Digital Himalaya

Digital Himalaya, drying on my hi-tech drying device

The latest carving is a piece for Mark Turin of Yale. For those of you (like me) not fluent in Nepali, it reads “Digital Himalaya”–the name of a multimedia ethnographic project gathering information from the Himalayan region.

Even more unfamiliar than the script is the wood. The guys at Sterling Hardwoods saved it for me, but even they have no idea what it is. An incredible swirling grain, full of whorls and knots, like blood stirred into mercury. Anyone got any ideas what it might be? (See bottom of post.)

And speaking of Yale, the Alphabets will be there on April 3rd after a very busy March. (And the promise of a trip to Thailand in December.) See the calendar for details as they emerge.

The latest guess is that the wood is ipe (pronounced ee-pay), also known as Brazilian walnut or ironwood. That would certainly tally with the incredible hardness of this wood. Turns out that ipe has the same fireproof rating as steel and concrete!


Third Panel Complete

After a delay of nearly five months while I’ve been dealing with the astounding fallout of the Kickstarter fundraiser, I finally got back, right before Christmas, to my long-incomplete Endangered Poem Project. It provided all kinds of challenges I haven’t had to deal with for a while. The recent work has been large, in familiar endangered scripts, and in all kinds of exotic woods. This latest phase took me back to familiar wood but unfamiliar letters–what’s more, unfamiliar tiny letters. And all that sent me back to research, one of the driving forces of the project that I’ve neglected all these months. So here are photos of the panel; and in the next couple of days I’ll add an update on the scripts themselves, including thanks to the amazingly helpful people who did the translations for me, and the creation process, which as always has its own excitements and challenges.

The third panel of four--or maybe five!



Okay, so let’s take a closer look at each of the five scripts….



Credit to Piers Kelly for contacting me, introducing me to Eskayan (which, as with most of these scripts, I’d never heard of), then arranging for Maria Dano and Decena Nida Salingay to translate the poem from English and then Nida to write it out in the Eskayan script. Eskayan is spoken on the Philippine island of Bohol.




Credit here to Shantimoy Chakma, who met me in Dhaka and subsequently sent me the poem in both Chakma and (below) Mro, the unique scripts of the Chakma and Mro people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.







Javanese, or more properly Aksara Jawa, came to me via Nurbaini McKosky, with the actual translation being by Dr. Sastri S. Sweeney. As with all of these scripts, any mistakes are mine rather than theirs!




Thaana is the traditional script of the Maldives, and it appears here thanks to the contribution of Maryam Mariya. In a sense the script is not endangered, as it is the script in use by the roughly 300,000 inhabitants of the Maldives, but given that in the 1970s the president decreed that Latin script should be used in all official correspondence (a ruling subsequently overturned), it’s clearly vulnerable. I’ve also included it because it has all kinds of fascinating features, just one of which is that words are written from right to left, denoting the script’s Arabic roots, but numbers are written from left to right!

Endangered Tableware

The Endangered Trivet

Struck by an idea–and the almost incurable itch to carve endangered scripts into pieces of beautiful wood–I have invented the Endangered Trivet. Intended to keep food and drink stains off our beautiful cherry table, it’s made of mahogany, and I glued a piece of green pool-table-style felt (what in England is called baize) on the underside to protect the table from scratches. The text, in Mandaic, is from my friend the indefatigable Charles Haberl of Rutgers, and it means, “May the name of Life and the Knowledge of Life (Manda d’Hayyi) be pronounced over you, o Good (Food)!”

Support the Alphabets with Endangered Gifts!

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Give your friends and family presents that are at least unusual and maybe even downright unique, and support the Endangered Alphabets Project in the process. All proceeds go toward the Endangered Alphabets World Tour.

A coffee mug featuring the Endangered Alphabets logo, which in itself features Inuktitut, the Inuit script. A talking point at any breakfast table. $25 including packing and mailing within the U.S.

A copy of Endangered Alphabets, the coffee-table-style book I’ve written to accompany the exhibition. It has stunning photos and a short essay on each script I’ve carved, raising fascinating questions about the history and nature of writing. $32.50 including packing and mailing.

