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Old Skills

Growing up in Anderson Valley in the late 1950s and 1960s meant learning a few skills, maybe not for everyone, but certainly for my siblings and me. We were living at my parent’s summer camp, El Rancho Navarro. When camp wasn’t in operation — essentially from September through May — it was mostly just us: well off the beaten path with lots of land, buildings, infrastructure and livestock to tend. Our acquisition of essential rural skills was more necessity than choice; we had to have them to live there.

With the help of neighbors and hired hands (my parents were city folk and equally clueless), we learned. I was seven years old when we arrived in Anderson Valley and by the time I was 12 I could handle a horse, milk a cow, drive a pickup, split firewood, prime a pump, prune a fruit tree, fix a fence, sharpen an axe, shoot a rifle and more. In addition to the doing, there was the knowing; knowing when a cow was ready to calve, knowing when pastures were ready for cutting and baling, knowing which woods would keep the wood heater going through the night, etc. To paraphrase an old quote, “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” My siblings and I received fine — if unorthodox — educations living in our isolated corner of the valley.

Then came adulthood. For me it meant city living. It also meant most of those old skills and that old knowledge went unused. Plus, in city life, the paradigm changed. I no longer had to depend on myself for specific skills and knowledge: I could hire people who had them.

Driving was among the few old skills to remain relevant. Driving on city streets isn’t that different than driving on dirt farm roads, though there are a lot more rules, other vehicles and crazy folks going too fast. On the plus side, getting stuck in mud stops being a concern. However, backing up a pickup to load firewood is a lot different than parallel parking.

One old skill I continue to enjoy is knife sharpening. A pocket knife was and is an indispensable tool in the country. My brother and I typically each carried one when not at school, because having one enabled us to do anything from cut twine from hay bales to tighten screws. Eventually my sharpening skills expanded to include kitchen knives, specifically those in the camp kitchen.

More than 50 years later, I’m still sharpening my pocket knife and kitchen knives. I have moved from a water stone to a set of oil stones, but the technique remains essentially the same. A thin film of water or oil goes on the sharpening stone, the knife is held at approximately a 30-degree angle (that’s for European-style knives: Japanese knives are different) and then slid — moving from heel to tip - across the stone repeatedly, sliding it away and then towards the body to hone both sides of the blade. After initial sharpening with a coarse stone, the process is repeated with a fine stone.

To do it right takes precision and patience; establishing and maintaining the proper angle of knife to stone, sliding the knife deliberately so that the entire blade crosses the stone, giving each side sufficient strokes to gain a centered edge and repeating the process until smooth sharpness is achieved throughout the length of the blade. Rather than scary, I find the task relaxing; focus and repetition push away distractions, and produce results both definite and satisfying. 

There are plenty of alternatives today to my old school way of sharpening knives: diamond stones, special jigs, motorized grinding wheels (very wearing on knives), spring-loaded bar sharpers, slide-through slot sharpeners and more. These new toys are enticing, but I will pass. An old skill is like an old friend, reliable, comforting and always available.


  1. Jim Armstrong May 16, 2018

    This piece appeared a week or so ago. I asked a question in a comment.
    No record of either seems available.

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