Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sharps: A philosophy

After the hammer, the edged tool arguably was the first implement fashioned by man. Those who embrace the undeniably primitive nature of axes and knives today tend to be elemental philosophers of a sort, a fellowship that includes many knife owners and virtually all knifemakers.

In this era of specialties and gimmickry, we'd be wise to return to the basics they espouse.

Mike Stewart is, for all practical purposes, Bark River Knife & Tool. He learned his craft at the elbow of the legendary Bill Moran. He was shaped by an industry journey that included Pacific, Blackjack, and Marble. Today his company manufactures some of the finest and most sought-after sharps, regardless of price, in the world.

Like most of us, Stewart has both detractors and defenders. I prefer to judge a man by his work, however, and in that regard he has my admiration.

Stewart also happens to be among the aforementioned philosophers. With pleasing clarity, he draws us back to fundamentals:

"I have found that a knife needs to be a knife. It needs to cut, chop, carve, be batoned. It needs to be strong, take a great edge, hold that edge and be easy to touch-up in the field.

"With that in mind, the more things you try to incorporate into that knife -- saw teeth, gut hooks, skull crushers, hammers, hidden compartments -- the less it actually is a knife."

The essence of an edged tool, then, is its utility. Knives can be beautiful, certainly, and many of Stewart's are, but his mindset demands that their aesthetics flow from their usefulness. It's an approach rooted in function, dismissing the dime-store flamboyance typical of made-in-Hollywood blades.

Naturally, different patterns and sizes excel at different tasks -- "horses for courses," as the saying goes -- but there always will be the wish for The Knife, a single tool that does most everything well.

As much as I might hate to admit it, I'm always pursuing the ideal bushcraft knife, the one survival knife to replace all others. Here's Stewart's perspective:

"The best bushcraft knife is the one you have with you and is best suited to your needs and style of use."

"A survival knife is the knife you have with you when things go not as planned."

"For me, a survival knife is a bushcraft knife -- and a utility knife and a hunting knife. I really don't care what style you are comfortable with. If you know how to use it, it's your bushcraft knife."

That's an extraordinarily useful way to look at a knife, but on closer examination we see that Stewart isn't talking about knives or even about preparedness. He's talking about us.

Singer, not song.

Simplicity resides in me, not in an object. When I handle and use a knife, I discover its elemental qualities and rediscover my own. Its ultimate utility can't emerge without me. As I reveal my aptitudes and master skills, the tool is constant -- I change.

That's what Stewart is saying. That's what he knows.

And so if there's an explanation for my affection for sharps -- why I write so many posts on the subject, why I'll sit quietly and whittle a feather stick rather than play a computer game -- that's it.

It's a philosophy. Knives are simply the tools I use to explore it.