To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Part 6: Post 2: Sharpening Tools

I never really noticed it before, but there’s a vine growing all up the walls around the “bird feeder garden” on the shady side of the Mansion.  Yes, I’ve spent the past however many months learning to notice plants, but I hardly ever go into that garden, and you can’t see it very well from the campus road because it’s screened by trees. I hardly ever go in it because the main point of the garden is to attract birds, and if I’m in the garden the birds mostly aren’t. Instead, I watch them through the window, and I can’t see the outer wall of the Mansion, where the vine climbs, from inside the Mansion, now can I?
But I’ve noticed the vine at last because it’s turned bright red and almost everything else in the garden is still green. It’s not ivy (and of course, it wouldn’t be; ivy is an exotic), and I was pretty sure it wasn’t a grape vine, just looking at it, but I had to use my new field guides to really put a name to it. It’s Virginia creeper, and I should have known it, because I remember them pointing it out to us in camp when I was a kid. Supposedly people confuse it with poison ivy, so the counselors showed us the difference between the two plants, but I remembered poison ivy and forgot Virginia creeper. Anyway, it’s turned bright red, almost purple, and now the cascades of it coming down the building look like some giant fairy-woman’s hair.
And the birds love it, flying in and out to eat the berries. I suppose that’s why it’s planted where it is.
The bird feeder garden has been a smashing success, as far as I can tell, though I won’t say so aloud because it sounds funny to approve of something that was obviously here long before I was. The jewel weed alone (the green stuff I noticed by the little fountain, months ago) turned out to attract more hummingbirds than anything I’ve seen before, including commercial feeders.
I’ve decided that next year I’m going to get a job working in the gardens, if Charlie will have me. It’s just ridiculous that I don’t get to work in the gardens and really study them after having spent months getting on a first-name basis with every tree on campus.
I did join a seminar on tool care this past Saturday, partly in hopes of preparing for a gardening job, and partly because Charlie said he wants me to learn trail work as an athletic endeavor. Trail work involves tools, so I decided to get ready for that, too. Charlie didn’t ask me to, but he did smile at me, briefly, when he saw me among the group who showed up for the workshop, so I think I'm getting this.
Charlie wasn’t wearing his uniform. He’s the only person I know who will do manual labor in his school uniform, it’s like a second skin to him, though I have no idea how he keeps it clean, and so when he shows up wearing anything else there’s usually a reason. This time the reason appeared to be the quote printed on the t-shirt he was wearing;
“If I had five hours in which to chop down a tree, I’d spend four of them sharpening my axe.”—Abraham Lincoln.
We did start with axes, and Charlie let us try splitting wood before we tried sharpening anything. He did not, of course, tell us that the idea was to demonstrate why sharpening matters—he came up with some excuse to convince us he simply wanted the wood split, I don’t know why I still fall for these things. I got some of the logs split and so did Oak, who's pretty big, but sometimes the axe just bounced off the wood or got stuck in it, and Rick, Raven, and Joanna didn’t get their logs split at all. Then Charlie came back and acted all upset that we hadn’t gotten the logs split, but by that time we’d all figured out what he was up to, so he dropped the act and taught us how to sharpen the axes.
The shape of the axehead had to be just so (most of ours were too fat in cross-section, because the edge had been worn back) and the edge had to be straight—I mean, seen from the side the axe blades are curved, but if you look down on the blade along its length it has to be straight. There couldn’t be any nicks, and once I learned to notice the nicks I realized mine had zillions of them, large and small. We had to use gloves to protect our hands from the axe and a nice, even stroke with the file, stroke after stroke after stroke. Getting it right seemed to take hours, though I’m not sure if it really did. When we were finally done filing, Charlie handed out sharpening stones and explained how to care for them and how to use them. By the time we were done, he said, we should be able to shave with our axes. He meant that literally, demonstrating by shaving a small patch of hair off his arm. Afterwards, splitting wood did go much easier. After we were done splitting wood, our axes needed sharpening again because the edges of the blades were all nicked up. So we sharpened them. Again.

We also sharpened shovels and hoes for Sarah and her farmers and clippers, loppers, Pulaskis and pick-mattocks for whichever trail workers Charlie was going to draft. No, I didn’t know what Pulaskis and pick-mattocks were, either, until I had to sharpen them—a Pulaski is an axe with an adz blade on the back of it, for digging, and a pick-mattock has an adz on one side and a pick on the other (I kept hearing the name as “pickmatic,” like “pick-o-matic,” something Wile E. Coyote might buy from Acme, but I imagine it’s like an alternate version of a pick-axe). I’d never thought of a shovel as being a thing that needed to be sharp, but of course if you’re digging through roots I can see how that would help.
I’d also never thought of sharpening tools as something I’d get college credit for, but honestly once I
Pick Mattock
got into it the stroke, stroke, stroke of the file wasn’t all that different from following my breath in zazen or painting a picture. I kind of got into the zone. And I can get credit for meditation or art, so why not this? At least it makes sense here, anyway.
I had plenty of time to think about how good tool-sharpening might be for not thinking because after the seminar was over Charlie said anyone who wanted extra practice could stay after and sharpen all the rest of the tools—there were only five of us in the seminar, so we hadn’t sharpened more than five of any one of kind of tool. Rick and I were the only two who stayed, and it took us until midnight to get everything done. Charlie didn't stay to help, which I suppose is a mark of confidence. On Monday morning, Charlie gave me my own sharpening stone and file. He gave it to me without ceremony and without thanks for my labor, and I suspect this means there is a lot more sharpening in my future.
Charlie would never say that tool-sharpening is supposed to be meditative, or that it offers some object lesson in life by way of metaphor. He’d say axes need to be sharp, because using them is both easier and safer that way. He also never said anything about the t-shirt he’d worn, though he’d quite obviously worn it deliberately. I’ve thought a lot about that t-shirt slogan, and I’ve come to believe that whatever else that slogan is, metaphorical or not, as regards felling actual trees it’s probably literally true.
Abraham Lincoln was a farm kid, after all.

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