by Learning Lead – Segen Mehreteab

Me and Abbey with a Mcflurry spoon, me with a downward thumb. Photo taken by Segen Mehreteab.

So, Spoons. What are these magical rounded objects we use to funnel foods into our mouth? We move through a Drive-Thru, maybe we pick up an Oreo McFlurry with peanuts (the machine wasn’t broken this time!) and included in it is a bright white plastic spoon-like contraption. The convenience of plastic utensils has made it so that we don’t even consider the lifespan of the spoons, forks, knives we so often use. In fact, consumption habits in general have it so that we don’t need to be thoughtful about where our food, clothes, or items of everyday use come from and the many impacts they have on earth and society along the way. 

So needless to say I felt a special excitement about a project like wooden spoon making- I think because it is something I didn’t realize I even had any agency in. Something that I can see would be an overlooked but important skill in the end of days- how to create and maintain tools out of what we have access to.

How else would we enjoy our scoopable, soupable foods? And more importantly, how would we learn to improvise and take care of what we make, with what nature has all around her? 

Me and Abbey in a forest.Photo taken by Segen Mehreteab.

Abbey and I have moved just outside Kitchener, Ontario on Haudenosaunee, Anishnabee, and Attiwonderok (Neutral) land on Haldimand Treaty land. It feels important to acknowledge the Indigenous land I am on especially in the context of such a project that addresses survival, resistance, innovation and Land stewardship- something inherent in Indigenous communities and culture. I am hoping to use this project as a chance to get closer to the land I am on, the forests I casually explore and come to be more thoughtful in the engagement I have with the world around me. When I think about Danielle Moore’s courageous start in the Cautious Optimist legacy, I appreciate the brave message of resistance- learning to survive what feels impossibly difficult and so much out of our hands. No action or learning feels too small a contribution to the resistance with this mindset, even the smallest teaspoon is a source of infinite power!

I start my learning with an exploration and learning of the trees in the area and the types of wood I will be using for my projects. In carving, the type of wood used is really important to consider. All of the wood I use for my projects will be found on the forest floor as ‘green wood’ also called wet or live wood, meaning it is going to be carved while it still has a majority of its water content in it and isn’t ‘dry’ wood you might find at a home hardware. Wet wood is generally easier to carve than dry wood because the moisture locked within makes it soft, but requires diligence in drying so that the wood doesn’t crack. Something I’ll touch on when I start my first project. 

Wet and dry wood with carved spoon inbetween. Photo by Segen Mehreteab.

Understanding the properties of the wood comes with identifying the type of tree that it is. This comes from many points of identification: understanding if the tree is deciduous (with leaves that fall in the winter) or coniferous (with needles that last through the winter), and the properties of the leaf or needle- if it is singular or compound many leaflets, broad or narrow, and the list goes on. For the purposes of wood working, the most helpful classification is understanding if the tree is a hardwood or softwood. Hardwood trees are generally deciduous trees like oak, maple, birch, whereas softwoods are coniferous trees which have needles, some commonly found examples are cedar, pine and hemlock. 

Trees in the forest. Photos by Segen Mehreteab.

For the carvings I will be doing, I’ll be using hardwoods. In our forest foraging stroll, I found out that the trail I was on was apart of the Trans Canada Trail! It felt like a way to connect to all the Cautious Optimists working away across Canada. Off to the side of the trail were some really beautiful hardwoods, specifically Birch and Maple trees. 

Photo of maple tree drawing.Photo by Segen Mehreteab.

In our stroll I came across a fallen White Birch tree branch and knew it was the one for this project. It wasn’t rotten, was still live, and thick enough to have many options when it came to choosing my spoon’s size. I also felt the most excited by doing my first carving with a Birch tree because of how many fond memories I have of this tree. 

Birch tree drawing. Photo by Segen Mehreteab.

White Birch is the first tree I learned to identify as I became an outdoor woman, with its beautiful feathery paper bark that can be perfect for fire building (but do not take it from the tree itself, that is harmful and can expose the tree to disease), youthful energy (Birches are young trees not usually living past 150 years) and have a tendency to grow fast and often close with other trees. I learned that White Birch trees have a strong significance within Indigenous communities as well and it has been knowledge passed down for generations that the wood from Birch trees is light and strong, making it perfect to use in many ways like canoe building. It feels empowering to be able to learn about the world around me in this way- to give names and understand the story of the trees I pass everyday, and learn their properties so I can make something. 

Abbey in the forest. Photo byPhoto taken by Segen Mehreteab.

So, as I embark on the next part of my journey and start carving, some of the tips I have learned so far: 

  1. Learn about the trees in your area! Start small- find one tree that you really like or see often on your walks, notice it’s attributes- the bark, leaves, fruits etc, then learn more about it online or a book guide. You can begin to extend that knowledge and learn about more trees and their properties
  2. Selecting whether you are working with green wood or dry wood is an important first consideration in your carving project. It depends on what you are looking for, and there are many different sources of wood it just takes some investigating! Forest floors but also, old recycled furniture, firewood, pruning and tree clippings. 
  3. Some tips on finding good green wood on the forest floor are to look for branches that have fallen from hardwoods which include some deciduous trees like Maple, Birch or Oak. Trees that produce fruits or nuts like Cherry or Black Walnut trees, are generally great for carving
  4. Finding a piece of wood that has a natural curve to it, is alive, is not rotten (this wood is soft to the touch), and a size you can work with are great factors to consider