Living with the Heartbeat of the Land

A year’s journey celebrating and marking the Celtic festivals and learning from the magic at Hazel Hill Wood.



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For over two decades we have been listening deeply to the rhythms and the heartbeat of Hazel Hill Wood, celebrating ancient traditional festivals which mark the rhythm of the Wheel of the Year. I’d like to express my deep appreciation and gratitude to Agatha Manouche, a medicine woman with huge commitment, wisdom and insight: Agatha is the main author of this work. Heartfelt appreciation also to Alan Heeks, my friend, and founder and chairman of Hazel Hill Wood: Alan’s been deeply committed to this work and the wood for over 30 years.

 The Celtic Festivals. The purpose of sharing this paper is to provide one framework (there are many) which gives an approach to living with the heartbeat of the land, following the dance of the Earth around the Sun which has been celebrated since prehistoric times, marking the seasons on our land. You can follow these eight festivals like an unfolding journey of manifesting your yearly dream.

So, we start with…


Winter Solstice: sometimes also known as ‘Yule’

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On December 21st, the sun reaches its furthest point in the Southern hemisphere; there it pauses on its course before it starts moving Northward again. This pause is called "solstice" from the Latin words "sol" meaning sun, and "sisto" meaning stop. 

 Like the tide at the point it’s neither in nor out, there’s these moments for a few days around the Solstice when the sun doesn’t move. For us humans this time calls for stillness, as we observe and experience nature hibernating. To reach this state, we consciously aim to slow down our human activities from the previous festival (Samhain) throughout the Autumn months. Invited by the natural rhythm of the wood which seems to be falling asleep, by the winter solstice, we’ve watched the leaves steadily fall and slowly dissolve into the ground, as the rain and the cold settle, and the days become shorter.

Symbolically, during this period, we’ve looked within and attempted to let go of what’s no longer serving us: attachments to old habits, patterns of behaviour, grudges etc. So when Solstice arrives, there’s a sense of a turning point. We’ve come to a place called the Static Feminine: apparently we’re doing very little outwardly, yet we’re restoring the vital nutrients provided by our inner process to prepare for the New Year, the New Dream.

As people have done for millenia on this Earth, at Hazel Hill Wood we call the Sun back to our Land with celebrations of songs and dances and prepare to receive the New Seed of the New Dream - a journey that will unfold through the year to come.


Imbolc: 2nd February, also called Candlemas


Half way between Winter and Spring, Imbolc is the time when we begin to witness glimpses of the return of the Sun. Like Candlemas (feast of candles), Imbolc invokes the return of the light. “Imbolg” meaning “in the belly”, marks the beginning of the lambing season, new life, new milk, new beginnings. It’s time to celebrate fertility. Brigid, an old Celtic goddess related to fire and fertility was traditionally invoked to fortify the fertility in the land.  The first shoots and sometimes even early flowers begin to appear, celandines and primrose, snow drops.  In the journey of the Dream of the year, they represent the first manifestation of the seeds received from the blessings at Winter Solstice.

 In your thoughts or prayers you can hold that the seed of the new Dream be fertilised by the light and the Fire of the returning Sun. Like the rest of Nature around us, we emerge slowly from our hibernation; we move from the Static Feminine mode to the Dynamic Masculine one -  a more focused and active way of being. The emerging light activates our own shoots and, if we pay attention, we may feel a new focus emerging in our life; something of the New Dream we called for at Solstice. We gather to re-kindle with the New Light, calling for the inner and outer process of thawing which will allow renewal to emerge. It’s a great time to plant a new tree to give root to the New.


Spring Equinox: sometimes known as Ostara


On 21 March, Spring Equinox marks the time when the Sun is reaching the Equator, stepping back into our hemisphere; the days and nights are equal. And to honour that, we check-in with what’s in and out of balance.  We assess whether there’s too much of one thing or not enough of another; perhaps too much activity or inactivity in the symbolic journey of manifesting the Dream of the year.

Equinox is also a place where we look at situations in our life that may have become polarised into inner or outer conflict. This quest for balance is also a quest for harmony; nature gives us plenty of examples how apparently competing species, e.g. of trees, can reach a balance.


