Barn and Bread

Last winter, I took down a small timber framed building in my back yard, intending to re-erect it somewhere else. At least, that’s the answer I gave my annoying neighbor when she insisted on sticking her nose in, “Somewhere Else!”

Really, it all began with rats. Chip sniffed them out in a box of wood scraps … he killed one, the other escaped, moved into the attic of my house and gave birth to a litter. What followed was a nightly event of chasing rats out of the kitchen, finally trapping every last one of them. Oh, the joys of city life!

My first choice was building on a lot that I owned in town, but somehow the way I wanted to build wasn’t exactly the way the city thought building should be done. So, after we raised it in town, the frame came down once again. Next stop, thirty-some miles out of town, down a gravel road and up a creek, where (for now, at least) there aren’t any building inspectors.

A young couple, musicians struggling to make a living during COVID, needed a house. We’re doing our best to make that happen … on a very tight budget, and a pretty steep learning curve. Using the original frame and floor system, we bought enough OSB to make a safe working floor. Salvaged 2×4’s for framing, native cedar from a local sawmill,

That front room is about to get bigger…

Not finished, but there’s a roof over all of it. On to other work.

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vernacular architecture


“If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man – and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages – it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden



–Custom (E–NF–L)… wont or usage (Skeat)… a common tradition or usage so long established that it has the force or validity of law (American Heritage Dictionary)
–Coke, Laws of England 1670-71

wont (ME–S)… used or accustomed (Skeat)

–Roman Law held that most customary practices had at their source deep-rooted local knowledge, combined with natural reason or a kind of basic common sense. Unspoken yet general agreement, confirmed through long-standing practice within a large social group, gave these customs legal force and a status equivalent to written law.
JGA Pocock, Ancient Constitution & Feudal Law, Cambridge 1957.

–Sir Edward Coke, “common law … unwritten, immemorial, rooted in pure reason, sworn to by William the Conqueror.” Laws of England 1670-71

–Blackstone “… high antiquity of common law, twice as old as canon law.” Commentaries 1765-70

“There never has been a British Constitution in the sense of a single written document. It is a set of traditions and practices of government … customs, laws, and usages.” A Political and Cultural History of Modern Europe, Macmillan 1932

Article IX – The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Laws are coldly reasoned out and established upon what lawmakers believe to be a basis of right. Customs are not. Customs grow gradually up, imperceptibly and unconsciously, like an oak from its seed. Laws are sand, Customs are Rock.
–Mark Twain


–Cræft(AS)–Handcræft(AS) a trade, skill, ability
+Croft(E–ME–AS+D) a small field


–Culture… the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population. (synonyms: cultivation, breeding, refinement, taste –Fr. culture: culture, tillage, husbandry –L. cultura: cultivation… cf. Colure, Collect)

–Culture implies enlightenment attained through close association with and appreciation of the highest level of civilization.
–Cultivation usually refers to the self-improvement or self-development by which a person acquires culture.
–Breeding is the development of good character and behavior, and is especially revealed in manners, poise, and sensitivity to the feelings of others.
–Refinement, the highest product of breeding, stresses aversion to coarseness; gentility is synonymous with refinement.
–Taste is the capacity for recognizing and appreciating what is aesthetically superior.

“Culture is made of ideas, Society is made of people.” Henry Glassie


Community – A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government. (–ME – OFr – citizenry, –L – communitas – fellowship, communis – common) In English history and law, communities de la terra are mentioned as early as the 13th c.


–Vernacular–native –L
verna– from *ues-ina, dwelling in one’s house, from L root wes–
–Vernal–belonging to spring
–Vert, verde, verdant–green
–Verge –L virga–twig, rod, wand. A staff of office, often a yardstick.

–cular –L to cut, allied to cultus, tilled; pp. of colere, to till
Coulter … the iron blade in front of a ploughshare M.E. culter, colter AS. culter –L culter, knife, cutler, cutlass
Cull … an allied Latin root meaning to gather or collect, to sort out the inferior … root of collegia, college, etc.


The standard definition for ‘vernacular’ –that it means the work of a native slave, is a strictly linguistic derivation that has never sounded convincing to me. It The proposed root word verna or uerna (meaning a home-born slave) is not in common usage, and never has been. As it becomes an adjective modifier of ‘architecture’, the root refers to the nature of the material used, and its meaning changes.
The next entry in every Dictionary is ‘vernal – spring’.
Several words beginning with ‘ver..’ refer to greenness,

My alternative definition proposes that ‘vernacular’ is the pairing of greenness and spring growth with a mature culture of forestry and agriculture, combined with a well-developed building culture. In short, a healthy agrarian community. Traditional building has almost always used green timber, or at least not fully seasoned timber.

Glassie offers this axiom … “The ability to design is intellectually grounded on the geometric repertoire: a set of simple shapes abstracted into entities, such as line or angle or curve.”  Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, Henry Glassie 1975

Hugh Jones wrote in 1724: “Here [Williamsburg], they build most commonly of framed timber, lined with cieling and cased with feather-edged plank, painted with white lead and oil, covered with shingles of cedar.” Glassie, p. 125

…testimony as to the first homes of Virginia, by Mark Catesby, a British naturalist who visited Virginia in the early 1700’s
“Being obliged to run up with all expedition possible such little houses as might serve them to dwell in… they erected each of these little hovels on four only of these trees (black locust) pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts are yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, still perfectly sound.”
Those early colonists first lived, as Mark Catesby says, in hovels, and when they had time to make themselves houses they laboriously hewed out and tongued and tenoned the structural beams and covered them with clapboards. Peattie, p. 415-16

Peattie also tells us that in the entire party of fortune hunters, younger sons and ne’er-do-wells who landed at Jamestown in 1607, none were axe-men or carpenters. Nor, apparently, were any of them architects. Come into “this Wildernesse of Virginia,” the initial planters set to work in the woods immediately…
A century and a half later, in Paris, Abbe Laugier would illustrate his Essay on Architecture with an engraving of a rustic hut, the primordial precursor, and eventual renaissance, of all architecture.

