- This is the first post from M&T staffer, Mike Updegraff -

One year, when I was young, my grandpa walked me around the Pennsylvania Farm Show, an iconic and massive exhibition of all things agricultural, creatively crafted, and edible. We wandered away from the food areas, past livestock pens and potted vegetables and a giant butter sculpture, and into an area of local handicrafts. I was immediately transfixed by a man sitting on a stool, carving the most intricate and expressive little chickens out of natural forks using only a sharp pocketknife. The birds had proud tail feathers, bright red painted combs, and fanciful expressions on their tiny faces. I was in awe. My grandpa vowed to help me learn to carve a chicken out of a stick.

Later that day, I watched as he rummaged around in the back of a desk drawer and produced (amidst a chorus of angels and golden light from above) a Barlow folding pocketknife. He placed the somewhat rusty knife into my quivering hands with clearly admonished safety guidelines. (I wasn’t listening at all.) This was power – a tool, a weapon, a device that could allow me to create whatever I could imagine, and would likely be useful in battling swarms of pirates and other villainous troublemakers. It needed some oil and a good sharpening, but these tasks were trivial in light of the new frontier that had just opened. My grandpa showed me how to clean and hone the blade (“a sharp tool is a safe tool”), and I set off to find a chunk of wood for my first masterpiece.

I located a section of 2x4 about 8 inches long, bone dry and rock hard. After about 12 seconds of attempting some stock removal, I gave up and tossed the piece back into the corner of the porch. Not all wood is created equal. Lesson learned. Grandpa recommended I find some green wood as it would be softer, easier to carve, and would harden up just fine as it dried. Hmm. This sounded promising, so I headed out into the yard to find a nice natural fork, just as the carving man had used. Because my grandparents lived in a retirement community, with well-manicured lawns and precisely-trimmed shrubs, the only trees in sight were a handful of massive pines and a few immaculate ornamental birch trees. Looking very much like a little boy who was up to no good, I crept across the lawn to the nearest birch and began removing the lowest branch. After much struggling in a rustle of leaves, and a few fruitless slashes with a newly-sharpened Barlow knife, the branch let out a resounding “crack” and the tortuously-splintered branch fell to the ground. As I carved that branch, I quickly learned that green wood is infinitely easier and friendlier to work than kiln-dried lumber…and also that sharpened sticks are far more practical for a little boy than carved chickens.

I have made many, many sharpened sticks over the years (I’m quite good at it) and even some other more useful things, but I have never forgotten those first lessons. That old knife is still around, having been lost and found many times over, always needing oil and a good sharpening. I gave it to our oldest son a year ago, and he has been perfecting his own skills of making sharp sticks ever since.

- Mike Updegraff

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