Carving the Table-Top

Working very slowly, very carefully...
Working very slowly, very carefully…


It has taken almost a year to get the text, but now it has arrived, I can’t afford to rush it.
This is my latest endeavor: to make a dining-table for myself, with a Blessing in Balinese carved into the top. The English version reads:

Bless this food
Bless these people
Bless the table
That brought them together

I think it’s going to be pretty remarkable when it’s done–another wonderful series of pieces of Vermont curly maple, courtesy of Ernest Krusch up in Johnson, Vermont.
But none of this would have been possible without the help of Alissa Stern and her Basa Bali foundation, which is working to revive the traditional language and script in Bali.

She got my blessing translated, and continues to send encouragement. Please support her in return, by donating to her Kickstarter campaign, HERE.

A Thousand Things Going On

A stop sign in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, near the Cherokee Nation headquarters
A stop sign in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, near the Cherokee Nation headquarters

All of a sudden the Alphabets are caught up in a whirl of activity–our own and other people’s.

Rumbling along in the background is the steady accumulation of information and filling in of forms needed to apply for 501(c)(3) non-profit status, which will enable us to accept grants and tax-deductible donations, and in a broader sense to expand our activities, especially into the educational arena. Meanwhile…

…we’re busy creating activities for those attending the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in DC in later June/early July. Jamie Kutner in particular is stepping up and making Endangered Alphabets puzzles, coloring sheets, T-shirts–who knows what else? And Paul Ledak is firing up his laser to make coloring blocks so kids can stamp out words in endangered characters. We’ll also have on hand Maung Nyeu of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to talk about the endangered way of life of his people, and the work he and the Endangered Alphabets are doing to try to change things.

But shooting past both of those is…

…the new, expanded and interactive digital edition of the Endangered Alphabets book, which will have a ton more photos, more information, more carvings, plus great digital features made possible by iBooks Author such as video, slideshows, and so on. This should be on sale through iTunes by the end of May. And speaking of selling…

…the Endangered Alphabets Etsy store is almost ready to go online. A whole range of hand-carved items will be on sale, plus more affordable gifts along the lines that you, our followers, have suggested: playing cards, puzzles, postcards, and all kinds of other items that will break nobody’s budget but will help our ever-expanding initiatives to identify, research, and preserve endangered cultures. As soon as the store goes live, I’ll let y’all know.

Just one Kevin Bacon away, though, more activities are taking place that affect us. Our partners the Endangered Language Alliance have a big day In New York City on May 4, where they will be holding an endangered languages Record-a-Thon as part of the Ideas City activities. With luck, they may even find someone who can write out some text in an endangered script.

Finally, my old friend Alyssa Stern, continuing her tireless efforts to revive the language and script of Bali, has launched another Kickstarter campaign that is already doing well. (I have offered to do some carvings as rewards.) Please support her by clicking here.

Trust me, even more is happening. But I’ll save the rest, plus updates, for another day soon. And as always, send me your interesting, creative ideas!


Now–A Non-Profit!

Mro script on amazing redheart wood
Mro script on amazing redheart wood

The Endangered Alphabets Project is now officially a non-profit corporation registered in the state of Vermont! Next step: the 501(c)(3) application to the IRS. And then we will be eligible for tax-dedictible donations, grants, and all those other things that I barely know anything about–for now. The steep learning curve has begun.

In the meantime, in addition to making a steady procession of new carvings (see photos) we’re also creating all kinds of interactive, hands-on educational materials: endangered alphabets puzzles, endangered alphabets coloring sheets, endangered alphabets word searches, endangered alphabets rubber stamp blocks for hand-printing, and the like. If you have creative ideas and suggestions, by all means let us know.

The Balinese character Om, carved in bloodwood
The Balinese character Om, carved in bloodwood

Many of these will be unveiled at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., in June. If you think a school, college, or library near you might be interested, let us know that as well!