Beltane: 1st May


Beltane brings together many different threads, as we continue to follow the journey of the Dream of the year and listen to the heartbeat of the land. Many plants have flowered and Hazel Hill Wood sees the magical purple-blue from the Bluebells! This is the time of witnessing Birth everywhere - Beltane is an explosion of vitality and lushness: baby owls hoot and the fowls dance, the woodpecker sounds his rhythmic beat;  birdsong becomes a magical chorus and the panoply of flowers explodes as we leap between the ritual fires of the Sacred Masculine and Feminine in the Celtic tradition. 

Like the symbol of the Easter egg hatching, we witness the hatching of our year’s Dream, asserting our intention and commitment in the spirit of joyous celebration.


Summer Solstice: 21st June, sometimes known as ‘Litha’


As the Sun grows higher on our horizons, between Beltane and the Summer Solstice it’s the final stages and opportunity for nurturing and supporting the evolution of that Dream of the year we’ve carried forth to its fullness.  Summer Solstice is the longest day and shortest night of the year. As we reach the point of stillness, we look at our dream’s full potential, as well as its limitations. Hopefully we realise its purposeful manifestation and feel the difference it’s made in our lives and possibly that of others. Solstice also brings focus to the beginnings of a sense of “this is it”, and by Midsummers night we know that we’ve arrived at the turning point. For that long night the Sun stands still but as it starts its retreat to the South, the days begin to shorten.  Nevertheless, the promise of the harvest is yet to come.


Lammas: 1st August, sometimes known as ‘Luchnassad’

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Although imperceptibly the days become shorter, the sun is still high and strong, and it continues to help the fruits of our harvest ripen. The journey between Summer Solstice and Lammas is a time of embracing what has manifested but also a time for reflection, when we ask ourselves: “what has my Dream been about?

 It brings a sense of honouring of its gifts and limitations. Lammas has a quality of seeing things as they truly are and being open to learning from what’s happened thus far; this attending to our learning is vital so that our next Dream in the cycle becomes richer and more real.

 This is a time of counting our blessings. Although the Sun is descending faster on its Southern journey, our Dream continues to bear its fruits. At the wood we notice the start of wilting as the leaves of many trees begin to turn to browns, golds and reds indicating the turn to Autumn.  Great time to honour gifts, beauty and blessings.


Autumn Equinox 20-23 September, also known as ‘Mabon’


As we complete the last stages of our harvesting, and fruits and nuts ripen, we’re truly with the energy of thanksgiving for all that has come: celebrating the Earth’s unconditional abundance as well as our own achievements, acknowledging the blessings of food, friendships and our many communities and tribes we’re a part of.

 Squirrels teach us about harvesting and storing in preparation for the winter, and the trees and plant kingdoms let their energy drop back into their roots. As the Sun crosses the Equator again, on its way back to the South, we take another opportunity to check what is in and/or out of Balance, it’s the beginning of Autumn; the light is fading and now growth either slows down or stops entirely.

 We look at how we can best store and harvest for ourselves the lessons that came with the journey. It’s also a good time to release the past like the leaves that drop and become compost, bringing their richness and goodness into the ground of our being, our soil.

Before the days grow shorter we check again what’s in or out of balance, moving beyond old patterns that might have tended to polarity, and slowly we prepare ourselves for the descent into the dark. 

Samhain: 31 October – 1 November


Half way between Autumn and Winter, the festival of Samhain marks the time when we begin the slowing down process. Like the leaves falling off the trees, we let go of whatever is no longer needed or helpful; as we look at the shape of the tree trunks devoid of their ornaments, we allow the Dream of the year to lose the illusion of its form, yet keeping its core essence. With the nights growing longer and the cold taking over, we learn from the creatures of the wood as they embark into their hibernation. Like them, we begin the descent into the dark cave of the Earth, where rest and decay transform into vital organic nurturing.

