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A tail of three craftsman

This is a story about two stones and a deer antler. There is some meaning that I have attached to the story, to do with counterintuition, but I think I’ll leave that until later. First the story, actually two stories, and then some connections and meaning.

Late last summer we went to the Oak Fayre, an event fairly close to us celebrating all things to do with wood: growing it, protecting it, cutting it, creating with it, burning it, just to mention a few of the activities at whose heart is wood, and not necessarily oak.

We enjoyed a lovely day at the Fayre. It was special for us as we had not been out and about much because of D’s difficulty with walking with her dodgy hip. She had decided this was a day where pain was not going to cause her into a retreat (to be honest she does not know the meaning of retreat anyway!). So, we set out dosed up with painkillers, a sensible strategy about the balance between walking and sitting, and strict instructions to me not to keep fussing!

We managed it all very well and the day had a great combination of being surrounded by loads of people and yet being able to enjoy the experience as just the two of us. We admired lumps of wood that we crafted in our mind’s eye into various magnificent structures around our house. We had the various sensory experiences of different woods most particularly associated with sight and touch, and occasionally, where active cutting or sculpting was going on, there was a sense of smell too. We bought a bit of this and that, including those wooden serving trays that everyone seemed to have purchased. How many people got home wondering why they needed another weird shaped board to put cheese on?! We ate at the massive collection of food outlets that collectively created a worldwide street food venue in a rural location in Dorset, and washed it down with one of the several local ciders available. Notable on that front was one flavoured with chilli. Nice!

The crowds dissipated as the day came to a close, and the sun disappeared bringing dusk to the proceedings a couple of hours early. We were still ambling around at this point and found our way to a group of artisans creating their art using ancient techniques. There was dyeing using natural dyes, pottery making using the coiling technique, jewellery making,………and there was also someone who was knapping flints to make axe, spear, and arrow heads as they would have been made millennia ago.

We started talking with him, in all honesty more out politeness than interest to start with as the pain killers were wearing off and I was feeling a bit wobbly on my pins too. I need to be clear this was not on the back of too much chilli cider, more the consequence of too much time sat down while at work. Fairly quickly we properly engaged in conversation with him as he was a fascinating man, gently ‘take it or leave it’ in his way of being, yet willing to offer his thoughts and expertise. He had an involuntary body twitch that drew attention to start with, yet very quickly just became part of his way of being, which is exactly what it was.

He showed us what he had made during the day and at some point, sat down and started knapping a new flint. His raw material was rounded knobbly stone that bore no relation to any form of sharp implement. His tools where another ball shaped stone, about the size of a fist, and part of a deer antler. The workbench was his knee, with some nod in the direction of comfort being provided by a wad of coloured cloth (provided by his colleague, the woad dyer?) between his knee and the flint he was working on.

The knapping started with a few lusty blows with the fist sized stone. The craftsmen commented quietly and occasionally on what he was doing and paused after each blow or two to look at the consequences of his actions. His concentration was absolute, and I would swear that his involuntary body movements became less frequent. Another possibility is that our concentration on what he was doing was such that we noticed nothing else.

It was utterly calming to watch, the world around the three of us receded, and we existed completely in that moment. Our experience was one of the senses. The sharp sound stone on stone, the sight of the transformation of the stone and the flying shards that were an essential part of that transformation. There was a smell too; that smell of sparklers on bonfire night. It was immersive, mindful. Neither of us recall being distracted by a sense of time, or pain, or thoughts of anything else. As the work continued the knuckle end of the antler was used for some of the finer detailed work, particularly in the process of creating the sharp edge.

Looking back, we have no idea how long we stood watching. In fact, I recall only one moment when my conscious thinking kicked in. It was on noticing that for a lot of the major structural work the blows were directed onto the surface on the opposite face of the flint to where the stone flakes were coming off. I did ask about this but have no recollection of the answer. My memory brings back a frown as I try and recover his words but all I can retrieve is that fact that I thought it to be counterintuitive. I think I said as much too.

