Native Wood Notes


A NEW JERSEY community was lately obliged to dig up one of its earliest water mains, the capacity of which had been outgrown by the population. It proved to be in prime shape and good for indeterminably many more seasons. Until that inspection no one had had occasion to set eyes on any part of the line for a hundred and five years. It was made of native oak.

There is hardly a week of the calendar but brings to my notice some similar circumstance touching on the longevity of wood rightly used; and whenever I stumble on one of these evidences I find myself involved in the same old emotional tug-of-war. On one side is an upleap of the heart such as Wordsworth felt when he saw a rainbow. On the other side is a tempered melancholy, an emptiness not quite poignant, of the sort that the Roman poets seem to have meant when they invoked the magically fine word desiderium — one of the atmospheric words that translators always make say not quite enough or a suspicion too much.

My thrill, you will understand, is for the wood itself. Wood is a substance for which I harbor sentiments fanatically partisan and verging, I am assured, on monomania. Indeed, if I were ever to write my autobiography I might do worse than to call it Memoirs of a Dendrophile. My melancholy, on the other hand, has not this touch of the impersonal. It is in behalf of a grandfather of mine — the one from whom I seem to have caught, well before I can remember, my queer unmodern obsession. Let me but hear that anything made of wood has given a particularly fine account of itself, and I feel almost the same glow as if one of my immediate family had earned some great triumph and recognition. But this response is no more automatic than the twinge of remembering that my grandfather is now not here to share the triumph. That is a feeble, not to say a false, way of putting it; the triumph would have been his, and I the humble sharer on sufferance. For he had a unique, an uncontested right to all data bearing on the superior dignity of wood, and twenty years have not begun to abate the strangeness, the shock, of finding that oak and maple can still prove their worth without his blessing or even his leave. To that man of indomitable prejudices and crotchets an oaken water main still sound after a hundred and five years in the earth would have been meat and drink. It would have been sugar in his tea, powder in his horn, and above all a thundering lay sermon in his mouth.

For better than half a century my grandfather spouted his lay sermons — and, as a sort of obbligato to them, built his wagons — in a long, low-eaved, barnred shop by the millpond that supplied his water power. The nucleus of the shop had been originally a district schoolhouse. Under his proprietorship it became the chief editorial forum of a sparsely inhabited countryside, and some who had begun their life’s learning there as infants rounded it off as octogenarians. The owner made it a social equivalent of the country general store of tradition. Lacking a row of cracker barrels for the convenience of attendant sages and fools, it afforded plenty of massive wheel hubs, partly turned, that he had rejected for flaws not visible to other critics. He had a comprehensive set of enthusiasms and prejudices and no gift for reticence about any of them. From theology, politics, and the modern (1860-1910) decay of manners, morals, workmanship, schools, tools, and conscience, the talk would range up, down, and sideways. But the times when the old gentleman really let himself go, really pushed himself and his noteworthy command of language to the cracking point, arrived when some hubsitter, perhaps by inadvertence but more likely with malice aforethought, uttered a hint of the abominable new heresy that iron is a perdurable substance as compared with mere perishable wood.

My grandfather’s free fantasia on this subject stopped his work dead. On most topics he could wreak himself without missing more than an occasional stroke of plane or chisel. But the integrity of wood was a subject to which he had to give himself up bodily, as a knight-errant to the service of his lady; and if there happened to be a wheelwright’s mallet in his hand he used it to sink home his syllables with smart little taps upon empty air, as if every word were a tenon being driven into its mortise.

