The giant Alabama based corporation Melanie Jane works for has rusticated her indefinitely, and possibly permanently. Then they tell her last week they have ordered her yet more computer equipment. Time for a new desk and some extra space. It’s not exactly Virginia Woolf’s a room of her own, but it is pretty nice.
I have one of the finest scrap wood piles in history, this having been salvaged from it. The Black Cherry wood is over fifty years old. How do I know that? Because the tree this wood came from fell on me. Hereby hangs a tale, as the Bard of Avon might have said.
The new corporate office above is overseen by a framed program featuring none other than actor Cleavon Little, who played the sharecropper Nate Shaw at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, in the play All God’s Dangers. Unlike Bob Marley’s song, Nate shot the Deputy, but he did not shoot the Sheriff. But it was in self defense.
At any rate, back to the story. My grandfather was one of the finest loggers for the brand new Tennessee Vally Authority, as they were building the giant chain of lakes on the Tennessee River in Alabama, which would be Wilson, Wheeler, and Guntersville. He would tell tales about trees so large that they had to weld two two man crosscut saws together, just to cut them down. So old growth forests were replaced by water, and the valley could have cheap electricity, and the world’s finest fishing for smallmouth bass. Everything is a trade off.
We had this beautiful tall Black Cherry tree by our house, when I was a small child. It produced massive quantities of black cherries, which were inedible for anything other than birds. The birds would eat them in mass quantities, and then crap black cherry colored crap all over the clothes on our clothesline. Note: no one we knew owned a clothes dryer back then.
My mother pronounced a death sentence for the tree. My father was dispatched as the executioner, and he grabbed his double bitted axe, and drove his old Plymouth down for me to sit, on, and witness his skill as a lumberjack. I was instructed to sit on the hood, and watch the remarkable display of skill.
Remarkable, it was. He managed to make the tree fall in exactly the opposite direction than he intended, and I was transfixed as the tree headed straight for my head. Only the limbs hit me, but the Plymouth took a strong blow to the roof.
I forgot about the entire incident, and soon enough went off to college for ten years. My father went on to join the choir invisible during that time, and so his sheds full of goodies remained untouched. I returned home for the summer before I started my first professorial job, and there they were–a double bitted axe, and a giant pile of cherry lumber, that had been drying for over twenty years. As a victim, I claimed all of it.
I was looking in my outdoor tool closet the other day, and found the axe. I had put a new handle in it, and I am about to grind it sharp, so I can also cut down trees in the wrong direction.
This reminded me of the great poem by Gary Snyder, “Axe Handles.” Here it is (copyrighted by Gary, btw).
BY GARY SNYDER
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.
Indeed we do (my comment).