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Essays from John Gould

October 25, 2002



We had wanted to include these John Gould columns with the special coverage that ran in Monday's Monitor (Oct. 21, pages 12-13) to honor Mr. Gould's 60 years with this newspaper. We didn't have room on the two-page spread, though, given Gould's 30-book bibliography and so many heartfelt reader comments.

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We present them here instead, starting with Gould's first "Dispatch From the Farm."

And if you missed Gould's live online "chat" Oct. 23, you can find the transcript at: www.csmonitor.com/monitortalk.

Buck-saws and Christmas trees

Oct. 21, 1942:

There is reason to believe that, if the sun came up with a derby hat on some morning, most of my neighbors would not look twice, and would hardly mention it to their wives when they came up from the barns to breakfast. Our rural community has been conditioned by several generations of whimsical folk who seem to have had a lot of fun doing things that were not a bit different from putting a bowler on Old Sol.

This facet of life on the Ridge has never been satisfactorily explained beyond our borders, possibly because we are now accustomed to it and seldom feel the need of explaining. It is true that our explanations are always as queer to strangers as the original deed, and that naturally complicates matters.

I remember when someone looked up at Wadell's one morning and discovered that Chris Wadell had painted his silo with red, white, and blue stripes, making the structure look something like a huge barber pole. The silo sat on top of the hill, and could be seen to the limits of the horizon when it was merely a subdued weather color, but now it could be heard as well as seen. Not a man in the neighborhood commented on this improvement, and it is likely Chris never expected them to. It is said that a man from Worcester, who was driving through on business, once drove in and asked Chris why he painted his silo that way.

Chris said it was to preserve the wood.

I suppose I was guilty of some such foolishness when I made my buck-saw out of black walnut. Odd jobs that had been saved for a rainy day were being disposed of, and I came to the task of making a buck-saw frame. I stood up on a barrel and poked around 'mid the bits of scrap lumber that were being seasoned over the beams. I had some ash, but thought it would cut to waste, and hesitated to use oak because buck-saws sometimes get left out in the rain, and oak will soak water like a lobster trap. I turned over a board, and found a lovely piece of black walnut. I probably originally intended to use it for a silver chest, a stand, or some similar bit of beauty. But it was quickly fashioned into a buck-saw frame, and it was a grand piece of wood to work. When I had it strung together, and filed the saw, it was still raining; so I inlaid the handle with some cherry and basswood, and carved rosettes at the top. How far I might have gone, had supper not interfered, is anyone's guess.

I was sawing wood with it a few nights later when Charlie Little wandered in to see if I wanted to buy a shoat. I laid the saw down to put another stick on the saw-horse, and Charlie picked up my buck-saw and scrutinized it. He ran his leathery thumb over the inlay, rubbed the walnut against the back of his hand, plucked a thumb-nail across a saw-tooth to test the filing, and then reached over and sawed off a stick. He handed the saw to me without comment, which indicated that the matter had his approval, if not his understanding.

But I think it did have his complete understanding, for they tell me about the time Charlie set up a Christmas tree in August. He was swamping out a road back in the woods, and came across a young fir that had a perfect shape. The limbs were evenly spaced, each had an identical amount of needles, and the top tapered off with rare beauty. Charlie had to slice it down, because it was right in the middle of his road, but he thought it was a shame to let it go to waste simply because it wasn't December.

So he brought it to the house, fashioned a standard for it, and put it up on the front piazza ablaze with lights, festooned with strings of popcorn, and adorned with a number of gaily wrapped bundles that his wife fixed. It was a vision, and the family would sit out on the piazza in the cool of the evening and enjoy it. Neighbors who dropped in to sit would greet the Littles with, "Merry Christmas!" but that's about all the comment there was. . . .

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