He would cite the fact, well known to his hearers, that no man was ever called upon to undertake repairs or replacements on anything of a well-built wagon but its bolts, tires, springs, and axles — its ironwork. From a tart, pitying little dissertation on rust and fatigue of metal he would proceed to more recondite facts picked up in his reading; for instance, the discovery of steel I-beams crumbling in some obscure form of electrolytic decay after a mere twenty years in a city office building. Presently, by an insensible transition, he would be hymning the glories of oak; and in the end he always got around to his standard rhetorical challenge. He offered to set two vehicles side by side in the open field by his shop, there to be exposed on equal terms to all winds and weathers for five years — twenty — as long as you liked. One was to be the newest, shiniest, costliest allmetal automobile ever produced for shipment f.o.b. Detroit. The other was to be an oak wagon of his own building — for good measure, make it the oldest, most paintless, worst abused to be raised in the whole county. Watch the two long enough, and what would you see in the end? Why, you would see the ancient wagon creaking off to the dump with the worthless remains of the automobile aboard — if any of the remains would still hold together to load.


From farther back than I remember, I was welcome to the edge of his circularsaw table whenever the saw was not running. The mealy oak sawdust underneath— and don’t I smell it now! — took endless kneading from my bare toes in summer, and in winter it worked through the eyelets of my boots into my stockings, into my very skin. Every November, in the bushels of flaky oak chips under the turning-lathe, I fished with a magnet until I had isolated a halfpint bottle of the iron filings my girl cousins would throw by small pinches into the blazing parlor fire on Thanksgiving night. To them this collection meant a handsome miniature display of fireworks, but to me it was principally an excuse for hours spent in the shop with the flattering sensation of being, for once, as legitimately busy there as its proprietor, the object of all the hero worship of which I was then capable.

As a bigger boy, and presently as a man grown, I was convinced that my grandfather would pursue me all my days. At length, belatedly, I began to perceive that this was divining the truth wrong end to. Rather, it was my lot in life to pursue him, if but haltingly and stumblingly, from far in the dusty rear. By some unique virtuosity of personal touch my mother’s father drove tenon into mortise in such a way that the fit would actually tighten with years and use. So, exactly, he seems to have driven various of his rudiments into the young scatterbrain who was his grandson — and none more tenaciously than his master passion, the affinity that made habitual close contact with wood a basic sensual need.

Observe, in one comparatively trivial example, how a life can be shaped by unconscious surrender to this species of obscure and remote control: —

Some years ago my wife and I, wishing to twist a mechanical necessity into an educational opportunity, drove across the northern United States by a route expressly planned to traverse as much as could be of the America that lives off the beaten tracks. The journey, one commonly finished in 3500 miles and little over a week, cost us a hundred days and 10,000 miles. The trip did, to be sure, enormously expand our information and reenforce some of our longstanding convictions about an America hardly more familiar than Turkestan to most of the folk who provide us with news, novels, laws, economic and social generalizations, and pat theories about What This Country Really Needs. In the sense of accomplishing what we asked and more, the enterprise was a great success, a stirring moral adventure.

The bare facts of our itinerary — the points visited, the sequence of passages through which we dawdled, stopped altogether for days at a time, or zoomed like a projectile — made it. plain as the sunrise that we had ridden three on a seat, and that the unacknowledged third, our invisible guide, w’as a man who had actually never ridden in a motorcar and in the flesh had rarely undertaken a journey as long as the seven-mile one to the place of his burial. Our behavior was strictly that of persons who, whether or not they knew it, had set out to assemble a collection of forests, an anthology of timber. My grandfather had escort ed us, with the calm proprietary interest that was characteristic of him, from one to another and another of the places where the life and livelihood of Forgotten America are inextricably dependent on the lives, the uses, of trees.

