Monday, 31 October 2011

Elephant No. 29: Pumpkin Carving

Today is Hallowe'en, so what better activity for today's elephant than carving a pumpkin?

In the British Isles, there is a long tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns from vegetables such as turnips and rutabagas. The carving of pumpkins originated with North American immigrants from the British Isles, who adopted the pumpkin for Hallowe'en because it was readily available, larger and much easier to carve.

The story of jack-o-lanterns originates in a folktale from the British Isles. In one version, a thief called Jack is being chased by irate villagers. While fleeing, he encounters the devil, who tells Jack that it his time to die. Stalling, Jack manages to trick the devil into turning himself into a coin. The devil jumps into Jack's wallet, only to find himself trapped next to the cross Jack keeps in his pocket. Jack lets the devil go only when the devil agrees never to take Jack's soul.

When Jack dies, being a terrible sinner, he cannot enter heaven. But because the devil had agreed not to take Jack's soul, Jack is also barred from hell. Discovering that Jack has nowhere to go, and no light to guide him, the devil mockingly tosses him an ember from hell that will never go out. Jack hollows out a turnip, puts the ember inside, and begins wandering the earth for all eternity. In some versions of the story, the will o' the wisp or ignis fautuus which can be seen flickering on the marshes is Jack and his lantern.

A traditional Irish turnip halloween lantern from the early 20th century
on display in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

Jack-o-lanterns are also popular in contests. The most recent record for the greatest number of jack-o-lanterns carved and lit in one place was set on October 21, 2006, when 30,128 pumpkins were simultaneously lit on Boston Common. The world's largest carved pumpkin, weighing 666.33 kg (1,469 lbs.) was carved in Pennsylvania on October 31, 2005 by Scott Cully.

I normally like to make a scary jack-o-lantern face for my Hallowe'en pumpkins, but I don't really know how to make an elephant scary face. I'm also not a big fan of adding stick-on pumpkin bits, so I didn't want to add a pumpkin trunk. Instead, I thought I'd try something I've never done before: thinning out some areas of the pumpkin shell and piercing through others.

I started with a pumpkin that already had a sort of wrinkly shell, and drew a vague outline on it in permanent marker. So far, so good.

Then I realized that, if I wasn't going to end up with a gaping maw shaped like an elephant silhouette, I had to think in terms of stencilling. I don't think well in stencil.

Next I carved thin outlines all the way around, leaving tiny bits attached in various places along the line. That's about as stencil-y as I get.

I then decided that, to give the elephant some dimension, I'd shave off the thick outer rind on most of its head and ears. I had no idea how it might turn out. Although I've been carving pumpkins since I was a child—often squabbling with siblings over the honour—shaving things away and stencilling the outline were new to me. It was an interesting technique, and didn't take much longer than sawing straight through, but it was very messy.

I like the final result, but I still think I'll go back to my usual scary jack-o-lantern face next year.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants love all types of squash, but they are particularly fond of pumpkins. Many zoos give elephants pumpkins as a special treat at Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving. Elephants will generally stomp on a monster pumpkin first to break it up, but will eat smaller pumpkins whole. It takes an elephant only about three bites to devour a large pumpkin.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

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