One day, after being my dentist for thirty years, he said to me, “You need a crown, and I need a stone wall rebuilt at my house, can we work something out together?” I had always heard of this professional-barter set up from a few other friends.
I had a poet friend who exchanged her books with her dentist for what he could do for her. I felt it made the most sense in the world for people who had very little money, but they knew a craft or had a talent to share where money could disappear. It’s a refreshing moment. I immediately felt this when I said, “Sure, we can work something out…what do you need for stone work?” And he told me. And afterwards when I had the crown work done because it took two or three sessions, while I was at the same time laying stone up at his house, I noticed how relaxed the dentist was at preparing the crown work in the same office where he was normally efficient and professional. He now seemed more at ease, one might say maybe too at ease, talking with his wife on the phone while shaping my crown when he got that first fit all wrong. Which only put a chuckle in my head since that’s how I worked on his stone wall — picking up one stone and knowing it wasn’t quite right and trying it anyway and then tossing the stone to the ground and trying another — that beautiful trial and error.
I even had a younger stone loving friend, Greg Joly, stop by one day while I was at work, way off in the countryside, up near one of the apple orchards where this dentist had a house tucked into the brow of a hill with towering shade trees and a comfortable home, and this friend worked with me while we visited for some hours and the stone wall I was mending, rebuilding, lengthening from scratch, built up steam. The dentist was home that day and he invited us both in for tea, and we sat in the man’s den where he had been housecleaning while his wife was off at her job as a school teacher. This dentist was now working only three days a week and was open to new pleasures: like helping out a stone builder and his dental crown, inviting into his house that worker and a complete stranger who’s just dropped by to be with the worker — a break in the day and why not have the two guys in. All the stonework got finished. The last time I saw the dentist at his office, I was there for a third session having the crown filed down into proper shape. Little tweaks and shavings. He wanted to make sure it was just right. He then asked me, “Are we all squared away between the stone wall and my work on the crown?” I thought for a second how the stone wall had reached from the furthest part of his yard up to his house and how I had pretty much run out of stone, even using what I could pull from an old foundation the dentist had on his property that he said was okay to go after. With my tongue I felt the crown and its smoothness. I smiled and said, “We are.”
When I look at my stone tool pail of over forty-five years it’s barely changed at all — black metal old can holding stone chisels, star chisels, many-size trowels, pointing tools, hand brushes, measuring tape, old gloves. That’s it. Wait! don’t forget the two or three stone hammers. I keep my sledgehammers and pry bars and crowbars off to one side. Now two wheelbarrows. One handcart. That’s the extent of my hardware. I’ve been able to do what I had to do. The old Willys Jeep that pulled out most of the stone for the stone hut is now on the opposite corner of the yard from the hut, balancing that end with the hut like bookends, and it’s rusted into place while sinking into the ground. The tires are all rotted and flat. The back oak bed of planks is shot and collapsed. The frame is still painted the silver I painted it but it won’t ever work again. The cab doors both open with a yelp. The windows are shocked. The double-paned windshield is vintage and classic, and the floor of the cab that I rebuilt as a young man is tough as ever. The hood lifts to the engine and the works, a flathead six, but nothing’s turning over. It’s no longer a jeep. It’s structure, a monument, a companion, old glory.
I like to take my bicycle and bicycle around, and I like to take my bicycle when Susan takes her bicycle with me. I like this just as much as sitting in a rocking chair on a porch in the evening, or on the step stoop and listening to the day close up. Watch it and feel it. It’s all happening. And when we’re bicycling around I like to find other folks in their rocking chairs doing exactly what I also love to do. I can see they do, too, except there aren’t as many as there once were. A dying breed.
