Finding the Rhythm of your Place

I draw the blade toward me through the smooth wood. After a triplet of passes, I hold it up in the direction of the midday sun and assess my progress. Am I carving straight? Look at how the wood’s grain curves leftward ever so slightly. Is that an eastern blue bird I hear? These and many more thoughts cascade through my mind. My feet planted firmly on ground, I’m tuned into this place.

I take in the life of our cul-de-sac: the way some neighbors drive or bike down the short, steep slope on our end of the street.  How the mailman swings his rusty mail truck in a wide sweep to deliver our mail before trudging back up the hill.

The messy job of hand carving wood sends me outside. Out here the relative stillness of carving forces me to look, listen, and feel. Out here I watch how breezes bend and twist tree branches and leaves. I savor the refreshing coolness of shady breezes in summer and brace against their sting come late fall.

Dutiful squirrels, rabbits, and deer enter and exit the scene with surprising frequency. Over the course of one three-hour carving session, three deer – a mother and her two fawn, I think – five squirrels – unless I saw the same wily guy five times – 11 birds, and one rabbit ambled within a few meters of me.

Quite often, when I use a hatchet to cut a spoon’s rough shape, I find that my chopping motions sync with the pulse of the insects. Four chops for every metered bar in the insect chorus. Remarkable, really.

ChoppingWood

Then as I work on the spoon’s handle, carving long thin strips of wood, birds and their melodic songs provide a fitting soundtrack. Headphones not required.  And constantly checking my progress – is it straight or lopsided? How thick do I want the spoon’s bowl to be? – orients me to the brightest light. I mimic a star gazer turning his telescope toward the North Star.

Next I carve out of the spoon’s bowl. For this task I use a tool called a “spoon knife.” Isn’t that clever? I begin by scooping wood against the grain just as one would scoop really cold ice cream. Because this stage takes the longest – sometimes up to four hours – I’m left to ponder the day’s graceful cycles. I’ve savored many a fall sunset scooping sapwood out of a spoon’s bowl.

Once I’m satisfied with the shape and feel of the spoon, I place it horizontally in a paper bag, leaving one end open to allow moisture to escape slowly from the spoon. Complete drying usually takes about a week, but it can take much longer in our hot, humid summers.  Thus, I become freakishly attuned to local patterns of temperature and humidity during the drying phase.

Then at long last, I can begin sanding. Though you could go all rustic and leave your project un-sanded, unless you want a splinter in your lip, it’s best to smooth the wood out a bit.

Like carving, sanding is a messy task best done out of doors. I like to settle into an Adirondack chair a couple hours before sunset. The slow descent of the sun is magic, simple as that. Pushing the sand paper against the rough wood carving, I soon get into a rhythm. Like chopping in time with the insects’ pulses, I sense how the breezes and chattering of birds and animals all jive with the back and forth of my rhythmic sanding.

In a way, carving wooden implements is a lot like tending a garden or wondering around on foot or hiking or walking or cycling or writing a letter to your friend on your front porch. These place-rooted activities ground us. They embed us in our locale, awakening us to the cycles and rhythms of our home.

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