From lingering as long as we dared under the high-altitude sequoias we had fled as fast as we dared to where, straight across California, the dark live-oak forests go down to Monterey Bay. There we had lingered again; and again, longer, in the Humboldt County groves of Sequoia sempervirens; and still again in stretches where the woodlands of Oregon mimic those of many a Maine headland (but strangely reversed as by a mirror, with the sun rising where it should set), and where the very barns of the Mainelike farmsteads are built of the forest laid down horizontally upon itself — vast log barns, surely among the world’s handsomest. It had taken all the resolution we could muster to tear ourselves away from the region of Gray’s Harbor, where on one side the forest comes down from the mountains as gigantic logs and on the other side goes out across the harbor bar as immense cargoes of building materials for the treeless places, or as spars, or as small vessels for the arduous deep-sea fishing of those waters. Along sawmill docks we sat for hours on stacks of twelve-by-sixteen structural timbers eighty feet, long, watching everything from their like down to bundles of lath disappear into freighters and the cargo spaces of liners. For miles in everj^ direction the air was spiced with the smell of new-sawn lumber, and with this the incense of slab wood was blended by every chimney — even the chimneys of the mills, for they fueled their operations with the waste produced thereby.

And some days later, in passes of the Cascades, we found ourselves crawling up interminable slopes and speeding recklessly down others in the wake of the trailer trucks that haul the forest from mountain logging camps to railroad level, a single vast trunk at a time. Each one a whole procession in itself, these trucks are formidable contraptions to pass; but what kept us behind them for miles on end, where the local motorist seized the first precarious chance to shoot by, was not terror, but awe. We knew our place in relation to a tree whose crash had lately shaken square miles of earth and on whose stump yoked oxen could have turned with room to spare. It was the place of the uninvited stranger who falls in with the funeral escort of a great and famous man.

Through the magnificent hardwood forests of Michigan and all the way to the hackmatacks that droop their tips eastward upon Penobscot Bay it was the same. Where trees were many and splendid, or their uses vital, we dallied; where trees were few or scrawny we traveled as fast as machinery and nerves would stand. The one breach of our vow not to drive after sunset occurred when we ran on by headlight for a hundred miles to set up our tepee by a lake that someone had described as having one forested shore. We made a long digression to see the Lake of the Woods — and later realized that what had fetched us so far was simply the spell of its name.

And the great surprise of our trip, the one startling and memorable discovery? It was simply this: that in hundreds of thousands of square miles of the United States, outside the towns, the standard form of new domestic architecture — indeed, in many regions the sole feasible form — is still the house made directly from the forest, with axe rather than saw: the house of logs peeled or un peeled, left round or hewn square. We had had the delusion that the log cabin of history was already long extinct save for a few mouldering relics and the deliberately quaint imitations affected by some for hot-dog stands or hunting lodges. Many years of open-minded and omnivorous reading had done exactly nothing to undermine that delusion — a strange commentary on the sources of public information about our own country. The solid fact is that from Oregon to Michigan and thence on through a broad rural belt of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and even New York State, the building of log cabins is about as nearly extinct as rain, sunshine, or the English sparrow.

It seems that the inherited smattering of my grandfather’s primal instinct — the instinct of a man who, if you had set him down blindfolded in the middle of the Sahara, would have found his way without a wasted step to the nearest oasis of shade — is a better guide to at least one of the major American realities than a fairly exhaustive course of reading among the professional purveyors of information about them.


Speaking as a New Englander, — and I could more sensibly try to speak as a Martian than as any other than the Northeastern kind of American, — I am able to report few mental readjustments more curious or interesting than that of the Easterner to the scale of his native forests after exposure to the awful gigantism of Western trees. In a typical stand of the sugar pine or of either sequoia he experiences one of the few great selfless emotions left to modern man — but not without the mournful afterthought that the biggest trees he has ever before venerated have been reduced forever to pitiful, inconceivably trifling weeds. In one particular he is dead wrong. It is not forever, but only for hours. As he returns east ward the lesion in his brain is somehow repaired. Hereditary definitions and assumptions gradually reassert themselves. By the time he has crossed the treeless plains and got to, say, the virgin hardwood areas of northern Michigan, an Eastern white oak or rock maple seems as grand as ever.

