Our home is small, 123 years old and was constructed for $123. One photograph left by a previous owner shows it sometime after 1930. There are no trees anywhere around an obviously abandoned building that was later converted into a vacation cottage. Now two sycamores stand on either side of our front porch. Both are about 60 feet tall; both were probably planted at the same time. If given the chance, and if they survive ice and wind, insect damage and any future owners’ decisions to reimagine the landscape, they may reach 500 years of age.
Sycamores shed their bark at this time of year. No one has a definitive answer as to why, but each summer I rake the bark, gather it into piles, pour it into a trash can and empty it into a scrub pile. I like doing this, but then I like working with my hands. However this pathetic list covers the range of my talents: weed-whacking, mowing, replacing fence rail, tearing just about anything out, down or up, cutting wood, sweeping, laying a brick walkway, carrying stones, putting down a slate patio, digging holes, setting up birdhouses and jury-rigging the bottom of a my wife’s small car with plastic fasteners after an accident so that it could survive a trip home from Maine. I once repaired a chain saw and felt inordinately proud of that feat for weeks.
If you put my brother and four of my brothers-in-law together after an apocalypse, they could begin rebuilding the broken world. Earle makes stair railings for a living that, aside from their practicality, are beautiful objects in their own right. Jeff knows plumbing and heating/air conditioning. Both have all the skills necessary to build their own homes. Both are hunters. Jack did build his home, is a superb mechanic and a hunter who knows how to track, kill, butcher and cook every kind of meat. Steve knows oil heating and thus boilers and furnaces, and Fred builds furniture and manages huge building projects.
Aside from their self-reliance (they do not have to call in repairman to do for them), I also envy their ability to make sense of the chaos of both the abstract and the concrete. All of them seem able to imagine a real object before it is real – the twist of pipes or the necessary curve of a piece of wood or the nature of the machine-part or the place on the never-before-seen-mountain where the deer are likely to hole up in high wind. All of them are able to look at a mass of scattered parts, that kind of mess, and fit them all together into functioning machines. Wonderful.
I cannot do any of those, but I do like to hoist and haul and figure out the material things. I can see what I have done – the clean porch, the lawn swept clean of leaves, the brick walkway, while straight, rising and falling as if built upon small waves. More importantly, such tasks hold the natural disorder of all nature at bay for a while and provide me temporary entry into the present, a place where I can let the task and perhaps the texture of wood and the weight of a hammer become the only loops by which I am bound.