If someone had asked me one year ago if I would ever consider myself a carver, I would have laughed. Yet, I think I can say that now, though cautiously: I am a carver of spoons. Still, I am a novice, a point I do understand and willingly accept. No one is an expert at first, no matter the task chosen, but try after try, skills improve and what is before you takes shape. Some days, that shape is not what was planned. Other days, it’s better than the idea that started it all. It’s a lot like life, this spoon carving thing I’ve discovered. A whole lot like life.
Last September, I ventured into the woods along Squam Lake, New Hampshire, like I had done the previous year, ready to soak in the tranquil beauty while attending Squam Art Workshops. My days at Squam always surprise me, introducing me to a new creative outlet that sparks something in me. This year, it was the spoons — the simple wooden spoon that has been around for centuries that triggered something deep inside me.
The Herrmann line of my family has always been woodworkers. My father was a master, learning at an early age from his father, who learned from his. Growing up in my father’s workshop, I learned basic skills from him, and occasionally put them to work around the house. I built the desk from where I write this to you. I am not afraid to modify existing furniture to better suit my needs. Admittedly, I’m not very good, but I can manage to build a few things that are useful, though not very beautiful. My father, on the other hand, polished his skills to the level where everything he made was beautiful. I never expected to be as good as him, but each time I worked with wood, I felt a little closer to him. It felt like I was keeping a family tradition alive.
For regular readers, you’ll remember that my last year was filled with some pretty hefty bumps in the road, the last of which occurred the week before I left for Squam when my dear uncle passed away, and with him, went the last person on this earth who knew my father as a young man. The last connection I had with my Herrmann forefathers, was gone, and all I had left were the stories.
I remember walking into the classroom at Squam Lake on the morning of my carving class. Barry Buck of Linen and Spoon was setting up the room, and I drew a breath with the slightest hint of sawdust in the air. The scent of my childhood filled my nose and a deep sense of calm flowed over me.
By lunch, the class had learned the basic steps and had begun the second spoon of the day. I, on the other hand, was not just carving my second spoon. I was beginning the long road out of my grief. The feel of the wood, the smell of the shavings, the coaxing of the shape — all were setting the first few bits of foundation on the new ground of this life.
By the end of the day, I knew I was hooked. I bought two carving knives and one wood blank from the instructor and headed home to Arkansas to carve.
And carve, I did.
For the next 10 months, I carved spoons. I carved ones with wide bowls, narrow bowls, deep bowls, and shallow. I ventured into spatulas and even managed a small dish suitable for holding my earrings on the dresser at the end of the day. I gave several away. I posted photos on social media. I lovingly placed the finished ones in a jar on my kitchen table. I joked that while some people had a bouquet of flowers in their house, while I had a bouquet of spoons.
Yet, I never used one. Never once did I actually use one of my spoons in the kitchen for the work it was intended. Each finished spoon (which were not gifted) was placed in the jar on the table as a display item. I worked through a lot of thoughts with each one of those spoons. The process of creating each one gave me time to think and not think, to focus and not focus, and finally, to heal.
Of all the time before I had worked with wood, my work was adequate, but not very good. I liked carrying on the family tradition, but knew it would never be as good an my predecessors. Still, the smell of wood as it’s being cut, is heavenly to me. The aroma of it is soothing. The feel of smooth-sanded wood is like silk, and the look of the grain when it is coaxed into its most beautiful expression is nothing short of glorious. Spoon carving, for me, was the first time I felt that I had done the wood justice by bringing it to a satisfying result. I finally found the way to continue the family tradition but in something that was exactly my size and skill.
Today, I finally used one of my spoons to mix cornbread. For the first time, I moved one spoon from something kept protected and at a distance, to something that was engaged in the function of life. When the spoon was covered in food, there was a slight tinge of “oh, it’s a mess” that ran through my mind. This pristine spoon that represented hours of work was covered in, well, the happenings of everyday life, and nothing could ever return it to its previous untarnished self. It would never be that again.
But it would still be good.
A warm bath brought it back to its former look, though not its former self. Now, this spoon is experienced, and I think that experience makes it even better.