This past weekend a group of folk artisans working in varied media (mainly wood, clay and metal) descended upon the farm of Phil Oddin and Else Bigton, renowned carvers and instructors at North House Folk School. Their farm serves as their home, shop and dressage training center, as well as our weekend getaway. Check out some of their work here.
They have hosted such gatherings in the past with their peers but decided that as they are slowly winding down their livelihood of carving it would be inspirational and informative to include the younger generation of people who are making a go at it. Various people came and went, visiting just for the day or staying for three or four. Together we worked on carving and building projects in Else’s shop, shared meals, and drank coffee and beer (in the morning and evening respectively), and delighted in the amazing collection of carving, pottery, tapestries, wood block prints, furniture, and books that Phil and Else have amassed over the years. We played Musical Kubbestols (traditional Scandinavian chairs made from a log) to find the one that hugged our body just right, and watched the sun set over the freshly fallen snow from the warmth of the kitchen. Conversations revolved around the sustainability of making a living in craft, regional traditions, the nuances of travel in Scandinavia, mentorship and apprenticeship in a modern context, and the demeanor of trolls.
On a more personal level, Phil helped me understand more fully some of the carving history in Garmo, Norway, the small town from which I received my family name and which is only 50 km from where he and Else went to school for woodcarving and furniture-building in Dovre. Else inspired me by drawing out Acanthus motifs that would fit well on my handled wooden bowls and taught me some introductory surface carving methods to help me on my way.
I’ve been gaining a lot of insight and inspiration from the Norwegian online digital museum archives, such as the scalloped carving around these bowls:
inspired by this image in the digital archives:
Even more similar to what I explored with Else is the design on the handle of this spouted bowl that I turned and carved
which was inspired by this bowl in the museum archives:
I drove away from the farm with my hands itching to carve on the bowls I am turning and to experiment with some ale bowl designs inspired by the Tokheim stoneware around their home, and with my mind brimming with questions about life, craft and how it fits into my personal experience.
I’ve recently been spending a lot of time with professional craftspeople and teachers, and as the weather cools and the winter solstice hovers just around the corner, there is much discussion of our winter hibernation.
Now when most people think of hibernation, they think of the winter slumber of bears, or the below-zero body temperatures of the arctic ground squirrel. But when craftspeople speak of hibernation, we’re thinking of that cold, dark time of year, when most people are hunkering down, but when we are active and excited – hard at work next to the vibrant heat coming from the wood stoves in our shops. We’re thinking of the conversations with other craftspeople, the freedom and time to create new things or try out different methods, the excitement and joy of catching up from the last year and hopefully getting ahead for the next.
The life of a craftsperson, especially one just getting started, is a busy and often overwhelming one. We’re still striving to perfect our craft, but are also engaged in so many other interesting endeavors, some of us may be working another job to make ends meet, we’re trying to figure out the markets for what we make, what stores are a good fit for our products and which art/craft festivals are supportive of our work. Sourcing materials may still be a struggle as we try out different suppliers or harvest methods, and packaging and shipping orders may yet be inefficient until we have the appropriate setup. Spring, summer, fall, and early winter are filled with teaching at Folk Schools, selling at festivals, working seasonal jobs, accepting custom orders, and stocking up for the winter holiday rush.
And so after the holidays have passed, when the world is dark and cold, we feel a weight lifted, free to create, pursue our passions and refresh our minds and spirits for the coming year.
For those of you who have visited the Traditional Necessities website or Etsy page before, you may have noticed the recent disappearance of Kerry’s name. Don’t worry – there has been no major life crises or rifts! After a lot of careful consideration, Kerry has decided to follow a slightly different direction when it comes to how to pursue his livelihood. I won’t go into details on that front, but do want to convey my deep gratitude that he was there as a friend and business partner when the dream of Traditional Necessities was first being schemed and realized. It was so much less intimidating to show up to our first few art festivals as a team – having each other’s back, bouncing ideas off each other about website design, business cards, and the overall landscape we wanted the business to paint – what our morals, expectations, examples and goals would be.
I am thankful that Kerry will continue to be influential in my continuing development as a craftsperson and will thus continue to inspire the crafts that results. As time moves forward and I continue to pour my blood, sweat and tears into Traditional Necessities, I hope those that visit my shop will continue to be inspired by the work that I do, and that I will in turn continue to be inspired by others.
I mentioned in an earlier blog that we were planning on tapping birch trees after the maples had finished running for the season. After a month and a half of hauling sap buckets and keeping an outdoor fire going day after day from sunrise to hours after sunset for producing our maple syrup, it was a daunting task to keep it up for what we were referring to as “birch bush”. I’m not sure how it happened, but sometime during our conversations about whether we wanted the birch syrup enough, we decided it would be more fun to try making a birch beer (the alcoholic type, not a soda) instead of more syrup. I think that our motivation behind this was mostly to avoid having to boil our sap all the way down to syrup, which for our birches would have meant boiling about 100 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup! I’ve been an avid fermenter and brewer for about nine years now, so this did not seem to be any extraordinary idea – a little research and we thought this could be a fun experiment!
