Chapter Five

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Mountain

This little Stanley block plane, the first woodworking tool I owned and still one of my favorites, has a surprising heft. I cradle it in my left palm, sole up, where the contours of the lever cap – the assembly that holds the blade in place – fit neatly into the two deep furrows, what palm readers call the head and heart lines, that mark the deepest cleft of my skin. My hand feels pleased, as always, to discover something that fulfills it so precisely. I can just see my fate line tracing its way over the edge of my palm and disappearing between my first and second fingers. My fingers themselves are curled slightly, nestling the plane. Small scars trace the landscape of my knuckles, souvenirs from countless unremembered mishaps with fishing hooks and carving knives and pavement. This left hand, the central instrument for my interactions with the world, has been bitten by frost and by dogs, scraped along gravel roads, burned while setting bonfires with gasoline, made to suffer innumerable indignities. Most of the skin on the palm and pads of the fingers was once abraded off during a long and desperate slide down a gritty rope after a climbing harness broke. Th e hand was immersed many times in buckets of acetone and xylene and lacquer thinner in the days before anyone thought much about how toxic that stuff was. It is the hand that first reached for the man who lay face down in the water after he jumped from the bridge, and the one with which I greeted both my children, their first touch outside the womb.

My right hand is less supple than the left, rougher, simpler. It didn’t seem to mind when a shard of coral from a bodysurfing accident lodged itself alongside the third finger, inhabiting that warm space for over a year before sliding out. And at the lake, when I inadvertently pierced the thumb with a homemade arrow, it never complained but let the wound heal quietly into the delicate white ridge that lies there today. There’s not much of a thumb joint left on my right hand after too many unreasonable demands made by ski poles and water-ski bars and sailing ropes. I seem never to have learned there are limits to how long my thumb can lock my grip and hold all my weight. Nowadays, if I don’t apply too much pressure, my right thumb works fine, but if I try to lift a phone book by its spine or carry a two-by-four across the shop with a single, overhand grip, I can cripple the joint for a month.

I rotate my left hand, turn the sole of the plane downward, place it on the wood and bring my right hand across to cover the left: for support, solace, camaraderie. Together they will push the plane, reaching out again for that territory of the new, reminding me that my hands – more than my breath or my eyes or my mind – have shaped my life.

My hands guide the plane along this fine, straight-grained maple as the blade lifts small shavings into the throat and twists them into a myriad of spiraling shapes. The sharp edge slices the wood into ribbons of parchment rolled tight, a secret testament. The test of good planing is to be able to unroll the shavings onto an open book and read through them to the text beneath. If the shavings are thin enough – a few thousandths of an inch – the words magically appear as though written on the wood, just as they did when we were kids writing in lemon juice and holding the paper over a candle flame. The magic of memory is only one of many spells woven by the work of hands.

Occasionally I adjust the depth of the cut to take the finest shaving possible, working toward a surface that is dead flat and shimmering with smooth, sheared wood fibers. Block planes are not usually the tools of choice for final smoothing, designed as they are for end grain and the simple chamfering of edges. I have a smoothing plane, much larger and more precise than this little Stanley, but for a workpiece this small, about three by eight inches, the block plane feels just right. In fact, I find many reasons to use this plane when another might be more suitable. I even use it for the delicate task of jointing boards while my jointing plane sits idly by, patiently enduring the long periods of finicking and adjusting, knowing it could make short work of the whole thing, waiting for the inevitable moment I discover the joints are not quite right and finally – grudgingly, haltingly, peevishly – admit that the jointing plane will do a better job. There’s something about this little block plane, the way it has so faithfully stayed with me, transmitting the feel of the wood to my hands as though it were an extension of my own body. This is not to be taken lightly in a tool. There are rich rewards in finding the hands themselves taking another shape, flowing out into the world, discovering how it feels for steel to slice and for wood to reveal its hidden shape.

