The Axe-Helve
The Axe-Helve

The Axe-Helve

an excerpt from Adventures in Contentment

by David Grayson, from Countryman’s Companion, 1947

This morning I broke my old axe handle. I went out early while the fog still filled the valley and the air was cool and moist as it had come fresh from the filter of the night. I drew a long breath and let my axe fall with all the force I could give it upon a new oak log. I swung it unnecessarily high for the joy of doing it and when it struck it communicated a sharp yet not unpleasant sting to the palms of my hands. The handle broke short off at the point where the helve meets the steel. The blade was driven deep in the oak wood. I suppose I should have regretted my foolishness, but I did not. The handle was old and somewhat worn, and the accident gave me an indefinable satisfaction: the culmination of use, that final destruction which is the complement of great effort.

This feeling was also partly prompted by the thought of the new helve I already had in store, awaiting just such a catastrophe. Having come somewhat painfully by that helve, I really wanted to see it in use.

Last spring, walking in my fields, I looked out along the fences for a well-fitted young hickory tree of thrifty second growth, bare of knots at least head high, without the cracks or fissures of too rapid growth or the doziness of early transgression. What I desired was a fine, healthy tree fitted for a great purpose and I looked for it as I would look for a perfect man to save a failing cause. At last I found a sapling growing in one of the sheltered angles of my rail fence. It was set about by dry grass, overhung by a much larger cherry tree, and bearing still its withered last year’s leaves, worn diaphanous but curled delicately, and of a most beautiful ash gray colour, something like the fabric of a wasp’s nest, only yellower. I gave it a shake and it sprung quickly under my hand like the muscle of a good horse. Its bark was smooth and trim, its bole well set and solid.

A perfect tree! So I came up again with my short axe and after clearing away the grass and leaves with which the wind had mulched it, I cut into the clean white roots. I had no twinge of compunction, for was this not fulfillment? Nothing comes of sorrow for worthy sacrifice. When I had laid the tree low, I clipped off the lower branches, snapped off the top with a single clean stroke of the axe, and shouldered as pretty a second-growth sapling stick as anyone ever laid his eyes upon.

I carried it down to my barn and put it on the open rafters over the cow stalls. A cow stable is warm and not too dry, so that a hickory log cures slowly without cracking or checking. There it lay for many weeks. Often I cast my eyes up at it with satisfaction, watching the bark shrink and slightly deepen in colour, and once I climbed up where I could see the minute seams making way in the end of the stick.

In the summer I brought the stick into the house, and put it in the dry, warm storeroom over the kitchen where I keep my seed corn. I do not suppose it really needed further attention, but sometimes when I chanced to go into the storeroom, I turned it over with my foot. I felt a sort of satisfaction in knowing that it was in preparation for service: good material for useful work. So it lay during the autumn and far into the winter.

One cold night when I sat comfortably at my fireplace, listening to the wind outside, and feeling all the ease of a man at peace with himself, my mind took flight to my snowy field sides and I thought of the trees there waiting and resting through the winter. So I came in imagination to the particular corner in the fence where I had cut my hickory sapling. Instantly I started up, much to Harriet’s astonishment, and made my way mysteriously up the kitchen stairs. I would not tell what I was after: I felt it a sort of adventure, almost like the joy of seeing a friend long forgotten. It was as if my hickory stick had cried out at last, after long chrysalis-hood:

“I am ready.”

I stood it on end and struck it sharply with my knuckles: it rang out with a certain clear resonance.

“I am ready.”

I sniffed at the end of it. It exhaled a peculiar good smell, as of old fields in the autumn.

“I am ready.”

So I took it under my arm and carried it down.

“Mercy, what are you going to do?” exclaimed Harriet.

“Deliberately, and with malice aforethought,” I responded, “I am going to litter up you floor. I have decided to be reckless. I don’t care what happens.”

Having made this declaration, which Harriet received with becoming disdain, I laid the log by the fireplace – not too near – and went to fetch a saw, a hammer, a small wedge, and a draw-shave.

I split my log into as fine white sections as a man ever saw – every piece as straight as morality, and without so much as a sliver to mar it. Nothing is so satisfactory as to have a task come out in perfect time and in good order. The little pieces of bark and sawdust I swept scrupulously into the fireplace, looking up from time to time to see how Harriet was taking it. Harriet was still disdainful.

