Wisdom and the wooden bow
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Wisdom and the wooden bow
By Johnny Snyman
The wind whispered gently through the forest. Upon her silky voice she cradled the subtle promise of another summer to come, her unseen hands silently drawing the curtains of a window on the beautiful distant horizon. Aloft, the canopies swayed gently to a rhythm understood only by the birds, as they filled in with a cheerful chorus from the heights of their symphonic perches. Far down in a lone valley, there stood a wise old tree. Its scarred trunk has seen the passing of 320 seasons, it has withstood fire, floods and mighty storms. Its sap moved in perfect unison with the rise and ebb of the tides of the distant oceans, guided by the passing of 960 months of lunar cycles. Throughout its lifetime, the old tree had harboured shelter to birds and mankind alike. And on this day, has bestowed man’s admiration.
The Creator predetermined its entire composition ever since The Beginning of all things. The old tree although majestic as a king, cannot feel, reason or think the way man does. Beneath its outer bark is the trunk’s only living part known as the Vascular cambium – where sap and minerals from the deep soils below, are transferred to its canopy, which in turn is a different organism on its own. Beneath the cambium is a mass of dead cells, which in turn comprise of layers around the heartwood, or central part of the tree. These layers are formed by each passing year, much like the layers of an onion. They are the yearly rings.
It was these rings that the aspiring bow maker was pondering over. Trying to visualize how they were lazily snaking within the beautiful, almost perfect lines of the old tree. There were no twists along the trunk, indicating that the tree had grown in an area free of prevailing and constantly changing winds. The bow maker let slip his heavy pack from his shoulders, got down to boiling some water for a welcome cup of strong coffee, laid up against the old tree’s trunk, and began to dream. Most furniture craftsmen ogle over timber already felled by someone else, and milled into planks or boards. Others have the means to purchase pre cut ‘blocks’ or logs of timber from auctions, but in both cases there remains a missing link. For the wooden bow maker matters are entirely different. In this secluded valley of mind, desire and drive, he has the privilege and honour to be an inherent part of his craft from the moment he found and chose his prize, till such time the last fall of the axe caused the great old tree to groan once, and slowly tumble down, like the conquered king after a long arduous battle on the chessboard. One might ask: “Does the journey of wooden bow making begin as such?” The answer is: No, it begins with the desire to make them.
Wooden bow making creeps up on you from the playful days of your youth (or actually from prehistoric times!) It lies in ambush waiting on those who answer to the call of an ancient beckoning. And woe betide, touch a fresh stave for the first time with the draw knife, spoke shave and scraper, and your very soul becomes part of the twirling shavings gently falling to the floor by your feet. Forever. Once you try your hand at it, you will soon find out if you are made from the right stuff to persist. As your first bow emerges from what was once a tree, and finally, as it passes the acid test of holding up to what you intended it to be – you are ensnared, trapped like a fish in the gillnet before you know it.
Wooden bow making is something special. It teaches one patience and perseverance. It’s is the master tutor in the art of learning how to love something which you never knew existed, and yet to loathe what you never knew was possible to love. It teaches one to think laterally whilst driven to the very borders and fortifications of sanity the moment when ‘that perfect bow’ shatters, and breaks into seemingly countless splinters. It can indeed be a dark art.
But, the craft of wooden bow making has many little twists and turns. There are times when a bow is born from a stave of which you had entirely different expectations. Those are the times you truly feel like loosing an arrow into each rising sun.
Wooden bow making is also a leveller. If you are proud and armed with the latest, fastest, shortest and deadliest high tech bow that was purchased straight off the shelf, and your ego bears all of the shimmering medals of pretence, that of knowing all about archery, or if you have loads of loose cash to splash around, thinking you can ‘buy’ and collect hand made bows, and expect them to be ready according to your dictation, think twice. I challenge you to get a fresh stave bending evenly. Then train it patiently to stand firm and proud without fail to the eager tension of a hand twisted bowstring - until such time you have carefully scraped away a little wood here and there, and finally ushered it to reach draw weight, and draw length without flaws and over strained areas. Whoever you are, impose your occupational authority onto it, and you will surely fail, but allow the feathering year rings to lead you and you might just save some face! Persist and your sweat becomes the silent tears of acknowledgement - a lesson of humble admittance that you indeed know very little, and that the true bow was there long before you personally earmarked your golden prestige and motivations of what you fancy to call ‘archery’.
If there where to be a man who embarks on a journey to make a thousand bows, and a man who hitches a ride on the personal achievement rally, and he makes a dozen bows. Which of the two men can rightfully blow the bugle of wisdom? – He who has learnt most from his mistakes.
A well-known American bowyer told a story of once meeting with someone who admired one of his bows. The man told the bow maker with awe that for a very long time he always wanted to get down to the grit of making a wooden bow. The bowyer looked at him in amusement and said: “No you didn’t.”
If perhaps something within the lines of this writing has strummed a chord somewhere inside you, you may as well allow the tones to resonate among the borders of your soul. For there is much more to traditional archery and bow making that there merely appears to be. Perhaps someday, something strange will lead you to the depths of far away valleys or vast open plains, in search of a lone tree, in search of good bow wood. And as you progress by the fall of each shaving, may you too discover the true devastating beauty of making wooden bows.
Others can testify to it. Well-known archer and maker of many a wood bow, Jaco Wessels, once took me into his workshop after the first Bowbender’s Shoot held on his farm in September 2004. From a huge bundle of bows he made, he eagerly fished out his favourite bow. It was crafted from Mulberry. Every twist and undulation of the snaky grain was followed faithfully. I was holding in my hands a work of love, where persistent patience found balance and honour with the beautiful bow’s grain. I was cradling in my hands a piece of Jaco’s soul there. The way it should be. It is so that the essence of wooden bow making carries a fragrance too hard to ignore, and no man who labours over a bow, and comes to stand in the roar of its success can deny the existence of something almost feminine hidden within the secrets of the wood.
Her name is Wisdom.
Updated: Friday, April 21, 2006 12:44 PM
About the Author
Johnny Snyman from Heartwood Bows is a well-known bowyer, traditional archer and bowhunter, who has been building fine longbows and recurves for more than a decade. Johnny has a vast knowledge of bow building, archery, bushcraft and survival skills. He has written many articles for African Archer as well as for Africa’s Bowhunter magazine. His bows are shot by many South Africans and by many archers in countries all over the world. Johnny has made bows for quite a few Hollywood productions such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 10 000 BC, Doomsday, Scorpion King – Rise of the Akkadian, and Crusoe (NBC Mini Series – 2008). Established in 1997, Heartwood bows is based in the coastal town of Sedgefield in the Western Cape, South Africa.