A good home must be made, not bought
~ Maynard Joyce
It was a perfect dawn late in autumn, and I looked forward to spending the day in the woodlot where the hard, clean work and frosty air would clear my head and prepare me for my next painting. The shimmering scimitar of a mostly dark moon hung low in the western sky as I crept past my pile of logs and quietly set the old enameled coffee pot on a round of white oak. At dusk the night before I’d seen a small flock of mallards flight into the little millstream, which meanders behind the studio, and wanted to flush them from the cress beds where they’d feed all winter long. When I was close enough, I pushed through the alders and they exploded into flight, some much closer than I’d imagined. The Swedish splitting maul I carried flew to my shoulder as if it were a shotgun, and I swung on a pair of drakes as they towered to clear the treetops. In my mind I imagined that the maul jumped twice as I shot the brace, and I congratulated myself on having waited until they were over my neighbor’s lawn to drop them. Had I been hunting, I’d need no waders this morning.
Afterward, I collected a small pile of woodlot litter and set it afire with a kitchen match. The coffee pot would be placed downwind of the small blaze to softly brew and be flavored with wood smoke. It would be ready about the time I broke a sweat and needed something warm to take the chill off as I rested.
I buy my wood from a local tree cutter, and never know what I’ll find among the tangle of eight-foot lengths. Most of it is oak (of one sort or another) or ash, but occasionally I’ll find maple, birch, or even cherry. Some folks are particular about the wood they burn and prefer a homogenous woodpile, but I like a mix of woods for the variety of scents they produce. Wood smoke is like a perfume to me and I appreciate a multiplicity of bouquets. On this particular morning I found some exquisite butternut and set them aside. I daydreamed as I worked, imagining what kind of furniture I might construct from the boards hidden within the large, clear logs.
The sun climbed into a perfectly clear sky of cobalt blue and my wood splitting took on a somniferous rhythm, broken only when my supply of rounds was exhausted and necessitated that I cut some more. Running the chainsaw is my least favorite part of this otherwise quiet and introspective autumn chore, and when I thankfully shut it off the acrid exhaust blew away on the breeze to be replaced with the sweet aroma of pipe tobacco.
I looked up and my friend and neighbor, Bob, the unofficial historian of our small town, Marine on St. Croix, stood only a few feet away. I returned his smile.
“Hi Bob,” I said while removing my work gloves to shake his hand. “I smelled your pipe. Have you been here long?”
There was twinkle in his eyes. “Longer than you’d guess with all the noise from your chainsaw,” he replied. “What do you plan to do with all that lovely butternut?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It breaks my heart to burn it, but by the time I saw it into lumber with this chainsaw, all I’ll have is a big pile of saw dust and imperfect boards. What I need is a saw mill.”
“Or, a pit saw,” he suggested. “I have one you can use… and I just sharpened it.”
“Why would you have a pit saw?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know”, he answered. “I saw one used as a kid, and always thought they were kind of neat. I like tools, and collect them, especially hand tools.”
“They’re sure quieter,” I said with a smile.
“Not many people really need tools these days,” he mused. “Maybe I’m just getting old, but it seems to me that hardly anyone makes or actually produces anything they use anymore; from the basic needs for survival to art and music.
“There was a time, not too long ago, when a man needed to know how to build his own home,” Bob said. “Young men learned their way around their father’s wood shop building all the doors and windows they’d need for a home of their own.
“While young men learned the skills necessary to build a home and furnish it, the young ladies learned how to make clothes, knit socks, mittens, hats, and sweaters. Blankets and rugs were made from scraps of cloth. Of course,” he laughed, “the young girls’ grand-mothers thought them spoiled because they had store-bought fabric!
“The first well for your house, which was built in the 1870’s, by the way, was dug by hand,” he informed me. “I don’t suppose many folks would know much about digging a well or building a cistern today. Back when water didn’t magically come out of a spigot, people saved every drop they could. When’s the last time you saw a rain barrel?
“Things are easier these days,” he opined, “but I don’t know that they’re any better. Take this wood lot for example; a fella learns a lot about life heating with wood. I don’t know of any studies to support the notion, but I suspect very few people who get into any serious trouble have spent much time in a woodlot.”
I took this as a compliment.
“Do you know how many businesses were dependent upon the energy generated from the little millstream over there?” He asked with a nod toward the brook. “Back before power was something we paid for once a month, that little stream powered a sawmill, a flour mill, supplied a brewery, and cooled the milk for a dairy. It’s the reason this town exists, and why we’re standing here talking.
“No, not many people do much for themselves anymore. You know, ‘fresh food’ used to mean that it was in season, and nothing ever tasted better than vegetables from the garden, or fruit from the orchard. I hardly see an apple tree any more,” he said as he struck a match to relight his pipe. “I guess I talk too much… I forgot to keep my pipe lit. I hardly see a bee hive around town anymore, either,” he said between puffs of smoke. “It’s a pity; there’s nothing like honey in the comb.
