The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age

The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age

by Howard Mansfield


View All Available Formats & Editions

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781584651178
Publisher: University Press of New England
Publication date: 06/01/2001
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

HOWARD MANSFIELD, journalist and author of Skylark: The Life, Lies, and Inventions of Harry Atwood (UPNE, 1999), In the Memory House (1993), and Cosmopolis (1990), lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Back when I went to school, there was an administrator, a vice-president of something or other, who was given to rough-hewn statements, the kind of homilies that were meant to show his populist stuff. He was particularly set on tearing down the wooden houses on campus. They just weren't practical.

    We said: They can be repaired. There are wooden houses that have stood for hundreds of years. And all buildings, no matter the material, need repair and renewal.

    He said: I know a farmer who says he has had the same ax his whole life—he only changed the handle three times and the head two times. Does he have the same ax?

    I did not have a good reply then. But in the twenty years since, talking with preservationists, carpenters, and architects, I have come to realize that so many controversies about saving and rebuilding are to be found in this one old joke. The debates about the restoration of the Parthenon or about the vinyl siding your neighbor has put on his 1789 cape come down to this one question: Do we have the same ax? I would answer with two riddles.

    What's the oldest unchanged house in the world?

    Hint: It is made of a common material and lasts only a season. It is a house of water.

    Igloos, a form unchanged for 50,000 years, are said to be the oldest shelter known. Each single igloo was a perishable item, but represented a tradition that lived until recently. One winter's igloo was a song in a performance lasting thousands of years. The Inuit wouldn't try tomaintain an Inuit Colonial Williamsburg, a freezer-land world of ancient igloos. It would be like having a museum of silent pianos, instead of a music school.

    Another riddle: The most rebuilt wooden structures in the world are the most unchanged.

    The Ise Shrine in Japan has been rebuilt almost every twenty years since the year 690 A.D. The Outer (Geku) and Inner (Naiku) and the fourteen affiliated shrines were rebuilt for the sixty-first time in 1993.

    The Shinto shrine to the goddess of the sun is made of wood. The Japanese and Chinese conserve by copying and rebuilding. This is, after all, how the body maintains itself, replacing cells. We are, and are not, the same person we were only a year ago. In the West we are used to monuments of stone, the pyramids standing against time. To the Japanese, Ise is 1,300 years old. It is the same ax, rebuilt sixty-one times. Not to the keepers of the lists: Ise is not ancient enough to be on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

    Completely rebuilding a shrine was once the common practice. Ise is the only shrine to carry the tradition forward. The Imbe priests begin the rebuilding with prayers to the mountains to protect the workers who are cutting the timber for the new shrine.

    Both the Outer and Inner shrines are divided into eastern and western sectors. The new shrine is built in one sector, before the old shrine, in the other sector, is disassembled. The heart pillar is left standing, dressed with a sacred evergreen tree and protected by a little house. The new shrine has as its companion an empty white-graveled space. The bright new wood of the rebuilt shrine and the crisp thatched roof begin to dull in the sun, marking the time until the next rebuilding.

    There have been some changes in 1,300 years. Ise is not an exact replica. Back in 690, after the Imperial Works Bureau took over the shrine building from the Imbe priests, they added some gold-colored fittings, and enlarged the Outer shrine. In the middle ages there was war in the Japanese islands, and for more than 120 years the shrine was a neglected ruin. When the rebuilding began after this upheaval, there were changes in the location of some shrine buildings, in the alignment of the roof and doors, and in the joinery. Much later, added ornamentation, a Victorian opulence, snuck in during the Meiji era (1868-1912), and has since been removed. And over the years the craftsmen have given up many specialized tools, as the taste changed from a rougher look to a refined finish.

    But for an object that has passed through thousands of hands, in a society as changed as Japan's, this is as pure as it may get. Ise, the scholars say, maintains the original "rigid distinction between sacred and profane space within the shrine precinct and the elaborately styled and refined features of each shrine sanctuary."

