When someone creates something–a writer a poem, an artist a visual object–it is said they must let it go, so their readers and viewers can receive the gift and take their own meaning from it or infuse their own meaning into it.
We lead busy lives. Sometimes we don’t hear from our adult son for such a long time I begin to wonder if he remembers us. This was one of those times. But, on Christmas Tristan presented me with a knife he forged, which obviously took a long, loving while to make. It reminded me of when David and I used to make Christmas cards and presents using type he set by hand, paper we marbled, and linoleum cuts I made illustrating medieval Christmas songs. These took at least a month to craft, and the whole time we were thinking of those to whom they would be given. It made the season of gift-giving last a long, loving time.
Tristan told us the beautiful handle of the knife he made of buckeye burl. He said he chose it because of an old memory: When he was in late middle or early high school David and I took him and his best friend, Jake, to White Pines Preserve at the confluence of the Rocky and Deep Rivers. He recalled when Jake started to slip down an otter slide into the river, and we hauled him back up. Shortly later he noticed I was very excited to see a buckeye tree with buckeyes on it. Why this made such an impression on him he didn’t know, but he always remembered it.
The weight, the balance of the knife, and the shape of the handle feel wonderful in the hand. I loved seeing the finished piece, but didn’t think about the making of it. When Tristan posted photos of the process as part of a series on his “knife-making journey,” I saw it grow from a piece of carbon steel and a block of wood to gradually take the shape of a knife-being as a seed germinates and grows into the shape of a tree-being.
It’s true I’m enamored of buckeye trees, but I don’t think he ever saw the paintings I made of every stage of a buckeye’s growth — from the big nut-seeds with their emerging roots and twigs; through the unfurling leaves and peeking-out flower buds; to opened flowers, and finally, once pollinated, to new nuts. I un-potted a nut I planted, thinking to draw the roots, but was daunted, amazed by how long, thick, and fibrous they were. We’ve planted many buckeyes here near the creek. They stabilize and hold river banks. Last year two produced new buckeyes for the first time. Their glossy brown nuts are said to resemble the deep liquid brown eyes of a deer. Imagine encountering a deer in the woods: you are both stopped in your tracks and can’t take your eyes off each other. Then the deer stamps hard–thump–and breaks the spell.
He meant it to be a paring knife, because cooking plays a big part in the family. But it’s much too exquisite for such practical use. I’m reminded of the people I made journals for when I was a bookbinder who refused to use them because, they said, they were so lovely they didn’t want to sully them with their scribblings. Sigh. The journals would only have been enhanced by their tear-stained writings. An apple would be honored to be pared by such a knife.
No, it’s a ceremonial knife. I used to have one whittled from cedar I named Intend—you know, like Bilbo’s sword that he passed on to Frodo was named Sting. Holding Intend assisted me to pray pointedly for the laser-focused attention I needed for completing an art project or to invoke the one-pointed intention I sought for a certain quest. Intend had a personality, like a faithful helper for whom I felt gratitude and affection.
Ceremonial objects are those endowed with power, like the elk-skin drum I made and infused with the power to call me home to my heart, or to call a group of us home to our deeper selves. The way the gentle clatter of a hand-crafted rattle wakes the good spirits of the land and says we’re here; please, we would like to hear back from you. Like a dried flower brought home from the funeral of a loved one continues to hold the power of love.
Objects can be active, have animacy. When our daughter was little she had a stuffed bear who helped her with her feelings. She patiently explained to me that “he can have whatever feelings I want him to have.” Whatever her feelings, he gently held them and helped her process them.
When we were visiting a museum in Moscow many years ago to see treasures of Russian Orthodox spirituality, our guide explained, with a sudden intensity and passion that seemed born of lived experience, that an icon of a saint is not just a portrait, it is a practice. In deep contemplation, it is a portal to enter into the saint’s spiritual power. Gazing into Mary’s eyes, one experiences Mary’s compassion. Gazing into a throng of angels, one enters, in trance, the angelic realm.
Holding my new carbon steel knife, BuckEye, helps me to stand tall and speak aloud my Dedication with renewed courage. Just as movement in body prayer is so much more visceral and dynamic than prayer simply spoken, a ritual object acts as an intermediary that heightens transmission between heart and Spirit. Ah, just now I see I was not far off in my knife-naming / sword-naming analogy. A cooking site, seriouseats.com, just informed me that carbon steel knives are much better than stainless, but, “Caring for a carbon-steel knife requires ritual-like devotion . . . a carbon steel blade must be treated with reverence and care like a samurai treats his sword.”
I will care for BuckEye reverently. David asked, “If it’s a ceremonial knife, does that make it an athamé,” a wiccan ritual tool? No, it will not be used to cast a magic circle, a circle within which to invite magic. For one thing, magical beings, the fairies, the Sí, don’t like iron! What it does have in common is that it will be used to draw a circle of protection, a Celtic Caim, turning in a circle while pointing to the four directions. And it is a tool of power to direct psychic energy, like making intentions. And, I will ritually consecrate it using the four elements—with the special oil Tristan gave me, infused with herbs for earth; with incense for air; and water from Brigid’s holy well. It has already been through the fire of the forge.
Come to think of it, perhaps BuckEye will have magical powers, like King Arthur’s sword Excalibur, which had the power to protect him by shining so brightly it blinded his enemies. I’m hoping BuckEye will fix me in the eye with its steely shine and magically protect my ability to set potent intentions by smiting mine enemies like laziness and distraction.
When the chaos of the outer world threatens, nothing can take away our ability to meet whatever happens with our personal powers of love and creativity. With charged energy, like ions, we can still ask potent quest-ions and take creative act-ions. New Year’s resolutions are weak, able to be easily circumvented. May we all be helped, as BuckEye will help me, to meet whatever the new year brings with strength and powerful one-pointed intent-ions.
Text and photos (C) 2023 Betty Lou Chaika. Photos of knife-making process (C) 2023 Tristan Chaika.