 Samhain coincides with Halloween -  the time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of spirit is at its thinnest and for many indigenous traditions this is the time when ancestors come to help us go down into our own ‘underworld’, to re-connect with our spirit, the Source of all Dreams. Samhain marks the end of the year’s cycle, and the necessary preparation for the beginning of the next. From here, we prepare ourselves for the renewal that Winter solstice will bring.

At Samhain we go underground, we adjust our pace and enter a deeper dreaming. We review the year that’s passed, and for better or for worse, we look at what’s worked and what hasn’t. We learn to see the essence of our Dream of the Year and let go any illusions we may be carrying. We discover how to bring our ancestors closer and connect with the ones that can help us manifest the cycle of transformation.


…and so we return to the winter solstice

Meeting the energy of the bull elephant in change work

Listen to Marcos introducing the blog - Meeting the Energy of the Bull Elephant

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to work with three dynamic individuals: the leadership team of a non-profit that’s addressing a sector of the business world that’s not currently engaged strategically in the move to a less carbon-reliant economy. If that sector can get engaged, it could be a game changer. Their work is sensitive and, in some cases, high-profile, so we agreed I’d keep names anonymous.

 Our day began with an enquiry about the intended outcomes of the leadership team given the enormity and urgency of their agenda[i]. We agreed three broad outcomes:

 1) to learn about one other as a leadership team, how best to direct individual talents and energies

 2) to understand dynamics in the team and ‘what kind of change makers are we?’

 3) to get insights into our next steps, and how to approach the work in the world for best impact

 With these in mind, we explored the focus for a constellation and articulated it into a sentence of intention for their organisation. Fascinating discussions honed down to a simple and profound enquiry: “what's really needed, in order for our organisation to be truly in service of this planet”. A huge, yet heartfelt and sincere ask, I sensed.

Working with constellations is like exploring a three-dimensional map of a complex organisational terrain, and for this team, their context is multi-layered spanning wider media/societal/political/business/spiritual landscapes. Our discussions helped us to map some of the boundaries of their system. In systemic work as layered as this, it can reveal patterns, dynamics and connections (or mis-connections) in relationships. It’s helpful as a diagnostic tool to see where there’s good flow, equally where aspects of the system warrant attention, often to free it up for its next steps. You can find out more about this process of constellations here.

“I found the constellations session enlightening and fascinating. I've not experienced anything like it before. It feels like the day with you will accelerate the storming, norming and performing process through which groups travel on their journey to greater productivity. I was able to further define my own role and focus my efforts around what is required”

We started by representing their organisation and the individuals involved, using floor markers set up in the space intuitively by the team. They placed the markers in the room to best represent the reality of what they currently experienced[ii]. My clients stepped in and out of different representations, physically standing on the floor markers, to sense what it’s like from different places. I invite them to use all their ways of knowing, to forget the stories in their mind and trust their body-wisdom. We introduced more layers into their organisational system: their goal, individuals in the team, a resource for their organisation (remained undefined), the outside world, a specific spiritual resource, the qualities of pain and fear.

I’d like to draw out a number of points that arose from our work:


Learning about each other as a leadership team

  • The movements and relationships between parts were subtle, sometimes a little nebulous. Perhaps to be expected as they’re a newly- established organisation still “forming” and planning strategically.

  • In stark contrast to the majority of these subtle movements, was the powerful presence of visceral fear and anger about climate change, embodied by one of the team particularly (more on that later).

  • Language and metaphor was rich. As the constellation evolved, one of the team noted his experience of a “high-frequency energy” flowing through the organisation and its parts; it began its life as a “rack and pinion movement”, a bit clunky and mechanical, but nevertheless achieving an alignment between the parts. It gradually morphed into a “molten metal flow” running through their organisation. Systemically, I sensed that within their team is the wisdom and wherewithal to grow and mature as a leadership team so that the flow of relationships, ideas and energy can become more molten (good flow is an important indicator to me of a healthy-functioning system).

