I want to talk about a walking staff.
Not any staff, but this staff. The one I carved for Paulus Berensohn after his first stroke.
The above image is from five years ago in May of 2013 when the staff was freshly carved from sacred huon pine wood and about to be mailed over to North Carolina and Paulus’s home near Penland School of Craft. I was testing it for strength to make sure it would not break upon his heavy leaning.
Also, I was holding it to sense if it “felt right”, as it had to come up to the high standards of the stature of the man himself.
Just before his death last year, a photo was taken of Paulus with the now well worn, constantly used, “never-left-at-home” staff on the hill at Penland School. He — dancer, potter, journal keeper and mentor and fairy godfather to many — gesturing towards the mystery of light that awaited him whilst holding onto his “grounding rod”, his third leg, his earthly elegance.
I had hoped when Paulus was buried, that the staff be laid to rest alongside him.
But not to be. He had a green burial which forbade such items and put into the earth wrapped just in a shawl and little else. The poke weeds shooting strongly up from his grave certainly seem well nourished.
So I brought the staff back with me upon returning from America this July …
… and now take it with me when needing a walk up to the Berensohn / Lawrence memorial bench for a gathering of the spirits, memories and re-connection.
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”-—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
The staff is neither hatchet nor axe, but the Gary Synder poem gives a hint as to how I feel when walking with it in the footsteps of Paulus.
I carved this staff for my mentor — who was the model at hand, in so many ways, at the time of the carving.
I now hold on to his memory which each grasp. Go to this hillside bench. And, if asked, will mentor others coming to sit with me.
“How we go on”, as Synder writes.
Who will hold the staff after I depart? That’s a question that will remain unanswered for a few more years.