Taking an axe to tropical hardwood is an endeavor that commands
attention at the first ringing stroke. And when your footing consists
of a shifting gunwale and a wet tree trunk with water rushing between
them, all the more so. Early one morning, on a jungle creek swollen
past its banks, a old dugout full of men and a few boys circled.
Our upstream passage alongside some mostly submerged boulders was blocked
by a thick branch jutting off of a large fallen tree. We pulled up
alongside the tree and, with poles and extended arms, took a position
so that Angelio, a young Ye’kwana man, could have a go at the branch. I
had heard of several horrific axe injuries by then and looked on with a
grimace at the tremendous blows and his toes flexing for purchase. As
we motored past, I’d have sworn the cut was made using a chainsaw.
One of the boys dug the point of his machete into a swath of rotted sapwood in our dugout. It was time for a new boat, and we were off to meet a sleeping giant, a tree felled three years prior. The Ye’kwana people of southwestern Venezuela fashion elegant canoes from tree trunks by hollowing them out, and spreading the thin walls using heat. This use of fire for shaping wood is not unique to the Ye’kwana, but their canoes are notably advanced in design. Along with the Ye’kwana in the dugout was a Sanema man also adept at using an axe. Traditionally, Sanema people live in the rainforest interior. Only recently have they begun to settle next to rivers and build large canoes. The trunk to be shaped this time was about 36 feet long.
Debarking the tree
After hauling our old dugout through a strong rapid—an exercise we would repeat every day for eight days—we landed and I rushed ahead with a small video camera to catch the men clearing the overgrown vegetation from around the felled bole of a widespread tropical species, Cedrela odorata. The outer bark fell away easily and then the master craftsman, Titin, began walking the length of the log, trying to determine which way to roll it in order to best use its natural shape. Eventually, he decided and a younger man began the difficult task of cutting a square mortise in one end of the trunk into which a long square-ended pole fit snugly. Using the pole as a lever, and a slew of other poles scrabbling in the humus, we rolled the trunk about a quarter turn and wedges held it there.
Cutting the prow
The outside of the boat was roughly shaped first. This is the most precise axe-work. In order to cut the shallow, diamond-shaped scoops that texture the side of a dugout like reversed fish scales, the axe blade has to be rotating as it shaves. Otherwise, an ugly, truncated split mars the surface. After Titin deemed the outside shape temporarily acceptable, in a flurry of shouted directions and straining movements, we rolled it mouth-up with levers.In order to begin hollowing the trunk out, a few men erected a quick scaffolding alongside, lashed together with vines. Titin outlined the channel and the younger men began cutting a zigzag trough with their axes. This technique allows the remaining triangle-shaped chunks to be easily split out, and then the zigzag is deepened anew. Despite their impressive technique, the men would tire after about half an hour’s worth of quick swings and retire to squat in the full shade. All the while, however, Tintin, a hand-rolled bark cigarette in his lips, would plug along, fine-tuning the effort.
Two or three men would often work at once. Unlike other types of work, such as weaving a thatched roof, hollowing out the huge trunk did not lend itself to joking and banter. Two axes blows, usually in different rhythms echoed around us for most of the day. The resting men stared at those cutting. Greater skill showed up not in fewer mistakes (I didn’t see a single wild blow), but in the size of chunks split out: the larger they were, the better. Even the little boys refrained from running around, but sat fashioning toy dugouts or twirling the propellers they made from leaves.
Cleaning out the chips
By now, several days had gone by. The area around the emerging boat was covered in the chips removed from its center in handfuls by the boys while the men waited. The rainy season was beginning in earnest. You could hear a downpour minutes before it swept through. A quick shelter was obtained by quickly lashing a vine loop around a tree trunk at shoulder height and then poking the stems of several Geonoma palm leaves through the loop so that they arched overhead. Each nearby tree had a tiny roof with a man at attention underneath it, the rain cascading down around them. If a dugout is to be finished in a remote location, temporary lean-tos are needed. In this case, the intention all along had been to float the hollowed-out shape close to the community of Edowinña, an hour away, for finishing.
We all dug in for the big push when that day came. The hollowed-out log still weighed close to two thousand pounds. We made about 50 yards in six hours by first turning the roughly-shaped trunk with great difficulty and then using a series of poles lain across a path as a sliding surface. The trunk slid heavily down the bank into the water and bobbed to the surface. Quickly, we gathered our things and chased it down for the tow back home.
Adjusting the heat
If the dugout was a static sculpture, the refined interplay between the master’s eye and hand would yield the final result. As the Ye’kwana make their canoes, however, a good deal of the careful work amounts to a prediction as to how a few hours of heat will drastically change the static shape. Will the bow rise straight, or will it twist? Will the beam open in a smooth curve, or will there be large flat areas linked by sharper bends? This predictive process entails lengthy sighting gazes and careful trimming. To attempt a uniform thickness of the dugout wall, the Ye’kwana give the final shape to the outside, then drill small holes through to the interior. These holes are then filled with pegs of uniform length. The inside of the boat is then finished with curved adzes until the ends of these pegs, generally of a different colored wood, are reached.
At this point, the headman of Edowinña stepped in. Emilio Rodríguez, also an expert dugout shaper, had gathered the others for help while he was occupied with other duties. Now he went to work with his axe. Discussions between he and Titin revolved around specific areas of the hull and how they related to one another.
Titin prying open the first side
For burning, the hollowed log was raised on two strong cross pieces lashed with vines to thick tripods. Fire raged on the inside, smoothing the surface, which would later be scraped with machete blades. When it came time for the shaping, coals were carefully spread to heat the outside. Many short lengths of a softwood, placed crossways in the dugout, allowed Titin to spread the walls apart. He’d place his axe blade at the end of a cross piece and with a prying motion, cause it to drop deeper and hold that part of the wall out further.
At one point, Emilio decided that a few thick spots on the hull were causing the shape to become irregular and we, standing amidst piles of coals, had to flip the boat upside down, whereupon he and Titin began a rather feverish bout of shaving. The final shape was quite satisfactory, with nearly a two-meter beam, but Emilio was unhappy with some fissures that appeared. Later, when the visitors had gone, he re-heated the canoe and adjusted its shape further, applying gallons of boiled tree latex to the cracks.
After the first burn, as I walked down a wide path in Edowinña, I looked over at a group of twenty-foot tall saplings planted in an old garden. These were the offspring of the mother tree that had become the new boat. When Emilio first felled the tree, he had collected handfuls of her seeds and planted them. “For the future,” he said.
Tarek E. Milleron was born in Berkeley, CA. He studied biology at Oberlin College, spent several seasons as a field research assistant in Panama and French Guiana and went on to complete a Ph.D. in Ecology at Utah State University. Based in the Ye'kwana community of Edowinña, he conducted research on tropical tree regeneration along the Nichare River, in the Caura River Basin in Venezuela. Participation in day-to-day Ye'kwana life there for months at a time over a six-year period left a deep impression. Tarek founded the non-profit conservation group, Caura Futures , to work on ecosystem conservation rooted in indigenous culture in the Caura Basin. While his axe technique remains at the level of a local thirteen-year-old, he had more success climbing palms for sustainable fruit harvests.