Each year as I am carving, small tidbits pop into my mind daily and these are the threads I follow to eventually create a small story around each character. I like to think I am giving it legs or wings to continue its journey once I release it into the wild and let it go home with someone at a show.
My stories are more of a basis for their existence rather than a complete tale because I want their stories to continue to grow. There has to be enough to spark a connection with someone, but not so much that it will exclude new possibilities.
My theme this year hangs loosely around the Rudyard Kipling poem, “We and They” so many of the characters may have an interest in promoting acceptance, kindness, understanding, reaching out, and positive hopes for future endeavors. That may seem a bit naive in these tumultuous times, but would it really be so bad if we could all make a little of that happen? Each character this year will have a copy of this poem somewhere on their “person” to remind us that we come in all shapes and sizes, have different perspectives, and are all very, very interesting, and valuable pieces of the bigger picture!
Griffin Adams is a regal eagle. His first name is a symbol for a powerful creature who is generally drawn to be facing down a formidable foe. The eagle, as you know, was chosen as our national bird and one of those people promoting the eagle over other birds was John Adams so I gave him this as a last name. The eagle is on our Congressional seal and I found him some antique buttons for his vest to highlight this honor. His epaulets give him a commanding status, but he wears our colors to indicate he is a symbol for us all. He is carrying a flag of the original 13 colonies to take us back to some basic principles of the Revolutionary War when all the people came together to fight for our independence. I kept his expression to be slightly disapproving, stern, contemplative, and perhaps a little disappointed. I have wondered the past few years if the eagle isn’t hoping we, as a nation, can do a bit better than pitting people against one another and condemning or excluding anyone who isn’t in our own little echo chamber. He was chosen, after all, to represent ALL the people, not just the ones who think alike.
Ben “Bark Stripper” Alces is a woodsman. The word “Alces” is part of the scientific classification for a moose and they have been known to strip some bark now and then. He is carrying a pine needle basket which he presumably made from needles he gathered himself perhaps as he nested on a bed of them to catch a few winks. The logs in his basket came from the same tree his head was carved from. His antlers are carved from reclaimed barn wood. He is wearing a collection of old woolens that would be quite at home on any brisk fall day. Wool repels a bit of moisture and flame, too, which is very handy for a woods dweller who enjoys his habitat rain or shine. He practices good forest management in an effort to thwart forest fires and keep the forests open for travelers to safely enjoy. He’s the strong, silent type, but don’t cross him. You don’t want to be on the bad side of a moose on a good day, but a moose with an axe to grind is for everyone to avoid!
Toby Smalls, the hippo, has a bit of a duel story going on. He is a finely dressed fellow with a bit of fashion flair. He is carrying ladders because he is climbing both the social and the career ladders. But the real reason he even happened is because of an electrical problem I had in my attic. My bathroom needed an exhaust fan installed and someone was going to need to wedge themselves in a very tight spot to do it so when I called the electrical company I told them, “Don’t send your biggest guy. In fact, if you have anyone hobbit-sized, they will be most comfortable”. So, the day of the installation arrives, and who knocks on my door, but a “Toby” who is massively tall and wide with ham-sized fists. I looked at him and said, “What in the world did you do to make them hate you?” He replied, “I’m not their biggest guy!” Toby Smalls’ ladders, therefore, are incongruously undersized to match the situation the poor electrician was in. The job was finished in good humor and time, so I created Toby Smalls to have a cheerful demeanor.
John “Jackalope” Lepus I resisted the urge to create a legendary jackalope out of my jackrabbit. If you are not from the West and don’t know the story, it is rumored that a hare-like creature with antelope horns roams the West and there are plenty of locals still willing to try to convince the gullible among us. Some of the old postcards might have convinced one or two! If you have seen jackrabbits in the wild and if you have had the pleasure of seeing these big hares run, they do have a gait and speed that makes you think of the Pronghorn Antelope. Lepus is part of the scientific name for a hare. I named him John because I have always found it amusing that Jack is a derivative nickname for John. This dates back to the Middle Ages and is probably the result of translations and dialects that morphed and stuck. John Lepus is a fine gentleman and steward of the land. He travels a good bit and carries with him seeds to plant both medicinal and edible herbs. He is no snake oil salesman, though! He just wants everyone to plant natives and learn to make them grow!
Daniel J. Starr is a prairie dog. Starr was my dad’s middle name but it also fits nicely with the patriotic image of my little scout. This little guy reminds me a bit of Daniel Boone. He carries a powderhorn with a carved prairie dog head on the lid and he has a pair of the most extraordinary gloves I think I have ever seen in this size so I secured them visibly with a belt. As a scout, he needed a cup to cook his food and drink from along his route and I added a compass to his backpack so he doesn’t lose his way. I elevated him to this status partly because prairie dogs really do spend a bit of time scouting, but also because in the wild there is really nothing out there that doesn’t eat them. It is indeed a “dog eat dog” world for them because the males will eat a competitor’s babies in order to have their own! In one article, the author referred to prairie dogs as the “chicken nuggets of the prairie” and it seemed to be true even in Native American lore where most of the references to them have to do with “stew”! I have a fond spot for the prairie dog and any time I pass the Greycliff Prairie Dog Town between Big Timber and Reed Point right off I-90 in Montana I stop to watch and listen. (Too few people do this and it is a gorgeous spot to get the wiggles out between Billings and Bozeman) They are very social with well-defined communities. Incidentally, they are not the same animal as either a gopher or a groundhog but more than a few people who don’t know them have used the names interchangeably.