Whether counterintuitive or not the result of our artisan’s work produced a spear or axe head of exceptional beauty, particularly given the sullen, dull lump of rock he started with. It has a sharp edge too, combining purpose with aesthetics. He explained that it was not a piece that he could finish properly because the stone was showing a fault line that would inevitably break it in two if he persisted. As a result is performance came to an end and the world seeped back into our collective awareness. I remember the first conscious thought was ‘where have I been for the last few minutes’ and the second was ‘I wish I had taken a picture of the stone before he started’.

Fault line or not we asked if we could buy the stone. It seemed a bit grubby to be bringing money into the transaction. As we did not have any skill to swap at the time money seemed the only option and we eventually persuaded the artisan to accept some of it in the spirit of both gratitude and appreciation.

We said our goodbyes and I think we were all rather taken aback about how the world had moved on in our absence. The grounds were almost deserted with only activity being the sounds of people securing their stalls and comparing notes on how good the day had been in terms of separating the public from their hard-earned cash. I can remember walking out with our various purchases (yep, including two unusually shaped wooden cheese platters) knowing that the prize from the day was the flint axe head and the memories it held.

Now that axe head sits on a window in our kitchen. I find myself picking it up and reconnecting with those moments of calm that are now from months ago. I confess to hefting it in my hand, running my finger along the sharp edges as my imagination tries to see how good I might be as a stone age hunter gatherer! Recently I asked the members of a group I was coaching to bring along an object that carried a memory so that they could share those stories with each other. I took along my axe head and was surprised how strongly the memory of that shared moment with D in summer, in a year of pain and bereavement, activated such deep emotions. A potent reminder of the power of storytelling and memory.

Around the same time, I had a completely unrelated experience where ‘counterintuitive’, the word which characterised my interpretation of the knapping process described above, also played a part.

It came up in conversation with someone I know and respect, someone who had an influential role in my development as a coach. As a coach himself G is also a craftsman, just like our flint napper. Instead of stone is raw material is people. Instead of a stone hammer his tools are words crafted into enquiries, alongside the capacity to pay absolute attention to the responses that come back. He works in partnership with people to shape them into a version of themselves that is authentic with their core self. He helps them to see the sharp and beautiful axe head when all they can see is a lump of rock.

G observed several of my coaching sessions when I was training for my coach accreditation. Since that time, we have stayed in touch and occasionally worked together on supporting and evaluating coaches on their learning journey. In a recent conversation G offered up the memory that he had from observing my coaching, saying he remembered that my ‘approach is characterised by my instinct to work counterintuitively’. The immediate feeling in response to hearing that was ‘yep, that’s me’ followed by a creeping concern that was there was something more self-serving than client serving in that approach. There was also a sense that my coaching approach was so instinctive that I could not describe it. If I could not describe it what would happen if one day, I had to apply my coaching in a more conscious way. Would the wheels fall off in that coaching conversation?!

I am exaggerating a little here, for effect. Even so I was sufficiently uncomfortable to ask G to explain what was in his mind when he called my coaching counterintuitive, which he was kind enough to do. He said it ‘related to your instinct to do the unexpected in meetings and discussions’. He went on to say ‘for me, to be counterintuitive, means to eschew the path well-trodden, which our clients - and others - can avail of anytime in dozens of routine communications, and help move things to those areas where the truth - and therefore the heart of the issue - usually lies. The places where people don't bother looking. That are taken for granted. Or that are too sensitive to consider. You have a wonderful instinct for all of these, and your enquiries are always made with tact, sensitivity, kindly consideration for your client, and genuine compassion, all of which equips you to take things into those places where the REAL work can be done’.

At one time I would have found it very difficult to identify with what G said. Now I am grateful for his words and the clarity they bring me. Absorbing them and realising how they do capture the way that I work has been another step on a journey. A journey towards my connecting with the fact that I am creative in the way that I work, an attribute that I have typically denied myself simply because I don’t paint, or sculpt, or do any of the things that I tell myself are uniquely described as creative.

So, there it is. Two stories connected by a thread called ‘counterintuition’. Another common thread is craftsmanship and creativity. It’s symbolic of my journey as a coach that in the past I would have called this ‘the tale of two craftsmen’. Now, I know it is about three.


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