Courage, Compassion, Grace, and Fortitude: On Sharp Objects that Inspire

When I was a little kid, my Grandpa gave me a pocket knife that he had had since he was a kid. The blade was so dull and the end spring so slow by the time I inherited it, the only thing it was good for was opening the occasional paint can or “whittling” Mimosa wood, which is so soft you can pretty much lay waste to an entire branch with a butter knife. Even so, I loved that pocket knife and was rarely without it when playing outside, which I was forced to do because my parents wouldn’t buy me a damn Nintendo nor would they get us cable despite the fact that I had no idea what my peers were talking about half the time and it was turning me into a 4th grade “weirdo.”

Anyway. The knife. I loved it in part because my Grandpa brought it all the way from Hawaii, where he lived, and because even as a child I loved objects that carried their own history around with them. If they somehow alluded to a sense of adventurous possibility, even better. I would throw on my dad’s leather jacket and run around my backyard with the pocket knife and some rope in tow pretending to be a girl Indiana Jones because in the 80s there were never female adventurers in movies and what a bore it was to play house. Why would I pretend to stay home and cook for a family when I could just as easily imagine myself traveling between dimensions or exploring treacherous landscapes? Let’s see, shopping at imaginary Kroger, or scouting polar extremes?  I choose polar extremes because then I don’t have to think about budgeting.

There I am!

My love of weird objects that I can’t really use continues to this day and has expanded to a whole host of things that make no sense for me to buy or incorporate aesthetically into my daily life. I write, I work in nonprofits, I hate camping. But I love working with my hands and I love any activity that requires mental focus combined with physical precision. Last year I began taking riding lessons, which I haven’t picked up again since being back on the East Coast because the East Coast really likes to keep the classes as separated as possible and so it’s been next to impossible to find a place I can afford. So I’m taking archery. Because archery has now been designated a “hunting sport” and therefore relegated primarily to the working class, which means it’s affordable. It also involves the same combination of focus and precision that riding does and brings with it a litany of beautiful objects with their own sense of history and adventure.

Here’s what I’ve been shooting with:

This is a Hungarian, hand-carved, decorated recurve bow.

 

Well, that’s actually a close approximation of what I’ve been shooting with. I’ve been using a wooden recurve bow, but it’s not hand-carved nor is it Hungarian. But look at the lines on that! It’s like music.

 

This is what my bow really looks like.

 

Fun fact about shooting: I found out from a couple who shoots at the same range that I do that women are actually better hunters and better shots than men. According to the husband of the couple, women breath more deeply, which allows them greater focus and they are more precise with their physical form, which give them better accuracy. The wife gets bored hunting big game because it’s “too easy.” She prefers smaller animals because they’re more difficult. This is the first time I’ve been around anyone who actually hunts animals and I don’t know if bow hunters are different than rifle hunters, but this particular couple had an almost other-era reverence for the animals they hunt. They talk about  them like respectable equals and they only hunt with the intent of eating the game, rather than using them as trophies.

I don’t hunt animals. I just like the shooting. But I also like the people who come to the practice range because they’re nice. And they seem to think it’s amusing when I show up in my “archery clothes.” Mainly, though, they think it’s impressive that I’m learning to shoot with a wooden bow rather than a spring loaded, cammo thingy. Wooden bows are really difficult, apparently. I have the arm bruises to show for it, too.

There I am!

One summer a couple of years ago I worked designing and building wooden science toy prototypes for a tiny, family-run business in Hayward, CA. I spent all day figuring out how to teach 4-6 year olds about wind speed, velocity, drag, etc. And then I would sketch out my ideas and use a variety of expensive tools to bring them to life. That’s the only time I’ve had to use real tools on a regular basis, but it inspired a love affair with the form and function of tools, saws in particular.

I began dreaming of having my own workshop filled to bursting with saws of all shapes, sizes, and uses. Remembering my Grandpa’s admiration of/near obsession with Japanese craftsmanship, I got curious about Japanese sawmaking.

This is what I found:

Hishika Miniature Dovetail Saw.

Nakaya Ryoba Saw for Cabinetmaking.

I once had a friend from Japan who said that the strength of Japanese culture isn’t in invention, but in perfection. She said that the Japanese rarely invent something all together new, but they are masters at improving and perfecting. I have no idea if this is true or not, but they did improve on the art of the saw. Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke, unlike Western saws which cut when you push. Because of this one small difference, their saw blades can be much thinner because they don’t need to be as rigid. It also means that you have to exert less energy when you cut things.