Carving Wood Saved My Leg (Well, Maybe My Sanity)

My own form of occupational therapy
My own form of occupational therapy

As some of you know, I had knee replacement surgery in mid-December, and let me tell you, it’s a very strange and disorienting process. The main adversary is not pain but the challenge to one’s sanity, and in the face of that challenge the Endangered Alphabets came to my rescue.
Right before surgery I had started a commission–not actually an endangered alphabet but a dedication carved in the top of a hope chest a very thoughtful guy was making for his wife as an anniversary present. As you can see, the carving was pretty damn demanding, but when you’re getting weird electric shocks running out of your kneecap, something external that demands all your attention is actually a very good thing. And if you can do it while sitting down with your leg out straight and an icepack on your knee, so much the better!
Over the next couple of weeks I carved a couple of actual endangered alphabets, but the other piece I want to tell you about is the one pictured below.
After I’d been out of the hospital for about a week, the visiting physical therapist started making house calls. I wasn’t looking forward to this: after I had arthroscopic knee surgery years ago, the physical therapy was brutal. But this guy, whose name was Mike, was very gentle and understanding, but also very good at his job. In three weeks my knee made three months’ progress in range of motion and mobility.
So I decided to make him a monogram as a present. I went to my online Chinese dictionary, which did not include the characters for “physical therapy” or even “knee,” but it did offer “leg.” So Mike got his leg, and I got mine.

physical therapy

It’s All About Light

Work in progress--at the pencil stage
Work in progress–at the pencil stage

If I’d had any kind of artistic training, of course, I would have learned this truth back in tenth grade, I suppose. Instead, I’m learning it now, and learning it literally from every angle: it’s all about light.

When I’ve already carved the text, I have to have low light falling across the wood so I can see the exact edge of the cut letter, and paint right up to that edge. If the light is from the wrong angle or the wrong direction, it’s literally impossible to tell where to paint.

Before that, at the carving stage, I have to be able to see the light reflecting off the pencil mark or carbon paper image.

This is at its most difficult when for reasons of my particular ambition at the time, I’m trying to create a text that is both (a) on a dark wood, and (b) is drawn freehand in pencil. I love drawing Chinese characters freehand: you get a wonderful sense of the sweep of the brush, as if in the turn of your own wrist you feel the very origin of the stroke itself, the entire history of writing.

In the particular case, I was using the very last few inches of the incredible wood nobody can identify, the kind I call marblewood because it is so hard, so striated, so dense and heavy. That single narrow board that was unearthed from the warehouse out behind Sterling Hardwoods has yielded four carvings, all of them extraordinary, all now in different corners of the country, each priceless in its own way.

On this one I wanted to create the Chinese characters for “life force.” To do so, and to do so freehand, I had to pay attention, above all, to light.

As you can sort of tell from the photograph at the top of this column, I had to map out the wood in pencil squares, then draw each stroke, turning the wood this way and that to be able to see the reflection of what I was doing. It was very odd: because the pencil-lead itself was never visible, only the lamplight glinting off its metallic particles, in a way it felt as though I were not drawing with graphite but with light itself.

In the end it all came out quite well, I think, and yet again it was all about light: because the wood was so dark I used gold paint, and again what you see is not really the paint, the liquid content of which was immediately absorbed into the wood. It’s the metallic flakes, and bouncing off them and yet being transformed by them, the light itself.

The finished work
The finished work

Collaboration on the Horizon


Slowly but irresistibly, it seems, a number of individual and organizations are appearing in the firmament, like planets or comets whose orbits are being affected by the Alphabets, and vice versa, starting to synchronize.

The most recent is Mother Tongue Books, founded by Kate Joyce in Baltimore. Early days yet, but we clearly have common purposes involving endangered writing systems, and I’m sure we’ll be working together soon. As I’m still recovering from knee surgery, which involves opioids that do strange things to my brain, I’m going to mistrust my paraphrasing abilities and allow Kate’s press release to speak for itself:

Outgoing Executive Director of the International Book Bank, Kate Joyce to lead new non-profit organization translating and publishing children’s books to promote literacy in developing countries.

BALTIMORE— Kate Joyce is pleased to announce the creation of Mother Tongue Books, Inc., a new non-profit based in Baltimore whose mission is to promote literacy by providing communities with culturally appropriate storybooks and other educational material in mother tongue languages. Mother Tongue Books, Inc.’s initiative is an extension of Ms. Joyce’s recent work in international literacy and education as the executive director of the International Book Bank. The new endeavor will fulfill a critical gap in global literacy efforts – the lack of mother tongue books for young readers around the globe.

“Literacy rates are consistently low in regions where children are taught in languages they only hear in the classroom. By translating story books into mother tongue languages, children will be able to learn the skills of reading and writing in the languages they speak. Additionally, there’s a much better chance of developing readers when they get to hold a book and turn the pages.” says Ms. Joyce.

