Carving Spoons | First Person

Paring away wood can reveal more than a humble utensil.

By Yankee Magazine

Aug 21 2019


Carving a spoon.

Photo Credit : Melanie Riccardi/Stocksy
By Nina MacLaughlin

The birch came down in my dad’s yard, 300 yards from the river. I took some of it home and sat on a stool in my apartment and carved a spoon with a small sharp blade and a small curved blade. Pale wood curls collected on the floor, on my lap. I swept when I was done. Half a dozen more birch blanks—the crude pre-spoon shapes—live now in my freezer, where the cold holds in the moisture.

I sanded the spoon smooth and rubbed it with beeswax and flaxseed oil, which smells like soil and honey, which the wood drinks in and raises its grain in thanks. I smoothed my thumb against the soft curves of its bowl, and thought of the pleasure of precision without exactitude. I was astonished, as I always am, at the transformation.

Taste, touch, sight, smell—what an opportunity spoon-making offers up to the senses.
Photo Credit : Melanie Riccardi/Stocksy

A seed in the soil not far from the banks of a river on the southern coast of Massachusetts … three decades of growth, give or take … sunlight, rain, wind, frost and freeze, thaw and warmth … papery white bark with black gashes like hieroglyphs ofblinking eyes … branches that gave perch to cardinals, robins, chickadees … a death, a falling, a lopping … and the rest of the tree decomposes where it fell, returns itself to the soil. Ferns will grow there; mushrooms, maybe. An oak seed might decide to become a sapling. And now a new spoon exists in my kitchen.

“All things change but no thing dies,” writes Ovid in his Metamorphoses, and in holding the section of wood in my hands, running a blade along its length, it felt good to take part in that one tree’s transformation. I was not resurrecting it, not breathing life back into the dead, but involved instead in its changing state. The vibration of its aliveness registers in my hand when I stir the soups and stews, when I raise the spoon to my lips and blow before tasting the tomato sauce.

Taste, touch, sight, smell—what an opportunity spoon-making offers up to the senses. Some months ago, I sat on the floor of my apartment and showed an 11-year-old girl how to carve. She held the blade in her hand and I trusted her, and reminded myself that the hospital is a five-minute walk away, should we need to buy some stitches. But she carved well, a natural. We sat and talked as she carved, blade in her small strong hand, and she paused and asked a good question, a wise one: “At this point, can you tell more with your eyes or more with your hands?” We closed our eyes and felt. We opened them and looked. How do we come to know? What’s the best way to find the truth of things? How do we best sense when something’s right?

She continued to carve and in one fast swipe, plunged the blade deep in, pressed hard, and a tiny pyramid of wood flew and hit the wall. She looked at me with horror on her face, with fear she’d wrecked the spoon, killed it dead. She set the blade on the floor and put the spoon in my hands, as though she couldn’t stand to hold it. I ran my thumb over the divot. “I do this all the time,” I said. “You do?” “I think I’ve gone too deep, but then I find that you can actually go a lot deeper than you think before anything is unfixable.” We could smooth out all the edges, I told her. She picked up the blade again. “Can I keep going?”

The wood forgives. We look and feel and try to get it right. And if, in the end, there is an indentation where once we pressed too deep, so what? Such is how we know we’ve taken part. That is her mark there, the sign that tells that her hands were on this, too.