Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Zen and the art of knife sharpening

Against the backdrop of our modern world of instant information, where people can go to Wikipedia or Youtube and quickly become "experts" in just about anything, it's nice to occasionally be reminded that there is still value in true expertise and devotion to art.

Take, for example, the art of sharpening a knife. Sure, I like a sharp knife in the kitchen, but I've never really given a second thought to the differences between knives or investing in tools to keep them sharp. You know, you buy a knife block, it has a sharpening slot, you use it when the knife gets blunt, end of story... right? Ha.

I guess my first insight into the value of a great knife came last year in Japan, when my wife, having grown sick of the standard (easily blunted) knives we had, insisted on buying a top quality chopping knife to take back to Australia. Her Dad's advice was that the best local knives were found at a weekend market in Kochi city. So we drove 2 hours across the island to get there and do our knife shopping. To go with the knife - which ended up being something more like a butcher's cleaver and had me a little worried about whether or not I was being a good enough husband - she also picked up a sharpening stone. Now that we have it all back here at home, my wife keeps the knife wrapped in newspaper to prevent oxidation of the metal blade, and soaks the stone in water overnight before using it to sharpen. It all seemed a bit over the top at the time, but I can't complain, I'm not the one chopping vegetables every day.

My appreciation of the effort that should go into keeping a good knife sharp went up a notch last week when I went out on an animal health survey for work. Animal surveys are the stuff of biosecurity legend, but in short, we head out into the wilds of northern Australia, jump in a helicopter and chase feral animals around in the name of protecting our country. For the unlucky few pigs that we catch, the usual fate is a post-mortem, taking samples of blood and tissue to check for pests and diseases of concern. To do a post-mortem, the most important thing you need (besides for a dead pig) is a good sharp knife. And what better thing to do around the campfire at day's end, in the company of classic bush characters, than to clean and sharpen your knives and discuss the finer points of the act as you go?

My campmates in eastern Cape York were all veterans of remote area field work and already had a history of spending long evenings debating the relative merits of one sharpening technique or another. They confirmed something I probably should've already known - that Japanese knives are still considered the best in the world, owing to techniques of metal folding and lamination that have their origin in the long Japanese tradition of swordmaking. They pulled out their sharpening tools - not just one stone, but two, one rougher than the other, with a vice to hold your stone of choice firm, and a diamond-edged sharpening steel rod to finish the job. And woe betide the poor soul who brought an electric knife sharpener to the last survey!

Listening to their talk, I soon realised that sharpening a knife can be a very personal, meditative experience, enhanced by developing a proper appreciation of a well-sharpened blade. Like so many things in this world, when you scratch the surface you soon find that there is so much more to know, if only you care to dig deeper. And of course, when I had the chance to do a post-mortem myself, I soon learned that cutting through the thick hide of a fully grown razorback pig is no fun with a blunt knife! I have a feeling that I'll never be able to buy anything but a top quality knife ever again...

The rest of the survey was similarly full of great experiences and insights. The last time I drove a car off-road was in Japan - once you get north of a little town called Laura, it's almost all dirt roads in Cape York. The country we flew over in the helicopter was amazing, with pockets of rainforest and stretches of coastline that have probably never known the footfall of a white man. There were crocodiles in every other waterhole or riverbend - we got in close to a toothless 15-foot monster, the biggest wild croc the pilot had ever seen. And though we still had electricity and a hot shower, it was wonderful to disconnect from the world wide web, hang out with some good blokes, sleep under the stars and get back to the simple life for a few days. I'm not sure that I'd want to do this kind of work all the time, but I am sure when I look back on my time as a quarantine officer that I'll remember this survey fondly.

A month or two ago, however, I thought I might not get the chance to go out on survey at all. It was mid-February when we found out that my wife was pregnant with our third child. Which was wonderful news of course! But unlike the pregnancies for our first two children, it was quickly apparent that this one was more delicate, with Masumi needing to make a couple of trips to the hospital's emergency department. I didn't want to head out into the bush for a week if my wife's health was at risk. Fortunately, things have settled down since we passed the 20-week mark and Mum and baby both seem to be doing well. Just to make sure, I had my own mother up to Cairns to keep the family company while I was out in the field. It all worked out well, and indeed, I think it's fair to say that everything is looking good now.

Child number three should be joining us in October. We don't know if it's a boy or a girl - since we have one of each already, it'll be fantastic to have a surprise this time around. The only thing we do know is that we need to pick a name that uses just one Chinese character, to match Ryo and Aya. We've got a few in mind already. We'll keep you all posted.

Lots of love,