The Necessity of Knives
by Reid Bryant
First published in the Orvis Hunting News, 2014
The first couple decades of my adult life were spent in jobs that hardened my hands and sunburned my nose and, more often than not, left me sore and tired by nightfall. Over the years there were days felling trees, milking cows, building boats, guiding fishermen… all in the name of a life out-of-doors and a measurable, tangible result at day’s end. Through that time, I carried a knife in my pocket by necessity, as a tool of the myriad trades. With a knife I slit grain bags and gutted hook-gorged fish, pried pitch-stuck chains from the bar of the felling saw. I broke knives and lost knives and dulled knives in number, and I grew to rely on the weight of something in my right front pocket. In its way, a knife became a talisman for me, a badge of non-conformity to the cleaned-and-pressed world from which I’d risen, and purposefully wandered away. It was never lost on me that Peter Pan too carried a blade on his belt, perhaps for the very same reason.
I find myself now on the leading edge of middle age, working in an office and tucking in my shirt for the first time since the Sunday school years. Thunderstorms no longer threaten the workday, and doors offer a blessed respite from the ragged cold of February. Nonetheless, I still carry a knife in my right front pocket, for reasons that are not entirely clear. I suppose I do so because it’s what I’ve done all along, and part of the portrait that I’ve unknowingly painted myself into. But to say that I carry a knife strictly out of habit would be, somehow, less than entirely true: a knife for me is no longer a tool of necessity, but a tool of identity, though in this new-found function it is not a whisker less necessary. And, incidentally, the blade stays sharp far longer.
This role of knives is, I’d venture, part of the human DNA. They escorted us out of the caves and into the light, and linger with us as the most elemental of human tools. Knives remain beautifully timeless, and perfectly useful, incapable of being improved into obsolescence. They journey with us from wherever we’ve come, and follow us wherever we go, at length even into the nursing home, where more than one aged woodsman I’ve known maintains a bone-scaled folder in the trouser pocket. Some knives are heirlooms, honed to a sliver by grandparents then parents then us, with handles worn smooth by an almanac of ancestry. Some are ours from the outset, the gifts we make to ourselves when life’s waypoints call for commemoration, even when those waypoints are simply momentary swellings of the coffers. Knives accompany our days lost and cold, our first deer, our passage out of childhood, and our entrance into the great unknown that we adults observe bewilderedly and call adulthood. They accompany our Tom Sawyer summers and our spruce twig fires, and the splinters we pry from our heels. They cut us and scare us with their fickleness, leaving a lifetime of mementos on knuckles and palms.
And, of course they keep us true. A knife hanging heavy in your pocket reminds you that you are capable of great big things. The weight of purpose is a wonderful weight to carry, and it reminds us who we are.