    So, does that farmer have the same ax? Yes. His ax is an igloo, and a Shinto shrine. He possesses the same ax even more than a neighboring farmer who may have never repaired his own ax. To remake a thing correctly is to discover its essence.

    A tool has a double life. It exists in the physical sense, all metal and wood, and it lives in the heart and the mind. Without these two lives, the tool dies. The farmer who restored his ax has a truer sense of that ax. He has the history of ax building in his hands. Museums are filled with cases of tools that no one knows how to use anymore. A repaired ax is a living tradition.

We have our own Ise Shrine, our igloo, a U.S. government-sized farmer's ax, the U.S.S. Constitution, Old Ironsides, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

    The Constitution saw its last battle in 1815, but it is still commissioned on the active roster, a part of our national defense. A duty crew sleeps on board each night. The ship has survived some close calls with oblivion—being saved one time when a poem, "Old Ironsides" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., rallied the public, and another time with pennies collected from the nation's school children. In 1905 the Navy had recommended using the decaying hull for target practice. In the early 1920s the ship leaked so badly the hull had to be pumped out by a tug each morning.

    Saving a wooden ship is a job that's never finished. The Constitution has been rebuilt and repaired in 1833, 1858, 1871-77, 1906, 1927-30, 1953, 1963-65, 1973-75, and the most recent and most extensive restoration, 1992-96. (At the same time that the Ise Shrine was rebuilding.)

    Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of Old Ironsides (depending on who you talk to) is original. The farther down you go, the older the wood is: dating from 1851 below the waterline. The keel is original. "Salt water is not an enemy of the ship. Fresh water is what rots the ship," says ship restorer Ralph McCutcheon. A ship is like an old house without a roof.

    How could this be the same ax? Old Ironsides is more like a wooden garden. This an ancient philosophical question. But then historic preservation is old-time philosophy. Any time you open a wall, try to match a historic color, any time you stop to ask, "Now just what is it that we are looking at?," you are back there with the ancients questioning reality and its perception. The ancient Athenians also had a ship they maintained, one that was said to have belonged to the great Theseus.

    Theseus, a hero whose story evolved from a wildman adventurer to a civic founder, was the "most famous and revered of all the heroes of ancient Athens," says Anne G. Ward in The Quest for Theseus. "To the classical Athenians he was an immediate and real figure." Theseus slew the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, defeated the Centaurs, and united Athens as one city-state. His legend was a part of daily life: Theseus was celebrated on pottery, in sculpture, painting, poetry, and in several shrines, including his ship. Each year, to commemorate Theseus's journey, the Athenians sailed his ship on a sacred mission to Delos. During that time, the city was kept pure. This was the voyage that delayed Socrates' execution.

    "The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, [280 B.C.]," Plutarch notes, "for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers ... one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."

    If another entire ship were made of the discarded planks, this debate continued, then some claimed there would be two identical, authentic ships. ("Which is absurd," said Thomas Hobbes.)

    We tend to settle this question for ourselves pragmatically by having it both ways—it is and is not the same ship—and we get on with the other demands of life, such as food, shelter, and status.

    Consider "the most famous basketball floor in the world—the Boston Garden Parquet" (as appraised by Red Auerbach). Like any sacred object, mythical powers have been attributed to the floor: hidden dead spots that stop other teams in mid-dribble. First set down in 1946, most of the boards have been replaced, and yet care was taken to move this floor to the Celtic's new arena. An Associated Press report is captive, in short space, to both sides of the ancient ship debate. Headline: "New house, same old parquet." Last sentence: "Although the same floor has been used for 48 years, most of the original structure has probably been replaced."

When I visit the U.S.S. Constitution, the ship, undefeated in battle, looks as if it has been seized by the crew of This Old House. Squeezed into the pinched quarters of the low-ceilinged decks is a modern construction site: metal scaffolding, yellow "caution" tape, work lights, workers in hard-hats hammering, sawing. Up toward the bow a radio is playing a wailing guitar riff from some early 1970s rock hit.

