Ox Head and Other Tools

All professional folk have their favorite tools.  Nowadays the tools of choice seems to be notepad computers, GPS units, IPhones and Blackberry PDAs with Bluetooth flashing ear pieces.  I rather like my ancient cell phone. The cell is pain to text message with because I have to hit each key up to 6 times to get the character I want. Yes, I am a dinosaur. But I also have saurian fondness for my ancient professional tools: Brunton compass, stereoscope, rock pick, camera, field notebook and beloved yellow Mars Micro 0.7 mm mechanical pencil. 40 years ago I was besotted with my Ox Head.

I have very few souvenirs from my prospecting life, but I still have my Ox Head axe, with its 2.5 pound head on a 27 inch hickory handle, and leather belt sheath. The axe was vital to me while claim staking and line cutting. I used it for cutting blazes on trees (slivers of bark removed to show the white tree flesh) as trail markers or to mark claim boundary lines through the bush. I used the axe at claim corners to trim a tree stump into a four sided post and then hammered brass claim tags into the wood using the butt of the axehead. The axe provided support when slid down slopes. I loved the evening ritual of filing the axe blade to paper-cutting sharpness. I once was really stupid with the axe and cut a long gash in my leg, but the sharp axe cut a wound so cleanly that it healed to a long but not ugly scar. At the time, the accident felt  like nature’s payback to me for needlessly hacking down a mature cedar tree one afternoon for the heck of it.

My Brunton compass is one of several I have owned. Many North American field geologists either own, or want to own, a Brunton compass, an essential instrument with a long history. The Brunton used to be called a pocket transit; indeed, I used to own a tripod that allowed me to use the compass for simple surveying. Older brass models are worth a small fortune, more than $150 on eBay. New ones, of hard plastic, are worth a large fortune at between $250-$500. Engineers rarely know how to use a Brunton, despite it being called a pocket transit. Regrettably: graduating engineers nowadays rarely know how to survey at all so they don’t care about not knowing how to use one.

My experience with aerial and stereo photos spans 40 years, and I own many stereoscopes, to view stereo photographs in 3D. The techniques of looking at 3D photos is well over 150 years old and used to be grand entertainment in the days before movies. I am fond of 3D photography, and generally take two images in the field when most people take one, so that I can produce and use the stereo images.  It is a mission of mine to encourage professionals to take ground-based stereo photos. Most engineers and geologists immediately assume that I am talking about aerial photos when I say “stereo photos”. Few listen to my evangelical messages about ground-base stereo photos ; but if you are interested, then look here.

I am a geological engineer, and have worked in one way or another with rock for about 40 years and I have owned and lost many rock picks, or geological hammers. Proper rock picks  are too expensive to lose, so I also have Mason’s hammers on hand too, which do the job well. Rock hammers are the sort of tool that are confiscated at airport security check-ins. I sometimes wish TSA would confiscate cell phones: what is is about departure gate lounges that encourages some people to talk loudly into their phones??

To record my observations I use a notebook.  I invariably write in pencil, I cannot imagine writing in ink. I have a favorite style of mechanical pencil: a yellow Mars Micro 0.7 mm.  I lose them regularly because I use the pencils on outcrops to show scale in photographs, then forget to retrieve them. Since they are not made any more, I do not look forward to the day when my once-grand stock of Mars Micro pencils is depleted.

I write my notes in yellow or orange field notebooks. The yellow ones are traditional surveyor notebooks and tend to be expensive. So I buy orange forestry notebooks from Ben Meadows. I try not to lose my notebooks, but I lost one in September 2008 in a swamp on Kauai. I was really pissed because the whole afternoon’s work was lost and had to be recalled from memory (thank heavens for GPS trackbacks!!). And, the book was almost full with over a year’s observations. I suppose the modern professional feels the same way when they lose their Blackberry. (I remember being briefly upset and then grateful when I lost mine. I have not owned one since.) Few young engineers use field notebooks anymore and one of my first duties when spending time in the field with a junior geotechnical engineer is to give them a field notebook and try to show them what to take notes on, how to take notes and, most frustratingly of all: how to sketch. But that is easier than showing them how to sharpen and use an Ox Head.

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 40 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his 40 years of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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