Carving My Wand

Earlier this year I designed a new altar for my rituals. Not intentionally, I was just trying to sort out what candle to use given the cost of quarter-used beeswax tea-lights! (see Candles For Rituals, February) Trying to picture how many candles (and what shape they should be) gave me a whole new altar design, which after much thought I decided I liked. Two candles at the back, a pewter goblet on the left, and Apple wand on the right, and space for the specific ritual or flowers in the front. The only thing was at that time I did not have a wand, nor much of a connection to Apple!

Following the advice from my spirit guides, I cut a small piece from one of my apple trees and whittled it into a rounded piece I could carry in a pocket. The act of whittling had me falling in love with the tree, and gradually over a few months, I have become more Apple myself. I see it as the female aspect of Mother: nurturing, loving unconditionally, wise without needing to say anything in the way of the perfect matriarch, using music more than words in order to reach the heart before the head. The emotional and musical aspects also put it in harmony with the elemental kingdom. With its blossom it brings beauty, while the fruit is abundant and generous. I find myself becoming aware of the energy signature of Apple, for example when out walking. If there is some apple in the hedgerow next to me it is like receiving a tap on the shoulder, so I turn around to look and sure enough, there is an apple tree I hadn’t noticed before. It just wants to say hello.

I was also given the design of my wand in meditation. It was to have an apple on the end, with that most knowledgeable of Earth creatures spiraling around the handle, the Snake. The ancient tale needed reclaiming apparently! As it happens I love snakes, and soon after I began carving we had some visits to our garden by a grass snake. I watched it diving and twisting in our pond as it gobbled up all the tadpoles it could find. (Sad, but I think I prefer that to the pigeons eating them!) Snakes to me are creatures of the sun; we only see them this far north when we have a spell of really warm weather. They are totally in tune with the Earth, the seasons, the weather, and can sense their environment through touch and smell. As their eyes glaze over they appear to enter a trance-like or shamanic state, and by shedding their skins each year (females, twice a year for males) they demonstrate how they can confidently transform themselves and be born anew. Hence snakes have become a symbol of healing ever since Asclepius.

After sketching out the picture of my wand, I went in search of some Apple wood. I found four pieces in my stock of garden tree-prunings, two were too narrow once the bark was removed although a good length, one was chunky and twisted with a fork on one end, and the final one was medium width, perfectly straight and nearly as tall as my shoulder. It seemed a pity to cut it.

The next thing I did was to use the finished wand – in its astral form. Some weather work was required, and Dragon and my new wand guided me on how to use a wand to bring a wind to shift the persistent fog. (See Wands and Weather, May) Afterwards I held each piece of wood in my hand, and then knew exactly which wood my wand was made from! A week or two later I had another occasion to use it, and tried to do this by memory; then I realised I was holding it too tight and the wand was uncomfortable. It seemed to me a very exacting wand! I know some people say to make sure you mark which way the wood was growing – again, holding this wand it was very clear which way the energy flowed through it, in a spiraling, twisting manner unlike my long straight piece of apple which had energy shooting through so fast that the apple scarcely had time to touch it and give it character.

The branch which had the wand inside it.


It is the first time I have ever done a woodcarving knowing that the wand is already made, and I simply needed to work towards that completed item. At the same time, that also made it much harder for me to work, since I couldn’t simply measure it, mark the wood, and use a saw to remove excess wood quickly. Instead I found myself turning the wood endlessly to find which way felt right in my hand, how long it was, where the alignment was in a twisted, off-centre core, and constantly removing it from the clamp to feel rather than working by sight.

It wasn’t actually a great piece of wood. There were dead bits even inside, splits, and a lot of knots. A perfect finish was never likely – which was probably as well with my lack of carving experience, thus avoiding any guilt. I am also allergic to sawdust so I decided a tooled finish was quite acceptable, with the use of a spokeshave and scraper to smooth off the shaft of the wand. (I know people with tools I can borrow, I just couldn’t let them help!) It definitely has character.

Once I had the stick round, and about the right size in my hand, I was able to draw on the design – starting by drawing around my fingers. It wasn’t an easy thing to hold, so finding ways to clamp it got more tricky as more work was done. I also couldn’t clamp it and work on one section, because it needed continual rebalancing in the feel across the whole wand. For most of the detailed work, I hand held it with the aid of a piece of rubber on my bench, and a no-cut glove. But the wand generally told me how to do things, which tool to use, and what shape to make it. Even the apple, which I thought was going to be a full-sized crab apple such as we have growing in our garden, the wand stopped me and pointed out that the apples that came from the same tree as the wood were completely different to all the others in my garden, being wide at the top and tapering down to a narrow base. I wished I had realised this earlier, but that is what I did. I also thought I was carving an adder, until a second visit from a grass snake to our garden made me realise that was wrong. Luckily it wasn’t too late to make the correction needed – which was more mental connection than physical carving.

