Material: Making and the Art of Transformation by Nick Kary

NICK KARY’S MATERIAL (Chelsea Green, 2020) uses the narrative tools of the psychogeographer to map the flows from human needs to the natural environment as resources are extracted and transformed into the objects that make up our material culture. Along the way, Kary brings England’s southwestern countryside into sharp focus as he wanders its hills and heaths to document the material goods that have defined these landscapes and inhabitants throughout the region’s history.

Kary’s writing is lyrical and deeply rooted in the personal. As a woodcrafter of some twenty-five years, Kary is well positioned to write about the sublime experience of using his craft to transform natural resources into objects considered essential to human flourishing. In addition to the benefit his work brings to the recipients of his creation, Kary speaks of the deep connection that making gives him, connecting him to his “body and spirit and to the materials I use, where they originate from, and the impact their extraction may have.”

Indeed, Material mines deeply from the conceptual seam that joins human beings as part of ecosystems while degrading those ecosystems through our evolutionary strategy of optimizing them for human success. Much in the same way that conscious omnivores must reconcile killing living things in order to survive with our ability to empathize with the suffering of our prey, so Kary navigates between the seemingly irreconcilable understanding that making is, at once, creative and destructive and rarely in equal proportion.

Readers are treated along the way with short histories of timber farming, precious-metal mining, and other extractions loping alongside the explosions in human complexity that often accompanied new discoveries or refinement of technique as well as the crafts that emanated naturally from the excesses. Kary’s sharp eye and knowledge of place render Material a smartly conceived and approachable collection of ecological writing as well as a compelling meditation on human beings and our complicated relationship with the Earth.

Rob Vollmar is WLT’s book review and online editor.