the roots, he began sculpting them, finding unsuspected faces and forms in them.
By the early ‘90s, he’d become fascinated enough to do some large-scale harvesting of his own. He collected washed-up root systems, sometimes buying orphaned pieces from ranchers and farmers on whose land the root systems had settled. Over a period of 15 years, Dowd transported four tractor/trailer loads of roots to the mid-Hudson region.
He planted his finds on a patch of land belonging to friends who live on Clove Road, high up in the Shawangunks. He also decided against modifying them, other than to level them and mount them on wooden platforms. “People like to find their own images in them,” he said in a phone call from his home in eastern Connecticut last week.
There they stand and sit, walk and loom, silent survivors of an ignorant age, waiting for wanderers to discover and greet them, their grinning, scowling, even smiling faces turned toward a sun that cannot hurt them, rain that cannot enter them, wind that cannot topple them.
Dowd makes no claim of authorship about his rescued roots. But he can’t help but offer a small, modest chuckle at the end of a story that he shares about a retired stockbroker who told him, after viewing his menagerie, that she’d finally found God.