Monday, August 13, 2018

STONE HUT ( 10 ) ~

One of the cairns Bob built in the garden


The small jobs on the hut were the last things to do. It was October, windy colored leaves were falling, some stuck wet by rain on the hut roof. I loaded the Ashley woodstove into the Willys and drove it to the hut. It was light. I could load it on and off the Willys alone. I carried it into the hut and placed it in the rear left corner, and eyed up through the box cut out in the loft where a stovepipe would pass into the metal chimney installed when I was nailing on the shingles. Stove in. The stovepipe — all used pipe, but sound — had been fastened together with screws the night before at the house. Over eight feet tall, it was now in place. Ready for a fire. The damper twisted away from rust with a pinch of oil. When we use the stove, firewood will be wheelbarrowed from the house woodshed; bring it as we need it. Burn poplar since the space to heat is small. Save the hardwood for the house. One other job was to flash the rear corners of the roof where it met ledge. In fact one rafter in the rear of the hut was built on ledge — I slipped a slate shingle under to keep it off the dirt. Since the hut was built into ledge I had to work lumber to stone and the last touches of flashing with the ledge. Otherwise rain and snow would shed the roof, splash on the ledge and leak into the hut. I flashed heavily but tried to hold the flashing to a subtle art — it has to be used but shouldn’t be seen — so with bending tricks and a dap of mortar it attached to ledge. Now with most of the hut built there was time to visit it — test the door, wash the windows, climb to the loft, climb down, sweep the floor. Sweeping the stone floor was my gift to the hut at each visit. It was an exercise between us. I liked sitting up there, but sitting on the doorway stone step was too low. The only furniture I gave the hut was a stone seat built outdoors into the bank on the right corner — it was eighteen inches off the ground made of one thick flat stone. One could sit on it and lean against the hut corner and the sun was there most of the day. One more stone was left over from the time the stone culvert was dug up out on the road, it was used here. And when my final job was to trim the butt ends of the beams that ran long over the side of the hut, I stood on the stone seat for half of the job — leaned a step ladder on the other side. Used a hatchet, handsaw, and plane to shape the beams an arrow design. Stained the fresh open wood the same smoke color. I returned to the stone seat until snow fell. After a few snowstorms and winter had settled in and a 40° day in the sun felt warm again, I would visit; sweep off the door step, sweep the inside, then walk out and sweep off the stone seat, and sit awhile.

A section of "Villa of Souls" a long stonewall with cairns atop
far up the mountain road of our woodlot


I always called both sets of grandparents “nana and papa.” My sister Sherry remembers when I was still too young to talk right I would mouth out a “banana” for “nana.” We had a wealthy grandfather who owned a lumber business and a grandfather who owned nothing but his house and his large family of daughters and sons who all had families that would come to visit. The grandfather with the large family was my mother’s father and his name is David Scott, Sr. His oldest son would also be named David, my uncle, and he was the first carpenter I ever met. He taught me things. But my Papa Scott was the first workingman I ever knew. The toil of manual labor showed on his hands, in his face, the strength of his body. I would visit Nana and Papa Scott with my mother when I was a child. We would arrive in time to sit with my grandfather at the kitchen table while he ate his supper, and I didn’t know if he was coming or going from his job at the paper plant. My grandmother would be on her feet at the stove baking soda bread, and my grandfather would eat large servings of food and very slow and he would talk to me in his thick Irish voice which I loved. We all sat at the table. My grandmother served tea wiping her hands on an apron skirt and a pot of tea was left on the table. One of my mother’s sisters was usually visiting at the same time and the tiny apartment became crowded with people. Plastic over the furniture, plastic runners on the carpet. It was a cellar apartment under my uncle David’s house. The only window in the kitchen was a narrow casement high on the back wall level with my uncle’s driveway. When people walked by you saw their feet. I would sit at the table with everyone listening to my grandfather talk, watched how he held his fork when he ate. I wanted to hold my fork that way but my father wouldn’t let me. The soda bread mixed with egg yolk on the plate. Soda bread that came like all of the family from Belfast, Ireland. It might be a reason for my stonework and back then I was picking up the rhythms. Papa Scott was the only man in my young life to show me the love for the woods, nature, the signs to be found there. We would hike into the woods owned by my other grandfather at every visit — jump the streams, climb the old apple trees, feel our legs go places. He showed me how to bend down and drink from that stream with my cupped hands. I still do it. Think of him. Later my grandmother died too sudden for all of us, and it left my grandfather half alive, but he refused to show it. But we all knew. He moved out of the cellar apartment into a trailer and worked as a house painter and janitor in a bank. People always liked him. He bought a bicycle and like his Belfast days would ride sometimes fifty miles in a day, all through the Berkshire Hills. That sparkle in the stream water I cupped in my hands I always saw in his eyes. When I was building the stone hut he visited with my mother and held Carson and rode in the Willys with me into the woods for stone. He’s eighty years old. Body hurt from years of working and doing things for others. He watches me load stone, knowing exactly how it feels.

My Grandfather Scott at work as a baker in Belfast Ireland with his horse and cart.
He had also been a policeman on a bicycle.

My grandfather's daughter "Penny", my mother, back visiting Belfast
and one of its many stone walls.


