The Bird Carver’s Daughter (Part 1: The Early Years)

Guest post by Kari Jo Spear, Photographer, Novelist, and Daughter of Bob Spear

When I was a little kid, I had no idea my father would one day have his own museum. I didn’t even know he carved birds. I just knew that he spent a lot of time down in his den, sitting in an old, brown, leather rocking chair with wide wooden arms, making a huge pile of shavings on the floor in front of him.

I loved the shavings. They came in all kinds of interesting shapes. Some were short and flat, some were long and twisting. No two were just alike. I would sit on the floor and make jewelry out of them — the long, curly ones made good earrings, and the shorter, curly ones could be hooked together for a bracelet. Some even curled around my fingers for rings. The flat shavings lined up to become roads or fences for my imaginary animals. And if I ever needed one of a certain shape or size, I just had to describe it, and my father would whittle off what I needed. The block of wood in his hands was not remotely interesting, not compared to the ever-growing pile of shavings. If I thought about the block of wood at all, I thought he was carving it up just to make toys for me.

As an adult, I realized that he probably kept a piece of scrap wood handy to oblige me with — surely he wouldn’t have been able to always carve off random shapes to meet my demands from the work of art he was in the process of creating.

The den wasn’t the only place I could find shavings. My father also carved in the passenger seat of our car during his lunch hour while he worked for General Electric in Burlington. This meant the car floor also had a constant covering of shavings, even though I can remember my mother insisting that he go vacuum it out once in a while. This meant that I had an endless supply of shaving toys to play with on car rides, though I’m sure my mother wasn’t happy with me for getting them all over the seat as well. I can remember the first time I rode in a friend’s car and being amazed by the clean floor mats. I thought all cars came with shavings, and I felt sorry for my friend because she didn’t have anything to play with.

Eventually, I got old enough to notice that my father was, in fact, making things. He had a birdfeeder right outside the window next to his chair, and I thought it was pretty amazing that he could make blocks of wood turn into the same things that came to the feeder. Pretty soon, I learned to recognize Chickadees, Woodpeckers, and Nuthatches. But what was cool was that his birds looked just like the real ones. Their heads were perked up, their feathers were fluffed out, and they even seemed to look at me. Each carving was just a little bit different from the rest and had its own personality. I liked to watch how the wooden birds really came to life when he painted them. One day he let me paint one of the Chickadees.

Chickadee Carved by Bob Spear and painted by his daughter Kari Jo when she was a child
Chickadee Carved by Bob Spear and painted by his daughter Kari Jo when she was a child

It didn’t quite look like his when I was finished, but that was okay. I got to keep it when he packed his into a big cardboard box to go to the gift shop where he sold them. And the next day, he’d start making more.

My father’s carving habit leaked over into the rest of our lives, too. For instance, whenever we went canoeing, he was always watching for interesting pieces of driftwood to mount his carvings on. Sometimes on the way back, there would hardly be enough room for me and my cushion on the bottom, there was so much wood in the boat. I admit that I used to worry a little bit that if he found a perfect piece that was really big, I might get left on the beach.

And then there were the dead birds. My father had a taxidermy license, and for many years while I was growing up, he was putting together a collection of specimens to display at the Green Mountain Audubon Center, which he founded after he left General Electric. I know now that his knowledge of how birds work on the inside help make his carvings so lifelike. But when I was a kid, it meant that our freezer always had dead birds wrapped in tinfoil among the frozen vegetables and ice cream. My mother would want to thaw out a piece of chicken for dinner and get a Grosbeak instead. I’d go for a Popsicle and end up with a Goldfinch.

As a kid, I was as well trained as the best Golden Retriever to bring back dead birds. My sharp eyes and nearness to the ground made me invaluable. Once on a trip to Texas, I spotted a man from the motel room next to ours pulling an unfortunate Scissor-tailed Flycatcher out of the front grill of his car. I saw where he tossed the bird into the bushes, and within moments, I crawled in after it. The owner of the car was a bit horrified to see a little girl coming out of the shrubbery with the dead bird triumphantly in her hand, saying it was for her father. I think the fact that my father was absolutely thrilled confused him even more.

Today, that Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is still mounted in a drawer, and my painted Chickadee is in my living room, and my father has a whole museum full of his carvings. But as visitors from all over the world walk through the collection, gazing at the spectacular feathering and marveling at the details of the habitat displays, I sometimes catch myself up in the workshop, just running my fingers through a pile of wood shavings.

Kari Jo Spear‘s young adult, urban fantasy novel about two gay teenagers, Under the Willow, is now available at Phoenix Books in Essex, and on-line at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Borders. It is published by Prizm.

The rest of the series:
Part 1: The Early Years
Part 2: The Pre-teen Years (or, Why I’m Not a Carver)
Part 3: Something’s Going On Here
Part 4: The Summer of Pies
Part 5: My Addiction
Part 6: Habitat Shots

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