As a 12-year-old tomboy, faced with the prospect of Home Economics classes, I rebelled. “I don’t want to do cooking,” I declared. “I want to do WOODWORK.” The school’s response was decisive: they said, “Don’t be stupid, you’re a GIRL,” and packed me off to flipping cookery lessons. I refused to take part, and my parents must have intervened, because eventually I was allowed to enter the hallowed woodwork shop instead. My (boy) classmates weren’t pleased (tools and work frequently went missing…), but Mr Bates, the master, accepted me without question, and went out of his way to encourage me, and despite being hideously clumsy (I still have the scars), I loved it.
I followed a very long tradition of woodworkers: one of Europe’s oldest pieces of decorated timber, the Maerdy Oak – found on a Welsh hillside in 2013 – is 6,300 years old. Thought to be a post, marking a tribal boundary, it has elaborate carvings along one side, and has clearly been marked by human hand. Two thousand years later years later, from the 5th Dynasty reign of Userkaf in Egypt, a carving named “Sheikh el-Balad” – depicting “Ka-aper, the chief lector priest” – survives as one of the world’s oldest life-size wood statues. Originally formed from a solid piece of sycamore (except for the arms and staff which were typically fixed separately), the Sheikh el-Balad’s features are considered to be particularly realistic. Fast-forwarding to the 19/20th-century, the “ancestor (tadep) statues” of the Mambila tribes of Central and western Africa, are also known for their expressions. These figurines, with their distinctive heart-shaped faces, are said to house the spirits of ancestors, who watch over the living, but have a fickle nature, and must be treated with respect to keep their benevolence.
My 33-years of woodworking seems insignificant by comparison, but my refusal to do home economics has more than paid off: I’ve never carved more than a stick in the woods, but I’ve made everything from spice-racks to a picnic table, even my children’s cot. Mr Bates would be proud! Although I still can’t cook.
Update: check out my Wood board on Pinterest – https://uk.pinterest.com/wildbrookwool/wood/