Carver's Song (from Window on the Chesapeake)
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

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Image from Window on the ChesapeakeWick, wick, wick. The sound of the drawknife against soft cedar is gentle and smooth, as peels of wood curl off and flutter to the dusty floor and the head of a canvasback slowly takes shape. The rough-hewn hands of sixty-eight-year-old James “Jimmy” Pierce will carve a few dozen delicate heads of the gorgeous Bay waterfowl, the shavings drifting around his feet like sweet-smelling snow, before he sands them down and then takes a much smaller knife and whittles in the details, the curve of the cheek just so, the bridge of the beak a sharp, reversed V. He has been doing this, over and over, for fifty-three years. And he never tires of it. Maybe that’s because in each pull of the knife over the wood he knows he is paying a sort of tribute. The wick, wick, wick is like the quiet background music in his home of Havre de Grace, Maryland, a place where the carving of decoys runs as deep and long as the mighty Susquehanna River beside it.

Cover from Window on the Chesapeake
This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.
Jimmy grew up here. “All I had to do was climb over the fence and I was on the river,” he says. “I’ve hunted and fished all my life.” When he was younger, the watermen would trap-net for perch in the spring and pound-net out on the Susquehanna Flats for shad and herring, then haul seine for rockfish in the summer. And come autumn, it would be time to head out on the river to gun for geese and ducks—and so a man would need some decoys to lure the waterfowl close. “Everybody who was a waterman was a boatbuilder and a decoy carver,” he says. “If you wanted a boat you built it yourself and if you wanted to hunt, you made decoys.”

The birds were, in other words, made for a working purpose. They were tools. And Jimmy remains true to that: nearly all of his birds are life-size, all made with a lead or wooden keel under the belly and a ring to tie it to the rest of the rig—a hunter’s name for the flock of decoys he uses to entice waterfowl within shooting range. The birds are artful but simple, elegant yet durable. The labor and art of carving working decoys is in his hands and his heart—it is who he is. “Years ago, it was a way of life, and it was a way to put food on the table to eat,” he says. “The best in a working decoy is probably one that’s been worked for fifty years. It’s got shot in it, the head’s been replaced four times, it’s got cracks in it. That’s history there. The one that sat on a mantle all those years never saw the water.”

Jimmy’s decoys go to collectors all over the world, and his is a refreshingly simple system: “I’ll mail a bird and if you don’t like ’im, don’t keep ’im. If you do, send me a check.” But fundamentally, it's the love of the craft and all that it represents that brings him into the dusty shop nearly every day, where the wick, wick, wick of a drawknife will murmur and resonate for as long as Jimmy Pierce has two good hands to pull it. And even when this is no longer possible, that soft, steady music will play on.

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