I carved very little over the last year. The year was spent preparing for a six week solo canoe expedition on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. A year ago I was on the trail — somewhere in Northern Vermont. The purpose of the trip was to inform and inspire many of the carvings that I’m working on now.
It’s great to be carving again. My canoe trip has inspired a series of fifty birds. I’ve completed the first dozen. It is my best work. I’ve returned to the work with a fresh approach and a new eye.
I’ve written about how I carve birds many times. Since I’ve returned from my canoe trip and have begun to carve the birds of the Northern Forest my work has gained new interest. It’s time to revisit this again.
1) My Carvings Tell a Story
My carvings — with a very few exceptions — represent a personal experience with the subject. Until I have my own story a bird is off limits. It is not unusual for me to seek new birds so that I my carve them and share the stories.
2) There are Exceptions – But They Still Have a Story
I carve things other than birds — whales, polar bears, boats — that stir me. There is still a story and personal connection, but I’d be lying if I told you about my direct experiences with sperm whales and narwhals. I spent a good deal of my childhood in coastal New England. These stories are about visiting sailing ships and prowling around backwater wharves.
3) My Inspirations
Then I discovered the Massachusetts folk carvers. These were decoy carvers that turned to the tourist trade in the summer to make their living. The most famous of these, Elmer Crowell and Charles Hart, have produced carvings that eagerly sought by collectors and have set auction records.
Sometime early in the last century bird carvers began to enter their works into competitions. These competitions had strict rules and emphasized realism. Though this work is fascinating and highly skilled, the charm and warmth of the earlier work was lost.
My work is deeply rooted in the work of these Schimmel, Simmons, Crowell and Hart. I don’t seek to re-created or replicate their work. I’ve strived to maintain a informality that invites folks to pick up and experience my work.
4) Rooted in History
My grandfather was a practical woodworker. He built for the people around him — bird houses, furniture, dollhouses, toys and puzzles — and his work was evident in his community. When we would visit I was always drawn to his woodshop. It seemed to be frozen in time. His tools had been new in the 1930s and 1940s. His shelves were lined with cigar boxes, tins, crates and jars filled with hardware and screws and nails.
Grandpa’s shop serves as a filter to keep my work grounded in the traditions of the early 20th century. If a material wasn’t available to him before WWII. It’s not available to me. You won’t find plated hardware or Phillips head screws in my work. Copper and brass nails and little bits of bailing wire are all as I would have found them in Grandpa’s shop.
My work is often mistaken as old work. That’s not my intention — but it indicates that I’m on the right track. I love surface textures that indicate age and use and love. When I began carving and painting birds I desired a finish that invited folks to pick them up. To rub them.
I learned, when I was building period furniture, that badly aged and distressed tables and cabinets looked cheap and insincere. When I distressed furniture I developed a scenario to guide my work. I would picture the piece in use and carefully develop marks in the wood and finish to indicate authentic use.
I do the same with my carvings. Areas of wear — tails, bills, wingtips — show wear to reveal underpainting. There are small dings and dents where the birds might come into contact with another object. Paint may be cracked where metal pieces have flexed. These marks are planned and add beauty to each piece.
Every carving is also finished with a shellac and wax. These traditional finishes produce a depth and luster like no other.
6) I Carve
Many carvers don’t carve. Most use power rotary tools to remove wood. I even know “carvers” that use reproducing machines to power carve several copies of an original at a time.
I’m a carver. I carve every bird one-at-a-time using knives, gouges and rasps.
7) Vintage Wood and Tinplate and Paper
Wood oxidizes over time. With this oxidation it changes color and becomes darker. Spent my childhood summer in a home with no almost finished surfaces on the interior. The pine and spruces walls and ceiling were oxidized to a beautiful coffee brown. Freshly cut pine and spruce is nearly white.
No stain can reproduce the look of old wood.
Any exposed surfaces on my carvings is old wood. Old wood gleaned from broken furniture, antique crates and cigar boxes.
I often use tin plated steel (tinplate) to form wings, nails and beaks. Modern tinplate looks….new. There are chemicals that may be used to produce patina and age, but I use old tin sourced from vintage cigar boxes, cracker boxes and candy packaging. It’s not unusual to find lithograph lettering or artwork on the underside of formed metal parts.
