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The Winter of My Carving Discontent

Graeme Vaughan <vaughan@tas.webnet.com.au>


With all due apologies to Steinbeck from whom I swiped it and who swiped it from the Bard, the title (suitably adapted) is just so apt that I had to use it for this piece. Oh a word of warning, just in case the title doesn't say it all: your humble author is tossing aside his clown's mask to bare the sad face underneath.

So for those of you who are expecting wonderful witticisms, jolly japes, rumbunctious raillery, quality quips, and juvenile jests, begone.

How am I? Well, to quote my muse of the moment: "Not very how.

I don't seem to have felt at all how for a long time." As I write this it's a good time of the year for it. It's June. While the Northern hemisphere goes bananas in the sun, here in the land of down under I'm basking in rain, blustery southerlies, foggy days and frosty mornings.

I'm actually rather fond of the log fire, warm soup, glass of red, snuggling into the doonah sort of winter myself. But, alas, the winter of my carving soul is more of your rain, wind, sleet, blizzard, freeze-your-bones sort. I'm afraid to go into the workshop these days. THEY are there, those misshapen monstrosities that mutely testify to my limited skill and waning inspiration. I pick up a chisel, try a few half-hearted taps of the mallet.

O God, it's worse than before. Disheartened, I try the boys' own approach: out with the Arbotech and rip right into it. Yerk! Total disaster. Well not totally total, I reflect philosophically as I carry another load of oddly shaped firewood inside. Sometimes I just mope about, sand this, sand that, rearrange the tools (as the radio played a song called "Arranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic" Fair dinkum). I flick through sketch books and notes for carvings not yet done and nothing inspires. I try the Star Trek approach and boldly go forth, powered by a split infinitive, to try something I've not done before, like ...relief carving (relief, just what I need), only to discover that, like a McDonald's hamburger, it's a case of promising something you won't deliver. McDonalds, huh, where's the haggis in the burger?? Relief carving, huh, where's the relief? Should be called Aggravation Carving.

This is the winter of the carving soul, when nothing works and nothing inspires. The only thing that keeps me keeping on is the memory of how wonderful it was, the hope that it can be like that again and the experience of previous winters.

Winter is as necessary to the carving process as spring. Ah spring, that wonderful beginning when everything is ripe with unfulfilled promise. As necessary as summer when the chisel sings as it slices through the work and every touch of the hand and measure of the eye is just right and there's a song of gladness in the woodcarver's heart. As necessary as autumn that "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" where you bask in the warm glow of a job well done, lingering longer than absolutely necessary over the final stages of polishing.

How you handle the winters, I remind myself, is crucial to the whole cycle. Oh, but it's so much easier I cry to deal with the other seasons. Enthusiasm lifts you up and through spring, marvelling glides you through summer and satisfaction warms you through autumn. But winter is a harsh time. Let's face it, I don't care how much of a gloomy gus you are, stacked up against enthusiasm, marvelling and satisfaction, frustration and depression don't seem all that attractive.

How do you handle the winters? I'm reminded of the Celtic sense of time. For the ancient Celts, sundown marked the end of the day and the onset of night, the start of the new day. NOTE, the day began not with dawn, but with nightfall. Each day, they believed, was seeded and grew in darkness, just like little human folks and other mammals. Perhaps we should start thinking about winter, not as the end of the process, but as its real beginning.

It's a bit like gardening, too, which begins with composting all the old stuff and then planting the seed in the rotting, but extremely fertile, old stuff. So perhaps we should also think of winters as times, not simply to be endured, but as times of fruitful decay when the old ways of doing things are composted down by despair, frustration and depression. Perhaps, winters are even times to be celebrated in their own way.

So, my first strategy for dealing with my current woodcarving winter is to remind myself of this and to accept that melancholia is appropriate to the time. If I am to have a really productive weather, I best get good and rotten (er, non-alcoholically, I mean). Let's celebrate winter. Let's wear black and listen endlessly to Leonard Cohen. Let's read Matthew Arnold " ith tremulous cadence slow, and bring The eternal note of sadness in"

Now there's a line to get rid of any last remaining jollies.

Let's feast on lentils, the most depressing food on the planet (No, you smartie, McDonald's doesn't count, not being food).: Instead of being the little bluebird of happiness, spreading pixie dust hither and yon, let's take Eeyore as our model and spread the snowdust of gloom about.

"It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily.
"So it is."
"And freezing."
"Is it?"
"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately."

What else will I do? Well as one sage put it, "When fishermen can't go to sea, they mend their nets" or as our floppy-eared, sometime tailless and reliably gloomy sage-of-the-moment put it "We can't all, and some of us don't. That's all there is to it."

I'll stop carving for a while. I'll sharpen my tools (hey, I won't have time once the ice thaws!). I'll read my pile of carving magazines and books (time to catch up on that backlog). I'll make those little odds-and-ends that are going to make my carving life easier. I'll sketch and make models, just for the fun of it (er, better make that non-seriously, don't want to spoil the gloom, now, do we?) I'll tidy up the workshop (whoa, there boy, let's not get carried away here). In other words, I'll do everything related to carving, except carving itself.

And I'll wait for the ice to thaw. And I'll watch for the first flower of spring. And I'll listen on the wind for the sounds of life returning. And when it comes I'll be ready to carve again, still enraptured and still wond'rous. May the spirit of Eeyore spread gloom on your winters, too.

Editor's Note:
While Graeme suffers, we in the northern hemisphere will enjoy the summer of our "content", having just left behind the winter of our discontent for the Aussies to enjoy :-)