Saturday, June 23, 2018
Friday, June 22, 2018
Thursday, June 21, 2018
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Monday, June 18, 2018
Bob building a farm wall for a wealthy old timer
in Wilmington Vermont, circa 1976. The man each day
would have his driver glide him down along the roadside
where I was laying up rock to have a look.
I was waiting on May 21st early in the morning for an appointment with a bulldozer operator to start excavating a driveway nearby I was hired to oversee. Past experiences said he wouldn’t show on time, so I walked crosslots back to the house. Three weeks earlier I had cut out the long uphill slope for the driveway; mostly hornbeam, hemlock, and a few tall poplar trees that were thrilling to fell. Poplar is the tree loggers like to call “popple,” which is okay, but for some reason every would-be woodcutter goes around saying “popple this” and “popple that” — they don’t know the tree. It sounds strange coming from them. Poplar is a hardwood and planked out makes a raw smelling lovely white wood. When we built our kitchen 1,000 feet of poplar was shiplapped for wall boards. Each year we burn three or four cord of poplar, and if properly seasoned — keep it out of the weather — it will burn good for you. Hot, but not steady like oak, and it’s best mixed with other hardwoods. It ended up that these tall poplar trees felled for the driveway were of no use to the landowner; they were mine if I hauled them away. I brought the Willys in a few evenings and loaded the logs on, stacked them back home between the apple tree and hard maple not too far from the woodshed, all cordwood length. By late fall I would cover the wood with old corrugated sheet metal I had saved from a roofing job, awful handy stuff. My neighbor Don Squires fences his pigs with the sheets, we cover cordwood. There was enough metal roofing to cover four cord every year, plus roof the duck shed when we built it. The poplar would be undercover until late winter when it was bucked for the following winter, and once the snow melted and the ground firm we moved the poplar to the woodshed by wheelbarrow. After that was done I would shift to stonework. Frost is out of the ground. The kitchen terrace was first to do. By May 21st the sun was hot by noontime, and the operator still hadn’t shown with his bulldozer. Walking out of the woodshed and looking to the northwest corner of the backyard, eight feet from the pond, I figured it was time to build the hut. I had talked to Susan about this place to build ever since we were together.
The essential tools for stonework are your two hands. After that you will need a few tall iron bars, sledgehammer, three-pound hammer, a four-foot level, and if you’re my type of stonemason, you might use a wheelbarrow. When we bought this house and land we needed a twenty-five year mortgage (contrary to gossip that ran up and down this valley swifter than the river — we weren’t rich), and I remember sitting in a bank in town talking credibility with one of the managers. Susan did most of the talking. But when he asked me how my stonemason business was equipped — something that would give him assurance the man of the family could pay those monthly mortgage dues — I nodded and said there was me and the wheelbarrow. Thirty seconds of dead air filled his office, and somehow we got the mortgage; must have been Susan’s job. Wheelbarrow. I worked up a half-mile of stone wall with just a shovel, iron bar, and wheelbarrow. The first one faithfully worked ten years lugging stone, and I found it behind a hunters’ camp, probably ditched after a weekend of pouring sonatubes. Wood-handles, iron wheel, shallow tray. It wasn’t easy to move but I quickly got the hang of it because it was all I had. Moved a lot of stone. Some huge. The big ones you tip the wheelbarrow on its side close to the stone and lift the stone over, leaning it into the wheelbarrow, then you ease the tray and the stone inside (sometimes it’s twice the size of the tray) back onto its wheel and haunches. It’s ready to move, carefully. Moving stone by hand or with a wheelbarrow allows that pace a stonemason should learn about — slow, with balance, feeling every bit of every stone. The two hands are the most important tools of the trade, they gradually learn the sensation of touch. Touching large stones that can mangle a hand, touching the smallest stones that will balance a lintel over a doorway. The mind pays attention with the hands, the hands speak. The stone-builder who builds with backhoe or payloader — delivers stone to the job site and the payloader lifts many of the stones into place and then backfills — this is stonework made by machine and it looks like a machine. Too perfect and mechanical. No rough edges for the eye to fall on and play with. The wheelbarrow builder touches every inch of the wall, inside and out. Rough edges smooth to an elegance and return to a rough and there is something human and durable about it. It’s handmade. It’s between the stone and the good senses of the hands at work making a stable art. Trust yourself.