Wood rates and cigar boxes often have interesting labels. Every effort is made maintain these bits of paper on the finished work.
Each piece is also signed, numbered and labelled.
8) Croquet Balls
I love the natural patina and markings on old composite (wood and glue) and solid wood croquet balls. Croquet balls are evident in much of my work.
Place is an important theme in my work. My materials often reflect this. Most pieces are carved from white pine, the traditional New England carving wood. Natural materials — acorn caps, pine cones and twigs — often come from the same region as the subject. Pieces that are inspired by last year’s canoe trip are often mounted on birch twigs that I brought back with me.
Drawing is an essential part to my carvings. In fact, I spend much more time drawing than I do in the direct production of birds.
It is my desire to produce a bird that easily recognizable — as a specific species and gender — is a simplified form. This stylization comes from drawing — and re-drawing — the bird until it is reduced to essential and simplest terms.
I begin by drawing from source material. Over a period of a few days I move away from source material and draw from memory. It is from memory that I produce my carving patterns and color schemes.
Patterns are only used for a few birds before I begin to re-work them. This ensures that each piece is unique and that my work continues to evolve.
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In the meantime I’ve set up a website outlining a menu ukulele services and instruction. Check it out at The Ukulele Tradition.
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My parents were musicians and proteges of the 1950s and 1960s folk revival movement. At every picnic, gathering and social they would distribute song books and lead the crowd in singing a wide variety of classics ranging from “For Me and My Gal” to “The Sloop John B.” while playing ukulele and banjos.
This is how I became a musician. This is why I occasionally lead sing-a-longs.
We summered on Sawyer Island, a small island community in Boothbay, Maine. We had a great little stick frame town hall covered with carpenter-built decoration — beadboard and cut shingles. It had a great little stage, church pew seating and a tiny kitchen in the rear. The place was seldom used and was in dis-repair.
One year the community decided to open the hall and stage a talent show. I don’t remember the acts well. I do remember the Mainers and our group of Hoosier sharing friendly barbs about whether the “r” at the end of words really needed to be pronounced. My family and a visiting Hoosier clan, the Ricketts, sang an old tune made popular by Perry Como, Kentucky Babe.
Skeeters am a hummin’ on de honeysuckle vine.
Sleep Kentucky Babe!
Sandman am a common’ to dis little one of mine.
Sleep Kentucky Babe!
Silv’ry moon am shinin’ in de heabens up above.
Bobolink am pinin’ fo’ his little lady love.
You is mighty lucky. Babe of old Kentucky.
Close your eyes in sleep.
This was my introduction to the bobolink. I asked a few questions and was told that it was a bird that lived in the south. I filed the information away. It was almost 40 years before I learned much more.
On my Northern Forest Canoe Trail trip, last summer, I spent a night in a Now York’s Cumberland Bay State Park in Plattsburgh. The next leg of the journey was to cross and paddle north on Lake Champlain. Due to a strong headwind from the south I elected to walk to the end of Cumberland Head and cross the lake from there. On the walk I was joined by three different folks that were interested in my story. The last walked with my for a couple of miles. I was hungry for company and she was just what I needed.
While passing a farm she lamented that the new owners had cleared the fence rows and the bobolinks were no longer there. By this time I knew that range of bobolinks wasn’t limited to the south, but I had still never seen one. She went on to tell me that they were once common when farm fields were significantly smaller.
A week later, near Enosburg Falls, VT, I was again walking. There was a beautiful bicycle trail that looked a lot more inviting that fighting upstream through another series of rapids. I noticed that the corn fields were very small (In Indiana they can stretch to the horizon.) and began to scan them for bobolinks.
I was rewarded almost immediately! Once I heard their robot-like song I couldn’t miss them.
(Incidentally — to this story — the Sawyer Island Town Hall burned to the ground early the morning after the performance described above. An arsonist had targeted several important, but uninhabited, buildings to destroy that summer including a dance barn, several small town halls, and a movie theater.)
This bobolink is carved from white pine and includes elements constructed of brass, steel, an antique packing crate, a willow branch and a croquet ball. 12 1/2″t x 5″ l x 4″ w.
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Most of my experiences with ovenbirds happened before I canoed the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. My trail experiences are limited to a few fleeting glimpses and calls from trees.
