Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Sunswumthru A Building

building books
by bob arnold

Of all toolboxes yanked from trucks, or automobile trunks, lifted out of back seats, or even carried in as a canvas bag, I never saw a book tucked away in one. A book is about the last thing ever spotted on a job site, and usually it is a tossed away manual for some equipment. But I read books on the job — sandwich in one hand, Basho in the other hand. I would carry my books in my lunch pail. Though because I read, I often earned the nickname “Preacher.”

So it isn’t any accident I still bring books to my building job sites, now thirty-five years at it and going strong. I started out as a boy carpenter working for my family lumber business and those jobs were mostly modern quick-built homes. A dynamo crew could nail up a half-dozen homes over one summer. I soon moved to Vermont and worked with building crews here or there, but really I worked best alone or with one companion helper. There were countless old homes I worked on, repairing stonework to carpentry. One of my strangest jobs was helping an owner build his large house — mostly I was there to show him how to frame and he would carry on when I had to be away — though his one demand for the house was that he wanted no windows, just a front door. Since he lived the greater part of the year at a university job far from his new home, he was wary of vandals and wanted to keep any out by keeping any windows out.That was until I reminded him how vandals could just as easily chain saw an entry into his house to rummage inside, steel door or not. On hearing that, he agreed to put a few windows in. Small ones. Since this friend was a university librarian, we talked books and writers from sun up to sun down on the job and then on the long drives he gave me back to my home.

In the year 2000, I began to build a cottage on our land with my fifteen-year old son, Carson. A two-story, timber-framed, steel roofed and wood side-shingled building, boxed out with many windows since I have been storing salvaged windows from other jobs for years. No better place to draw the daylight and save on wall material.The cottage hunched on a wide stone ledge and was a complete bugger to hand lay dry stone upon and under the building frame, but we did. A month long chore. And during that time Carson and I talked music and books and films and even reminisced about the trips we did together as a family on trains, and we also fought and fussed a little because it was hot work and because we are father and son. Building this cottage together — twelve feet wide by eighteen feet long — would be the first leg of Carson’s home school studies. A program that kept him happily away from the local high school and into percolating sessions of book learning and back work earning, as they once used to say. When Carson asks what books meant the most to me as a builder — including the books I would bring along to jobs as companions — whether they had anything to do with building or not, these are the ones that always spring to mind. A neat dozen. Someday, we will have these books on a shelf in the cottage when we’re done.

Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric Hoffer (real worker/real writer)

The Long-Legged House by Wendell Berry (real farmer/ real writer)

Payne Hollow by Harlan Hubbard (husband & wife homesteading quiet team)

The Rock Is My Home by Werner Blaser (my bible for stone work and its environment)

Indians in Overalls by Jaime de Angulo (no better writer to start you at dirt level)

The Granite Pail by Lorine Niedecker (no better poet for the fine point flowing details)

The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers ed. by Ann N. Ridgeway (who made his West Coast days around legends & stone)

The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats (this could be inter- changed with Synge’s The Aran Islands: both ultimate, tidy, lunch pail companions)

The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton (the other ultimate, tidy, lunch pail companion)

. Ian Hamilton Finlay by Yves Abreioux (in the evening, after work, to sit and visit with this craftsman’s world)

A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al (no better on towns, buildings, construction worldwide)

The Folk Songs of North America by Alan Lomax (because there should be a song in your working head)

photos © bob arnold

In all my years since writing this essay and finding more & more books to tuck into the lunchpail, it was the recent one by Malcolm Ritchie that came my way via an island in Scotland that has had me tucking it into my pail all the last week. I'm surveying over a stone outcrop that I plan to start building a small dry stone structure on through spring, summer and fall and this book has been going with me as I carry tools and my lunchpail up to the wooded spot. Chapters short and powerful, vividly setting me immediately in and around the rice fields and thatched homes, with hearth fires of a small village life in Japan. Ideal to perch onto an old stonewall where I am 'stealing' my stone to make a new stone place, where one day someone can arrive and sit inside (large enough for one, or two who are adorable) and read awhile from a born classic like this. The size of the book, by the way, is pitch perfect in one hand, strong bound and cover photograph and logistics just asking to be carried along with you.
A companion.

click onto photographs to enlarge