Beginnings – Connecting with the Ancestors using craft as a meditation and ritual experience.
Memory is a strange thing. It comes in snapshots. It was 1983. I don’t remember the weather, I only remember rainy days when I was confined to playing indoors, but it must have been hot. I can tell because of the way my family looked in the photographs, red-faced Anglos, enjoying a summer holiday on the French coast. I remember pieces of flint as large as my head, scattered along the shoreline. Like many five year old boys, I always had a stick in my hand, and my mother found some green polyester twine, washed up on the shore.
“Let’s make an axe. Like a caveman would have used” she said.
Together we split the stick and wedged a good heavy piece of flint into it. She helped to guide my hand as I crisscrossed the twine over and over it. It was heavy, but it felt like a good axe. My next memory is that a Tyrannosaurus Rex had poked its head over the treeline and it was a good thing for cavemen to run away and find easier prey…well, I did mention I was five, at the time I didn’t have a good fix on the timeline of human existence.
For me, one of the most visceral connections I can have with my ancestors is to grasp their tools and perform their actions. It becomes a ritual of its own, a quiet moment of connection, of absolute focus and respect for tool, material and ancestor. I consider myself a jack-of-all-ancient-trades. I have spent many hours at the forge and anvil, and I am somewhat skilled with mallet and chisel. I have hand-sewn hemp sails and roped grommets, hardened my leather jacks in boiling pitch, knotted ditty bags with my marlinspike, kept my powder dry in my hand-crafted horn, stitched my own britches and have even made a decent Beef Wellington. Of all these crafts, let me tell you, none compares in complexity to the work of the flint knapper.
I have decided to learn to make that axe. I need to return to those beginnings. Master the Ur-Craft. As a child I was happy enough to allow my imagination to work for me, but now I am interested in the skill, the ability to strike the stone and fracture it in such a way, that I can make a tool that my Ur-Father would see as perfectly serviceable. Not that I should ever face a mammoth, or need an arrowhead, but when I look at the pile of debitage at my feet, smell the stone dust in the air, feel the crack of the antler billet against the stone, I am sitting there with them, and I hear them in their strange language say…