“There was a time in this village when everyone had at least one dairy cow, a chicken coop, and most people had a few ducks and geese besides. Ever have a goose eggs for breakfast?” Bob asked.
Before I could say no, he replied. “Nothing better!
“When the ducks and geese were butchered, their down went into comforters and the feathers into pillows.
“Everyone had at least one horse, and not for the sport. Mostly, in the summer it pulled a buckboard, and in the winter, a sled. If folks had money, they might have a buggy for going to church. Even so, all the manure went into the garden.
“Hunting and fishing weren’t recreational, and a man was judged by his skill as a hunter or fisherman. When I was a kid, we used to hunt ducks in the spring, not for the sport mind you. It was the first meat we had to eat since winter that wasn’t dried, canned, smoked, or salted. Ammunition was store-bought, and every shot counted. Shooting a duck on the wing was considered an extravagance; something you did to show off. Why shoot one in the air when you could line six of ‘em up on the water?
Bob was on a roll, now “Why, back then we even made our own fun! Most toys and games were hand made, and if you knew how to make music you never spent a weekend or holiday alone. We even made up the stories and family legends to tell the little ones as they fell asleep.
“Speaking of fun, almost everyone made their own spirits in those days… and most times it was better than what could be bought.
“Of course, there were some things that just couldn’t be made by hand and had to be store-bought or bartered for. Extra eggs and milk were sold for a modest sum, and the money used to buy material, thread, and needles, or fish hooks for example. Firearms and steel tools were invaluable, and guardedly passed down through the generations.
“You know,” Bob continued, “I read somewhere that someone, an economist I suppose, figured out that it costs almost a quarter of a million dollars to raise a child to adulthood these days. The way I hear it children are now looked upon as an expense… something a couple may or may not be able to afford. I remember when a large family was an asset; more hands to share in the everyday work that was needed to survive.
“This same fella went on to say, though I forget the figure, what older folks cost a family. When I was young, it was the elders that watched the young ones until they could contribute. It was their job to watch over and teach the little ones. In this way, they were useful and made a contribution too. Everyone was taken care of; we took care of each other,” he said, tapping his pipe on a round of black ash to clear the bowl for another small load of tobacco.
“Though I never have, some fellas even used to grow and cure their own tobacco.
“So, what did you say you were going to do with this butternut,” he asked again as he ran his hand along one of the logs.
“I’m not sure,” I answered. “It’d be nice to make a bed for Tommy.”
“Maybe you will,” he said with a wink and turned to leave. I watched him as he walked away, sweet smoke wafting around his head as he wandered down the path along the old millstream that he knows so well.
The shadows lengthened and Lisa appeared with a glass of well water to slake my thirst and signal the end of the workday. It was time for dinner, and afterwards, all the preparations that proceed Thanksgiving at Lisa’s family farm.
Dawn the next morning found me hidden in cattails next to a flooded pasture with Lisa’s father. Dave had seen a bunch of mallards feeding there for the past few days and had suggested that I bring my shotgun and a sack of decoys.
The two of us shot well, and as we walked back to his truck with a limit of drakes I told him about the discussion in the wood lot with my neighbor, Bob.
“It’d be nice to roast these ducks for our Thanksgiving dinner,” I suggested, “And serve something that we actually came by on our own.”
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “The turkey we’ll eat is from the farm, but I see what you mean. You know what would be a lot of fun to do?” He asked excitedly, and then, as is his habit, told me. “We should all agree that everything served at Thanksgiving next year be grown, harvested, or collected by members of the family.”
“Between the farm, all of our gardens, and all the hunting and fishing we do, it shouldn’t be that difficult.”
“We’ll have to do without some things,” he mused. “Grandma will have a hard time not putting oranges in her cranberry relish.”
“I’ll make the wine, and some hard cider from our orchard,” I suggested, not wanting to do without our usual holiday cheer.
“Let’s run it past the family after every ones’ belly is full”, he suggested, “And, have had a few glasses of wine.”
As predicted, the idea was agreed upon, with only mild protest about the prohibition of an orange in the cranberry relish, and a list prepared of what each family would contribute to next year’s “handmade” Thanksgiving dinner.
“That was fun,” Lisa sighed as we drove down the street to our home late that night, “What a great idea you and dad had about next year’s dinner.”
The headlights played across an unusual object in the wood lot as we turned into the driveway, and after carrying Tommy to her bed, and helping to unload the car, I went out to investigate. Lying across the pile of big butternut logs was the pit saw; its teeth razor sharp. Attached to one of the handles was a note, which read; I think you ought to make that bed for Tommy. This will do a better job than your chainsaw, in half the time… and without any of the noise. I like the smell of fresh cut butternut, let me know when you want to make some boards and I’ll bring my grandson, Bobby, along to help.