Wednesday, May 04, 2016

You don't have to live like they tell you: Jack's violin bows, Graydon's war bow, and landscaping with ancient tiles...

JACK from Grace Jackson on Vimeo.
Meet Jack. He's 93, and he makes violin bows to make ends meet.

"Life has its's how well you contend with those problems that's going to be the result..."

Graydon's Longbow

A friend of mine who lives as a "freelance hermit" at home with her family, praying and thinking about things in the Carmelite way, says that one of the most important things she learned in her three years in her Carmelite monastery was how crucial manual labour is.

I knew an independent-minded guy once who wanted to learn woodworking, and taught himself with a special project. He was fascinated with history and was greatly puzzled by the incredible success of the English yew longbow in the wars with France in the 14th and 15th centuries. He had friends who did archery and couldn't figure out how a bow could possibly punch an arrow through plate armour, as the English bow had done at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. So he decided to build one and test it out. He didn't have a workshop, so he just turned his apartment (third floor) living room into a workshop. He wanted the experiment to be completely authentic, so he used no power tools. He researched at the library and spoke to people who did hand woodwork.

In the end, he had built himself a laminated yew longbow, with all the materials according to period sources. It was huge. He was a big guy, standing at least 6 foot 4. But this thing was taller by far, unstrung. He was able to bend it, but only because he was so strong. I couldn't budge the thing. We tested it and it was an 85 pound pull. (A normal target archery bow is usually no more than about 30 pounds.) He brought it to archery practice one evening, and we all clustered around. He pulled, and the arrow made a sound like a bullet. Our ordinary target bows would go the full length of the indoor range, and leave the arrow well buried in the straw butt. With this terrifying weapon, the arrow went all the way through the butt and lodged itself an inch into the concrete cinder block behind it. He had brought along a piece of 16 gauge hot-rolled steel, quite a bit stronger than the steel of the knights' armour would have been. The arrow punched right through it. My friend was very pleased and we all congratulated him. Graydon was not the kind of guy who was interested in living the way other people lived.

Do something physical every day.

Early stages. Mid-March. The bean poles are partly bamboo poles I bought, and partly rose canes I collected. I've made some of the rose canes into an arch, and they have sprouted new wild rose shoots in the pots. Free roses!

Bertie, among the potted roses. The big glass thing is an old insulator that fell off a power pole. You find all sorts of cool things if you just get out of the house once in a while. 

Henry. All growed up and looking for things to kill. During our warm spell in March, he was catching a lizard a day. 

Pippy and the flowering plum tree.You can see the slope of the back garden looming up. That's the neighbour's retaining wall way up there. But the whole thing is now covered in widlflowers. And it's poppy season. The birds and butterflies love it.

I've moved on from merely gardening to starting full scale landscaping.

I've decided to build a little pavement on the flat bit.

There is very little flat ground in the garden, with most of it being a very rocky slope of about 30-45 degrees with a thin layer of good soil. But the soil gets washed down the slope and lands on the little flat strip at the bottom. Out of this,

My veg patch. There are two rows of sunflowers on each end now. But I'm glad I didn't plant out the pumpkin seedlings. We had a nasty night of hard frost in mid-April that nearly killed my potatoes and has killed all the wisteria in town. I've got pumpkins, tomatoes and beets ready to go in. Maurizio at the monks' shop told me the locals only plant after Saint Rita's day, just to be sure.
I've dug a little veg patch, about eight feet long by three feet wide. There's room for a bit more, but the soil is very poor. I've been composting like mad, but really the best we can do is to do things in little patches, which I shore up with big stones (there's lots, and lots of stones) into steps. Everything else is in pots. There is a little squarish patch in front of the front porch thingy where there is soil but it's become very compacted and even the weeds won't really grow on it. But it's in a little alcove with pots of flowers on one side and the terraced slope on the other. If there were a little bit of pavement there, it would be a nice sheltered place to sit and have tea and maybe write in the summer. So I've started collecting tiles.

In this part of Italy, one of the most important building materials were these big, rectangular terracotta tiles, really just thin bricks, made from the local red clay and fired very hard. They're about 18 inches by 8 inches and two to three inches thick and were used to build walls and floors in the Old Days. All the ruins nearby are like little quarries of ancient and medieval building materials. And there are lots of these old houses and buildings obviously having simply been abandoned - probably hundreds of years ago - and forgotten. They sit like big piles of dressed and sometimes carved rocks in the middle of fields, often with the farmers just calmly ploughing and planting around them, as though they are just natural features of the landscape.

One of the bigger ruins. About a half hour hike from my house. 
This is just how things are in Italy. There's so much old stuff lying around that no one really cares about it. (I had always wondered how St. Francis of Assisi could have just found an old church and started rebuilding it. Where I come from, anything older than 75 years has a velvet rope around it and a preservation society. But I wonder no more. There are so many old ruined churches around here abouts that I have had half a mind to do the same thing, just for the fun of it.) A few weeks ago, I had a stomp around and discovered one of these ancient farm houses on the hill almost directly above my house. It was so tumbled that from the road further up it was entirely invisible, looking like just a hump in the ground with some hazel trees on it. But from the other side, you can see a big pit that was once the root cellar, the crumbling remains of walls and even a stone doorway with scraps of the old timber lintel. In front of it, once upon a long time ago, there had been a little pear orchard, and the trees are obviously still fruiting. Around and over top of it is a stand of hazel, mixed with wild roses. I'll be making a point of visiting it a great deal for building materials, and I'll take some pics for y'all next time I go up there.

There's little remaining of the house, though, and not much in the way of tiles. So to find those, I went the other day to a place near the bottom of the valley, about half way between here and the little village of Serravale, where the ruins of a medieval mill - quite a large and important one in its day, I guess - sits like a big pile of useful abandoned things. The place has three stone lined tunnels that run underneath where the water ran through and turned the millstones. But now, the tunnels run under what looks like a big hill, covered in grass and weeds and small trees on one side. On the other the remains of a whole large stone building can be found. No roof, but the walls mostly intact. You can climb up over the walls and down into the room, but there is a small hill of tumbled stones, clay bricks and tiles inside. It can be pretty dangerous, with everything being loose and lots of sharp, pointy bits sticking up, and the whole thing potentially sliding out from under your feet at any moment. It's so cool! I can't resist it.

The other day I went down there and collected up seven tiles, which together must have weighed about 50 pounds. It was all I could carry with my backpack, and I only just managed to get them back as far as my bike. I loaded them into the bike's baskets and pedalled very slowly back to town. I figure I could get maybe a dozen back if I go down with my wheelie shopping cart.

They're really beautiful tiles, with a patina of age on them, but good and sturdy, and each one different. Nothing like the thin, machine-made and artificially identical ceramic floor tiles you see in most people's terraces and houses. I've figured out that I could create a little rustico terrace with about 30 of them. Place them a little apart and fill in the spaces with a little potting soil and plant some of the wild thyme that grows on my rocky slope in between, so when you walk on them in the summer, the scent of thyme will fill the air.

The same rainy day I also brought home a collection of new plants. A beautiful aquilegia, three wild strawberry plants, some blue comfrey and a bunch of thyme.

You don't have to live like they tell you.



Anonymous said...


"You don;t have to live like they tell you..."


Great article. My children want one of Jack's violin bows...



Martha said...

That was such an awesome and inspiring post!! I long to explore those ruins, build (and live in) a cabin in the woods, build that trebuchet I've always wanted to (who knows why...)...

It's so true; building, creating, physical work has rewards that cannot be measured. Thanks for posting this.