Soot

The once-in-a-decade blizzard has left us up to our waists in snow, and all the familiar tropes apply: dollops of frosting leaning off the roof, peaks of whipped cream along the roadsides, pine needles individually wrapped in glinting ice, and sedimentary architecture scoured in the tunnels of wind.  It makes for a different world, a lot of extra work, and it makes for fires.

We’ve been fixing up the old blacksmith shop out by the road.  Now it’s just a little shed, but when we moved here in 1952, it was a working smith, with a huge tub of coals, about 4 feet wide and a couple of feet deep, and obscure wooden and metal shaping tools on the walls.  Stuck into the bottom of the tub was a bellows, just like the one for your fireplace, but so huge it had to be worked with a handle levered via a rope from the ceiling, and it put air into the fire with a whoosh and then a sigh.

From this forge came the square-cut nails that put together the sheds around the place, and fashioned a lot of wrought iron tools and fixtures that were still here when we took up residence.  Everett and Edna Kelsey and their neighbours were an independent bunch, not only making their own nails, but also their own soap.  We found wooden ‘lasts’ (carved wooden feet) around which they cobbled their own shoes.  2009 may be the year we begin to rediscover the need for these old and lost skills.

The forge has long since been given to the Maine State Museum, and the shed has sagged and settled toward its dirt floor, popping the windows out and giving the poor old thing a wrecked and forlorn look.

So Quan and I with Shawn and Peter’s help have been squaring it up, repairing the windows, and shingling it.  The old shingles, tattered and easy to scrape off with a claw hammer, have become our kindling for the winter fires in our house.

So each day when I take some of these shingles to start the fire in our stove, I handle the unique soot that covers what the inside, made from the coal of the smithy’s fire, crept into the walls over the years, giving a crystalline anthracite sparkle to their surface.

This serves to remind me daily of the industry and ingenuity of the early Americans – and not so long ago at that, we’re talking Depression-era here – and how we are not so far from them.  Whether anyone still has the skills to get back into blacksmithing, or using horses for farm work, or making shoes or any of the other skills that were necessary until Sears and then a host of other corporations took over our lives remains to be seen.

We have become a weak and complacent people, dependent on Exxon to deliver our energy and Hollywood to deliver our entertainment and Kraft to deliver our food.  Although part of me recoils from every new shock as our savings and income dwindle, another part welcomes the coming hardship for its engagement with the real world, and the opportunity to re-engage with each other.  We live in interesting times, and a strong economic contraction in the middle of the Facebook era holds much of interest.

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