There’s just something about whittling.
I’ve carried an old wooden chair from the kitchen down to the garden and placed it just above the vegetable patch where it looks out over a valley in Spring. Greens, browns, every shade of. A deep content breath for the moment. How good is this. The family bolthole, Rhydcymerau, southwest Wales. Four acres on a hillside near the Brecon Beacons. My spot for the week. Then there’s the knife. An Opinel; a present from an ex prior to a trip to Mull two years ago, where I used it for gutting brown trout. It’s attached to my jeans in a case of brown leather. You can do that out here, just have a knife dangling from your jeans, but back in the city it might look suspect. Unfold the blade and lock it into place. The Opinel slices through the silvery bark with a sharp, clean lick. Repeat. And repeat. Whittling is honing in. If this is life, life is for me. In the words of Raymond Carver, ‘Life. Always life.’
Rewind some; an hour tops. I leave the house with an axe over my shoulder. The sun is right above me bearing down, and the sky is mostly blue though some billowing white cloud languidly ushers the day along. Slow. The axe is small; it’s a baby axe, an axe for a city boy left to his own devices in the country for a few days. Even so, one blind slip and that axe would have no difficulty dividing a foot into two. I’m looking for the perfect length of wood, something that I’ll turn into a walking stick. For my perambulations. Generally I would only whittle dead wood, but this particular job requires something special. I walk the perimeter of the property, usually taking twenty minutes at an average pace, with no pauses. But I take an hour this time. Stopping and studying as I go. I run my finger tips against trees, mostly young birches at the edges. Seeing what feels right. Some oaks. I reach the farthest point of the property, a steep incline in the shade of a small but dense wood on the other side of the fence.
Picture this: a very young birch tree with silvery bark in early Spring, growing against the fence, on our side. Tiny green leaves are starting to show at ends of long narrow branches. The trunk itself takes a hand and a half to wrap around its base, and roughly a foot above the ground, a strong branch comes away from it, stretching long and straight into the air. Because of how it bends away from the trunk, it already has an interesting curve. The rest is dead straight. I picture this: a clean walking stick, full of purpose, with a slight bow at the top of which to lean on. It’ll do, and it’ll do more than just fine. Barney – he’s the family lab – stands beside me. He sniffs the air around the base of the tree as I unclip the black leather sleeve from the axe, place it in my back pocket and get into position.
The first blow is a dull blank, anti-climactic. A thud. The blade slips and halts at the V where the branch comes away from the trunk. The second isn’t; it connects and sinks. A line of spit appears up my arm. It’s come from the branch, and is a fresh white with a green hue and smells of life. I keep going, axe-fall after axe-fall. The tree yields to its cutting, and my arms become wetter with what I have come to understand is the trees blood. I’m practically drenched in it. My breath is laboured and there’s sweat rolling down my brow. Halfway through, I take a short break and look at the damage. The core of the branch is revealed to be of a pale flesh, glistening in the sun. A part of me wants to cover it up, to protect it, for it appears so vulnerable. But there’s no turning back; I must get to the end and fast. The final few cuts split the branch away from the rest of the tree, awkward and clumsy. Then I drag it away behind me, as Barney attempts to take the branch between his ivory-white teeth.
Back at the old wooden chair, a little short of an hour later, Barney sleeps in the shade. I had laid the branch out on the roof of the old pigsty to dry out in the sun for a bit, and then I’d had a wash. I sit and whittle, watch as the knife takes shavings of thin bark from the wood. They gather in a qentle pile at my feet. What am I honing in on exactly. And does it even matter. There is something in whittling which seems to centre me. I’m not sure if it’s about being one with nature – afterall, I’d recently fought with nature to get to this – so perhaps it is more about being one with myself. The process of whittling is metaphor; like a good edit, or a good distillation. A nearing to the truth. It’s a reminder, to be gradual, to be precise, yet playful. In Twin Peaks when Sheriff Harry S. Truman asks Special Agent Dale Cooper why he whittles, he responds philosophically. “Because that’s what you do in a town where a yellow light still means slow down, not speed up.” Whittling is rebellion; a V sign to life done in a rush.