Thursday, October 31, 2013

Thirty Ways To Carve A Gourd

If it’s the Saturday before Halloween, then it must be time for my annual pumpkin-carving program, an event I have put on for the past several years in my dual roles as a volunteer ranger for the Maryland Park Service and as vice president of the nonprofit “Friends” group for Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, a globally unique ecosystem near my home in Baltimore County to which the proceeds from my program are directed each year.  The funds go toward public education about and conservation and rehabilitation of the rare and endangered flora and fauna found at Soldiers Delight NEA.  This year’s fete was scheduled for October 26, but I started planning the event months in advance.

The first thing on my to-do list was to create a flyer in early September for distribution to everyone I thought might enjoy a wholesome, fun-filled evening carving pumpkins into all manner of creepy, funny and mysterious jack-o-lanterns.  Once my flyer was designed and printed, I tacked them up all over the community – in schools, the neighborhood supermarket, at my dry-cleaners, a nearby day-care center, the local karate club, even the liquor store. I emailed the flyer to friends and family, as well as the Baltimore Sun in hopes the newspaper would advertise my affair in their weekend “things-to-do” section.  Alas, it seems the paper publicizes my program only every other year, and this was not the year they chose.  I also made sure that information about my pumpkin-carving program was posted on the Soldiers Delight website and on our Facebook page, as well as throughout the Maryland Park Service’s network of activity websites.

The auditorium at the Soldiers Delight
Visitor Center looked very festive
Once that was accomplished, I set about organizing my implements.  Surprisingly, quite a bit of equipment, unsophisticated though it might be, is required to put on an affair that will ensure a smooth transition from membrane-filled gourd to jaunty jack-o-lantern, especially when there are children in the mix.  I keep all the tools I’ll need gathered together in a large storage bin in my basement, and I haul it out a week before my program to take stock of the contents and make sure I have everything I need.  Over the years I have printed out stacks and stacks of carving stencils, from simple silhouettes to intricate designs, so that something will appeal
Baskets of implements and hundreds
of design stencils await carvers
to all different ages and skill levels.  I have tiny little scotch tape dispensers to facilitate the fastening of paper stencils to pumpkins. I have marking pens for tracing designs, scrapers for hollowing out the gourds, bowls large and small for pumpkin chunks and seeds, respectively.  I have 200 knives of varying sizes and, most importantly, dozens of washcloths, half of which I dampen and half of which I leave dry, so that parents have a way to mitigate the mess when their children find their hands covered in pumpkin guts.

Eager carvers get started
I employ a vast collection of wicker baskets to hold all these implements, along with helpful carving and preserving hints on handmade posters which I tape to the wall above the “implements table”.  And then there are the decorations, a must for creating a cheery countenance within the auditorium walls of the Soldiers Delight Visitor Center where my pumpkin-carving program is held each year.

Soon the room was filled with children
I rose early on the day of my program this year, eager to get to the visitor center to stage my event. Once banks of tables were arranged in a horseshoe pattern across the auditorium floor, I spread long swaths of plastic sheeting from a giant roll down each row to allow for a cheery look and for easier cleanup afterward.  I strung orange twinkle lights over the auditorium doorway to foretell the fun to be had within, and I hung glittery garlands in purple and orange along the auditorium walls, punctuated with fat balloons.  I pulled a sinister-looking wreath from its place in my storage bin, the grapevines sprayed black and affixed with all manner of writhing rubber snakes, a project idea I’d gleaned from a Martha Stewart magazine years ago, and hung it on the visitor center’s front door.

Eloise Braelove separates seeds from
pulp as her husband, Dan, carves
Phillip Walsh helps his daughter,
Anya, carve a pumpkin
Once my baskets were filled with carving implements and other tools of the trade, I returned home, intending to squeeze a few household chores out of the day before returning to the visitor center that evening in my ranger uniform. I quickly whipped up an intriguing-sounding pesto made from mint leaves, baby spinach and walnuts instead of the more typical basil and pine nuts, and marinated boneless skinless chicken breasts in lemon juice and ground cumin with red pepper flakes and other spices, for I knew that by the time I got home that night, I wouldn’t have energy left for anything but heating up the grill pan and throwing dinner on it.

