"Villa of Souls" built by Bob in our woodlot
I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, as far as one’s power reaches. Robinson Jeffers
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.
When I build, I have someone in mind. I lived for two years in the woods before meeting Susan. Before we met I built for myself, or for the job, if I was working for someone. In the cabin I built what was needed — the essentials — woodshed, privy, bookcases, front step stoop; a place to sit in the sun while sharpening a bowsaw. There was nothing else needed. The cabin I built was enough for me, the roof didn’t leak, water was drawn from the river. But after I met Susan it seemed everything built into the cabin had just begun. The privy got a window. The ladder to the upstairs became stairs. Kitchen shelves were added. The old fallen stone walls on the property I discovered behind years of brush, and they were repaired. The work we did in the cabin was for ourselves. The work outside, in the garden, on the stone walls, was for the land which returned its gifts to us. But without Susan, I might not have seen those stone walls for awhile. She never pointed them out, but she inspired. A worker has to follow those inspirations, there aren’t always that many. Those five years in the cabin were a coordination between the pleasures of love and the work to be done. Firewood was cut with a bowsaw and all three bowsaws were kept sharp, clean, hung on a nail out of the weather. We hauled all of the trees out of the woods by hand, either on our backs or with a sled. The river was watched a day ahead of time: rain would wash up mud, so we drew extra water and stored it in a twenty gallon pail in the kitchen. Snow was shoveled immediately. Susan taught herself gardening and weaving. I taught myself treework and stonework. Working alone it takes twice as long to learn, but what is achieved is never forgotten because it has become one with your life. You’re here to stay. I cut trees for five years with a bowsaw because I knew nothing about chain saws until a friend visited and showed me. Now part of my living is made with a pair of chain saws, but the bowsaw is still used. That was the first woods rhythm of my work, it won’t leave. Firewood is split with the woman you love in mind. If she cooks with a cookstove the wood has to be right, and Susan learned her trees by watching what wood cooked best. I have never worked alongside a better worker than Susan, she has few complaints — blonde Californian with good teeth and here she is living in the woods, drawing water, cutting her firewood to cook, sitting in the privy, driving crummy cars, and sometimes helping me lift a stone that weighs more than both of us. Others have done it, I’m simply sharing our story. What is important to me is that we have done it together. A week after the stone hut was finished, in early November, I started on a low garden wall that Susan was thinking about, and I liked the idea too. Together we gathered the stone, and I laid it, and we dug out flower beds in front of the wall and planted over 100 bulbs for next spring — just beat the frost. We give each other things, gifts, and expect nothing in return but the nature of the giving allows a sensation to return. I built things for Susan and she gave me everything. I built this hut for the birth of Carson.
Almost thirty years ago I began building the stone hut for the birth of Carson, and now on this day July 9, 2013, his first child is born, a daughter, Layla Rosemary Arnold, with his partner Jocelyn, and I begin to etch in a few further chapters to expand the first edition of the book to showcase just what sort of life and stone work happened after the book was published and Carson grew up from being a very young boy — where we left him in chapter 40 — to now a full grown man, husband, lover, father, and provider. All through his childhood and long string of teenage years he worked with me on stone and wood building jobs. Heavy stuff, too, like building a few small houses. I’ve covered many of those years in another book titled Sunswumthru A Building. It takes the reader through the channels, love, and nitty-gritty of working with a young son who is not exactly gung-ho about doing this sort of work, but he’s doing it, trying his best. Learning about tools, purpose, safety, craft, balance, partnership, care, uses and abuses, and many other facets of what comes to the mind and hand just carrying a tool from one location to another. Handsaws always act like handsaws, nothing else.
But to a musician, which Carson is, a handsaw even while we were working could have been a musical instrument, a sound as tone, a different rhythm from the worker’s, yet another worker’s, a musician’s. Better yet, a drummer’s. Each hammer blow, each sledgehammer crack, all stomps of feet and pounding of lumber and drop of stone and thud of earth went into this young drummer. Whatever he would make of it was all up to him. Of course he wasn’t even aware of any of this as a youngster, he was simply enduring and making it through. But the body was listening, always listening.
So when we came to see Layla Rosemary, eleven hours after she was born, snug in bed, cradled at her mother’s heart, we grabbed some things at home that caught our eyes that we thought might work perfectly for a newborn’s heart. An old stuffed giraffe which was Carson’s and one of his favorites. A thin, beaded bracelet that Jocelyn clasped without a moment’s hesitation around her baby’s ankle. And then a painted egg — turquoise and other festive flecks of color — and smoothly oval-shaped like the prettiest of stones. I placed that at Layla’s hand.
The stonemason might keep in mind, that unless he or she can lay up stone as handsome and postured and deftly set as the Incas, it is best to be keenly aware of the surroundings where one works the stone. You want the stone to fit in, to make sense, to be likewise spectacular and practical at once.
I’ve seen a crew of stone workers go at it all day and cover lots of ground and leave at the end of the day with a holy mess of squared and dressed stone that doesn’t look at all right in its rural habitat. The rural is mined by hidden streams, deep springs, centuries old woodlands and a darkness that has only seen natural light. Think about that a moment — no other light in this darkness but daylight and moonlight. It makes for amazing moss, lichen, stone coloring, and solitude. It wants stone looking and feeling the landscape this way, too. It’s up to the stonemason to adjust, to know where one is.
Some of the best stonework in New England I’ve ever seen has been off the beaten path in New Hampshire — some eight-foot wide walls that one could drive a tractor on top of if one could get up there. I’m not sure if these walls were on a ride wayward to Nelson, or around outer Monadnock, or further north into the White Mountains, and in a way I just don’t want to remember where. I want to remember what I saw. Put my hand to. It’s like the two young workers I came across on my bicycle one day in the Berkshire hills building a new wall for a mansion and estate out in the hills. The stone weaving in and out of the massive maple trees and these guys were young but they already had the knack of how to make that world their majestic. I stopped and visited with them and felt the majestic.
Where we were married in the small, white church by a waterfall in Vermont there are stone sills and outer steps to this church wide enough so I can lay down my six feet across it. The stone tablets were pulled there onto the knoll by oxen; no doubt the same team that would have yarded all the squared stone in what makes the buttress under the covered bridge that takes you across and down to our house…stone walls hidden and shown all the way down the almost two miles of dirt road, and I’ve built some of these stone walls you’ll see coming here. It’s what a stone builder does. Works where he lives.
All our married life we built what had to be done. No one had been married in that chapel in the village for years, and the height of the grass showed that. We went up a few days before the wedding and scythed down the four-foot height of grass, then mowed it closer to a somewhat lawn, and got ourselves a good dose of poison ivy while we were at it. Then we opened the doors to the church and tall windows and aired the place out, swept the joint, put flowers in the windows along the pews. People came. The night before the wedding my bride-to-be and I cooked a meal for everyone visiting, and the night of the wedding we did the same. Quite a honeymoon! We bathed in the river before the wedding ceremony and asked everyone to be there at 7 a.m. They were, blinking their eyes awake.
And it’s been all the same ever since. If we want something, we build it. Whether transplanting by hand over many years thousands of daylilies, or building the stone walls, gates between stone walls, stone stairs, stone floor, skirting stone foundation for a house, stone seats four feet wide, stone bulkhead, stone well house, circular stone beds for flowers and bee balm. Build it all, and make it fit the eye, the landscape, the overall.
|Bob atop a backwoods New Hampshire stonewall;|
back home laying up a new wall; the top side of that
New Hampshire stone wall — wide enough to
drive a tractor over the top.
all photographs by Susan Arnold
a builder's notebook
a builder's notebook