The location of the hut was chosen. A logical spot — backed against an apron of ledge, with an eastern prospect from its front door, somewhat hidden but enough seen to be enjoyed. A stonemason gets enjoyment looking at stonework, it’s in the blood. I can stand and look at carpentry detail for long moments, as Susan and I did at Fort Ross in northern California. A fort built by the Russians in the 19th century all structured of redwood. Beautiful work, but for me nothing like stone. Especially dry stonework, the gist of balance. Having two corner stones meet on this hut with a wafer of flat stone wedged in the crack between them draws my eye to that place; the focus and simplicity many times over. It was a natural hand movement when the work was being done…two good looking face stones lifted and placed, and without thinking I was feeling in the pile of smaller stone for the right stone to fit that crack. When Susan is at the site she asks how I know a certain stone will fit — I don’t, it just happens, or my hands know more than me. It’s a rhythm of hand and mind body balance. For some reason that balance is off balance when anyone is around, thus I work alone. It’s as if I do talk completely to the stone as working companion. From looking for the stone, finding it, hauling it to the job site, throwing it down on the ground, spreading it out, see what I have, then selecting, something not fitting, dropping it back to the ground, selecting another. Back and forth. Lots of handling. Lots of what others would term “wasted time.” Each time feeling the stone and knowing the stone. After awhile it becomes a coordination of what the hand knows the same time the eyes see. It comes together when a stone is picked up and dropped into place like nothing could. It’s the same with choosing the location where to build — forget the drawings, the sun degrees, diagrams, and expensive instruments — watch the landscape through the seasons. You have worked it, cut wood over that way for many years and come to relax with the spot. It looks clear back to the house, sights over a small pond, has the company of a few tall and handsome sugar maples, and the birds seem to call from that direction early and late in the day. It should be obvious. When you walk to the site and see that expanse of ledge you are already imagining the rear wall of the hut. Brush to clear around the ledge and a small beech tree must be cut down. There is at least two feet of hillside height that will have to be shoveled away to make the floor level, and then a foundation outline for the stone side walls that will be dug four feet down. At this point all words are “down” so the hut can go up. Tomorrow I will return with tape measure, shovel, iron bar, pick, and wheelbarrow.
Two months into building the hut I was also working for a stretch of weeks helping my friend Bob Hauptman frame his dream house in West Wardsboro, Vermont. He knew nothing about building a house but had all the will any man could muster into getting it built. Two years earlier Susan and I had spent a half day with Bob on his twenty acres, all of it wooded, and I was hired by Bob to fell the big trees — maple, beech, spruce — he didn’t dare tackle. Only one of the trees, a spruce, gave me trouble. It wouldn’t fall — no matter the wedges — it was too punky inside to have any bite for saw or wedge, and being almost perfectly straight and balanced, it would defy easy felling. I talked a lot to the tree that day. Its stump size was an average dumptruck tire laid flat. Over seventy feet tall. Between both chain saws, the bowsaw, three wedges, and pounding on it with an ax, it keeled. But it started to fall when nothing was being done, in fact I was standing there catching my breath when I felt it move…it fell slowly and suddenly very tall and placed itself nicely; I couldn’t have done better if the tree were picked up and thrown there. And luckily it fell away from the proposed site — saved a few hours of cleaning up. I was hired to fell the trees, Bob would cleanup and later hire a bulldozer operator to carve a twist of driveway that flattened out where a few grand rock maples stood. These maples had stopped growing, they simply stood. That is where the house would go, amongst the maples, all 50' x 30' of it. No electricity. When house building began, Carson was a month old. The walls of the stone hut were four feet high, but at this job I was looking at a poured concrete foundation with threaded sill bolts stubbed every six feet. Bob had no idea where to start. By the end of the day we had all the sills on, including for the attached garage, and the main carrying-beam of the house was set in, pointing north and south. It felt good working again with spruce, common nails, a coworker. Within two months the house would be framed, windows boxed, sheathing raised, and the roof shingled. Bob did most of the sheathing when I was away on other jobs. In the summer evening after supper at home I went out and did work on the hut. Susan would sit on a swing, hung in a nearby apple tree, swinging with Carson in her lap. Just watching her swing set my rhythm for work. Watching Bob, who is a university librarian, set another rhythm — especially one day when we were leaving the job after a long day working. I was loading tools in the car while Bob stood by himself looking at the house. No big deal. I was sitting in the car and he was about to follow, but before he did he turned and said “goodbye” to the house. He might have even waved, but he said goodbye. I heard it. The house heard it. It wasn’t said for me to hear or to tell you, but I do. That “goodbye” was stronger than any nail we sank into the house that summer.
