When I see marks like this on a tree, I don’t think vandalism. I don’t think about the person, the message or what the initials may stand for. I don’t even think about the tree. Two letters carved in the side of a mature tree is a mere bruise, a slight scar on its hopefully uninterrupted long life. A story to tell the rest of the forest dwellers. It is a sign that the tree is doing the right thing by just being here and looking particularly attractive. Scars are Like Tattoos with Better Stories says the sticker on my old acoustic guitar.
Trees stand the test of time much more so than we mere humans do. They may break limbs during winter but they can grow to be far older and wiser than we can ever hope to be. This is a moment in the trees life, a moment when it gets a tattoo it didn’t ask for, but a mark that says someone was here and someone thought about this tree and maybe even that someone still does.
What I find most interesting in tree carving is that you rarely see it now. Why is it that young men, for it is nearly always young men, no longer carve their girlfriends name or that of their favourite bands into the bark of local sycamores? The answer is simple and the most noticeable thing to me that I think of when I see initials on an unseen tree in an unknown wood. Nobody carries knives.
How else is such primitive art made without the humble penknife?
From cowboys to Conan, from soldiers to Highlander, everyone I grew up with carried a knife. The thought of using it on another person, or even as a weapon, was so far removed from our developing minds it never once occurred in it. These things weren’t weapons, they were barely even sharp. They were tools, useful items to have upon ones person at all times for building bases, whittling, or sharpening stakes to kill all the damn vampires. It just dawned on me that we used a knife as a tool to make weapons. A touch contrary perhaps to the point I’m trying to make but you get the idea.
I learned knife skills from an early age and have always been comfortable around them. On our first holiday abroad I was determined to find a penknife with a matador on the handle. It was all I wanted and I’m not even sure where this early obsession with bullfighting came from. Perhaps an early latent love of Hemingway lying dormant until appearing many years later. I came back from a week in Benidorm with a one inch blade and a yellow and red matador on the handle. It might have been meant to be a necklace it was that small. But it was all I wanted.
In the 1980s, off the back of the movie Rambo: First Blood Part II there came a flood of Rambo style knives. Mostly these looked nothing like his actual knife, it would just have a serrated edge but would sometimes have hidden treasures like a compass on the handle. This would unscrew to reveal a hollow handle that held a small first aid kit, presumably for sewing the wound in your arm shut after jumping off a cliff to escape a police helicopter. It also held the all-important waterproof matches. Lifesaving items right there when you’re 13 and trying to get a fire going down the beach.
You can’t carry them in the UK now. Even my ancient trusty (and rusty) Richards of Sheffield penknife is classed as a deadly weapon. Legal knives are given the rather boring nomenclature ‘everyday carry’ or EDC. The law states that an EDC is currently a non-locking blade with a length up to 7.6cm or 3 inches. Why locking blades are illegal is a bit odd as in my opinion it makes them safer, but to the authorities they turn the carrier into a deadly samurai. This also includes multi-tools so carrying the can opener is also not allowed.
A 3 inch folding blade is not nearly as interesting to a 13 year old as a full on Rambo replica complete with essential extras. Also it does seem odd that knife sellers require a license, yet supermarkets who sell countless amounts of kitchen knives do not. And the vast majority of knife based crime is done with these kinds of ‘weapons’. Generally speaking the chances of being stabbed by an imported £500 handcrafted Damascus steel knife is highly unlikely. A rusty old kitchen knife that mum uses once a year to cut the turkey with is far more likely. But that would be useless at carving your girls initials into a tree.
As the bush craft fans will tell you, a knife is a tool before it is ever a weapon, and they no doubt will carry an expensive one. Knife porn is a thing believe me but as sure as young couples may still go to the woods, it is unlikely nowadays for either of them to be carrying.
Currently listening to: Deus Vermin, awesome blackened death metal from Leeds, UK.
Disclaimer: In no way is anything said in this article in support of knife crime of any sort. It is an abominable and heinous act to use a knife upon a human being, but we do understand that it is a huge issue in certain parts of the UK.