The Wooden Horse –missed by many – had a central, elongated horseshoe-shaped, copper-topped bar whose stools abutted first-rate footrests – an important but often overlooked feature of a good pub. All over the walls around the perimeter hung antique farm, forest, horse, and oxen equipment – yokes, singletrees, whiffletrees, a scythe, and two-man saws with wooden handles. Old stuff, comfortable-feeling from long service in gritty hands that wore the wood, as a glacier slowly wears stone, to the shape of some now long-dead user’s distinctive grip.
Today, still in use, my great grandfather’s three-tined haying fork, pickaxe, shovel, spade, hoe, and iron rake hang on stencil-marked pegs in our tool shed. They all have smooth, sun-faded handles burnished where four generations of callused, sweaty hands have rubbed and gripped them.
Sharon asked me, as her August flower garden turned mostly yellow, to drive in some stakes to mark the perimeter of the beds and the arc of lawn that abuts our driveway. I only got to it a day before winter came early, but I did get it done. One benefit of doing mindless chores like leaf raking, snow shoveling – or driving a row of stakes – is it frees the brain for thinking while the body goes about its work.
And so, whacking stake tops with the poll of my old kindling hatchet, I found myself thinking I’d missed the boat last summer when I’d failed to save the sturdier beech and maple saplings I’d cleared along the trail edge to the lake. They’d have made fine winter driveway stakes and would’ve cost me nothing. Whack. The hatchet, which my grandfather had given me when I was eight or nine, caused consternation in my mother’s kitchen. But my grandfather taught safe chopping and I’ve survived its years of use, and only now was noticing how really good the smooth, wooden handle on that hatchet feels after so many years of kindled stove and fireplace blazes, so many years of gripping hands. Whack.
I was gripping it high up on the throat, backward, to bang in stakes, one every six or seven feet. With the exception of this job, I only use it nowadays for splitting lumber scraps for kindling. As a teenage apprentice carpenter in the summer, I learned to swing a pickaxe (digging dry wells) and a 20-ounce wooden-handled Millers Falls hammer (nailing off floors and roof pitches), eventually getting the feel, the rhythm, banging home each nail head, leaving just the slightest dimple. Set the nail, whack, Whack, WHACK. Set the nail, whack, Whack, WHACK. It became easy, another mindless thing.
Not so easy, standing on a nail keg, swinging upwards at six-penny strapping nails overhead. Also around that time, weekends at his farm, my grandfather taught me where to place my feet to swing a felling axe, and how to sharpen axes, chisels, knives. The condition of the blades, how strong my swing, and how deeply I could cut were my great pleasures then.
Now, it’s the feel of an old tool’s well-worn handle. The best has to be the almost sinuously sculpted wooden grip of an ancient Disston & Sons rip or crosscut saw and the serpentine curve and hand feel of a veteran, much-used Stanley bench plane’s recurved wooden grip.
The beauty in old tools arouses in me the brief (and admittedly sentimental) notion that I still can touch my long-gone kin, their hands on our shared handle. I still do the work they did, still feel what they felt.
Today, though, while at a hardware store’s tool section to buy a box of chainsaw files, I found next to nothing made of wood. Various plastics, synthetics, mechanically extruded stamped plastic grips with rubber non-skid appliqués, awkward to the touch, and bonded much too often to stainless steel that shines up well but is a bugger to sharpen. Stuff punched out by machines. It’s hard to develop a caring attitude to say nothing of affection for a tool with a hollow orange and black plastic handle.
Early Vermonters often had to build their tools first before moving on to their homes and barns. These tools came in an endless array of sizes, from the stone sleds and framing mauls of early settlements to toys, whistles, and the inner structural parts of children’s dolls. Today, it’s a near-lost art, making wooden tools, especially ones that feel as if they’re old. We sat one sunny day on lawn chairs at Chuck Eaton’s place in West Fairlee, visiting with friends who had come up from Florida. Chuck was whittling a replacement tuning peg for an old fiddle, looking up from time to time to take a part in the conversation. He’d pull from his pocket one of the remaining pegs he sought to make a copy of, hold it against his work, and then go back to whittling. He’d pare slender curls of wood away, and they dropped in a small circle at his feet. The last cut was to separate the fully-formed tuning peg from the end of the long hardwood stick he’d started out with. His peg was old, gray oak instead of ebony, but otherwise a perfect match, a perfect fit.
I’m reminded when I hold a perfectly curved axe haft, as slender yet as strong as a lithe athlete or dancer, of Frost’s poem, “The Tuft of Flowers,” in which a narrator says,
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun. . . .
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been, – alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
A butterfly intrudes upon the speaker’s reverie, alights upon a tall tuft of flowers near the edge of the field,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared. . .
The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn, . . .
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
Frost’s narrator concludes,
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
My grandmother’s just-right-feeling, long, hand-carved cooking spoon and the axe shaft that my grandfather gripped between his elbow and his ribs when showing me how to grind a nick out of the bit, each – if I let it – takes me back in time even as it helps make soup or stovewood.