Chop Wood, Carry Water/A Buddhist builder
on arbors, hit singles and hot springs
By Sam Whiting
S.F. Chronicle Magazine, Sunday, September 21, 2003
CELEBRATORS AT this weekend's grand reopening of the Conservatory of
Flowers in Golden Gate Park may find a man with a shaved head enjoying a
Buddhist's mindfulness beneath the arbor in the potted-plant gallery.
He is Gene DeSmidt, 58, and he built the arbor he's sitting under and the
chair he's sitting in.
On craftsmanship in the Conservatory.
We built this exotic wood desk and receiving platform at the grand entry.
Then you turn left and see this gigantic arbor with a sitting area
underneath it. At the end of that is this 12-foot-tall set of orchid cases
made out of these thick members of wood. We're also building these
Darwinian little boxes to carry orchids in.
On woodwork in a greenhouse.
All this is out of this exotic Brazilian wood called ipe. It's heavy and
dense. It weighs three times more than any other wood. People at our shop
are swearing at the wood because it's full of sand and tears our tools up.
We had to replace blades and saws. But it's fire-resistant, waterproof and
creature- resistant. Termites won't eat it. We got it through a broker
from Brazil. It's a certified wood, so it's taken out in a way that
doesn't impact the environment.
On building it small.
We made a scale model of the whole thing at our shop in Oakland. They had
a big fund-raiser, and we brought the model over. It had little posts and
beams and stuff. Even the model was heavy. The whole arbor cost $60,000.
In all, we have maybe $150,000 of work in here.
On building it big.
We built it at the shop, took it apart. Just to get this huge thing in
here was a challenge. We had to create ramps because the wood weighs so
much, and take the doors off the hinges. The beams are so huge we had to
have a forklift bring them in. It's an eight-post arbor that is
approximately 12 feet by 20 feet. There are no nails or screws. It's all
wood joinery with chisels and stuff, like giant Lincoln Logs.
I went to Esalen in 1971, and they told me about Tassajara Hot Springs in
Big Sur. They said, "If you really want to go to a weird place, go back
there. " So I snuck in there at midnight on a Saturday night and used the
hot spring. I ended up coming back there because I loved it so much and
complained to the head monk about the bridge. There were splinters in it.
I said, "You're in big trouble. Somebody's going to get hurt." He looked
at me and he said, "Will you fix it?" So I rebuilt the hot springs bath
house down there.
On Buddhist construction.
During that time, I met Marty Balin, who was the lead singer for the
Jefferson Airplane. We built a huge pyramid at his house so he could
meditate in the King's Chamber. It's still there, on Blithedale in Mill
Valley. There are some pictures on my Web site (www.desmidtdesignbuild.com). We built the tea house for Peter Coyote.
On becoming a recording artist.
At the same time, I was writing songs. I have a gold record for songs I
wrote for Marty. One was a single called "Hold Me." I actually brought him
down to Tassajara, and he told me the story about when the Jefferson
Airplane played the Monterey Pop Festival, the whole band came to
Tassajara the week before and took LSD.
On job references.
We did Larry Ellison's house that he lives in now, in Atherton. We did all
the outside work. It's 3 acres, all Japanese style with huge decks and
arbors. I crawled under the teak decks we built for him with him, and we
discussed aircraft carriers.
On side projects.
I'm going to Nashville to rerecord three of my songs, country-style, to
try to sell them. I'm flying back for the opening party.
On promoting the
From now on I'm going to conduct all my business meetings under the arbor.
I'm going to meet architects here.
On Zen haircuts.
When I turned 50 I decided I was going to shave my head, so I had a priest
do it for me at Tassajara. We did a ceremony. Then I went into the hot
springs with the priest, naked. You have to ask him three times - "Will
you shave my head?" - and then he answers and finally does it.