Glassie builds his entire theory of design on the basis of a yardstick, divided into halves and fourths, and a basic square of some 16 to 17 feet. His one actual concession to the axioms of geometry is the whole number relationship between 12 and 17, and thus between 17 and 24. He alludes to a thirteen-inch foot (12 units?) and allows that the ideal yard might have been somewhat less than 36 inches, possibly 34 inches.

There is an interesting rational basis for a 34 inch yard. “The pace, an important traditional measure,was also employed…part of a system that begins with a 17 foot square.” Glassie
6 x 34 inches equals 204 inches equals 17 feet. [Ars Quadratum]
This line of reasoning is consistent with erecting a perpendicular in the middle of that line, establishing the basis for a king-post truss.

Megalithic Yard [Archaic … natural progression 3•5•8 ]
32 inches = 12 inches (foot) + 20 inches (cubit)
1 pace = 32 inches
6 paces = 16 feet

If one pace equals 33 inches [Ars Triangulum]
6 paces = one rod
= 5 1/2 yards
= 16 1/2 feet
= 198 inches
= 25 links, 1/4 of a Gunter’s chain
1 chain = 100 links
= 66 feet
= 22 yards

In the colonies, where land measurement was undertaken on a colossal scale; English laws, customs, and trade practices would have prevailed. An experienced surveyor, engaged to survey a property, would have located a desirable place to build a house … leveled and measured a square one rod on each side, and left four stakes to indicate the corners. A competent builder could set up batter boards around those stakes, and expand or contract dimensions to suit his “geometric repertoire”. The primary requirements of square and level being easier for the surveyor to achieve to much higher degree of accuracy, than for a carpenter with only a box of tools.

In the United States, Public Land Survey plats are printed in chain units, consistent with a two-hundred-year-old database. Gunter’s Chain was introduced in 1620, contributing a decimal system to an existing fractional system based on the rod, chain, furlong, and statute mile. Gunter’s chain was still in use through the late 20th c. when GPS was developing.

Glassie’s note IV:20, p. 198 –” I worked this problem out using scale models rather than formulas, so these measures are conceptually rather than mathematically accurate.”

“The ability to design is intellectually grounded on the geometric repertoire …”
‘verge’ – a stick, representing authority; possibly but not necessarily a measure. the gable edge of a roof. vergeboard > bargeboard.

I’m assuming that New England was surveyed with rod and chain, but not township and range as is de facto here. And, according to my understanding, New England settlement began with religious dissenters who more or less followed 17th c. English patterns of law and land distribution (town meetings, town commons…).

The same Imperial (empirical) measurement system, would have been custom and law in the Tidewater colonies. Virginia belonged to about a hundred powerful families … the Carolinas to the 8 Lords Proprietors; all Royal charters from Stuart kings.
Settlement in the southern colonies prospered post-1688, and conformed with 18th c. Parliamentary laws regarding ownership of land, specifically enclosure, plantations, tenancy, indentures, etc.; with transportation of excess population as means to supply labor (supplemented by chattel slavery of Africans as well as of indigenous peoples). Common ground was about the last thing that plantation aristocracy would have considered.

For a long time, I thought Glassie had simply overlooked the 16 1/2 foot rod as a common and contemporary unit of measure. On p. 24, he considers multiples of 30” and indicates “16-foot rods” as a possible unit of measure, then sort of goes off on a tangent.

Now… I think that he was seeing pieces of the pattern, that there may have been several plausible measuring algorithms based on an arbitrary choice in the length of a stick, half that length, and half again, divided and expanded in multiples of 3. Rules of thumb.

There may also have been deeper cultural templates for each of those systems of numbers; with roots that were not necessarily English, or even European. Ars Triangulum, Ars Quadratum, Golden Section.

Idiom – a mode of expression peculiar to a language.
Axiom – a self-evident truth.

“It was the billions upon billions of side bets … banks securitizing mortgages, hedge funds speculating on mortgage-backed securities … that put far more at risk than the total value of all the sub-prime mortgages.” Jennifer Taub, Other People’s Houses 2014

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Common Ground

I have lived in the American South for almost all of my life, and when I try to explain the Southern perspective to someone who didn’t grow up here, I tell them, “We have no common ground in the South. “…not legally, not socially, not politically; certainly not in the realms of race or religion.  New Testament fundamentalists have had so many schisms over minor points of doctrine…if you really have free will, can you choose to not be a Baptist?

We Southerners come from an older, richer culture.  Most of us trace our ancestry from Anglo-Scots or Welsh or Irish (listen to the music!), transported (voluntarily or not) from the mother country under the prevailing 18th c. doctrine of land enclosure by Act of Parliament.  By contrast, the New England colonies were settled under older legal doctrines.  Most New England towns still maintain a parcel of common land, a legal distinction which does not appear to exist in the South.

The phrase English Common Law is somewhat misleading.

There is Common Law. “…by the ancient common laws of this realm.” Statute of Uses, Henry VIII (1536) is directly relevant to claims of ownership in real property, land and the chattels and improvements thereon.

And there is English Law, the result of the gradual usurpation of Common Law by Norman nobles and their lawyers following the Conquest of 1066.  Concessions, forced at times by popular rebellion, included not only such fundamental legal precepts as grand juries and writs of habeas corpus; but the Statute of Merton (1236) which stipulated that the [Norman] barons “would not change the law of the realm.”  Merton also protects common rights in land.  The Statute of Quo Warranto (1290) in which Edward I (Longshanks) was forced to agree by statute that customs continuous since Richard I (a century earlier) should be confirmed.

The long way ’round…English Law (with some notable concessions to Common Law) derives from French Law (those Norman lawyers), grounded in Roman Law which held that most customary practices had at their source deep-rooted local knowledge, combined with “natural reason” or a kind of basic “common sense.”  Unspoken yet general agreement confirmed through long-standing practice within a large social group gave these customs legal force and a status equivalent to written law.  (e. g. verbal contracts are binding..!)

