the old barn I chase
containing Rule No. 42 and Rule No. 867
— chase barns and/or similar visions only after achieving rational certitude that they exist
— do not lose your cool with strangers
The old barn I chase others know and do not see. They’ve built it. Patched it. Each square window for each doe-eyed cow they framed and glazed. Up high with help, above an orchard of cherry trees, they snugged the ridgepole into place. They dragged corrugated metal sheet by sheet over roughsawn rafters milled down the road. The man who delivered them would not unload until first he was paid. He shrugged. He squinted into the rear view mirror of the bubble-fendered truck.
By the time I show up all the work and haggle of making has been done, is mostly forgotten, other than the mishaps and upsets. The building was done under open sky and fresh field cut from fog forest. The fresh barn loomed over the small old house which was old even then. Was situated speck-like on the wet patchwork valley below two-lane road. Some rain. Some sun. Only the animals watching. And the animals watching more often from hunger, overdue for feed or bored.
All a stranger has to say is barn. I hop to it. Drop whatever else I am doing. Maybe I’ve learned some by now. I hope. But talking by phone. The man on the other end saying barn. He has wood from an old barn, he is saying. Very reasonable price. I get directions. I am there. There is no barn.
For instance, this once, maybe a year ago now, your flaky craigslist wrangler. He’s there waiting for me. He’s already reeled me in with the one word. I am coming down the road, truck and trailer, am in the passenger seat, my brother-in-law at the wheel, already shaking his head. The wrangler is standing at the mouth of his back yard dirt drive in a loosely buttoned shirt and plaid shorts, rubbing an anemic beard, talking on his cellphone.
It’s my brother-in-law’s work truck and trailer we’re in. When I called he was in the midst of a day of maintenance at the yard. Dropped everything. Way too generous as often he is. The whole way we’ve been saying, How could the address be so close so reachable in such an established, midcentury suburban-like place? Could there really be barns here still on the east side of town?
It is funny now. But not quite then. When we are standing with the guy, taking in his personal, relatively modest, two-generations trash heap. In his rambling description, which is quickly becoming a rant against county tipping fees, he’s not even bothering to reference the word barn any more. And I can see plainly that the framing lumber, what there even is of it – small, undersized, non-dairy – has already been mashed up by someone’s backhoe. It’s been demo-ed, not deconstructed. There are nails everywhere in the wood, mangled and smushed, more plodding than ever they’d be to pull. There’s as much plywood as wood. And all the flower-print clothes mixed in. If anything had been salvageable, it isn’t now. It’s more nightmare now, as an artist imagining someone else’s sorry existence might present it, almost cartoonish in its flatness its utter unredeemable expired coupon-ness. As though a perennial yard sale had swallowed up the tarps that were meant to keep it dry, whirled and devoured the barn, vomited a splintery mess. Who knew how the building managed to become delapidated in twenty years time. Maybe at least in the beginning the manufactured ooze of wood particle and glue had been proud, even if a ticky tack shed.
My brother-in-law at least knew what we were looking at. He often interprets for me at these times, which are frequent, because I am often in shock at how much of our time has been lost due to the disconnect between the actual and my calculations predicting it. The guy was a cheapskate, first of all. He’d had the shed demo-ed, probably for trade with a friend, his end of the trade still as yet to be forthcoming. And he wasn’t about to pay landfill tipping fees. Instead he would be benevolent and sell his treasure cheap. Thus the transformation from smashed shed to old barn.
And when we’d talked, the cheapskate and I, he’d described the beams, every dimension he had and how many. There had been beams then! There had been joists! It’d been a gorgeous old deconstructed barn. I could see the stacks of lumber in the foreground of my mind, just off the road, by the rows of corn, the way they used to frame pastoral scenes with sweeping branches. I’d agreed to take every board. Of course I would. They were just what I needed. And he’d wasted enough of his time with the small-timers just wanting to cherry pick. Now he’d only work with someone who had a trailer, who could handle the big stuff, all of it, one fell swoop. And that person was me. I wanted it to be me.