Making an axe-helve is like writing a poem (though I never wrote one). The material is free enough, but it takes a poet to use it. Some people imagine that any fine thought is poetry, but there was never a greater mistake. A fine thought, to become poetry must be seasoned in the upper warm garrets of the mind for long and long, then it must be brought down and slowly carved into words, shaped with emotion, polished with love. Else it is no true poem. Some people imagine that any hickory stick will make an axe-helve. But this is far from the truth. When I had whittled away for several evenings with my draw-shave and jack-knife, both of which I keep sharpened to the keenest edge, I found that my work was not progressing as well as I had hoped.

“This is more of a task,” I remarked one evening, “than I had imagined.”

Harriet, rocking placidly in her arm-chair, was mending a number of pairs of new socks. Poor Harriet! Lacking enough old holes to occupy her energies, she mends holes that may possibly appear. A frugal person!

“Well, David,” she said, “I warned you that you could buy a helve cheaper than you could make it.”

“So I can buy a book cheaper than I can write it,” I responded.

I felt somewhat pleased with my return shot, though I took pains not to show it. I squinted along my hickory stick which was even then beginning to assume, rudely, the outlines of an axe-handle. I had made a prodigious pile of fine white shavings and I was tired, but quite suddenly there came over me a sort of love for that length of wood. I sprung it affectionately over my knee, I rubbed it up and down with my hand, and then I set it in the corner behind the fireplace.

“After all,” I said, for I had really been disturbed by Harriet’s remark – ”after all, power over one thing gives us power over everything. When you mend socks prospectively – into futurity – Harriet, that is an evidence of true greatness.”

“Sometimes I think it doesn’t pay,” remarked Harriet, though she was plainly pleased.

“Pretty good socks,” I said, “can be bought for fifteen cents a pair.”

Harriet looked at me suspiciously, but I was as sober as the face of nature.

For the next two or three evenings I let the axe-helve stand alone in the corner. I hardly looked at it, though once in a while, when occupied with some other work, I would remember, or rather half remember, that I had a pleasure in store for the evening. The very thought of sharp tools and something to make with them acts upon the imagination with peculiar zest. So we love to employ the keen edge of the mind upon a knotty and difficult subject.

One evening the Scotch preacher came in. We love him very much, though he sometimes makes us laugh – perhaps, in part, because he makes us laugh. Externally he is a sort of human cocoanut, rough, brown, shaggy, but within he has the true milk of human kindness. Some of his qualities touch greatness. His youth was spent in stony places where strong winds blew; the trees where he grew bore thorns; the soil where he dug was full of roots. But the crop was human love! He possesses that quality, unusual in one bred exclusively in the country, of magnanimity toward the unlike. In the country we are tempted to throw stones at strange hats! But to the Scotch preacher every man in one way seems transparent to the soul. He sees the man himself, not his professions any more than his clothes. And I never knew anyone who had such an abiding disbelief in the wickedness of the human soul. Weakness he sees and comforts; wickedness he cannot see.

When he came in I was busy whittling my axe-helve, it, being my pleasure at that moment to make long, thin, curly shavings so light that many of them were caught on the hearth and bowled by the draught straight to fiery destruction.

There is a noisy zest about the Scotch preacher: he comes in “stomping” as we say, he must clear his throat, he must strike his hands together; he even seems noisy when he unwinds the thick red tippet which he wears wound many times around his neck. It takes him a long time to unwind it, and he accomplishes the task with many slow gyrations of his enormous rough head. When he sits down he takes merely the edge of the chair, spreads his stout legs apart, sits as straight as a post, and blows his nose with a noise like the falling of a tree.

His interest in everything is prodigious. When he saw what I was doing he launched at once upon an account of the methods of axe-helving, ancient and modern, with true incidents of his childhood.

“Man,” he exclaimed, “you’ve clean forgotten one of the preenciple refinements of the art. When you chop, which hand do you hold down?”

At the moment, I couldn’t have told to save my life, so we both got up on our feet and tried.

“It’s the right hand down,” I decided; “that’s natural to me. “

“You’re a normal right-handed chopper, then,” said the Scotch preacher, “as I was thinking. Now let me instruct you in the art. Being right-handed, your helve must bow out – so. No first-class chopper uses a straight handle.”

He fell to explaining, with gusto, the mysteries of the bowed handle, and as I listened I felt a new and peculiar interest in my task. This was a final perfection to be accomplished, the finality of technique!