The assertion of common rights in land is made more difficult in our current society that has never established common land as a legal right; but paradoxically traces its history to a society that evolved and existed for centuries, for millennia even, as small communities sharing land for grazing livestock and growing staple crops.  As I delve deeper into history, it becomes more and more apparent that human culture has evolved alongside small-scale farming on shared land, that that is human culture.

Custom, and customary, are related linguistically to use (which covers a lot of legal rights) and accustomed, synonymous with wont (a nice bit of Middle English).  Those rights of use, for instance, include “Public footpaths on private land…remnants of an earlier landscape predating the Enclosure Acts.  Public access, or right-of-way, is granted by English Common Law on the basis of traditional use; that right is relinquished if the path is not used once a year.”

So, the key words…custom, use, tradition, right of way…are still there in our language, in social formalities that we act out but can’t readily explain…IMG_1161

Meanwhile, through the corporate aegis of our elected representatives, we pursue concrete solutions, permanent solutions, that inevitably involve bigger and more expensive machines to perform work that could be performed by humans.  Human scale solutions tend to be time-consuming, labor-intensive (that is sort of the point…), and thus more costly than mechanical solutions (once we have absorbed and distributed the investment in machinery).

Working collaboratively leads directly to Common Ground.  When we develop human capital through local volunteer effort, professional internships, or workshops conducted by non-profits; people working together in small groups at human scale…tends to have a much smaller carbon footprint.

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Appearance vs. Reality



The Infinite Marketability
of the human estate
insists that we all have a price.

We all have value.

Some of us are not for sale.

ARTIZENS BANK…small change matters

(a letter to a friend who works in city planning; following on an exchange about the practicality of building small affordable houses in an upscale neighborhood, an effort which the city supports in theory but apparently sabotages in practice)

Appearance vs. Reality

Last year I became interested in the Rural Studio, after taking in Andrew Freear’s presentation at the UofA. In particular, the $20k House appealed to me. As I looked further, it turned out that the initial idea was “what if we could build a house for $20,000?” allowing $10k for materials and $10k for labor. As it turned out that materials were going to cost out at $12k, they simply adjusted the labor factor down to $8,000. Wow! Brilliant, eh?
Add to that, the initial designs were in the 500-600 sq. ft. range, materials were donated, and labor was provided by the student/architect/designers. So far as I can determine, the $20k House has never been actually built in real-world conditions; i.e. materials purchased at market cost, contracted labor paid fairly, insurance overhead profit etc.
Over time, the $20k House has grown to nearer 1000 sq. ft. as the reality of housing a family was encountered. Still, Auburn insists on calling it a $20k House, and will be offering plans for sale. Appearance does not reconcile with Reality…

Cottage Housing appears to be a wonderful idea. Is it as unrealistic as the $20k House?(that’s all from their website, btw)

Last weekend, I met Jim Crow. Jim has taught classes for the American College of Building Arts in Charleston, and shared some of his experiences and perspective on the school with me. Unaccredited, mismanaged by social position taking precedence over competence, more impressed by academic credentials than practical abilities, the school is steadily sabotaging its mission and students.
There is no real standard for comparison.
I’m sitting here watching images from my carport raising, knowing (as you know as well) that there are very few people capable of executing a piece of work of that scale and complexity. You have barely skimmed the surface, and have no realistic idea how to apply what you do know. I have studied drawn modeled built numerous structures larger and more complicated than that carport. How then shall I subject my authentic imagination and skills acquired over a lifetime to a bureaucracy with merely borrowed ideas about building? The truth is that I can’t.

What I am going to do is provide an avenue for a few people to learn some of those skills; however much the City of Fayetteville chooses to acknowledge or support this effort; whether you choose to participate or obstruct; I have no real expectation of success; our society has neglected to train and reward artisans for far too long; that damage is beyond my ability to repair.
Michael Langford

“everything that has form is tool, everything that is without form is Tao” ⛩

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Do not let us talk then of restoration.  The thing is a Lie from beginning to end.  You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton, with what advantage I neither see nor care:  but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust, or melted into a mass of clay…

But there may come a need for restoration.  Granted.  Look the necessity full in the face, and understand it on its own terms.  It is a necessity for destruction.  Accept it as such, pull the building down, throw its stones into neglected corners, make ballast of them, or mortar, if you will; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place.  and look that necessity in the face before it comes and you may prevent it…Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them.  watch an old building with anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation.

…it is no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not.  We have no right whatsoever to touch them.  They are not ours.  They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.  What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left behind vested in us only.

Therefore, when we build let us think that we build forever.  Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time will come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, “See!  This our fathers did for us.” John Ruskin

See, Ruskin isn’t so difficult.  It took me only about thirty years to find those little gems  (and a bit of respectful editing).



A man cannot despair if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility…  Wendell Berry is a bit easier to read, but no less demanding of our conscience.  I have been reading Wendell Berry for these thirty years as well, and no one has been more consistently inspiring.  Reading The Unsettling of America was a prime motivator in my dropping out of college, not a bad move looking back.  Not that I didn’t want to go to college, the problem was that I couldn’t learn what I needed to learn in college.  So, I enrolled in the School of Hard Knocks.

Geometry, for instance, is only practicable in reality.  Measuring the earth, laying out buildings, pulling diagonals on timber bents…count measure weigh…plumb level square.  Ironically, geometry can also be purely theoretical; inasmuch as we never actually achieve perfect geometry, but only within whatever tolerance we establish for ourselves.

When we escape from geometric absolutes, and begin working with wood in the round, other more organic forms emerge.  The shape, form, and geometry of a building carries a unique signal that either suppresses its energy or enhances it, making the structure either forbidding or inviting.  These force fields of electromagnetic energy invoke an unconscious response; certain shapes signal us to approach, while others suppress their signals so that we do not enter their realm.  Sanctuary is a primary human requirement.  Circles protect within their circumference; while crosses, squares, four-multiples, and spiral shapes extend and suppress over wide distances, creating the most favorable conditions for protection.  (Herbert Weaver, Divining the Primary Sense, 1978).

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In the evening hours of Wednesday, February 3, 2016, Alice Thurleen Kennedy, 64, lost her final battle with ovarian cancer. Angels await one of their own beautiful immortal souls coming into the light. Luminous transcendent joyous affirmation of life she is gone to be with us forever.

