At the basement entrance to our house stands our Iron Wall, a retaining barrier covered with old rusty tools.
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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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog
At the basement entrance to our house stands our Iron Wall, a retaining barrier covered with old rusty tools.
On a recent reading trip, I stayed a couple of nights with Deb and Tim Nolting in Bushnell, NE. Deb is a teacher, singer, poet. (See her website at www.LeadersAndLegends.com)
Recently, Deb has been making journals for her students using recycled materials. The journal covers are taken from discarded Reader’s Digest condensed books, surely a source that may be almost inexhaustible. Probably the only published material that exists in greater quantities is the supply of National Geographic magazines in the nation’s attics and basements.
Deb has sliced off the book covers and has hundreds, maybe thousands, stacked on shelves in her home office (and boxes and boxes more in storage, she says.) She also collects all kinds of paper: old notebook pages, notepads from advertisers, deckle-edged paper in delicate hues, everything.
When she offered to make me a journal, I leaped at the chance to see how she does it.
From her stacks I selected first the cover– a dark brown with an embossed horse. Then I looked over the shelves for the front matter and chose a page that said “Ex Libris.”
For the interior of the journal, I chose a notepad from a pharmaceutical company that had Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man at the top. She was able to slice off the advertising from the bottom, leaving me with lined pages decorated with a pen and ink sketch of the proper proportions of a naked man at the top of each one. Surely my notes in this journal will be particularly profound.
Once she’d trimmed everything to size, she moved to the table containing the single machine which allows her to put all these elements together. She bought the binder at www.mybinding.com; several moderately-priced models exist.
First she set the machine for the size of covers she was using, so that it punched 21 holes for the spiral binding in the cover. Then she punched the interior pages and finally the front cover.
Once the covers and pages were aligned, she slipped the book into another slot in the machine. She cut a length of spiral binding with 21 holes and used the machine to apply it instantly. Still using the machine, she crimped the binding to fit the book.
Voila! A personal, handmade journal. She says she enjoys making the journals so much she could do it all the time. I hope she will eventually make them available for sale, possibly in her daughters' book shop, The Sisters Grimm.
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Don’t let that jack-o’-lantern rot! A very small pumpkin, say 8-10 inch diameter, will produce 8-10 cups flesh: fresh pumpkin that can become pie, bread, cookies or a dozen other delicacies for the season.
When you carve the pumpkin, save the seeds for tasty eating. Wash and remove as much of the fiber as possible, but it’s easy to crumble off after the seeds are cooked. Spread seeds to dry on a towel. Bring to boil several quarts of water with 2 tablespoons salt added. Add pumpkin seeds; boil 10 minutes. Cool. Spread on a baking sheet. Pour over a mixture of butter, flavored oil (we like chile oil), soy sauce. Taste and see what flavorings you prefer. Bake in 300-degree oven for a half hour or so, stirring often to be sure they don’t burn.
When you’re ready to turn that carved pumpkin into food, first cut away any parts singed by the candle and scoop out any wax.
Put a steamer rack or pan lid in the bottom of a large pot– something to hold the pumpkin out of the water. Add only ½ inch or so of water– the pumpkin should not be touching liquid or it will absorb it like a sponge.
Cut the pumpkin into several pieces and place them in the pot. Steam on low heat until you can prick the flesh with a fork and it’s soft enough to mash.
When the flesh is tender, let cool. Then peel inside and out; the stringy lining scrapes right off. Compost the peels if you don’t have grateful chickens.
Mash the flesh with a potato masher and measure. Store in two-cup batches in plastic containers and it’s ready to use for pumpkin pie, bread, or to freeze until Thanksgiving.
Look for varied recipes: I have a delicious pie recipe from New Mexico that includes cayenne powder and another for a cooked filling (www.cookscountry.com) smoother than most pies and lasts longer in the refrigerator– though that may not be an issue.
I’ve also successfully dried sliced pumpkin in my food dryer; (see www.dryit.com for plans or to buy a completed dryer). Slice the raw pumpkin in thin slices, steam and then dry; the pumpkin keeps for months, years. To reconstitute it, place the slices in a bowl of milk in the refrigerator; they make delicious pie.
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Here’s an instance of gleaning from the ranch past.
When I moved back to the ranch with my second husband, I kept hens for meat and eggs, feeding them vegetable peelings and the neighbors’ grain. They roamed a large fenced yard in front of their tiny, insulated house near my garden, and ate trimmings from the vegetables I harvested, and table scraps from my kitchen.
One day, leaving the supermarket parking lot, I realized one dumpster was overflowing: wrapped heads of lettuce had lifted the lid, tumbled across the asphalt. I slammed on the brakes, and filled my pickup bed, then piled the excess outside the chicken yard, and fed the ladies a head of lettuce a day for weeks.
Every time I went to town after that, I passed the trash bins after shopping, and collected discarded lettuce, radishes, turnips, potatoes. My chickens gathered clucking at the gate when they saw my pickup, and their egg yolks turned a rich yellow.
Once, a store clerk dumping bottles of salad dressing questioned me, but when I explained that I feeding my chickens on waste he shrugged and went back inside.
After Mother’s Day, I filled the entire bed of my pickup with carnations, and collected a friend who rode in back of the truck flinging flowers as I drove down the street, tossing them into open car windows at stop lights. We detoured to the poorest part of town and handed a fistful of carnations to every woman we saw.
Then one day I pulled up to my dumpster and saw a clerk standing on a ladder beside it, stabbing the packaged heads of lettuce with a long knife and pouring bleach over them.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked, perhaps a little hysterically.
“Management says people have been taking this stuff out and eating it, and they’re afraid somebody will get sick and sue us,” he said.
I suggested that people hungry enough to eat out of dumpsters probably didn’t have the number of an attorney at their fingertips, but he wasn’t the manager, and he was, as he reminded me, “just doing his job.”
When I got home, I called my extension agent. Bleach wouldn’t hurt the chickens, he said; in fact, it ought to eliminate stomach parasites.
I kept collecting vegetables, but I also wrote letters to the chain store’s management, urging them to donate the food to the shelters and other good causes in town. Eventually, the trash containers were empty of vegetables when I made my rounds, so perhaps my gleaning chickens helped change wasteful policies. I tried to explain to them, but they couldn’t keep their minds on my speech. They kept eying the grass in the pen, snatching grasshoppers. Gleaning.
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