There’s no going back

| 23 Jun 2015 | 02:42

Scott Woolsey handed me a wooden staff. We took off socks and shoes, shouldered our backpacks, and prepared to cross the frigid Neversink River.

Ever since I’d heard of the stone cairns Woolsey builds, I’d wanted to see one. Finally spring had arrived, so I unashamedly nudged him into building one. I could sense his reluctance, like taking on a marathon bike ride—something he does in his local Catskill Mountains. But fortified by green tea, he psyched himself up for the task.

Woolsey scouted a good site above the high water mark on the river bank. For a while we talked stones, as he searched for the ones that would inspire him, and determine the shape to come.

Leaving Woolsey to get into the zone, I wandered up the riverbank, stepping from boulder to boulder. Soon I’d spotted coyote and deer and raccoon tracks in the muddy sand. Dead tree trunks were snagged along the shoreline. Small trout and insects skimmed through shallow eddies. Perfect habitat for the kingfisher and phoebe I could hear calling up and down the river.

I took some photos recording Woolsey’s progress. Every so often he walked away from the cairn both to gain perspective, and to seek the specific stone he needed for his next move. Like a strategic game, he thinks several steps ahead, working in a spiral. He edits carefully as he goes, because once a stone is committed, there’s no going back.

“I fall in love with a stone,” said Woolsey, and then he’ll challenge himself to make it fit with his overall scheme.

He scoffs at the notion that the process is dull. Watching him work, his hands hefting a stone, rolling it over to study its angles, then snugging it up against its neighbor, has a meditative quality.

We refreshed ourselves with drips of sap from a yellow birch and stared across the river to Woolsey’s house and art studio. He is foremost a painter. As he says, he brings the outside in, and the inside out, combining inspiration from the natural world with his internal monologue. The effect is to create collage-like images that are hyper-representational, but hover on the edge of abstraction. Standing in front of one of his paintings it’s easy to get lost. I kept finding gorgeously rendered visual cues to create my own narrative.

Woolsey has made a working life that many would envy. In winter months he paints, working simultaneously on small and large pieces. To get a break from this, he skis. When the spring thaw sets in, he tears himself away from painting to work as a cabinetmaker and builder. Summer is also the time when he builds his stone cairns, some in the river, others on the mountainside.

Found all over the world, cairns are traditionally used as a form of landmark. Woolsey’s often draw people’s attention. But for him, building a cairn is a way of showing respect for the environment. He likes the fact that each one is ephemeral. The next storm could wash it away.