Saturday, March 24, 2012

The ice monster cometh

OK, so I know I oughta quit tempting fate by writing about how mild this winter has been. We even went s far as to bring out the plastic rain gauge, stored inside during the winter so it wouldn't freeze and crack. What could go wrong? Two hours later, a ferocious hail storm with ice pellets the size of Buicks -- well, ok, not that big, but certainly faster -- knocked the thing to bits,
 So here, without further commentary, are a few pictures of early spring in the Blue Ridge:

From the springhouse to the asparagus patch

Last fall the springhouse seemed about to run dry; there was but a small puddle in the little catch basin at the rear of the springhouse that Hal Strickland had poured to trap sweet springwater that collected from seeps and springs near the foot of a steep hill.  One reason I thought the thing was drying up is that the 200-foot hose supplying the tap on a wooden sink down by the garden had quit flowing. But it was just running a little slow and low.

Some weeks ago I realized there was plenty of water in the springhouse; and began a ritual of early spring: trying to find out where the water hose was stopped up. Last year it took four days before I finally hauled a pressure tank down there and blew the line out with a blast of 100 psi air and got the H2O rolling again. 

This year I couldn't figure it out. When I poured water into a funnel stuck in the water intake line up at the springhouse, the water spiraled out quickly. But the far end of the line down by the garden gave out nothing.  The mid-run break in the line, deliberately cut so we could easily connect and disconnect it around a copper bushing, was intact. Where was the water going?

It finally dawned on me yesterday that a crumbling concrete catch basin just outside the springhouse -- built at least half a century ago by a former owner in hopes of collecting water from other little springs in the immediate vicinity -- might be part of the problem. I pulled off layers of old grass and rubble and hardware cloth and crumbling concrete mixed with field stone -- and found another place where the half-inch black plastic line had been cut and equipped with a bushing to reconnect it. In this case the feed line was separated from the rest of the hose, and water was bubbling merrily away into the mud. 

Then I remembered a warm day early last fall, just before I noticed the line had stopped flowing, I had been cutting weeds around the springhouse and had felt the earth give way in a couple places. That was probably me stepping on the unseen line, hidden by high grass and mud, just hard enough to uncouple the line, stop the flow to the sink, and leave me with a a six-month mystery to solve.  

It was a joyous moment to reconnect it all, turn the tap on the old wooden trough and see that water flowing strong and clear once again.

Thence to the asparagus patch.  Usually we clean off the old patch -- planted decades ago on the site of what once was a small dairy barn -- sometime in April. Fran Strickland usually supervises, whacking away at each base of the old asparagus ferns after the garden was let go to seed the previous June. But this was my first good look at it since a recent trip down to Western North Carolina -- and I was horrified to see asparagus was already coming up among the rattly old dried-out fern stalks.  Well, ok, not a lot of asparagus.  Two stalks, actually, but one of them was 1/2 inch thick and 21 inches high.  The other was thinner than a Palomino pencil, but nearly 12 inches high.

So we did it the non-cowboy way. Instead of whacking off each stalk of dessicated fernery, I got out the mulching mower and laid waste to it all in about a dozen passes.  The air was full of dried stuff, brown dirt, muffled oaths, and bits and pieces of the mob of invasive raspberry bushes that have been moving into the neighborhood, intent on controlling the asparagus business.

 This is not the proper way to clear an asparagus field, but the weather forecasters were predicting a soaking Saturday rain and more on Sunday, and we decided emergency measure were in order.  I fired up the old Toro and mowed the fencelines outside the patch and inside the patch and knocked down everything that looked like it could take a rotary blade.  Even mowed a rock or two, which made an awful noise, but in an hour or so a job that usually takes a couple days was done. Or more or less done.

As I look out my window through the fog and rain toward the asparagus patch, I can almost see hundreds of asparagus spears, fattened by the heavy rain and encouraged by the unseasonably warm temps of the past few weeks, pushing  their knobby green periscopes toward the surface and emerging to scan the landscape.  I can just about taste 'em, too.

Friday, March 16, 2012

What I saw on the wall

On the walls of the den in the house in Raleigh where we lived for nearly 34 years were hundreds of little holes where I banged in nails and tacks and screwed in hooks and stobs to hold an ever-growing army of old tools.  Some had come from my grandfather's home in South Carolina, some from my granddad in Greensboro.  Most had come, one by one, from antique shops and junk shops and yard sales over the years.  One lovely box of tools -- the box itself a work of the cabinetmaker's art -- came from a neighbor up the street who was looking for a place to put his father-in-law's tools. 

Most of these old tools collected dust for years.  There were decorations of sorts, especially the pieces with ornate lines on them or shiny brass parts -- the old boxwood rulers, hanging scales, fancy thumb screws on planes and the like. I rarely used anything more than some of the old hammers that hung over the hearth, or a curious oval-handled set of screwdrivers that must have come off the designer's table accompanied by smiles and nods of heads.  Mostly I looked at them, and thought about the work they might have done in their primes.