Here’s what my clients said:

"As a relatively new organisation with an ambitious mission, we were keen to prepare ourselves as well as possible to navigate the significant challenges we knew we had ahead of us. As a result of our work with Marcos, we learned more about each other as a leadership team, came to better understand the dynamics at play, between us and with the work, and gained powerful insights about what our best next steps might be. These included how we could most effectively direct our individual talents and energies and how we could work productively with our differences as individual leaders

Understand dynamics between the team and the emotion of my client’s work  

A specific piece in the constellation struck me. One of the team became aware of their anger and pain in relation to what's happening on our planet caused by climate change. He was visibly moved, feelings coursing through his body in the constellation. I invited him to bring those emotions to be physically represented in the constellation (with floor markers) as they carried a lot of energy[iii]. He almost collapsed over pain and anger, holding them close to his body. We explored what is the systemic function of pain, where does it rest in their system, with whom are pain and fear most closely identified? One of his colleagues gently challenged him: “I’d quite like some of that emotion too, can you share it round?”.

I was struck by the overlay of personal story with organisational story. The team member who initially owned the feelings was very honest: as a seasoned campaigner he’d frequently experienced feeling pain and anger. Both emotions were strongly present in his professional career as well as his family of origin. He’d learned creative strategies to be with them, and indeed make use of them.

We explored the unconscious side of these attachments. For example, if harnessed more widely by the whole team, could these emotions be systemic ‘fuel’ to their work?

 “As a result of the constellations work we did, we connected with our vision and mission in a realistic and grounded way. We each came to see the unique contributions we have to make and we developed a strong shared sense of how alignment and synchronisation between us can power our work to deliver the impact we’re seeking”.


“I am bigger than you” - the shadow that lurks for change agents

My clients’ goal is to influence and bring about tangible change to a section of the business sector that’s monolithic - like facing down the bull elephant as pictured in this article. We explored: “What happens if we don’t run, but stay facing this huge force?” In my experience of systemic work, elephant-like forces can transform into a resource that can be integrated, and paradoxically the thing that seems to threaten the very existence of a system might just contain a homeopathic remedy.


How can we face the enormous power of the ‘other’ (the bull elephant) and dialogue differently?


Here’s an interesting technique: ask an organisation, or an individual change agent that’s seeking change: “do you feel bigger than, smaller than or equal to the thing you wish to change?” In my client’s story of a small organisation facing down the power of vested business interests, what pricked my systemic ears was hearing one of the team mention their desire to ‘obliterate’ a particular form of carbon-fuelled industry. We noted how the very language used can sub-consciously de-humanise what we seek to change. Damaging as that sector might be to the planet, it is a complex web of thousands of people, with families, loved ones, livelihoods. What happens if we replace the image of the faceless industry with the faces of those people?

I spoke about this topic with a friend and change-agent, Daniel Koerner who suggested two approaches: John Croft, the pioneer of Dragon Dreaming, talks about how we silence the forces (individual people) inside a system that might sympathise with us, those would-be potential active or passive enablers by de-humanising the big player.

Daniel explained:

In every big-player system we find a range of opinions, and through our actions we can amplify the critical, progressive forces within the system, or we can shut them down by treating the system as one big beast (or bull elephant)

Daniel also remined me of Brenee Brown’s work, in particular her book `Rising Strong` in which she talks about her research on what she calls ‘whole hearted, resilient people’ in our society. One of the main differences of how this particular group tends to see the world around them according to Brown is that they believe that people generally do the best they can. Brene Brown invites us to do the same… By keeping in mind that people do the best they can regardless of whether they work in an NGO or a multi-national cooperation we are able to better relate to the humanity within that institution.

One of the leadership group in my client’s organisation said:

"Being able to collectively, as a group of directors of a new non-profit, work with Marcos on a
a day of contemplation and constellation, focusing on the project we have
embarked on, was a real privilege.
This is a luxury you cannot afford to miss.
The most valuable insight I received from the event, was how my own work
encapsulated the same qualities, as those whom our work is targeting to change.
Challenging? Yes!
Invaluable? Definitely.

Some systemic conclusions for change-makers

Bert Hellinger who pioneered the amazing body of work called constellations, talked about three forces that keep systems together: personal conscience, collective conscience and spirit mind; the latter being the evolutionary force beyond good and bad, victim and perpetrator that’s in service of the whole ecosystem.