My hands deliver tiny insistent messages to my arms as I work, nudging them to move this way or that, drawing strength down through finger muscles that stretch far up into the arm. Encircle your left forearm with your right hand, wiggle your left index finger, and you’ll feel the muscle moving all the way up to your left elbow (there are actually two muscles involved, on either side of the arm, one to pull the finger up and another to pull it down again). The fingers have a long reach indeed, and they take advantage of that reach to accomplish the most powerful and delicate tasks. With practice, rock climbers develop the ability to suspend their full weight for short periods from the tip of an index finger. At the other end of the spectrum, craftsmen learn to distinguish surface variations in wood that are invisible to the eye – variations as small as several molecules, the thickness of a single coat of wax applied to the sole of a plane.

The perceptual accuracy of the human body routinely exceeds that of the finest instruments we can devise. The eye can detect a single photon. And the well-trained ear is capable of hearing sound variations undetectable by machines. I depend on machines; I’m not going to be throwing clogs into them anytime soon. But no matter how advanced they become, the important work in my craft is done by hands: careful selection, by sight and by touch, of woods and grain, the refinement of softly eased edges, the clarity and smoothness of hand-rubbed surfaces.

The powerful lever of my elbow opens and closes as I push the plane along the wood and retrieve it for another stroke. High up my arm two opposing muscles act as a piston: the triceps at the back and biceps on the front, the three-headed and two-headed dragons of labor. The muscles wind toward the shoulder, anchoring their five heads in and around the bones. Their origin lies just below the watchful eye of a raven who perches on the bony outcrop at the crest of my shoulder called the coracoid process: coraco is Greek for raven.

The wing of the raven sweeps back along the ridge of my shoulder and shapes the escarpment of muscle above my clavicle, so named because it resembles an ancient key or locking bolt. The clavicle is one of the keys that unlocks the vault of the body’s wisdom; the left clavicle opens the heart. Where humans have two separate clavicles connected across the top of the sternum, birds have one continuous collarbone called the wishbone, or furculum, which means “merry thought.”

The contour of my shoulder descends in an arc toward my back, where the large, thin trapezius muscle wraps and protects the network of muscles behind my heart. It lies across the bulk of both shoulder blades, the scapulae, which are like small wings and whose name is lent to the scapulated raven, Corvus scapulatus. The scapulae are also the source of the name for the short shoulder covering called a scapulary – first used by the Benedictines – that monks wear when engaged in physical labor. The entire upper shoulder thus takes the shape of a bird looking skyward as well as that of a laborer intent on the gifts of the earth. Working this part of the body unlocks the heart to soar and frees the hands to shape.

As I work, bending and pressing and listening to the smooth whisper of the shavings as they emerge from the throat of the plane, I imagine the sound to be the warbled notes of the raven perched on my shoulder. I feel it as an aubade traveling up from the ancient bones of this wood; a song of long years of gentle life in the forest, the stillness of falling leaves and of bright, silent winters cocooned in welcoming snow. And of summers of green leaves and a canopy sparkling with light and shadow. My collarbones shift with the work, my chest begins to open, and I feel as though I am myself becoming part of the song.

The trapezius muscle – named for its trapezoidal shape and not, as commonly thought, because it is the muscle one uses to hang on a trapeze or because it looks like a trapeze – assists my arms by bringing in the weight and mass of my back. In conjunction with the latissimus dorsi, which drapes the lower back like a fan (a lattice), the trapezius and the many other muscles beneath it allow me to put my back into the work. If I fail to put my back into it enough, I’ll end up with a chip on my shoulder, and if that goes on long enough I’ll become spineless, and no one will want to back me up. Everyday language is sprinkled with indications of how deeply we understand, at a cultural level, the way the body speaks.

