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Friday, August 29, 2014


two views of today's finished stick

new rhododendron walking stick

Another walking stick is leaning against the wall to dry after first coat of tung oil. Two days of carving I only whacked my fingers half a dozen times. None of them were blood-letters, just nicks. I've thought about putting a bandaid around the thumb I hit 4 times. It's like wearing gloves putting up barbed wire. In the early years on the farm I'd wear leather gloves to stretch barbed wire. Put on the gloves, stretch the wire, hold it in place, take off the gloves take hammer and staple, hammer it into place. Put gloves back on to handle the barbed wire, then take them off again. There comes a time I stuff the gloves into my back pockets and do the best I could to keep from the scratches being too bad. Old man Tom Pruitt's hands dripped blood after he'd put up a barbed wire fence. He never wore gloves. It wasn't long before I didn't either. A few years ago I ran into hillbilly country singer Raymond Oakes. We talked a little and I noticed the backs of his hands had a webbing of scars that looked made by a spider on acid. Exactly like the back of old man Tom's hands. I said to Raymond, "Stretched much barbed wire?" He said, "Yeah, stretched some helping my daddy." Had I continued with the farm work, the backs of my hands would look like that. I have a pretty fair beginning. They're my tattoos. Now I'm in process of putting new scars on the hands, this time the fingers. Putting protection on the fingers doesn't feel right. It takes away from the raw interaction of the knife and the wood. It feels elemental to me. A tool of only one moving part and a piece of wood. Sharpen knife and carve. I have to call it carving instead of whittling or shaving the wood. It is carving from first swipe of the knife to last. Yesterday I carved the bark off this rhododendron branch that has been dead a few years Today I cleaned it up with the knife, an even more painstaking process than stripping the bark. It's detailed carving and smoothing tiny places. It's an excellent meditation. Focus of attention is close. My fingers are at stake. I have to be aware of every move consciously. 

the stick and the knife

I love carving rhododendron wood. Enjoyed the poplar and dogwood too. I've messed with wood all my life, but it feels like carving these walking sticks I'm discovering wood for the first time. I want to carve different kinds of wood now. I've sawed wood, sanded it, run a planer over it, painted it, but never carved it. Never had purpose. I've never kept the pocketknife sharp for not wanting to cut self using it. Now, for the first time in my life, I am keeping the pocketknife as near razor sharp as I'm able. Cutting wood doesn't seem to dull the blade. It keeps a good edge. It feels sometimes like wood's purpose is to be carved. Again, the giving tree. Suddenly I understand that African masks were carved by people who carved wood, good at it unto masters in later years. I am learning subtleties of using a knife carving wood. There are many approaches to the wood. I kept three prongs at the end that touch the ground for novelty. The idea is to be walking on the ground. It would be excellent footing on the ground. Maybe. I did it because I liked the idea and believe they won't break. I like using the knot where branches leave the main branch for the tip that touches the ground. It won't split. It was fun digging with the front part of the blade between the three prongs pictured above. Every place along the stick where a branch came out, I carved down to a smooth round bump that flows with the shape of the stick. Rhododendron limbs make a crooked line between the handle and tip that is a straight line in the stick's balance. Functionally, it is a straight line, same as a straight stick. But it goes this way and that, which doesn't mess its balance up at all. I hypothesize the bends give it spring a straight stick could not. As I pick these limbs to carve, spring is foremost in my mind. The spring is, essentially, negligible. One thing I see it does is vibrate like a bass string and a straight stick vibrates like a high string. Maybe it is a consideration of resonance, whatever resonates with a given individual. 

the handle after carving off the bark
Incorporating the scar in the limb into the stick's design was fun. The hand fits nicely between the knot above and the crook below. It is made for the hand the way a pistol grip is made to fit the hand. The stick hangs straight down from the handle held lightly. I sit here at the desk, the pocket knife lies open to my right. I've learned to admire it for what it can do. I've begun to have a feel for its physicality. It is tool of exquisite design. Folds up, goes in the pocket. Open, it is locked open the same as if it did not have a hinge. It is a Case Sodbuster made  in 1977. I've known of Case knives from displays in hardware stores, heard about them, thought it was one of a few makers of knives. I looked online and found a very long list of knife makers. I'm partial to my Sodbuster. Of all the pocket knives I've carried, this is the one. I like the feel of holding it. It has a good balance. The blade holds a sharp edge, it's practical. One of my friends said one day years ago, "I've never carried a pocket knife." I spoke automatically, "Carry one once and you always will." Don't need it much, but when I do, I need it. It's like carrying a pen. I always carry a pen in my pocket when I go to town. And always regret it when I forget. Don't always need one, but when I forget one, that's the day I need it. All pocket knives I'd ever seen had three blades. It's not like I'm an aficionado of pocket knives. This was the first single blade knife I'd seen. First thought: how practical. I've never used more than one blade on knives I used in the past. Talking with my friend Carole, she has her dad's pocket knife. It was the only thing of his she wanted. After he died, she snitched the knife knowing no one would miss it. It is a Schmidt & Ziegler made in Solingen, Germany. It is the common pocket knife. She said he only used the small blade. Again, I thought: how practical.

the handle finished

Today, carving the stick the second time, I wondered why I am doing this. For enjoyment. I like carving right now. May not two weeks from now, but right now carving is what I'm doing. I may sell them if anybody will buy them and may give them away or both. It's a meditation, not a regimen. I've found sitting with a stick carving on it with a sharp knife requires immediate focus of attention. It clears the mind. I like the focus. The consequence of lifting focus for a second is a sliced finger. Focus keeps my fingers safe. Every touch of the knife requires sharp focus. Earlier today, I was feeling like I wanted to write, wanted to read, wanted to watch a movie, all at once. I picked up the knife and stick, went outside, turned over the five-gallon bucket and proceeded to carve. Turned the radio onto the interview program, Fresh Air, followed by Robin Young, then The World. Good interviewers, interesting people they talk with, and I find The World always interesting. I carve and hear in the air well-educated people talk about interesting subjects. I find that with focus on every movement with the knife I hear what they're saying better whether it's the emergence of ISIS in Iraq or the lives of Tibetan women in India. I like BBC radio at night. They tell a lot of Africa news. Africa has a mystique for me from the Pyramids to the Kalahari. Lawrence Durrell's novels, The Alexandria Quartet, were set in North Africa, Alexandria, Egypt. I think of Africa the world of our origin. I think of wood as one of humanity's great teachers. The other, rock. I could  have been a rock mason in this life happily. I have the same appreciation for rock as for wood. Basic, least moving parts, foundational. And I appreciate the life in the wood. The shape of the wood is its life. Carving away the bark I get down to the beautiful wood, caress it with sandpaper and rub the tung oil into it, changing it from something pretty to something beautiful instantly. Carving on the rhododendron branches I remind self from time to time, this is it, this is basic element.

the first rhododendron stick


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