Born October 9, 1951, in the sign of Libra, fourth child of Paul McGee Kennedy and Lola Herring Kennedy, Alice was a talented artist and an exceptional teacher. She graduated with honors from Fayetteville High School, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas, with minor in Education.
She is survived by brothers Lewis Kennedy and Paul McGee Kennedy, Jr.; sister Ann Warren; husband James Michael Langford.

Alice lived by the Golden Rule; a generous and loyal friend, a formidable adversary. Well-read, widely-traveled, she had a gift for finding humor and humanity in every situation; battling terminal cancer with a sense of her own beauty grace and dignity in the face of insurmountable odds and the vastness of medical ignorance; fighting disease with yoga laughter and organic vegetables, surrounded by friends and family.

Services will be held at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near Guy in Faulkner County, Saturday, February 6, 1:00 pm; and at Bell Gable Chapel, near Fayetteville, February 13, 1:00 pm. In lieu of flowers, please donate to a charitable organization with an holistic or humanitarian objective.
Plant flowers. Teach your children well…teach them the constellations planets phases of the moon; so that they will know when to plant when to harvest why we celebrate life and death as a cycle. We are all part of that great kaleidoscopic astral wheel. Let’s roll.

Knowing that you would return
Filled with the wildness of nature
And folding your dreams about you turn
Rising to the light
I moved quietly through the morning
Fog and deep shadows
Trying without words to tell you
I am not a hunter
I am a seeker like yourself
Knowing also our strongest bond is
The distance between us
Welcome home.



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The fourth box, with mahogany liners glued in place to provide a gluing surface for the bottom panel.  This box, and the others, represents an essay in energy conservation.  All the wood used has been laboriously salvaged from furniture pallets (to, hopefully, make better designed, more durable furniture).  The boxes are intended to receive Matt Ross’s collection of Japanese woodworking tools.  And so, energy…and intent.

Embodied energy…I first encountered the concept in the 80’s, after the first major embargo on Middle-Eastern oil by OPEC.  The context at that time was historic preservation, a backlash to the excesses of “urban renewal”.  It takes a certain amount of BTU energy to make a brick, or a board, or a piece of re-bar…and that energy is forever embedded in that piece of material.

Sort of…back in high school, we were taught the law of conservation of matter and energy:  matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but only changed in form.  So, now we know that the energy that fired those bricks was not really recoverable (it mostly became CO2) and that the brick is just a brick after all.  There was something fine, in a Ruskin and Morris sense, about the embodied energy argument, though.  The human element.

Now, we have LEED, a rather clever marketing scheme used by architects to convince clients that they are oh-so-savvy about energy and environment; glibly ignoring the real costs of cement processed in China without a thought to worker or environment; using concrete, welded steel and plate glass as though those materials could somehow be rendered “organic”.  The calculus of energy efficiency begins later, after the final punch list, metering the utility bills.

The energy that I’m concerned with is the concentrated intent of the blade smiths who forged those Japanese tools; to subdue and employ that energy in a most ambitious undertaking.  I have been searching for a place in which to teach and practice woodworking.  This is a beginning.  There’s an acre of ground, an ideal building site in the back yard, and the property backs on a public park.  The house, with a bit of sweat equity, will be a workshop (isn’t every house a workshop, somewhere along the way).


2650 North Old Wire Road, Fayetteville, Arkansas, US 72701.

Everything to the left of the entry door is a black hole.  Literally.  The rest of the house sustained smoke and water damage. I intend to use that source of positive energy embodied in the tools, in the boxes, to balance the negative energy in the charred and smoky mess waiting to be cleared away.   Moving excited electrons along a copper wire, or believing that money exists as a flash of light along a glass fiber, that’s all commonplace and pedestrian today.  Time to move along…there are other forms of energy.

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A Small Tool


The tools that I use at my workbench are mostly things that I have made to suit my own purposes, such as this scraper.  The stock is a piece of Mexican rosewood culled by a xylophone maker years ago, the blade was cut from an old handsaw.  I have a personal affinity for slotted oval-head screws…So, five easy pieces…and I only paid money for the screws.


The inspiration for this was a chair maker’s devil that I bought at an antique tool show, a lovely piece of lignum vitae with a brass wear plate, shaped to scrap a chair rung round after the spokeshave had done its work.  This one has a flat (or nearly flat…there may be a bit of brass or boxwood there in the future) sole, with a slight crown in the blade.  My sharpening methods vary with the tool and my mood and whatever comes to hand, this one usually gets a quick touch with a file and a burnishing over a hard Arkansas stone.  All it needs is a fine burr.


I despise using sandpaper, and will go to great lengths to avoid it.  When I have managed to more-or-less flatten a surface with hand planes, but there are still a few nagging rough spots around the knots, this little fellow puts the final polish on.

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(This post is part of a conversation with Henrik Lutzen; about why we pursue craft skills.  If you happen to read this, please comment.)


I believe there’s way too much focus on tools and technique, with less attention to design, ethics, and finding a common ground. For starters, I believe one of the easiest ways to establish that we share the same basic information is by sharing the books that we have found useful. (We could begin by writing brief reviews of what we consider to be essential or important books, for instance) By now, most artisans working in ‘shall we call it’ residential scale building trades should be familiar with A Pattern Language. Furniture-makers will likely have read James Krenov’s books; those interested in Japanese woodworking will have read Toshio Odate.

