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Plastic, so much plastic! | No. 1

It is the coolest day we have had for a few months. After a funeral, a couple of weeks of frantically moving about, helping others and helping ourselves, the rain and chill are both welcome.

The small wood burning stove in our cottage in Combe St. Nicholas, UK, with some wood shavings sitting in front of it. This is the first day it has been cool enough to get it started.

This morning I woke before seven. We had run out of coffee, a staple of my morning, so I waited on the sofa while Ella prepared for a call with Japan. The shop in the small village we are inhabiting opened and I walked to retrieve some beans. I bought a plastic bag full of ground beans, labeled “Fair trade” on the front yet oddly delivered in packaging that is toxic to our existence, because in this country it is extraordinarily difficult to find recyclable or compostable packaging. I came back and brewed myself a cup in our cafetière, looked at Etsy hoping for my second official sale, and read about Etsy Ads and the lack of transparency they provide to sellers.

It is odd how small business now regularly relies on big business to get started. As much as I refuse to support Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and others, I still am reminded regularly how reliant we all are for the tools we now use daily. I’ve opted out of Etsy offsite ads, for now, but if I ever happen to make $10,000 in a year I will be forced to advertise on these massive platforms that so blatantly relieve themselves of any ethical responsibility for our personal information and preferences. Abby Glassenburg put it well when she wrote:

It doesn’t feel good to be told you’re involuntarily enrolled in a program with a 12-15% fee attached, and that you’re now an advertiser when you didn’t really choose to be one. I also don’t think this new policy (or any of Etsy’s policies since it went public) jives with the ethos of handmade, or the soul and purpose of why making things with your hands matters to us, to our customers, and to society.

Offsite Ads is about one thing and one thing only: selling more stuff. And Etsy isn’t pretending they want to sell more stuff so that makers can thrive. No. That’s not it. They want to sell more stuff in order to increase shareholder value.

Although she ends up deciding that she supports Etsy’s decision, for now, to force small businesses into supporting large platforms that certainly don’t care about them, she only seems to be doing so because her alternative is to, presumably, not make enough money. Otherwise, one would think she would just quit Etsy in protest. It’s good to remember that the ability to protest is frequently a privilege.

This could easily become a step into a very deep existential question, about the priorities of modern capitalism, but for now I will let it simmer. The rain is calming me, the coffee is giving me a small euphoria, and I need to learn to not always head for the deepest end of the pool-that-is-our continued-and-shared-existence. For now, I eat muesli, and ponder how to grow Coffea arabica (the main species of coffee tree) in southern Ireland.

One of my hand carved spoons resting atop a bowl of muesli. The spoon has a small stripe of spalting on the left side of the bowl.

Something I made recently

I learned recently about the Scottish tradition of whisky quaichs through another Etsy shop, Stoic Birch. A quaich (pronounced ‘kweykh‘) is a drinking vessel with two handles that, in past times, was used as a symbolic gesture of peace and trust. You must always both present and receive the quaich with two hands, so that the person you are sharing the whisky with knows that you are unable to reach for a weapon while they are vulnerable.

A traditional scottish quaich that I carved from a thrown away oak burl. In the wood you can see unbelievable patterns that might remind you of the universe or rivers.

I like the symbolism of this little cup as much as I like the way that it turned out. I began with a piece of oak that I saved from our firewood pile while living in Brittany, France, because it seemed to be part of a burl, a sort of cancerous growth that sometimes happens around insect or fungal infections in a tree. Burls are very sought after by woodworkers. People go so far as to steal them from living trees, or cut the tree down just to get to the burl. So it was funny to find a discarded piece just lying in our wood store. Maybe burl poachers should start asking their neighbors to look through their firewood rather than burning down forests in search of profit.

A beautiful transect of the oak burl I used to make this quaich. The interior wood is deep chocolate brown, and the outside is a creamy white.

You can see the wood that has healed over the wound, probably a fallen branch, in the piece of oak on top. This one is small, and might not be worth much, but sold by a good storyteller to an uneducated buyer, it could carry a hefty price tag.

The burl poachers I linked to above, who were in search of an enormous maple burl and ended up burning 3300 acres of protected, ancient woodland, are a perfect example of how flawed our society still is. They likely didn’t even think about the fact that they could cause irreparable damage to an ancient ecosystem, as well as to human lives, when they thought about burning down a bee hive just so that they could steal a chunk of tree. They were blindly in search of money, profit, success, the American dream, whatever you want to call it, and they were so blinded that it probably cost them a large chunk of their futures due to their felony charges.

But I can’t even blame them. They were just following the directions that they have been given by society, to constantly pursue monetary wealth without considering the ethical implications. No, I can only blame anyone who would agree to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a product that they don’t know the honest source of. That is why I only work with wood that I know the source of. Local, homegrown wood or fallen branches that I find while out walking.