Donald Miller and his wife, Judy, help
their grandchildren, from left, Emily,
Miller (in red shirt) and Olivia, with
their pumpkins
Kristofer Christiensen (Bucaneers
 jersey), watches D.J. Flaugher (in
camo), and Angel Smallwood
(white satin), as Katlyn Christiensen
(in purple) looks on
Eventually, it was time.  I pulled on my uniform, ran a brush through my hair and drove the short mile and a half to Soldiers Delight from my home.  There had been no way for the public to register for my program this year because the Park Service telephone line publicized for the event was on the blink.  Several people had called my home number for general information, so I knew to expect at least a dozen guests.  But I was tickled pink when almost 30 people showed up to carve jack-o-lanterns. They came early and continued to trickle in all evening, pumpkins in hand and eager children in tow.

My cousin, Claudia, in burgundy, with
husband, Phil and children, Anya, left,
and Riehen came from Rockville,
Maryland, to carve pumpkins 
And my cousin, Ian,
on my mother's side
of the family, drove all
the way from Virginia! 
My own Tobler cousins, Christine and Claudia, came with their families to carve fanciful jacks and, amazingly, so did a cousin from my mother’s side of the family. Ian and his charming girlfriend, Sharon, drove all the way from Reston, Virginia, to carve pumpkins with me.  It was exceedingly gratifying to look around the room and see so many family members there to support me, every one of whom lives more than an hour’s drive away.
Laura Van Scoyoc, president of Soldiers
Delight Conservation, Inc., was on
hand to carve a pumpkin, too
I had help, make no mistake.  The secretary of the Soldiers Delight board of directors staffed the registration table while his lovely wife donned an apron and assisted children with their projects.  Most of the photographs you see here are the work of the talented Melissa Schehlein, author of a beautiful coffee-table book on the history of Towson, Maryland, our county seat.  Even the president of our friends group, Laura Van Scoyoc, got in on the act, carving a wild-looking clown from her gourd.  And my frequent companion, Jesse Turner, was present, gently guiding children into ever more challenging patterns, his architectural design background inspiring enthusiasm for the craft of carving.

As my young volunteer, Emily Bickel,
waits unsuspectingly for the dramatic
conclusion, I tell a haunting tale of a
lady with a golden arm
Young carvers line up behind their
jack-o-lanterns as parents take pictures
As carvers busily applied knife to gourd, I regaled my audience with the legend of Stingy Jack, a man so desperate to cheat the devil that he was condemned to forever walk the countryside with only a burning coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way, which some say is how the tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns first began in Ireland.  Once that yarn was told, I asked the children if they’d like to hear a ghost story and, when hands shot up, I read to them a tale about a golden arm and the woman who haunted it.  It was the only ghostly narrative I’d rehearsed, so when a little boy raised his hand upon its conclusion and asked me to tell another, I was caught off-guard.  Fortunately, I soon recalled a ghastly tale from my youth about an elderly lady who never removed her neck scarf, and although its telling was a little rough, the children all seemed to enjoy it.

There were so many wonderful designs!
This intricate design, by my cousin,
Claudia, could be displayed in the
Museum of Modern Art
Finally, it was time for pictures.  Each carver received a candle for his lantern and the crowd made its way outside, where pumpkins were lined up on a long wooden bench and parental photography commenced.  As happy families prepared to depart I handed out small party favors filled with candy, glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth and plastic spider rings.

Everyone seemed to have a wonderful time carving pumpkins
Cleanup was a breeze, thanks to my intrepid crew, but I’ll admit I was tired when I finally returned home and unloaded the car of its supplies. Good thing that chicken had been marinating in the fridge all evening.  A quick turn over a medium flame, a glass of crisp chardonnay, and…  ahhh.  Another successful pumpkin program under my belt.  
Happy Halloween!

Pixie, kobold, elf, and sprite,
All are on the rounds tonight.
In the wan moon’s silvery ray,
Thrives their helter-skelter play.
~ Joel Benton

1 comment: