Working (With) the Land INLS 690 | Fall 2020 | Emily Simmons

This is a project about my dad and the land he was born on, the land he raised me on.

Dad's a cattle and bison rancher in north-central rural Nebraska. In his spare time, he cuts down cedar trees and turns the branches into works of art. He started working with cedar branches following a large wildfire that burned through 3,000 acres of canyonland near our home. The fire burned fast and hungry on a hot, windy day in July 2006. It raced up the steep walls of canyons, engulfed stands of trees, launched flaming pinecones into the sky, and destroyed a handful of homes. This catastrophe highlighted the need for improved land management to prevent another tragedy.

Eastern red cedars are considered native to the Great Plains. However, with the settling of the plains and prairies, the natural cycle of fire was suppressed and the cedars proliferated. Growing unchecked, red cedars are a risk to both the health of the grassland and the safety of communities if a wild fire happens to start. Red cedars are easy fuel for a hungry fire.

As a rancher, the health of the land is at the forefront of my dad’s mind. So he started cutting down cedars and learning about controlled burns to be a better steward of the land. And in cutting down trees, he noticed something. He noticed some branches had a lot more redwood in them than others. He got curious. He started experimenting. He removed the bark from a branch and sanded it down. He started to see patterns and textures emerge as he removed layer after layer. And so began a practice of making structural pieces of art out of the trees he cuts down to keep the land healthy and keep his community safe.

For my bibliocircuitry project, I used a combination of laser cutting, paper folding, and macrame to represent my father’s work with cedar branches.

The viewer’s first encounter with the book is in its closed position. The cover of the book is matte black, adorned with a small triangular wooden medallion with a bison skull etched onto the surface. A thin red thread attaches the medallion to the cover. I chose wood as the material for the laser cut object as a nod to my father’s work with tree branches. The bison skull design represents my dad’s bison herd.

Looking past the cover, the viewer may also notice strings spilling out the sides of the book. These threads invite the viewer to open the book—which will reveal a much busier spread than the outside of the book might suggest. A cedar tree rises as the book is opened. It stands apart from a painted background of a stand of cedars. The central tree is painted on a worn piece of sandpaper. Again, this medium is a nod to the woodworking my dad does in his free time. I find the pop-up element—as simple as the execution in my project may be—makes the user experience delightful and a little surprising.

At the base of the tree is a tangle of macrame roots, spreading downward from the tree, into the “soil” of the book, and off the edges of the pages. I was initially planning on doing two spreads—one incorporating paper folding and one incorporating macrame, but I had the realization that I could combine both into one experience. I chose the tree and roots as a central image for my project to represent a multitude of things. Of course, it literally represents the medium my dad uses to make his finished pieces. It also represents a connection to the land I have observed and experienced through my father my whole life. As a rancher, the land is his livelihood. I understood our connectedness to the land from a young age. My father’s practice of cutting down redcedars and turning their branches into pieces of art demonstrates a dedication to caring for and being curious about the place he lives. It’s about digging deeper, uncovering new truths, putting down roots, being surprised. The knots in the macrame symbolize connection; intertwined histories, lives, futures.

My dad's making practice evolved out of a concentrated, long-term care for the land on which he lives and makes a livelihood. From my experience with makerspaces, this type of commitment to place and resources isn’t typical of the average makerspace ethos or makerspace user. My dad’s making practice is not about innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s about taking care of the land and appreciating the beauty of the natural world. It’s about revealing the intricate design of something you had to destroy. It’s about destroying some things to save other things.

Created By
Emily Simmons