PIECES OF WOOD
by Stephen Morris
West Brookfield is the classic Vermont hamlet—dirt crossroads, a church, a one-room schoolhouse, and a half dozen farmhouses. Stella Maloney, who taught at the schoolhouse until it closed in 1968, lives in one of the homes. The Wakefield family who has operated Meadowbrook Farm since 1852 owns several others. The farming success of the Wakefields has kept the town looking much as it did fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, and a hundred and fifty years ago. As one after another of the hillside farms “gave up,” Meadowbrook Farm expanded to fill.
Another village home, a modest cape built around the time the Wakefields started farming, was for sale when we moved to Vermont in 1979. There is an illustration of the house on the cover of West Brookfield and Thereabouts, a town history written by Alice Webster Wakefield. The image, taken from an advent calendar made by a village resident, portrays a Vermont of our mind’s eye, without junk cars, mud, and houses wrapped in plastic. In the foreground is a house—our house!—that spills its radiant light out onto the immaculate snow. Presiding over all, majestic even without summer plumage, is a towering sugar maple whose branches spread a protective canopy over house and town. Inside the book are a half dozen other photos of the house and tree. The constant is that the horizon, even a hundred years ago, is dominated by the massive maple in our front yard.
We were charmed by the tree, the house, and the village of West Brookfield. We proudly made it our home. The tree even had a thick first limb that would be perfect for the tire swing that our sons, one just born, one not yet contemplated, would forever associate with their childhood.
Not long after moving in we were approached by a neighbor, Gregory Schipa, founder of Weather Hill Company, a firm that specializes in historic preservation and restoration. Schipa seemed determined to keep West Brookfield in the 1850s.
“Those trees, especially the maples, are getting on. You should think about replacing them.” Part of me thanked him for his advice, but another part—the speaking part—said, “Those trees are good for another fifty years.”
“I know,” Schipa replied, “That’s why you should be thinking now about replacing them.”
Schipa proved a man of his convictions, and helped me plant a line of maples over the next two years. The saplings looked slightly ridiculous dwarfed by the behemoth, but he assured me I would thank him some day. For the next few years the saplings grew much as did our young family. We were shaded by the big trees in the summer as we watched the kids take countless rides on their tire swing. In the autumn I raked leaves into playful piles. The favorite game was “Leafman,” in which one person buries another in leaves, then lures an unsuspecting third person to the pile. Upon the pronouncement of “Leafman” the pile stirs and a roaring, snarling leaf monster emerges. Works every time.
After the leaves were pulverized by the glee of kid power, they became winter mulch for the perennials, as purposeful on the ground at thirty below as they had been on the branches providing summer shade. The first official act of spring was removing the leaves to give the crocuses a better look at the sun. Afterwards we took the leaves to the vegetable garden, tilling their remaining organic matter into the rocky soil.
Just as Gregory Schipa had been our partner in planting young trees, Bruce Cameron became our partner in keeping the maturing trees healthy. (Our signature maple was flanked by a lanky Dutch elm and a second maple that would have been impressive anywhere else but alongside its larger cousin.) Cameron, Central Vermont’s resident tree expert, is an ex-Shakespearean actor with a soft voice that still manages to articulate each syllable so that you can hear clearly from the cheap seats. Cameron explained to us about the lifecycle of maples, how they start breaking apart in chunks when they reach a certain age. How they die from the center out. And ours had reached that age, give or take a few decades. Through proper maintenance and strategic cabling, the maples should last our lifetimes, said Cameron. The Dutch elm, however, even though it looked healthy, was living on borrowed time.
Mere months later it was gone, a victim of the disease that bears its name. I spent a frustrating summer trying to split elm with my maul, using the stump as my base. When I was done dealing with the sinewy wood, I kept right on banging on the stump to reduce it to ground level. For all the aggravation it caused in splitting, the elm kept us warm that winter.
The next summer disaster struck the lesser of our maples. I got the call at work, one of those traumatic moments frozen in time. At least it hadn’t fallen on the house. I had another stump to keep me busy for the summer. And another warm home that winter. The saplings now had six or seven years’ growth and were sturdy young trees whose vitality took some of the sting away from our loss. Schipa had been right, and if I didn’t thank him properly then, I do now.
With two of the three down, we redoubled our efforts to keep the remaining maple standing. Cameron ordered specific care and maintenance, which included me climbing into the tree’s central cavity and removing all accumulated soft material with a post-hole digger. This unique chore yielded exquisite compost for the garden, as well as an assortment of golf balls, Star Wars figures, MatchBox cars, Whiffle Balls, and Transformers. This unexpected “trip to the toy store” so delighted my two sons that they wanted me to perform this maintenance on a weekly basis.
The maple held up well for the next dozen years. A chunk or two fell off, but the basic canopy remained intact. The trees I had planted with Greg Schipa were now in an adolescent growth spurt, just like my boys. Each year Bruce Cameron would stop by, tighten the cables, and give us a progress report. He’s the kind of guy who will do this whether you ask him or not and whether you pay him or not. With Bruce, the tree comes first. The maple, he reported, was holding it’s own.
But meanwhile, life around the maple changed. Flash-forward what seems like an instant but was in reality a decade. The family has spent a “year abroad” in California and returned. They’ve moved in town to be nearer the school and all things teen-aged. The boys are poised on the brink of the nest. Strangers pay rent to live in the house and to enjoy the maple’s shade.
Eventually the strain of being absentee landlords took its toll, and we put the house up for sale. Prospective buyers were interviewed as much for their willingness to keep alive ancient maples as for their ability to meet the asking price. Eventually, a deal was struck. The new owners, a young couple from California, brought new energy and vitality to the homestead, as well as a reverence for the intact Vermontness of West Brookfield. They put a new tin roof on the house. Soon a baby was on the way, and within a year the big tree was down, practicality overruling sentiment.
