Tale of a Redwood Spoon

Tale of a Redwood Spoon

This piece is a follow up to "Untouched Currents."

They’re calling it a New World. A hot labor summer of strikes and solidarity. Writers against the studios, soon to be joined by actors, then teachers, nurses, auto workers, fishermen, those who work the railways, airlines and steelworks, who provide food and coffee to the nation.

I haven’t seen my mother in two years.

In the tumultuous spring of 2023, I escape my Californian home and return to the warmth of my mother’s autumnal kitchen. We talk, we cook, we laugh, we argue the way we always did. In the dying West Australian sun, we drive down the coast and sit in the karri forest, surrounded by eucalypts. Kangaroo tails thump against the earth.

My mother, the writer, the scholar, the teacher, sits curled on her haunches in the evening air. She teaches me how to make a redwood spoon.

I begin with a block of wood. A beautiful, hard Jarrah. Djarraly in Noongar language. Australian redwood, unique to the southwest. My journey to my spoon will take eighteen hours over several days. I have been cautioned to use a lighter wood. Soft, like pine. But the deep, red heart of Jarrah is special to me. It reminds me of the tall citadel of trees that suddenly thrill me as I swerve around the corner on Boranup Drive. And, when I return to the grittiness of L.A., I want this spoon to remind me of home.

I am in a garage wrapped up in the warmth of a gaggle of women with soft, rasping hands. We are at the house of Maryann, a salt-of-the-earth Maori woman, who embodies the tenet that true strength lies in gentleness. Before we begin to mold and shapeshift discarded scraps of timber, there must be tea and biscuits and stories. And I must face my imperfections.

I am soon swept up in tales of grandchildren, gardens and wood carvings. Maryann shows me a little bird, its round, wooden head curving down to its tail. My own stories are less gentle—the grime of Los Angeles, the devastation of dreams lost, the torment of being alone all day with my own thoughts.

To begin to meet my spoon, I must draw its arches with a soft pencil. This is the part I will put in my mouth when tasting broth. The tip of the bowl that will sift cinnamon and cloves when I brew wintry mulled wine for friends. I fashion the rough shape of it with a coping saw, map out the stem with a ruler, soften the curve where bowl and handle meet.

Thic Nhat Hanh said, “In order to love, you have to be here. And in order to be here, you have to bring your mind home to your body.” I grip the handle of a hacksaw, forcing it back and forth through dense wood until a piece falls away. The toil is a balm for nights spent without food or company, the only comfort the soft whistle of a train headed somewhere far away.

I am lulled by the cackle of women’s voices raised in laughter, as weathered hands guide me to a chisel and mallet. A few taps and I have begun to chisel the shape of the bowl. I run my fingers into its curvature, rough like a cat’s tongue.

This is how I will heal what two years in L.A. have done to me.

The women have moved to surround my mother, who is making a writing desk. They hold the legs in place as she describes her design. How it will sit by the window that looks out onto her garden. How she will hear the doves humming over her early morning coffee. How she delights in the thought of morning pages.

They are strong, these women. Fierce. They move from table to table, supporting, bearing witness. Oh, how do I do this? ... Do you want me to hold this for you while you saw? ... Let me help you screw this on.

I chisel and scrape and sandpaper. I have been swallowed whole by the Hollywood machine. I am grateful but they’re not my stories. My stories force me awake in the middle of the night, frantic with the urge to be told. I have survived countless nights fearing my only room would be a sidewalk tent, the disconcerting sound of gunshots and police helicopters, and a rollercoaster relationship which will soon end. I press my fingers into the bowl, worrying the wood as though I am excoriating my own grief.

It’s been too long since I walked these beaches. I have sung, played piano, written, directed, loved, felt the hope of a dream burn bright and let a dream die. I have tasted new cities, followed my heart down an unforgiving labyrinth and felt the pull of another life.

It is only here, where the sun slides through the sandalwoods, that I recognize my own voice.

I run a spoke shave along the length of the handle, moving with the direction of the grain. I did finish that screenplay. I wrote it five times, and it’s still not right. I moved on. I wrote something else. It’s not quite right either, but it’s better. It will get better. I rub the curve of my spoon hard against the sandpaper.

In coming home, I have been swaddled in the affection of the people who know me best. I have been taken in, fed, hugged, sung to, celebrated and comforted. I have dug my feet into the sand at the mouth of the Indian Ocean, begging her to remember my name. I have seen wild geese cross the sky in formation, heard the Kookaburra’s cheeky laugh, the crow’s disappointed cry.

I have been reminded of who I am, who I’ve always been. How much I fear losing her.

I have nicked the stem. A small diagonal cut that threatens the neck. The women have gathered around me, a council of Babushkas offering advice. I mix shavings with wood glue and push the mixture into the cut. This spoon is like me, I say. It has a deep wound but it is strong. I must leave it to dry.

My sister holds me close. My niece’s beads have spilled, and the colors have mixed. I sit down to help and suddenly, I am outside Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut, sorting poppyseeds from dirt. Searching for strands of my golden hair in a room full of straw. I have begun to feel like a foreigner in this place, where the moon fills up backwards and everything is upside down and yet always the right way round.

I don’t know yet the challenges I will face when I return to America. Long strikes and layoffs, loss of housing, romantic devastation. Remember the Buffalo, standing still on the plains? I can taste change in the air, feel it creeping in, the way New Orleans seeps into your bones—you can smell it in your dreams. Poets with long hair and patchouli—no magic, just you writing on the corner of Royal Street—leather boots, lace gloves, fingers racing up the neck of a clarinet.

When the earthquake came to the Valley, my bed swayed like a ship, like I was riding a wave. I tell myself my entire American experience is a wave I must ride. I must find a way to do more than survive, to thrive on the unpredictable open sea of Los Angeles.

The glue has dried. I sandpaper the handle. She is strong, tall, elegant, this spoon. Capable of everything, asking for nothing but her right to exist, holding her stories. I think about how I am still shaping myself into the woman I am becoming. The parts of myself I have had to chisel away. I smooth coconut oil over her curves and leave it to soak in.

In a few days, I will carry this spoon back to California, where I will move into a new house, with a deck and fairy lights and hummingbirds. I will place it in a jar on my dresser next to a black-and-white portrait of Alice Guy-Blaché—the first woman to direct a film, to remind me why I am here in a strange city, so far away from my mother’s hands.

When I look at my spoon, I will think about the tall trees I pressed my palm to when I was sitting in the karri forest. I will think about the moment the Woodmaker Babushkas stood around me, cooing, Isn’t that beautiful? Ooh look what you’ve done! I will think of how lost we can begin to feel without a council of elders to impart guidance and nurturance and biscuits. And how all of their wisdom and laughter have gone into the making of this spoon.

I will think about how, once the coconut oil had dried, I drove to the Olympic swimming pool in the middle of a storm. How I sat for a while in my car drinking tea, watching the autumn leaves blow in circles on the pavement. How warm the rain was, falling in thick drops around me as I swam under a southern sky, with stars lit up in the shape of a kangaroo.

And the redwoods. The jarrah trees. The Djarraly bending down to offer me this welcome. This farewell. This gift.

*Feature photo by Aminah Hughes.

Aminah Hughes is a writer, director, musician and photographer. She is an avid sunset beach walker in her homeland of Australia and her adopted home of California.
More posts by Aminah Hughes.
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