Not long after our return I had to transfer an old random-width pine floor from the open attic to the living room of a Vermont mill-brick house of 1813. One of the boards was twenty-seven inches wide and twenty-two feet long. Standing in contemplation for a moment at the foot of the tree that had given it a century and a quarter before, I found both the tree and the emotion rather enhanced than extinguished by all I had seen and felt in hours of gazing aloft from the root level of sempervirens and gigantea.1

Go back only forty years more, and you are in the period when the northcountry town charters authorized by George III reserved ‘unto us, our heirs and successors for ever, all white and other sorts of Pine Trees fit for Masts, of the growth of twenty-four inches diameter and upwards at twelve inches from the earth, for Masts of the Royal Navy of us, our heirs and successors.’ Escorting these ‘sticks’ down the Connecticut to tidewater was a trade, or a vacation from trades, at which most hardy Northern men had at least one fling in their youth. When the same men began to look to themselves for their authorization, they sometimes felled trees in the interest, not of the British navy, but of the French. Shortly after the Revolution an Orange County pine spar forty inches in diameter and a hundred and sixteen feet long was worth to the French something under twenty dollars, f.o.b. Connecticut River. By some such measure, in this part of the world, bigness in trees has been reckoned for a good while past.

It is a measure based partly, of course, on the number of men and oxen that had to be mustered to put such a timber where it was wanted; also, no doubt, on the ‘violent agitation’ into which, we arc told, its plunge threw the Connecticut at one of those very popular social events known as logrollings. But the final justification of our puny Eastern scale is the fact that such dimensions represent all the tree that eye and mind can take in from a position near enough for an overwhelming sensory experience. Multiply the size of the tree, and at once you find yourself trying to overcome your natural incredulity by remote, intellectual, comparative, and statistical devices — the number of freight cars the lumber would load or the size of the gilt ball you would have to put on top if you made the stem into a flagpole. As a living tree it is no longer an experience, but rather a succession of experiences — somewhat in the way of a parade several miles long — and ultimately a crick in the neck. One small fraction of it is an eyeful, and to see it as a whole you must get so far away that you simply reduce it to the common size. Thus, one of our big New England trees — such elms, say, as those the Autocrat used to travel far to see and slip his ‘wedding ring’ around, or such a one as, after the big wind of 1938, was translated into twenty-seven cords of stacked firewood down in Windsor County — may be statistically trifling, but it exhausts the capacity for visual wonder. To feel the stupefaction produced by a sequoia is to be bullied and browbeaten by astronomical figures, symbols on paper; whereas your response to an uncommonly fine beech or birch, maple or oak, is an affair of direct communion with the tree itself. Filling your actual sky, it fills your mind — which, after all, no immensity can crowd fuller than full.

But even if the sense of magnitude in trees were starved in our corner of the continent, the sense of beauty in wood could scarcely fail to be full-fed. The splitting of firewood is not, I believe, among the proverbially high-ranking Eesthetic experiences, but I for one should be at a sad loss without a generous allowance of it. A tolerably good hand with the splitting axe, I nevertheless contrive to take more time to work up less wood than the most bungling tyro could expend without feeling sheepish. The reason is that after every three or four strokes I find myself going into a brown study over something in the pattern my axe has just laid open. It may be the fine satin striping of maple athwart the grain, delicate as a watermark and changing as startlingly as shot silk when I turn it this way and that to the light. It may be the glinting brown flecks in beech, daintier than the speckles of an egg. Often it is the total construction of what is called a knot — very aptly and eloquently called, too, for m the fully matured knots of our hardwoods the tendons of growth are twisted and braided together with an ingenious neatness entirely comparable to that of a good splice, and suggesting that the race may just possibly have got from this source the original notion of the knot, hitch, or bend. And yet a sharp axe in able hands will untie the most obstinate and involved of these knots. Indeed, the so-called unsplittables often make the best, most long-lasting firewood once you have got them dissected, somewhat as the bent nail does the firmest holding.


