Years ago, when artists could paint and draw, and well before installations and happenings devalued art; long before anyone had the lack of imagination to title a painting ‘ untitled ‘, you had to learn about anatomy to know the basics of your craft. The thought was, that you had to know what was underneath before you could paint a portrait.
Much the same could be said of knowing a tree, by carving a spoon from it. Which is what we did at the weekend at the Scottish Woodland Skills Centre. Hardwood, there you are that’s a bit of a clue, but then there is a range of hard. It starts at just a bit above the wood equivalent of Al dente to hard as nails, and finally to Ironwood and stuff that will not even float if you throw it in water.
We both picked a log. ” Now you just have to find the spoon within “, said Dick the instructor. We had both chosen wood at the hard end of the range. Esther had Sycamore and I had a wonderful log of the finest Beech. You just have to get one face flat, and square off the rest from that. You take a sort of golfing stance to your log. Feet at ninety degrees, with the axe held lightly in your hand, flicking it up and letting the weight do most of the cutting.
Within 40 minutes, when we stopped for tea I had to lift the cup with both hands. I had not got that first flat side yet and Esther was even further behind. We had both been ambitious, going for something the size of a ladle, rather than a dainty tea-spoon. This was going to be a hard day.
Four hours into the axe work we were both having to take long rests. The spoons were showing themselves and we had scribed pencil lines to follow. We were both getting to know just how hard Sycamore and Beech is. Pale yellow and close grained, the wood fought all the way despite it having a spoon shaped grain. Five hours and I had it down to something close to the lines. Onto the shave horse for a more all body workout with a drawing knife and spoke shave.
After 7 hours, the spoon was showing, and it was time to carve the bowl into the head end. Esther had fallen further behind and was still working on something that you might throw for a dog with the hope that it would remove plaque from its teeth. I was onto sandpaper ( I will always think of it as sandpaper – it drove my woodwork teacher mad as it had not been sand for hundreds of years ).
Just under 8 hours after I first stood in front of the log, it was now recognizably a spoon. It was a big bugger, with little in the way of graceful curves but it looked good to me. A liberal application of olive oil massaged in, and it was now a thing of beauty. i gave it 4 minutes of full on admiration time.
Now while we were doing this, over on BBC Radio Scotland ( Click to hear the show ) our most favorite program had just come to an end – Scotland Out of Doors. Excitingly, we were on it for the first half an hour. We had recorded a trip to bivvy under the 1,000 year old Ormiston Yew, in a repeat of a project we had done a few months ago. We chat about our travels, bits of equipment and the Yew tree with Mark Stephen. The whole thing makes you want to record the sounds of travel just as much as photographing it.
Whilst we were in Perthshire for the spoon course, we decided to explore an area of Scotland that we are rather vague about. I had ordered a new and rather swanky gps as I knew the navigation in that area would be challenging. It failed to turn up, so I went to the local library to book out the maps. They have every large scale map of the UK. All 200 or so of them were there on the shelf, all of them from Lands End to John O’Groats except the 2 I needed. We ended up using the 2 maps we had, Northern Scotland and Southern Scotland. At this big scale, they failed to show quite a number of the villages that we biked through, and to add to the navigational challenge our route meandered off and onto both the top of one and bottom of the other.
We headed up towards the Cairngorms, but turned towards Glen Isla, and away from the possible crowds. Considering this area should have been tourism ground zero this weekend, our cunning route avoided just about everyone. The sun was out, warming our backs and bringing out beads of sweat on the stiff short climbs. We had time to explore, it was good to have light bikes under us as we dived down another hill.
The valley of the Isla and the River Tay is rather the bridesmaid on the fringe of the Highlands, and all the better for that. Beech woodlands, flower meadows and enough quiet lanes to get lost in make this area a bit of a paradise for cyclists. Of course we got lost. It was inevitable given the maps we had and the fact that many of the junctions had not a single signpost. Towards the end, we knew we needed to be heading West and just pointed the bikes at the sun. We ended the day being led around a Beavers lodge. In just 4 years they have raised the water level almost 2m with their dams. The large bulk of an unseen Beaver threw up a bow wave as it turned to swim away, just to my left. A near perfect end to the day in a perfect weekend. I had just enough strength in my arms to grip the wheel as we headed back South towards home.