When I was a little boy, no more than five or six, there were two sisters who lived next door to my family, and one of them had hair that reached to the ground. I saw that hair reach to the ground one summer day when she was outside and had just washed her hair and she came outside to comb it and dry it, and it’s still the longest hair I have ever seen on anyone. I had already been strolling over in the evening to be with our wonderful neighbors who I had no idea, then, would later remind me of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but that’s who they were. They had two grand rockers on their wide berth front porch that covered the entire front of the house, and the interior of the house was always with that old lady mauve and lace and shadows and cuckoo clock. I could often be found on the porch rocking with my friends, my feet never close to touching the floor, and they seemed to love whatever it was that came out of my mouth sharing with them the tiny exploits of my day. Where they got the third rocking chair I’ll never know but they got one, and it was for me or some other visitor. In a five year old’s mind it was my chair.
I see houses that remind me of this house when I bicycle small towns in Vermont and Massachusetts with Susan. We lift our two bikes onto the back of the car or into the old pickup truck and just go. Old Deerfield is a wonderful place for this sort of thing. And usually where one sees someone rocking on a porch, most often always an elder, one also sees a tidy house. A house with trees and flowers and gardens. And around those flowers and gardens and leading many times to their place, it is stone. Walkways, borders, stone walls, pinnacles, totems, breaks to the eye, but it’s stone. The free stuff that can be found at a cost of knowing how to move its weight where someone wants it. The ones rocking and watching and listening know well just how to place the stone. They’ve had good practice.
|Carson and Bob building an addition onto the house;|
the new rafters are staggered working off the old original
There are two things about stonework — at least two things — but the two essential ones are your physical back and injury to it, and money.
Now in my early 60s my back has had a lifetime of being grumpy, often shot to hell, one or two months in a row out of commission completely. A lot of the problem was not taking care of myself and just working all the time because I was of a young age and vigor where I could go on forever. Believe it or not, I still have the vigor and stamina and work many long days, but the body listens, as I say, and payback is hell, as someone has certainly already told you. I began yoga exercises far too late, but I did begin ten years ago and it has facilitated remarkably. I’m also steering away from stonework and jobs that make no sense for one man and his wheelbarrow to attempt, which doesn’t mean I’m not fearless — I am — but I’m hopefully not stupid. I’ll still move large rock out of the woodlot with a handcart or wheelbarrow, but instead of hauling all day and driving myself down, I’ll move two dozen large stones and tell the pile, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And I do.
Money will help you now make these decisions. If you’ve made enough, you can do just enough. Because I come from two families with completely opposite histories and incomes: one was the big Irish friendly bunch from Belfast, Ireland; and the other was the New England business players, all in the lumber business, and the earlier family members were roughshod loggers and sawyers, but the later twentieth century members were money-driven building contractors or lumber suppliers, overseen by a lumber magnet, my grandfather, who worked the woods as a boy, but I only knew him in a long black coat with two different looking Cadillacs; and I guess he picked which one to drive depending on how he was feeling. One pure white, the other tail-finned, olive green.
Someone would make a big mistake if they thought I had anything to do with this supposed money bonanza, when in fact I had left home at eighteen and struck out for the Vermont woods wishing to make my living at the building trade. I didn’t see a dime from this family. Only recently I found out our grandfather had in fact left a sizeable financial trust to each of his grandchildren, equal amounts, that my father managed to usurp from one child after another, through poor financial management and schemes. Some more removed grandchildren he ran this trust by were privy to his shenanigans, and I believe they got their share, but his own children were robbed. This doesn’t mean our father was a bad man, or an evil man, he was simply a businessman and businessmen often get into binds and fixes they can’t fix. They get cursed. I can only imagine what my two younger brothers did about their situation — our older sister died too young — while I’ve been in the Vermont woods getting a bad back, loving a long marriage, raising a child, building as well a bookshop and publishing business tiny as a fruit stand and just as sweet. It took believing in a dream, each other, gaining a step at a time at each opportunity, and learning to not push against the river, or the stone. They shape themselves, they shape one another. If at the age of sixty you told me what the kid, called “me,” at age twenty planned to do, I’d have to ask, “Is he nuts?” But good luck to him.
|An old flat stone seat I built long ago that slipped off and I|
liked how it looked and re-built stone around it
all photographs by Susan Arnold
a builder's notebook
a builder's notebook