Mother Tongue Books intends to collaborate with the International Reading Association (IRA) and the Highlights Foundation to promote its mission. IRA’s global associations (its membership is more than 60,000) have long recognized the need for stories and other educational resources to be made available in mother tongue languages and are excited to work with Mother Tongue Books to develop such resources.

“While some of IRA’s global associations have published books in the regional languages, we are excited to see Mother Tongue Books’ initiative to make great books available in developing economies and provide new resources to our international partners and associations,” says Sakil Malik, Director of Global Operations at the International Reading Association.

Mother Tongue Books and the Highlights Foundation will work together to grow the number of children’s books that are culturally appropriate for children around the world and educate their readers about different cultures, by seeking writers from developing countries with outstanding potential, then providing workshops, mentoring and other professional guidance through Highlights’ extensive network to improve the quality and diversity of children’s books written in and about emerging economies around the world.

An Endangered Alphabets Foundation?

Nushu crop

Those of you who are following the Endangered Alphabets know very well that the project is growing rapidly, in size, scope and reach. The total number of endangered scripts now included is approaching 30, the Smithsonian event is coming up in late June, and an expanded and more purposeful second edition of the Endangered Alphabets book is currently taking shape (mostly in my mind for now).

What is limiting the project’s growth is the linked pair of facts that all this work is taking place in my spare time (hah!), and that the only sources of funding are the two Kickstarter campaigns, the sale of books and carvings (order some now!) and various speaker fees. That income, though vital and welcome, amounts to maybe two cents per hour of work.

In the past month, though, no fewer than half a dozen informed sources have suggested I start an Endangered Alphabets Foundation. As I understand it (and my ignorance here is oceanic) this would essentially be a non-profit organization that would hire me to do the work I’ve been doing all along, and then some. It would mean I could develop my advocacy efforts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, develop educational materials, donate carvings to worthy recipients, and so on.

As I say, I know next to nothing about such matters, but I deeply suspect I’m going to need all the friends I can get, and I’m going to need their advice as much as I’ll need (tax-deductible) donations. So let’s start now.

Do you know anything about setting up such non-profits?

Do you know any foundations or agencies that might support the Endangered Alphabets?

Do you know any individuals who are well placed to advocate on my behalf?

Do you know any discussion groups that would like to toss this cluster of ideas around?

As you know, I’m a person of action, creativity and initiative, but I don’t like to head into this kind of situation entirely blind and uninformed. Please post responses, please forward this link, please do anything you can to help me get off to an informed and energetic start!

Thanks, friends!


The Endangered Alphabets Project

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Work in progress
Work in progress

The world has between 6,000 and 7,000 languages, but as many as half of them will be extinct by the end of this century. Another and even more dramatic way in which this cultural diversity is shrinking concerns the alphabets in which those languages are written.

Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered–-no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, understood only by a few elders, restricted to a few monasteries or used only in ceremonial documents, magic spells, or secret love letters.

The Endangered Alphabets Project, which consists of an exhibition of carvings and a book, is the first-ever attempt to bring attention to this issue–and to do so by creating unforgettable, enigmatic artwork.

Every one of the Endangered Alphabets challenges our assumptions about language, about beauty, about the fascinating interplay between function and grace that takes place when we invent symbols for the sounds we speak, and when we put a word on a page—or a piece of bamboo, or a palm leaf.

The Endangered Alphabets are not only a unique and vivid way of demonstrating the issue of disappearing languages and the global loss of cultural diversity, they are also remarkable and thought-provoking pieces of art. These two threads interweave to raise all kinds of questions about writing itself: how it developed, how it spread across the globe, how the same alphabet took on radically different forms, like Darwin’s finches, on neighboring islands, and how developments in technology affected writing, and vice versa.

The Alphabets have been exhibited at Yale, Harvard, Cambridge (England), Barcelona, Rutgers, Middlebury, the University of Vermont, Champlain College, Central Connecticut State University, and other colleges, universities and libraries throughout the United States. In June 2013 they will be featured at the Smithsonian.

To read more about the exhibition of carvings, or to get booking information, click here.

To read more about the book, Endangered Alphabets, or to order it, click here.

To read more about my next carving project involving endangered alphabets, click here.

To check out my occasional blog on endangered alphabets and languages, click here.

Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.


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