"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

My Old Plumb Axe

Euan Ferguson

We were young Creswick forestry students, “new” in every sense of the word.  On Saturday mornings we would be listed for various fieldwork jobs, often in the demonstration mixed species forest adjoining the forestry school grounds.

On this day, each of us was issued with a shiny coloured (mine was yellow) hard hat and a sharp new axe.  This, for me, was not just any old axe.  It was a Plumb axe.  And it was mine.  It was forged and crafted as a thing of potent power, but also a tool that could be associated with risk of injury if your footing slipped or your swing missed its target.  It was a tool built by craftsmen for use by fellow craftsmen.  I had inherited the essence of caring for hand tools from my father’s wisdom.

New, the hickory handle was stained deep red and varnished.  The handle was glued and fitted into the steel head.  The metal was painted black and with a blunting rounded shoulder on the blade.  We were also issued with an eight inch mill bastard file and told to get cracking on filing down the shoulder and sanding off the handle varnish, in preparation for Saturday’s field work.  (This honing and handle care would continue for decades).

That Saturday was hot.  The senior year students drove us (in an old box shaped Dodge bus) to a hardwood thinning site on Brackenbury Road.  It was a calm and brilliant morning.  The eager sun dappled through the crowns of the mixed messmate, brown stringybark and manna gum forest.  Senior students Ian Christie and Ross Runnalls gathered us to talk through the use of our axe and to explain the craft of hardwood thinning.  My recollection was that the trees to be felled were all marked with plastic tape by a senior student.  The seniors talked to us about sighting up the lean of the tree, judging its direction of fall.  The under cut, the back cut and keeping a safe distance from others.  After the tree was on the ground they explained the tricky process of de-limbing, then cutting the bole into firewood billets.  The ever present risk of injury was constantly reinforced.

It was sweaty work.  Tender hands, with the still new and shiny handles, resulted in big, painful blisters.  There were frequent stops for rest and drinks from wetted canvas water bags.  At morning brew up, Ian Christie gathered us together, then he to up-ended a billet over a hard hat and catch the water freely flowing from the freshly cut gum billets.

In those days we painted poison onto the freshly cut stumps to effect a permanent erasing of the gums from the forest.  We were warned about getting the poison on our hands and on our skin.  To this day, when I go to that hardwood thinning site, it looks so different.  The poison completed the job we started with our felling axes.  The forest there today is predominantly messmate.

Subsequent field works (and the odd bush binge) honed our axe cutting and felling skills.  By no means an expert, I have always taken great pride in this, the most basic, of a forester’s skills.  I have, over many years, protected my axe from mis-use.  I’ve kept my axe sharp and the handle has been replaced with a strong spotted gum handle. 

I still use my old Plumb axe.  It continues, for me, to be a symbol of craft and of potent production, balanced by ever-present risk.  It symbolises many aspects of the practice and profession of forestry.  It invokes pride and respect and a sense of opportunity. (December 2017)

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