I did a little online searching on making “beer” from sap (I must disclose now that this is not true beer as it does not include any grain, however the alcohol content ended up around 4% and I did add hops, so I feel that it is more appropriate to describe this beverage as a “beer” rather than a “wine” or “champaign”) and found this wonderful article on the NPR website:
Granted this article was on brewing with maple sap and didn’t go into great depth about hop and yeast varieties or sugar percentages, but it provided an interesting historical context for what we were trying to do and gave me that last needed confidence booster that this could actually work.
So we got down to it, harvesting about 80 gallons of sap and boiling it down to about 4 gallons, which ended up around 10% sugar content. We then filtered it, added a variety of hops that I thought would go well with the birch flavor and boiled it for about an hour more before adding champaign yeast and leaving it in the fermenter for a few weeks.
The birch beer never fermented quite as vigorously as your average beer, taking it slowly and releasing a bubble of air periodically over the next few weeks. As I had no idea how quickly the fermentation would take place, I was sure to use a “satellite fermenter” and hydrometer to test when the sugar content had bottomed out, indicating that all off the usable sugars had been turned into alcohol.
After bottling with a little additional sugar to carbonate the beer, we again had to wait while the yeast continued its job of making what we hoped would be an enjoyable summer beverage.
After about two months of work, we are very pleased with the result! The beer has a very birch-y flavor (which has been described as tasting of savory minerals) but everyone who has tasted it has also commented on its surprising sweetness. It is unexpectedly dark, probably comparable to a brown ale, and thus far quite lightly carbonated.
This is definitely an experiment I will be repeating, again with birch sap and I would love to try maple sap as well next year! We will continue to get feedback and think about how to improve it for next year… and who knows, maybe when you visit the North Shore in a few years you’ll find our birch beer on tap at the local brewery!
We just finished harvesting the last of the wild leeks (ramps) that we’ll be drying and using throughout the next year. This spring harvest season has brought about a lot of questions and confusion about how to live a sustainable life without a consistent home. Kerry and I have both moved around quite a bit over the past few years but are trying our best to settle down and make a stable home. Until that happens, however, we need to continue to spend time finding new harvest sites for each of the wild edibles that we depend upon for our sustenance throughout the year.
We were lucky this spring since we saw a lot of last year’s ostrich fern growth at our sugaring site and knew that it would be a great place to return later in the spring to harvest fiddleheads. From previous experience, we also deduced that the site could be a great spot for harvesting wild leeks, but when the time came, they just didn’t seem to be around. We drove the road slowly, peering into the maple forest looking for that vivid green carpet in early spring that indicates an abundance of wild leeks. We talked continually about how it was the perfect environment for them and that they “should be here,” though we both know that there are countless factors in nature that we will never understand about why a plant is one place and not another.
Finally, we decided to park and walk up a hill a bit, just on a hunch. We wandered through dried raspberry canes, and weaved through the maples, scanning every direction for the elusive wild leeks. “Well, I guess we’ll just circle around and back down to the car,” Kerry finally said, a bit of defeat in his voice. Just then I saw a hint of green a few hundred yards uphill of the direction he had started to wander. “Ok, well how about we head just a bit further that way” I said, and pointed to the hint of green way off in the distance. We exchanged a hopeful glance and continued closer, finding a wild leek here, and another there, until we were finally in the midst of a large patch that extended as far as we could see! That hunch sure paid off this time.
Once home, we enjoyed delicious meals of wild leek pasta, eggs with leeks, venison stews with veggies and wild leeks, and made a delicious leek pesto for eating with crackers. The rest of them, we chopped up and spread out on our window screens (which haven’t yet replaced winter’s storm windows), and let them dry before storing in plastic buckets for use throughout the rest of the year.
The height of the summer season is quickly approaching - the days are growing long, there is only one small patch of snow left in a shady spot in our yard, and the spring leeks and fiddle heads are peeking through the leaves. I'm sure it will prove to be a busy one as I spend much of it with the Forest Service - paddling through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, maintaining campsites and portages, and conversing with other human visitors to this vast and beautiful area.
I'm also looking forward to continuing to learn about traditional craft and to sell the useful items that we make. As of now, we're scheduled to be at the following festivals, and hope to add more later in the summer, so be sure to check back often!
And we're also scheduled to teach classes at a few Folk Schools throughout the season.
I hope you'll stop by one of the festivals or sign up for a class!
