With this heat, with me stuck at home recovering from knee replacement surgery, with no air conditioning, things around my living-room are getting perilously close to erupting into inner-city violence.
The only solution: find something to carve. This is not so much occupational therapy or art therapy as survival tactics.
Yes, this is my new carving/painting set-up: a tray in my lap. Yes, that’s my walker parked beside the recliner. Yes, those are my stockinged feet a-wigglin’ there in the distance. Yes, that script is Balinese, at the behest of Alissa Stern of basabali.org.
Now I’d better get back to carving the next piece before fighting breaks out again. Breathe. Reach for the wood.
This will be the last in this brief, intense flurry of posts, as I’m heading into hospital tomorrow for knee replacement surgery. But I wanted to offer you a snapshot (literally) of my latest completed project, a year in the making: my dining table.
When I moved into my current place a year ago I decided I wanted to have my own dining table, and I wanted it to bear a blessing I’d written myself, which goes as follows:
Bless this food,
Bless these people,
Bless the table
That brought them together.
I wanted the script to be Balinese, my favorite written form, and months of work by Alissa Stern produced a text I could carve and paint. It was finished on Friday, the day before my 60th birthday party, and I wanted to share the results with you, no matter how poorly I’ve photographed them.
While we were in Washington, D.C., for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, we went across town to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant. (Great food, as usual.) Even there, right in our nation’s capital, we spotted some unfamiliar scripts. One is the ribbon-like Ge’ez script; can anyone help me out by identifying the other?
Wow. Even as your intrepid Endangered Alphabets team (Maung Nyeu, our friend and collaborator from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, calligrapher/printer Jamie Kutner, Cindy Barnes, myself, and invisible back-in-Vermont laser-dude Paul Ledak) are recovering from several weeks of intense exertion and excitement, it’s time to tell you what actually happened down there on the National Mall.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, for those who don’t know it, is staged in a regatta of tents right there on the long greensward between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument, and a million-plus visitors walk through each year, most of them very hot, the sensible ones clutching cups of delicious mango lassi from the Taste of India tent.
We had been allocated six tables in the Family Activities tent. Three were mobbed by kids stamping out endangered letters and words (and in some cases picking up pencils and crayons and creating their own articulations of the glyphs) and coloring red Stop signs in Cherokee and Inuktitut.
The other three were occupied at various times by Maung, Jamie, myself, and displays of carvings, books, woodblock prints and Endangered Alphabets postcards, which were snatched up like crumbs at a seagull convention.
We were visited by several hundred interested, curious (and at times puzzled) visitors who offered us encouragement and a wide range of ideas and suggestions. Seriously, it’s encounters like these that keep us going.
Maung produced his surprise: a dozen copies of the first children’s book ever printed in English and Marma, to be used in the school he has built in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It’s an astonishing achievement for someone from his own educationally dysfunctional background, now working halfway around the world from his home.
He and Jamie put their heads together and came up with an idea at once simple and radical. We had already designed children’s activities for working with endangered alphabets—why not create coloring sheets and stamp pads for the children of the Hill Tracts who are not yet old enough to read Maung’s books? In fact, why not create whole coloring books? And if we can do so for Maung’s kids, why not create versions for any and all languages and scripts that have fallen off the educational/publishing radar? Javanese and Balinese? Tifinagh, the script of the Berbers? The possibilities are as wide as the horizon.
Having said that, and having promised that this blog would never hit you up for money, I just want to repeat that we are not financially supported by any foundation or agency, university or institution. The Smithsonian venture was a wonderful opportunity to spread the word of our activities, but we all attended to a greater or lesser extent out of our own pockets.
Our sources of income are sales of my book and carvings, and speaking fees. As we continue to develop educational materials, they might generate some income. At the moment, though, that’s probably a year down the road. Just saying.
My collaborator and friend Maung Nyeu found a book of Marma proverbs (he himself is of the Marma people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh) and sent me a scan of one page.
This is one of my favorites. It reads: “The body of a frog, but the voice of an ox. Small men are often the best workers.”
The wood is cocobolo, from Rockler in Cambridge, and the carving is drying in my own version of a fume hood: on the stove, with the extractor fan turned on!
By the way: Maung will be joining me at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to talk about the endangered peoples of the Hill Tracts. The conversation will be moderated by David Harrison, author of When Languages Die and perhaps the world’s leading expert on endangered languages. The event is not yet scheduled but will probably take place on June 27 or 28.
Not long ago, I wanted to present a carving to a filmmaker–something suitable in text and, according to her preference, carved in ebony. I chose the Biblical phrase “and there was light”–the point being that a filmmaker depends on light, and is in a sense a creator of, or in, light. In her particular case, filmmaking was also about shedding light in the sense of telling truth.