My reading list goes back to when I dropped out of college in the mid-80’s, and includes The Wheelwright’s Shop, John Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic, David Pye, and the English Arts & Crafts Movement.
Next came timber framing: English Historic Carpentry by Cecil Hewett, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay by Abbot Lowell Cummings, Silent Spaces by Malcolm Kirk. Boatbuilding by Howard Chapelle, also Skin Boats and Bark Canoes, and Lance Lee’s incomparable Barns, Beams and Boats.
Obviously, this is a short list, but the point I’m trying to make is that shared literacy is meta-cognitive. We may have widely different impressions of the same book, but should still be able to acknowledge a coherent work that stands alone, in much the same way as a painting or building or piece of furniture. Artisans tend to be eclectic and self-educated, at least more than most. (“…consider the man of average intelligence…” Twain)

I won’t pretend to know precisely what compels someone to hand-cut through-tenons, or through dovetails, but I believe it’s at least in part because we want to see and experience a sort of honesty in our made environment, in a way that sheetrock or 3-D printers may not be able to satisfy. So, what (and who) has influenced and shaped your sense of design, ethics, philosophy, etc.? Books, tools, boats, buildings, furniture… I believe that each of us will ultimately realize a curriculum vitae and a bibliography, in making the effort to reach out and to explain ourselves over these great distances. That, I think, is why I started the blog and continue to pursue it.

People who can actually perform high-value-added work are rather rare (perhaps always have been) and seriously undervalued in today’s world. I would like to see how this tracks from my generation to yours, for example, and how (in terms of influences, education, etc.) that has come about (by direct master-apprentice relationship, or alternatively through reading, videos, workshops…).

The first book I had was an old 1920’s copy of Audel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide, and later Feirer and Hutchings Cabinetmaking and Millwork. Both were instructive only in the mechanical aspects of work, never leading toward any sort of design skills. Not until Fine Woodworking came out in the late 70’s; and then Krenov’s books, which were just unbelievable. The best you could get before that were Bonanza and Sunset books, or Popular Mechanics. The better quality publications that had been available during the Arts & Crafts movement were long out of circulation by then.

Cultural Literacy (that’s what I’m calling it, for now): a sort of intellectual shorthand. There isn’t a lot of room to argue with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, for instance, and it pretty much transcends language barriers. Thoreau (in Walden) illustrates his point with a story of two boys: one boy (with his father’s help) makes his own knife, while the other boy’s father buys him a knife. “Which would be more likely to cut his finger?” he asks. How much more profound; if we are able to understand the social and architectural implications of the Parthenon, or Ise, or Great Coxwell (all superb examples of their kind) summed up in a phrase?

Craft has that sort of power; if we insist that our language be as unrelentingly precise as our joinery.

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New Beginnings

As the winter solstice approaches, I find myself taking stock of the past year and looking forward to projects and enterprises in the next.  A genuinely disappointing episode with a would-be apprentice who took on a job way beyond his abilities, then refused to pay me for doing most of the work, is slowly grinding it’s way through the courts.  That knocked a big hole in my summer, in the middle of which I lost my brother-in-law after a long, painful struggle with liver cancer.  In September, we lost our dear friend Matt Ross, and I’m really pissed off about that.

Matt was just about the only person with whom I could have wide-ranging conversations about woodworking with hand tools, building small boats, the eccentricities of timber framing and neighbors.  How sharp is sharp?  How thin, or thick, is a shaving?  And he left all these wonderful tools behind, my responsibility to sort and sharpen and find uses for…

IMG_1990This door has opened an entire realm of possibilities.  Matt built this room from rough limestone gathered off the farm, hewed beams from red oaks that he felled himself, and never got around to finishing this opening (a bum knee, chronic pain; an obsession with hand-forged, laminated steel blades).  I was supposed to be helping him hang a different door there when he died.  Turned out, Sheila didn’t really want that door after all, so I built this one to suit.  The frame is 2″ thick Douglas fir, set into 4 x6 pine jambs.  Blackberry the cat is happy with the cat door, and on sunny days the upper panel hinges inward as a sort-of Dutch door.

All this involved re-routing water and propane lines through that cut in the concrete, and removing part of the 6 x 8 oak sill and concrete foundation inside to make room for a 4-panel farmhouse door.  The house is well on its way to being handicapped accessible, should that ever be necessary.  Now, on to the Japanese tools.

“The Zen sect saw the distinction between the One and the Many as a necessary defect of language, or more precisely, of the intellect, and maintained that Nirvana exists here, now, in everything, but that it can be apprehended only by a direct intuitive grasp, and that intellectual approaches can lead only to partial, and hence false, understanding.”  Arthur Drexler, The Architecture of Japan (1955 Museum of Modern Art) p. 205m

“While Japan has been, since the eighth century, a land dotted with Buddhist temples, wooden structures that are usually rebuilt as before when they are destroyed by fire, the most extraordinary notion and practice of historic preservation are applied to the Shinto shrines in the forest of Ise.  These are exceedingly simple, seventh-century buildings made of soft-textured cypress beams, standing on raised platforms and having crossed end-rafters and thatched roofs.  They appear modeled after storehouses for rice from earlier times.  Each one is set on a rectangle of carefully laid out stones.  Next to one side of this rectangle is another, identical rectangle of stones.  Every twenty years a team of carpenters arrives, and on each empty rectangle, they construct an exact replica of the building in the adjoining space.  Using only hand tools, they cut the cypress beams with immaculate precision and leave the finished work unpainted. 

“When the new building is ready, Shinto priests perform a nighttime ritual during which the gods and the sacred objects are moved from the older building to the new one, at which point the older one is carefully dismantled so that the remaining beams and other materials, considered spiritually as well as materially valuable, can be sent to other Shinto shrines in the country that have need of replacement pieces.  The teams are made up of older, experienced carpenters together with younger ones whom they are training, the very ones who will be in charge of another reconstruction twenty (or nowadays perhaps forty) years hence.  This practice began in 690 and has continued ever since, except for an interruption that lasted for a century and a quarter; in 1993 it was carried out for the sixty-first time.”  Paul Varley, Japanese Culture (2000 Honolulu) pp. 17-18

Ise by Kenzo Tange, Yoshio Watanabe, and Noburo Kawazoe (1965, Zokeisha Publications Ltd.) is a stunning photographic documentation of the 1953 rebuilding of the temples at Ise.  What is not immediately apparent; that there are two temple precincts, several miles apart, and thus two separate and complete building processes going on, becomes clear through the maps, text and photos.  The appendix shows two similar Shinto temples that have not been subjected to this generational cycle of rebuilding, but have instead been carefully maintained, one from 1744, the other from 1346.

