Oak’s qualities of endurance and strength are illustrated in a remarkable way in David Nash’s 25 year long art project Wooden Boulder. Back in 1978, Nash was given access to a felled oak from which he carved several sculptures. One of these was a giant oak ball which Nash attempted to transport via the nearby stream. In the process the ball became lodged down a water slide. This moment of frustration and obstacle signalled the birth of an artwork that encapsulates both patience and obsession. Roger Deakin writes about the artwork’s accidental beginnings in his wonderful book Wildwood:
At first it looked like a problem until, thinking it over in a Zen frame of mind, Nash realised it was an opportunity, a happy accident that would transform the work by enabling him to release it back to nature: to shed it like a leaf. He would let it go its own way and be a rock in a stream, with water playing about it, freezing to it, papering it with autumn leaves. From that moment on, it became ‘Wooden Boulder’, a new kind of work with its own independent life, its own story and the sculptor as its biographer.
Nash spent the next twenty five years tracking, sketching and photographing the boulder’s slow and unpredictable journey down a Welsh river to the ocean. Quite often the boulder would simply disappear and Nash would be compelled to put up wanted posters! It eventually found its way to the estuary and was last seen in 2003. Deakin writes,
I sense that perhaps ‘Wooden Boulder’ has become an alter ego for Nash: its unfolding story part of his life, the restless thing itself an embodiment of his soul. Something about it reminds me of the Irish story Sweeney Astray as told by Seamus Heaney. Sweeney, a poet king, is exiled, naked, into the wild, turned into a bird, flies about Ireland, lives in trees and roosts in the ivy, eating watercress and drinking from the rivers. There is a mythic feel to the story of ‘Wooden Boulder’. An artist turns a tree into a boulder, which miraculously floats and swims its way over many years towards the sea, where it rolls over like a seal and seems to disappear.
Nash’s boulder paradoxically speaks of both the transient and the eternal nature of being; the unpredictable passage of our life journeys; each of us propelled by the certain but often seemingly capricious nature of changing currents and landscapes. In our deepest selves we are at peace in that restless place, if we can allow ourselves to surrender to it. It carries us and shapes us. Nash’s extraordinary boulder reminds us we are a part of something that is mysteriously and magically unfolding; that we are creatures moved to search and yearn, only to ultimately find we are already home.