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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of four. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cutting love

Thwack! A stick leaps into the air, and the redhead covers her head.

“You’re going to hurt someone with that thing.”

I’m in a serious eye-hand-coordination-feedback-loop and on a good roll, so I turn away, center a length of the limb on the stump, take aim, and thwack. Another oak stick shoots into the blue.

How satisfying, but I can take only part of the credit.

It’s the tool. The curved blade of this axe cuts cleanly, and the haft -- made of manzanita by the way, is a bit on the long side, giving it a lever arm of added force.

Woodworking tools, especially primitive ones give me great pleasure. I like the way they look. I like to see them at work in skilled hands, and I like to use them.

I was 11 years old when I got my first serious cutting tool, a hunting knife from Sears Roebuck. The details of that gift were buried in my memory until the day my mother called to tell me my father had died.

We had a houseguest that day, and I was stoic.

But that night the memory came back in a dream. My father had overridden my mother’s veto and bought the knife for me on the sly. He needed time to talk her into it, and when that was done he would show me how to handle it.

Meanwhile it would be in the top drawer of his bureau.

“You can look at it, but don’t play with it. It’s sharp.”

Naturally, I took the knife out of the case one afternoon and drew my finger across the blade. In my dream I felt the cutting bite, and with it came the full force of his death. The memory was vivid and complete, a father’s kindness to his son. I cried like a baby.

Eight years later in Mexico I watched the chips fly as woodcutters chopped pine on the slopes of Mt. Orizaba. I was smitten with their full-sized asymmetrical axes. Hecho en Mexico. Collins. I bought one with my meager cash.

A decade later I met a blacksmith in Nepal, an untouchable who lived in a dirt-floored lean-to. He was a man with impressive skills and knowledge of metallurgy, but he was trapped by a barren birthright.

He made the axe I was swinging today.

Man Bahadur Chankar was a gifted craftsman, but you wouldn’t know it from his tools. Western blacksmiths use a large assortment of tongs, fullers, flatters, swages, punches, files, and chisels.

This blacksmith’s anvil was a mushroomed length of truck axel driven into the ground. Yet with a few tongs and hammers he could make beautiful things from scrap metal and leaf springs.

If he needed a punch or a hot chisel, he made it from scrap, but they weren't permanent parts of his kit. That disabused me of the notion that a craftsman is only as good as his tools.

When most terai dwellers napped in the blast furnace heat of the pre-monsoon afternoon, I would walk to his hut and watch him work. He was dumbstruck.

No one in the village cared about his skills. His services were good only for barter. A perfect little tweezers for plucking chin hairs earned him a couple of beedies – local cigarettes. If someone cheated him, he accepted it as a blacksmith’s fate.

One day his 10-year-old daughter dropped the hacked parts of a mynah on a piece of corrugated iron by the fire. When it sizzled she put it into a small metal bowl of water, and her father set it over the forge with his tongs.

I watched with a certain apprehension when she added a grimy mixture of peppers and later turmeric.

The meat was obviously hers. I wondered if she found it dead, but hoped she killed it with a slingshot.

I guess it didn’t matter -- even to me the questionable meat soon smelled good enough to eat.

I visited the blacksmith for several years, bought him a set of files, and paid cash for adzes, axes, and kukris. I gave him clothes for his family.

The project ended, and I never saw him again.

But when I use his axe I remember the smell of sal flowers, dust, and wood smoke and honor the gift of his acquaintance.

[N.B.: For more on axes, see Chas Clifton’s blogpiece, Where did the axes go?]


A said...

Helo there CTC.
I have been thoroughly enjoying your camera trapping photos and tales here for several months now, but have never commented before. I suppose it was this pots and the "crossing paths" one from Nov. 22 that have brought me out of the lurking shadows. These two post are about much more than just a walker and the quality cutting tools made by a Nepali untouchable. They are about very important things really: simplicity, pride (of the healthy sort), human relationships, etc. I guess they spoke to me and I connected with them. Thank you. You write very well when you tell such tales.

Oh, and yes, I really do love all the camera trap shots too! :) The recent ones about the bearsd have been my favorite. Happy homemaking in your den bears.

Keep up the good work

Beverly said...

Awwww Chris, that last link doesn’t work…but I happen to have it handy; for those who don’t know, Chas’s blog piece is here:


Believe it or not, when I lived alone, off-grid…I actually chopped some wood. Mostly only to make smaller pieces from the ‘logs’ harvested and cut into ‘manageable pieces’ which I paid someone else to do. But it was enough to understand your love of good tools and even of hard work. I like to work hard (sometimes); there is something quite satisfying about it all…and sweating…and using natural resources (appropriately) to keep yourself comfy.

My mother died when I was nineteen, but by then I had learned to love her tools too; kitchen tools. She, and my father too, gave me the gift of knowing how to cook and how to put a full-blown meal on the table all at once. It saddens me so many young people today don’t know how to make a ten-dollar meal that’s better than some fast-food chicken dinner…and come up with dollars left over.

Have you found The Slow Cook’s blog?


You have had a rich life, I appreciate it that you share it with us!

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thanks folks.
Even with the change, I still can't get it to call up Chas's page. But if you go to http://natureblog.blogspot.com/ and scroll down to September 2008, you will find his piece on axes.

Beverly said...

I swear, I have the same problem...the only way to do it is NOT try to use HTML tags. I swear...is Blogger trying to censor us? Harumphhhhhhhh

I'll try again here:

Where Did the Axes Go?

He's added a post...so his Axe is no longer on the first page! I noticed something different; should we be using a different 'quote' mark (single) than we used to? If this worked...maybe that's it! Apostrophies instead of quotes...

Heck...I dunno

Beverly said...


It worked... apparently this is different than in the body of a post? Lordy, who can keep up?

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thanks a lot Beverly. You are a techno-wizard,