Bob framing a house for and with Bob Hauptman
West Wardsboro, Vermont 1985
all photographs by Susan Arnold
a builder's notebook
a builder's notebook
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Saturday, June 16, 2018
Chris Offutt has written seven books and
Country Dark is the 7th and may be his finest —
although I am partial to Kentucky Straight, as well, his first book.
Everything is lean and a little mean and quite supreme in Country Dark
so one may be surprised and even disappointed that there is an
unnecessary "epilogue" at the end of this novel.
It certainly doesn't kill the book but we have become
so used to figures — human and animal — in the novel
taking off for the hills on-foot,
free and clear, and maybe
the story should have
been left that way.
[ BA ]
Friday, June 15, 2018
Thursday, June 14, 2018
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
The Lonely Domain
"A Coffin — is a small Domain"
She had a bleeding vagina but no bosom
and a man's voice that barked, "Shut the fuck up."
as she carried a carpenter's bench to the kitchen
and chose some boards from the yard. But I spoke
anyway, believing in words as the basis of people
She sat a long time making a sketch
measuring the planks to mark them with a pencil,
and then all afternoon a saw wheezed
across the boards as her hands went back
and forth planing them, but even with a ruler
and chisel, it was hard to make the domain-end
wide enough for my shoulders. "Sorry about that,"
her voice vibrated.
Dogs bite strangers, wolves catch lambs,
lightning strikes trees, but strangely — without any
premonition — she quit her revenge, and the spell
was broken. "Let's talk, I said, sad and happy.
The kitchen smelled like a pine forest,
everyday thoughts that are my world
returned to me, sunlight was white
with many distances, and I lived.
At the end of the road from concept to corpse,
sucked out to sea and washed up again —
with uprooted trees, crumpled cars, and collapsed houses —
facedown in dirt, and tied to a telephone pole,
as if trying to raise herself still, though one leg is broken,
to look around at the grotesque unbelievable landscape,
the color around her eyes, nose, and mane (the dapples of roan,
a mix of white and red hairs) now powdery gray —
O, wondrous horse; O, delicate horse — dead, dead —
with a bridle still buckled around her cheeks — "She was more
smarter than me,
she just wait," a boy sobs, clutching a hand to his mouth
and stroking the majestic rowing legs,
stiff now, that could not outrun
the heavy black, frothing water.
Nothing To Declare
Farrar Straus Giroux
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Monday, June 11, 2018
“You just can’t expect to fool with it
without getting it on you.”
— Ken Kesey
Like a child raised on a farm, I was raised in the lumber business. Since the age of nine I have been consciously aware of it and rubbed shoulders with builders, excavators, lumberyard workers, and forty-five years later I am still hanging around the same company. I have worked on a few carpentry crews but usually work solo, and the bulk of these essays will be concerned with remembering a stone hut I built. I love to build with stone and prefer to build simple — fewer tools and more imagination. Like all builders I have made mistakes and had to bluff my way and learned to laugh at a lot of it. To this day I ask my own father, a lumberman of reputation over sixty years, how to figure certain building procedures. He shows me. And someone showed him. And I’ll show Carson when he is old enough. I like to think I have taught my father some things about stone, what you can do with it. Like me he enjoys watching a building go up, so when he visited us in Vermont he would walk out to the woods edge of the property and study the hut’s progress. Tools, roof pitch, cost, these topics are all minor though necessary to building. Much can be found used, or right under your feet. Knowing the grade of lumber and how the grain works and exactly what type of tree the lumber came from is more essential, and of course all the service a stick of lumber can do. So I taught myself the trees and cut a great deal of them, and turned around and planted as many. It’s important to get a feel for all architecture — my favorite is architecture-without-architects — and what a building is: to look at them, build a few, walk inside hundreds built by the hands of others, and gaze. And then the small ingredients of building become useful: knowing nails, notching, what windows work where best (Carl Larsson had clever installments in his home), how the roof should design and balance. To trace the building all the way back to the shovel work in the foundation, and doing it all, so that the building is felt in the body after it is done and stands to the sky. Of course to most, but not all, this is silly talk. Builders no longer permit themselves the time or desire to have a relationship with what they build — most have two or three houses going at once to stay ahead — so the work is a job and the home built is matched only with the one before. These essays are written for anyone and no one but they might appeal to one who enjoys handcraft and working with two native resources: trees and stone. It’s about not making much money, about Carson’s birth, our family, and our friends. It all started for me around 1973 when an Episcopal minister friend, who eventually sold us his country property, pointed to a long pile of old roadside stone wall and asked, “Ever think about building stone walls, Bob? You could make a living from that.”
