Monday, July 2, 2018


The stone hut over one year of seasons


Standing tall from the apron ledge, a yard away from the hut, a maple tree generously shades the area. Over 100 years old and for the past decade I have watched it color its leaves earlier than the other sugar maples from green to orange. It’s dying, very slowly, but still dying. I have climbed onto the ledge more than once to eyeball how the hut could be built safely and leave the tree. One day I decide it can stay, the next day as the hut progresses — now the doorway framed — it doesn’t look good for the tree. Something has to move — tree, hut, or man. So I chose to move. Allow both the hut and tree to remain. The pond is filled with the spill of spring runoff, lovely olive water as I look at it where I am working with stone. The maple will have to land smack into the pond if dropped, no way around it. Or it might tip an inch on the stump and flatten the hut roof. The work on the hut is rolling along, the maple is all leafed, powerful looking and noble, and the pond is full. I decide to let it ride. I’ll pay for it later.


It is the middle of winter as I write. We are into February, and it’s snowing as I skate on the small pond near the stone hut. We had the pond dug eight years ago to make use of a large wet spot in the corner of the backyard. It took half a day for Maynard Squires to scoop it out with a bulldozer and spread most of the rich dirt over the far end of the yard, and later Susan and I raked it clear of stone and planted grass. The grass took well. It is a two hour summer job, every week, to mow the yard and around the hut we let it grow wild and chop with a scythe. I remember the day Maynard arrived to work — he planned to dig the pond in the morning because he was expected that afternoon on a farm in Bernardston to castrate sheep. The pond never stays filled year round. A good rain storm will fill it quickly, but by late July — a time of little rain — the pond empties to a hole and the bottom shows feathery moss. Lichen on stone. It usually replenishes by the fall, and if rain continues before winter and the ground starts to freeze, we will have water in the pond through winter. When it freezes to four inches thick we skate on it. I can see Susan rounding the woodshed corner with Carson in her arms. She is bringing her skates and the stroller to push Carson around in while we skate. We used the stroller last summer when Carson was an infant — walking up the road to get our mail, to visit neighbors. He is already growing out of it at eight months, bundled in the snowsuit his grandparents gave him. We all skate on the ice. One can almost touch the stone hut from here. I continue to see small edges of detail in the stonework that I like and focus around it. I’m curious to watch how the hut will stand during its first frost. I don’t have any doubts in the work, but the work isn’t yet completed — I want to study it through a year of seasons. How the heaving ground treats it in the later winter, what the rash of spring rain will do on the wood shingles, how the shingles will bleach in the summer sun, will chipmunks and mice move into the stone by fall? The hut is now a personality. Like my friend Bob Hauptman’s “goodbye,” the builder talks to the place he built and there is a feeling when you walk through the door — no one else feels it like the builder. Respect the place you have built and it will return the favor. Skating on ice, I’m thinking about it. We have yet to sleep in the hut, but when we do Carson will be with us. The old Ashley woodstove we used for five years in our cabin is installed in the hut and most of the heat will rise to the loft. Last fall I nailed on a rail across the length of the loft so Carson could be up there safely. After eleven years married and no children Susan and I have become used to our simple ways together. With Carson the simple is put to work.

Newborn Carson and Susan visiting the stone hut
as I worked away the evening there


It is not snowing as hard. Susan has come in from skating with Carson. I left them earlier to go to my desk for a few hours of writing. I can watch them from the window, and I like to watch Susan with her son. A many-colored woolen scarf is tied around her head and face. I remember buying that scarf and haven’t seen her wear it that way until today. She is outdoor lovely in it. How easily I can fall in love over and over again. On the ice Susan sings to Carson whom she holds, and then I am holding him and skating and humming, then Carson is back in his stroller, cheeks red above his scarf, sitting there watching his parents skate hand in hand. I don’t think Susan ever realized how much she wanted a baby. I know I didn’t. We were going along happy as a couple — worked at our jobs, traveled, had a few close friends but pretty much stuck to ourselves — never tired of it. The day Susan knew she was pregnant she was excited and I wasn’t; the next minute I was — jumping up and down — and she wasn’t. It was October and the first month of pregnancy I was re-shingling a large A-frame roof, and every leaf from a nearby birch tree that fell around me on the scaffold was a joy. Was a sign of a child. It was crazy. I almost knocked myself off the roof when a 20-common nail was driven through a hidden 600-volt electric wire. Otherwise, I shingled the roof as if I were making a bed. The job was done for our friends Michael and Heide Baram, and it was the pay from this job that would pay for Carson’s hospital delivery. Things connect. The day Carson was born, the Barams with their son Marcus drove the two hours from their home in Boston to their weekend A-frame nearby to us. They drove to the hospital but we had already left. Susan delivered at 3:44 a.m. and was up and ready to walk out of the hospital by noon. That night we slept in the bed for the first time as three. The day before, Susan woke up thinking her water had broken…what did we know? A drive into town and checkup with our midwife said she had, but there was a long way to go, so we returned home to wait. To pass the time I went back to work on the hut. Enough boulder size stones were gathered to lay down the bottom course of the walls. Susan all day walked back and forth to the job site while I grunted stone into place. By late afternoon the bottom course was done — thickest on the corners, tight against the doorframe posts — but not much had changed with Susan. By dark, and counting Susan’s contractions to our benefit, we loaded into the Valiant and headed for the hospital. During the ten mile drive Susan asked me not to hurry because she was enjoying the last of summer light on the hills. I was looking at the hills with her and feeling we could drive forever. When we arrived in the hospital parking lot, it was then we discovered the car was leaking gas.

Carson looks a little bewildered he's in the hands of his father
who a moment ago was handling stone!


For some reason, probably listening to too many people, we thought the baby would be a girl and we would name her Susannah. But my Irish mother said it would be a boy from my description of Susan’s shape talking over the phone. I was listening to my mother, she had three sons. And it was a boy, sure thing, and he would be Carson, middle name Wesley; two names we liked stitched together. No family ties in the name, simply a western and frontier blend. Somehow I feel at home in the west having not landed there until my late twenties. Susan was raised in the west and I met her when she was visiting east and after many years together she would finally have the chance to take me out west. The year after that trip Carson was born, and we think the trip did the trick — coasting over the foothills south of Sacramento to Yosemite, and later feeling the Pacific sun on our faces; many things were happening inside. And blood wet, Susan Liddell our midwife placed Carson immediately on Susan’s chest and the yelping calmed almost to a whimper. He again heard his mother’s heartbeat, a familiar sound to him over the last nine months, and Susan wept with delight. I stood in jeans and workshirt dumbfounded and exhausted from watching women work — Susan, the midwife, nurses. There were machines all over this hospital but few worked that night when we needed them, the people had to work. And the old faithfuls of hospital lore were there: deep sinks with gooseneck faucets, sharp polished instruments neatly arranged, white cabinets. I never saw Susan Liddell cut or mend Susan’s eight stitches, I think she did it while talking with her after the delivery, and the talk blanched any pain. But I do remember her hands delivering Carson — shaping the passage of birth — few tools; it came down to the fact, like my stonework, this midwife’s confidence was all in her hands. Those were her tools. The hands worked from experience, but the beauty of the woman is that she delivered Carson with an expression on her face as if it were a first birth for us all. I didn’t forget that. I went to work at the stone hut with the same expression.

all photographs by Susan Arnold

Stone Hut
a builder's notebook
Bob Arnold
1988, 2013