As my hands and arms tire, the maple not yet smooth, I begin to rock back and forth with the rhythm of the plane, pressing forward as the shavings make a trill like a fishing lure sent out on a long cast, looking for the deepest water. The more sustained sound means the shavings are becoming longer, the surface of the wood closer to – but never reaching – absolute flatness. I’m aware of my legs coordinating the motion, the large muscles with names like vastus lateralis and gastrocnemius (“the belly of the leg”) pumping to get my trunk on the upswing as I pull the plane back, and rolling down with momentum as I return the plane to the wood. And facilitating it all, way down in the unappreciated hinterland of my body, are my feet. They don’t get much fanfare yet make possible many aspects of this work that would otherwise be difficult. Especially the big toe, which in ancient times was called the hallux, meaning “thumb of man”: it helps me stay on balance, remain planted firmly in the work. Thus the feet and the hands are companions in the labor of the body, ensuring that I am both solidly grounded and free to glide on the shimmering wings of creative work.

The vault of the body does not always open to the inquiry of work. Sometimes I become distracted, or fickle, or too bent on perfection, and the protean movements that my frame offers me slide into frustrating repetitions of strain or injury or – this is the worst – complete stalling, so that I am left standing sweaty and baffled in the shop, not sure what to do, caught in visions of what’s possible but sensing it slip away, birdsong dwindling into the twilight, my muscles sore on tired and fruitless bones.

But when I get it right, when the smallest tremor telegraphed to my fingers by the undulating surface of the wood climbs up into my wrist and forearm, washes my shoulder with the widening sensation of something about to be revealed, when the motion of my back feels like the earth swinging in its orbit – during those moments my heart rises like a raven bursting from the forest floor, rushing up through the canopy and spreading burnished wings to the clear and infinite day.

Amid all the activity of those moments, my hands guiding the tool as it reveals the emerging face of the wood, emotion thrumming through me in bright sparks of feeling, I am always held by an inner stillness – within the flurry of flapping wings, through the rhythm of my muscles as they follow their concise paths, beneath the vault of my heart with its chambers of memory. The ancient Taoists called this state of internal quietude a living midnight in which the golden blossoms of our original essence shine like stars.


The small maple workpiece is done. Waves of grain the color of raw silk sweep across the bright surface of the wood. Despite its somewhat pedestrian reputation, maple is among the world’s most versatile woods. The eastern white maple and rock maple varieties used in cabinetmaking and furniture are exceedingly strong without being too heavy, offer straight grain, and can be shaped well with hand tools. In Britain, maple lintels and doorsteps were once thought to ward off witches and protect against lightning. This seems relevant to the project at hand, for nothing so disturbs the work of stillness as a bolt of lightning. And I need that stillness, that inner quietude, to assist me in making a small wooden plane.

More than any other woodworking tools, planes are the emissaries of stillness. The rhythmic motion, the murmur of the wood, the slow and steady refinement the steel presses upon it – these things contribute to the state into which my little block plane so faithfully delivers me. I cherish my block plane, yet I have the impulse to build another that is slighter larger, a plane fashioned by my own hands, an emissary of my own making.

The ability to make one’s own tools is a timeless milestone in woodcraft, the point at which an apprentice becomes a craftsman. My apprenticeship has been under the tutelage of invisible forces, of creative energies that seize me in the most obnoxious and inconvenient ways. My experience with the marimba was a perfect example – who wants to spend the winter in an unheated shop, wrestling with unsolvable riddles, thrashing about as indecipherable music flees into the night? Yet the imperative to work was there, as it often is, prodding me toward a specific form even if the practicality of the piece is questionable. I have to trust that such imperatives serve a larger purpose. At the same time I dread the day when those invisible forces will ask me to make a ship, or a whimsical house in some windswept place.

In learning this craft I am what is usually called self-taught. Yet I don’t think of it that way, of my self as the guide, but rather as having learned under the auspices of an elusive presence: the still, implacable mountain of the creative. It makes sense to me that Fu Xi, the most ancient of Taoist sages and the traditionally acknowledged originator of the eight trigrams, is depicted as a living mountain. After all, mountains are symbols of ascent toward refinement, illumination, understanding. They are the abodes of gods and are sometimes gods themselves.

