I have been a wood carver for more than fifty years. And although I have often gone off in other directions: poetry, teaching, stained glass, writing, gardening; I have always come back to carving wood. Carving wood has been my touchstone. Along the way, I have collected what might be the world’s largest collection of really bad, almost unusable knives, gouges, chisels, and sharpening stones. I didn’t plan it that way. It was just that for a very long time I couldn’t afford good tools. I had to save forever to buy my first pocket knife. It was only about two inches long and wouldn’t hold even the dull edge I could give it by trying to sharpen it on a piece of concrete, but I had a knife that was dedicated only to carving. I was finally a real carver and sculptor like Michaelanglo, Rodin, and Remington. A knife and a piece of two-by-four found in a scrap pile or a broken tree limb was all I needed.
There is just something about the way a piece of wood feels in the hand and the mind when it is being carved. In sports it is called getting into the zone. Clock time has no meaning. “How long does it take you to carve that block?” is a question I am often asked. My answer is always the same: “About five or ten minutes.” At least it seems like it is only five or ten minutes even though the sun was just rising in the east, and it has long since set in the west, and even though it was Monday when I started, and several Mondays might have gone by before I finished. Clock time has no meaning. The gouge resting in the palm of the hand and the way the blade slides through the wood are the only things that count.
My favorite woods for carving are cherry and pear. Cherry is the traditional wood for printmakers in Japan, and pear is the traditional wood for printmakers in Europe. Both are very hard, very dense woods. With both you can carve a very fine line without worrying that the block will check or split or crack. And originally, because cherry is very common in Japan and pear very common in Europe, the woods were relatively inexpensive. I wish they were inexpensive today.