Autumn clapboarding

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange thinks that Autumn is the most pleasant time of year for what he says is the most pleasant kind of carpentry work.

(LANGE) We human beings have pretty much lost our seasonal behaviors. We still do woodpiles; but smokehouses, ice houses, and root cellars are mostly memories. Still, there’s something in the fading light of shortening days that stirs both melancholy and anxiety. In my case, it was seeing how much siding I still had to put onto the house before my staging planks were capped with snow.

Our neighborhood deer are changing from the copper of summer to gray winter coats. They must find the dying of the leaves disagreeable. Soon our roadsides will be dotted with four-wheel-drive pickups pulled over onto the shoulders, and the woods full of serious-faced men in camouflage perched on tree stands. During the summer the deer often stay right in the lower yard, even if I’m pounding nails or mowing the lawn. But they’ve begun to disappear.

Gray fall days are perfect for carpentry. No bright sun to raise a sweat or cast a harsh shadow on pencil marks. The clink of a splitting maul on a steel wedge; the rumble of firewood dumped into a wheelbarrow. The roar of faraway events; earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, war, investigations, indictments is muted here; here where the brightening leaves and a wind that could be cold, but isn’t, remind us this can’t last, and it’s time to do what needs to be done.

I hauled the work table and chop saw out of the garage and set up in the yard. The clapboards, lovely red cedar, came out of the barn. The nail apron, with its comfortable suspenders and the familiar tools, hung around my waist. A pocket of small stainless steel nails; radio, coffee mug, pencil sharpener. Who could ask for more?

Driving around New England, I’m intrigued by the thousands of wooden houses, each covered in thousands of board feet of clapboards, and by the amount of work it took, over hundreds of years, to put them there. I see phantom carpenters kneeling on the ground, climbing ladders, up on staging, calling down measurements and lighthearted abuse to the sawyers on the ground below. There’s no modern tool yet that drives the little clapboard nails with the delicacy required, so the sound of the hammer – probably our oldest tool – pounds through the woods just as it did at Plymoth Plantation, four hundred years ago. The work hasn’t changed since then, and requires care, because it’s the first thing people, especially other carpenters, see when they approach the house.

I thought of my grandfather, who often quoted this admonition from Second Timothy: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Sixty-five years later I still don’t know how to divide the word of truth, but I get the idea.

Working alone, we shut out the world. Everything important happens within the span of our arms. But then I heard a cry, and looked up to see a wedge of wild geese headed down the river.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire. I gotta get back to work.

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