I continued using the wand in my rituals as I carved it, so each time it was a little different. As soon as I started carving the snake I had a demand to call on Snake in the South in my circle casting. It made sense and was a good circle, so that is what I have done ever since.

Finally I had to decide when to stop carving and declare it ‘done’. I realised it was not intended to be a carving of a snake, but the spiritual essence of the snake. It is not a perfect woodcarving, it is a perfect wand. Here it is after oiling but still unfinished – I never photograph finished ritual items. Hopefully I will write about the final stage of its making in a future post.

Mostly finished Apple Wand

The Joy of Coat Hooks

I have waited a very long time to have coat hooks in our house. There were some when we moved in, but as soon as building work started they had to be removed. That was over 15 years ago. Fifteen years with nowhere to hang a coat!

Okay that isn’t strictly true. I hang my coat from one of two door handles downstairs, and leave fleece jackets in a pile. Since we bought the pushchair it has been an excellent place to drape outer layers – and that is all it has done for the past six months, M considering herself too tall or too grown up to ride in it. But certainly it has proved less than ideal when we have visitors!

Eventually I identified a place where we could put some coat hooks, behind the door in the front room. I bought hooks – I would have bought them ready mounted but that was voted down, given we usually have plenty of odd bits of timber. The timber we had proved either unsuitable or too small, and the coat hooks went into storage for several months.

Then at a local Woodland Festival in September, we managed at last to buy a piece of wood we both liked to mount the coat hooks on. That timber was then allowed to acclimatise to the house for a month before being planed and scraped and sealed.

Finally, last weekend the coat hooks were put on the wall. A simple thing, giving much pleasure. Even better, what had been behind the door for the past 15 years was all my glass – each piece wrapped in newspaper and stacked against the wall with a piece of wood across the front to protect them from the door, and sufficiently unattractive and inaccessible that M managed not to investigate – but it took me longer to find the right colours of glass than to cut it when making last week’s project! So the glass had to move for the coat hooks, and to my great delight is now stored in such a way that it can be accessed much more easily for future projects. So by solving one problem, another has also found a satisfying solution.

This story may on the surface seem to have little to do with Paganism, or with crafting, since I only did the design work and not the making. However, the wood we eventually found is Elm. This is a timber which, thanks to Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s, filled my childhood home – our dining table was a huge slab of Elm, we had bookcases of Elm, a bed carved from Elm, a meat carving board … it was part of the background to my life. This rack of coat hooks is now the first thing to be made of Elm in my own home, and moreover is used every single day. So I have a sense of completeness, of my relationship with trees forming a protective circle around me, and continuing to develop that relationship in a loving and harmonious way.

Coat hooks mounted on Elm

Coat hooks mounted on Elm

Holly Flowers

In a satisfying fusion of two apparently unrelated events, to me anyway, the timing was perfect this week to combine a new interest in whittling with the planned removal of a holly tree.

Whittling came about because I realised it would be a way of making fun, quick things in wood that would require less setting up and clearing away time than actual carving. I love carving when I have had an opportunity to do some, but setting up an old workmate table which isn’t too secure and can only hold small items, and which needs folding up and sweeping at the end of each short session – does not make for an easy time given all the other things I want to do and also don’t have much time for. And trying to use a mallet would be too noisy when M is supposed to be asleep! So being inspired by the fact that the mushrooms I carved last autumn were originally whittler’s projects, I thought I would look into it.

Serendipitously I already had a knife – a small Swiss Army one I was given over thirty years ago. Not possibly the ideal gift for a child, but it has traveled far and wide with me thanks to the usefulness of the scissors (with replaced spring), tweezers, and miniature screwdriver I added inside the corkscrew when I replaced the scissor spring – which is the perfect size for glasses screws that haven’t been glued in place. I never did find much use for the knife blade so I was really pleased to realise with a bit of reshaping and sharpening it could be capable of something interesting, meaning I now had a use for half of the eight functions on the knife. (Corkscrew, bottle opener and large screwdriver should be useful… just not my first choice! But plastic toothpick? How is this an essential tool?)

The holly tree is one I have always been a bit sad about. It was here when we moved in – a perfect conical shape growing up against the boundary wall, but with its top damaged in a fire for getting rid of the hawthorn clippings when the then overgrown hedge was rather brutally chopped in order to put the house up for sale. The holly sprouted twin leaders, so never had a chance of regaining its former shape. In recent years it has grown fairly huge, blended into the hedge on one side, and then layered itself on the other to produce a whole thicket of holly on a mission to takeover the corner of the garden – including attacking my small Rowan tree and a Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ both of which I am rather fond of. I have other hollies in the hedge, so I thought it would be better to remove this one before it knocked the end wall down or grew into the electric wires, and then plant something else that was less prickly. As I pruned and shredded, I realised some branches as well as the trunk, now four inches or so in diameter, would be suitable for carving. Only at the last moment did I realise the smaller branches could also be useful for whittling.

