Carving a Life

“The sharper the knife, the cleaner the line of the carving.”

Gary Snyder, Practice of the Wild

Gary Snyder wrote these words as a metaphor for the precision and elegance of relationships among members of the natural world, the knife of each species’ adaptations for survival honed on the whetstone of evolution. Given that understanding, he notes, we have a responsibility to live in ways that do as little harm to these relationships as possible, ways that don’t dull the blades. Because as any woodcarver knows, it’s the dull blade you need to watch out for, not the sharp one.

His words resurface at my kitchen table. Wood shavings cover my lap and legs and fan across the floor at my feet.  My left hand holds the wood handle of a Mora carving knife, supremely sharp; my right, a rough slice of aspen. 

The wood for this spoon fell into my lap last October, or, more accurately, into my driveway. A quaking aspen in a neighbor’s front yard toppled in a windstorm—the crash outside the bedroom window woke me during the night. The next morning, as my neighbor bucked the trunk and lopped the branches, I hauled them to a pile by the curb. When we finished, I carried two of the rounds home for spoon carving.

Aspen’s a beautiful wood for carving spoons. Veins of red show up unexpectedly in the blonde sapwood, along with thicker streaks of chocolate brown and tan.  For a hardwood, aspen is soft and light, so it carves easily, like soap. The trick is to hold back from cutting away too much with each pass of the blade.

A good, sharp knife is like a well-tuned piano, allowing the carving to emerge in its best possible form, limited only by the skill of the carver. The blade carves clean, crisp curls of wood from the emerging handle of the spoon, leaving smooth planes in its wake, like facets of a cut gem. I use a curved spoon knife to hollow the bowl of the spoon, scooping the blade across the wood fibers. Even with a sharp blade, this process raises wood fibers in the spoon bowl, which I sand away when the carving is done.

The sanding begins with 100-grit, which smooths the facets and frayed fibers, then 180, 220, and finally 400-grit, leaving the spoon smooth as bone. Three coatings of heat-treated walnut oil seal the wood and bring out a mellow, honey tone.

A central aim in my life is to love well and do good work. Spoon carving meets this aim full on. I work with my hands—a froe cuts the round, a coping saw cuts the general spoon shape, and knives and sandpaper refine that shape.  There is no waste along the way. Wood shavings feed the compost pile and the larger scraps of wood feed the fire. And when the day comes that the spoon is no longer serviceable, it will join the fire as well. Each spoon is useful in the most basic and humble of ways, stirring the daily soup. 

The process of carving is an act of love. Love for the wood changing shape in my hands. Love for the tools that draw the spoon from the wood. Love for the natural forms that inspire each spoon’s shape—the contours of a gambel oak leaf played out in the tines of salad tongs, the grace of snakes evoked in a curved handle. Love for the person who will use the spoon.

In the last stanza of Two Tramps in Mud Time, Robert Frost wrote, “My object in living is to unite/ My avocation and my vocation/ As my two eyes make one in sight.” A wildlife biologist recited those lines to me many years ago, by way of explaining her life’s work, and I think of those lines often in contemplating my own path. Remembering those words today, I reread Frost’s poem, and saw, as if for the first time, the lines that follow them: “Only where love and need are one,/And the work is play for mortal stakes,/ Is the deed ever really done/For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”

In Frost’s poem, the narrator is chopping wood on a crisp April day. I’d like to be there with him in the landscape of that poem, perched on a stump in my overcoat while he chops wood nearby, carving a fresh-cleaved wedge of oak into a fine wooden spoon.

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