    A sailor leads a tour group through the undressed decks. The sailor is wearing a Navy uniform from 1812: a short, double-breasted matador-like jacket with wide lapels, and a cowboy-like hat with a streamer behind. He is talking about shipboard life in 1800—a ship jammed with 450 men (room for only half to sleep at one time), livestock, cannons. But much is missing on his tour, such as the entire captain's quarters, and all 54 cannons, which lie bedded in a shed up the dock, like a small herd of iron cattle.

    A drill whines as it bites into some dense live oak. Behind the small tour group several men are guiding a new plank in through the cargo hatch, calling and signaling to the crane high overhead.

    Some visitors go away disappointed, sorry that the museum has been disrupted. But far from being an interruption, this restoration is the life of the ship. The Navy's oldest commissioned warship is kept alive with a mix of ancient skills, power tools, and materials both traditional and updated. The Constitution is not a ship in a bottle.

Before this restoration began, drawings of a sister ship, the President, were discovered in British archives. The British had captured the President in the Warof 1812, and studied its impressive construction. The Navy learned that the Constitution, through its many rebuildings and near destruction, had lost some important structural bracing.

    Massive braces are being replaced to fight "hogging," the natural buoyancy that pushes up the middle of the ship, threatening, over time, to break the keel. The Constitution had hogged more than 13 inches. To lessen the hogging, for more than fifty years the ship has been without its seven-ton rudder. The ship is receiving a rudder, new masts, new rigging, and is being reclad below the waterline with sixteen tons of copper, supplied by the original contractor, Paul Reveres old company.

    "It's a very unusual opportunity," says Ralph McCutcheon, proud to be one of forty on the restoration crew, the same number that worked on the other two major restorations this century. "Within the last hundred years that's only one hundred and twenty people hired to do this work. That's a select group. You try to do the best you physically can. You try. You're creating longevity for the ship. It's going to be two hundred years old and you want to make damn well sure its going to last to three hundred years."

    Inside the repair and maintenance shop, up in the rigging loft, three men are carefully tailoring 27 miles of line. This is the first new, complete rig since 1927. Thick black ropes lie all over the floor. There is the strong smell of pine tar. Frank Brackett, age seventy-three, whose father was a rigger, works at a rigging vise that can be seen in use in a photo from 1890.

    "Rigging hasn't changed in five hundred years," says Dave Mullin, a rigger expert in the old ways. The tools are the same—marlin spikes and serving mallets—the lines, though, are a stronger, lighter synthetic.

    Mullin works from old sources. He uses the notebooks of the Constitution's designer, Joshua Humphreys, a ship survey done after the last battle in 1815, and the old rigging manuals of the era. Mullin picks up tricks where he can find them, like the technique of stacking the rigging on the mast. How do you do it? In England he found a 1905 book. Someone had devised a formula. The book was in a glass case. He found the curator and got him to open the case and turn the page. He wrote down the formula. "Like everything else in rigging, you find something like that, you write it down, you draw it up and you keep it." Other tricks he has learned from the old riggers. He used to skip school and hang out at the Navy yard. "Ever since I was a kid in school I wanted to do this," Mullin says.

    He is caught up in the life of this ship. On his own time, he has made a model of an anti-boarding rifle, and a steel and leather boarding cap (topped with bear skin—in this case shoeblacked sheep skin).

    "Most people will never see the work we do—it's up in the air. It doesn't matter. The guys we want to impress are the ones taking it apart twenty years from now," Mullin says, expressing the spirit of a good restoration. This is not work to fill a government contract, or even to entertain or educate the public. This is done to rebuild the ship, certainly, but much shorter routes are available. This is work for the joy of doing one thing exactly right, as it used to be done. The greatest restoration at this site is not the Constitution, but the art of wooden ships.

    Mullin looks out the window at the ship sitting in dry dock, surrounded by scaffolding. The Constitution was the first ship to use this dry-dock, back in 1833. