Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In praise of the pencil....



Yesterday over a coffee with the always inspirational Nicholas Bate we got to talking somehow of pencils. I had always thought that there was some magical process by which the lead was inserted through the wooden tunnel, but apparently this isn't so. Pah. What else did my siblings tell me that I still believe? The joys of being the youngest child. We always used to drive past a wood of what I thought were pencil trees too - I can remember imagining each trunk as a giant pencil but I guess that wasn't the case either.

Anyway, Nicholas told me there was a book just about the pencil (there is too, I've found it here), but last night reading Wildwood, Roger Deakin's journey through trees, I came across these passages:

Now and again you discover the perfect pen and carry it everywhere until one day you lose it. But nothing is so universally dependable, or comes so naturally to hand as a pencil. What could be simpler? For much of my life, I have lived with one behind my ear, either to mark out saw cuts or mortices for carpentry or to scribble marginalia or underlines when reading. I often write with a pencil. It suits my tentative nature. It allows me literally to sketch out ideas before proceeding to the greater definition of ink. It was the first tool I used to write or to draw, and still suggests the close relationship between the two activities. I know I shall never outgrow pencils. it is comforting and liberating to know that you can always rub out what is pencilled. it is the other end of the spectrum from carving in stone. The pencil whispers across the page and is never dogmatic.

For all the same reason, I like a soft pencil better than a hard one. It is gentler on the paper, as a soft voice is easier on the ear. Its low definition draws in the reader's eye, which must sometimes peer through the graphite mist of a smudge where the page of an old notebook has been thumbed. Rub your finger long enough on a soft-pencilled phrase and it will evaporate into a pale-grey cloud. In this way a pencil is close to watercolour painting.

A pencil is an intimate, elemental conjunction of graphite and wood, like a grey-marrowed bone. The graphite is mined from deep inside a Cumbrian hillside in Borrowdale, eight miles south of Keswick. Fired in a kiln to 1000C to make the slender pencil cores, ranging in hardness from H to 9H and in softness from B to 9B, it is laid in a groove in one of the split halves of the wooden casing which are then glued together invisibly, clasping the lead tightly. But examine the cross-section of grain at one end, and you will notice it runs two different ways. In Tasmania there are trees they call pencil pines, but only because of the way they look. The fine grained, slow-grown mother of all pencils is incense cedar fromthe forests of Oregon, where a single tree may grown 140 feet high, with a trunk five feet across, enough cedar wood to make 150,000 pencils. it is the incense cedar that infuses pencils with the nutty aroma I remember as I opened my pencil-box. In a scooped-out hollow in my Oregon pine work table in front of me lies a smooth round pebble from the Hebrides. It sits snugly in the wood, like the pencil between finger and thumb, and like the hidden vein of graphite, poised inside the cedar to spin itself into words like gossamer from the spider.


Is it just me, or do you have the intense urge to visit that Borrowdale mine too now? Or at least to go and sniff a pencil?

I get asked a lot about how much work this blog is to maintain, but the truth is that I do it mainly for me. And this extract above illustrates that nicely - in the future I'll know exactly where I put that bit about pencils, unlike my actual pencils. Somehow I can never find one when I want to jot something down - and this is despite having THREE pencil cases (including a snazzy Moomin one Santa got me).

10 comments:

mjmoore said...

I've always enjoyed writing with a pencil.. I wonder if it takes me back to my carefree school days? :0)

Kathryn said...

What?! There are no pencil trees? That's outrageous!

The smell of pencils always reminds me of the boy who sat next to me in Mrs Forrest's class who ate his way down a succession of pencils, lead and all. I've seen him on and off over the years and amazingly, he's still alive.

jem said...

This was great to read. One of my aims for 2009 is to teach myself to draw better. Last week I went to an art shop to buy a 4B pencil. Somehow it felt very special asking for one specific pencil and walking out with it in my bag. That pencil feels like it has more personality and potential than all the HB's floating about the house.

Fiona Robyn said...

I'm in the middle of Wild Wood too. And I agree - writing blogs is best if you do it mostly for your own amusement/enlightenment/so you don't forget stuff you'd like to remember.

Sarah Salway said...

Yes, I think that it's the way pencils take you back to childhood that's so magical. It used to be a really big step in my school when we were 'allowed' to write with a pen, but I wasn't the only one who was a bit sad about this promotion. It seemed to bring too much worry - not being able to rub out mistakes, getting ink everywhere, forgetting cartridges - along with it!

Jane Smith said...

You have to be mistaken about pencil trees: they grow in secret forests and then, when they're felled (by dwarves, naturally) they're taken to great big tables where giants roll them up and down to make them thinner and thinner and thinner, just like those blokes on "How Is It Made?" do with sticks of rock, until they can cut them up into pencils.

Obviously.

(Sarah, I am so pleased you are watching my publishing blog: I read Tell Me Everything last year and loved it so much I read it again, and then folded it into the pages of a notebook so that some of its subtlety might seep into the paper I was writing on. Don't tell anyone, though, because they might think I am strange if they know that.)

Sarah Salway said...

Wow, thank you for that Jane. And happy to have found your blog.

Christopher A. Simpson said...

I was talking to a friend the other day about the joy of the pencil (sounds like a book title), but we weren't so eloquent about it. Thank you for sharing the wise words and your own thoughts.

Mom2three said...

Here is an interesting link that shows how pencils are made and the different types of pencils. I stumbled upon your blog while searching for how pencils are made. Thanks for sharing!

http://www.pencils.com/pencil-information/lets-make-pencil-video

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