So we sat with our heads together talking helves and axes, axes with single blades and axes with double blades, and hand axes and great choppers’ axes, and the science of felling trees, with the true philosophy of the last chip, and arguments as to the best procedure when a log begins to “pinch” – until a listener would have thought that the art of the chopper included the whole philosophy of existence – as indeed it does, if you look at it in that way. Finally I rushed out and brought in my old axe handle, and we set upon it like true artists, with critical proscription for being a trivial product of machinery.

“Man,” exclaimed the preacher, “it has no character. Now your helve here, being the vision of your brain and work of your hands, will interpret the thought of your heart.”

Before the Scotch preacher had finished his disquisition upon the art of helve-making and its relations with all other arts, I felt like Peary discovering the Pole.

In the midst of the discourse, while I was soaring high, the Scotch preacher suddenly stopped, sat up, and struck his knee with a tremendous resounding smack.

“Spoons!” he exclaimed.

Harriet and I stopped and looked at him in astonishment.

“Spoons,” repeated Harriet.

“Spoons,” said the Scotch preacher. “I’ve not once thought of my errand; and my wife told me to come straight home. I’m more thoughtless every day!”

Then he turned to Harriet:

“I’ve been sent to borrow some spoons,” he said.

“Spoons!” exclaimed Harriet.

“Spoons,” answered the Scotch preacher. “We’ve invited friends for dinner to-morrow, and we must have spoons.”

“But why – how – I thought –” began Harriet, still in astonishment.

The Scotch preacher squared around toward her and cleared his throat.

“It’s the baptisms,” he said: “when a baby is brought for baptism, of course it must have a baptismal gift. What is the best gift for a baby? A spoon. So we present it with a spoon. To-day we discovered we had only three spoons left, and company coming. Man, ‘tis a proleefic neighbourhood.” He heaved a great sigh.

Harriet rushed out and made up a package. When she came in I thought it seemed suspiciously large for spoons, but the Scotch preacher having again launched into the lore of the chopper, took it without at first perceiving anything strange. Five minutes after we had closed the door upon him he suddenly returned holding up the package.

“This is an uncommonly heavy package,” he remarked; “did I say tablespoons?”

“Go on!” commanded Harriet; “your wife will understand.”

“All right – good-bye again,” and his sturdy figure soon disappeared in the dark.

“The impractical man!” exclaimed Harriet. “People impose on him.”

“What was in that package, Harriet?”

“Oh, I put in a few jars of jelly and a cake of honey.”

After a moment Harriet looked up from her work.

“Do you know the greatest sorrow of the Scotch preacher and his wife?”

“What is it?” I asked.

“They have no chick nor child of their own,” said Harriet.

It is prodigious, the amount of work required to make a good axe-helve – I mean to make it according to one’s standard. I had times of humorous discouragement and times of high elation when it seemed to me I could not work fast enough. Weeks passed when I did not touch the helve but left it standing quietly in the comer. Once or twice I took it out and walked about with it as a sort of cane, much to the secret amusement, I think, of Harriet. At times Harriet takes a really wicked delight in her superiority.

Early one morning in March the dawn came with a roaring wind, sleety snow drove down over the hill, the house creaked and complained in every clapboard. A blind of one of the upper windows, wrenched loose from its fastenings, was driven shut with such force that it broke a window pane. When I rushed up to discover the meaning of the clatter and to repair the damage, I found the floor covered with peculiar long fragments of glass – the pane having been broken inward from the centre.

“Just what I have wanted,” I said to myself.

I selected a few of the best pieces and so eager was I to try them that I got out my axe-helve before breakfast and sat scratching away when Harriet came down.

Nothing equals a bit of broken glass for putting on the final perfect touch to a work of art like an axe-helve. Nothing will so beautifully and delicately trim out the curves of the throat or give a smoother turn to the waist. So with care and an indescribable affection, I added the final touches, trimming the helve until it exactly fitted my hand. Often and often I tried it in pantomime, swinging nobly in the centre of the sitting-room (avoiding the lamp), attentive to the feel of my hand as it ran along the helve. I rubbed it down with fine sandpaper until it fairly shone with whiteness. Then I borrowed a red flannel cloth of Harriet’s and having added a few drops – not too much – of boiled oil, I rubbed the helve for all I was worth. This I continued for upward of an hour. At that time the axe-helve had taken on a yellowish shade, very clear and beautiful.

