Photo by Frank McMains
The Ironic Story of Duck Decoys: And a tale of two men who chose to carve them
Vocations, hobbies, passions, obsessions—they are all manners in which we fill our time between waking and sleep. For a fortunate few these activities can develop into full-fledged occupations, but what drives a person to settle upon their chosen path is as varied as the undertakings themselves.
Recently, I spent a day with a few devoted wood carvers who whittle, sand and saw strikingly realistic creatures from formerly indistinct blocks of marsh tallow. The larger pieces can take weeks and even months to complete and fetch prices that could get one into a modestly priced automobile. The profit motive aside, one can idly wonder what possesses an individual to lavish their time in such a solitary and intensive pastime.
A few weeks after observing these detail consumed souls in their chosen pursuit, I found myself trying to conjure up an angle for an article on wood carvers. I was stumped. Their creations were spectacular but the core motivation eluded me. The way to tell the story, aside from pouring out praise for the beauty of their work, was proving difficult. I happened to be considering this situation while on a 12,000-foot mountaintop, in sub-freezing temperatures, in the dark of night, trying to photograph the turning of the stars over a collection of distant peaks.
So it would seem that I first had to acknowledge that I was in no position to question the motivations of any other committed hobbyist or steadfast professional. As frost crackled underfoot, it became all too clear that motivation is largely irrelevant or unknowable when it comes to the things we love to do. We do what we enjoy, simply because we enjoy it and life would be a more empty and drab undertaking were it not for the things that adorn our inner lives with meaning.
Richard Reeves, master carver and president of the Louisiana Wildfowl Carvers & Collectors Guild, has a trophy case filled with a flock of highly-detailed and award winning wooden ducks so lifelike they appear likely to gulp down one of his medals nearby that he has won for his work.
During the course of our conversation Reeves recounts, with not a little regret in his voice, that the art of wooden decoy carving is being lost as the younger generation displays little interest in taking up the practice. His rows of adapted dental tools, shaving-sharp paper-thin knives and wood burning wands bangle the walls above half-completed Great Horned Owls, woodpeckers and Common Blackbirds. The fine brushes he uses to add verisimilitude to the wooden creations lie among jars of oils and pigments that will eventually lend his whittled foul an appearance that comes very close to the Biblical breath of life. His award-winning Morganzas and Pintails have feather details so precise that they appear as though they could be damaged by a strong breeze.
His work is true master craft. These decoys are the apogee of a once functional practice that has lost some of its facility in the attainment of art. Not so long ago, before the age when plastics and extrusion molds replaced a world made by hand, hunters spent their time before the great migration of the North America’s water foul hacking out crude simulacra of Mallards and Spoonbills to lure their prey onto bits of brackish, open marsh. Those aged and somewhat crude tools (and they were tools without pretention to art or undo attention to detail) have been replaced with inexpensive, imported plasticized mirages of nature’s feather bounty.
There is an irony in this situation. The new, machine made decoys look far more like living ducks than the archetypal decoys of old ever did. At the same time, carvers devote almost incalculable hours to creating hyper-realistic decoys that will only have the briefest of encounters with water (in order to be considered for most carving competitions, the decoys must float) and will certainly never be downrange of a 12-guage packed with steel-shot. To further muddy the waters between art and practice, the original, blocky decoys that serve as inspiration for our modern, lifelike pieces sell at auction for prices closer to a mid-sized home though their shot-pitted bodies are frequently what could only be charitably described as “duck-shaped.”
Another carver, Jim Shoultz, took on the craft after he retired from a life-long career drilling water wells. His first decoys were made according to diagrams he purchased at one of the larger craft stores, but his garage-cum-workspace, reveals a man who has embraced a retirement activity that is done a disservice by calling it a hobby. His work-hardened hands turn and manipulate the pale, knot-free chunks of wood that, through gentle manipulation, will reveal their inner Canvasback or Mallard. The smell of linseed oil, acetate and wood smoke fill a workspace that is cluttered in the way that is only achieved by those who are wholly taken up with the task before them. These men are acolytes of a practice that is both ancient and modern. Decoy carving traces its origins to the original Native American tribes who shook free nature’s surplus in pre-Columbian days.
This is a thin and perhaps tenuous skein connecting the Houma and Istrouma to men enjoying their golden years on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, but the connection is as plausible as any origin story and informs the dedication these craftsmen show to their activity of choice. And that brings us back to why we do the things we do. How do we choose a passion among the wide banquet of life’s desires and why do some of us elect to throw our whole and best selves along these unusual trajectories? We do it both because we are compelled to do things which give our lives purpose—often without much thought to what attracted us to the activity in the first place—and we also do it because it provides us some sense of place and history in a world that daily swirls around us in a hail of the unconnected and perplexing. We do what we love because we must and because it is what makes us who we are. To examine motivation beyond that is perhaps to stare too closely at what is best simply admired for its unparalleled beauty.