By Sam Chrisinger, Winter Resident
One of the ways I spent my time at Southern Dharma was carving wooden spoons. I appreciate the stillness this can bring to a quiet morning. With hands and eyes occupied this way I often find my mind settles easily, and I had many sweet mornings watching dawn arrive in the holler while working away on a project.
The way I practice it, spoon carving begins with what looks like a round piece of firewood, and the best wood is still wet and yields easily to a knife. I had the good fortune to harvest some sections of a last-year's wind-fall maple tree from the woods on the land. Not as green as a freshly fallen tree, but still good for carving work. Almost certainly one of the red maple trees (acer rubrum var. rubum) that grace the Southeast with their springtime fireworks display of bright red buds that explode into flowers. In March it was these very buds that were my company as I whittled away on the kitchen stoop. Deep gratitude to these maple trees and the land they stand on.
Once cut into 12” sections, the logs are riven in half as neatly as possible using a combination of a froe (wedge) and beetle (sledge). One of the halves is roughly shaped with a hatchet, quickly removing large quantities of what wood needs to be removed to reveal the shape of a spoon. The remaining chunk can rightfully be called a “blank” and is ready for the gradual refinement by knife, gouge, and hook knife.
As the piece is turned every which way and wood is gradually removed, and the carver must constantly attune to the direction of fibers in the wood, knots or other irregularities. Most of all to taking great care not to cut too deeply in any spot. Cutting “against the grain” inevitably causes the wood fibers to tear out, sometimes in large chunks. In this way a workpiece can be ruined in an instant. Cutting “with the grain” usually isn't subject to this danger, but with a spoon it's rarely so simple. Every curve and transition contains a point of inflection where carving must briefly happen in the “wrong direction”. Learning to feel this change with the knife and how to navigate it gracefully takes practice and a healthy dose of intuition.
Spoon carving can be a practice in observing the ways all the senses expand and contract. This happens simultaneously and on many levels. There is the movement from tree to log to blank to spoon-shaped to spoon and all of the transitions therein. There are the moments where vision narrows to an area smaller than a dime, fixated on some tiny imperfection or detail. There are moments when the awareness of touch is centered almost fully in the right thumb as it guides a knife smoothly across some difficult place. Then pause, hold the piece back and look it over. Check the balance, check the thickness in different places. Does it flow together as a whole? Will it even work as a spoon? The geometry of commonplace implements is easy to overlook until you've managed to carve an absurd and utterly unusable soup spoon. As the piece becomes physically smaller so do the spheres of attention and intention, but always these areas of focus must be understood as part of a larger whole. A repeating spiral from gross to subtle to gross to subtle.
As someone still coming to terms with the fact that perfection is not only unattainable but somewhat nonsensical when applied to everyday things (I'm stubborn so this is a slow process), I find observing my mind to be one of the most interesting aspects of carving. A wide spectrum is there to observe—from those profound moments of single pointed concentration to the captivating daydreams that leave me wondering what I've been doing and wow am I glad I'm not bleeding. When things seem to be going well my mind easily turns to “Oh I must be good at this!”, and just as easily a mistake becomes “What a waste, I should give this up altogether!”. It's places of artistic expression where my inner perfectionist comes out most strongly, and often projects are discarded because of some small flaw. To check this impulse I used to make a practice of always finishing a spoon once started, but now I allow for a wider range of discretion. There is that constant play between sensing what is challenging yet worthwhile and what is simply energy better spent elsewhere. Sometimes this means being willing to spend hours carving an elaborate piece of kindling. Other times the result is a finely formed and functional spoon that can be enjoyed for years to come. Trying to remain equally open to both outcomes has been a real place of learning for me.
Sam is a software developer turned carpenter, woodworker, and bicycle mechanic— jack of many trades, master of none. Born in raised in Virginia, he has spent the past several years living in North Carolina (with the exception of a brief stint on the West coast). He enjoys playing clawhammer banjo, cooking, and spending time outside. Sam is currently serving as Interim Groundskeeper here at SDRC.