Friday, October 16, 2009

Mending Wall

“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out”

--Robert Frost

Both my parents were children of the last century’s Great Depression. They were also high-school dropouts who eloped at age 17 and somehow managed to raise four boys. They did it mostly by hard work and thrift—and some luck. How could I, their oldest, born on my father’s 18th birthday (and just one week after my mother’s), not have inherited these traits?

I know luck isn’t a trait, but reckless optimism is. I know I should have stayed off my broken leg, but I couldn’t help myself. X-rays said the fibula was knitting back together just fine, but the doctor said I wasn’t out of the woods. It was the atrophied sinew and muscle that would soon complain.

Still, I needed to do something after two months of near-zero physical activity, so a few days before visiting Giovanni, I began harvesting brick from the debris pile left by the demolition of the old stone shack at our house building site. Like the sharecroppers and contadini before me, I was obsessed with saving every stone, brick, and piece of baling wire for reuse. Because of the fossil fuel required to make and transport brick, this isn’t just thrifty, it’s the greenest kind of recycling

Above are the half of the salvaged brick that did not get incorporated in the new house. I pulled them from the floor of the ox stall in the old capanna (shack) before it was demolished, and gave myself tennis elbow chiseling the mortar off. That’s almost healed, but now I needed more brick to pave the terrace outside our back door.

Part packrat, archeologist, treasure hunter, and a guy wanting exercise, I pulled these precious ingots of terracotta from the rubble that would have otherwise been covered with more earth and forgotten. But bricks and stones were only part of the treasure I’d soon discover under the rubble.

The Japanese have a concept called wabi-sabi. It translates as serenity and rust and involves a reverence for the residue of history inherent in used objects. Wabi-sabi says antiques are alive, cracks are beautiful, patina and smudges enthrall, and simple rustic elegance rules. I agree.

I’d wanted to save some small part of the old building and incorporate it into the new, but it was too dilapidated and we had to knock it down. Now, in that paradox of self-preservation that so often thrills archeologists, the bulk of the ruined building had propped and protected a portion of itself from further collapse. Emerging from the earth and brick and stone as I worked were the lacunae of three walls erected by an 18th century serf. Even the old whitewash is still intact. I was overjoyed.

I spent the rest of the day unearthing it and contemplating Frost’s sentiment. By the end my leg was screaming at me to stop. But I was on the mend. I'd found enough brick to build another kind of wall, a horizontal one that would keep the mud and dust down outside our door. And I was left with a beautiful retaining wall that I now don't have to build, and with a piece of the history of this place I’d given up as lost. Now that's recycling!

“Something there is that doesn’t love and wall.” True, but something there is that does. Sometimes it's one and the same something.

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