The Taoist trigram for mountain represents the character of the heights: a single solid line – yang – direct and strong, placed above two dashed lines – double yin. The shape of the yin lines creates an open space in the middle of the trigram, as though a still, calm center waits to be discovered. “Empty yourself of everything,” asserts Lao Tzu:

Let the mind rest at peace. The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return. They grow and flourish and then return to the source. Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.

Making a wooden plane begins with selecting a block of hard and stable wood such as maple and cutting it into three segments to fashion the plane’s body: two cheeks and a center block to house the blade. I’ve just finished planing off the saw marks from those cuts and now have the basic segments roughed out. The sole will come later, after the body has been completed. (This sounds like a bit of Taoist alchemy: The soul will come when the body is complete.)

Once the cheeks are shaped and smoothed, I must cut the center block with a wide V into two segments: the front ramp, where shavings will collect, and the rear ramp, where the blade will rest. The rear ramp should be positioned in such a way that the blade protrudes through the sole of the plane slightly forward of the middle. The blade acts like a small pivot in determining the movement of the plane, so its placement is important.

The angle of the V-cut for the ramps is important, too. The front ramp must be shallow enough to allow plenty of room for shavings to accumulate and for my fingers to scoop them out. The rear ramp must position the blade in such a way that it has enough leverage to shear off wood fibers. This is a delicate balance, and it’s one of the things woodworkers debate endlessly. The mechanics involved are complex; since I don’t understand them, it seems best just to press on.

I choose an angle of forty-five degrees for the ramps, smack in the middle between zero and ninety on the complex spectrum of blade mechanics.1 I make the cut, which frees a triangular section and leaves the front and rear ramps. I save the triangular piece – I’ll use it later for the wedge that will hold the blade in place.

I use a router to shape the cap screw channel. The cap screw is part of the chip breaker assembly, which fastens to the blade, stabilizing it and preventing shavings from growing too large and unwieldy. It is the blade’s companion, the way a scabbard is a sword’s companion. As I shape the channel, the router’s spinning cutter sends small shards of wood out in all directions, like strands of pale confetti or a fireworks of tiny shavings. Then I make the cross-pin, a small wooden bolt like a clavicle designed to hold the wedge and blade in place. I like to make small pieces using only hand tools – knives, rasps, rifflers – so I spend a quiet hour just whittling, shaping the pin and test-fitting it, trying not to slice the ends of my fingers. I pay attention to the way my hands hold the wood, search for where it’s still rough, slide over the smooth parts where the work is done.

Now, with all the parts of the body complete (but not the sole), I’m ready to assemble the plane with glue. I place the cross-pin through its mounting holes and position the cheeks on either side of the ramps that will house the open throat. As I go through the steps of naming and placing each piece, I realize how much their names – throat, cheeks, mouth – evoke the language of the voice, of singing. This feels good and right for the use to which this instrument will be put.

When the glue is dry, I unclamp the pieces and inspect the finished plane body. The joints are tight and clean. Now for the sole, which I’ll fashion from lignum vitae, the “wood of life,” hardest of all woods. Its interlocking grain creates an incredibly tough network of wood fibers lubricated by natural oils that reduce sliding friction. In the West Indies, Colombia, and Venezuela, lignum vitae has traditionally been thought to possess healing powers; in woodworking its hardness and lubricity make it the best choice for the soles of planes.

I cut the sole to size on the bandsaw, taking care not to blunt the edge of the blade with such dense material. Then, using concealed pegs and epoxy glue – both will increase the bond of the sole to the body – I clamp the pieces firmly and leave them to dry overnight. I can sense my enthusiasm growing. I’m approaching the point at which these various carefully shaped parts will suddenly awaken into their own quiet life.