I do not think I could have been prouder if I had carved a statue or built a parthenon. I was consumed with vanity; but I set the new helve in the corner with the appearance of utter unconcern.

“There,” I remarked, “it’s finished.”

I watched Harriet out of the corner of my eye: she made as if to speak and then held silent.

That evening friend Horace came in. I was glad to see him. Horace is or was a famous chopper. I placed him at the fireplace where his eye, sooner or later, must fall upon my axe-helve. Oh, I worked out my designs! Presently he saw the helve, picked it up at once and turned it over in his hands. I had a suffocating, not unhumorous, sense of self-consciousness. I know how a poet must feel at hearing his first poem read aloud by some other person who does not know its authorship. I suffer and thrill with the novelist who sees a stranger purchase his book in a book-shop. I felt as though I stood that moment before the Great Judge.

Horace “hefted” it and balanced it, and squinted along it; he rubbed it with his thumb, he rested one end of it on the floor and sprung it roughly.

“David,” he said severely, “where did you git this?”

Once when I was a boy I came home with my hair wet. My father asked: “David, have you been swimming?”

I had exactly the same feeling when Horace asked his question. Now I am, generally speaking, a truthful man. I have written a good deal about the immorality, the unwisdom, the shortsightedness, the sinful wastefulness of a lie. But at that moment, if Harriet had not been present – and that illustrates one of the purposes of society, to bolster up a man’s morals – I should have evolved as large and perfect a prevarication as it lay within me to do – cheerfully. But I felt Harriet’s moral eye upon me: I was a coward as well as a sinner. I faltered so long that Horace finally looked around at me.

Horace has no poetry in his soul, neither does he understand the philosophy of imperfection nor the art of irregularity.

It is a tender shoot, easily blasted by cold winds, the creative instinct: but persistent. It has many adventitious buds. A late frost, destroying the freshness of its early verdure, may be the means of a richer growth in later and more favourable days.

For a week I left my helve standing there in the comer. I did not even look at it. I was slain. I even thought of getting up in the night and putting the helve on the coals-secretly. Then, suddenly, one morning, I took it up not at all tenderly, indeed with a humorous appreciation of my own absurdities, and carried it out into the yard. An axe-helve is not a mere ornament but a thing of sober purpose. The test, after all, of axe-helves is not sublime perfection, but service. We may easily find flaws in the verse of the master – how far the rhythm fails of the final perfect music, how often uncertain the rhyme – but it bears within it, hidden yet evident, that certain incalculable fire which kindles and will continue to kindle the souls of men. The final test is not the perfection of precedent, not regularity, but life, spirit.

It was one of those perfect, sunny, calm mornings that sometimes come in early April: the zest of winter yet in the air, but a promise of summer.

I built a fire of oak chips in the middle of the yard, between two flat stones. I brought out my old axe, and when the fire had burned down somewhat, leaving a foundation of hot coals, I thrust the eye of the axe into the fire. The blade rested on one of the flat stones, and I kept it covered with wet rags in order that it might not heat sufficiently to destroy the temper of the steel. Harriet’s old gray hen, a garrulous fowl, came and stood on one leg and looked at me first with one eye and then with the other. She asked innumerable impertinent questions and was generally disagreeable.

“I am sorry, madam,” I said finally, “but I have grown adamant to criticism. I have done my work as well as it lies in me to do it. It is the part of sanity to throw it aside without compunction. A work must prove itself. Shoo!”

I said this with such conclusiveness and vigour that the critical old hen departed hastily with ruffled feathers.

So I sat there in the glorious perfection of the forenoon, the great day open around me, a few small clouds abroad in the highest sky, and all the earth radiant with sunshine. The last snow of winter was gone, the sap ran in the trees, the cows fed further afield.

When the eye of the axe was sufficiently expanded by the heat I drew it quickly from the fire and drove home the helve which I had already whittled down to the exact size. I had a hickory wedge prepared, and it was the work of ten seconds to drive it into the cleft at the lower end of the helve until the eye of the axe was completely and perfectly filled. Upon cooling the steel shrunk upon the wood, clasping it with such firmness that nothing short of fire could ever dislodge it. Then, carefully, with knife and sandpaper I polished off the wood around the steel of the axe until I had made as good a job of it as lay within my power.

So I carried the axe to my log-pile. I swung it above my head and the feel of it was good in my hands. The blade struck deep into the oak wood. And I said to myself with satisfaction:

“It serves the purpose.”