The hut I built is made of stone. I call it a hut, its dimensions are good size for a hut, roughly 12' x 12'. The inside is smaller since the walls are laid two feet thick. The back wall, facing north — what is first seen stepping through the door — is an apron of ledge. I began laying stone from this ledge and moved away from it. The hut is twelve feet high from floor to ridgepole, and the floor is all stone — one of the few places mortar will be found in use, edged around each stone, and on the east gable more is tucked behind the stone. Otherwise, the hut is laid dry, the way I like to work with stone. Balance and shimming stone, learning from stone. The ridgepole still has the tire tracks from the Willys jeep driving over it across a wet spot in the woods to get to the stone to build this hut. After the stone was out of the woods and delivered to the hut site I brought this 2" x 6" hemlock plank to the site and made the ridgepole out of it — all one length. Four feet below the ridge is enough head room to fit a 5' x 8' loft — planks nailed on the crossties of the rafters. You can lift yourself to the loft by ladder. There is a small window up there that looks to the woods; so far I’ve been content to lie on my back on those planks and just breathe the white cedar shingles that show above the roof slats. I couldn’t afford red cedar. Roofing nails punch through the slats and Susan said she will help hammer them over, but I’m already ahead of my story. I built this hut for Carson.
According to my calendar, work on the stone hut was started May 21st. Already it had been an eventful spring. I had laid a 6' x 6' stone terrace, really a large stoop, outside the kitchen door. Eight yards of gravel was delivered for that job and thinking ahead to the hut. The terrace interior was packed with gravel, having the outside show all dry stone. The flattest stone found — between hunting in the woods robbing old walls and scouting in the river — were used for the top course, and mortar was edged around each stone. A slight pitch away from the kitchen door ran the rain water off, and it could be slippery during the winter. Three stones were found roughly a yard wide to fashion the steps. Two of the three steps were stolen from stone seats I had built around the property over the years. Six of these seats were first made when the town road crew was setting in a new culvert 500 feet from our house — replacing the stone culvert of many generations. Large handsome flat stone were lifted out and flipped around by a backhoe. Instead of watching the bucket shovel them over the bank into the river, I asked the road boss for all of them. He had them pushed to the side of the road, and later that day I went back and hauled them home with a wheelbarrow. Made all these seats in different corners of the yard — isolated spots — usually beneath the shade of a tree, or where the view was the best, or a vantage place to listen to the river. Some of the stone were too good to sit on and better for the foot to step on; they were chosen for the terrace steps and replaced with other sitting stone. It was only April 30th and the terrace was done. Susan was six weeks away from giving birth to Carson.
Around this time Steve Lewandowski would visit with fifty Austrian pine, or “black pine,” for us to plant on our property. He was carrying the pine in his pickup truck from conservation work in upper New York State. I divided the seedlings between a southern and eastern planting. We have a ratty hillside of sumac and brush that I scythe down twice a year and twenty-five pine seedlings in there would improve the landscape. Now one only has to be careful where sweeping the blade, but these black pine are swift growers and it should be only a short time before they can be easily trimmed around. To the south, we have new neighbors building, and the pines are a good neighbor policy of eventually blocking out each other’s view. Fortunately the neighbors are fine people, it’s the thought of seeing another house after all these years of having only woods and river — that’s tough to bear. We’ve been spoiled. For the first few weeks I went around watering the seedlings and clearing brush to encourage growth. If half of the planting survives I’ll be more than pleased. Three seedlings were saved for our friends Bill and Dorothy Loos — they have given us many varieties of daylilies over the years and this was the least we could do — take a gift from Steve, to us, over to Bill and Dorothy. I planted the pines for them thirty feet from their house, with an eastern location, beneath a dying ash tree, but close by a young willow tree was thriving. All good company. Hopefully the black pine would replace the ash one of these days. The same week I was planting pine for the Loos they had me painting and wallpapering their living room. Wallpapering I had never done much before; I’d rather stencil, and twelve years ago, when repairing stone wall and building new stone wall on their property, I was only two years into teaching myself stonework. They hired me anyway.
[ to be continued each Monday
through the summer ]
a builder's notebook
a builder's notebook
Sunday, June 10, 2018
Saturday, June 9, 2018
An important and well researched and chosen portrait
capturing almost the essence of women writers of
the Beat Generation — unfortunately missing are the
two dynamic, romantic and physically powerful
writers Janine Pommy Vega and Lenore Kandel
who would have glistened and rounded off
the true and equal to the male legacy
as Lonesome Travelers
[ BA ]
University of Virginia Press