A carving of the Balinese character for Om, in my view the most graceful and remarkable letter in the world. Dimensions will be roughly eight inches by eight inches. I’ll make only three of these, or I’ll never get them done in time for Christmas. Must order before December 12. $200 including packing and mailing within the U.S. (I’m sorry but I can’t guarantee that overseas orders will arrive by December 25th. I could tell you stories about the mail that’d make your hair curl….)


Work in progress, featuring my latest piece of hi-tech equipment--the emery board, for taking off the remaining outline marks left when I transferred the image to the wood using carbon paper.

One of the most stunning woods in the world is paduak (pronounced pa-duke, at least in Vermont, and confusingly spelled “padauk” as often as not), an exotic tropical hardwood from central and West Africa and Southeast Asia. In its raw, sanded form it’s a brilliant tigerish orange striped with gold and darker reds and browns. With a coat of finish it can be blood-red, though in time it tends to darken and brown up. Yet as much as I love to look at it, it’s a bear to work with.

And work with it I do, because the final product is so irresistible. At the moment I’m doing a Kickstarter piece for the stellar Toronto guitarmaker Linda Manzer. Needless to say, I was looking forward to this piece with both excitement and a certain amount of dread, and on top of it all I decided I would try to describe exactly why it’s so hard of wood to work.

I set to carving with my smallest and sharpest gouges, and eventually came to the conclusion that paduak, for all its brilliance, just isn’t put together very well. If you carve with the grain, each individual fibre tends to detach, which you really, really don’t want. At one point I found myself working literally one fibre at a time to prevent the wood from splintering away from the curve I was trying to create.

Working across the grain has its own problems. The wood is so brittle that instead of slicing neatly across the fibres, the gouge seems to snap them off one by one. The wood is almost crystalline: instead of leaving a nice clean cut, the gouge snaps off each fibre at a breaking-point that may be a tenth of a millimeter away from the cutting-line. In other words, a jagged edge.

It finally hit me: it’s like carving a thin slab of orange sugar.

Working on the Kickstarter Rewards

Carving season is here: I’ve started the first three of the thirty or so carvings promised as rewards for some of my Kickstarter backers. Oh yes, you say. Where’s the proof? Hmmm. How about these?

I have no idea what wood this is, or even where I got it...
...but it's amazing stuff.

Ups and Downs of an Endangered Alphabet

Tifinagh, the script of the Berber people
Just because I’m working with endangered alphabets doesn’t mean they are static relics, dry as desert sand. In fact, many are being tugged one way or the other every day: some are being studied by academics, some are the subject of efforts at revival, some are the targets of political repression. Some are all three at once.

Such is the case with Tifinagh, the remarkable script, possibly based on ancient Phoenician, that is used by some Berbers to write their language of Tamazight. The language and its name vary slightly all the way across North Africa, but the situation is generally similar everywhere: though they once were the principal nomadic nation of the desert wastes, they eventually found themselves stateless, and like many stateless people (the Hmong in Southeast Asia being another such example) wherever they went they found themselves marginalized, oppressed, even imprisoned or tortured.

The recent events in Libya have thrown this confusion into even greater upheaval, as the following article from the Times illustrates:


Amid a Berber Reawakening in Libya, Fears of Revenge

YAFRAN, Libya — In the evening, as the searing desert temperatures
subside, the residents who have returned to this rebel-held city near
the front lines appear on the streets. Some of them carry cans of
paint, and begin to decorate murals with the characters of an ancient
language that had been forbidden by the government of Col. Muammar

The language is Tamazight, the tongue of the Amazigh, or Berbers, who,
after decades of oppression in Libya are re-emerging as a political

As rebels have chased the Qaddafi military from much of the arid
highlands in Libya’s west this spring and summer, Yafran has become
the easternmost outpost of a cultural and linguistic reawakening that
has expanded across the map, and it is expected to expand more.

Overlooking the Libyan desert plain, the city shows signs of a nascent
sense of self-determination — a step, the Amazigh hope, toward full
national and regional recognition.

“Before we were in darkness — we were invisible,” said Osama Graber,
36, an Amazigh mechanical engineer who is now an opposition fighter.
“And now we can be seen, and are tasting freedom.”

