Primal Drums

Years in the Dreaming, Years in the Making. 

In the summer of 2019, I had to have a couple of trees felled at Cairnorchies, one of which was an elm in the last throes of Dutch Elm Disease. The tree surgeons kindly sliced the trunks up into sections which were possible to woman-handle and left them near the edge of the field. I moved all the small stuff into the woodshed to dry, stacked a lot of the rest to season outside, and built a couple of hugulkultur beds with some of the big pieces. 

Some stayed out in the field. 

They stayed out all summer and dried in the sun. My mother’s dementia became too severe for her to live alone in the autumn and I had to put everything aside to look after her, culminating in her moving into Cairnorchies with me in late January 2020 – just in time for Covid-19 and Lockdown. 

The trunk sections lay out in the weather, in snow and rain, above freezing and below. The horses chewed on them. When I could, I moved some out of the field – but then I saw what the horses were doing. They were hollowing out the soft, rotten centres of the trunk sections. I became fascinated with this and decided to leave them; perhaps the horses were satisfying some obscure mineral requirement? Perhaps they were bored and just wanted to play…. Perhaps the youngsters were teething and it helped ease itchy new teeth and sore gums? 

By spring 2021 the horses had hollowed right through some of the sections and, my mother having moved to full-time residential care as her dementia worsened further, I had time to start working with these amazing pieces of timber. 

At the beginning….

I hauled them out of the field (leaving a few more behind in hopes the horses might work on those, too!) and brought them to the house, putting them off the ground on pallets to dry. There’s still some rotten ‘punk’ wood on the inner side, but the outer sap-wood is hard and sound, very well seasoned. I’ve begun to remove the ‘punk’ to reveal the final shape of the frame-to-be, using hand-chisels to peel out the remaining soft rotten stuff and uncover the beautiful grain and colour of the frames. 

Beginning to get through the punk wood to the solid timber!

I speculate that perhaps, millennia ago, this was how the idea of drum frames came to our ancestors – fallen trunks, hollowed by weather and animals to form natural frames. Perhaps we first drummed directly on the hollow wood, as our cousins the chimpanzees still do when they display, beating standing and fallen trees with fists, feet and length of broken branches? Perhaps we noticed that hollow wood is more resonant than solid, and began to seek out these natural drums? 

This is what gave me the name for this very limited series of unique drums. 

Beautiful patterning, unique to each section, runs through the punk wood, courtesy of the saprophytic fungus that has helped to hollow them out.

The Primal Drums. 

Each one has been grown over centuries by the elm, then shaped by the tree surgeons’ chainsaw, saprophytic fungi and horses to leave a deep ring of wood. The orphan lambs, Ross and Gregor, have gnawed a little to add their mites, and the dogs have supervised as I’ve started the work to reveal solid, seasoned timber. The skins will probably be roe deer hides – roe are common in the forest and fields here, and would have known the elm throughout the centuries of its life on the edge of the field, so will be the most appropriate for these extraordinary drums. 

Gregor assisting in the work

Watch this space for periodic updates on how the work is going! 

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