Breaking Trail

If the function of a writer is to write, which it is, I haven’t been very functional lately.  Feast and famine cycles aren’t new to me, but at least over the course of this latest dry spell I enjoyed the company of my son Graham who had been working with me while on his winter break from college.

We were preparing for a snowshoe event coming up in Eagle River.  Breaking trail, cutting and splitting wood for campfires, hauling straw bales for folks to sit on.  Being together in the January northwoods.  IMG_0995It was a joy to have him up here with me, especially in the evenings.  He’s a good cook, a good companion, and as this time together reinforced, a good man.

It’s been a real January in the north woods.  Working off a long list of tasks with a deadline, we allowed the weather to arrange their completion, or at least the time of day when they might be done.  Sometimes breakfast would take a little longer than needed while the temperature was allowed to rise a bit, and the indoor tasks generally took a morning slot, chains to be sharpened, signs to be built.

And then it was a dad and a son and a dog in the woods and they don’t make weather bad enough to spoil that.

The snowbound woods were silent but for snowshoed feet making our way.  One of us stopped now and again to point at some scene as beautiful as another we’d just passed, or to identify a good spot for a trail marker.  Words weren’t needed but sometimes we’d string a couple together as if we were supposed to.  Together we enjoyed the IMG_1008woodland solitude.  The Germans, ever efficient in their vernacular, call it waldeinsamkeit, and with similar efficiency we placed one foot in front of the other leaving marks in both the snow and our memories.  Arlo scoffed altogether at the concept of efficiency and crossed our trail repeatedly, coming from places we may never lay eyes on.

With another set of tasks checked off we gather our chill and our tools and bring them back to the farmhouse for some warmth and a meal.  Out of the woods the words flow more freely.  A recap of the day between mouthfuls and some thoughts on what tomorrow might hold with the weather checked.  An evaluation of what worked and what didn’t with how we were dressed and what might be changed tomorrow.  Glances down at Arlo who will be licking his paws well into the evening.

On one particular evening conversation went well past when the old man typically retired.  The younger was enthusiastic in his want to discuss all things celestial, the physical universe and the confounding notion that it bears an edge.  Time and space and spacetime, God and physics and questions without answers.  A father and son and waldeinsamkeit.  A dog licking its paws.  A different kind of trail was broken that evening, winding unmarked through mysteries and circling back upon itself.  Each of us stopping at different points suggesting that here might be a good spot for a trail marker.  The bed was soft that night.

Then another January morning and a breakfast that took  a little longer than needed.

Fresh Steel

IMG_0968A glance at the thermometer yesterday morning showed -16F.  It was a good day to continue working in the shop, sharpening and tuning hand tools.  Sharpening plane irons and chisels is therapeutic for a mind like mine.  It asks me to slow down, to reorient my sometimes “squirrel in the road” thought process, to focus.  It is mindfulness practice with really sharp objects.

There is a ritual associated with this sharpening meditation.  The bench is cleared and the workspace prepared with the means to the end.  A coarse diamond stone is placed on the left should it be needed and two Japanese water stones in steps to the right; one to sharpen, one to hone.  A bottle of water to lubricate the stones, a rag to clean the tools between steps, and a scrap board for tuning are placed close at hand.

Then the tools themselves are chosen, planes first, chisels last.  Dust, memory and a careful drag of the thumb indicate which need sharpening and a swipe on the test board is used for triage.  The sharpest of the lot is the first to go through the process.  Bringing a tool from “pretty sharp” to “scary sharp” sets the standard.

The plane is then disassembled by removing its lever cap and iron assembly, leaving the frog exposed for inspection and cleaning.  That this finely crafted tool has a key component labeled a frog is a thinly veiled attempt to break my concentration – to which I sometimes succumb.  With the iron in hand it’s time to put steel to stone.

Both visual and tactile senses are brought fully to bear as the stone is stroked by the iron, carefully maintaining the angle to be sharpened,  watching the slurry darken to indicate progress.  A wipe with a rag and a feel with the thumb reveals a slight burr on the back of the iron.  Fresh steel has been exposed; the essence of sharpening.  A few strokes on the fine stone, front and back, to hone the sharpened edge completes the process.

The plane is then reassembled and tuned; the tuning board presiding as judge.  The iron’s exposure and bias are adjusted and readjusted until the plane sings across the board and offers up a uniformly thin shaving, a gossamer slice of grain.  An inward smile, a nod of satisfaction accompanies the placement of the plane back in its till for safe keeping.

And so with the others.

And so while the wind factored chill into already frigid air, I found refuge in a task.  Protected by walls and a sense of purpose, a day passed warmed by the mindful engagement of stone and steel.