21. Motherlode: Free Gifts from Our Mother Earth

This is not a normal gift guide, where you see something you like in an ad and run out to buy it. Actually it’s a gift guide that might empower you to avoid doing that.

I always feel sad when I hear about people who max out their credit cards, going into debt and even bankruptcy, in order to buy holiday gifts. These are obviously good, generous people who are excited about giving significant presents to other people rather than themselves. Without knowing the circumstances, I would never try to talk someone out of their big-hearted decisions and deeds. But when it comes to spending large sums of money, especially money that’s not really “there,” I wonder where the need or desire comes from. Is it the warm, cozy, even ecstatic advertising we’re enveloped in this time of year? The music that brings us back to some fond memories of childhood that are impossible to recreate? The pine-tree, cookie-baking smells that make the air itself seem charged with extra energy for doing more, socializing more, spending more?

Once I saw a big poster in an office supply store—and this wasn’t even the holidays—that made me laugh. Its purpose was to announce that their computer paper was on sale. But what it showed was a man and woman jumping—I mean really jumping high, knees bent, heels up in that classic attitude of extreme excitement. They were that thrilled about the computer paper being on sale.

Advertising is like that. Just a bit overdone. And at this time of year, it knows how to generate emotion. But things will never be more than things. So a purchase could be a trap. In any case, it won’t live up to the hype and “magic” that surrounds it. Instead of a gift that has a real, transformational effect on someone’s life, it’s a fleeting high that soon disappears into long-term debt.

And a purchased gift isn’t really from you! Someone else designed and made it. Where you might have.

I’ve made a lot of gifts in my day—to save money, to enjoy an afternoon or evening, and to add some element of personalization. That might be just from making it myself, or it might refer in some way to the recipient. Lately I’ve been relying on Nature to suggest something. For anyone who doesn’t feel creative, it’s a good way to start.

Of course, Nature gives away everything for free. That’s why we’re in trouble. We take what we want, sometimes even wasting what we’ve appropriated—take the buffalo, for example, killed for sport and heaved onto big piles, creating the Dust Bowl and not much else.

In this unusual gift guide, materials do come from nature. So it’s always a good idea to determine whether there’s any harm in the taking. (I note, for example, that saguaro “boots” are considered material that should be left in the desert.) Some native tribes have a tradition of both “asking” and “thanking.” And now we have science that shows gratitude makes people happy. So why not just say thanks.

The goal here is not to buy a product, or even make one, but to see possibilities and move beyond the examples and find your own originality. Okay—no more talking. Enjoy yourself.

Part One: Tell Me What You Are

Feline in stone. When I was out hiking one day, I suddenly got the feeling I’d just stepped over a cat. I took a step back and saw this rock with a kitty’s face looking up at me. I took it home and added two beads for eyes, which made the sweet expression come to life. It didn’t stand up on its own, so I added a clay base, left unfired, and a strip of leather jungle grass.

The more I’m out walking, the more evocative shapes like this I find.

Root with personality. This “driftwood” from a sand bar in Patagonia Lake was clearly a little devil. A bit of paint enabled him to stick out his tongue. I also gave him eyes and nostrils to bring out his wild expression.

Is your gift recipient completely out of shelf and counter space, unable to fit in another tchotchke? This little demon offers a solution: Just stick his “legs” between two books, and he can peek out from a bookcase, not requiring any space on a horizontal surface!

A friendlier yard ornament. I’m not the only one who hears wood pieces talking. My friend Royce (see more of him and his work in Post 14) saw a cow skull in this piece of wood, and made it happen with just a bit of red paint and some bottle-cap eyes. Real cow skulls get stolen from yards (it happened to me) and any bone will turn to dust in a few years. This wooden one will also break down eventually—but it doesn’t require the life of a cow to replace, just another piece of wood. (And there’s plenty of time to find one like it.)

A natural humpbacked flute player. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s cultural appropriation. And the worst example of this, at least in my part of the country, is the exploitation of the native character Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player. You’ll see it in jewelry, on signs, rendered as tattoos, and a lot more. But I’m not the artist here! Wind and weathering did it. All I did was recognize the shape—and add a tiny pot to make this piece useful.

Turquoise-rock saguaro. I don’t remember where I got this small rock loaded with turquoise. I do remember I felt bad when its corner fell off. Then I realized if I glued the fallen piece to the other side of the rock, I almost had a saguaro. I stabilized it with a wedge of wood and glued on a small section of bamboo for holding a secret message—a poem, favorite quote, bible verse, important contact info, or even the day’s list of things to do. Since the rock never saw fit to drop a chunk on the other side, delineating the other arm, I added a copper wire there. I think it makes a pretty good cross, too, for someone who would be happy receiving one of those.

Secretive shell. Some shells make perfect key safes. Are you ready to give your honey the key to your heart? Or just your apartment?

