Turning Archive 2005

A woodturner's gift

Gary McGrath
>Got this from my daughter last Christmas :

Bowl Reading

Sarah McGrath Hagge

Bowls hold many different things: cereal, pasta, nachos, potpourri, ashes, loose change, jewelry. I own mixing bowls, decorative glass bowls, metal bowls that retain heat or coldness, tiny bowls for sushi sauces, an onyx bowl from Turkey, a host of pottery bowls fashioned by my mother, and wooden bowls turned on my father’s lathe. My newest bowl, a Christmas gift from my father, is made of spalted beech.
The word “spalted” isn’t in my dictionary, but even before I gathered its meaning, its syllables seemed to suggest holding. Maybe it is the sound of “all” in the center of it, or maybe there’s just something hollow about the dip from a hard “p” to a short “a” and then the climb back up the lip of “l”. The word made me start asking questions.
Spalting happens to wood when it is attacked, in damp and warm conditions, by stain, mold, and decay fungi that live secretively on the forest floor. The wood reacts chemically to the fungi and insect deposits, and the result is unusual coloration in the grains. If the decay process continues naturally, the wood becomes spongy or “punky” and will crumble to the touch. However, spalting will stop as soon as the wood is cut and dried, perhaps in a kiln, and the lumbered specimens may be turned into pieces of art by the sharp tools of the woodworker.
My bowl is mostly the color of toffee or grade A light maple syrup, although the sap of the beech won’t find its way to my kitchen table. Buttery smooth to the touch and light in my hands, I can’t resist holding my bowl, and I marvel that its strange and intricate grains are not raised, are not detectable to my skin. I rub my fingers around the steep sides of the bowl and then feel the edges flaring up and out like the lip of a calla lily. I flip it over and test the flatness of the base with my palm, confirming that my bowl sits still—won’t wobble—on any table. The landscape of the underside is dominated by a caramel brown line that traverses steadily and then rises in a bump like a knuckle—or like the peak of Bird’s Eye Mountain in Vermont, I think—and then continues on to the edge.
But the bowl is designed to stand hollow-side up, and so I try to read the whorls and lines and scars of color decorating the bottom as one might read the palm of a stranger’s hand. I see a sky full of mackerel clouds over the Atlantic. The ocean of my childhood is stirred only slightly by the portent of rain and still reflects places where the late sun slips through. Then I rotate the bowl 180 degrees and all at once I am in New Mexico, admiring a plateau of sandstone eroded by centuries of wind. Little mesas climb up the sides of the bowl, enlarging my perspective. Saucer-like clouds hang in an other-wise clear sky. Of course there is no blue or green in my landscapes, but twenty-eight years of seeing colors fills in these details.
As I turn the bowl around and around, the pictures come to me without my having to search. Now, wanting to understand the history of my bowl, I envision the beech tree in my childhood backyard, the one whose bronze leaves rustled and rubbed against my windowpane in the fall, and whose gray, armor-like bark felt the tug of my hammock all summer long. I loved that tree, both for its offerings and for simple fact that it stood by my home. Beech trees may live for over four centuries, but I have no idea how old mine was. Is, I suppose, since it has continued to grow in the years since we left that house. And it wasn’t mine, of course. But its trunk was small enough for hugging, though I never did, and I can leave all questions of age at that.
In the open palm of my bowl there is also the history of a fallen limb. Or perhaps, since this wood did not really come from my tree, the patterns here tell of an entire dead tree. It would have fallen in some New England forest, perhaps only a patch of woods between saltbox homes in a suburban community like my hometown. It’s possible that someone, maybe a young mother putting her child down for a nap, heard the thump of its collapse on the damp floor. But then it was forgotten. The fungi began its attack, and perhaps the insects joined in, tracking across the rotting grains. I have no way of knowing, but when I look at the black, pencil-thin lines etched in my bowl in childlike scribbles, I think of the delicate feet of diligent bugs.
My bowl holds the invisible history of the hands that harvested its wood. Someone stepped through a forest with his eyes on the undergrowth, picking his way through a sparse graveyard of limbs. I see a foot nudging at a branch, and then I smell that smoky, pungent fragrance of fertile humus and unearthed time. I am bending over, too, and discovering a treasure at my feet. I feel the surprise of a woman panning for gold and finding, amidst a heap of common sand and rock, that precious piece. My fingers are rescuers, sensing with their dry touch the arrest of decay. Feeling the promise of afterlife in the wood.
Another someone must have known, as I know now, that the spores in spalted wood can cause allergic reactions or even lung disease, and so they set this wood in a kiln for treatment. After hours of baking, the wood was healed and became suitable for the market. My father ordered a chunk of it. I picture a mailman placing a heavy cardboard box on the front steps of my parents’ home; in it the spalted beech is packed alongside other specimens of wood from which my father will fashion jewelry boxes, letter openers, clocks, and furniture.
I do not understand all the techniques of my father’s craft, but I know he guided the spalted beech around on his lathe, on that impossibly heavy tool we hid in my closet for weeks before Christmas when I was five or so. I know that he handled the bowl for hours with various sharp tools, sandpaper, and rich vegetable oils. My bowl, if I see it a certain way, holds the history of my father. It holds his sawdusty palms, the roughened sides of his knuckles, the discolored dent on his thumbnail. In my imagination, it holds his respect for our beech tree and his journey, one late afternoon, into a remembered forest to search for something of similar beauty, for something I could love as much. It holds his solitary joy of discovery and all the careful hours he gave to shaping, sanding, and finishing. It holds his giving.
There is nothing more I can imagine putting in my bowl.

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