No sooner had the Qaddafi forces pulled back from this city than its
residents began reasserting their standing, even as the Qaddafi
military lingered just beyond rocket range.

They followed a model seen in other traditionally Amazigh cities —
including Nalut and Jadu — that have already broken free of the
government’s grip. And they hope to build on gains realized by Amazigh
people elsewhere, including in Morocco, which gave official standing
to the language in June.

Classes in Tamazight are being held. An Amazigh security force has
been formed. A local weekly newspaper, called Tamusna, for “wisdom,”
has started to circulate in three languages — Tamazight, Arabic and

And Amazigh cultural and political leaders have framed a set of public
demands for a postconflict Libya. As part of their vision, Tamazight
will have an equal standing with Arabic, and Libya will become a
parliamentary democracy based on a constitution grounded in tolerance
and respect for human rights.

But with these high official aspirations, made possible by force, have
come whiffs of revenge, which raise questions about whether the swift
social reorganization gathering momentum in Libya risks fueling
tensions that could undercut stability in the years ahead, or even
lead to intractable internecine war.

After the Qaddafi military withdrew in early June, the houses in
Yafran of the Mashaashia, a tribe whose members supported the Qaddafi
government, were set upon and burned. Their occupants vanished from
these mountains, apparently having fled. Many Amazigh residents say
the Mashaashia are not welcome back.

The number of houses burned here is in dispute. Some say perhaps 15 or
20, others say more. The Mashaashia had a small presence in the city,
which had a full-time prewar population of about 25,000, and the
remaining residents say perhaps 150 of them were chased away.

The arson followed patterns seen in more densely populated Mashaashia
areas, including the towns of Awaniya and Qawalish. Many Yafran
residents say it was justified.

“These people, they were bad,” said a fighter, who gave only his first
name, Hatam. “When the Amazigh families moved away from the fighting,
they stayed and broke into homes, took things and killed our sheep.”

The Mashaashia households, other residents said, also provided sons
who fought in pro-Qaddafi forces or offered intelligence and
logistical support to government troops that besieged the mountains.

The attacks on the Mashaashia, however, seemed not to be directed only
against the homes of those known to have sons in the military. Among
the ruined houses were those once occupied by families whose
connections to the government would seem of little consequence,
including that of a widow and her children, who neighbors said were 13
and 16 years old.

Reprisals have been a source of embarrassment for the Transitional
National Council, the de facto rebel authority, which has relied on
Western support to survive. Officially, after prodding from Western
diplomats, rebel leaders said that they would investigate the crimes
and try to redress the grievances later.

“They are welcome back to their homes after the war, after we defeat
the Qaddafi forces,” Jalal el-Digheily, the new rebel defense
minister, said in an interview on Thursday.

But such declarations are not often echoed on the lands the Amazigh
consider theirs. Years of oppression and months of bloodshed have
hardened sentiments.

Even public officials are comfortable declaring that driving away
pro-Qaddafi tribes aligns with a popular mood. One prominent Amazigh
official, Gen. Ahmed Ismail el-Gul, who is Yafran’s police chief, was

“We don’t want them,” he said of the Mashaashia. “The government says
they can come back. But the people don’t want them.”

With their enemies now gone from the city, the Amazigh have been
slowly restoring life to Yafran. One resident, Yousef Grada, 35, has
been cleaning the city, block by block.

Mr. Grada ran a small shop before the war. During the two-month
guerrilla effort to chase the Qaddafi soldiers from the city, he was a
fighter. He first went to combat, he said, with a meat cleaver, but
eventually obtained a captured assault rifle.

Once the Qaddafi forces pulled back, he said, he set aside the blade
and the rifle and formed a volunteer cleaning crew. First, he carried
away the accumulated garbage and the city’s carpet of spent
machine-gun cartridges.

Lately, he has been painting the city’s walls, street by street, which
are then decorated with revolutionary and Amazigh murals. He said he
was waiting for the end of the war, and full legal recognition. “I am
expecting good things,” Mr. Grada said.

