I spent every afternoon with my infant daughter last May – it was both an act of love and a reflection of the childcare juggling act that parents do these days. She wasn’t a great napper, or a great sitter, so we spent most of the time walking. In the big woods I wore her in a front pack; in the orchards and the trail-strewn public woods and on the meadow edges I pushed her in an off-road stroller. We were looking for spring ephemerals and dropped antlers and whatever other cool things we could find.
One of the cool things we found was a pile of box elder rounds that the power company had cut while clearing wood away from a power line. Some of the pieces were just exquisitely flamed – woodworker vernacular for bright red patterns in the heart. The wood looked like it was just going to waste, so I turned the stroller into a forwarder and hauled the butt bolt home, ignoring the perplexed looks on the faces of the drivers in the passing cars who were no doubt wondering about the man carrying a baby while pushing a log in a stroller.
I slabbed it and put aside boards of varying thicknesses for future projects. Then I let the heartwood dry for 10 months and brought it to Joe Comi, a woodturner who lives in Pownal, Vermont, and asked him if he could make a rattle out of it. He said: “can do,” and a few weeks later I had a functional toy and a beautiful family heirloom that an artist/craftsman had made by hand out of wood that had a story.
The Northeast is full of talented craftspeople like Comi, and most are more than happy to take on custom work. I point this out because there’s a disconnect between some people and local artisans. We’ve been conditioned to think that we need to buy things in a store – if there’s not a sign out front and hours posted, then it’s not a business. But in so many cases there’s not a sign out front simply because the craftsperson has no time to be a marketer and salesperson.
I heard about Comi from a woodworker friend, who didn’t turn but knew a guy who did. I’ve had a beautiful custom turning done by Mike Hebb, in central Vermont, as well – I learned about him in the same way, just by asking around.
We so often focus on local wood in this magazine, but because logs and lumber have a direct link to the forest, we tend to get stuck there. But the secondary sector – the businesses big and small who turn the wood into products – are equally crucial to the local wood economy. We’re blessed to have abundant wood and abundant artistic talent in this region. Use it or lose it as our mothers said.