Maybe you get a bit wiser, if you’re lucky enough, to live to duck again. You make a list of rules, each line item another hopeful logging of another mistake previously unanticipated. So Rule No. 42 – any more there have to be photos first. I don’t run off for the barn before I see the barn. Or at least some old board of it. And that board no doubt is looking gorgeous. [It is defiant and profound and soft. Easy on the eyes. A palimpsest of place in its old age and with plenty of life yet actually, plenty of good wood just beneath the surface. All its days, rains and sun imprinted finely on its skin, veil-like only despite appearances. The grain sucked and swooped, between spring and summer, the two seasons of growth pulled into small upright waves by the relative densities of the cellular structure, so that the board’s once smooth, once flat interior surface is again like an exterior low, sleek hide or bark, with contour and infinite relationship – the early wood, in spring, added quickly when the buds are luminous green, and the late wood, into early fall, added more slowly, more densely packed, and with time, emerging as the tips of the waves down the board. All this detail, even if not known, is immediately understandable, recognized at least unconsciously, and then, onced learned, comparable to the four-dimensional acrobatics of Russian Futurist theory, or whatever moments of being an educated person knows best, that might compress all time and experience into a single cookie, a madeline, for the French impressionists. Or more contemporaneously, the wanna-be Leonard Cohens of cuisine, the Anthony Bourdains and similarly adventurous knockoffs, they are enjoying a particularly authentic rib, say, at a juke joint right now. And all of existence seems to be understandable, contained by, and accessible, via each bite of rib. Or, yes, you could just as easily verify that the board is a pretty old board and quietly retrieve it.]
The other day in Cinebar, a town inside the town of Onalaska, which in itself is a town many haven’t heard of, Don, a native, had some pretty near perfect old barn boards. A family friend driving Highway 508 had seen an old falling down barn on his way home one day, not far from Mossy Rock. So he mentioned it to another old guy he’d grown up with who had some property not far from there, did he know the guy who owned the falling down barn? What’d it look like? Was red. Was there a barn that wasn’t? He didn’t know. Well, of course there were plenty. But anyway, he knew another guy, a guy Don, who’d done some work for him awhile back, lived not far from there, he’d ask him.
Don knew which falling down barn, but the guy who owned it wasn’t worth talking to. And Don had a pile of wood. He had just the thing. It was perfect. He sent me a couple photos. I was on my way. Rule No. 42 intact.
First stop the yard, where father-in-law and brother-in-law hooked me up with truck and trailer once again, generous, benevolent souls that they are. I noted the trailer tongue to the ball, the chains where and the cotter pins where, the plug for the lights and hopefully have not yet forgot. Drove in a calm state of alarm down the highway. I was constantly checking the mirrors, aligning the massive hood of the truck with the painted asphalt far below. I barely fit in my lane. Basically, the way it went, I kept a sizeable stopping distance between me and the vehicle ahead of me, and the civilians in the little cars constantly darted in front of me, absorbing and erasing my comfort zone, until I was going slightly backwards in traffic, and I began to sympathize with the truckers. I quickly developed a degree of distaste for the scads of hasty travelers in puny cars.
Around noon I rolled up. I’d been passing dreamy barns for the last half-hour. On the way home I would take photos. The best one, I would title, “On the road to Cinebar.”
The approach was a two-rut dirt lane down into valley along electrified fence. A few old trees for windbreak around the old, white clapboard house, older still. An old guy, not Don as it turned out, lumbered around the corner from an unseen door. Or maybe he hadn’t been inside. It wasn’t even clear where the front of the house was, which way it looked.
The man was pointing across a stream at a couple outbuildings and two barns.
“He’s over there, on the tractor.”
He’d get the gate for me, he said.
The cows were all moaning at the fence. I asked half-joking were they upset because of me. He laughed, no, it was the young ones, they’d been separated from their mothers the day before. They wanted their mothers. But that had passed. Now they would fend for themselves. The moaning, the man said, would go on another three days.
Don was unknown to me. And he was also like a lot of old farmers as far as I could tell. As old as he was, he was strong without showing the strength at all. Just light and firm and easy. Clear-eyed. No accent. Thoughtful without being self-referential. Simple but not corny showy country simple. Grounded, and unaware, seemingly, of time.
Don measured every board with his tape before I lugged it into the trailer. In a light rain we worked together. He did the measuring, I loaded each board, never dragging it, always setting it carefully to not muddy the marks that were already there. The moaning cow chorus went on. Working in the rain is just fine, I decided, and foolishly said aloud. And so I added caveats – for a couple hours anyway. I mean, without the hassle of power tools and so forth. Don was kind enough to not reply.
With the wood in the trailer, including an old swing door we pried from the grass, Don spent a good half-hour tallying up the board feet in a metal barn, taking his time, writing everything out with a pencil on small sheets of graph paper pulled from a ring-bound notebook.