With the sole affixed I make final adjustments to the mouth of the plane, where shavings will spiral up toward the throat. Technically, the mouth is the opening in the sole through which the blade protrudes like a sharp tongue. The throat is where the shavings end up, farther up the body of the plane alongside the cheeks. The mouth must be formed precisely: wide enough that the blade can move through it in a range of depths, yet narrow enough that it holds the surface of the wood flat just in front of the blade. When the mouth is properly formed, wood fibers are pressed down right up to the moment they encounter the blade. This helps prevent “tearout” of the wood. The term is self-descriptive but doesn’t begin to capture the frustration one experiences when chunks of the wood suddenly tear off, leaving ragged cavities in an otherwise smooth surface. I pay close attention to the mouth, using my sharpest and favorite chisel – forged of Japanese aogami hagane, or fine “blue steel” – to pare away the excess wood in small increments, feeling the hard lignum vitae yield to the steel. The final strokes of the chisel are a joy: simple, rewarding work.

I fit the blade into the throat as though the plane were swallowing a sword. Then I shape the small maple wedge that will press against the cross-pin and hold the blade in place during use. This takes a bit of finicking, pushing the blade into place, carefully inserting the wedge, looking for gaps in the mating surface or signs of poor alignment. But in the end it fits; the entire assembly is solid and strong. The last thing now – the very last – is flattening the sole.

Among the several factors that determine the quality of a plane – smoothness and stability of the blade housing, trueness of the various parts, comfort in the hand, quality of the steel – none is more important than the flatness and durability of the sole. It must be superbly flat to smooth other wood surfaces. It is like the human soul in this way: its highest nature is to be still, level, the surface of an undisturbed pool reflecting an endless sky.

The soles of almost all modern planes are made of steel stamped out in factories, where the tolerances are generous. The work of final flattening is usually left to the craftsman. The most effective way to flatten a sole is first to find a dead level surface; the table on a jointer or a good quality tablesaw will do, though plate glass is the best choice. The next step is to glue down fine abrasive paper or apply a slurry of abrasive particles and press the sole against the liquid surface until no bumps or hollows are visible. Working in this way, one begins to see that factory steel is rough indeed, that it is possible to flatten a plane sole so thoroughly the steel begins to shine with its own calm light that is indeed like a quiet pool.

The traditional Taoists have their own ideas about flattening the soul, preparing it for proper use: alchemical practices, esoteric spiritual exercises, mysterious philosophies. These devotions are intended to provide a means of refining the spirit, of flattening out the self-important ego, of letting go of illusion. They call this work, among other things, “cooking in the cauldron of the eight trigrams.”2 It is a means of transformation, as the wood in my hands is being transformed, and as I am being transformed by the work of my hands.

I move the sole back and forth on the surface of the glass, wet and dark with abrasive particles. I gaze into its surface, watching, waiting for the image to clear. And when it does, I’ll see my own true face, what the ancient Taoists would call my original face. But I don’t see that face, at least not yet. Instead, I see a mountain.


From the back patio of our little house in Maui on the slope where Pu’u Kukui, the “hill of enlightenment,” meets the sea, I could trace with my eye the path we had chosen to climb. The long, knife-edge ridge was clearly visible as it rose up from the lowlands, growing more dense as it went until it disappeared into a canopy spread out across a stretch of terrain, deep in shadow, that lay beneath the summit. The grove of pines on the peak made a small outline against the backdrop of the brightening day. Along the remote, lush slopes of Pu’u Kukui, the most pristine spirit of nature still prevailed: stars wheeling overhead and the earth, replete, humming.

There were about a dozen of us, but it was as if I made the trip alone. From the moment we stepped into the shade of the trail, damp and red with the mud of Maui, I went deeply into myself, into the spirit of that place, and remained under its spell. We followed the trail we had been told about, the one we thought had been made by wild boars. It was clear only at ground level, a beaten, earthen track crisscrossed by an infinite web of roots. At knee level it gave way to the dense branches of overhanging trees and vines. Though I could follow the trail without difficulty, my legs and torso were consistently pressed and scraped by sharp branches indignant at the intrusion. The network of bloody scratches along my body grew as we climbed higher. It was like being tattooed by the rain forest.

