Posted by: ktzefr | August 16, 2011

On the birds and the bees, junk vs treasure, and the size of the world…

I collect junk.  Of course, one could say the difference between junk and treasure is always in the eye of the beholder.  It’s also related to the purse; a treasure definitely costs more.  Therefore, on all counts, I’m a bona fide junk collector.

I love to travel and I’m always drawn to street vendors and “artists” whose works never make it to the local gallery and crafts people who eagerly invite travelers into their market stalls and homes to see their handiwork and hear the stories behind the pottery and paintings.  I’ve been entertained by the stories of weavers and panpipe makers in the Andes and rug and rebozo makers in Mexico.  I’ve searched through hundreds of paintings of the Caribbean Sea over the years and even bought a few, but I’ve never found a painting that rivals the real thing, either in a classy gallery or amongst a stack of junk.

When I’m not traveling I frequent the fair trade stores.  That’s where I found the birds.  Made by the Wichi indigenous people of the Chaco area of northern Argentina, these tiny birds are small enough to fit into a pocket.

Siwok Heron; Photo:KFawcett


The wood has a smooth, silky finish.  No paint.  The colors come from the various woods.  

The Wichi tell this story about the heron:  two little brothers were left alone one night and they climbed a tree to feel safe.  In the morning one of the brothers climbed back down, but the other one was afraid to come down and he kept calling out that he was scared.  Suddenly, he was transformed into a kiapop (the grey heron) and his continued call  became the heron’s call.



I love the  toucan’s huge reddish bill, though, in reality, a toucan’s bill is usually multicolored.  Mostly yellow for some species and a mix of yellow, red, blue, and green for others.   I’ve seen toucans in zoos and I’ve seen them flying in the wild, but I’ve never gotten a good picture of one.

Siwok toucan; Photo:KFawcett

The Wichi’s story of the toucan begins with a man named Touk.  Touk was shy and he liked to eat corn, but people thought he was funny and they laughed at him.  He was so unhappy that he asked Ahatah (a mythical character with great powers) to transform him.  So Ahatah transformed him into a bird that nobody had ever seen with a huge bill that resembled the corn that Touk liked to eat.  So the people called it a toucan.


Last winter I saw two pileated woodpeckers with gorgeous red crests.  They were sitting on a neighbor’s fence, but they disappeared as quickly as they’d arrived, so I suspect they discovered elsewhere better pickings or a better selection of hollow trees in which to build their home.  I like this fellow who came with his own tree stump.

Siwok woodpecker; Photo:KFawcett

According to Wichi legend, a man named Siwok (the Wichi name for woodpecker) wanted to catch the rainbow, which was a serpent that lived in a deep lagoon.  One morning Siwok went to catch the rainbow, but the lagoon swallowed him.  At once, Ifwala (the sun) dried up the lagoon, which made the rainbow disappear.  The sun then lifted Siwok’s spirit and placed it  in a woodpecker that was flying by.


When I was at the Eastern Shore recently I stopped in Made By Hand at Bethany Beach to pick up a new bird, but the wooden birds were gone.  It seems the shop had lost contact with the tribe that makes the birds.  And so I’ve pursued them…online.

The birds are sold by the name of SIWOK crafts.  The crafts program was begun in the early 1980s to help provide income to the Wichi so they might be able to stay on their land.  Much of the land they lived on for centuries has been taken over by large farms and cattle ranches or industrial development projects, pushing them onto smaller and smaller plots and making it more difficult to survive.  The Wichi have always been fishermen and hunters and farmers.  Today, it is their woodcarving skills that may save their way of life.  Except…it’s hard to find Wichi birds.  I don’t know whether the bird carving ended up not being a sustainable way of making a living or if the Wichi bought cars and cellphones with the accumulated proceeds and headed to the city.  I will continue to pursue them…online.


Now, to the bees…

Bee on flower; Photo:KFawcett

This, of course, is not a honeybee.  But I wanted a bee picture and this fellow happened to be accommodating.  So…

The more I read about the Wichi the more I began to feel a strange kinship with these wooden bird crafters in Argentina whose lives are more than a little remote from my own.  But maybe not…

I discovered that the Wichi were known as honey gatherers.  They went into the forest in search of wild bees.  So did my grandma!

Well, I never really knew my grandmother as she died when I was just a toddler, but my dad used to tell stories about how his mom (a tiny woman by all accounts) would find a nest of wild honeybees in the woods in “a swarm” and she’d hurry home to prepare to “catch” them.   The story goes, be it fact or fiction or a little of both, that you can get a swarm of bees to follow you home and slip into the empty wooden hive you’ve prepared if you run fast and stay a few feet ahead of them banging on an aluminum dishpan with a huge spoon!

Both Granny and the Wichi also knew how to collect the honey without getting stung.  The logic: smoking the hive sends them (the bees) into a drugged state and, if you work quickly, you can steal the honey before they regain their senses.  Actually, the smoke disguises the pheromone the bees produce when they’re threatened (this pheromone alerts all the other bees and they will attack en masse).  The smoke keeps this from happening, though I have no idea when or how this nugget of wisdom was discovered.

Beekeepers use smokers and dress in elaborate gear to gather honey.  Check out how the Wichi do it with a brush fire and machete. 


Sometimes when I’ve traveled a long time just to go a few inches on the map I feel that the world is enormous.  But distance isn’t measured only in miles.  Sometimes you can feel more remote from the people surrounding you at lunch in a food court than from a stranger you chance to meet on the other side of the world.  It’s the connections that matter.  The small stuff. 

And sometimes when you go in search of junk you stumble onto a treasure…


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