The wall is a stack of railroad ties linked by rebar to hold the earth from the hillside back from the basement sidewalk. We salvaged the railroad ties from the railroad’s right of way that cuts through our pasture; they were free, sturdy, and heavily impregnated with tar so they will resist water. We also consider them a tiny payback for the trash we pick up that is discarded by track crews, and the fires occasionally started by the trains.
The wall decorations are rusty antique tools, mostly discarded by my father and hauled out to our personal dump in the pasture. Whenever we walk through the dump, my eye is drawn to some shape that I pick up and bring home. I chuckle every time, because I can see my father shaking his head in exasperation. He spent all that time and energy lugging that stuff out of his yard and buildings, only to have me drag it back in.
Visitors sometimes puzzle over the objects, their functions already a mystery to most. I have used several of these tools, and at least know the purpose of those older than I. After my generation of rural folks is gone, their stories may be a mystery. Another owner might haul them to the recycling center—or back to the pasture where my father dumped them.
But for now, look at some of these tools rusting gently on the wall. Worn horse shoes testify to the miles walked by Bud and Beauty, the work team. Next to them are the ornate legs of stoves and washing machines that a woman may have noticed when they were new, but stopped noticing as she worked over them for years. Here are the hobbles we used to keep the wild range cows from kicking while we were milking them or persuading them to let their calves suck if they rejected their babies. Gears, hinges, pick heads, hand rakes and the teeth from the dump rake I hauled for miles behind my tractor picking up hay for my father to stack. Chains, pliers, and a couple of chain boomers, winches that we used for everything from fastening gates to hauling pickups out of the mud. Several pieces of iron are unidentifiable, swooping curves of metal with rings, probably part of a horse harness. Several wheels with broken teeth hang beside a couple of stirrups pulled apart when a rider long ago was caught in a disagreement with an unruly horse.
The outside Iron Wall isn’t my only collection of rusty antiques. In the basement bathroom is another: this one a repository of small iron objects, and I could argue that I collected them for their beauty as well as their utilitarian charm. Here are hand-forged hooks made for various gates and cupboards in the barn. I’ve saved a hand-forged screwdriver, its length bumpy with hammer marks from that long-ago blacksmith. Jerry built a wooden rack to collect all the horse-shoe nails and square nails we’ve picked up in the area around his shop, where a school once stood. Hanging high are a couple of vicious-looking hay hooks I kept handy when I was living here alone. On the wall are buckles and fastenings from horse harnesses that dried and stiffened into unusable piles of leather in the hay loft.
Suspended in a neat row are several hand-forged nipple picks used to clean black powder from the firing pins, or flash channels, of cap and ball weapons. Two calipers curve against the cream-colored wall. A small fork was part of my child-sized pitchfork for feeding my horse, one of my first chores. A blackened leather bull whip drapes over a nail next to a crude wrench used for wagon wheels. I saved one of the horn weights we used to make a Hereford bull’s horns grow into the gentle curve that was both attractive and safer for the cows and for us. Like the tools outside, many of these are ones I used.
Why have I brought all this stuff into to my home? Am I longing nostalgically for a return to the past?
Absolutely not. While I admire much of the tone of the past, particularly as I lived it on this ranch, I don’t believe everything was better then. My childhood had many fine aspects but it was not a purely idyllic time and place. For example, as the debate rages nationwide about whether or not to vaccinate children against measles, I remember the terror with which my parents discussed whether or not I should be protected against polio—until a friend contracted the disease and was crippled.
By writing about this collection of rusty stuff, I have come to understand that I collect these things because they remind me to respect time, both in my writing and in my life outside of writing.
To make the hand-forged gate hooks for our barn, for example, required that the blacksmith own and know how to operate a forge, collect the appropriate tools and supplies of metal. One didn’t fire up a forge to make one hook, so he probably had a number of forging jobs to do that day. He may have taught himself to work iron because he knew he’d need that skill to save money on the ranch. Or perhaps someone in this neighborhood was a blacksmith, and the others ordered what they needed from him, paying in cash or perhaps in beef.
The blacksmith had to select the steel, then build a small fire in his forge to ignite the coal. He used a bellows or a hand-cranked blower to add air to the fire until the coal is burning well. Then he thrust the steel into the coal while continuing to use the bellows or blower to add air.
My partner Jerry has worked at becoming more skilled as a blacksmith since he retired. He tells me that the blacksmith must heat the steel just enough, but not too much. “Reddish-orange to bright orange is good,” he says. If the steel becomes white hot, it will simply burn up.
When the steel is just orange enough, the blacksmith removes it from the fire and begins to shape it. To make a hook, he probably first formed the hook on one end and the loop on the other and then reheated the steel. When the center portion was hot enough, he put the hook in a vise and turned the steel with a turning fork or tongs to create the twist. The twist might add a little lateral strength, Jerry says, but likely it was purely for decoration. Perhaps the hook wasn’t originally made for the barn, but for a home. Still, no matter where it was originally placed, it was created by a man who had plenty of things to do, and still added a flourish to his work. Finally, he quenched the finished hook in a bucket of water, and probably started to make another.
Not only does the blacksmith need materials and skill, he needs time and patience. When Jerry spend a day blacksmithing, he’s already done the planning, thinking about the project off and on through days of doing other work, and evenings of eating good food, watching movies, talking as we play Scrabble or Rummykub. After he has chosen his next project, he collects the materials and waits for a day when the wood stove in the blacksmith shop will heat the place enough so he can work without freezing solid.
Then he must go through each step, slowly and patiently, heating and reheating and hammering until he has created what he visualized. I don’t know what he thinks about, but I know he thinks because hammering iron requires patience and allows time for considering other matters.
Suddenly the similarity between writing and blacksmithing is obvious. Writing, too, requires planning and the ability to imagine the finished product from the crude materials.
I collect the steel of the idea, heating it in the forge of my mind (with plenty of help from air whooshing through the coal!) until I can beat it into shape with my words. I write while the idea is red hot, watch it cool as I revise, all the while keeping the coal hot and ready. I print out a draft, read it, scribble on it as I rebuild the fire, to recapture the heat of composition. I pound and sweat and mumble until I’m satisfied.
Like the books that line my study, these hand-shaped tools symbolize the patience required by writing, or by any other hand-forged creation.
And let’s take the writing and blacksmithing resemblance one more step. Once you have patiently written about a particular issue, you might shape the result in many different ways: as an argumentative essay, as a poem, as a memoir, or as fiction.
So when the handy table by our basement door collapsed from age, I asked Jerry if he could use some of my rusty antiques to make another.
The result is a triumph of recycling, including a couple of steel posts, some hoof clippers, a car jack, a hand drill, some rebar and part of a horse-drawn wagon. Topped with some redwood recycled from the deck we just replaced, the table stands sturdily by the basement door, ready for anything we may stack on it.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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