Diamonds in the Rough

by Phoebe Dunbar | January 22, 2021


When I first started to carve around 2005 and 2006, undergoing some timeout from knee replacements, I carved in a big tent-like structure we bought 2nd hand over in East Sooke. We set it up opposite Bob’s workshop on our Henlyn property.  In 2008, a carving shed and a wood storage shed were built by several helping hands. Myself, Bob, Maywell, John Stinson and Mike Herrling, replacing the tent structures that were not always able to withstand winter windstorms and driving rains.

Serious carving commences… I dream I am going to “become” a wood artist.

Soon Sooke finds out, through word of mouth, that I have a carving shed. Donations of carving wood would often show up anonymously at the double doors of the new carving shed! Sometimes I got calls from strangers: “Hey, want some big pieces of birds eye maple – its quite big. Or a HUGE maple burl? Come and get it. Bring your truck.” I liked these offers but most were not practical for me to handle and store. The ones I liked the most were the offers of wood from arborists and tree cutters of smaller dimensions, species I knew little about – acacia, black locust, Hawthorne, red currant, twisted red plum trunks. AND very occasionally diamond willow was one of these offers. These diamond willow gift sticks came from a few older Sooke friends who hunted in the north country each fall. It seemed to be a custom they would bring these sticks home to give away.  Occasionally I got one or two of these. The way the gift was given to me I knew it was something special.

One such diamond willow call came my way three or four years ago… from Jim. “Come and get some red plum”. Once I arrived at his house out on West Coast Road, I was told to meet him at his garage, a shed full of many interesting things including his wife’s 2 purple sports cars. But too much stuff was in there, he couldn’t see them anymore. He told me his wife wasn’t pleased. One of them was a “Sprite” from the 60’s. He shared with me that his wife had issued some stern warnings to “tidy up all this stuff. Get it to the dump or give it away.” For just a fleeting moment I thought he may give me one of these invisible sports cars! Not to be. I got the red plum into the truck, and as I was parting, he gave me four or five diamond willow sticks, pulled out of a stack of other interesting, jaw dropping things.

I was thrilled. Eventually I sanded and oil-finished them. I was so pleased how the wood colour and its diamond patterns turned out. I gave them all away – one to Dorothy, my sister-in-law over in West Vancouver. She uses it when walking Marlie, their dog. Months later, Dorothy called: “Strangers ask me down at Ambleside where did I get such a handsome stick. They want one.” I haven’t told her yet that I misplaced the contact name I was to call. I am sure when I find it I will have more sticks in stock!

Since I gave Jim’s limited supply away, I had none to carve for quite a few years until a friend Ian, from Sooke’s community garden, asked if he could visit my carving shed to see the tools I used. This was summer 2019. It was during this visit that Ian told me about his friend Gus, a fishing guide and woodworker, who lived way out in the bush, Lake Nipegon territory, Ontario. I remember Ian’s words: “Gus has a shed full of diamond willow and diamond willow sticks, too!” He promised to contact Gus to see if he was willing to sell me some. Months later, during quiet Covid time, late winter 2020, Gus sends me an e mail out of the blue.  He is out gathering the sticks for me and will send them to me sometime in the spring.  How many would I like, he asks. 40 please.

I thought Gus told me that he has to go out in winter to FIND them, with no leaves on the trees he can see the small willow saplings easier, the number and shapes of the diamonds. The diamonds are created by a fungus that attacks these willows. I imagined Gus going out in 40-below weather, on snowshoes, perhaps with his hunting dogs, through wetlands and near beaver houses, PONDS frozen over… and maybe when he is carrying them out to his truck he is followed by wolves. That’s what I needed to believe. I like good stories.

Now it’s spring 2020. No word from Gus until late May. “Phoebe, I have them all together now. Three Boxes full, will send them via Canada Post. The postage is expensive. Is that okay?”

“Yes,” I say. I want those sticks. They show up in June at Sooke’ Post office. The staff there phone me: “Phoebe, some boxes have arrived, they are very heavy… three very long boxes, wrapped up with much red sticky tape.  What’s in them?” – “Diamonds,” I say. When I show up, they want to see one of the sticks. So, we get a sharp knife and open up one of the boxes. They really didn’t look like much – drabby-grey and covered in bark. I told them when I get one carved, I will give them one. This I did several months later. A finished stick for staff to share at noon when they take their mid day fresh air break in a big field behind the post office. Not sure if much sharing is going on!

As 2020 autumn approaches, as time permits, I keep finishing a few batches of more diamond willow sticks. Get them up into my warm office to apply oil-based varnish stains. We live in a community that gifts when we wish to thank someone special. So far have gifted about 20 the sticks. I love doing this. I sold some, too! I have maybe 10 raw ones left. I start to worry, oh no, where will I get more of these sticks. I google diamond willow sticks… omg.

I had no idea of the value for these sticks, and what it even costs to buy plain diamond willow unfinished sticks. On eBay or Etsy they cost $50 for a plain unfinished stick, and finished ones are anywhere between $100 and $150 dollars. For a handsome diamond willow staff, they can cost up to $300 each. These are not Sooke prices by any stretch of the imagination!

Guess what, I have another order in to Gus. His friend Ian tells me now that Gus does not go into the bush in winter, its spring when he gets in there to cut some.  Gus asks Ian to tell Phoebe – its snowy out there, I do not go out in deep snow! Rats, the romance of the seeking and cutting of the willow is diminishing. I favour the first story – 40 below, the wolves, the frozen beaver iconic ponds.

So, a few months ago a friend, another friend from the Sunriver Community Gardens, comes up to the carving shed to buy a salad bowl. She sees the unfinished sticks in my shed, and hears how I love them so much. She tells me, “My dad lives up in northern Manitoba. He has many of these stashed away. I will call him.” She tells me a week ago when its safe to travel back to the west coast again he can bring me some. She emailed me last night and told me this: “My father is thrilled you will give him west coast wood to carve in exchange for diamond willow”. Wow, how lucky can I be? I will make sure he gets the best seasoned red and yellow cedar, yew and more. Through garden friendships its so much nicer sourcing diamond willow, not by googling it or even trying, gulp, through Amazon.

In the meantime, enjoy your PhoebeWood crafted diamond willow stick. They are quintessential Canadian. True north, strong and free.

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