Thomas Rain Crowe


      Silver and slick as velvet
      the edge of the old hoe glistens,
            how I’ve filed away this day--

            I am remembering, not long after beginning my four-year, Thoreau-like stand in the woods of Polk County, North Carolina from 1979-1982, an experience I had with my neighbor Zoro Guice and the important lesson learned on that day. As on many previous occasions, I had traveled by foot out Old Howard Gap Road to the crossroads and then taken the right turn up Old Macedonia Road and the subsequent mile-and-a-half walk to Guice Road and Zoro’s farm, as promised, to lend him and Bessie a helping hand with tasks and chores. Helping them with various labor-intensive chores was a way of showing my thanks for all the hospitality they had shown me and for the practical education and advice on woods-lore and the business of simply getting by. On this particular day, after sweeping a winter’s worth of pine needles from the tin roof and gutters of the house, hoeing out new rows for a second planting, and cultivating the early planting of potatoes, I was set to the task of chopping and splitting kindling for Bessie’s wood-fired cookstove. Bent over the woodblock, a small axe in one hand and a thin poplar limb in the other, I hacked off 12” lengths that would be used as tinder for starting fires or for adding greater heat to an already ignited cookbox (which she used in all seasons despite the heat or the fact that she had a brand new electric range there in her kitchen, donated by her children, that she had never used). I had already accumulated a generous pile of 12” sticks of kindling from a huge over-head-high pile of limbs Bessie had dragged up as a result of her occasional scavenging forays into the nearby woods, when I was startled by the sudden presence of Zoro. He had walked up behind me and was standing over my right shoulder, watching, as I hacked away at the branches with a novitiate, zealous, one-handed awkwardness. No sooner had I noticed him, than he reached down over my shoulder and grabbed the small kindling axe out of my hands, as if taking a dangerous object away from a curious toddler. Taking a quick glance at the business end of the axe, and with a look that was, at once, disgusted and fraught with pain, he peered down on me kneeling there amidst a winter’s worth of woodchips and sawdust and said: “I can’t bear to watch for nary another minute a man make so much work of such a simple job! How do you expect to cut anything with a dull axe? As tired as I am from just watchin’ you, I may as well be out here doin’ this for myself!”

            Embarrassed by Zoro’s scolding and by the fact that I hadn’t even thought to check the blade of the axe for sharpness, I remained silent, having nothing to say in my own defense. As I knelt there in myopic mute self-examination, Zoro pulled a long thin filing blade from his overalls, laid the metal end of the axe on the chopping block in front of me and began to file smooth, silk-like strokes over the edges of the axe. As the axe-blade started to take on a bright silver sheen, and after he had lifted it up from the woodblock and tested its sharpness with his thumb, drawing a thin line of dark red blood, and then running the filed edge against the contour of the backside of his forearm—cutting the hair on his arm as he went, like a scythe mowing wheat—Zoro looked down at me with something of a twinkle in his eye, handed me the axe, and said: “A man’s no better than his tools. If’n he don’t take care of his tools, keep ’em looked after and sharp, he’ll end up workin’ himself to death before his time. A sharp tool saves a man time, strain, and adds years to his life.” With that proclamation, he turned and walked over in the direction of the barn and returned within a few minutes with an armload of old tools that looked to have been used for generations--so worn and filed-down as to be barely recognizable as anything that might have originally been store-bought or new.

            “Since you’re settin’ there filing that axe, I’ve got these here other tools that need a few licks from that file of yours. It’ll get you in the practice,” Zoro concluded. And with that, he laid down the load of tools that included a shovel, mattock, sling-blade, hoe, hatchet and threshing scythe and, with a knowing grin on his face, he turned and headed back for the house.

            I remember sitting there on that chopping block for the rest of the afternoon filing Zoro’s tools. I had watched Zoro file the axe and so made quick work of finishing his job, as well as sharpening the hatchet. But with the other tools I had to discover on my own the proper stroking angles and technique by trial and error. After a couple hours of filing, with fingers bleeding from missed strokes and forearms aching, I was whipped! As I got up from my knees and reached for the brush-pile to test the newly-sharpened axe on a limb from Bessie’s stockpile, there was Zoro standing beside me, having appeared like an apparition, with a huge hunk of cornbread and a glass of sweet tea in his outstretched hands. “I don’t never ask a man to do anything without pay,” he said, standing there smiling with that all-knowing look on his face. A little less embarrassed than at our previous encounter, I smiled back. As he sauntered back to the house, I made quick work of both the cornbread and the tea.