To be a passionate dendrophile in the age of steel, the age of chromium, does not entail being quite so homeless in the latter-day world as might be assumed offhand. The great consideration, for a person such as my grandfather’s grandson, is a very simple one: to live in the right place. For this there is a roughand-ready definition. The right place is any region in which seasoned native wood is the fuel automatically accepted by practically everybody for cooking and heating; in which the woodshed roof is by hook or crook kept tight though the house roof leak like a sieve; or, to put it in still another way, a region in which giving short measure in a sale of cordwood is a Grade A felony with serious penalties that are actually enforced. And this, in the general longitude of the Connecticut River, is no insignificant area. It reaches from well below the Massachusetts line to the northward limit of tree growth, and it is a good deal broader than it is long. Splitting and stacking stove lengths of rock maple, silver birch, and beech, I am, then, rather far from having to think of myself as an eccentric lone survivor from some ruder, more primitive epoch, or as the last pigheaded swimmer against an irresistible current of modern improvements. On the contrary, I am a participant in an unvarying ritual, a member of a close communion.

Inside the open doors of woodsheds from the Berkshires to the Laurentians, from far beyond the Adirondacks to Penobscot Bay and Passamaquoddy and Newfoundland, men are doing exactly what I do, and with essentially the same motions. Moreover, they are doing it with feelings that I share, from knowledge of which I humbly partake, among mingled smells that are a voluptuary’s delight. All of us can helve and grind and whet an axe as well as swing one. (For that matter, we file and set our saws.) All of us perceive, by an instinct swifter than analytical thought, that one chunk is to be attacked from the bark, another from the larger end or the smaller; that this knot is unsplittable if hit more than a frog’s eyelash from a certain line; that one billet will split clean either way of the grain, another hang splinter-bound unless struck on a line passing through the heart. All of us have an assortment of ironwood seasoning in our lofts for future tool handles. The very governor of our state — a man who grows trees for a living — remembers going into the woods with his father to scout for birches with the right curve for sled runners, and for ironwood to shoe them. (There is such a sled, older than the governor, on the place where I have the happiness to live. In many a February it has brought from the wood lot the fourand five-foot lengths stacked in October, and I dare say it will do the same in many a February more.) All of us make an identical grimace when we overreach with the axe, or miss our aim by a lateral quarterinch, or (once in a cord) get the bright blade ignominiously locked in a vise-like knot. When the city fellow in our midst stands a chunk on its end and whales away at it with two-handed main strength and awkwardness, our involuntary covert smile speaks for no mere individual savoir-faire, but for a race, a tradition, a vast community. Likewise impersonal, communal, is our wince when the stroke lays open the overgrown, blackened hole bored in some long-ago March for a sap spout; since September of 1938 we resurrect dishearteningly many of these buried hollows, some of them going back a lifetime to a period when sap spouts themselves were of wood and twice their present bore.

The quaint and conspicuous person in these parts, the out-of-step alien, is the devotee of modern improvements, the householder who depends on canned gas or electricity, the lazy or improvident fellow who cozens himself into imagining the meals from a kerosene burner to be half so good as those turned out by hardwood kept for a year or two under cover. They, not we, are out of touch with the prevailing culture.

In Yankee Notions there is a bewildered farmer who says to view-hunting tourists under Mount Mansfield, ‘Why, I’ve lived here forty year and ain’t never seen no scenery,’ but you may rely upon it that even he, or especially he, seeing his chimney’s breath racing across the snow, is aware of it through a blur, as if a little of it had got into his eyes; and if you were to read him the lines of Kipling that speak of smelling wood smoke at twilight, this crass person would be likelier than not to say, ‘Now, that’s what I call poetry, that is.’

One of the most interesting of my neighbors is a mill that manufactures, largely with automatic machinery, the hardwood bobbins used by textile establishments farther south. You would say, to watch the processes and the workers, that there is about as much sentiment involved as in the production of link sausages and that no men ever took a more purely utilitarian attitude toward their materials. But wait a minute. Someone in the finishing room generally gives the visitor — especially if there is a child along — two or three samples of bobbins. And every such sample, apparently fished at random out of an immense basketful, turns out to be unique arid a showpiece — an exquisite specimen, say, of curly or bird’s-eye maple that instantly sets you wondering where you will ever find a piece worthy to serve as the base of the table lamp of which it will be the standard.

