Last post, I mentioned singing around the campfire with 5th graders. My daughter Talia is their teacher and she was running this camping trip, the last one of its kind at a school that has been doing this almost 50 years. Sadly, she had to struggle to preserve it, advocate strongly in the face of the “Risk Committee mentality opposition,” but it happened and it was glorious. She went on her first school camping trip when she was two (my wife and I helped lead this trip, so we brought her along) and then officially with her class when she was eight and then continued with the Middle School versions until she was thirteen. And then has led this trip for the past six years. She knows the details of it all inside out and as a lifetime backpacker and hiker, embodies the spirit of life outdoors where body time takes over from clock time.
And so when I arrived, there was the dip bag line, the schedule with the daily hike, the quiet time, the cooking stations, the campfire, the some more’s, the songs and Old Doc Jones stories and folk tale/ myth story as the stars came out, the wandering minstrels (Dubbed Wandering Nostrils by the kids many years back) singing lullabies to the kids settling into their tents. Her two co-leaders were two teachers at the school who also were alumni, once kids I taught and camped with. Such a pleasure to see them all step up and carry it on, while still leaving a place for this old guy to participate side-by-side with them.
In a recent interview, poet David Whyte talked about “what you’re going to pass on and leave behind you, the shape of your own absence.” Singing lullabies to the kids in harmony with my daughter, I could feel some of the shape of my forthcoming absence in that delicious moment of presence. And this reminded me of the Gary Snyder poem Ax Handles, excerpted here below. Working with his son Kai, he makes a handle for a broken ax using an ax:
… 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 ax 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 ax we cut with—”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen 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-hsian 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.