My friend and general expert Charles Häberl of Rutgers sent me the quote from the Aramaic Bible in Syriac, and the carving turned out well enough, though to my surprise I hated working in ebony, which was like carving coal. I decided that at the first opportunity I’d make another carving of the Biblical phrase, but the wood had to be right: I wanted something that implied the primeval chaos that existed before light, or before the word.
For the umpteenth time, Dave Wilson of Sterling Hardwoods came through. He handed me an offcut from the end of a board of sapele–an amazing piece with grain like a weather map. I did the carving, but it’s always impossible to tell exactly what wood will look like after finishing, and to my astonishment the polyurethane revealed vein after vein of gold in the wood. And, in every respect, there was light.
Several dozen backers of our recent Kickstarter campaign were rewarded with Endangered Alphabets mugs–that is, mugs bearing the phrase “Endangered Alphabets,” plus the same phrase in Baybayin, one of the pre-Spanish scripts used in the Philippines, plus the tiny word “Morrow.”
Nobody actually wrote to ask me what the “Morrow” was all about, but surely you must have wondered. So, to put your apparent lack of curiosity to rest, here’s the Morrow in question: Paul Morrow of Winnipeg, creator of one of the most successful endangered-language fonts in the world.
The full story can be found in my book Endangered Alphabets (which can be ordered HERE), but for now I’m just going to give you a synopsis and an update. Paul studied a number of manuscripts and early print documents featuring Baybayin, which was originally carved in bamboo with the point of a knife–hence its wavy quality–and came up with a synthesis that is now available as a downloadable font. (The mugs, too, can be ordered. Until I’ve got the PayPal button up, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
What makes this story utterly remarkable is that in 2011 the national government decided to add the word “Pilipino” to its banknotes, using Paul’s Baybayin font. Paul is typically modest about the whole business.
“I imagine the basic idea of putting baybayin on the bills was either discussed by the planners or perhaps someone in one of the two design houses that were hired for the project suggested it. My speculation is that a graphic designer just looked for a free font on the Internet and found mine. So, although I’m happy they picked mine, it’s not like I had the honour of being commissioned for the job. Also, that font is a popular choice – and as I am fond of repeating, some baybayin enthusiasts call that font the ‘Times New Roman’ of baybayin writing.”
Still, it represents an extraordinary breakthrough: an alphabet that four years ago I was told repeatedly was extinct is now literally backed by its nation’s currency.
P.S. Don’t forget to click HERE to support Alissa Stern’s campaign to save Balinese.
Saturday (that is to say, April 27th, 2013) was a great day for the Alphabets in two respects.
The first milestone was that I was able to drive down to Cambridge with the Endangered Poem in three lovely mahogany boards–one version in Mro, one in Marma and one in Chakma–and hand them over to Maung Nyeu, who will send them to the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh for display.
Several shout-outs are needed here. The wood is from Sterling Hardwoods, here in Burlington, my #1 source for remarkable wood. The Mro was executed in a version of the Mro alphabet created by Tom Sanalitro of Anglia University in Cambridge, England, who has been working with me on the endangered scripts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts for several months, and has fashioned a Mro script that is both clear and graceful–a vital achievement, as Mro can now be read and written by fewer than 50 elders isolated in the forested uplands of southeastern Bangladesh. With luck, we’ll soon be collaborating to produce the first schoolbook in Mro in at least 70 years. And finally a very loud thanks to Paul Ledak of Williston, Vermont, who did several layers of fancy computer work and then burned the text using his CNC laser. As you know, I’m all about the hand-carving, but this was our first experiment in mass-production, forced on us by the sheer urgency of the situation in Bangladesh, and Paul’s work was a triumph.
The second milestone was that these three boards, and several other Endangered Alphabet carvings, were on display as a backdrop to a talk by Maung at the 2013 Social Justice Workshops offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education–a talk that he and I have been working towards for almost a year, since we first met, almost by accident, in Cambridge last June.
In that time, partly thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign and partly thanks to massive amounts of volunteer time by all involved, Maung and his collaborators have written and illustrated a children’s book to be used in the school he built in the CHT so children can be educated in their own language(s)–the importance of which, as he explained in his talk, can scarcely be exaggerated. (For those new to this subject, that Kickstarter link will tell you most of what you need to know for now.) Meanwhile, my part of the team has been working on fonts, calligraphy and carving in Mro, Marma and Chakma, and we are helping Maung find a publisher.
Maung’s talk, which was vivid, powerful and moving, will be repeated as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, in late June, with the Alphabets again playing a supporting role. If you are anywhere near DC, I strongly urge you to attend: those at the Harvard workshop were visibly moved, and the impact of Maung’s work has been given a strong impetus. On that glorious spring morning in Cambridge, anything, even the reversal of massive cultural erosion, seemed possible.
P.S. Special thanks, too, to the the Alphabets’ official roadie, Cindy Barnes.
P.S-Squared: if you haven’t supported Alissa Stern’s current Kickstarter campaign to save the Balinese language and its script, surely one of the most beautiful in the world, please shoot over to HERE and do so now!