A few years ago, my daughter came inside the house carrying something. She put the thing in my hand. It was grey, solid, an almost perfectly round rock, which fit in my palm. She’d found a keen rock-ball. Across the street from me are natural caves. There’s a mountain with a flag on top, and on the face of it-many forms of wildlife in the woods: skunks, fox, deer, a meandering bear, perhaps a bobcat, coyotes, opposums, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and on. And glorious rocks! The biggest boulders glint with mica, the black kind you pick in sheets, and quartz everywhere.
I had a feeling what she found was part of a mortar and pestle. But I wanted it confirmed. My woodcarving teacher (Z) would be the guy to show this to.. This rock was too round to be ‘natural.’ So we began our woodcarving session. My daughter was working on a Gryphon and me: I was working on two crows with their heads together, passing a berry in their beaks. . .which was an antique pearl hat pin.
I whipped the rock-ball out of my pocket and Z paused. He’d been arranging a tool, which had a foot pedal, up on a suspension, so I could make indentations with it on the wooden ‘rock’ my crows were perched on, then follow the slices with my sharp knife, to carve out nice realistic rockface for my crows to stand on. I was going to use the hand power tool with the tiniest sawblade you can imagine. It spun round and round. I had such fun creating the illusion of rockface on wood!
Well, Z moved the tangle of wires with his foot…”Lots of spaghetti on the floor,” he said, referring to the wires as he considered the rock-ball. “Let me get my seat and I will discuss this.”
I could see his interest was piqued. The exchange was interrupted when his wife, a teacher on vacation for the summer, approached us after having dumped a wheelbarrow full of brush. We were working with the garage door open. Z had been telling me that the day before, his wife was trimming hedges when she accidentally cut through a live wire! There had been some sparks but she was fine!
He handed my rock-ball to me and rose from the plastic seat to greet her–when his wife approached, with her hands on hips to see what we were doing. “Hi honey,” he said. Then he pointed at the spaghetti curls of wires near his big saw that stood on a handmade table-bench. “Hey honey don’t go away yet. I have some wires I would like for you to cut for me.”
But back to the mortar/pestle. I knew Z would know. “I have one like this in my collection as well,” he said. He told me the mountain and stream where he had found his. Yes, I had hiked there many times my self in the past. I was familiar with the place. It seemed Z and I had trekked common pathways and not known it. “Where did you find this one?” he asked Kerry. my daughter. She told him.
“Mortar and Pestle. I can show you in the dictionary if you like,” he said. I grinned.
Z liked to dig. He had shown me coffee cans full of arrowheads and the like. He’d even found a hand carved sailor once, which was signed on the bottom indistinguishably. I told him it was meant for a carver to find another carver’s piece. He was sure that was true. Z stood up In his Hungarian accent he closed his eyes and squeezed the rock-ball in his fist and talked about it…
……..Z’s skin is the same warm color as the cherry wood I was carving. The wood I was using came from a fallen tree in NY many yrs. ago. Z told me the story weeks before of the wood I was carving my crows from, and I share it here now again. Z drove to NY with a friend who had a truck and asked the woman if they could have the logs from the fallen tree and she said they could. When they got it back to CT they were faced with bringing it to a lumberyard to have it sliced into thick, very long sheets, to be stacked in his shed, so the wood could be stored for yrs. to ”season”. They brought the logs of cherry wood to Rum Hill for the slicing.
Rum Hill was an old saw mill run by a guy who was drunk most of the time, said Z. He’d cut things for you in exchange for a bottle of rum, in fact he always saved the bottles, thus the term, Rum Hill. There was a mighty stack of bottles beside this character, all rum bottles. Z speaks fondly of the wood cutter who sat beside his rum bottle mountain. The saw mill of course, got the nickname Rum Hill. They went up there and the guy ran off the wood for Z in exchange for the rum.
It is just such a piece cut that very day and seasoned for yrs. that I used for my 2 crows. Of course, I had to take the “skin” off the piece first with a chisel. That really broke a sweat. But back to the lovely rock-ball which fit neatly in Z’s fist. I paused with my cherry wood crows in my lap, the knife poised.
“This churned, if you can imagine, for perhaps thousands of yrs. It may have started as a big rock. A jagged rock, we don’t know originally how big or how jagged. But it churned and churned by water against another big rock until it is like this. The pestle of the mortar. Don’t lose this. When I hold this, when I close my eyes like this I feel it. I feel good.”
“I do too,” I agreed. “Like feeling the yrs. it was turning and turning.” I looked at my daughter. “Its true. Rocks have energy.”
And so it was later in the lesson, when I was really enjoying the way the sharp knife was cutting the warm cherry wood like butter, the way I was making wood look like rockface, that we discussed my daughter’s next project, for her gryphon was almost complete, nearing the painting stage. And I would not be painting my own crows, cherry is too pretty to paint, the grain is lovely. I would stain it instead. Sometimes I would nick myself, bleed onto the wood, and Z would say that my pieces and his were better than mass produced carvings because we had added our own DNA to the project.
Apparently my daughter and I and I were the only ones who got lessons at his house. After discussing my very cool stone, Z said something to the effect that “you and Kerry are guests after all…no I mean family.”
I smiled in a wee way but ‘felt’ it much larger, the statement.
Weeks later as a heatwave died down, we carved yet some more. The crows took months and months to complete. And on the way home from carving (Z would drive us home)…..Z brought us to a lake. On the way there he slowed and pointed to a wooded overhang of trees whereby a Buddha statue not unlike the one in my front yard could be seen, sitting crosslegged on the boulder over a waterfall. He said, “You are a spiritual person. I thought you would like to see that scene. Look through the trees at that sight. What do you see?”
I took pleasure in telling him I was familiar with it, as my deceased husband and I had been there many times before. But i appreciated him pointing it out, because when we used to sit there, there had not been a Buddha and now there was. He was surprised I had been there at the very spot he pointed out. Kerry and I are having suspicions he is psychic and I am not kidding you about that.
When we got to the Lake, (Swan Lake, believe it or not) he stood at the water’s edge, and told me this was where he trained. He was a double gold medal winner in the senior olympics. He told me this before, humbly, as if it was something people did all the time! I knew that he swam at the YMCA in the winter and that he bicycled there or rode his motorcycle to the YMCA, then swam laps, (he was 70) but I didn’t know he swam across the lake after every carving session.
“Its a big lake!, “I said. “You swim ALL the way across? Beyond the ropes??”
“Back and forth. One side to the next. Shore to shore. I have been coming here 25 yrs. You need a special permit. But I know the guy in that cabin here.”
He knew guys everywhere! London. Maine. Romania. Arizona….He was going to dive in I think. In fact he said, as we stood at the water’s edge, “I won’t subject you to watching an old guy swim. Don’t be alarmed.”
I should’ve said, you go ahead, do your training, dive in. But I did not. It was about 6:45 p.m. —a tad later than usual, I needed dinner.
I was thinking recently, while dusting my finished crows, that in other languages (am I thinking India?) , when someone states their age they don’t say “I am 42.” Rather they say, “I have 42 years.”
I want to be that kind of person. I have 48. After all, at any age there is so much to do…In certain African dialects, there is no word that can substitute for our English word “Should.” You either do it or you don’t.