A few blocks away, at a former government building that has become a
revolutionary exhibit, the main artist, Abdul Ghassem, said the
Amazigh revival should not harm other Libyans or be seen as a yearning
for separatism.

“We are not looking for our own country,” he said. “We are all
Libyans. All we want is our rights.”

A doctor at the Yafran hospital said that kind of feeling has made the
Amazigh sense that the currents of war and history are now making
long-suppressed dreams feel possible. But his own fears — he declined
to give his name because, he said, he was worried for the safety of
relatives in Tripoli — underscored how treacherous life in Libya

He said he was concerned that tensions between tribes and ethnic
groups, long exploited by the Qaddafi government’s patronage system
and now one of the dividing lines in this war, could create cycles of
resentment and violence that could be hard to calm after an ouster of
the Qaddafi clan.

“Absolutely we are worried. People have to learn that getting our
rights does not mean threatening other people’s rights,” the doctor
said in an interview at the hospital, which is not far from some
charred remains of what, until June, had been Mashaashia homes.

In the Beginning: Mongolian

The carving, the driveway. Photo by Maddy Brookes.

Ever since I started thinking of writing as a spiritual act (see the section beginning on page 136 in my book Endangered Alphabets) I’ve been fascinated by the sentence, from the opening of the Gospel According to St. John, “In the beginning was the word.”

A couple of months ago, thinking ahead to the 2011 edition of the Burlington Book Festival in September, I decided I wanted to create a monumental piece for the festival, something so large it commanded attention, something that would stand at the entrance to the festival as a kind of gateway, something that would challenge the festivalgoers’ thinking from the moment they stepped inside.

Thinking of a tall, monolithic vertical piece led me to think of the world’s vertical scripts, and quite by chance I discovered that the Bible has been translated into Mongolian, the language and script of Genghis Khan, and that the text of John was available online.

As I copied it, drew the characters by hand (the piece of wood being far too large to blow up the text on a copier) and began carving, I kept thinking about the appropriateness of the sentence from one new direction after another.

In a very local sense, the sentence is ideal for a book festival. The beginning of the book is the word; the beginning of discussion of the book is the word. The word is what makes us thinking creatures; it’s what makes the cluster of liberal virtues that are at the heart of writing, and teaching writing, and the free conversation of ideas that is recorded by writing and transmitted via writing.

The sentence also has a great deal to say about the relationship between writing and spirituality. Yes, the sentence is from a Christian text, but in truth Christianity, Judaism and Islam all were and are religions heavily steeped in writing. The word Bible, after all, means “book,” and the word gospel comes from the Anglo-Saxon words meaning “good writing.” In its earliest years Islam tolerated Christianity and Judaism because the Arabs respected that these, too, were people of The Book.

More than that, though: writing was seen by some people (such as the Mandaeans) as having divine origin: it was too great an achievement to have been developed by humans, they believed, and had been divinely created and then given to us. And if that sounds far-fetched, consider the Old Testament. The Jews are simply one of many wandering desert peoples, unsure of their direction, their ethics, their leadership, their religious affiliation, until Moses returns from the mountain with the Word of God written down on tablets. This writing (and it’s easy to see why spoken words alone would not have had the same impact or credibility) became literally the foundation and basis for Jewish society, religion and culture. It is what made them who they would become. In the beginning of their identity as a people was the word.

And it’s worth noting in passing that the act of writing mirrors the divine act of creation: before God there was nothing, we are told; ad in an act of divine creative imagination he converts insubstantial thought into substance. The immaterial becomes material. He spoke, and it was so. In the beginning was the word, and everything else followed from that. And that act of creation is still possible to anyone who writes (or paints, or carves): an idea, the least substantial of all human things, is transformed into something everyone can see, and everything else follows.

Yet there’s one other possible meaning to this extraordinarily pregnant assertion. One of the curious things about the evolution of human beings is that for a very, very long time, for the vast majority of the time between primeval Lucy and ourselves, the human brain remained roughly the same size. It wasn’t until we began to acquire and use language (or so it is now believed) that our brains underwent rapid and radical growth, and we started to look and act less like the great apes and more like what we think of as early humans. In other words, in the beginning of humanity as we understand it was the word.

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