Crescent City is an oyster. Not the easygoing kind that lays around on a bed of crushed ice cracked wide open and ready to consume. No, this city is a working-class oyster wearing dirty boots and a shy smile. This oyster wants to stay protected by its cold grey shell and thick curtain of redwood trees. If you can respect its privacy, you’re more likely to see this oyster open its shy smile and share its tender truths.
Crescent City loves the sea, even though the sea tried to destroy it with a tsunami in 1964. A 20-foot wave rolled up the streets crashing cars into gingerbread victorian homes, slamming fishing vessels into downtown shops, and casting a dark shadow of death that would last for generations. This is one of the wettest and most depressed places in California. It’s always got a tear in its beer.
Joe moved here from the blond-haired and blue-eyed shores of Santa Barbara. His dad Pat is a big wave-riding legend and surfboard shaper. His older brother Tom is a freaking genius surfer credited with elevating surf to a higher, more enlightened art form. If you’re wondering if I’m talking about the famous Tom Curren who’s won the world championship multiple times — yes I am. I’m sure Joe felt pressure to follow in his father’s and brother’s footsteps, but he found his own path. He traveled the world on surf trips where he cultivated his eye as a photographer, capturing the life of what happened before and after paddling out. He’s shot for surf magazines and has had art shows. He could have stayed in Southern California and coasted by on the legacy of his family fame, but his path was lit by love, so he moved to Crescent City to live a quieter life with his wife.
David doesn’t live in Crescent City, but this is one of his favorite surf spots. He calls it “Workinman's Waikiki,” and he asked me not to quote him on that. (Sorry.) David lives on the southern end of the redwoods in Petrolia. It’s a small town in the Lost Coast region of Humboldt county where people still rely on landlines and P.O. box mailing addresses. David is an amazing artist. The paintings and wood carvings he’s creating while living in the Redwoods are unlike anything I’ve ever seen grow in a city. A painting titled “Problems” was in his van shuffling around with his surf and skate boards. The painting is about the conflict between rigid geometric lines and squiggly colorful lines. I think David is the squiggly line making art for the fun of it in a world that wants to categorize every move we make. His approach to making art is pretty carefree, just like his surf style.
Joe and David pull their black rubber hoods over their hairy heads and walk to the cold water. It’s high tide. The swell is consistent. The waves rise up to 4-6 feet. As they crest, the sun lights the mist erupting from the tip in the off-shore breeze. Nobody is out in the water. The oyster is smiling so big it’s about to crack open.
Joe’s riding a fish he shaped with glassed-on Redwood fins. He rides with respect for the wave and seems to honor what it wants. He rides down the wavy wall of water expressing the shape within the wave the way David would carve a sculpture out of a block of wood. A short drive from this surf break is a small wooden house Joe is restoring. It’s fully under construction, but he’s finished the outdoor shower so he can rinse the salt water off his back before going into construction mode. Some of the wood he’s salvaged from restoring this house can be used in shaping new surfboards and building frames for his artwork.
When the 1964 tsunami came through town, ocean water filled the building that Joe’s frame shop is in now. You can’t see the damage anymore, but there is a commemorative mural across the parking lot reminding people of the chaos. Joe restored this mid-century building to be full of natural light and beautiful woodwork. An 11-foot longboard shaped by Joe leans against a wall and reminds me that his solid wood frames are made with the same care and craftsmanship he put into that board. David has brought a painting to be framed, so the two guys spend time discussing the best pairings of wood to work with. Maybe they’ll frame it with redwood?
While we took a short hike through an old growth grove, I realized that David and Joe have a lot in common: surfing, making art, woodworking. But even greater is the sincere lifestyles they’ve found here. In this neck of the woods, people can get pulled down by the gloomy weather, but others seem to rise up and stand against the cold tide while all their bullshit washes away leaving their intentions strong, clear, and simple.
These guys are happy oysters smiling in the redwoods.
This story was made with help by our friends at Danner Boots.
A Beginner’s Manifesto
story by Katrina Emery // @katrinaemery
There’s a spoon in there somewhere, I thought as I held the blank piece of boxy wood, almost like a lego version of a spoon. Big and bulky. Waiting to be carved.
The first few cuts were a bit clumsy, but strangely addicting. A few more cuts, and suddenly I was carving a spoon. I brought it camping with me and discovered it’s a beautiful thing to whittle away the afternoon by a river or in front of the evening fire. Soon, my chunk of wood was looking distinctly spoon-like. I worked on it off and on all summer, feeling like a pioneer woman minus the butter churn.
It took a long time. I needed tips.
To find out more, I met up with Russell Clarke, a Portland spoon carver who works by day as an arborist. He started Portland Spoon Company after seeing so much raw material go through the chippers. Now he makes and sells spoons from local trees: “People bring me stuff at work, piles of plum from Eastmoreland, pine from Tigard, apple from Sellwood. There’s an infinite source of wood.”
With so much passion for his craft, Clarke wants to inspire others. He teaches spoon carving at Wildcraft Studios in Portland, hoping to pass the skills along. “I wish there were more people carving. If no one ever bought my stuff again, I’d still carve.”
When we met, he was leaning against the wall outside the bar, carving a spoon outside while he waited. Russell Clarke doesn’t mess around with his free time. He showed me the almost-finished spoon and some other examples, all smoothed with short knife strokes, as we went inside and chatted about his practice.
Beginners, he says, tend to finish their first spoons in 3-4 hours. By the end of his classes, most people go home with useable spoons. It takes him about 30-45 minutes per spoon. (I don’t mention that I’ve been working on mine literally all summer, on and off, and barely finished recently.)
For the spoon, you need wood. “Follow the sound of chainsaws and chippers,” Clarke jokes, emphasizing the abundance of material around any city. If you don’t get in the way of arborists and ask nicely, they’ll often give you wood for free. Out in nature you can look for fallen branches, but don’t cut green wood from trees. Good woods to use are ash, juniper, black walnut, maple, and fruit trees like apple, pear, and plum. Birch, being soft and easy to find, is especially great for beginners. You need nothing more than a 3” diameter branch (about the size of a bar coaster, he neatly shows me), split in half, with the soft pith in the middle taken out. Square it off, and that’s your spoon blank! If you’re just getting started, you can also purchase blanks that are ready to go.
Now to carving: The best advice is to learn how to hold a knife and how to move with it. Look it up, watch a video, or take a class. “Learn how you make the cuts. Don’t get stitches,” Clarke advises. “If you cut yourself, you’ll probably not want to come back to carving again. Take it slow. Pay attention.” As someone who just sliced through three fingers in one move, I concur. Don’t be like me.
The end goal is to make something functional and pleasing. Your spoon should feel good in your hand. Perhaps that’s the most important part of this hobby. This thing I’m making feels good—I want to use it. It’s pleasant to hold, with a nice shape and weight.
And, as Clarke says, don’t be afraid to give your spoon some personality. Every carver he comes across is different, and every spoon is, too. “People used to want uniformity. Nowadays, a lot of people want the wonky spoon.”
I’ve got big plans for my new hobby after my three Band-Aids come off. I’m imagining a kitchen full of butter knives, spatulas, coffee scoops, and stirring sticks. Gifts for everyone! A never-ending dose of that sense of hipster self-sufficiency!
In the meantime, I enjoy the process. The meditative swoop of each cut, the feel of the grain, the way the wood takes shape. I can see why Clarke keeps carving.