  • If you want to change anything, especially if you feel passionately about it, I’d say first understand it, meet it and see it through dispassionate eyes - not as you’d like to it to be.  When we see all aspects of a system in their context, recognising that organisations build layer upon layer of values and ways of understanding the world, then each aspect has its place, history, purpose and inalienable right to belong.

  • If as a change agent I feel bigger or smaller than the thing I wish to change, I’m more likely to adopt a binary win-lose position. And if I do that, I’m also more likely to perpetuate unhelpful systemic patterns, like victim-perpetrator dualities.

  • Strong forces in a system can mirror aspects of ourselves that we haven’t fully integrated.  Next time you face a bull elephant, be curious about yourself and ask: is there a hint of myself that I find hard to live with, and I’m projecting onto the other? And if so, what’s possible if I seek to really own that part of myself?

  • Try this out next time you face a challenging conversation with a person you seek to change: have the dialogue as an equal with as much right to belong as you do. You may find it’s possible to meet and see the ‘other’ from the wisdom of the spirit mind.


Some questions for you in your own world of change

What are you finding challenging as a change maker? What feels confusing or stuck? What might become possible if you experienced greater flow? If these questions spark your interest, I’d be delighted to have a conversation with you to tailor some work with you or your organisation.  

“We especially appreciated Marcos’ sensitivity to our work and the deep respect he showed for each of us as people. He struck a beautiful balance between challenging and supporting us, and between providing structure and enabling emergence. It was a real privilege to have this time together and we will undoubtedly be returning to Marcos for support as we continue our journey.”


If you would like to explore your change challenges in community with others, but outside of your own organisation, read more about our Landscapes of Change series… Landscapes of Change  retreats are all bout bringing people together in community at Hazel Hill Wood to curate what it means to live and work with coherence and integrity.

For another perspective on constellations and how this approach can help us work generatively with the dilemmas we face, read my co-facilitator Kirstin’s article Working with Dilemmas.

[i] Recent climate science shows we have already moved beyond mitigation and reversal of global warming. If you’re interested in this, I highly commend Rupert Read’s ‘Shed A Light’ talk to Cambridge students:

[ii] Floor markers are widely used in constellations work, mine are multi-coloured squares or circles (representing masculine and feminine aspects). Each marker has a small V-shaped notch to indicate a direction. Representatives stand on the markers and sense that part of the system they’re representing using all their ways of sensing.

[iii] I’m often systemically interested where there is strong emotion, or its opposite, lack of emotion and disassociation. They’re pointers to where there might be systemic patterns worthy of deeper exploration

Working with Dilemmas

Dilemma: a situation requiring a choice between equally necessary alternatives which are seemingly incompatible”

Life is full of dilemmas, constantly in motion: Should I privilege short-term interests and financial security for today, or take some risk and innovate for the future? Should I drive my team in the direction I believe to be right, or should I invite them to share the multiplicity of ideas they hold? Should I do what is right for me and my family, or what is right for the whole of life on Earth?

Given the tensions that exist, how can we work with the energy of our critical dilemmas to transform the situation and generate ideas for resolution?

In his work on dilemma thinking, Charles Hampden-Turner maps the apparently contradictory values at 90 degrees to one another. Taking the polarised values away from either end of a continuum and turning the line around is an important first step; it changes how we view the nature of the dilemma and how we are able to work with the patterns at play.

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In a dilemma, we often find that one of the conflicting values is based around sustaining an existing performance value that is deeply ingrained and well-measured. Known as the ROCK value, it is considered to be the foundation of success. It is strongly protected and feels immoveable.

The other main conflicting value is typically based around change. Known as the WHIRLPOOL value, it is dynamic and considered to be the irresistible force. Capable of keeping pace with or staying ahead of a changing environment, it can be hard to grasp hold of and difficult to predict.

For success through time, both values are needed.

The Five Zones of a Dilemma

To work effectively with the forces at play, we need to understand the five zones of a dilemma:

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We find ourselves in the COMPROMISE zone when we avoid the dilemma, deny its existence or accept a compromise in which neither value dimension gets pursued. The result is a downward or degenerative spiral.

