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Ralph's girls

There they are, just beyond his workshop window: Ralph's girls. The one on the right, wearing the apricot bathing suit, is talking to that piece of spruce root at her fingertips, asking it what she might make of it. The older one, haloed at the feet by her hula hoop, is offering counsel. And Ralph, who believes there is nothing more marvelous than letting nature tell you how to use it wisely, is sitting on his oak stump stool, smiling and fondly pondering this view of his daughters.

''It's a wonderful feeling to make something yourself out of whatever you find around,'' he comments, the two pheasant feathers in his hat flapping as he talks.

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''Say you're out walking and sheerly for the want of touching something you yank a piece of spruce root, tie it in a knot, and begin to discover what it can do. That's a marvelous thing. Wherever you are, you can find something you can build with.''

I came to this remote spot overlooking Maine's Dixmont Hills to meet Ralph Bishop the craftsman; I found a father and a philosopher as well. People around here call Ralph ''Porcupine,'' which has nothing to do with his gentle character but everything to do with his favorite craft: He's the last known porcupine quillworker in Maine. Following an ancient and little known Indian art form, he constructs birch bark boxes and decorates them with mosaics of dyed quills. You can see some of his boxes in the foreground of this photo of his daughters.

''Each creative thing I do I try to draw the attention of my children to. They'll have to decide where to take what I've taught them about creativity and nature, but already I see them using it.'' He turns to gesture: ''You notice those clay objects starting to appear on the table there? One daughter went down to the gravel pit, found there was clay there, and brought some back to mold. Did it all on her own. One piece fell into the woodstove and fired up so good we couldn't break it. That's a discovery!''

For nearly a decade Ralph and his family have subsisted on what they discover or make. Ralph barters and sells his quill boxes. He hunts meat with a hand-honed bow and arrow. He built his family's tiny but tidy home. Even makes his own shoes - when he mentions this, he looks down approvingly at his black leather moccasins stitched with rawhide.

''They're quite nice,'' he says in his Maine drawl. ''Comfortable and didn't cost me much at all. You see, there was a sweet old woman in town had this leather, and she liked one of my bark boxes. She kept the box and I came home with the piece of leather. I cut the soles out of that piece.

''The top leather someone gave me out of the goodness of his heart. Happened one winter day while I was sitting on a rock contemplating all my blessings. This lost lookin' fella stopped and eyed the mittens I'd made out of an old coat. 'Those look warm,' the stranger tells me. 'Do you want 'em?' I ask. 'Yup,' says the fella, 'and I got something you might like to have - a half a bull hide. Dropped off the truck near to where I live.' So he brought me the leather, and I haven't bought a pair of shoes since.''

By now, Ralph's children have scampered off and their explorations are no longer framed by the window. Ralph has begun work on one of his boxes - punching holes in the bark with a bone awl. Lying across the rafters overhead are walking sticks, some carved by Ralph, others naturally shaped. To his right sits a huge wood splint hamper, full of sweet hay which he'll use for trimming some of his boxes. And behind him, opposite the small window are two narrow shelves where a Bible, volumes of history, and books about nature lean against one another.

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''I've always been in love with living simply,'' says Ralph, inserting a quill tip into a hole. ''Necessity was my great teacher. I grew up poor, and when I was 13 years old and about to start high school, Dad got sick, so I went out with a bucksaw in the woods to take care of my family by logging. From early on I had to make do with what I had. Like an oyster making a pearl from an irritating grain of sand, I learned to see everything around me as a resource. That's what I've tried to teach my girls.

''Through the years, we've had enough. When it's been tight, we've picked milkweed and eaten that. But we are happy. We've got each other and we all know what a gift that is.'' Ralph's youngest daughter, the one with the apricot suit and the alabaster skin, comes in quietly and takes her father's hand to get his attention. He looks down, tousles her hair and they have a brief conversation:

''Daddy, can I cut off my marigold? It's dead.''

''Did the seed pod form?''

''I don't know.''

''Wait a little while, and I'll show you about seed pods.'' Delighted with this small promise, the girl grins, turns, and skips back outside.

Ralph continues where he left off:

''The other gift we have is that we know we can survive. I don't mean by stockpiling but by learning to see what's around us and finding out what we really need. If a person sits down with three pieces of paper and makes one list of all the things he wants, another of all the things he thinks he needs, and one more of what he's got to have to make do where he is, that third list is pretty short. I think that's comforting. Out here it is ten miles to a store. I can see how that scares some people. Here you've got to learn to make a chair to sit in, to catch a fish to eat, to fix the roof so it doesn't rain on you. There's no corner deli.''

It is hard not to see the world differently after you meet Ralph. I bought one of his boxes and always imagine it contains some of his down-home wisdom. Each time I see that box, or pass a porcupine along the roadside, I think of Ralph, and of his little girls framed by his workshop window.

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