The raw under side of the quaich in the process of being carved. You can see rough faceting from the strokes of my hatchet and some marks from a type of burrowing larvae that may have caused the burl to grow in the first place.

I began shaping the bottom of the quaich using my antique hatchet. You can see rough faceting from the strokes of my hatchet and some marks from a type of burrowing larvae that may have caused the burl to grow in the first place. Wood is an amazing medium to work with because there is always something to be learned about how the wood was grown, or why it looks the way it does.

After getting a rough shape of the bowl, I then flip the wood over and hold it with a vice. Sometimes I will use the corner of the cutting edge of my hatchet to break up the wood inside of the bowl, but a burl is much too unpredictable, so with this piece I had to just use my hook knife and slowly cut away the extremely tough wood.

The quaich still in a very rough state, with the beginnings of a large carved bowl and my hook knife resting on the edge of it.

My wrists were sore for three or four days after finishing this quaich. The cells of the wood of a burl grow exceptionally close together to form a sort of bandage over the wound of the tree. They also exude unique chemicals that can alter the color of the wood as the tree fights its infection. But the hardness of the wood and the beauty of the natural processes make the recovery time worth it.

This little whisky cup is likely my favorite thing I have carved so far, and may continue to be for a long time. Unfortunately, it is not for sale, as I’m selfishly keeping it for myself. But there are lots of other hand carved pieces available in our shop, and once I have a stable workspace again, I will certainly turn to making more of these quaichs.

Nearly finished quaich resting on my workbench. From here it just needed sanding and oiling to be finished.

Small, sustainable business of the week

The small business I would like to highlight this week is about to make us some stamps from sustainably grown and harvested oak and a more-ecologically-friendly-than-normal rubber.

Get Stamped are based in London and they seem to actually care about the impact they have on our environment. Like us they have entirely plastic-free packaging, and they encourage reuse of their plastic ink pads by selling ink refills so that you don’t have to buy a new pad every time yours runs dry. They source their electricity from a provider that only purchases 100% renewable energy and they even work with a charity to plant a tree for every order they receive, in order to attempt to offset the small environmental impact they may have.

I admire their commitment to sustainability and I will certainly be using them for any future stamp needs. The stamps we are buying from them presently will be used for the cards that go into our packages to tell you all of the information about the product you are buying, like what type of wood it was made from, how long it took to make, and where the wood came from.

A hand written card sitting next to the spoon that was our first official online order, telling about the wood type, when it was made, etc.

A piece I love from our shop this week

I had some time this week to make tea using Tea scoop No. 50, which I carved from a cherry branch we found while out walking in Brittany. Ella and I carried it back to the workshop and I immediately started cutting it up into chunks so that I could carve some pieces from it. This is one of my favorites that came out of it. A long, curved tea scoop that can reach deep into a tall bag of tea and pull out either a small amount, or a heaping scoop.

A long cherry tea scoop from our shop, pouring some houjicha tea into our Japanese tea pot.
The same tea scoop, now dropping the tea into the pot.

It is available in our store for $35, and is entirely one-of-a-kind, like all of our other pieces, so get it before someone else does.

Some good news/journalism (because there never seems to be any)

I sometimes find it difficult to keep my head out of the news. I have very strong feelings about ignorance, rooted in my childhood, that constantly push me to know what is going on in the world. But if you look at news media, most of what you will get is sensationalism. News organizations operate, like most businesses today, with a focus on profit and value to shareholders. That creates a need for clicks, for advertising revenue, and for headlines that make you feel something visceral so that you spend more and more time on their webpages and apps. The psychology of digital attention is terrifying when you dig into it.

But because there never seems to be any good news, I’m going to try to always put some here, at the end of our newsletter, to give you a small reprieve from the onslaught of sensational headlines we experience every day.

This piece isn’t news, per se, but it is a nice piece of writing that speaks of both the benefits and dangers of solitude. Written by Tamsin Calidas, she tells a small bit about her journey from living in a pre-gentrified (from her perspective) Notting Hill to moving to a Hebridean island in Scotland, and her emotional journey along the way. It is very much worth a read. I will be purchasing her memoir about her experience, I Am An Island, from my local bookshop.

I ran away to a remote Scottish isle. It was perfect by Tamsin Calidas

Tamsin Calidas standing in a green field with a few sheep around her, ruinous buildings and mountains in the background.

Thank you for reading

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Our paid subscribers have one-week early access to our newest products, get access to occasional sales and discounts that no one else does, and get their choice of one free hand carved item from our store per year (at the supporter level of $100+/year).

I hope you enjoy hearing from us, and don’t forget to talk to your friends about how to live a more sustainable and local life.

—Nick

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