Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A small axe, a piece of wood, and a quiet night

About a week ago my cousin Dora Ines and her partner Del decided to visit. Dora and Del have a place across the road from us and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts we live in an isolated spot far from what some choose to call civilization. I was in my little shop working a rasp across a piece of mesquite when the two showed up. Dora is an accomplished artist who makes her own jewelry and weaves intricate cloth used in various religious sacraments. By the way, she just finished making a new studio and in a couple of weeks I hope to show you pictures of her work. An artist colony of sorts we have here with Dora Ines making her jewelry and luxurious cloth and I engaged in my writing as well as making knives, selfbows and a few other things. Dora’s father and my mother were brother and sister and she and I grew up together in the ranch country.

When Del saw me using the rasp he said, “Why don’t you just use an electric lathe and a belt sander?” I was about to answer but Dora came to my defense: “Because then it wouldn’t be quiet,” she said.

And I realized more than ever how much Dora and I have in common. We grew up loving the woods and holding nature’s quiet dear to our hearts. We revel at the site of a bird perched on a branch, or the sounds of an owl in the night. We’ll sit and listen to the yaps and yodels of coyotes and lament the fact that in some parts of Texas people live in fear of the little dogs and you can wait for days, weeks and months and never hear their serenades. Dora and I have camped in the brushlands of South Texas and Mexico and now that those who were dear to us are gone we have each other to help revisit those times. For in our youth the brushlands sprawled as far as the eye could see and never did we imagine that humans, in their rapacious quests and greed, would annihilate most of it. Perhaps that is why we both live in this isolated place. Woe to anyone who might come along and want to destroy any part of it. For in the autumn of our years we have little patience with those who see the world as something bestowed strictly for their personal consumption and enrichment.    

So as I often do I spent several hours sitting under the roof of my shed with a small axe and a piece of mesquite in my hands. The quiet seemed to exude from the ground as well as from endless stars held still in the night. Interrupted only by the occasional hoots of a couple of great-horned owls, the shriek of a barn owl, and the falsetto wailings of coyotes both near and far and, of course, the rhythmic taps from my little axe as a knife handle began to take shape.  Yes, I do own a belt sander but I detest the contraption. Clouds of sawdust or metal flakes pollute the air and the wailing—an incongruent scream in the night—destroys the placidity of my surroundings. Belt sanders, angle grinders, and power this and power that were made for factories and cities and for lovers of tractors and bulldozers and perhaps heavy metal music. But not here. Not in this place where for a few moments I stopped and listened to geese migrating south overhead. Other night birds came to visit. A pauraque and a screech owl and even the crackling grunts of a family of raccoons skirting the edge of the woods on their way to where I dumped scraps just for them. 

Whether you call it dasein, or flow, or simply to be lost in the moment, the act of taking something as simple as a sharp axe, a piece of wood and coupling it with a dark and quiet night and you have the makings for the immersion of self into the universe.  You’ll never hear it with a belt sander or a spinning lathe, or when a tractor grunts nearby. You can only hear it when there are few sounds to stand in the way.

Was it one hour or two? I’m not really sure, nor do I care. I was alive and life was good. Yesterday, I had to drive into the city 65 miles away. Too much noise, too many people, crazy drivers, bad smells, sirens, congestion….

Dora Ines goes to town only once a month, but I think she would be fine if she never had to go to the city. I’ve trimmed my visits down to twice a month, and even that is too much. We’ve talked to people who say they won’t come out here because “it’s just too quiet.” Others can’t stand the isolation. Some people around here will look for any excuse to drive into town. We see through their ruse and to each his own. I have been asked to make a selfbow and some arrows for a museum as well as some other woodcraft articles. I’ll be busy in my little workshop. Listening to the night sounds of coyotes and birds and the breeze skittering along the treetops. And yes, hearing as well the musical sound of a rasp working wood as well as the hypnotic taps of my little axe.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Woods Roamer Survival Knife

Choosing a wilderness survival knife is a subjective decision. Hopefully that decision is based on a careful weighing of criteria that remains constant regardless of terrain. First, the knife must be robust. Second, it should be well made—capable of holding a sharp edge but at the same time able to maintain that edge given rough treatment. Third, the knife must not be obtrusive; in other words, it should be neither unwieldy nor ponderous. At the same time the knife must not be so flimsy or insubstantial that it fails in the most common task a survival knife is called upon to perform which is chopping.

Lest our choice becomes burdened by an overabundance of subjectivity then remember that the survival knife should not be so specialized as to fail in the most important of all needs—universality. Said another way, the need to chop does not necessarily call for an axe nor does the luxury of making a wooden spoon dictate the need to carry only a crooked knife. In other words, the ideal survival knife must be a jack-of-all-trades. Specialized cutting tools will outperform the survival knife at specific tasks, but no knife can do all the things the ideal survival knife can do given multiple tasks.

Enter the Woods Roamer Survival Knife. Yes, I make these knives and I am partial. But long past 60 years of age and with over fifty of those years spent working in the woods or actually living in the woods I think I can accurately assess what performs best and what falls short. What you see pictured below is the third model in an evolutionary process that began about two years ago. I called the first model “the custom bush tool.” The second model was called “the survival parang” because of the design's similarities to the short machetes seen in parts of Malaysia. But when a host of emails referred to the knife as “the woods roamer knife” I decided that moniker was appropriate.

The knife’s dimensions are as follows:
Blade length: 10 inches
Cutting edge length: 8 ½ inches
Blade thickness: ¼ inch
Handle length: 6 inches
Overall length: 16 inches

The lazy S design incorporated into the knife’s shape vastly improves the knife’s chopping ability—especially when compared to a straight handled knife like the K-Bar or other large knives. This knife chops with the ease of a small axe but can slice and cut like a bushcraft knife. The blade’s rearward section near the handle is rounded to allow the knife to be easily choked and thus used for woodcarving tasks. The tang is substantial (much more so than the flimsy stick tangs seen on Malaysian parangs) but yet it does not disturb the knife’s overall balance like a full-tang large knife often does.

My two Woods Roamer knives: The top knife has a 10 inch blade and the bottom knife has an 8 ¼ inch blade. These are working knives, hand forged from 14 inch industrial files and intended for serious bushcraft and survival.

Many people have asked me to make them a knife so I’ve decided to build a batch and sell them on a first-come-first-served basis. As I complete a knife I will post the pictures of that knife and if you want it I’ll sell it to you. In other words, I won’t take orders for knives. I’ll build Woods Roamer Survival Knives as time permits and I should be able to produce a couple per month.

Here’s a video I posted on YouTube showing “The Woods Roamer Survival Knife.”