Welcome back to Magnetic North, where winter is loosening her grip, often with unintended consequences. It’s true. Just when warmth and light appear, the trees that were just hanging on, suddenly snap or fall down. Spring is a toughie. So much expectation. And for some of us, that is a bit staggering.
I think of this simply because the roof of a old shed just off our driveway collapsed sometime in the past week. No wind, no storm. Just age and spring thaw. Can anyone out there relate? I can!
We call it Johnny’s shed. It was home to a fellow by that name who made his living back in the old days logging and doing odd jobs for folks. His pay was three squares and a permission to park his modest home somewhere on the property. Often, after a few years, he and his cabin would move on. But our land was to be Johnny’s last move,
Johnny’s shed - which is what it looks like, really - is a ten by twenty foot one-room affair. Tar paper covers it, although over the decades more board than tar paper shows. It has a window on each side and the back and one door. The door, being a few feet off the ground on account of snow and all, is easy enough to clamber into in fair weather as long as you replace the stumps that serve for steps when need be.
We use Johnny’s shed for storing stuff - you know, stuff too good to toss, too meaningful to sell and too useless to earn space inside our home or garage. My mother’s garishly painted after dinner drink glasses, an outboard motor approaching museum quality status, a rusty exercise bike and various busted out window frames, spare shingles, lengths of rusted chain and, of course, a mystery box sealed in duct tape.
Well, that box and all else is wedged under the slender beams which once held aloft Johnny’s roof. And I am sorry for that. Sorry, not because I covet the stuff. I mourn those occasional forays into the old shed, always in search of something that I can’t find anywhere else. Having either found or given up on my quarry, I’d spend most of my time in there just looking around. Imagining how it might have been when Johnny’s wood stove was roaring on a cold night back in the fifties, after a hard day’s work, with so many dark hours until dawn.
Johnny hung his belongings, what few he had, from the wall joists and ceiling beams. The wooden pegs and hooks are still there. There is just on built-in shelf. Nothing more. I furnish the place in my mind with a barrel stove, a single bed strewn with assorted quilts and blankets, a wooden straightback chair and some kind of rectangular metal chest for his clothing and personal belongings that could serve as a table. No rug. But a length of wool blanket near the stove for the barn cat in winter. Of that I am certain.
Hidden outside is the skeleton of an old mill. A cobbled together frame upon which scavenged vehicle motor served to power belts and blade, a spare but essential contraption that processed the valuable white pine, cedar, maple and birch which once flourished here.
Even further back in the forest behind his abode, there’s a nearly collapsed smoke shed for fish and the yearly pig. And even farther off are still a few rotting cedar posts strung with barbed wire to contain the few cattle kept on the homestead.
Not a spring goes by in the twenty years since Paul and I moved to this place that I don’t unearth or trip over a bit of history, almost all of it once surely touched by Johnny.
* An old maul made of a mighty stump and a length of hardwood.
*A bedspring with chains attached to one end, the original trail clearing device.
*A wooden sled with hand-forged runners.
Each artifact is way better than scrapbook pictures in portraying one man’s simple, but amazingly rich life in the woods.
And now, Johnny’s shed itself is on its way back the soil, there to join the rest of his life’s tools and toils. It was just time, that’s all.
Last summer, the old shed called to me on so many days when I was too busy to visit it. On my to-do list often I scribbled, “get good stuff out of Johnny’s” but I put it off. That’s OK. I realized while writing this that I DID get “the good stuff” out of Johnny’s. I got to know a guy who chose this place to live, just like me. Who gazed up at the same Milky Way and full moons that I do. Who was so very different and yet so very much like Paul and me.
Yes, winter’s grip is loosened. And without that to pull against, some things just go boom. But so far, not yours truly. Knock wood.
Airdate: April 11, 2011
Photo courtesy of Mike Houge via Flickr.