Wood is a substance that in one shape and another speaks gratefully to all five of the senses — have you ever smelled a fresh saw-cut in green tamarack or driven your axe into a root of the black birch? — and something about it shapes the habit and deeply colors the thought of its lifelong user, though he use it only to burn. Perhaps the reason has something to do with the defiant individualism of trees. For in wood there is no identity, no duplication, any more than there is in human fingerprints. The routine worker on metal can treat a given standardized part as if it were for all practical purposes the same part repeated ad infinitum, but with wood it is not so. No two pieces, no two square inches of the same piece, will saw alike, split alike, bore alike, warp, shrink, and wear alike, or — if you have eyes to see — look alike. (Never play dominoes with a set in the ‘natural’ finish: in twenty minutes the opponent with an eye for wood will know every piece by its back, as if it were a marked card.) In this, wood is pretty much like people; and I have sometimes thought, or fancied, that those with the patience to understand the infinite variety of wood and to allow for its limitations are likely to develop the deepest, ripest comprehension of their own species, too.

But perhaps in this I am merely being, once more, the idolatrous grandson of my grandfather, in whom the two gifts of workmanship in wood and wisdom in the ways of men seemed not only eminent but also indistinguishable. Of the thousand postures in which my inner eye can hardly fail to see him as long as I live, none is more characteristic than that of his final inspection of every scrap of oak that was to go into one of his wagons. The piece is already ‘finished,’ not in the mere self-respecting carpenter’s sense, but in the cabinetmaker’s. All faces — and especially the ones that will never be seen again — are sanded to the rich lustre of old satin. Surfaces that are to be in contact are prepared to fit as machined, micrometered metal parts do. And now, at last, he holds up the piece to one of the north windows over his bench. He sights along it toward the light, giving every one of its six faces an interminable inspection, first lengthwise, then crosswise. It is not enough to say that he examines every surface by the square inch: his squinting regard X-rays the invisible grain until he knows exactly how it runs throughout the three dimensions. If there is a hidden eccentricity — be sure that, at this late stage, there will be nothing so outrageous as a flaw — those eyes will worm out its secret; or if the eyes do not, the fingers will, for he passes them delicately along and across every part of the wood and presently tries the balance this way and that. You would swear that he is straining every faculty to persuade himself, not that the beloved material will ‘do,’ but that it won’t.

When those kind, severe eyes rest for even an absent-minded glance on a bit of human material, whether the awed grandson or one of his elders and betters, the object of the regard becomes intensely conscious of his own limitations, his hidden flaws in the grain, and experiences a sudden wonder whether he will ever quite ‘do.’ And yet all of us keep coming to him. We come from far and stay long. The grandson spends no hour anywhere else that he can spend there. The man with a saw to be filed starts before a winter’s dawn and walks seven lonely miles with his lunch pail, rather hoping that my grandfather will not get around to the saw until toward dusk. Those who, in summer, fish his pond for pickerel always turn up by mid-afternoon in the shop, and their visits overlap the visits of others who have come early with thoughts of a string of horn pout after dusk. The winter fisherman, as soon as he has cut his holes and set his red flannel signals, uses the back window of the shop as a convenient lookout. Ostensibly he is there for the warmth of the chunk-stove. But everyone knows that, with or without pickerel, he will go home t he richer by a string of my grandfather’s Dickensian characters, together with smatterings of a liberal education in the curiously overlapping natures of wood and of men.


