Perhaps (outside of the long story that might have had something to do with it) I was thinking of my Mom because I was feeling the kinds of feelings I know she has always wanted me to. Standing in the still reasonably comfortable sundappled recesses of a torn up house, the blue sky framed through missing windows and the breeze blowing one hundred and thirty years of dust away from my face, I had wood ester of pine rosin in my nostrils, and a three pound sledge in my hand. At its most primal, carpentry is beams, cut, and set on other beams. Nails are in the soul of a structure not only beside the point, but dangerous due to what they can convince you about the fidelity of a building in wood. America's oldest structures are by definition hundreds of years old, made of beams and posts, and without nails in their bones. Buildings that require nails have lifespans measured in the cold math of iron oxidation. Post and beam construction uses pins, tongues, notches, and cabinetry like tricks to join wood. It is perhaps a reflection of the fickle reliability of nails, over long spans of time, that nailed wood is said to be fastened, not joined.
I work with my friends, and not necessarily because I met them at work. Lee, I've known for ten years. The two Jim's I met two years ago, and yes, because of my work, but in many ways, as will be obvious in the next couple days, Jim Sr. and Jim Jr. are friends of mine, far more involved in my life then coworkers in my past could even pretend to be.
So there I was, knocking floor joists into place, on top of a wall that we built yesterday. Carrying seventy pound floor joists around and cutting and placing them on top the sill plate of a wall you helped build is far from the teeming world of competing claims that seems the universe I participate in. Though it can be rather close to some strange meta questions that some coffee shops and bars still encourage in their environment and atmosphere.
The other day I got to work, and within four hours helped get the joists over this huge span that a two story empty room pretty much embodies. I said to the guys, "Why don't we just make a sort of Henry Higgins library. You know with a second story surrounding walkway, and ladders rolling all over the place." The only difference between a two story library and what we're doing, is that the library would be somewhat cheaper. Nothing but wood, and reasonably affordable labor. Right away Mr. Higgins.
Anyhow, in four hours the joists cut the "library" in two, turning our upper class fantasies into the unit of domestic metrics: mere rooms. We took three quarter inch oriented strand board, that is tongue and groove, and pieced it together and nailed it to the floor joists. Piece by piece, thirty two square feet at a time, we gobbled the daylight up out of the basement.
Unceremoniously we placed and nailed the last piece of OSB and immediately began to build walls. This, because we are insane, involves the simultaneous demolition and construction of a house. The house, we think, was framed in 1880 in Ash. Which you can do, even today, if you want your insurance company to politely decline a relationship with you, and your home to effectively be unbuyable, despite its fetching price determined on the value: $0 dollars. All those boring stamps and codes you see on lumber relate to it's rigorous inspection by pro's. Geniuses like me would die a lot more frequently if we had access to "wood" without the stamp. For good reason, it is mighty hard to come by. Course, if you're working in a house framed twenty years after the Civil War, perhaps that's different. I wrote letters and email, and called a number of different organizations two years ago to get the two Jim's more value for their old timbers we pulled from the other unit of the house. Time after time people seemed shocked when I told them the dimensions and quality of this wood. Some of it is vaporized by bugs. But a large amount for mysterious reasons to me, works beneath a chisel, like a tree felled a year ago. I'm saving more of it this year to make pretty things out of. I feel it's wasteful to buy new wood only to destroy it while pretending I can sculpt. But this stuff is on its way to the landfill, where it will live perhaps another three hundred years, slowly turning to the equivalent of peat, amidst the landfills anaerobic inhabitants.
So, even though a couple of days ago we had just put up the floor joists, and nailed the floor in, none of us thought much of it, or said anything to indicate there was anything to say about it. It wasn't until I swept some debris off that same floor, three hours later, when the day was ending, that I realized something, and looked around me, dazed by it.