My training for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail was multi-faceted. I trained physically by hiking, paddling, lining and poling and spent many weekends in the forest testing myself and equipment.
Knowing that I would be paddling in the summer, when the forest canopy would make sighting many forest birds impossible, I spent a great deal of time ear training.
For ear training I used two apps, iBird Pro and Larkwire Birdsong Pro. The iBird app is a huge field guide complete with descriptions, photos, paintings and recorded calls. All birds are cross referenced with birds with similar features or calls. I generally use this app, on my iPhone, to confirm (or not) when I am not certain of a call that I have heard. Larkwire Birdsong is a ear training method that uses recording, photos, drills and games to facilitate learning and differentiating calls.
A quick note – There are birders that use these calls to draw birds out of cover to be more clearly observed. There is are two camps on this practice — those that believe the practice is justified and those that believe the practice is disruptive and has a negative impact and causing undue anxiety in birds.
On an early training hike, I was camped in Shades State Park in west central Indiana. I set up camp, cooked on a Sve 123, ate dinner and sat down with an iPad to review and practice birding by ear. I had forgotten my earphones. Thoughtlessly I turned the volume low and accessed a recording of an ovenbird that I thought that I had heard earlier.
“Teacher-teacher-teacher-teacher” the recording played confirming what I had thought I had heard.
I never expected what happened next. The trees and brush around me exploded with agitated ovenbirds.
For several minutes, several birds, flitted across the open campsite scolding and buzzing angrily.
As quickly as the assault had begun, the forest resumed its quiet order. The deserved rebuke was over. Earphones were added to my packing list for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
I’ve been birding Ritchey Woods, in Fishers, Indiana, every Sunday morning for the last few weeks. It’s a mixed bag. The birding is great, but it’s adjacent to a noisy highway and airport and is frequented by trail runners and dog walkers.
(Trail runners and dog walkers are fine people. They just tend to throw birds into hiding and startle people intently staring into the treetops.)
I’ve heard a great deal of chatter about a great horned owl nest in the woods. Having no luck in finding myself I made a des fete inquiry and was rewarded to directions to the nesting tree.
It turns out (of course) that I’ve walked within 20′ of this tree every Sunday morning for weeks. Kudos to owl behavior and camouflage. This morning my wife and I found the tree, but no owls. Another birder informed us that they had left the nest in the last day, or so. One fledgling (I believe that there are two) was found in a nearby tree, where I had seen a large bird drop earlier (presumably a parent).
We had a nice long look. Hopefully they’ll return to this nest next spring and we’ll know just where to look.
At Union Falls, New York, a large pond (of the same name) spills over a dam and tumbles over the rocks and ledges to make a fast and wild plunge to Lake Champlain. This stretch of river is no match for my skills or for my wood and canvas canoe. It’s here that I elected to strap the wheels to the boat and hunker down for a long portage.
From a small park the road drops down to cross the river adjacent to the ancient dam and powerhouse. The iron bridge, was enveloped in spray from the dam and waterfalls. Turning right onto the Casey Road I found myself plunged into another time and place.
This was the time and place I sought. This was rural Maine — the rural Maine of my childhood.
Here the forest is a mix of beech, maple, birch, pine and spruce. The narrow lane, paved in macadam, was lined in ancient loose stone walls. In the margins of the road–where sunlight filtered through the overhanging trees–wild flowers grew. These were the same windflowers my sister and I would gather on those ancient Maine roads many years ago. I expected to see a familiar fox or pheasant dart across the road ahead if me.
My pleasant walk was interrupted. Not by a fox or a pheasant, but by something completely alien to me.
I was attacked by a deranged two-legged raccoon. That was my first thought as a chattering brown and black striped animal exploded from the underbrush.
Before I had time to gather my thoughts into something rational, the animal slowed and assumed a posture that I had often studied in my field guides. I was under attack by a ruffed grouse.
For the next five minutes the bird moved about me and the boat, posturing and blustering.
I realized his bird was protecting a nest or offspring, so I moved along. When I last saw him, he was sitting on a shoulder high branch sending me along my way.
Posted in Bird References, Birds and Their Stories, Canoe, Field Guides, Field Study, Northern Forest Canoe Trail | Tagged bird, Birding, Canoe, carve, carving, folkart, grouse, NFCT, partridge | Leave a Comment »