“A knife is a not a weapon for me,” says Andrew Groves producing the blade he made with his father, a tool he carries on every adventure whether he’s in his backyard or the back-end of beyond. It’s short and well used, but gleams like a family treasure. “It’s just a creative tool, no different than a paintbrush.”
Groves is a small man with formidable forearms. They are Popeye-esque; knotted with muscles honed from long hours of drawing, tinkering, forging and carving living wood into objects of form and function that belie the constant whirring of his creative mind. We are strolling through a forest of coppice hazel and silver birch trees dotted by 150-year old oaks in West Sussex. Groves rents a small cabin on the edge of the forest and, as part of the lease, helps manage the woodland. He moves through the woods in the way that many move through their houses – pointing out certain types of trees, offering nuggets of wisdom, and making mental notes for what needs to be felled or pruned so that more trees can thrive. When I ask him how he came by what appears to be somewhat esoteric knowledge for a thirty-one-year-old surfer from the south coast of England, he shrugs. “I’ve been on a few forestry courses, but I’ve learned a lot since moving here, and I found that the more I learned the more I wanted to learn. You could say that I don’t do things by halves.”
Groves is a tinkerer by nature, an illustrator and graphic designer by trade, and one of a new breed of outdoorsman who is equal parts John Muir and Jean-Michael Basquiat. Under the name Miscellaneous Adventures, he handcrafts tools for outdoor adventures – camping utensils that feature an illustrator’s touch – and now runs workshops in the woods for people who don’t normally attend workshops in the woods.
“There is a misconception that you have to be a rugged bastard to have a nice time with an axe,” he says, as we reach a small clearing where he has set up a classroom of sorts for people who come to learn anything from starting a campfire with birch bark to carving wooden cutlery. “I think people are intimidated because a lot of bush-craft courses are full of survivalists or a sort of hippy-set. Everybody should have time to slow down a bit and enjoy nature, not just people with feathers in their hair.”
Miscellaneous Adventures is an idea born from a decade of peripatetic living in which Groves variously surf-bummed around Cornwall, worked in London and Brighton, hiked and snowboarded the mountains of Japan, and took regular trips to explore the northern reaches of Scandinavia. “I’ve always wanted to live places rather than visiting them,” Groves says. “Even doing boring shit, like going to the post office in a place like Japan, can be a formative experience and really teach you something about where you are.”
This sort of inexorable curiosity eventually caused Groves to question his own country’s relationship to nature. “Something about the UK makes it difficult to go into the woods,” he says. “A place like Sweden still has a strong cultural commitment to nature that I think you can see in some of their design and even national ethos. It’s just little things, like a certain number of hours in their preschools have to be taught outside to give children more of an appreciation for their surroundings. I think, in the UK, we lost our outdoor culture a really long time ago so no one really misses it.”
“There is a misconception that you have to be a rugged bastard to have a nice time with an axe.”
Groves does not speak with the faux-idealism of a born salesman or politician, but in a quiet way, he stands strongly against the tide of industrial commodities that have displaced the work of the artisan. Picking up a piece of white birch, he sets it atop a stump and begins to work it slowly and methodically with a very sharp hatchet. “There’s a real joy in working with wood,” he says. “Each type has a different character and each piece has such a unique grain that you can start out with an idea of what you want, but you also have to adapt to the wood itself and see what happens. My drawing work is so meticulously planned that I really enjoy the way working with wood frees up my method a bit.”
Slowly, an all-purpose cup based on the traditional Scandinavian kuksa begins to emerge from the wood. When it is finished and sanded smooth he will season it with whisky and coffee, then add a layer of oil before it is ready to hang from someone’s belt loop as they make their way into the woods. Despite selling these cups along with an array of spoons on his website, and also teaching his students how to make them, Grove has no plans to sell them wholesale or produce a trademarked range of implements. These are not life-hacking gadgets. Andrew Groves is not Bear Grylls. Instead he hopes to connect, if only fleetingly, with older, disappearing traditions of form and function, natural beauty and human workmanship.
“I got the idea to make things like this from seeing handcrafts made by the Sami people living in Northern Sweden,” he explains, holding the hatchet near it’s head and using the weight of the steel to gently shave off soft curls of fragrant wood. He stops every so often to eye his work, to run his hands over it with something approaching love. “They make things from wood and bone that have a lot more ritual to them than many modern objects – they are imbued with more folklore, more magic and mystery. We just use so many churned-out bits of plastic that I want to create things that capture just a little bit of that magic. I’m not anti-consumerist and I would be a hypocrite if I pretended to be, but I think a lot of people are disconnected with where things come from and especially what will happen to those things when they are done using them. Some of the stuff I make isn’t all that useful and comes from a purely aesthetic point of view, but on a wider level, I want to make anything that people can take on adventures with them.”
This article originally appeared in Huck 40 – The Cat Power Issue.
The Working Artisan’s Club, is presented by Huck and O’Neill to celebrate the rad makers who shape their future with their own two hands.
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