            Walking home down Macedonia Road at dusk, I noticed that I was feeling satisfied with myself. Not only in having done a day’s work to help the Guices, but from something much less immediately tangible than a day’s wages paid in cornbread and tea. I wasn’t going home that evening empty-handed. I had been paid with knowledge and given a lesson that I knew would accrue interest over the course of a lifetime. In that sense it would prove priceless beyond counting.

            It’s been thirty years since that day I spent in front of Bessie’s branch-pile filing tools. This time of year, in Jackson County where I now live along the Tuckaseigee River, when the weather begins to stay warm from day to day in longer stretches, the morels and hummingbirds appear, the spring rains come to soften up the garden soil that has been freezing and thawing all winter, and there are fewer and fewer fires to be built in the woodstove for the purpose of providing heat, I get out my tools and begin the ritual of filing them down to that “Zoro-sharp” edge. Zoro’s profound lesson has become a seasonal ritual as well as part of my genetic memory. A reflex action that comes on the heels of the blooming of the ornamental pear trees, of the first sight of bluebirds and the return of chipmunks and woodchucks from their underworld winter dens. The longing for the sound and feel of metal on metal hits me like a hunger, and I know from this impulse, this yearning that comes from arm muscle and ear, that it is time to take care of the tools.

            For a small mountain farmer, such as myself, there are a few essential tools that are as important to him as good health and the food he eats to keep himself alive—tools that, in all honesty, spend most of the year in the tool shed just across the yard from my 130 year old farmhouse. A few of these tools I have inherited as gifts from various people and places. I don’t embrace them as keepsakes, but rather have, in some cases, re-handled them with grip-sized sourwood saplings and made them a part of my arsenal of friendly weapons with which I fight the good fight of semi-self-sufficiency. I carry on the hand-tool tradition that has been passed down through at least two generations with Zoro’s hoe, its blade barely one half the original size, so much of it having been filed off by either rasp or loamy red clay mountain soil.

            I’ve always thought it interesting that in some tribal or more traditionally agrarian cultures, to steal a man’s tool(s) is considered a crime punishable by death. To steal the tool(s) of another is tantamount to murder, since the victim wouldn’t be able to survive without them. Thusly are tools in these cultures valued. With this kind of care and with this sort of ethic in mind, I keep my tools in good condition. For the same reasons, I follow the ethic that is practiced here in these mountains: that it is impolite to ask a man to borrow one of his primary tools, as no man wants to run the risk of having someone else break or damage something that is so essential to his family’s well-being. By the same token, I don’t want to be responsible for having broken or damaged anyone else’s tools. We keep our tools to ourselves and close to home. While the members of my immediate neighborhood are only too happy to offer to lend a hand to anyone in need, I don’t think I have ever heard of a native in this community who has lent out either his chainsaw or his mule for someone else to use. The chainsaw especially is a “sacred cow” in the whole social ethic of tools and the lending of tools because of the delicate and variable nature of the tool itself and its potential for breakage, its costliness, and the huge impact it has as a labor-saving device. One might think, coming in from the urban, outside world, such attitudes and behavior amongst the mountain farmers of this region strange. But those of us living in the mountains on little or no monetary income and dependent upon our tools to make it from one day to the next would only laugh at outsiders who might make fun of such seemingly selfish, old-fashioned eccentricities.

            The list of tools that stand at attention in neat, orderly rows in my tool-shed reads like a who’s-who of the history of man’s agrarian domesticated life on the planet Earth: hoe, axe, mattock, maul, wedge, scythe, shovel, sledge, handsaw, cross-cut saw, pitchfork, rake, hammer, hand-drill and level. Like businessmen sitting in raised chairs on the corner of a city street on a summer morning waiting for their shoes to be shined, my tools wait for their spring make-over and a call-to-arms from the raspy blade of my silver file.