I stumbled, unprepared, upon the scene with my younger son, now a young man. We turned the corner into the village to see a massive stump surrounded by dismembered eighteen-inch sections. It was overwhelmingly sad. The new owners were in the front yard. They, too, are saddened by the loss, but felt they had no choice, citing Bruce Cameron, the patron saint of venerable trees, as advising them that it was time to put it down. My son asks if they found any toys in the cavity. Turns out, they did.
(Months later, I see Bruce at the local bank, and he mumbles condolences about the tree, as if he had somehow failed. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m glad he was the one to bring it down. I’m sure he did it with love.)
A hidden blessing is the sudden prominence of the line of sturdy, young maples, now some twenty-five feet tall and producing their own sap, shade, and foliage. We request, and are given, some lengths of the fallen maple.
My wife bursts into tears at the news. It is months before she is able to go back to West Brookfield. I harbor thoughts, maybe delusions, that I am going to transform the chunks of maple into hand-sculpted keepsakes of our years beneath her canopy. I tell the family that this will be my Christmas gift for the next year. I contact a friend who had a similarly sentimental maple taken down in her front yard. She contracted with a local artisan to work with her downed wood. After many hours struggling with old, punky wood he produced a disappointingly small number of artifacts for a disappointingly high price. I can tell from her cocked eyebrow that I am setting myself up for the same fall.
But my plan is different. I will work the wood myself, freeing bowls and spoons and toys and tops and trinkets from the heavy blocks. I have visions of myself, Gepetto-like, working by firelight. I see my sons, unwrapping their Christmas packages, and the look of awe as they recognize the simple treasures that have been created by my hours of loving labor.
By the following December, with Christmas season in full swing, my forward progress consists of buying a book on woodworking and staring forlornly at maple chunks that look much as they did when thrown into the back of my pick-up. It has taken a year, but I now recognize that I lack the skill, tools, knowledge, time, and will for this plan. Having created the expectation of Christmas gifts from the maple, I resort to Plan B. I go to the local dollar store and find some wooden spoons stamped “Spain.” I leave on the 99-cent price tags, wrap them in dollar-store paper, and write a sentimental story about the mighty maple. On Christmas Eve the family convenes over coffee—we’re all adults now—and I make the presentation. There’s a moment of silence between reading the story and unwrapping the presents. The silence is repeated as they see the simple spoons, read the price tag, and see “Spain” stamped on the back.
One son says, “This is so lame.”
The other says “This is so you.”
Then we laugh. Together. The maple has delighted us once again.
The story has an epilogue, and a new hero. Later that same day I am at a seasonal craft show staged for the holidays at Chandler Gallery in Randolph. A handsome wooden pen catches my eye, and the signage tells me it comes from Fat Rooster Farm in nearby Royalton. I know the farm as a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). As have many of today’s practitioners of sustainable farming, the folks of Fat Rooster have broadened their definition of “farming” by offering diversity in an increasingly commodified world. Although only six years into its existence, Fat Rooster has already been immortalized in a handsome coffee-table book Harvest: A Year in the Life of an Organic Farm (The Lyons Press, 2004).
A few days later my mind links these pieces of wood, now resting atop my stacked woodpile, with the pens. Then, things happen fast. I wonder if Fat Rooster has a website? Click. Do they say anything about their wooden pens? Click, click. Hm-m-m. They will work with your wood or theirs. Light bulb. Click, click. Contact us. Click, tap, tap, tap, click.
That evening there is a return email in my inbox from Kyle Jones of Fat Rooster Farm. The next day I deliver five lengths of maple, formerly of West Brookfield, to Fat Rooster Farm. Two friendly dogs (one with one blue and one brown eye) and a pair of intimidating “watch” geese herald my arrival. I am about to leave when Kyle emerges from the barn and calls after us. Along with Gregory Schipa and Bruce Cameron, Kyle becomes the third hero of this story.
Kyle tours us through his shop, examines the pieces of wood, and tells us how he happens to be turning out hardwood pens from a remote vantage overlooking the second branch of the White River. An ecologist by profession, he works two days a week with the National Park Service in Woodstock. The rest of the time he tries to make ends meet at Fat Rooster Farm. He is a native of Ohio who married a Vermonter. He’s not a woodworker by trade, but he has developed a woodworking sideline as a way to generate some revenue during the cold weather. He’s an easy guy to like.
He walks us through the process. The wood is chain sawed into rectangular slabs measuring roughly six inches thick. On a band saw in the shop the wood is sliced again and again into sticks ¾” x ¾”. The wood is dried for about a year before being worked. Pieces are then cut to length, drilled, and the internal fixtures glued in place. He then takes upwards of an hour turning each pen on a lathe, feeling the grain, giving each a unique look and curve, and applying the finish. If all goes well, pens can be ready for Christmas.
He looks at my wood, says it appears to be good, but he won’t know for certain until he looks inside, i.e. rough cuts it with a chain saw. The next day I receive an email titled “Grand Opening” that says “I was very impressed by the wood in your logs. Lots of color, a little spalting and crotch grain. I reply back that I hope “spalting” and “crotch grain” are good, and he responds “Trust me, they are.” So I am trusting Kyle to take this special wood and to give new life as pens, and maybe even bowls. In the process he can redeem me for trying to preserve with a lame joke the memory of a tree that gave us buds in the spring, shade in the summer, piles of joyful leaves in the fall.
Next Christmas Eve we’ll convene over coffee. I will let them unwrap their pens, and then tell them that these came from our majestic sugar maple in West Brookfield. Use the pens, I will say, to write poems, love letters, or to sign autographs. They will look for price tags or telltale stamps of origin, but won’t find them. Not this time.