The first knife I ever received as a gift has a broken tip, is completely dull, slightly rusted, and opens and closes with a distinct little grind that I imagine is from sand grains having worked their way into the locking mechanism over the years. I haven’t even tried to cut anything with it in probably 10 years.
But I still have it.
The most recent knife I was given has travelled with me throughout Ontario, to Nunavut, and most recently to Nain, Nunatsiavut. It was given to me by a friend with whom I’ve spent hours hunting, hiking, trapping, laughing, and chatting.
I remarked to someone recently that the days of writing poetically and romantically about the out of doors seem to be dried up; that the style and feeling of writers like Leopold, Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, and even early 20th century outdoors writers seem to be behind us. So I don’t want this post to come across as just some self-inflated bullshit.
Having given that disclaimer, people who spend time engaged in outdoor activities will know what I mean when I say that there is a certain unmistakable charm, something both primal and artistic, in a good knife. As cliched as it might sound, many of us develop a sort of kinship with our knives that comes from the miles we travel with these tools and the degree to which we come to depend on them in what are some of our most personal and meaningful experiences. I remember the individual trips that I’ve used a particular knife on, the things that I’ve made with it and every reason I prefer one knife to the next. It is through field dressing an animal or accomplishing some task while in the woods that I come to appreciate the finer points of a knife. The knife itself becomes a character in the story of a trip, alongside our hunting partners, the animals hunted, and the landscapes we spend time in.
There’s something about knives that sparks conversation among outdoors people. We all have our favourite designs and there is no shortage of opinion out there about the best kind of knife. And certainly, not all knives are created equal. I imagine I’m not alone in spending a good deal of time hunched over my knife case before a hunt or camping trip trying to decide how many I need and which ones are best for the jobs ahead. We spend hours discussing blade shape and length; handle design and material; fixed blade vs. folder; weight and balance; and all the other nuances that distinguish individual knives.
We pass knives back and forth to one another, examining their details, running our fingers over every part of them, holding them, as if we’re getting to know the knife’s character with the intimacy of a lover. We protect our knives, are precise about their intended uses, and strict about what – and sometimes who – are off limits to them. We can burn down entire campfires and drain pots of coffee covering nothing more than the reasons we love a knife and the stories we’ve shared with it. Indeed, get a group of outdoors people on the topic of knives, and it’s almost as if the knives themselves become the campfire or the cup of coffee, the thing around which we all gather, reminisce, and chat.
I’m not sure what it is about knives specifically that come to occupy this sense of romanticism in our lives. Perhaps it’s that knives come to be a material representation of what it means to be in the outdoors – to survive there, to understand our place in the food chain, to feel a sense of accomplishment with the interaction of an ancient tool and our own bare hands, to connect with the natural world in a way that is both primal and artistic. Our knives come to stand for our experiences in wild places. More than that, as they become covered in blood and dirt, are dulled and resharpened, and accomplish innumerable tasks, perhaps they represent ourselves on some level. As we travel through breathtaking landscapes, become bloodied and dirtied, get banged up and worn down, resharpened, and accumulate years of experience, I think we imbue in our knives some sense of romanticism that is hard to explain, but that we come to depend on to represent what it means to experience the outdoors.