In 1872 my grandfather built, a farm wagon for the owner of a gristmill at the next power site down the valley. In the ‘80’s the mill ceased to flourish, in the ‘90’s it ceased to run, and in the 1900’s a freshet washed out the neglected dam. The widowed owner lived unkemptly in one room with the pack of rangy hounds he used for fox-hunting. Every autumn he got out his fox-pelt money and drove to a depot six miles away to haul the two tons of coal he would need for his continuous winter fire; and this was about his only latterday use of the wagon, unpainted for a quarter-century and as unkempt as himself — though, being made of more durable materials, it was not so brokendown. For years, off and on, my grandfather had been warning him about the loose, clanking tires.

For the enlightenment of a generation little familiar with the craft of the wheelwright it should perhaps be explained that the rim of a wheel, to which the tire is bolted at intervals, is made up of two semicircular felloes driven on to the ends of the spokes and meeting to form together the perfect round. The integrity of the wheel depends ultimately on the flat steel tire, which, fitted on scorching hot from the forge, contracts with cooling and draws felloes, spokes, and hub into a rigid unit without play. If a tire loosened by age and wear is not replaced or reset, it will crawl on the rim and presently shear off the bolts, and the whole wheel, having shed its tire, must quickly collapse into its parts.

Old John the ex-miller, hauling his 1912 coal in the neglected wagon of 1872, had got within a mile of home when he was stopped short by something just ahead. It was a tire leaning against a roadside bush — a sight nearly as arresting to his era as that of a car upside down in a ditch is to ours. An incredulous glance at his off rear wheel showed him that the tire was his own. He had parted company with it near the start of his trip. By the time he pulled into my grandfather’s dooryard, with the recovered hoop t ossed on top of his load, that wheel had traveled just short of eleven miles on the naked felloes. And it still turned without a wobble; it was still a wheel.

But for the testimony of the wood itself, gouged and ridged by friction with stony miles, the maker would not have believed that any wooden wheel ever put together by mortal hands — let alone an abused forty-year-old one — could do a half or a quarter of what this wheel had done and still roll home with one splinter hanging to another. His life’s obsession promptly reasserted itself and made him put down what had occurred to the sole glory of white oak. He was, in fact, a little abashed by the discovery that fifty years of the closest association had still not quite cured him of underestimating the potentialities of Quercus alba. His superlative workmanship did not rank in his mind as mastery of the materials he used, but rather as subservience to them. His fidelity to the inherent exactions of oak simply left the wood free to be, in the specific form of a wheel, itself.

It falls to the lot of his only grandson to work in another sort of raw material, and to know only as an envious amateur may the stuff that was to him both livelihood and life. Have I ever turned a sentence as well as he turned the poorest of his hubs? If I have, will anyone ever know it? All it is allowable to hope is that I do not work quite without the inner promptings of his kind of fidelity. In accomplishment I may lag to the end behind him. But at least there can be for me the one irreversible direction — his; there can be a certainty that the unnameable, unattainable goal is the same for all who keep the faith, in whatever medium they labor. A man does not like to believe that he has learned nothing from the one hero of his youth, or nothing more than a sentimental and literary appreciation. It is not necessary to the worker in words to believe that any sequence of paragraphs of his making can ever run so smoothly as one of my grandfather’s wheels, or hold together so indestructibly against time’s wear and tear. It is necessary for one such worker to trust that he has set his face, and not his back, toward the general notion of rectitude that underlay his grand father’s workmanship.

There are many attempted definitions of the quintessential New Englander, some of them flattering and some contumelious. Here is one more, which is perhaps neither: The New Englander is a fellow who spends his life just faintly hoping that he may live long enough to catch up with his grandfather.

  1. Note for collectors and conservationists: About 1800 a large Windsor County attic was floored from a pile of such heroic boards stacked uuder the eaves at one edge. When the floorers got to the end of headroom they built a latluand-plaster partition, sealing in the breast-high remnant of the pile; and there it lies today, visible by flashlight through one knothole in a clothes closet, but never to be removed by any means short of destroying the partition or tearing out the end of a gable. — AUTHOR