Tales from the Cabin
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The Staff of Life

Carving out a space for what matters

By Paul Sullivan
Published: January 20, 2011
Photo by Cabin Life Staff, walking staff courtesy Joshua Herbert
One spring morning, shortly after we bought our cabin and 40 acres of woods in the coulees of the Minnesota River Valley, I went out walking on the gravel road that bordered the property. At the bridge over the creek, I met an old man leaning against the concrete rail.
“You the young fellow who bought that cabin up there?” he said, pointing up to the crest of the hill overlooking the valley.
I said I was.
“Ben Coots,” he said, extending his weathered hand. “People around here call me Coots.”
Coots sat back and rested his hands on the knotty handle of a rustic wooden cane. I told him that when I was 14 or so, I’d read about growing a cane with a handle by tying a circle in a sapling and letting it grow for a few years.
“So I did that,” I said. “Fourteen and thinking about a cane for my old age. Guess I was a weird kid, huh?
“Where’s that cane now?” he asked me.
“In a closet up at the cabin waiting for me to get old,” I replied. And as soon as I said it, I regretted it. I quickly redirected the conversation by asking, “Did you buy your cane or cut it yourself?”
“This cane’s ironwood. It’ll outlast me,” Coots said. “I cut it right over there in what’s your woods now. Used to be ours. Dad had to sell off a chunk of it to the fellow who built your cabin.”
I found myself staring at the many carvings on the cane. Some names, some dates, and some sharp, hard lines.
“I would guess the names and dates on it are your family,” I said. “But, what are the lines next to some of the names for?”
“How tall they were on their fifth birthday,” said Coots. “Or close to their birthdays anyways.” He smiled and for a moment looked off into the middle distance of the woods along the creek. “Grandkids get scattered around the country, you know. Like balloons at a fair. I call this cane my staff of life. It’s getting pretty near filled up. Before I go, I might have to grow another one. Hope I got time.”
After that first meeting, Coots and I became good friends, despite our age difference. He always had a story and a smile. When I was at the cabin, I often walked with him or stopped by his farm to say hello and to buy some garden produce. The last time we walked together up the gravel road to his farm, he really needed his staff of life. His legs were getting stiff.
A while later I sold the cabin and moved to the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t see Coots again until his funeral. Saying my final goodbye, I saw his old weathered staff of life hanging from a handle of his casket. Beside it was a new cane he’d grown and cut. It already had a few dates and lines on it. I smiled to myself. He’d had time.
Back home in Seattle, I took the cane I’d grown years ago out of the upstairs closet and began carving names on my own staff of life. The act of carving those names into the wood left me feeling peaceful and fulfilled – and happy that none of the grandkids were named Alexandria.

Paul Sullivan has never met a cabin he didn’t like. 
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