A couple of years ago I bought an axe. I have it on my desk now as I write. I can still see the blood stains on the leather pouch.
How I admired that axe. It possessed a strange primitive beauty – the curve of the handle; the rugged casting of the head; the menacing sharpness of the cutting edge. I used to sit and look at it as if it were a work of art; a piece of sculpture rather than just a primitive tool. I oiled the handle. I smothered Vaseline on the head. I made a leather pouch with a belt loop. The only thing that I didn’t do was to take the trouble to learn how to use it.
A year or so ago I was on a three-day canoe trip. The second day was windy, and though I had the breeze in my back, it was a hard paddle down the channel. In mid-afternoon, I came ashore for a break on a beach beneath the shady bower of a little oak wood. Though the tide was beginning to flood and there were still at least six more hours of daylight, I decided to make this my second night’s camp.
After a cup of tea and a bar of chocolate, I unloaded all the kit from the canoe and then set about the task of gathering and chopping firewood. Myself, I prefer a small fire, rather than a huge council fire that can be seen from space, so I only needed small logs. The little copse was strewn with downwood and it did not take long to gather a fair-sized pile.
From the beginning, I had been impressed with the sharpness of the axe and I appreciated how dangerous it could be, so I put on a pair of leather gardening gloves before I began to split the logs. The chopping block I was using was on old chain-sawn piece of birch that I had found lying amid the bracken behind the trees. It did not sit very steadily on the ground and as I brought the first log and the axe down together, the chopping block tipped up and the axe head struck the first knuckle of my left hand.
I did not feel a thing, but the nasty gash in my glove and the ugly crimson stain that was beginning to bloom on the grey leather told me that I had suffered some serious mischief. I took off the glove and saw a deep cut in my hand, almost down to the bone.
I knew at once that a trip to hospital was needed, so I found the largest wound dressing in my first aid kit, slapped it over the cut, which was now dripping blood all over the place, secured it with insulating tape and then put my glove back on and set about reloading the canoe.
Luckily, I had chosen a campsite only half a mile from civilisation. Luckily, the tide was in. Unluckily, the wind was even stronger now and rows of white-capped waves were being driven down the channel.
It was a difficult slog across that little channel. The sea was so rough that under normal circumstances I would not have considered venturing out onto it. Because of the direction of the wind and current, I should have paddled on the starboard side, but I could only paddle on the port side as I could not grip the paddle handle with my injured hand. Fortunately, my hand was numbed by the shock of the wound so it did not hurt all that much, which was just as well because the roughness of the sea demanded my full attention.
I was soaking wet and the canoe had shipped a fair amount of water by the time I reached the shore. I dragged the canoe up the beach, then abandoned it and set off for home on foot.
I received some very queer looks on my two-mile walk home. For one thing, there was my odd-looking canoeing attire. For another, I was wearing gloves on a hot summer’s day, one of which was now a soggy pulp soaked in blood. Two hours later though, I was in casualty being sewn back together.
Later, my wife chastised me by saying that I had learned my lesson the hard way – next time I should make sure I took a mobile phone with me. No, I told her, next time I should make sure I knew how to use an axe.