The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Beautiful sentences: Roger Deakin on a pencil’s tentative nature

Rachael Conlin Levy

I am reading “Wildwood: A Journey through Trees” by Roger Deakin, which describes a series of trips Deakin made to meet people whose lives are intimately connected to trees and wood. Deakin, who died in 2006, was a founding member of Common Ground. Among his environmental causes, he worked to preserve woodland, ancient rights of way, and coppicing techniques. I want to remember this section from his book:

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. They are my first, most natural means of expression on paper. 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 reasons, 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 in a pale-grey cloud. In this way, 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 1,000-degrees C 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 from the forests of Oregon, where a single tree may grow 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.

6 responses to “Beautiful sentences: Roger Deakin on a pencil’s tentative nature”

  1. linda conlin says:

    Oh, it is so good to have you back, I missed you during the summer. Enjoy your day.

  2. Thank you. Writing feels rusty, but it’s nice to return to this space.

  3. I am a fan of writing with a pencil, but I’ve recently switched to pen. I started to have this fear that I’d one day want to return to my notes and they’d be smudged away. But I’m not enjoying the pen. If I do return to pencil, it will probably be to my mechanical pencil, which is far less romantic than the wood pencils Roger Deakin used. His writing just might be lovely enough to convert me to wood. Welcome back, Rachael.

  4. It’s the pencil’s ephemeral quality that intrigues me. I don’t want to be anxious about publishing or posterity. I want to lose the preciousness I hold for my own writing, and think the pencil might help.

  5. Denise says:

    It sounds freeing.

  6. Denise says:

    But now that I think about it, my fear might be more related to fear of memory loss than related to publishing or posterity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe: rss | email | twitter