What do you do if a massive tree lands in your yard in a storm? If you're a scientist with the gene for adventure, somebody who has climbed Mexican volcanoes, ridden a nuclear sub and crewed on a Russian submersible, you're unlikely to simply have that tree hauled away.
There was not a chance Peter Vogt, a marine geoscientist and author of Chesapeake science fiction, would say adios to the tulip poplar—the tallest of Eastern North American trees—that just missed his home along the Chesapeake Bay's Western Shore. Rather, Vogt made serious use of the behemoth log, carving it into chairs, tables and finally a dugout canoe that ferried him along storied waters of the mid-Atlantic.
In his newly released book, Divine Gust of Wind: Great Trees and Their Afterlives, Vogt, of Calvert County in southern Maryland, writes about the artistry and later adventures of paddling his quarter-ton vessel, in costume, on the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, paying homage along the way to great trees in Chesapeake Country and beyond.
In a Q&A accompanying release of Divine Gust, Vogt talks about his project.
Q—Roughly how much time elapsed from when that majestic tree fell in your yard until you got to work carving?
A—Maybe three to six months. A kubbestol was first.
Q—Okay Peter, what the heck are kubbestols and how many of them did you create?
A—Log chairs, which have been around for centuries, but especially in Norway I first saw them as antiques in Norway traveling with my wife, Randi, visiting her cousins there. Once the canoe was finished, I made four more kubbestols over the years, one from sycamore driftwood.
Q—Had you honed your advanced wood-carving skills prior to this tree experience? Or did you suddenly just leap into what became a multi-year project?
A—I had been making soup ladles, noggins (small cups) and trenchers for maybe ten years. I had the dugout idea for a maybe a year based on Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and a raft.
Q—What did your family think of your devotion to this tulip poplar?
A—When I came home and saw it lying on the ground, my wife was understandably upset at my being that upset with losing the tree while not showing relief that she and our two boys and the house were okay. After I got started our two sons (9 and 14) thought it was cool, and their friends would show up to climb on the root ball and later to check up on my progress. My wife considered the large tarps draped over the projects to be eyesores. She was not pleased at my frequent loud oaths which reverberated in our ravine.
My older son proved a great help, with his teen friends moving the kubbestol and giant "cookie“—a tree round—inside.
Q—What is the most common question you get about this curious project of yours?
A—The most common question I got was how long did it take you to make the dugout canoe? I did not record times but worked on it when time allowed. Maybe 100 hrs total? Another common question is what kind of tree it was. And there have been a few questions about where and how I got the log, and about tools. Few people know adzes, especially lipped adzes.
Q—Preview for readers why you say the tulip poplar is misnamed.
A—This tree is not a giant tulip nor a kind of poplar. I read John Smith and Thomas Hariot in the 1970s with great interest, especially relating to Native Americans in our region through history. I was excited to read Hariot's writing from 1585 describing a tree that had to be tulip poplar, and he gave it the local Native name, rakiock (ruh-KEE-ock). Those circumstances led me to restore a native name.
Q—In photographs, we see you adorned in period dress with furs laying about your dugout canoe.
A—I tried to cover modern stuff like orange life preservers (required by law) to make the dugout look more authentic. Moreover my persona evolved from Colonial farmhand to early Colonial fur trader. At Flag Ponds Nature Park, when the Bay was too rough, I stood next to the dugout and told the public about the wild animals that once called the park home, and some that still do.
A Montana friend had given me a small moose pelt and I asked the public to guess the animal. Many thought it was a bear skin. When I told them it was a moose, someone doubted there were really moose here. I congratulated that person about being correct. So how could a moose pelt be here? The correct answer—via trade from the northern part of the Susquehanna River. There's no proof, but it's a possibility.
Q—Were you serious about paddling the dugout across the Bay?
A—Yes but I was apprehensive about the risks, especially crossing the shipping channel. Container ships can’t exactly stop on a dime, my hull speed is slow, and the dugout looks like driftwood. But I had arranged for a guide motorized boat. My wife was even more worried and asked me to choose between that paddle and diving to the ocean floor in a Russian submersible—scheduled for same summer. Part of me was relieved when I aborted the paddle due to weather and waves. However some of our flotilla did cross by kayak that day.
Q—What was the biggest scare your beloved dugout canoe gave you?
A—The biggest scare was when it was not where I had left it (on the Alexandria, Va. waterfront). I was never scared canoeing it. Well, maybe when the waves were high. But I knew it wouldn’t capsize and that we had PFDs and could swim, and the water and air were warm.
Q—Have you enjoyed educating people and children in the cultural history of these Chesapeake tidal waters, particularly the Native American history that flourished here?
A—Absolutely! And I enjoyed writing about it in this book, an idea born in early 2023! And enjoyed working closely with and getting to know the publishers, who are also authors.