Up in one corner out of reach was an old backsaw, a short saw that would have been used to cut tenons for drawer corners and carcase joinery.  I was attracted by the handle, something close to a work of art, but it was rusty, a little bent and didn't look like it would stand much hard work.  I can't remember ever giving it a job to do, until now.

I'm building shelves in the great room, fitting them into the spaces between the heavy beams the timberwrights put up to hold the house upright.  The beams are white pine, held together with big wooden pegs where the pieces are morticed and tenoned together.  The pegs -- some call them "trunnels", short for "tree nails" --are vital parts of the structure, holding the beams tight.  There's not a nail or screw in any part of the timberframe that I'm aware of.

Well, there are now, because I'm building these bookshelves and cabinets board by board as they go up, fitting and fixing with finish nails each piece one at a time because the dimensions are, um, subject to change.  One beam might be a degree or two off square; the wallboard behind it might be a bit off the bubble, the floor beneath it might have an interesting pattern all its own. I'm used to these variations in old houses we have fixed up, but finding them in a new house was a revelation. My father-in-law once told me the secret to good carpentry was knowing how to hide your mistakes.  I'm relearning that lesson every day.

My shelves are 8 inches wide -- the nominal width of the southern yellow pine I got from a mill down in Chatham County, N.C. a few years ago.  This really means the shelves are 7 1/4 inches wide, after milling and shrinkage and whatever other trade reasons there are for supplying lumber that is not exactly what it is said to be.  And at that width, the shelving boards have to occupy space where the original occupants are those big pine pegs, which the builders left with an inch or so still protruding from the beams so all can admire the joinery. 

There are any number of ways to remove those pegs, even on a finished beam.  A chisel could be used to cut them off. Or an axe -- one of the worst methods.  I've been cutting these off with the a backsaw, which lets me saw nearly flush with the upright beams. It's a job I've finally given to that old backsaw and to another old saw that some woodwrights call a gent's saw. Both of them have thin blades, which let me get close to the beams without leaving much of a tool mark on the surrounding surface.

The backsaw with the pretty handle was made in Sheffield, England sometime during the 19th century by J&I Taylor. Stamped below the maker's mark is the phrase "German Steel."  I'm told the Taylor saw works on Lawson Street in Sheffield was not one of the top-notch sawmakers, nor was German Steel some of the best steel.  The Taylor saw handles evidently have a reputation for moving about, attached as they are with just two screws.  Saw collectors and tool enthusiasts appear to have little regard for the Taylor Brother's quality.

But their saw, perhaps a century and a half after its manufacture, has done the job that had to be done. Those pegs are now flush with the surface of the beams they hold together, and evidence of their existence is disappearing behind the shelves and the stiles and rails that will serve as the trim, hiding the gaps and the flaws and the occasional scrapes where the backsaw dug into the wood.

Most of my old woodworking tools now sit in boxes, banished from our walls and awaiting their fate.  When the shelves are done, they'll fill up with books hauled up from the Piedmont, family pictures looking for a place to stand and the occasional knickknack from some place or other. I'm thinking of giving the old backsaw a place on a shelf, maybe up high in a corner again, where it can stay handy just in case.  You never know when something needs to be taken down a peg or two.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gardening in the snow

Snowing sideways off and on today as the sun and the clouds battle it out. First it will snow so hard it looks as though you're in a cloud; moments later the sun will break through and the thin patina of white on the ground and deck just fades away.  We're looking for a snowbow; from where I sit in the second-floor writery, to the south it's a murky dazzle of blowing wisps of snow glazed by the winter sun as it ebbs and flows; to the north, I see clearly gray clouds hyphenated by patches of blue -- what deepwater sailors used to call Dutchman's Britches.  Beats all I ever saw.

My friend Barnie Day, who lives up the road a couple miles, has warned me about the futility of planting a garden too soon, and I know he's right. There are years when we wait until after mid-May to put tomatoes in, and still wind up replanting in June after the occasional cold spell. It's probably even too early to begin thinking about gardens, and never mind the seed catalogs that arrived in the mailbox the other day.

Still, our long-range plan calls for converting the garden in the bottom down by the creek into raised beds.  We've got a ton or so of leftover 2x12 and 2x10 floor joists from the log home that once stood here, and I toted some 8- and 4-footers down to the garden last week. Sunday afternoon I got out long screws and galvanized nails to knock them together. It was a lovely day: overcast, wind scudding along at about 20 knots, white caps on the leaky pond, and about the time I got down there I saw the first thin flakes of snow.

It never amounted to anything, but I'll tell you what right now: It's hard to screw in a three-inch Torx drive deck screw for a garden box when your teeth are chattering away like a teletype machine and tiny but determined flakes of snow swarm all around you, and you're laughing at the absurdity of it all.  But two 8x4 raised bed boxes are together now and awaiting loads of soil.  And I was mighty glad I had cut only enough materials for two boxes.  I high-tailed it back to the Rocky Knob Tractor and Yacht Club and took up residence near the wood stove, a glass of amber-colored snakebite medicine in hand, and once again gave silent thanks that it doesn't snow inside.