I will get back to work on the boxes directly…meanwhile it isn’t too late to put those books on your Christmas list.  Meanwhile, we still desperately need to have a dialogue about the continuation of craft culture (particularly woodworking) in America.  Too much attention focused on How we do work simply distracts from the larger, more important question Why?  Rearranging the deck chairs will not save the ship from sinking…


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Coping Shoulders


One of the primary applications of scribing gouges is in making timber shoulders fit waney edges.  This is a straining beam that engages a brace on either end, but the joinery is still a brace mortice, layout at 45º to the axis of timber.


English framers call this “double-cutting” a shoulder, then scribing to fit.  Keep those reference marks parallel…



Matt Ross made this chisel some years ago, inspired by a French example.  I can’t say for certain that the cranked handle and flared corners were made just for this purpose, but it damn sure does the job.


This gouge, all told, has cost me something in the neighborhood of $6k so far, but that’s another story for another time, as is the owner’s mark.  The maker’s mark, at the top of the photo, appears to be RUST, which I believe to be an early 19c English maker.


The owner’s mark, J L CRIST, was stamped twice.  I imagine him to have been a distant relative of the JESUS H CHRIST whose name I have heard invoked so often in shops and on building sites.  Believe what you will…   There are a lot of gaps in the historical record;  I believe that most people just want a good story.


The result, as always, speaks for itself.


Final assembly, pulled tight with come-alongs and straps, measured and diagonals checked, ready to mark draw-bores.  You probably can’t see it, but there’s a string with gage blocks stretched across the shoulders.  This was the trickiest setup I have ever worked with, one click on any ratchet affected everything else.  Precise measurements, btw, are facilitated by driving 3d galvanized box nails at measured points on the layout lines.  3-4-5 for post to beam fit-up; check parallel then pull diagonals on bents.

Recently I was sent a link to a paper titled  The Invisible Tools of the Timber Framer  Well worth reading, but still doesn’t quite reach the bottom of the toolkit.  There are a few tricks in fitting tight shoulders in timber, some of them useful for smaller-scale work as well.  Fitting up irregular stock into mortice and tenon is a challenge, getting a snug fit at the shoulder being the final test.  Dividers help, down to an interval of ⅛” or so, but even the sharpest point jumps and scratches along.  For a quick reference, use a “half-pencil scribe”.  Lay the pencil flat on the receiving timber and draw the point across the meeting surface.  Work parallel to that line.

One of my essential tools is an old 12″ combination square blade with it’s own hand-sewn leather sheath for protection.  I use it as a feeler gage in fitting shoulders, along with a collection of 6″ blades of different thickness.  I also use a Starrett tapered gage, about 3″ long, and several maple and boxwood wedges that make up my gap gages.  Wooden wedges are especially useful when working the underside of a timber assembly; a quick pencil mark across, measure the resulting thickness, map the result.  A sharp mill knife (or something equally robust), a steel straight edge, a carpenter’s pencil shaved to a chisel edge (for lighter work, a regular #2 shaved flat with a block plane and pared down), a #705 ink pencil followed by a spritz of water will leave an indelible green line.

Chalk has it’s place in fitting up, but one must be careful of the mess it leaves behind.  David Pye used the term “offer up and fit” which is particularly the case in fitting a shoulder to an irregular surface.  As the shoulder approaches an ideal fit, I leave a margin of ¼” that will actually contact the surface, then slide a piece of coarse sandpaper through the joint.  The resulting scratches show a marked contrast to chisel or gouge, and paring away those marks will result in a tighter and tighter fit.  This is where those scribing gouges really shine.


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The machine works, insofar as my workbench and hand tools can be considered as such.  In four days, I produced four carcases.  That along with visitors, housekeeping (such as it is) and trying not to make noise when the rest of the family is asleep.


I want to explain this effort:  My dear friend Matt Ross (artist, blacksmith, boatbuilder, woodworker) died early September at the age of 68, the diagnosis: idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.  He checked into ER in mid-August with symptoms of asthma and bronchitis, progressed to ICU, and was finally sent to hospice with a couple of days to live.  For once the doctors got it right.  I had about five minutes with him in hospital while he was still conscious and lucid, and he asked me to take care of his collection of Japanese tools.

These boxes are intended to house that collection, at least while I photograph and document and figure out what should be done with them. The two maple boxes 5 x 11 x 22 are for chisels and hammers, the large poplar box 7 x 16 x 45 is for saws, and the mahogany box will hopefully hold all the planes.  There are at least twenty planes in presentation boxes, everything else is in racks on the wall.  I’m going there this afternoon to begin.

Moving on, I have had this dream for years of a craft school here in Arkansas.  The people who should be doing this, Department of Heritage, are miserably incompetent and have assured me repeatedly that they (having tried once and failed) will never attempt such again.  That, and the fact that I took them to court several years ago (and won) leaves me pretty much a pariah.

Meanwhile, I have a respectable collection of woodworking tools, ranging from carving gouges to boring machines, all in excellent condition.  By that, I don’t mean collector’s “excellent”.  I mean that my tools are SHARP.  In fact, that’s the condition by which I inherit Matt’s tools.  In his estimation, I’m the only person he knew who could be trusted to know how to sharpen.  This is flattering, but doesn’t move us toward actually putting these tools to work.


This is not a “Bad Axe” saw.  It’s an old Disston that I restored and sharpened myself.  I refuse to pay $250+ to anyone for a backsaw (especially one who touts Ann  [sp.] Rand’s odious philosophy).  Likewise, Lie-Nielsen.  I have a “special” $40 dovetail marking knife waiting to send back because the point rolled over the first time I used it.  Lee Ferguson, just down the road from me, makes a much better knife for $20 that holds an edge and doesn’t roll off the bench.  The chisels I use are a duke’s mixture of brands that no longer exist (at least in this quality), Addis, Buck Brothers, Eskilstuna, Keen Kutter.

There is a desperate need (at least as I see it) for us to support crafts and craftsmanship (workmanship, if you’ve read David Pye), not corporations and marketing,

and to keep tools in use, not archived in a museum.

In the current issue of Wooden Boat, John Summers reviews  Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding by Douglas Brooks.