Here’s what the Hishika workshop looks like:

Sawmaking in a jaunty cap.

The title of this post, “Courage, Compassion, Grace, and Fortitude,” aren’t bad words to live by and were taken from Best Made Co., one of my favorite shops for objects that I’ll never need, but love to think about holding. I first found out about Best Made Co. because a friend posted about wanting one of their axes.

Despite having an obsession–like the rest of society–with post-apocalyptic self-reliance, I will likely never find myself in the position of needing to fell a tree with an axe. In fact, the only experience I have with felling anything is when I decided I would cut down my own Christmas tree this year. Gnawing through a young Fir with a hack saw so dull and rusty that poor Thomas McBee and I had to take turns until he finally got the tree 3/4 sawed through and I decided it would be easier to karate kick the thing the rest of the way down was not the sort of hands-on experience I had hoped it would be. So perhaps I should have had a Best Made axe, after all.  Though I don’t know anyone else who can say they kicked down their own Christmas tree. At any rate, the artistry and love that has clearly gone into making these particular axes make them extremely compelling.

No bother! Just walking to work with m'axe sling.

I wonder if anyone actually needs these axes. Certainly nobody in SoHo needs an axe, which is where Best Made Co. lives. Maybe once a year when New Yorkers descend upon New England to leaf peep. Maybe they could peep their Christmas trees and fell them with their SoHo axes. This is where we’ve gotten to, people!

This Japanese Hatchet also would have been useful in not kicking down a tree.

I grew up in a weird neighborhood in Nashville. I say weird, because it wasn’t a suburb, but it also wasn’t urban. It was just a neighborhood. In this neighborhood was a very small patch of wooded property that belonged to an old mansion that was a shadow of what it must have once been. There were a lot of these sprinkled around this part of Nashville. They had been used as hospitals and other things during the Civil War and occasionally we would get weird old men ringing our doorbell asking to scour our yard with a metal detector in the hopes of finding some Civil War medal, bullet bit, or god knows what. I always thought it was inappropriate for them to ask to come into people’s yards. And also I wanted to find those things. Anyway, sometimes I would take my dog Sandy to this small patch of wooded property and shoot targets with a slingshot I had somehow convinced my mom to buy me despite her concern that I would use it on my little brother. It was a valid concern. He was always breaking my shit.

Brass Slingshot with Hand-Carved Wooden Handle.

Slingshots are actually used the world over by professional hunters of small game. And like everything else with a finite purpose and narrow audience, their form has been lovingly perfected in an infinite number of ways. The Y form continues to be the most popular, but there are also ergonomic models, custom shooters, and regional differences, particularly when it comes to the type of wood used.

Hand-Carved from Nicaragua.

I shot rocks, but I guess hunters use ball bearings that they carry around in little ammo pouches like this:

I still prefer sharp arrows.

The only sharp object that I have ever consistently had in my life continues to be a pocketknife. When I was in college I made a habit of never leaving the house without one. For a long time I had a spring loaded number that I knew how to unlock and flip open in the blink of an eye. Well. Maybe in two blinks of the eye. Like most objects, you develop a relationship to your knife. Like I did with the one my Grandpa gave me. Somehow people seem to have a sort of “billy-bob tough” association with pocket knives, but they’re really a thing of beauty.

Simple and Sweet.

Japanese Higo Knife.

A good knife can get you into or out of most things and you’ll never need be without utensils again.

And like any other good accessory, a well-made pocket knife can be an intriguing, nuanced detail that speaks to your personality.

I haven’t really changed that much since I was a little kid. I still collect weird shit that grabs my imagination; I still think about elaborate adventures, even if my bank account won’t allow for many of them; I still like learning news skills and reading about natural sciences; and I still think there’s something incomparably fascinating about simple objects created with meticulous attention to detail.  There’s something equally dignified and daring about a classic form that’s been meditated on for hundreds of years.

About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.

5 comments

  1. Beautiful obsession, love this post.

  2. With Care

    This is why I have so many scissors that I will never actually use.
    (Also, I demanded my first pocket knife at age 12. I think my dad was pretty proud.)

  3. It’s strange and wonderful to read something like this because its my own story in someone else’s words. I still have my granddad’s pocket knife, sharpened down to a new shape. Thanks!

  4. Michael von Braithwaite

    It’s so awesome to see that I was not the only little girl who carried around a knife!

  5. Tedder

    I like this article alot! Can you contact me please? tedderoutdoors@windstream.net

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