An Ohio ruralite and essayist, John Baskin has recently published an intriguing book called In Praise of Practical Fertilizer. In it (and in his earlier New Burlington: The Life & Death of an American Village), John paints a many-textured picture of rural life that entertained our editors so much, we just had to share a sample of it with you. (At one point, he even pokes a little friendly fun at MOTHER EARTH NEWS itself, calling it “a periodical for people who feel up the creek without a parable.”) It wasn’t easy to pick just one chapter to share with you — it meant passing up such gems as “Provocative Vegetables” and “Ruminations on Cow Manure” — but we think you’ll be pleased with the following selection on barn demolition and wood recovery.
I have just finished tearing down an old barn, using the time-honored methods of crowbar and profanity. The barn, which belonged to a neighbor, had been damaged by a high wind, and I brought the old building down on its sills as much by an artful use of curt Anglo-Saxon as by the crowbar.
I began on the roof, peeling off the wooden shingles. It looked to be a simple job until I discovered there were about a half-dozen layers where the owner had kept re-roofing the barn over the preceding layer. Future archaeologists, uncovering a section of this roof, would no doubt be able to date the leaky cycles of consternation in the owner’s life by each stratum of shingles. These layers, of course, made the roof exceedingly heavy. It suggested to me why the old barns contained much stalwart underpinning: to hold up the shingles.
I found that by standing underneath, on the top beams, I could punch the interwoven sections off with a long pole. It made a fine shower of shingles, and I made a mental note of the wreckage as splendid kindling for the winter.
Soon the old girl was immodestly down to her underpinnings. (I say “girl” here because, as with the French, all things have a gender to me, and old barns, like ocean liners, are feminine.) Modesty aside, she was quite a sight. The whole northern end was still in good shape, hand-cut 10-by-10s in the bents held snugly in place by flawless mortise-and-tenon joints.
I wondered if this was one of Frank Stanley’s barns. Mr. Stanley, who built many of the old barns of my neighborhood, never built a barn with anything but hardwood pegs in the joints. He scorned nails because he thought the wind twisted them. Because of men like Mr. Stanley, the barn architecture at one time in the neighborhood rivaled the craftsmanship of the houses. In some places, the barn took aesthetic precedence over the house. There are still a few of these farms left near me. The magnificent barn stands quietly behind the farmhouse, in the manner of a family portrait where the pretty child is overshadowed by the lovely mother. I once heard of a man who spared no expense keeping his barn in immaculate shape but refused to put indoor plumbing in the house. He said it was too much of an investment, and besides, he spent most of his time in the barn anyway.
Sitting 15 feet off the ground, thinking of Mr. Stanley’s methods, I found myself given to a disconcerting theory. The theory was that the fine old architecture was not necessarily built out of taste and sensibility, but out of a lack of tools. That is to say, man was a proper craftsman when the hand was still connected intimately to the eye. As soon as power tools and aluminum siding came around, the craftsman used them, along with any other shortcut, and soon found himself a union carpenter. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with shortcuts, but they have something to do with explaining why most buildings today look like they were either poured or assembled, and the human hand vacant from the premises.
It was a theory too sober for such a day, so I laid it aside, climbed down, and cleared off the debris on the barn floor. After that, I removed the planking, exposing eight 30-foot-long, foot-square, hand-cut floor joists. I was through the prologue and down to drama.
At this point, I called for reinforcements. I drove into town, stopped by the college gymnasium and hired a stout fellow as my last-act assistant. He told me he was called The Hog, a sobriquet he had earned for his skill at imitating boars in various states of distress. The Hog, I learned later, was a linebacker on the college football team, and his teammates contended that on the playing field, The Hog’s noises in a pileup were most discomposing. He was a pleasant fellow, from the farming country up north, and he looked as if he could shuffle pianos.
We drove some of the pegs out and used a chain saw on the other joints, and soon the old framework had slid gently into a pile of large sticks. Mr. McKay came over with his backhoe and, calmly smoking his pipe, swung the big, intractable beams into the back of his grain truck.
I like working with Mr. McKay because he is imperturbable when a project’s eccentricity arises, as it usually does, although we went through the afternoon relatively free of it. Mr. McKay farms with his brothers and their father, remaining unruffled even though he is the only one not partial to Ford trucks, a source of much supper-table litigation. Mr. McKay prefers the Chevrolet truck.
Not long ago, he mired his Chevrolet in the edge of a nearby field, and a couple of neighbors came out to help. One backed his pickup into the edge of the field, up to the back of Mr. McKay’s bigger truck and hooked on with chains, and they both revved up. Nothing happened. Mr. Steinbarger, one of the neighbors, looked down and noticed that while the pickup was going forward, so was Mr. McKay’s truck.
He walked over to the driver’s side where Mr. McKay sat, one arm in the window, while the motor raced and the truck sank deeper into the mud.
“You ain’t got your truck in reverse,” said Mr. Steinbarger.
“Nope,” said Mr. McKay.
“Why not?” asked the puzzled Mr. Steinbarger.
“Ain’t no Ford gonna pull me out,” said Mr. McKay, taking a puff on his pipe and indicating with a nod the pickup spinning away unprofitably in the other direction.
That is Mr. McKay, a man who keeps his own counsel.
Soon, The Hog and Mr. McKay had the beams in a neat stack in my own barnyard. Such beams they were, too. They had once held up a farm’s traffic and commerce, and were prepared to keep on doing it. They were timbers to stand under during a heavy afternoon. They could support a man’s varied prospects and set a fine example for holding to in high winds and other rural disorders.
We sat on them for a few minutes, and everybody seemed pleased. The Hog seemed pleased that he had been able to lift one of the beams by himself, Mr. McKay that he had maneuvered the timber so adroitly, and I that I’d undertaken the whole thing.
Outside of using a piece of hand-cut beam for a fireplace mantel every now and then, there isn’t much use around here for the big timbers. I’m not sure I have a use, either. I think of putting the beams back up as a house, a sort of Phoenix-house rising from the disgruntled ashes of demolition, but I can’t say if it will happen or not. I put up three essays last week, and not one of them had Mr. Stanley’s mortise-and-tenon joints. All I know is that when I see one of the lovely old barns sitting idle, I have an irretrievable urge to reclaim it, even if this urge comes to nothing more than stacking it in the backyard.
Just yesterday, I saw an old barn abandoned in a field, the rows of corn running right up to its weatherboarding, and before I could stop myself, I thought: There’s a barn I’d like to tear down.
At such a moment, I seem to reflect the schizophrenia of the day, trying to balance the attitudes of destruction and redemption in the same act.
Excerpted from In Praise of Practical Fertilizer. Copyright 1982 by John Baskin. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.