“Brooks researches and works in a tradition of maritime scholarship embodied by John Gardner, wherein one must build and use boats in order to properly write about and understand them.  His encounter with some Japanese maritime historians, who cannot understand why he spends his time working with poorly educated boatbuilders, and who feel that his research is of no value because it cannot be backed up by documents, was telling, even in a country that has long recognized craftsmen as living national treasures.  The book both acknowledges and rectifies a common issue in the preservation of material culture:  We save the object but ignore the processes and traditions that produced it, leading to museums holding row upon row of mute artifacts, divorced from the context and knowledge of their making.”


MAYDAY:  If anyone out there reading this has even the remotest interest in conserving our craft culture, let’s have a conversation.  I will be busy archiving tools that should be put to work, and posting more about my efforts.  e-mail:

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Dovetail Machine

Looking ahead, several rainy days were forecast for this weekend, so I planned to spend the time at my workbench building some toolboxes.  From pallets salvaged behind the furniture store down the street, I have a small lot of poplar planks, some pseudo-mahogany, and a soft white wood that might be maple.  Enough for four boxes.

I need storage for Matt’s collection of Japanese hand tools, so that’s the basic idea, Japanese style boxes, except that I wanted to cut dovetails, not drive nails.

This setup is sort of like a Moxon vise, in that there’s two screws and a couple of pieces of wood, and it hold a board so that I can chop dovetails.  Works fine, cost nothing.  The tail vise holds stock for marking and sawing.  So far I have three boxes fitted up, will get on the mahogany pieces tomorrow.


The cabinetmaker’s triangle is pretty much standard stuff, but not quite enough to keep reference when cutting dovetails.  The marks near the ends do that   //  X  ^  O  so I can easily locate position.

Because this wood is salvaged, I have spent quite a bit of time jointing and gluing up, using a couple of Matt’s Japanese planes.  For surfacing, I’ve been using a couple of Stanley 5 ¼’s.

Do two 5 ¼’s equal a 10 ½?  NO.  I am in the middle of dealing with a major windfall of tools right now and it’s given me a lot to think about.  For starters, I’m pretty competent with the tools that I have and still learning from them.  Now, I am in a position to pursue working with a choice lot of Japanese tools.  What sort of changes will that bring?


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Raising Day


The rain finally stopped mid-afternoon, and we were able to raise the frame.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  A few friends who will always show up on short notice, a chance to involve the neighbors.  Block and tackle for the heavy lifting, then marrying up the scarf for the last time.


Everybody got to drive a few pegs…

It’s been a long day.

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There are a lot of opinions these days about what is the best tool, the best bench, the planinest’ plane or the slickest saw to make you the best woodworker you can be.  Is this some kind of competition?  I’m not in that game.  Every beam is a workbench, every clamp is a vice.  Every tool has a purpose, it’s up to us to discover what that is.  The I Ching says, “Everything that has form is tool; everything that is without form is tao.”  It also says,  “The beginning of all things lies still in the beyond, in the form of ideas that have yet to become real.”

For the past couple of months, whenever I could find the time, I have been fitting up a frame out of some seriously twisted oak timbers.  I’ve learned a few things, using some tricks and tools that have been acquired along the way.  Some of this is terrain that most woodworkers never have and never will explore, and I have made some attempt to share the experience.

When I started learning timber framing back in the 80’s, the book to have was Tedd Benson’s.  Fortunately, I didn’t get the memo on that; instead a friend had given me a copy of Cecil Hewett’s English Historic Carpentry.  Hewitt didn’t discuss tools or layout (go-to for roof design and drawing style); as I learned later, Benson didn’t really explain layout.  Neither did anyone else, at least not very well, or with any sense of authenticity.  Jack Sobon hints a bit at square rule in his second book, and there’s an early Fine Woodworking article by Ed Levin that explains  a bit of layout.

The old books on the framing square refer obliquely to this mysterious process called “boxing the joints”, about as useful as the Essex Board Measure table.  In The Timber Framing Book, Stewart Elliott completely missed the point on brace layout, it’s so obvious that he hadn’t looked hard at a framing square or a barn.  Further back, in the 1920’s, Audel’s was seriously misinformed about braces.  Recently, I took a long look back through Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s Shop series, thinking that I might have missed something.  Nope.  This is one place where the luminaries will leave you in the dark.  They’ll tell you how to cut, what tools to buy, lots of he-man raising pics, but very very little about layout and design.

The thing is, laying out is pretty fundamental.  The lines have to be in the right places, and then you need to know how to cut to the line.  If you expect to make a living, the process has to be accurate and efficient.  Most people, coming from carpentry and cabinetmaking, assume that the timbers need to be straight and square to begin with.  I know I did, and there’s certainly nothing amiss with that approach.  You will get results, your buildings will  just look rigidly mechanical and sterile, because there’s nothing inherently organic about straight lines.  Nature designs with curves.


Laying out bowed, twisted, crooked, waney timbers requires a different approach.  Until a couple hundred years ago, any good European carpenter would have been able to lay out joinery, cut and fit, in just about any sort of timber imaginable.  He would have been equipped to square timbers with an axe, and plane their surfaces with a broadax and slick. Layout would have begun with a plan and section drawn out on the ground, timbers cribbed up on blocking, joinery marked out with a plumb line and scratch awl.

In the American experience, timber was long, straight, virgin…and a new model evolved.  We call it Square Rule, and it’s evident in most barns and houses from about the second quarter of the nineteenth century until maybe the end of the century, depending on where you are.  Audel’s certainly didn’t understand it, or at least they failed to explain the concept.  Neither did any of the mid-20th c. writers mentioned earlier.  Meanwhile, the evidence of Square Rule lay like a blueprint, echoing the Plumb Line in buildings of an earlier epoch.

I have combined square rule layout with plumb line layout in this frame; because it suits me, and planing all that timber square would have been a ridiculous waste of time and wood.  The initial bents were cut in a workshop, and with some adjustment they still fit.  For the main beam and braces, I wanted a more traditional look, and a chance to use some tools that haven’t seen use for a while.  Diminished housings are easier to cut and fit than parallel housings, particularly in twisted timber.  There is no one best way; there is only geometry, sharp tools, good joinery design, and respect for the trees.