Part Two: Saguaro Boots

When I first moved to Tucson, someone showed me a saguaro boot—the skin that forms around the raw sides of the holes that birds make in the cactus. I started bringing home the ones I found. I don’t take them anymore, though. It’s now generally believed that it’s better to leave all decaying material in the desert, where it provides food and habitat for insects and other wildlife. The desert just doesn’t produce as much organic material as, say, forests.

Bowl them over. Nuts or candy—or a bigger mound of dragon fruit— become a very special offer when they’re presented in this centerpiece suite, hand-trimmed with beads and hugged by a saguaro boot.

Hanger for lightweight scarves.  I’m afraid this features another saguaro boot. Don’t look for one! You wouldn’t find one like this anyway; it’s unusual. But I often find pieces of wood and other common materials that seem to want to frame something. In this case I cut out the little fish from a drawing that otherwise failed. The featured fish is the Arizona topminnow, which was endangered but is now bouncing back—a happy, hopeful story to give as a gift.

Sometimes I add tags for my gifts. My “studio” is called Desert Muse. For a while I was using Mexican Bingo cards. Remarkably, I could always find a card that applied to the item in some way.

Part Three: Cactus Lace

The next few examples use cactus lace—the layered, internal skeleton of prickly pear cactus. It’s plentiful anywhere prickly pear has died, even in the city. I pry the layers apart and choose the sturdiest pieces. Then I force clay into the interstices using a rolling pin. It’s great fun to see how the different pieces turn out. Not having a kiln, I don’t fire the clay, but I do oil or varnish it, and it’s fairly sturdy—as long as it doesn’t get wet!

Left: Cactus-lace frame. This one holds a ceramic hand, but these frames can have openings of different sizes and hold different kinds of art—a long as it’s small. Top: Raw lace. Dried layers taken from a rotting cactus. Right: Lace box with mesquite bean handle. This box and the others I’ve made use rectangular slabs cut from the sturdiest rolled pieces. They’re fun to make but time consuming: Give to your best friends and family!

Pod box. I gave this box a wild, oversized seedpod lid. This one is customized with charms and stones, but your recipient could decorate it with just about anything. Or nothing.

Matts mug. My friend Matts Myhrman is a clay expert who digs his own, and knows how to fire it in a bonfire, without a kiln. This mug features an imprint of cactus lace.

Part Four: Vessels

There’s the one above, and just two more examples below. But both have broad potential.

Meaningful pot. Personalize an old pot—maybe one that broke into not too many pieces! Dig up a plant that’s spreading, or root a cutting, and plant it in a pot you’ve painted with a design that has relevance for your recipient.

I painted chicken feet on this pot for Terry. I’m counting on this pencil cholla to root in it.

Vase centerpiece. This core-eroded branch, decorated with wave-tumbled shell pieces, makes a small, one-flower vase (cheaply acquired at a thrift store) more substantial, and calming in its curves.

Part Five: Carving

There are so many ways to carve! Can you believe avocado pits? Tree bark? Backyard sticks?

Avocado adventures. Once I found out that avocado pits could be carved, I had a hard time throwing them in the compost bin. I’ve made buttons, beads, and pendants. Pins and nails make the holes—they should be left in until the pieces are dry. These are simple objects. The humble avocado pit has more potential than I’ve explored, more than what I’ve shown here. You can find some inventive, intricate examples online.

Mesquite scratchers. Do you have anyone in your life with an itchy back? I have one of those! And it really helps to have a stick handy in every room. I used a sharp kitchen knife to de-bark these carefully chosen mesquite branches. Braids, beads, and other trims can be added to the handle end for interest, or to personalize them.

Touchable bark. I don’t know where I was, but the trees had thick bark with a smooth inner surface. I found I could score it with my fingernail, so I knew it would be easy to carve. Carving exposed a nice shade of rusty red underneath. What words or whose names would you carve?

I hope this post launches you into something new and fun. Let me know what you’ve been inspired to do and make instead of buying new stuff.

Next week’s post will be short because of Thanksgiving—but still worth reading!

2 thoughts on “21. Motherlode: Free Gifts from Our Mother Earth

  1. Oh — that clay and prickly pear skeleton lace is exquisite!!

    As per your request–here are two examples:

    The first, inspired by a student award trip that brought an Owl & Panther entourage into a landscape with loads of oak seeds. There were enough long hard amber objects littering large swatches of ground that we had to laughas as we kicked them aside to keep our balance.To remember the excellent adventure and Mayra’s accomplishment, you helped me make a pair of earrings for each of the three of us who attended together. I’ll email you the photo of my pair. (They are a perfect weight and have a lovely swing.)

    And the second example pares function and gifting. I brought back a chalk-sized piece of charcoal from a trail impacted by last year’s fires.I’m going try to capture the day on the mountain with a piece of its landscape. I sent a second half-burnt piece to the member of the family who couldn’t be with us on that hike. She sent a photo holding up the smoldering gift.

    Thanks for the inspiration and reminder.


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