Where the rock value dominates, we find ourselves in the TOP-HEAVY zone. Neglect or rejection of the whirlpool value sows the seeds of collapse. Often the rock value dominates through a powerful, though questionable, logic which rejects the whirlpool value as intangible and impractical.

Where the whirlpool value dominates, we find ourselves in the LOPSIDED zone. Neglect or rejection of the rock value sows the seeds of collapse. Often the whirlpool value dominates through a strong energy to overthrow stability or permanence, or through ungrounded enthusiasm.

The CONFLICT zone is where both values are strongly expressed but there is no creative resolution. With the rock and whirlpool values locked in a battle for supremacy, protracted conflict wastes resources. In its destructive form, conflict finds us flipping to the Top-heavy, Lopsided or Compromise zone. In its creative form, however, conflict can be a driver for learning and innovation, with the possibility of a whole new situation emerging.

In the RESOLUTION zone, both rock and whirlpool values are expressed even more strongly, but in a way that involves collaboration, flexibility, accommodation and mutual support. By engaging in a solution-oriented process, the energy that exists in the dilemma is directed to generating ideas for resolution and transformation becomes possible.

“Generative thinking: sparking one idea off of another and creating something new”

Learning to Operate in the Resolution Zone

We can think of navigating a dilemma as a dynamic process similar to sailing a boat: to reach our destination we need to manage the creative tension between the apparently contradictory forces, the tide and the wind, holding them in a generative relationship and making use of timely feedback to tack to and fro, making the best headway possible.

There are different approaches to facilitating this kind of generative process. In our experience, working with constellations is particularly powerful and productive.

Constellations: A Dynamic, Social and Generative Approach

Constellations offers us a radically inclusive approach to navigating dilemmas, honouring and working with all values and views, however unpalatable or discomfiting they may feel to be at the outset.

  1. We begin by working with the owner of the dilemma to get hold of the central issues that are creating the tensions being experienced. We always start with dialogue and prepare to explore the dilemma by identifying a straightforward statement of the main inquiry at hand, for example ‘how can I achieve financial stability today while also taking entrepreneurial risk for the future?’. Often this involves sharing some vision of what it might be like to achieve both values despite the tension.

  2. Through a facilitated process, we create a three-dimensional living map of the dilemma and the dynamics at play. Holding contradictory opposites can be hard for the analytical mind but through constellations we are able to recognise and hold patterns with greater ease.

  3. A fundamental premise of constellations is that everyone and everything in the system – including strongly held, apparently polar opposite, values – have an inalienable right to belong. Through the process, all perspectives and voices are honoured and all are invited to generate ideas for resolution.

  4. By tuning into the dynamics of the dilemma in action, we are able to move beyond the binary. We start to see that strongly-held values all have their own context, background, intelligence and raison d’etre. Assumptions are explored and points of view become better understood.

  5. Calling on the collective wisdom of the system, new insights emerge and previously unimagined solutions are generated and tested.

  6. The dilemma holder leaves the constellation with a greater sense of possibility and often tangible next steps for how to work productively with the explored dilemma. All other participants usually leave with new insights too, given that the essence of the explored dilemma often finds resonance with critical dilemmas of their own.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”    Rumi, 13th Century

Whether you’re navigating dilemmas in the organisations and communities you’re part of or working with the messiness of life closer to home, building your capacity to open to other perspectives, to change some of your views about the ways in which the world works and to learn through creative, solution-oriented processes is key.

Rather than collapsing into compromise, allowing one value to dominate at the expense of the other, or constantly navigating conflict between values without any creative resolution, constellations offer us the potential to go beyond apparently contradictory views to something new.

Learn more about our Landscapes of Change retreat series and how constellations can enable you to make sense of stuck or difficult situations in a way that is transformative and leads to a greater sense of ease and flow.

To learn more about dilemma thinking and other approaches to facilitating resolution, visit H3Uni. Thanks to Bill Sharpe for sharing this work with us.

“Constellations is a very special process, something that’s a real privilege to be part of. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s extraordinary. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s such a powerful, insightful tool.”


