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Axe Handles

I mentioned in The Wild Rose I am reading Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry. I read this poem several times over the last few months trying to make sense of it. At first, I thought it was a personal and it begins that way. Gary Snyder describes his work teaching his son to throw an axe and shaping the axe handle to fit the work.

As I reflected on the poem, I realized it is about important traditions passed from parents to children. We hone and polish what we wish to retain forming the axe handle. It is a handle for us and our children which provides security as we polish and remove the unwanted.

Most of the time, we are unaware of the work we do without taking time and reflecting. In those moments, we realize what changes, what remains, and what is added knowing each generation makes its own adjustments.

To do it well, we mindfully and attentively approach the work remaining fully present.

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 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-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.

About ivonprefontaine

I have been an educator for almost 20 years. Prior to that, I worked in private industry for 15 years, then returned to university to earn my education degree. For the past 11 years, I have been a co-creator of learning in a unique, progressive, alternative educational school of choice. Currently, I am engaged in a doctoral program at Gonzaga University in Spokane. A main theme in my learning there has been the roles of systems thinking, complexity theory, and organizational theory, and how they apply to education generally and the learning environment I share with students, parents, and colleagues.

12 responses »

  1. Very pertinent as we work with our children, trying to constantly decide which of our values we must pass on and which ones we should let them choose for themselves. Lovely poem, powerful insight into parenting.

    Reply
  2. I never thought of the making of an axe handle and the refining of man as the same . I build furniture and watch as it starts as raw wood and goes through the process of becoming something special. I see this coralation too life. Thanks for the axe handle

    Reply
  3. Passing down tradition, shaping the boy into the man, creating a legacy, a hewn culture continues over time.
    From this specific act I sense the expansiveness of time and what it represents.
    Val

    Reply
  4. I am always amazed at how Snyder can talk any act, any piece of any day, and turn it to poetry. Or perhaps our days simply ARE poetry waiting to be put on the page.

    Reply
  5. Beautiful! Truly lovely…thank you!

    Reply
  6. Completely agree, Ivon, my elder son is on the threshold of his teens, and I had never imagined being a parent was a 24/7 job as they are in school for long hours. But yes, I am learning and this poem and helped me think of my role differently. thank you again.

    Reply

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