Osage Napi I grew up in Montana and have always been a great admirer of Native American languages even though I don’t speak any. So when I have an opportunity to look for Native American names, I do. “Napi” is a Blackfoot word that means “old man” but often refers to the legend about a well-intentioned demi-god who shapes the world the Blackfoot tribe lives in. (sometimes he is a trickster or trouble-maker) There are many versions of these legends but they are often positive and suggesting that he imparts wisdom or knowledge. This paint horse reminds me a lot of one I used to have the opportunity to ride. He was a quietly confident, steady guy and I feel like he might have “tooted his own horn” if he was able, but he would have done it well. As part of the musical entourage of a military troupe he wears his colors proudly and displays his heritage in the deerskin bag he hangs his cup from. While he might not need one, I slipped him a compass to guide him should he ever become separated from his herd.
Omaha Stonecoat is a mule and part of an early drum core. If you are unfamiliar with mules, they are a cross between a donkey and a horse. Basically, an animal of mixed heritage and not unlike an awful lot of Americans which is why I gave him a name coming from the middle of America. It is also a Native American name. He got his last name because of his coloring but I also wanted to imply that he has a tough hide. It took some strength of character to go out onto a battlefield armed with nothing but your drumsticks! His drum is loosely based on a surviving example of a Revolutionary War drum in the Museum of the American Revolution. He, too, has a compass in his bag along with his camping cup. A compass keeps you on the right path or helps you find your way. It is good to remember both where you came from and where you are going!
Winnet “Buttermilk” Taurus has to be the sweetest Jersey cow I have ever seen. Jerseys produce milk with a high butterfat percentage which is where she got her nickname. Also because of that, she wanders around with a butter press to leave her own unique stamp on what she produces. Each evening she returns to the barn with her herd. Having spent a bit of time in barns, myself, I have a few memories of “barn spiders” not unlike Charlotte in “Charlotte’s Web” which is why the brooch at her neckline is of a big-bodied, short-legged spider. Her layers of clothing colors are in keeping with the buttery colors of a Jersey cow. She is a sweet, gentle girl willing to befriend any and all.
Ted “Rusty” Sawyer is a pileated woodpecker. He came along at a good time, and not entirely by accident. This year we are having all our old wooden windows replaced (another story in itself) because we have had a pileated woodpecker for several years who has nearly made his way inside through several different windows! One more summer of his hammering and he might be living with us! The word “sawyer” implies a lot about his woodworking profession so I decided to make him a saw. Several years ago I found the small sawhorse in an antique shop and it all tumbled together to create his story. He is a focused and determined little fellow and I made his coat red and green because our windows will be installed before the holiday season, much to his disappointment, I am sure!
Finn Mergus is a hooded merganser. Mergus is part of the scientific classification for this type of duck. Finn Mergus is a good example of an animal I carved because I saw it in the wood and not because I had a lot of interaction with them. Not unlike my mosquito and my bee from a few years ago, or my Hammerkopf bird, or my grasshopper, I kind of groaned inwardly when I found this piece of wood. I couldn’t see this bird and just leave him laying on the ground. What I see is what I carve and once I see it, I generally can’t unsee it. Perhaps his message is that nothing is just black and white. (male mergansers have a striking black and white head and have brown bellies which is why his vest has shades of brown over his black and white shirt) He is an earnest little fisherman, diving deep into his profession. I spent some years fishing. I don’t think I could ever succeed because the only way I am going to be quiet is to bring a book which is why Finn is carrying with him a copy of “The Ancient Mariner” to help him pass the time!
Carolina Olea is a dove. Sometimes the mourning dove is called a Carolina dove. My menagerie seems to have a little bit of “war and peace” this year and it is the dove who brings peace, hope, and calm. There is a lot of symbolism with doves but the general message I wanted her to have is one of peace and kindness which is why she has a wreath made from fresh olive branches from California. (Olea is a word for oil) Her silk taffeta outfit is among the oldest fabrics I have ever had my hands on. I used this also as a symbol of the fragile nature of peace and calm. We have to treat it with kid gloves to keep it intact! She has looked sweetly on every member of the menagerie–even the ones who might like to eat her! Maybe we could all take a page from her book!
Pearl and Violet Hiskey are rats who have descended from a long line of Hiskey rats and mice I have created over the decades. Their heritage began long, long ago in my mom’s log house on a winter night while watching a movie. My mom kept seeing something running across her sofa and we assured her that she was seeing things. But at the end of the night, when she got up to fluff the sofa pillows before bed, she looked behind a throw pillow and found a large pile of pistachios left there, most likely, by a Christmas mouse! When I returned home, I carved my mom a Christmas mouse and when it came time to name him, my husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a glass of whiskey. The bottle was turned so that all I could see was “hiskey” and the Hiskey family name was born! Baby Violet is carved from yew wood which can have purplish veins in the grain (even if hers did not) and is riding in a fur-lined sleigh made from an old pewter scoop pulled by her mom, Pearl, carved mostly from maple (her ears are pine). I don’t include pistachios with my Hiskeys because of the chance it might actually attract a real one.