Want to find out more…?

If you’re interested in coming to a workshop check out the upcoming ‘Landscapes of Change’ - Retreat Series, or if you’re new to constellations, take a look at my previous blog explaining the background to constellations, and how I work with clients in workshops.

If you want to discuss the possibility of organising a workshop with Marcos or if you’d just like to have an informal chat, please feel free to get in touch.


Spoon carving: (Warning!! - Try this and it could be addictive!)

In January 2016 I was lucky enough to attend a course at West Dean College called “Greenwood spoon carving with traditional tools”. As a keen woodworker with a reasonable amount of experience, I was interested in learning from a real expert. West Dean is an amazing place for art and craft courses and Nic Webb, our tutor, was not only a brilliant craftsman but an excellent teacher. I left West Dean 2 days later with 3 lovely spoons and a real passion for carving them.

 The humble wooden spoon is easily taken for granted. My friends all thought it was quite strange that I could dedicate precious time to what, at first glance, seemed to be a somewhat trivial activity. The pile of chippings on my sitting-room floor was certainly a source of amusement (they sweep-up very easily from parquet flooring, whereas with carpet I would think twice). However as the stack of spoons outgrew the chippings (the picture shows only a fraction of what I have made), the comments became more complimentary and requests for spoons started with more and more people interested in having a go themselves.

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The fact is, making a spoon from a simple piece of greenwood is a hugely satisfying process, resulting in a rather attractive and useful object. It doesn’t take too long, nor does it require enormous effort. The tools you need are inexpensive to acquire and really quite simple to use, though there are some seriously sharp blades involved so its a good idea make sure you know how to use them safely and keep them sharp.

 What follows is a short description of how I make spoons from greenwood. It is by no means the only way (and very possibly not the best way either) but as the pile of spoons testifies, is one I love. 

The process begins with a log of freshly cut timber. I have reasonable access to hardwoods such as birch, sycamore, ash, willow and hazel. If I am lucky I manage to get my hands on wood from fruit tress such as cherry, apple, pear or plum. I cut the wood to a length about 1½ times the length of the desired spoon. Knots in the wood are much harder to work, so I would try and choose a section where there aren’t too many branches. The piece of wood doesn’t have to be straight as a natural curve can be utilised for the shape of the spoon.

 The wood is split along its length to produce a billet from which the spoon can be carved. I have an old traditional tool called a “froe” which I really like, but an axe will also work fine. The force to split does not come from the froe or the axe but from a wooden or leather mallet. I draw the outline of the spoon bowl onto the billet with a pencil based on looking at the grain I can see in the split log and allowing the wood to suggest a shape. The handle of the spoon can also be drawn but generally I only mark the very top part. With the handle it is really the wood grain which dictates shape so all I am doing is marking where the handle will connect to the bowl.

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Initial shaping of the spoon is done with an axe. This may sound dangerous to some but by holding the axe around the neck you actually have very good control and it is an excellent way of removing wood, either by splitting or, as by carving using the weight of the axe head to do the work for you.

 A knife is used to finish off the back of the spoon bowl, giving it its final shape and making sure that tool marks from the axe have been completely removed. With my early attempts I moved on to the knife much too early. It’s a great way of doing detailed work but your fingers will thank you if you are able to get as close to the finished shape as possible with the axe. (Just in case you were worried, the axe work at least was done outside and not in my living room!)

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Once the shape of the bowl is finished you can turn the spoon over and think about hollowing the bowl. I mark the thickness of the walls I would like with a pencil and then use a gouge to carve out the bowl. This is one process I really don’t like doing with the spoon held in my hands. It takes two hands to properly control a gouge and the tendency, especially at the beginning when there is no proper hollow, is for the tool to jump. I therefore mount the wood in a vice to save on the need for first aid. Once the hollow is roughly cut, the finish can be improved with a bent gouge or a crook knife. Like with the reverse side of the bowl, the aim is to get a nice smooth finish with no tool marks and to make sure that the wall thickness is even.

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The final part of the carving process is to finish off the handle of the spoon. I always do this last as it provides support while carving the bowl and if the handle is too fine it might snap.

