Saturday 27 December 2014
The toothpick apprentices of northern Scandinavia
'To be a toothpick carver is a noble and much respected craft in northern Scandinavia. Here in the northern boreal forest lands aspiring toothpick carvers serve a seven year apprenticeship. This is a vocation, taken very seriously and with due diligence and gravitas.
The first two years of any apprenticeship are spent roaming the pinewoods learning about Timber. The search for that one single perfect tree from which will be honed the single perfectly straight and sharp toothpick is of course, a skilled affair. This is the tallest tree with the straightest growth; with downward sloping branches at the perfect 120 degree angle; not too many branches but enough. A bark some 2 - 4 cms thick, gnarled and creased with a little resin extruding from various cracks and a trunk circumference of around 120 cm completes the specification. Toothpick carvers can spend a lifetime searching for that one perfect specimen. So many "almost so" trees are felled in the search for the king of pine trees; each apprentice increasingly frustrated in the self knowledge that every toothpick they carve isn't quite the one lifetime ultimate specimen.
For many wannabe toothpick carvers the skills required are past down from father to son. Each family has its own traditions and approaches but all agree that the strength of a superior toothpick comes from from a lengthy but delicate process. Each hand carved pick is soaked for five years in the spring waters emanating from beneath Pyha mountain. Then after this tempering process is complete, the pick is soaked in the lanolin oils hand collected from the hair of the master tooth picker craftsmen within each family; for once the seven year apprenticeship is complete, a craftsman undertakes never to wash his hair again. Such frivolities are distractions from the toothpick carvers art.
After two years of lonely semi nomadic existence with only sleigh and reindeer for company, would be apprentices are ready to come in from the cold. Here at Pyha, they hold the 'once in a decade' apprentice toothpicker selection process. Here potential apprentices demonstrate their skills. family pride and honour is at stake; along with the chance of finding a lifetime spouse, for here in the lands surrounding Pyha, it is the wooden toothpick carvers who are the real heros; treated like premier league football players, the chance to be the wife of a master toothpick carver, attracts fair maidens from across the northern lands.
Yet from this festival and the thousands who attend dreaming of fame and fortune, only two will be chosen. These lucky two become that decades master tooth picker apprentices. The rest will return to their reindeer farms, disappointment etched on their faces, their shoulders drooped. Of course, there will always be another chance next decade!
For the following three years the two newly appointed apprentices learn to fell trees, saw off branches and whittle trunks down to toothpick sized splinters with only an axe, a Swiss Army knife and the stubble on their chins for sand paper. At least one of the apprentices fall by the wayside, seduced by the easy money to be obtained mass producing toothpicks for hotel tables across Scandinavia. In some decades both are seduced by the darkside. The dedicated few, those silent, strong, Scandinavians with steely blue eyed glacial stares will persevere. For them quick money is not the goal; it is the desire to perfect such a straight sharp tipped toothpick, one that could grace the tables of The Dorchester, Claridges, The Savoy in London, or Pizza Express in Plymouth. Perfectionism takes time; it takes a year just to judge by eye the direction of the grain in the whittled down trunk. One mistake and a tree is tossed; nothing more than firewood to be used to amuse wimpish southern softy tourists from the UK, a people unable to cope with extremes of temperature below minus 1C. It has been said that some apprentices have gone without sleep for six months at a time in pursuit of creating the perfect octagonal gauge needed to create the eight sided splinter from which the toothpick will finally emerge. Such dedication and passion to one's art is to be deeply admired.
Of course, the discerning among you will know that none of the above is true; nor is it April fool's day. These were the musings that past between father and son as they swung stuck on a ski lift in the pinewoods. At minus 27C your mind wanders and your teeth chatter. Ridiculous stories stop your brain from freezing!