As I’ve been immersing myself in the world of “Northern Craft” over the past year or so, I’ve had the amazing experience of learning about and participating in black ash basketry. The exact origin of this craft is unknown, but black ash baskets have played an important role in both native and Euro-American cultures of this area for hundreds of years or more.
My first experience with black ash came during the winter of 2014-2015, when I started learning to weave with some material that Kerry had pounded the previous summer. I learned how to prepare the material by cutting it to width, and also that by peeling one ring into two layers, I could not only double the amount of material for weaving, but that through this process, the smooth, shiny inner surface of the black ash could be exposed for a more “polished” look. I wove a few small and simple baskets, learning about the importance of even width weavers, strong uprights, basket proportions, and wished I had a few extra arms.
After moving to Minnesota and meeting numerous people who were interested in black ash basketry, but had little or no experience, Kerry and I decided to host a black ash weekend in which we could all learn about and experience the process together. It was a wonderful affair with nine people participating in some way or another. We pounded a log, removing ring by ring to produce a bathtub full of splint, wove baskets, ate delicious food, played music, relaxed in the sauna, and had general all-purpose fun.
We were out at our sugaring site on county land near out home today, when I noticed some movement from the corner of my eye. Since I haven’t spent much time in the “North Woods” for quite some time, I was startled to see a small bird with a beak almost as long as its body startle from the leaves! I had no idea what this little bird was, so I called out to Kerry who was emptying buckets a few hundred yards from where I was. I thought for sure that the bird would fly off at the sound of my voice, but it just stood there, stock still, while Kerry slowly and quietly made his way over to check it out. I quickly learned that this little bird was a Woodcock, and that they are considered a game bird in the area and usually flush when they detect a human nearby. We were able to watch this one up close for a few minutes and managed to snap a picture before made its way further into the forest.
We were thinking that perhaps this was a female that is nesting or preparing to nest and that is why she was so slow to flush, but any insight would be greatly appreciated!
Sugaring season is just about wrapping up (for maples at least – birch is next!) and I finally have a moment to sit down and reflect upon the busy season. We were planning on sugaring with a group of friends, all of whom decided fairly late in the game that they had other priorities. I’m not trying to dish out any blame or anything—just setting the stage. We had been fairly dependent on their land, firewood supply, equipment, etc., to make this season a successful one, and on top of finding out last minute that we needed to go it on our own, the trees decided to start running a few weeks earlier than normal.
We were able to scramble, borrowing some taps and buckets from a friend, carving the rest of the taps out of local hazel wood, borrowing more buckets from another friend, getting free 55 gallon steel drums from a local food distributer to use for storage and sap cooking, and at the very last minute we were able to get a permit to tap on county land a few miles from our house. We were tapping literally a half hour after the permit was issued and the trees started dripping as soon as the bit got through the bark!
Our goal for the year is to not have to buy any commercially produced sugar. For every gallon of maple syrup produced, we had to harvest about 40 gallons of sap, all carried or hauled on a sled about a quarter mile out from our site then brought back to the house to boil off gallons and gallons of water. It is estimated that it takes about a cord of wood to produce 10 gallons of syrup—all of which we had to cut and prep in addition to the 5 cords we needed to heat our house for the winter. As the season is winding down, we’re figuring that we’ll harvest and make about 12-13 gallons of maple syrup total. It seems like we’ve put in a lot of work, but figuring that the local market demands about $65 per gallon, we’ve made over $800 in maple syrup and should have plenty of sugar to use for the year!
In addition to making syrup, it is also possible to make granulated sugar from the maple sap. We’re planning on doing that once I have a sugaring trough carved (which I started last week). I’ll post about that when the time comes!
Well it’s been quite a while since I last posted! The winter season proved to be an exciting start to the business of brooms, bowls and spoons – we attended a few art fairs, now have our wares in multiple stores, and the online sales have been steady. After much thought, I decided to move away from Colorado, where the business originally started, and to head to the land of hardwoods and water. I’ve been living in the southwest for over ten years now and have been struggling to find my place in the world of traditional craft. The oaks grow in miniature, the aspen is incredibly soft, the junipers are twisty and difficult to work with, and pine, fir and spruce just can’t provide what I want. Though I have been extremely grateful for the apple and apricot trees on my land, and they have generously provided much spoon wood and many broom handles, it was time to move to where black cherry, sugar maple, beech and birch grow in abundance. Where the rivers flow and the lakes are not formed by dams, where gardens are watered by rain and not irrigated from reservoirs, and where the traditional crafts so common to my heritage have been practiced for generations. I’ve been busily working in the shop where I’ve been tying brooms and making bowls and spoons from cherry, birch, maple and beech. This summer should prove to be exciting and interesting and I’m looking forward to spending more time creating beautiful and useful items and less time hunting down suitable wood!
Be sure to check out our booth at the following art fairs this summer: