This is a 10 part series on Folkloric Wood Uses that is a teaser for a workshop to be offered in the Asheville and Boone NC areas this summer with a very special guest. Keep and eye on the events page for details and dates.
Spoon carving has been a passion of mine for the past five years. The feel of a fine-grained hard wood and a sharp knife can not be replicated. As a witch and a carver, I find it delightful to create practical and ritual objects (yes magical spoons are totally a thing) that I can use over and over again.
When I look for a piece of wood to carve, I think about many things: Is it a hard wood? Is it going to split when it dries? Does it have any difficult knots? Those are the practical questions I ask, but the next set is the part I like ruminating over: What is the history of this wood's uses? Is it native to Appalachia? Is it invasive? What is the folklore of this tree in its home country and in ours? In precolonial times and today? What are it's other uses?
I've put together a list of some of my favorite carving woods for bowls, spoons, wands, stangs, and utensils that I can find in my own backyard. If you live on the East coast, specifically in Appalachia, you can find them too. The beliefs and practices surrounding the uses and taboos about different woods is fascinating, and I find it a useful framework for creating a magical object that is imbued with bioregional significance of the genius loci , and a historical legacy that one can trace back. I also find it empowering to make my own one of a kind kitchen wares by hand.
I practice green wood working, which is the use of fresh cut wood for creating implements. I do carve dry, seasoned wood occasionally, but the ease of carving and the softness of fresh wood is just lovely. Learn more about greenwood working in the UK where it is still alive and well, and here in Appalachia:
Greenwood working in the UK
Country Workshops outside of Asheville, NC
The "old" or "specific" uses of these woods should not be seen as limiting us in our creative creation processes, but I always urge an educated understanding of our plant and tree species before we engage in harvesting or crafting with them. I find it of utmost importance to honor both the trees with ethical harvesting practices and the First Nations people who have used these woods as well by not appropriating sacred images in our own carving.
Making bowls, spoons, staffs and the like for both utility and ritual is part of the human experience, so have fun and enjoy the incredibly rich history and lore of this small sampling of Eastern trees. I'll release them one at a time, and where better to start, than with Ash.
Ash is actually part of the Olive family (Oleaceae) and has about 65 species ranging throughout the North Hemisphere as they are hardy, tolerant trees capable of growing in many soils. Here is North America we have the White Ash (F. americana) and the Black Ash (F. nigra), with a total of six species in the Appalachian region.
In Europe, the straight, tough ash wood was used for spears and handles for shields. Even Achilles used an ash spear to kill Hector in legend. Practically, it was used to make tool handles, oars, and gates. It coppices very well, and as such, has been producing poles for human uses since the Neolithic times. The leaves were also an important animal fodder crop and could be used in silvo-pasutre systems today.
In Ancient Greece, the twigs were used in rain making ceremonies, perhaps due to the Ash's associations with Posiedon, god of the ocean. Pieces of it's wood were taken aboard ships as tokens of good luck. Druids are also strongly linked to Ash as we can guess through an archaeological find on the isle of Anglesey of a 1st century staff made from Ash.
In Scandanavian pre-Christian belief, the Yggdrasil, or World Tree, was said to be an Ash, yet there is some controversy about that, and instead it is suggested it was a yew: "the evergreen or needle Ash". Either way, the Ash was important to the Nordic and Celtic peoples none the less. The first man and woman in the Icelandic Eddas are also made of Ash and Elm respectively. According to Gemma Gary's wonderful work, Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways, Ash is,
"of the airy virtue. It is associated in Cornish and West Country lore with healing and regenerative magic. As Yggdrasil, The Ashe aids also workings of the spirit, passage between worlds, and drawing forth the virtues of the six ways. Thus it is often the wood of choice for the Pellars main staff."
In 19th century England and France, the toe nail clippings of a person with fever could be buried under and Ash tree to drive it away. Witches also maintain an association with Ash,
“Besom brooms” made of birch twigs were used in England for cleaning out a property believed to be bewitched. The supernatural underworld, however, has a way of turning to its own uses the implements of law and order. Witches discovered that some of the bad spirits became entangled in the twigs. A witch who secured some of these polluted brooms might bind the birch sticks to a handle made of ash wood to make a broomstick on which she could ride across the country, carrying out the duties of her profession. The ash handle protected her against drowning, a fate to which witches were particularly susceptible."
- William Ciesla, "Non-Wood Forest Products from Temperate Broad-Leaved Trees"
In North America, Black Ash was used for baskets, chairs, and hoops because of its great splitting ability. The inner bark of Blue ash was used for dye and its wood was used for handles. White Ash was seen as second to oak for tool handles and oars, though I consider Hickory to be first, Oak second and Ash third. Native peoples in the Appalachians made bows from White Ash's stout wood.
This wood is hard and quite dryish to the touch, even when green. It can be difficult to carve, so maybe not the best for a novice carver. It can, however, be sanded to a beautiful smooth and durable surface. It also makes a fine firewood.
What can I make out of it?
Practical: Tool handles, boat oars, cabinets, bowls (be careful it often warps as it dries), splits for basket and chair making (Black Ash), fuel wood, bows, and arrows.
Magical: Ritual staffs, stangs, and wands for spirit work, hedge crossing, or necromancy. Nordic traditions, and Cornish traditions and other Traditional Witches may also find it useful for its historical connections. The possibilities are only limited by your knifeskills.
Ciesla, William M. Non-wood Forest Products from Temperate Broad-leaved Trees. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2002. Print.
Hageneder, Fred. The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2005. Print.
Knight, David. "The Spoon Carving Website." Materials. SpoonCarving.Org, 2014. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
Lehner, Ernst, and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. New York: Tudor Pub., 1960. Print.
Sloane, Eric. A Reverence for Wood. New York: W. Funk, 1965. Print.
Spira, Timothy P. Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont: A Naturalist's Guide to the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, & Georgia. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2011. Print.
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