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Gerry and I had spent most of our lives dreaming about going to New Zealand. In 1989 we decided to stop dreaming and actually do it. We were not expecting a life-changing event to happen once we got there, but that's exactly what happened.

We discovered bone carving.

"Discovering" bone carving would seem a silly thing to say to the average New Zealander. Carving is so much a part of that country, and such a basic part of the culture of the Maoris, New Zealand's native people. In New Zealand, carvings are seen everywhere, even on the fronts of buildings.

We immediately fell in love with the intricate and graceful carvings that we saw and purchased several of them before returning home to the states. We had no idea that those first carvings that we carried home would change our lives forever.

Most primitive cultures carved designs into bone, which is an amazingly strong and versatile carving material. They used bones for tools and ornamentation, and those prehistoric carvings have provided modern researchers with an accurate way of dating many prehistoric sites.

Actually, we knew a little bit about bone carving before we ever went to New Zealand. As a sculptor, Gerry was familiar with Japanese netsuke, which are small bone, wood or ivory sculptures used as toggles on traditional Japanese garments. The netsuke permitted a small purse to be attached to the pocket-less robes.

As New Englanders, we also knew something about the scrimshaw techniques of the early New England whalers, and of the functional whale bone objects that sailors produced during their long voyages. And we had seen examples of African icons produced from ivory, which carves much like bone.

But we had not known about the rich bone carving heritage that existed elsewhere in the world, from the Celtic and Nordic countries to the Balines and Indonesian regions. Now that our lives are focused on bone, we have seen examples of bone tools and art from the Haida, Inuit and Eskimo cultures, from India and China, and from many Native American tribes.

But what took us a while to understand is how people develop such a personal relationship with their carvings. In many cultures, carvers occupy a special place in their communities. The relationship between people and their carvings touches ancient nerves and is almost mystical.

If you do not yet own a carving, this part is hard to explain, but the smooth and soothing carvings almost insist upon being touched. They become like a talisman, or touchstone.

The Maori believe the "mana" of the carver is put into the carving. We agree -- when you focus completely on a carving and then complete it, a great deal of your own essence goes into it. That may be true of all art, but the difference with this artform seems to be in the handling of the piece and the fact that the "mana" of the new owner begins to enter the piece as soon as he or she begins to handle it. If, in the tradition of the Maori, you give a gift after you have worn it, "mana" is passed on.

Bone carvings are so much a part of the Maori culture that they sometimes attain the status of "taonga", or tribal artifact. The word can also mean a gift or talent, so carving fits it well.

We hope you will visit again. We plan to write more about bones, and about the people who elevate it to "taonga."

-- Val Hoff