My father liquidated his lumber business in 1985. Given another three years and it would have been 200 years old. Known as the oldest family lumber business in America, at its height it was five lumberyards strong, all in the western hills of Massachusetts and Vermont, and over 400 houses were built in those hills alone. I was brought up in that lumberyard, as were my older sister and younger brothers, and Sherry has a lumberyard with her husband Ron in Great Barrington — tradition is tough to kill. I learned how to work in the backyards of the lumber business. From the age of nine I was stocking the paint room, sweeping the railroad tracks, brooming between the plywood racks. I didn’t love the work, but it was a weekly allowance, and I imagine a way for my father to teach his middle-class kids how to work. The dullest job was resorting the hundreds of spilled nails around the open nail bins. On my hands and knees distinguishing a 10-common nail from a 12-common. I swore at the job but when I look back at it now I see the pick and choose of stonework taking place; the eye to hand ability, the solitary corner of the job. I watched carpenters walk into the nail room and leave the floor a mess — their carpentry work usually matched it. Same with the ones who walked in, knew what they wanted, loaded the scale, and if a nail dropped they went after it. I enjoyed being around those builders and later I would build with them. As a teenager I started to load the lumber trucks for house deliveries and rode with the drivers to unload the same load, sometimes we’d be gone all day. Into southern Vermont, the Catskills of New York…seeing houses go up, crews of carpenters moving, sounds among men. I unloaded boxcars packed with western spruce, hot as an oven in there, me and another kid — all day, all week, all summer. You begin to learn the smell of the western lumber and its grade, superior to the eastern pine we handled. One day I brought home a small bag of pine knots — knocked out of the lumber we unloaded — as a gift for my sister. The lumber was ruined after that, but what did I know! The knots were beautiful. At age fourteen I began to work with carpenters on house jobs but didn’t touch a hammer for two summers. I spread stone for leach fields one summer, carried lumber to the carpenter with the hammer the next summer. By the third summer I was framing, using a shovel, jackhammer, tarring the foundations. I tucked a book in my lunchpail and when others broke for lunch I would listen to the chatter, eat, and read. Earned the nickname “preacher,” never mind being the boss’ son. No harm. Most of those guys showed me how to work…Freddie Zarek, Jim Duffy, Big John were their names…I always enjoyed being in their company. My father had his eye on his oldest son picking up the business end of the lumberyard, but I had no interest. It wasn’t easy for either of us. Generally I’ve never had much respect for businessmen — their attitude is power, intimidation, and of course money. My father was a good businessman, I looked up to him, even though we fought. His lumber knowledge was learned the hard way — under his own father — and he put me in with the workers to learn. And when it was time to let me go, he let go.

Three generations Bob, Carson and my father, also "Bob"
standing at the tail end of his lumber business,
whittled down from a once sawmill and five lumberyards


The town of Carmel, California can be easily bypassed, but the coastline can’t. If you do, you will miss what surf and stone is all about. There was a stonemason who once lived in Carmel, who worked around that surf and stone, who gathered the granite from the coastline to build his home. House, garden walls, and even a tower he shaped with his hands. All of it looked back at the Pacific where it came from. Robinson Jeffers looked like he came from the Pacific, just like his stone. His wife Una’s favorite poet was Yeats and when standing on the shore staring up on the bluff where the stone property is encircled by cypress and eucalyptus trees you can hear and feel Yeats’ lines “hammer your thoughts into unity” all over the stonework. When Susan and I were searching for the house, we knew this place was it by its location with the sea, the wind, the long grass blowing from the coast road up into the yard. We stayed away. Walked the road around it, connecting with a street bunched with wealthy houses which made the Jeffers home appear more of a survivor. Everything in its landscape was interesting: being a forester Jeffers had planted trees all over his land only to have them chopped apart as progress advanced. But some have withstood, enough to give the land ocean breeze movement. The house and tower are rock, not pretty, but they have the lasting appearance of being from the land. There is another stone house nearby which I didn’t give a second glance to — it was built I’m sure by a crew of masons, and while it is massive and correct, it is devoid of feeling. It’s too correct. The Jeffers house is squat, like an animal on its haunches, many small windows give it eyes that look to the Pacific. The tower, better known as Hawk Tower, is a signature to anyone who must see it for the first time that some different kind of people must be living here. “Here” was known as Tor House, and different Jeffers was. Called eccentric, loner, hermit, antihuman — people read his poetry too much and don’t visit his landscape where he carved out the life poem. The poems really live on the land he loved with his wife and twin sons. You can see a lot of humanity on that land, and where the eyes look up and down the coast that’s where the long poems came from — the legends, the stone, the combined rhythms of surf and stone. There is a tour during the week into the Jeffers house but we were there on the wrong day. Besides, the house is enough to watch from the outside, and if Jeffers were still alive that’s where most of us would have to stand to see it. You need to have the ocean in your ears. I had been reading his work for years before we arrived there. I studied the photographs of the house, read his letters, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. It is a quiet location, almost unnoticed, having lost its face long ago to nature. We were up at Fort Ross a day before looking at historical redwood log work. At Tor House it took only a minute — a long swallowed look — to know the work, the poems, the life were true.

Detail of a stonewall Bob built on the way to Brattleboro

all photographs by Susan Arnold

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