Fifteen came…

Fifteen came to share this joy with me. Fifteen men left their lives on hold, left family, friends, stress and cares, jobs and all to share in this great joy with me. The shackles of modernity thrown aside for a while, they reached with smiling gusto to grasp and wield razor sharp axes saws and chisels.

Drawn together under a goal, as men have been forever, the sights and sounds of city life were replaced with the chop of the axe, the swish of the saw and the thud of the mallet. One man a plumber, an engineer, a scientist, here and now, all a timberwright, a rough carpenter, a pioneer.

What a great and profound joy to share with such men! What honor they do me, to learn together, to teach and listen and grow as men, to share the joy of the tools, the great pleasure in the joining of wood to wood in lovely wholesome unity!

What a shock to stand amongst men of like mind, to share ideals, and goals and oneness of being in so complete and richly rewarding an endeavor as putting up a structure with our own hands, well carved with sharp hand tools!

Fifteen men came to build and learn, and left me with the greatest honor to have known them, and spent a while in each others shade.

 

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A Simple thing…

IMG_1658IMG_1660IMG_1672What a simple thing a window, and yet such a joy. A few panes of glass stretched tightly between a web of wood woven by the hand. What small matter to pierce the rough timber hide of our home to let in light and cheer and warmth. To welcome the sun as an honored guest, as a friendly neighbor whose passing you wish to halt a while for chat, to give him a seat, a cup of tea, or a smile.

What a joy to make, these windows, with cherished heart of pine, so carefully saved against the weather, for a rainy day as it were, tucked away under some stack as it dried and through aging became wise and tough, and through planing straight and true. “True of heart” it simply becomes. And with chisel tip, and saws bright edge and augers point, a frame is wrought, strong and square.

What a comfort they bring, these sashes carved from pines trued heart. Bringing warmth and cheer on even a bitter and dreary day into a dark abode. A place to bask and stretch the limbs, yes a spa for cats! What other purpose would we have in mind, than for them a throne to sit, watch the wren with relish and lick a paw?

What a perfect gift they are, this ageless wisdom, this zenith of craft and home design. To add a sash outside, and a shutter within, to trap a bit of air which guards us from the chill or heat, and all by hand, and from our land, no need for the modern industrial construct, the expensive junk of modernity which fails and transports to some landfill, and to do it all with such striking beauty, such purity and grace of form!

We truly have forgotten more than we shall ever know…

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The work continued…

Captura de pantalla 2017-03-19 a las 9.24.01 PM     The work continued into the night. Curly wisps of fragrant shavings arced through the air, pushed forward off the end of my workbench and spiraled down to gather atop the prodigious pile on the floor. The pungent “green” almost herbal scent of poplar sapwood mingled with the thick tannic acid smell of chestnut oak and the slight hint of seasoned cast iron stovetop as the fire cracked and popped.

To my left, rough sawn and sun blackened boards leaned against a purlin. To my right their transformed brethren glistened in tried and true elegance, feint pencil marks for Face side and Reference edge graced the mottled patterns of the swirling wood grain.

Throbbing aches pulsed through sore muscles unaccustomed to this “new” work. This finer work laid for a time to rest at the lonely bench, while the rougher jobs of timber framing and crude joinery devoured my days over the past many months. The heavy lifting and high climbing replaced by the push of the try plane and the swish of the tenon saw. Bold snap lines and fat pencil marks transformed into sharp knife walls and clean bright polished joints.

Stooping to add a handful of wood to the fire, I stopped transfixed by the dancing flickering light as it cast long deep shadows across the timbers. Shock at the memory of the job done last summer, the true enormity of that effort, sweating profusely in the sweltering heat as each joint was meticulously carved. Yes, how grand to be here, warm in winters might, nestled in the womb of my creation, resting worn tendons and sore bones while chasing a line into the night.

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There is a magic…

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There is a magic to this work, and a sadness at its completion. The magic begins with a fancy, a passing image of a tiny cabin nestled into a hillside, just enough for two, carved from the surrounding forest. It dances from the mind, not containable, onto a roughly sketched scrap of paper late one night, candle light dancing about across the page, rude shapes and simple math cover corners as the little dream takes shape.

There is a magic as this dream is carved, hewn and sawn from stoic timbers of oak and pine. As cold polished chisels devour fat chips and leave straight bold mortises in their wake. The chorus of a many toothed saw as its rhythm strikes long curls of richly scented pine spiraling to the undergrowth.

There is a magic as the timbers come together, as long oiled tenons slide easily into their rightful mortise, the knock of the mallet and thud as a joint slams home, the permanence of each joint reverberating in your bones.

There is a sadness in its completion, like the ending of a much enjoyed book, when you are rudely thrown back to the cruelness of reality. The fantasy and joy gone too soon, and what of all your favorite characters, best friends and enemies no more…? The moment comes gradually into fruition, you double check your measurements, your wedges, your foundation. The work goes fast, with so much preparation, like a swift sleigh ride down a snowy hill, you slam one mortise home, drive this wedge, shove that timber, insert that joist, then…then…its done…its all together, there beautiful before you, but done, and you want more!

Yes there is a sadness in its completion, but also a joy unmeasured, a satisfaction money cannot buy, and a pride justly earned! For you have given wings to a dream, and so long as there will always be more to build, there will be a magic in every day!

 

 

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It was the tears…

The morning broke low and cool, not with some majestic gaudy display across a wide empty horizon, but slowly with a thousand meek rays reaching tentatively through the maze of tree trunks and bushes. I made my way down the narrow tree lined trail enjoying the crunch of crisp gravel under boot, and the warm glowing ache of my right arm as my tool tote grew heavier with each step. A nervous wood thrush bolted swiftly up from my pile of timbers to alight in the large sugar maple tree above, fluffing and warming himself in the early morning breeze.