Perhaps it was not boars that made the path. It could as easily have been the menehune, elves of Hawaiian lore who live deep in the mountains and are renowned as craftsmen. Or other elusive beings: after all, Taoist legend speaks of Peng-lai, the island abode of immortals, somewhere in the sea east of China. Ancient explorers seeking the sacred mushrooms of that place claim to have seen the island vanish into the depths.3 Maui lies directly east of China, at a distance of about 5,000 miles; and I have seen the low clouds of an approaching tropical storm hide even the high peaks of that island behind great bastions of moisture that reflect the sea and erase the land, giving the impression of a dark blue sky that extends to the horizon.

The trail climbed toward the shoulder of the mountain. As we made our way farther into the rain forest, the air was brushed with scarlet wings as small birds fed on the nectar of flowers, their petals bright splashes of color. The sounds of our journey were dampened by the abundance of soft green moss, fed by four hundred inches of rainfall each year, that grew on every exposed surface. The day was still. I was aware of my feet on the trail, my hands pushing aside the swinging branches, the sharp sensation of another scratch when I failed to catch one in time – yet beneath these more immediate sensations I began to feel the mountain: listening, watching, waiting.

We climbed for roughly three hours along a narrow ridge. As the trail ascended, the ground fell away on either side until, high up, the path became a narrow passage along a sharp crest with hundreds of feet of vertical drop on either side. On the cliffs a riot of climbing shoots, creepers, and moss filled every niche. Shrubs and hardy trees clung to the face, their branches and trunks meandering out into empty air and back again. Eventually the crest opened out onto a wider, more gentle slope from which we could see down into Honokohau Valley with its sheer, thousand-foot cliff of many waterfalls called “the wall of tears.” Farther on we stopped for a rest at Violet Lake, where a rare form of native violet nestled alongside greensword, lobelia, and tiny ohia with their soft-spiked red blossoms.

The bright day gave way to clouds and mist on the mountain’s upper reaches. We climbed higher, no longer able to see the summit but following the rough trail through shadows. I was not aware of time, but moved through the territory as though I had always walked there, a traveler drifting through the landscape like a breath in the damp air.

The afternoon must have worn on, because at some point we stopped and made the decision to turn back before reaching the summit. We had come to an open bog that lay beneath the peak itself, and there was some risk that if we did not begin the return journey soon we might find ourselves on the lower trail during nightfall. With this in mind the group gathered together for a short snack before retreating from the mountain’s slopes.

I was glad we stopped, for as I had climbed higher it became clear to me that the summit was a place of ancient sacredness. It would have seemed an intrusion, a trespass, to enter that domain without a specific and compelling purpose. We had none. A small grove of trees lay to one side of the bog and I wandered over there. I wanted to be alone in this most remote place, to sit and listen to water dripping on the leaves. But I never quite formed those thoughts. Rather I found myself, at a certain moment, within a rough circle made by the moss-covered trees. Looking up through the branches overhead, I could see clouds, dark in the dwindling day.

I stayed in the grove for some time, soaking up the stillness, becoming aware of something primordial within me – a wind blowing from a distant threshold, its breath on my neck the most ephemeral touch. I stood motionless among the trees. I became so still I forgot who I was. Or perhaps I remembered myself, saw my own true face. It’s hard to say, even now. Nothing moved, and yet the grove was saturated with bursting life. Time slowed, and stopped. There was no time. No I.

And then, distantly, I heard a sound – no, not just a sound, a name. Someone was searching, calling, and as I heard the sound of the name spread itself out across the landscape, I began to ask myself if that name belonged to me. Aeons passed while I pondered this question. And then I decided it must be mine – no one else seemed to be claiming it – and I slowly came out from under the spell of that stillness. I turned and saw one of our party on a nearby slope, his hands cupped around his mouth, calling me back. So often have I been called back. I looked toward the grove one last time and then turned away, toward the sound of my name.