Dangit!  I got e-poxy on my knee britches…

The trees, btw, are all second growth, now.  Which is a polite way of saying that we’ve cut all the good straight virgin timber and all that’s left is crooked, twisty stuff that is a real challenge to work with.  Much like what the European carpenters had to work with after centuries of building, war, shipbuilding, war, more war, and general waste and abuse.

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That’s right, Manual-Analog Control.  What I do, every day, what most of the world still does and has done for centuries.  Meanwhile, let the architects and computer geeks be enamored of CNC (merely a glorified router that you don’t have to hold onto for dear life) and let’s get on with more satisfying work.

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Crooked Timber

IMG_1783There’s a bit too much wood on this piece, so I’m setting up to hew an inch from what will become the bottom of the beam.  “Getting my bearings” with those gouge marks as a guide.  There’s also a bit of “frass” to be removed, where bugs and bacteria have been working on the sapwood.

Immanuel Kant said that what we have to work with is the “crooked timber of humanity”.  I’ve been dealing with some of that too, but lately it’s been more of the real thing.  Some things just take a long time to realize, and this pile of timbers collected over the years is becoming a frame.  Most carpenters work with lumber that can be bent or twisted into plane, and square off the edge of the board, cabinetmakers plane every piece flat and square, imposing an external geometry.  Timber, unless you are going to have it sized and squared mechanically, requires a different set of solutions.

To begin with, some oak 8×8’s that were procured to teach a class in square-rule joinery (hang a framing square on each end, sight them into alignment, transfer centerlines and proceed) about eight years ago, then left lying about until they were severely bowed and twisted.  No way the joinery would fit up, I planed the beam tenons and epoxied cheek pieces, re-established the layout and re-cut tenons.  The posts were all re-oriented to the mortice, and the top tenon leveled for reference.


IMG_1792The “establishment” one beam laid over the other, both referenced to a layout on the floor, transferred by plumb-line and dividers.  The little level on the square, and the small level on the tenon indicate layout plane.

IMG_1776 Sometimes timbers need to be “dogged down”

Next the main beam, or rather two beams scarf-jointed to become one eighteen-foot long hand-hewn 6×12 piece of red oak.  Thanks to Matthew Ross for this piece.



That done, on to French-scribing the joints.

IMG_1790 The main joint, a wedged half-dovetail through tenon, with a diminished housing…

IMG_1795 and the brace…

IMG_1793 The essential tools for scribe layout.  I was taught by a French journeyman carpenter to leave the timber faces as they come, and transfer marks as relative to the plumb line (thus shoulders and meeting surfaces would have to be compensated or cut out 0f square).  Over time, I have found it easier to carve bearings across the plumb faces of the timbers with a shallow out-cannel gouge, and bring the timbers into square at the critical points of intersection.

IMG_1798 The gouge on the right is a 2″ D R Barton that was the first one I acquired.  I use it to reduce the waste on tenons.  On the left is a Marples pattern-maker’s cranked out-cannel gouge, sharpened to a bull-nose profile.  The great advantage is that it can be easily sharpened with flat stones, no need for a slip-stone.  In the middle is a 1 ¼” Buck Brothers that has a very gentle sweep along it’s length.  Useful for cleaning up hollow places torn out by over-enthusiastic hewing, erasing/correcting layout marks, a truly elegant tool.

I use the typical array of mallet and framing chisels, rabbet plane, and a few hand-made hollowing planes, but the gouges enhance my ability to produce clean, accurate joinery in a reasonable amount of time.


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I am no stranger to power tools, the ones that require gasoline or electricity to perform work for me.  In the long run, they expand the possibilities of what I can do, and I have their manual/analog counterparts to work with by way of comparison.  Still, in spite of their speed and precision, power tools have no real finesse.

Hand tools, when we get to the level of backsaws, bench planes, and carving chisels, especially those that were made before mass-production, are just inescapably elegant.  Chisels, in particular, are the most elemental tools of woodworking.  I believe that there is a sort of energy embodied in any artifact that was made by hand, but a chisel carries that energy from it’s maker, and the impression of every hand that has ever used it.  Power? Yeah.

I have been restoring old tools for years, fascinated with that genie-from-a-bottle effect of finally getting to a proper edge and putting the old fella to work.  Someone once asked me if all tools have names, and yes they do, but with long use and familiarity they become extensions of ourselves, bonded through generations of craftsmen back to the hearth where this piece of steel first came to life.  I no longer have to think, “the Sorby framing chisel…” or “the small Addis gouge…” consciously.  The tool and I have become an identity, I become invisible, and WE have power.  Preciousss…

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The ragged end of a mid-summer full moon, a new star somewhere tonight.  Another birthday, another sleepless night.  A fresh grave in a clearing back in the pinewoods, hard handed men accustomed to dungarees and work boots standing in well-worn suits, umbrellas raised as they lay to rest one of their own.  Survived by…grief so raw, flowers sermons obituaries, Amazing Grace skirling into gray skies, slow steady rain, God’s tears.

Better days, riding country roads in a pickup truck, stopping at Pop’s place to sit and visit. He goes into the garden shed, comes out with a little oak barrel, pours us each a dram of homemade moonshine whisky (usquebaugh, water of life)…and at that moment I begin to understand what Abraham might have felt taking wine with Melchizedek…truths beyond our ken, genuine culture expressed in the small courtesies and hospitality of country folk sharing what they have.

Below the surface, an older South agrarian and self-sufficient never fully came to terms with the Civil War or it’s aftermath. Nothing to do with flags, plantations, or cheap whiskey, real southern roots are in Saxon England, the Scottish Highlands, Ireland’s eternal struggle…Jefferson’s yeomen farmers, small freeholders carrying in their genes the painful memories of enclosure, transportation, indenture, the loss and humiliation of the Highland clearances.  Determined to be free, southern highlanders didn’t fight in defense of slavery, but for a higher form of liberty.  We hold these truths…

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