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Every year I send a few friends an inexpensive pocket knife (very inexpensive) which illustrates a traditional pattern and I send along a short note about the pattern - at least what I have come to learn by spending too much time on the internet. What follows is one of my "texts" shall we say. This one is about the "Sodbuster". Enjoy it.......or if not, ignore it. (I posted this a while ago on another knife discussion site. I hope that is OK with the management.)
The Sodbuster: An Appreciation
One of the simplest pocket knives is a very traditional one. Its called a farmer’s knife, a miner, simply a work knife or utility knife or, even less elegantly, a “Sodbuster”.
In the U.S. it is usually a “Sodbuster” - a name possibly derived from a German word having to do with butchery but this is not established. Some say the name refers to mid-nineteenth century American Homestead Act settlers who had to “bust” sod-filled land to plant in it or to build on it and lived in poverty as a result. More likely, “Sodbuster”, like its cousin, “Dirt- buster”, refers to manual labor in general and to the basic personal equipment of farmer, ranch hand, herder or digger in particular. It is also sometimes called a “Miner” which emerges from its association with coal miners. or a “Brown Mule”.
What America knows as the ‘sodbuster’ was and remains common in Spain where it is known as the “Pastor” or Shepherd’s Knife. The pattern is also believed to have been associated with fruit sellers and may have been known as a “frutera” (a fruit seller is a “frutera” in Spanish) in some settings although “pastor” was apparently the far more common name for the model.
One French company calls this pattern “terroir”, which is a term commonly associated with wine but which more generally refers to anything that is thought to acquire important distinguishing attributes from the particular environment - weather, soil, light etc. - in which it grew or in which it was made. The French often call the knife a “Mineur” for the same reason its sometimes called a “Miner” in English.
In Italy the pattern is called “Maniaghese” from the knife making town, “Maniago”, in the Northeast of Italy (Fruili) on the border with what was the Austrian Hungarian empire hinting at its Germanic popularity. But it also appeared in the farming areas of Tuscany and its surrounding regions before their transformation into sites for bands of traipsing tourists and second or third residences of the “Masters of the Universe”. Perhaps because mining was not as important as in France, the Italians don’t seem to associate the knife with coal.
Of course what all these names have in common is a strong sense and scent of the land, of earth, of soil and of toil. This knife is “earthy” in its nature and has a peasant soul.
As for its formal origin, the pattern is very close to antique Roman folding knives and appears in every country with a Roman past. While the Spanish Navaja and then the French Laguiole evolved from the same source in one direction, the “Sodbuster” evolved less dramatically and in a slightly different direction.
The major differences between the Sodbuster and the old Roman knife are the shape of the blade and the addition of a spring. The pattern has no bolsters (the metal parts on one or both ends of many pocket knives) or decoration of any sort - a characteristic further distinguishing it from its Spanish Navaja and French Laguiole cousins.
Its blade is a spear or more commonly, a drop point (unlike the elegantly attenuated clip blade of the classic Navaja and the Laguiole). It generally appears in three basic sizes from just over three inches to about 4 1/2 or 4 3/4 inches closed. It has a wood handle although bone, horn and, more recently, plastic, composition and derlin have been used. Needless to say, the unnatural handles predominate today.
In its post medieval form, the sodbuster has the simplicity and natural grace of an old shepherd or aged peasant - Jean Giono’s Man Who Planted Trees, for example. But the form has survived so long because of its suitability for almost anything one calls upon a pocket knife to do as one tends one’s crop, herds one’s sheep, or mines the company’s coal.
As this style knife is still today a “work knife”, it is rarely produced in expensive materials or sold at high prices. The real marvel of these knives is not their low cost but the fact that as long as the flame of historical perspective survives, its earthy nature and peasant soul survive as well - despite our contemporary situation amid industrial and intellectual pollution not to mention the end of civilization.
Sodbusters are one of my favorites because of their long peasant tradition, simplicity, the warmth of their often wooden handles, their texture, ever developing patina, their freedom from pretense and their deep historical sonority.
Best of all, you can use a wooden handled sodbuster like a Greek his beads or a nun her rosary allowing the natural oils of the hand to nourish its soul.
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