Cedar trees are prolific in my part of the country. I think they’re known as red cedars. They grow wherever they can, in the edges of fields, in pastures, highway rights of way, and of course cemeteries. While we were always told to respect the cedar in a cemetery, leave it alone and let it grow (after all it is a symbol of eternity with its evergreen branches), we were in constant battle with the trees to keep them out of other places. Some of the trees grew to maturity, and could be as much as a foot to a foot and half in diameter, and once they had attained a little age they began turning red on the inside. Mature cedars would produce a beautiful red wood that was prized among woodworkers. Furniture, wood paneling, and walking canes were often made of cedar.
In the family where I was raised, cedar was our whittling wood. When it had dried really well, and was cut up into small pieces, oftentimes you could find my Pappaw with a piece of cedar in his hand and an old pocket knife. He would sit on one of Mammaw’s cane-bottomed chairs, or a metal lawn chair, or later a swing, and patiently angle his knife to cut the wood away in little curved pieces. The sharper the knife, the easier it would cut those curly shavings. He often just whittled it away until it was no more. He would sit and chew tobacco, whittle, and visit with whoever showed up. The whittling spells got longer as he got older. But he wouldn’t whittle all day, just in parts of the day when he needed the rest, or needed to “study” about something he was going to do. You could ask him about something, like how was he going to get the tractor fixed, and he’d answer “I don’t know, I’ll study about it.” Then out would come the knife, and the little stick of red cedar. With him it became a method of prayer.
People would ask him “What ya making?” And he would just slowly keep whittling, lean over and spit his tobacco, and say, “Oh, nothing.” Whittling isn’t about the end product, it’s about the sharp knife, the disappearing piece of wood, and the time to think. As he got older, he had more time, and couldn’t really do the work he once did, so he began to carve birds with his cedar wood. He would make them all the same, very primitive in fashion, and sometimes put them on sticks. A shelf was fashioned in the kitchen for his flock of cedar birds. The smell of cedar is a nice smell. Those birds capture that and were gifts to all his grandchildren and children and neighbors who asked.
His knives were old, blades worn with age. I remember a yellow backed knife with three blades. He always seemed to prefer the bigger blade. When he needed to, he would sharpen the blades by rubbing them on an oiled stone. He would move them patiently in tiny circles. The blade would wear under the stone’s surface, but the wear would create a sharp edge that made it easier to whittle. Another knife was and Old Timer knife with brown backs. He made sure I had a knife when I was old enough to handle it, even teaching me how to take care of it, and to never, never point it at anyone, or engage in any horseplay with the blade open. I became adept at knife trading at the local flea market, but also engaged in whittling. My wood shavings were much thicker and less curly. It took me a long time to begin to get the results he got. It took such patience and effort.
It was less of a method he was teaching, and more of a lifestyle. I hope I learned some things.