Holly flowers in a vase.

Holly flowers in a vase.

The five flowers were all whittled from one branch, around quarter inch across. I left the bark in place to form ‘sepals’ around the ‘petals’, and was intrigued by the way it curled inwards while the ‘petals’ curled outwards. I could have left the stems green, but they felt rather fat and also the bark started going wrinkly before I had finished the last one, so I thinned them to a size that would fit in the vase. Not perfect, too many bits broke off when my cutting was too deep or too shallow, and my knife could do with more sharpening, but they were great fun to do. And I’m sure I will have some more bits to practice on before too long! Bedsides a store of larger timber now seasoning to carve at some future point.

Making Mushrooms

It has been half term here this week, so all normal activities were suspended. Instead we have been getting seasonally creative with as many craft activities as I could come up with… This is the first wood carving I have done since M was born. I have had the wood for some years, so it was well seasoned and definitely needed a mallet to carve! I did the two small ones first to see if I could make something I was happy with; both were carved from a hazel branch about 1.5” diameter. The larger mushroom was from Silver Birch, about 4” across or so. This was rather softer, and when cutting with the grain to form the stalk, it split rather satisfyingly. It is just tool finished, using a skew chisel. I would probably make the stalks thinner next time…

Hazel and Silver Birch Mushrooms

Hazel and Silver Birch Mushrooms

Here they are forming part of my Samhain display.

Samhain

There are just a few days in the calendar where the date dictates the activity. October 31st is one of these for me – I will be carving a pumpkin.

Originally turnips or mangelwurzels were carved rather than pumpkins, in a British tradition going back at least three hundred years, but thousands of years worldwide. There are a variety of stories put forward for carving the turnip on All Hallows Eve, known as Samhain in parts of Scotland, or Punkie Night in the West Country, but the most common was that it was carried by Catholics while begging for Soul Cakes. Then after the potato famine took many of the turnip carvers to America, they discovered the pumpkin as the ideal fruit for carving lanterns. Turnip lanterns were also used by pranksters, to carve a grotesque face and scare people on the night when ghosts and other spirits were said to be abroad. This may be more of an English than Irish custom, where it was sometimes known as Hoberdy’s Lantern. Others make a connection with will o’ the wisp, the strange flames sometimes seen in peat bogs.

I started carving pumpkins as soon as I was old enough to hold a knife. I don’t know how old I was for the first, but my first year in Primary School aged five someone brought in a carved turnip for Halloween, and I remember thinking how hard work it looked for a pathetically small result. Why didn’t they use a pumpkin like normal people? So I must have been pretty familiar with carved pumpkins! I stopped briefly as a student, and then took myself by surprise the next year by coming home with a pumpkin. I had missed the tradition, and wanted to carve one. Just a simple face…

Not long after, on a visit to America, I found a book with pumpkin carving pictures – with shadow images for the reverse side. I was inspired. Some carving tools were fashioned out of broken hacksaw blades, duck taped between lolly sticks, and I was away. They must be over fifteen years old now, but still doing good service.

I have probably now carved around thirty-five lanterns. The last few years have seen me move away from faces or clichéd scary images however. Samhain is generally celebrated as the Pagan New Year, with various rituals and traditions associated with it. Although it is known to some as the Day of the Dead it has positive connotations – such as remembering our ancestors and setting a place for them at the table. Not just ghosts to be scared of! So I now choose to carve images that mean something to me, from the year that is ending, to that which is coming. What has been and what I am grateful for, usually as the main image, and what I hope for over the coming year as a shadow, unformed image on the back.

A theme for me this year has been to celebrate trees, and publishing the first few tree stories I have written online. So I decided to carve a series of leaves around the pumpkin. Those for which I have completed stories at the front, those yet to be written in shadow, with various stages of transition in between. Having a small pumpkin meant I couldn’t fit all twenty, so I dowsed to find out which ones I should include for the year to come. I have made a note and will have to see if they are the important stories of the next year, or if I was completely wrong on some! But carving each leaf has brought me closer to them by making a connection with the trees, so it might prove to be self-fulfilling. Apologies for not taking a photo; none of my recent designs have been photographed, due in part to large holes in the wrong places showing the candle through, which upsets the light balance. Also pumpkin carving is one situation where you don’t get two goes at it – so it is the intention behind the design that counts more than the reality sometimes.

After our Samhain dinner in recent years I have used the pumpkin as a cauldron in a ritual to help me clear away what I do not wish to bring forward into the new year, ceremoniously burning in its flame what was holding me back in my life. Then I have asked mother Earth to transform the energies into something positive through the action of my compost heap. (Apart from the thinnings and trimmings, which get eaten for dinner of course!) But this year that seemed a negative approach, when I would rather focus on what I do want. So I am allowing the flame to bring transformation, taking in the warmth and light to see me through the dark evenings of autumn as I dream new dreams.