by Mimi Hedl
Death Proscenium Garden in Decline
Ron and I both did most jobs. The exceptions: he cut the grass, worked on the truck, did the heavy lifting, the carpentry while I did most of the planting, weeding and sowing. I wish I’d watched more closely, all those jobs he did, now I have to learn without a teacher. And I start with a handicap, lack of patience. I curse myself every time I rush through a task. I realize I’ll spend the rest of my life learning the one virtue, yes one, I don’t have.
Back to the house I load my wheelbarrow with shovel, post-hole digger, tamping bar, tape measure and head out to the Medicinal garden. No sooner out than I realize I forgot gloves and walk the 150 paces back to the house. I will repeat this back and forth dozens of times before I complete the task. Always another tool, re-drilling a hole, cutting off a bit more, choosing another post….
The digging goes well. The earth, mellowed by years of added organic material, offers no resistance. The rotted post falls over and before long, I’ve gone down two feet, where I’ll plant the new post. In goes the post, I shovel in some soil, position the post and tamp, tamp, tamp down the soil.
This part of the job takes forever. I remember when we used to set corner fence posts or brace posts. It would be spring, the weather intoxicating. While Ron tamped the post in place, I’d do my best spring-appreciation, looking around at emerging leaves, watching birds flitting from tree to tree, even lying on the grass for awhile. I never thought to volunteer to tamp for awhile. It looked so easy. Oh my, oh my. Easy, yes, but repeated over and over and over. Your arms tire as do your hands, not to mention the jarring to your body.
I’d help add more soil and Ron would usually say, “Not so much!” I’d want to get the job done, fill the hole and move on. Ron knew that if you didn’t give the post proper instruction, it would wiggle and move, especially when a big bull leaned on it to scratch an itch.
So I follow this slow process, letting the post know I expect it to hold up this hops arbor for another thirty years. I feel grateful for my leather gloves and understand how Thirsty, one of Ron’s pen names, along with Romeo Romeo, Sylvester Clinkscales and Thersites, wore out so many pairs.
The second post doesn’t need to come out completely, as I can push it into a vertical position, tamp the soil, and call it set. Now, on to the next phase. (When you finish reading this, you’ll feel like you too did the job.)
Now that the foundation, the four main posts seemed secure, I wanted to join the front ones together and the back ones. I think by joining these two pairs with more than gravity, they will stay together. I thought I could stick a small post, horizontally, between them, nail it in, and call it good, pronounce them attached, forever together. Ah yes, the utter simplicity of an idea; if only…
This task would captivate most of the rest of the day. Remember, these cedars have scars from limbs, they don’t stand smooth, so when I tried to measure the distance between the two posts, I couldn’t get an accurate measure, mostly because I couldn’t hold the tape measure in place long enough. After more attempts than I’ll admit to, I picked up a piece of straight bamboo, and used it for a measuring stick.
(Whenever I have construction problems, I think of how girls, in general, never did this work growing up. We didn’t have a chance to learn, make mistakes, curse and then finally triumph. I used to watch Thirsty curse and rant and rave when things didn’t work out saying things like,”I’m nothing but a junk wood carpenter! Why can’t I ever have a fine piece of wood to work with!?” To which I’d reply, “because it wouldn’t match your personality or lifestyle.” So I allow myself all these mistakes, all the imperfections in work, because in my seventh decade, I’m just learning, and I feel proud I’m willing to take on the mantle of junk-wood carpenter.)
I took that measurement back to the saw horses, found an appropriate post, cut it, pre-drilled a few holes, and back to the arbor. As I mentioned, when cedar sits around for 30+ years and sheds the white outer bark, the heart wood becomes like iron, strong and mighty and not agreeable to hammering without first pre-drilling a hole. Thirsty didn’t have a portable drill, but he had green cedar and fresh cedar will accept a nail without drilling, so he simply pounded everything in. I do have a battery-powered drill, but it’s not very powerful so if I need to drill a big fat hole to slip a big fat nail into, I use the electric drill.
Well, when I pre-drilled the holes, I didn’t hold the post up to see where the holes should go, but I also figured it couldn’t make that much difference. Do you laugh with me or at me? I deserve both. When I got up on my stool to try to drill from the pre-drilled hole into the cedar post, the scars on the cedar, where and how they jutted out, made everything higgily jiggily .. I could not attach this cedar to the posts. If by now you’re wondering why in the tarnation I’m doing this rebuild, you are not alone.
Then I thought, well, I’ll just cut a cedar a little longer, use a 4# sledge hammer to beat it in place. After cutting, doing the 150 paces on several different pieces of cedar, I finally found one that cooperated. Yes!! I exclaimed, then went to work on the back set of posts, using the same technique, brute strength. When I beat the back one in, the front one fell out. Remember, I couldn’t nail these pieces in place because of all the odd protrusions on each post. I think I started to cry and call myself unkind names.
After lunch and a nap, I realized I needed to attach those horizontals differently. I walked 200 paces to the hay barn, where I store a wonderful collection of, well, junk wood, some pine, some treated, but mostly old, beautiful barn wood, oak, weathered to a gorgeous gray, just like me and found a 2″x4″ chunk I cut into blocks, pre-drilled holes, and attached the blocks under the place the horizontal will go. This gave me a platform to rest the horizontal so I could breathe deeply and declare “I’m a genius!” and nail the cedar into the block at my leisure.
This worked beautifully. I started to feel more confident. I found a cedar that squeezed into the space between the back two posts, hammered it in place, it held, then got up on the stool, drilled holes in this small cedar, and sent it home. Now I needed to attach the long horizontal that sits on top of the posts, front to back, to box all the posts together.
When I had selected the post that needed replacing, the front one, I’d drilled an over-sized hole in the top, dead center, as I realized, genius that I am, that I wouldn’t be able to drill this big hole with my portable drill, so I drilled it at the saw horses. So now I had one pre-ordained hole for the long horizontal. I just had to match the hole on the horizontal to line-up with this hole. (If you’re tired of all this, think about how I felt!)
First I’d mark where the hole should go, carry the post back to the saw horses and drill the hole. Then I’d carry the long cedar back to the site, drop the big nail in the over-sized hole and look for the hole in the post, discover the angle was slightly off so the pole wouldn’t sit/lay properly. Then I’d have to do the 150 steps again, and again, trying to get everything to line up. Finally it works out. I trudge back to the house. It’s way past quitting time, I feel spent, ready for a beer and the news, hoping I have leftovers in the fridge because I have zero energy to make dinner.
The next day, revived from a sound sleep, I go out to the arbor and begin positioning the vertical posts against each side. I reject a few as too short, and have more stored behind the woodshed to choose from. The horizontals go in between all the verticals, so they all help each other stay in place. The interlocking strategy. What could look more simple than this humble hops arbor. Imagine it covered, completely covered with hops vines, greater celandine and daffodils at its feet, followed by valerian and columbines, blue bells and thimbleweed. Any number of other medicinals leaning against it as the head gardener ducks inside the shady tunnel on a scorching summer day. Only you and I will know the history of this lovely entrance.