As soon as human beings make a sturdy surface upon which to stand, that surface becomes a tool, that obviates the components that make up the surface. It no longer is the pieces in a pile, unable to hold themselves up, or engage in self assembly. But a unified whole, if not in your mind, then through the claims of your physical environment upon your actions. Where before were dust motes penetrated by golden beams of sunlight, is now a solid platform of wood, weighing twenty five hundred pounds and levitating, for perhaps another hundred years. And standing upon it is a bald guy, just after building it. If you listen carefully you can hear him say, "Hey guys, you seen my hammer?"
I just couldn't believe that I was walking around and arranging my tools on this thing I had hung just that morning. A strange feeling indeed. And not a matter of ownership or creation, but rather of the machination of human nature, its embrace of space to craft an arena.
Another fairly spooky thing about recreating a house that is over a hundred years old, is the slow deconstruction of the work of others. Occasionally one of us will achieve some small victory in the impossible game we're playing, transferring many tons safely, with large beams of wood in small spaces (where, believe it, the joists do not fit.) So, our predictive powers being pure human, we celebrate even as we hurtle toward another problem. But wait... we've done something wrong (this happens every hour of the day, and is one of the ways you know when you'll be done, or go to lunch. Count them... three of them, eat lunch. Eight or nine, yeah, it ain't only time to go, it's eight or nine reasons to go home.) Our happy moment, in the sun of victory, suddenly is thrown into the shade of a dark cloud. We shouldn't have allowed a floors sheathing to penetrate beyond a certain point, but it none the less does. Therefore we must cut what we cannot, and move what is permanently immobile. We should have known, but have only just learned... Some wag in the room says, "Well, what could happen?" You just look them in the eye, point to the hard work of somebody in 1880, and say, "Don't you think that might be what they were thinking?"
It's actually something of a crazy personal pleasure of mine to read the intentions of the builders of old buildings. It isn't hard to imagine why. I wrote an essay on this a few years ago, and the ideas that caused the essay, and the ideas my work today involves have bred an even deeper pleasure.
Intentions of builders is really putting it too broadly. My interest is in what remains of the builders efforts. In the poem, at the margin of this blog (for now) called "Waffle Houses," I play with the idea that structures are put together with the food in the bellies of construction workers, so "every building is a ham sandwich, a cup of coffee, and a red delicious." But while, that is without question touching on the truth, a far deeper, direct, and unabstracted truth follows the bricklayer, as he carries his brick from terra firma up scaffolding to the top of a buildings facade. As the mason nestles the brick in its bed of mortar, the brick no longer seems heavy to him, he has given it's weight away, and the burden is the building's until earthquake, recking ball, or neglect gives terra firma back, what the mason originally took from her.
But while the building is standing, someone might walk by it. Perhaps their name is Andy, and they are limning the structures facade with admiration, or contempt, it does not matter. For a portion of what passes through Andy's eyes is the building's form and structure, and another aspect of the building is a spectral spirit of the places bricks and mortar. You see the mason died a few decades ago, but that little trip we took with him above, to bed his gift from the ground to the facade of the building, is a permanent part of the brick. Not just its posture in the world, which one would hope a mason feels some pride in providing to the brick and the buildings admirers. But crucially, to the strange Andy's of the world, its desire to one day be reunited with terra firma, like all of us (or at least the things we're made out of. We might think otherwise.) The buildings in my town, were all assembled into structures of singing desire. And the forces that represent a bricks desire for the ground, were given the brick (which, believe me, the building is not experiencing in the abstract) by a person who sweated it, with muscle and bone to the top of the building. The ATP energy in the cells of that mason gave the brick up there its song. So if nature is for the eyes that see it, the songlines of the buildings in any town are there for who will hear them. I wonder if you will ever listen.
Me and my devilishly romantic views! You should hear the sighs of exhausted pleasure in my friends when they finally realize I am never going to surprise them in a conventional fashion. The gleam in their eyes and belly laughter at my expense, is a funeral for the strangers we once were.