There is a random phone call or email during the evening hours. Someone has seen pictures on the internet of something that I have carved and they want to know if the piece is still available.
“That piece sold a while back, but I could make another for you…”
The details are gone over, time, money… They want two of a certain hiking stick, the back story is explained; there are two partners that they work for in a office in Atlanta that love to hike….
I look over to see what inventory is available, nothing in the right length. I take up my saw and start walking…
I stand on the porch for a few minutes trying to decide which direction I feel like heading. The breeze is coming from the south, so if I head north the wildlife will be made aware of my presence and that would cut down on any unwanted entanglements… Is it still hunting season? I don’t know.. meh.. I’ll be sure to make enough noise that I wont be mistaken for a deer. Famous last words and all.. I start walking to the north, I know where a good stand of poplar and sweet gum is located that would serve my needs, so I make for it. These days I don’t need to follow any paths or dirt roads, I know where everything in these woods is located. I come to the lip of the hollow I’m looking for and stare down into it remembering the long gone days of being a kid around here. I see the remnants of left over forts, foxholes, and nails driven into trees to build lofty vantage points that were never realized…
I make my way down through the hollow to the creek that lies in its center, without glancing down I walk over stones that have held the same place in the creek for as long as I can remember. Without thinking about it at all I stop dead center in the creek to breath in the wet smell of dirt that takes me back to those childhood days. I continue on uphill toward the trees. I start looking through “my inventory.” I pass a few that I have helped along by the strategic placement of vines.. They are growing nicely and in a few years will make great hiking sticks with twists in just the right places.. I glance around for a several minutes and notice a few that look right. These need to be six feet in length and of substantial strength to handle the workload of two serious hikers.
I spot two sweet gums growing side by side.. huh.. strange.. I check the area to be sure I won’t be disturbed by any snakes or devilish creations that could bring a swift death out here where help would never find me. I look the trees over and decide where to begin cutting. I use a handsaw because anything with a motor was created by Satan; therefore, it was designed to fail at the most inopportune moment, causing mutilation in the process..
I cut the first one down and begin taking the limbs off, then I cut it into sections, one for the main hiking stick, one for a good walking stick and few feet left over for maybe some wands… The second tree comes down and falls victim to the same treatment. I am left with six pieces of good wood to carve.
The wind is blowing stronger so I make my way up to the far lip of the hollow to catch the breeze. Although its winter and Christmas is fast approaching, it has been unusually warm for this time of year. From the top of this hill I can see down toward the lake, this spot is perfect for catching the breeze rolling through the hollows of these woods. I think back to a time when I would be sitting behind a desk worried about sales in a failing industry. I laugh quietly to myself as I hear the distant calls emanating from a murder of crows. I look around and see them, sitting in a group of oak trees off to my left about halfway down the hill. Once the calls subside they fall into that conversation a murder always has about the doings that will follow that evening. Its all a warning to whatever they communicate with, letting everyone know that I’m there and to be careful.
That’s the one sound that gets to me. The call of a crow. The shrill cawing involuntarily creates flashes of memories in my mind. A long, hot, summer’s day spent with my father and uncle in a junkyard as they were looking for a part that would repair the hitch on my uncle’s boat. The pine straw being raked into piles so it could be burned. A summer day spent in a swing on the back deck reading Kathy Sue Loudermilk. The fall of the year spent doing the most dread chore imaginable.. The cutting and collecting of firewood.
I thought about that one for a while… Not too far from here, my brother, myself, and my father were once hard at work cutting down trees and dragging them out of these woods to burn in the fireplace during the winter… I hated that work detail more than any other. Then I had to laugh. Here I am thirty years later, in the same damn woods, doing the same damn thing… I have been condemned to making a living by doing the one chore I hated above all others, gathering wood. Be careful about what type of curses you call down, they can backfire, and they obviously work…
I gather up the wood and head back in. I know there is a problem. I have known since the first tree hit the ground, but I am putting it out of my mind, maybe it will work. I get back to the porch, head inside and get the tape measure. I measure out six feet on each hiking stick and cut the excess off of the large end. The problem presents itself in an undeniable manner. These trees are simply too large for hiking sticks. Damn. They are a bit too mature, the bark is too deep and ridged far too much, sure to break off. I know what that means, an hour on each piece shaving the bark down. That is a meticulous endeavor, one wrong move or slip and the piece is ruined. I cut the ends down and then cut out the places for the hand holds. Sure enough… the bark is just too big. So I set about shaving it with my knife. A couple of messy, painstaking hours later they are ready to be treated. Fresh wood like this is a delicate matter when carving, as it dries it can split, so most carvers season the wood by letting it dry out… but I have a secret concoction that you can treat the wood with to ensure no splitting. When that is over I begin to carve.
The first few cuts are made late in the evening when everyone else goes to bed, it’s the only time of day to be sure you wont be interrupted by the phone. I never sketch out what I’m going to do when I start, I just eyeball it then start cutting with my chip knife, after the first cuts are made I will get out the blue pencil and draw in some lines to finish the piece, but the first ones are always eyeballed.
Old movies are playing on the television in the background as I work. Uriah Heep is deep into his machinations as the handgrip is finished on the first piece. By the time the first piece is completed I’ve traveled with many Dickens characters all through the night. The first stirrings are heard throughout the house as everyone begins the start of their day. I make a quick breakfast of left over chicken before I begin the second piece. The television is tuned to the classical masterpieces channel as I work my way around the second piece, me and it are covered in a gray fog of cigar smoke for most of the process… My youngest son comes in from school as the carving wraps up on the second hiking stick. He comes over and runs his hands over the faces that grace each stick. He then begins asking me if I can carve this or that for some classmates of his and hits the door running before I can answer.. He calls out “I’m going outside to play…” as he straps on all manner of toy guns and knives to protect the yard from zombies and the evil Bigfoot that lives in the woods.
I start the cleaning process of the carvings, only to be stopped when its time to make dinner. Once the chores are done and the carvings cleaned, I put on the first coat of finish, the mess this makes is quite astounding… The heavy coating of bark and woodchips on the floor is the only thing that almost saves the carpet underneath… almost… When the proper amount of finish is applied everyone is asleep again. I move the pieces out to the porch to dry in the night air.
Standing on the porch I hear strange noises that I recognize. I put my hands together and begin blowing air between my thumbs in a loud call. A few moments later I am answered by several owls. I spend an hour or so calling them up from the woods, soon the house is surrounded by screech owls.. What a noise these things make.. I look over at the faces on the hiking sticks I’ve carved, oddly enough, they all look worried.. I assure them that the owls wont bother them as I make my way back inside to sleep for a couple for hours.
The next afternoon I call the customer to let them know that the pieces are ready for delivery, setting up the details of time and place. I hand them off to my son for the ride to their new home that evening and watch as they head up the driveway on his truck.
I think ahead over the next couple of days and entertain the thought of the two gentlemen in their Atlanta office unwrapping the gifts… I smile to myself as I think about the lives these two hiking sticks had, the stand of trees they looked over for years in that quiet hollow, the memories they guarded of days long gone in these woods, the delicate hours of bark shaving they endured, the carving process as they traveled around England with Dickens’ various characters, the Rossini, Sibelius, and Mozart they were serenaded with, the touch of my sons fingers as he thought about playing in the yard, the blood that dripped on them from the palm sander wound I suffered, and the long conversation between a man and a group of owls they were privy to…
They’ve already experienced so much that these people will never know about… I wonder what the future will bring them.