            This spring, like those that have come before, with the honeybees out of their hives and working the golden surfaces of the dandelions for pollen, each tool will take its turn out on the chopping block and will be sharpened carefully and properly until it has received a razor-sharp edge--allowing it to penetrate either earth or wood easily, as if it were a foot sliding effortlessly into a pair of familiar shoes. The hoe will emerge from its session with file, its multi-generational blade yet another eighth of an inch shorter, and make its way to the north end of the garden to furrow shallow rows for early spinach, leeks, spring onions, cabbage, parsnips, rutabagas and Jerusalem artichokes. The axe, with new edge and maybe a new hickory handle after a rough winter’s workout, will find its way into the nearby woods to cut dead branches a manageable length from trees fallen or standing-dead that will become kindling for the woodstove--which is still, after all these years, the main source of heat for my home in winter. The mattock will leave the sharpening block to find its way to the south end of the garden where it will turn up mulched cabbage, carrots, beets, and other tubers and hearty vegetables that have wintered over and need to be harvested before the warm soil and rain causes them to rot. It will also be used to dig out around the spring, to rid the springbox of silt and to open up the spring so that it can freely flow. The razor-sharp shovel will begin the spring turning the compost one last time before the organic fertilizer goes into the rows where seed potatoes will be dropped. It will dig deep holes where the germinated tomato seeds, as slips, will be heeled-in later in the spring. It will dig post-holes for the locust posts that will carry the heavy weight of half-runner green beans as they mature and spread out on the trellises during the summer months before becoming ripe and picked by the bushel. The long tongs of the garden rake are filed in circular motion to get their tips almost to the likeness of an ice-pick. With thin, pin-prick points, their blades will glide through the turned earth creating waves of soil covering the planted and sewn seed, will clear the paths through the woods and give a nice geometric look to my sandy Zen garden. The working edges of the splitting maul and wedge also will be sharpened to take that first bite into a round of wood still needing to be split for the last fires of the season, or to create the poplar and pine kindling for woodstove oven firings for the remainder of the spring and summer. A good edge to the scythe takes only a few minutes, with the thin metal being honed to a clean silver glaze and sharp sparkle in just a few long licks of the file, thus readying it for the clearing and maintenance work of keeping the briars and brambles at bay during the warmer months when untended grasses and weeds dominate the woods, orchard, arbors and fields. And last, but not least, there are the garden, kitchen and pocket knives, which demand oiling and a sharp edge by way of my whetstone, whether they be for use in the house or out in the garden.

            The smaller pocket knife demands special attention, as it is a constant companion--like a lover carried all year long against my hip. It is not uncommon to meet an old-timer here in this community who has carried a single, familiar penknife his whole life--one that was given to him by his father and that belonged to his father before that. These knives carry with them the weight and bearing of rite-of-passage amongst the male members of the community and are carried and brought out for show, conversation and trade with pride and bragging rights.

            Added to those already mentioned, yet of a different family, is another tool that is part of one’s essential cache: the fishing rod. With the annually stocked Tuckaseigee River nearby, mountain trout, bream and crappy have, along with squash, apples, corn, tomatoes and potatoes, become one of my dietary staples. The short plastic pole I own is handy in getting around in amongst the thickets and undergrowth down by and along the river and has allowed me to add a bit of soft meat and protein to my otherwise vegetarian diet.

            Here in Jackson County, I treat my tools as I would a family, an automobile or a mule. I remember Zoro telling me a moving story about his mule, who had lived for over thirty years and had, in essence, fed and provided for his family during all that time. When the old mule finally drew its last breath, Zoro had walked out of the barn and sat down by the side of his house and spent the rest of the day crying, unable to be comforted--so much a part of him and his family, so much a friend had that old mule been.

            With this same kind of loyalty a man must bond with his tools. Without them, without their being “healthy,” clean, and sharp, one is all but a helpless freak in trying to live a rural self-sufficient life. My tools, like Zoro’s mule, are my friends. I talk to them the same as I would talk to my neighbors, the rural-route mailman, or the animals that make their homes in these woods. I love to go into the shed in the winter and admire the clean, well-oiled handles and shiny blades, the rakes and scythes hanging from their nails against a backdrop of veined and weathered balsam boards. The tools in their places and in good order and oiled are a portent of the warm weather to come, of physical movement and exercise, and the welcome work of getting one’s hands, feet and whole body back into the dirt.

            By taking good care of the tools that I have and learning how to use them efficiently, I have been able to be here, warmed and well-fed through nineteen years along the Tuckaseigee River. My tools are evidence of my wealth. Though I have a meager income from my writing and publishing ventures, I can hold up my tools as currency. Currency I would not trade for the bank account nor the life of any wealthy man living in the city.

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Thomas Rain Crowe is an internationally-published poet and the author of thirty books of original and translated works. He was a founding editor of Katuah Journal: A Bioregional Journal of the Southern Appalachians, and he is founder-publisher of New Native Press. His multi-award winning memoir Zoro's Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods, written in the style of Thoreau’s Walden and based on four years of self-sufficient living in a wilderness environment in the woods of western North Carolina from 1979 to 1982, was published in 2005. He currently resides along the Tuckaseigee River in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. His articles, reviews and interviews have appeared in publications across this country and abroad. He has been a features writer for such regional publications as Green Line, Wild Mountain Times and the Mountain Xpress. He currently writes features and columns on culture, community and the environment for the Smoky Mountain News. His most recent book of essays and articles entitled The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist was published in 2008. He is a founding member of the Southern Nature Writers Group based in Athens, Georgia (