We’d talked about trees, about milling them, about the price of wood. About Jim, the friend in common, that led to our meeting up for the buy. At one point Don mentioned an old butt of wood he’d had for years lying in one of his barns. Something I’d said made him think of. Someone had given it to him. He’d made a lot of things. From maple, with antlers and cut glass. He knew how to guess at the inside figure and grain of a tree from its outside look. He knew all the vagaries of air drying wood, how different wood responded, warped or didn’t, overhardened or didn’t. He planted a stand of redwoods twenty years ago, across the path from his grandmother’s barn. They’d grown so fast, he said. We were stopped there, outside his grandmother’s barn, had driven across the road from the first barn, and we didn’t yet know that the truck wasn’t going to start again when I cranked it over.
I reached out and touched the bark of the redwood. The only other redwoods I’d ever seen were the giants of some protected grove in California. A couple of them had been about this size, young trees, when Christ was born. It was the softest, spongiest bark I’ve ever come across.
Inside his grandmother’s barn it was already dark. The boards were all in silhouette where the openings were, between boards, to help the hay dry, years ago when there was hay. It was getting toward end of day. The barn was at least three stories high, with a good metal roof, nearly empty inside, just haphazard stacks of wood Don had milled himself, or had milled for him, from trees on his property. The butt of wood was just leaned up in there, not far from a small man door. It was a beautiful thing, dense, almost too heavy to lift. Neither of us could say what tree it might be from.
Then the truck screeched and wouldn’t start. It was the harsh sound of the starter not engaging, or of it spinning ahead of itself, making metal shavings, like when you hit the ignition when the car is already running. We poked around under the hood. We located the starter deep down, hidden away. I called my father-in-law, held my phone out in the rain. He said what Don had said. The starter wasn’t engaging. Ron said to give the solenoid, which piggybacks on the starter, a good whump. Give it three, four, five, a dozen, he said. I smiled at Don. Sometimes you really do just have to beat it with a hammer, I said.
So we did that from above, Don beat the solenoid with a stick, using it like a hammer. And when that didn’t work, Ron said to get down below, and beat it from below. So I got down in the mud on my back, with my hammer, and then I saw it, that the starter was hanging from a single bolt that was just about loosened free. The weight of the starter starting to fall free had managed to pinch the bolt and keep it there. The other two bolts, miraculously, were still there, too, dangling free, totally unthreaded, but somehow caught in the thickness of the starter housing.
It should have been an easy fix from there. But starters are like lead anvils, and never easy to put where you want them, to get the bolts threaded and going in. They’re hard enough to reach. And the bolts in this case had some oddball star-shaped heads that made any common crescent wrench or socket drive basically useless. A 3/8s socket was too small and 7/16s was too big. It was maddeningly over-complicated. I was cold. It was raining and I was on my back in the mud. The truck was dripping oily water on my face. It was end of day, getting dark. I cursed a bit finally, not wanting to, not knowing Don that well, and wanting him to like me, and at least managing to not use any of the worst, nastiest words, but swearing all the same. Don of course never lost his cool. The closest he came to saying anything remotely hot, was when he calmly, firmly in a friendly way said, come here, bugger, addressing one of the foolishly over-designed bolts. And when that didn’t work, he zipped off in his quad, a golfcart-like machine with a fabric housing covering it, for weather. He did this several times. He’d fly off in the odd, top-heavy quad to the house. He returned with another part we’d decided we needed and couldn’t find in the truck tool box and we’d give it another try. Anyone we called would end up having to do the same thing. So there was no other way but to get there.
Eventually we did, just ahead of dark. The truck fired up. Don jumped in and rode with me to a spot in the road where we could get turned around. We’d already shook hands in the metal barn, when he’d given me the two slips of graph paper with the math. You can keep these if you want, he’d said, and they felt almost gift-like. We’d said, too, earlier, after he gave me a board of maple, that when I came up with a project, maybe I’d come back, we could work something out. He told me about some alder he had, with figure like birds eye maple, only it was alder. He’d described it, but not shown me that. Maybe it was back at the house, which had turned out to be different than the old white house, which he’d been born in, but was no longer where he lived. He lived across the road, up in the fog, he said, so it may have been that the alder, too, was in the house he chose not to show me. He’d already given me the butt of wood. He said I could just have it and the wood was beautiful, just beautiful and strange and knarled and with some burl to it. We got turned around. He jumped down out of the truck and was gone.
to check out available reclaimed furniture around front at birdloft
to check out more words on wood by the same writer as above