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The spoon is now “finished” in its “wet” or greenwood state. It may look a bit rustic at this stage but do not fear. Before you can get the final finish the wood needs to dry out as sanding wet wood doesn’t work very well. The sandpaper just gets clogged up and the fibres of the wood sometimes get a bit fluffy, so it’s best to leave it for a few days. I start sanding with 120 grit paper and work down to 600. This gives me the wood a polished satiny finish, although some people prefer a rustic look and feel with knife marks still visible. All you need to do then is oil the spoon to protect the wood and its finished. I wouldn’t put a hand carved spoon in the dishwasher, but if it is protected with linseed oil or food-safe mineral oils, it is an object which not only looks great but can be put to good use too.


Want to try it out yourself?

William Torlot and Marcos Frangos are running regular weekend retreats at Hazel Hill Wood, near Salisbury. If you are interested, check out their upcoming events or get in touch to discuss the possibility of organising a workshop with Marcos and William.

If you want to find out more about green woodwork and their unique approach, have a look at the other Spoons and Spirit blog posts.


Why green wood?

Working with greenwood – what is it about freshly cut wood?

One of the most common questions I am asked is, “Why greenwood?” Most people know that, as it dries out, wood naturally shrinks and has a tendency to warp and crack. What sense does it make to put effort into something which will unavoidably be damaged or distorted? 

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 The prejudice is well founded. Some objects are, indeed, wholly unsuited to being made in unseasoned greenwood. If elements have to closely and reliably fit against each other, with accurate dimensions of the finished product, making it from a material which will still significantly change in size and shape is quite a challenge (though not impossible). Similarly, where thick sections are involved and drying is uneven, tension is created at the surface where drying occurs faster than in the interior and cracks often result. Better to dry the timber first, for the shrinkage to take place and make dimensioning more predictable and for warping or cracking to have finished. Wood can then be selected defect-free or deformities can be machined away and “proper woodworking” can be started on a material stable in size and quality. But that is a bit one-sided.

 As wood dries out it becomes increasingly strong and resilient. Green wood is softer by nature than seasoned wood. The water content within the fibres lubricates the blade making it easier to cut and the fibres are less tightly bound together so it is easier to split. While a saw or abrasive tool such as a rasp might get clogged, bladed tools such as axes, knives and gouges require much less effort to use. Objects such as spoons or bowls have thinner walls so drying is more even. The resulting tension in the wood is lower and cracks are much less likely to form. Yes, the wood will change shape a bit, but the change does not affect the object’s functioning and may even enhance its aesthetic. So, where there is no clear need to use dry, seasoned wood to make an object, the use of greenwood is an option. But why do I prefer it?

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 It is all to do with the softer material and ease of cutting. It is not the efficiency which is appreciated. Let’s be honest, power tools are extremely effective at processing wood as quickly as possible. But greenwood gives you the freedom to work with simple hand tools.  You are not bound to a power supply. There is no accompanying noise and dust, or at least much less. And working with seasoned wood, however beautiful the timber might be, somehow slightly lacks soul with its natural unpredictability removed. Working with green wood on the other hand is truly organic. The tree from which it came is fully apparent. Its shape and structure suggests what is to be made with the hand of the maker influencing rather than imposing an outcome. The grain guides the cuts. Removing material is not simply the excess being cut away, but a form steadily being revealed. It is a mindful process where sharp blades provide a quick reminder should concentration drift. An object emerges, encouraged out gently rather than forcibly.

 That personal and active transformation forms a connection between the maker and the object which endures long after the process is completed. It is a meditative journey - the purposeful application of head, heart and hands intimately bound with the natural world by the wood on which you are focused. The reward from the connection is every bit as strong as any sense of achievement with the finished article.  

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Want to try it out yourself?

William Torlot and Marcos Frangos are running regular weekend retreats at Hazel Hill Wood, near Salisbury. If you are interested, check out their upcoming events or get in touch to discuss the possibility of organising a workshop with Marcos and William.

If you want to find out more about green woodwork and their unique approach, have a look at the other Spoons and Spirit blog posts.