Saturday, 12 May 2012

Elephant No. 223: Arborglyph

This idea comes courtesy of my friend Sally, who lives on a beautiful country estate with many trees. I have very few trees in my urban yard, but there are enough that I didn't mind cutting a small elephant design into one or two of them.

Arborglyphs—literally "tree writing"—involve the marking of a tree by carving a design into its bark. Common examples are the initials and hearts incised by lovers, markings to blaze a trail, and symbols indicating the site of buried possessions.

During the 1830s, many Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homes in the United States. Believing that they would someday return, families buried their treasures, and carved directions to these caches on beech trees and rocks. The symbols were unique to each family, and were coded so that no one but a family member could decipher them. In a similar vein, aware that their traditional way of life was about to be disrupted forever, the Cherokee also recorded details of their lives in arborglyphs.

Arborglyphs were also widely produced by young Basque and Irish men who came to North America in the early twentieth century. Many worked as shepherds in remote areas and, to while away the time, carved names, faces, poems and dates into aspen trees, using pocketknives or iron nails. Because aspen trees—the preferred carving surface—only live 80 or 90 years, many of these carvings have since disappeared, although many of the examples in Oregon and Nevada have been photographed, and researchers are racing to locate and record as many more as possible.

Basque arborglyph in Nevada.

Arborglyphs can also be very simple markings such as arrows or other types of "blaze", used to indicate a pathway, point to a source of water, or even warn of dangers on the trail ahead.

I actually had no idea there was such a pretty name for carving designs into a tree. I also didn't realize there was such an illustrious history to the activity.

I must admit that today's activity makes me feel a bit guilty. If it weren't for the fact that the trees I chose are likely going to have to be cut down in a few weeks, I might not have done it.

I chose two trees. The first is known around here as a Manitoba maple (Acer negundo), or American maple in the rest of the world. It doesn't have as smooth a carving surface as an aspen, but aspens—or poplars, as they are more commonly known here—have become relatively rare in recent years, felled by some kind of blight a few years ago. For my second tree, I chose a sugar maple (Acer saccharinum).

I've actually never carved or inscribed anything into a tree before. I only tried whittling for the first time a couple of months ago as well, so I can't say that I'm all that adept at anything to do with wood and carving.

For a knife, I decided to use my Swiss Army knife—or maybe it's a Swiss Army knife knock-off. I figured this would make my activity at least somewhat similar to the way arborglyphs are usually made.

There's not really much I can say about technique for this type of thing. My method involved slicing away thin layers to start, widening the area as I went. For sharper lines, I scribed an outline, then dug in along it and scraped towards the centre of the image. I also sometimes used a scraping motion to even things out.

I liked the wood of the sugar maple better than the wood of the Manitoba maple for a number of reasons. For one thing, I dislike the smell of the Manitoba maple when you cut into it. For another, the colour of the sugar maple is nicer when you remove the bark. And last, but not least, the harder wood of the sugar maple makes it more interesting to carve—and, strangely enough, not as easy to goof up as the Manitoba maple.

Because that's about all I can tell you, here are my three attempts, in the order in which I carved them.

Crowned Elephant in Sugar Maple

Elephant Head in Manitoba Maple

 Baby Elephant in Sugar Maple

Outside of the fact that I felt a bit guilty about gouging into the trees, I didn't mind this activity at all. It only took me about 45 minutes to do all three, and I didn't find it physically difficult.

On the other hand, it's not necessarily simple to make a perfect image when you're slicing into only the surface layers with a penknife. The grain and bark fight back a bit, and in the final elephant, you can see by the different colours of the head and body that I was also dealing with a large, hard knot in the wood.

Although I liked this well enough to try it again sometime, I did feel bad about carving into living trees. So don't look for a notched trail of elephants through your neighbourhood forest anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day

Just like human toddlers, elephant toddlers are often easily amused by the simplest of toys. Olmeg, a graduate of the elephant orphanage run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, was particularly fond of a large log.

Nicknamed "Olmeg's Rubber Duck" by staff of the Trust, the log was usually left near Olmeg's favourite waterhole. Olmeg would heave it into the water, wade in after it, and happily roll the log about. After a bit, he would heave the log back out of the water, toss it about on land, then roll it into the water again.

And also just like some human toddlers, Olmeg did not like to share. If any other elephant dared to approach the log without Olmeg's permission, he would raise his ears from the sidelines and glare. Once Olmeg was ready to play with the log, others could join in. No one, however, was to touch the Rubber Duck until Olmeg agreed.

African elephant, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Photo: Carole-Anne

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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