According to the Hawaiian creation story, the Kumulipo, which means “deep source,” or “source from within the darkness,” a woman named La’ila’i was born during the time of the earth’s first ages, the time of gods and the oldest of creatures. Her name means stillness, calmness. She lived among “the first chiefs of the dim past dwelling in cold uplands.” As we traveled back down the trail toward the shore, toward the bright sun of the beach, I wondered if such ancient beings might still inhabit the high places of these islands.


The plate glass beneath the sole of the plane now seems deep with memory. As I’ve been pressing down, moving the plane in a figure eight across the surface, the sole has flattened and begun to swirl the abrasive in sinuous waves and eddies of dark motion. I know I’m done when the slurry moves on the glass without disturbances or irregularities. The wood of the sole and the surface of the glass are perfectly mated. The glass is a still pool.

I remove the plane from the glass and dry off the sole, taking care to change cloths several times until smudges from the wet abrasive no longer appear on the fabric. The feeling of the high and ancient grove of Pu’u Kukui stays with me as I finish the plane, as I shape the sides and back with a rasp and file, as I fit the body to my hand with its creases and lines. I work in silence, not thinking about the result, just working. I lose track of time.

Eventually I see that the plane is finished. I sharpen the blade – dark streaks of swarf trace the edges of my fingers – insert it into the mouth, select a piece of straight pine from the offcut bin and gently rest the plane on the wood. I push it tentatively, feeling its shape with my fingers, noticing the muscles in my arms and shoulders, sensing the raven, perched beside my ear, whispering messages sent from the Hawaiian god Maui, whose shape is a hawk. Maui is famous for having fished up the North Island of New Zealand from the bottom of the sea using a hook made from his grandmother’s jawbone and blood from his own nose as bait. What is less known is that Maui’s hook first snagged not on submerged land but on the porch of a carved wooden house. Wood is often at the beginning of things. And, as with Sadie’s box, at the end of things, too.

A thin shaving spirals up with a gentle susurrus from the mouth of the plane. It works – of course it works, why do I doubt my craft? My body responds with a joyous shiver, my clavicles opening all the secret vaults of my heart, my back wide with accomplishment, my legs strong and solid. Even my feet are happy.

I make shavings. Buckets of shavings. Enough shavings to fill my sawdust bin. Long, thin ribbons of wood dance out of the plane with a song that grows more vigorous as I work. I’m not working toward anything, not making anything; just planing, soaring. And in the midst of all this activity – the shavings, my body with its rhythm, the bright day new and new again – I grow still inside, a place of ancient and secret beginnings.

Notes

  1. David Welter recommends this angle in his article “Wooden Planes,” Fine Woodworking, October 1997, 69. ↩︎

  2. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Thomas Cleary (Boston: Shambhala, 1988), 16. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is among the great Taoist classics that have come down to us from remote antiquity (the others are the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching). There are references in the most ancient literature to earlier books: the Lien Shan, “Mountains Standing Together” and Kuei Ts’ang, “Reverting to the Hidden.” These latter books have been lost for over two millennia, but originally made up, along with the I Ching, the original canon of Taoist thought. The I Ching, one of the richest and most complex books of wisdom in the world, is thus only a fragment of a much larger sacred literature now completely vanished, “cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.” ↩︎

  3. There is also some evidence that ancient Chinese explorers traveled as far east as North America in search of jade and the sacred mushrooms (or fungus) of immortality. Moreover, visitors from the far west figure prominently in northwestern myth and legend, as do tales of an ancient, true homeland in the west that was destroyed by flood and fire. ↩︎


Other Chapters

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Chapter Six

Shallows

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Chapter Four

Deep Water