Of “Pointless” Research and Damascus Steel Knives

Cool, damp concrete imprinted ridges onto my knees as I knelt beside my glowing laptop under a porch at a Michigan campground. The camp store was situated on a hill, and its elevated deck was bent in a rigid bow above my head. I joggled a charging cable, which was plugged into the side of the building, disrupting a cobweb. I hoped the power supply of my finicky device would last long enough for me to finish my mission. To my right, I heard erratic splashes as reckless teenagers shouted and pushed each other off the pier into the pond, even though it was already twilight. I typed in time to the chirping of the crickets. A campfire was lit nearby; its wafting smoke forced me to cough, and I lost the rhythm. My brother, sent by my mother to be my “bodyguard,” spun the wheel of his bike abstractedly. Clearly, watching me type in the dark was not on his vacation agenda.

“Are you done yet?” he sighed.

“Let me just double-check this link,” I mumbled. “Okay, it’s finished!” 

I had finally submitted my one thousand, five hundred, twenty-eight word article on Damascus steel knives. I personally cared little about Damascus steel, but when the scholarship opportunity had popped up weeks earlier, it had looked perfect. It was obscure and laborious, which meant low competition. So, I had spent hours watching videos on how to spot fraudulent Damascus steel at knife shows. I had spent nearly an entire weekend trying to determine the consensus on what “real” Damascus steel even was. This paper followed me on my family’s annual camping trip, and on rainy afternoons, I fussed over my topic headings. Then, when it came time to submit the article, I lost my Wi-Fi connection and had to camp out under the camp store, as described above. Surely, after all that effort I had earned the scholarship, I told myself.

I was wrong. Back at home two weeks later, I opened my email and found that I had lost the competition. A wave of frustration threw me into a foul mood. I had spent all that time pouring over an article on a topic completely outside my interests—all for nothing! I slammed my laptop shut and grabbed a Dickens novel to cheer me up.

Two more weeks later, in the Dominican Republic, I swatted my fiftieth mosquito, wishing I had packed more bug spray instead of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Still, I was enjoying myself. I stood just outside the ring of logs which encircled a crackling fire. Dozens of little silver pouches of foil lay warming on the coals, and I could almost smell the delicious “banana boats” melting to perfection.

“How are we going to get them out?” a girl across the circle wondered aloud. The foil was impossible to pick up with our bare hands.

“Hey, Avery! Would you mind holding this for me?”

I turned to see Adam Wood, one of my fellow interns, with a machete in one hand and a flashlight in the other. I held the flashlight steady as he expertly whacked thorns off fallen branches. Five minutes later, Adam and I presented the sticks to the group collected around the fire. We all eagerly fished our packages out of the coals, burning our fingers anyway in our impatience to get to the treat inside. After eating my “banana boat,” I wandered from one side of the fire to the other, trying not to choke on the smoke that I hoped would deter the mosquitos. Soon, I ended up next to Adam, who was absorbed in conversation with a short-term team member.

“See this pocketknife?” Adam pointed. The bearded twenty-year-old nodded admiringly at the silver blade which lay in Adam’s palm.

I listened to the two go on and on in what I considered unintelligible jargon when suddenly, I heard, “Yeah, my friend has a forge too, and he specializes in Damascus steel.”

Before I knew it, I had jumped into the conversation. Everything I knew about Damascus steel flooded my thoughts. Being shy, I held most of it back, so my participation in the discussion of knives was short. But from that moment on, Adam seemed to have a new respect for me. When later in my internship, I got caught up in a forty-five-minute Shakespearean soliloquy quoting frenzy with Anna, I suspect Adam was thinking back to that knife discussion, reminding himself that I was not an alien, and wishing he had studied outside his ordinary interests.

My internship was not the last time my Damascus steel research came in handy. Because of my paper, I was furnished with a conversation topic when I visited my grandfather, an avid hunter and weapon collector, who I believe had often wished I was more “outdoorsy.” What had seemed like a waste of time became a valuable opportunity for me to relate to others in ways I had never been able to before. And my research eventually enriched my reading habits. One day while perusing a Dickens novel (either Bleak House or Martin Chuzzlewit), I was thrilled to encounter damask fabric, which I had learned about while researching the origins of the name Damascus steel. 

Students may complain about learning what they call “boring” and “useless” information, which is in reality a butterfly still in its cocoon. Not long ago, I was guilty of that instant-gratification approach to learning, but I have grown to haunt unfamiliar fields of knowledge, realizing that these are often where rarest treasure is found. Now, when I feel frustrated over a seemingly pointless effort, my thoughts wander back to my Damascus steel article, and I tell myself, “You may not see the purpose of learning this yet, Avery. But at the very least, someday it will make for a great campfire conversation!”

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