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With a a sigh I lay my tote upon a fat timber of oak and began to lay out the days tools with reverent care upon the timbers, in easy reach, and in good order. A smirk crossed my lips as I gazed across my small contingent of useful tools. A few chisels, a smoothing plane, rip and crosscut saw, auger bits, spirit level, snap line, mallet, framing square…yes they were all here, with these simple tools you can build a house…

Once the moment passed I unsheathed old Bertha with somewhat of a flourish, as some ancient knight might his beloved sword, and sank her shining teeth deep into the wood of a joist. With each stroke she sang and sank ever deeper into the wood, following my gentle guiding as a sturdy draft horse would. I thought of all the years she must have suffered such loneliness and depression, closed away in a dusty old barn. For there is a soul in these old tools, though most dismiss the notion.

They were forged in the foundries of old, great factories worked by solid tireless men, akin to the smithies of the dwarves! They were tools crafted expertly of need, to build houses, to carve and cleave and rive out of wood all that is good and just. Yes, and they were used, expertly by expert men of the trades, until such men faded away like a summer rain gone too soon… Then then sat, hoarded by some, forgotten by others, lost in time as it were, until the misery of the job undone, the longing for the masters calloused touch, the deep sadness of the absence of need drove them to cry. It is these steely tears which cause old tools to rust, to fade away into the night, to crumble into themselves and lose that brilliant shine and stately countenance which they long held…how terribly sad a fate to be at once a Tool unused for its purpose!

Being one who loves lost things, and such the romantic at heart, I find true joy and endless satisfaction in bringing these aging ladies back to their former glory. With but a bit of oil and a rub of the stone, a quick pass of the file, these sad flowers shunned to the night grace us again with their beauty fully in the day! Not with the obscene noise, or repulsive vibration common to lesser tools born of modernity, but harmony of form and function carried true from a bygone age!

 

 

 

 

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A tree falls

Fifty three years ago a Tulip Poplar seed fluttered its way down from high in the forest canopy. It skipped through the lush leaves of a stately red oak, danced about the fat twiggy branches of a tough dour hickory, and bounced about within the thorny crown of a holly before coming to rest in the moist rich undergrowth of an Eastern Kentucky creek bottom. Subsequent summer showers only served to nestle the young seed deeper into its new home, just as a corpulent Rhode Island hen would gather a wandering egg amongst her feathery warmth.

The rich loamy soil of the creek bottom along with a patch of open sky above soon catapulted our tiny seedling into the air. Within twenty years he had dominated his small piece of paradise in the canopy, and began to extend his leafy reach outward, amassing a gorgeous crown bejeweled with yellow flowers of his own progeny. If fate had been kind our young tree would have established himself as one true forest giant, his trunk could have reached more than ten feet in diameter, his height ten times that.

One early spring a blistery cold late ice storm rolled though the high country, bending mighty hemlocks, smashing spindly black pines against the hillsides, and even our stately Poplar could not weather the storm undamaged. His gorgeous crown, which had so dominated and impressed the clearing, was too heavily laden with ice, and broke off in a terrifying crash, leaving him doomed to an agonizing and protracted end. Not by fire or chainsaw, but slow vicious rot would eat away at his insides, till all which remained of our glorious tall tree was the hollow haunted tapping of a hoary woodpecker searching for grubs in his rotten remains.

In this case, we felt no grief in harvesting this tree. With axe and saw we would transform his yet whole wood into a home for ourselves, so that he may live on in another life, be enjoyed and appreciated for many years to come.

In this most intimate intrusion of the forest, the felling of a great tree, we feel doubly resigned to the use of hand tools. To give of ourselves, some great sweat and effort, in the taking of this tree, to not despoil the air with the noise and stink of a chainsaw, but add to the forest symphony our own tunes, of chopping axe and singing saw, it is this way in part we give reverence to this tree, and every tree we must fell to build our home…

 

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Stones of time

The chimney lay exactly where our neighbor said it would, deep in a hollow flanked on either side by steep hills of red clay. Its top lay tumbled backwards, stone in piles covered in thick matts of moss and lichen, yellow daffodils poking their coy heads up through last falls parade of maple leaves. A scant few stones remained where the hearth would have been, the heart of the house being the last which remained to speak of its presence. Stately maple and poplar trees spread their buttressed roots where the kitchen and bedrooms would have been, ruffed grouse nesting under wild rose bushes where a mother had kneaded biscuit dough for hungry children. It is an odd feeling, standing among the humus and rubble of a life long gone, straining to imagine how the house had been, how the mother sounded calling out to her children from the porch, the wind chimes sang in the breeze, tiny feet ran and giggled, and fires cracked and popped in this very chimney, in this very home, in this very hollow so long ago.

Sweat rolled down my back as I stooped to roll back the matt of moss to reveal thousands of tiny chisel marks pecked across the flat surface of a sandstone slab perhaps 3 feet wide and 4 inches thick. Who had been the man to make these marks? Where was he born, in what year, where did he work, and did he love this stone as I do?

Immediately the joy, reverence and wander replaced the heat, sweat, and pain from the arduous trail blazing through a sea of wrathful briers and rose bushes, groping with talons outstretched for any gap in our clothing. As I warmed my back with the solid weight of each stone being carried to our awaiting mule, I felt without doubt the most solid connection to this land, this earth, and the true virtue of building our home with our hands. Perhaps someday someone will wander how our house looked, how we laughed loved and lived, as they gaze at these same precious lovely stones of time. IMG_8971IMG_8967IMG_8962IMG_8919IMG_8917

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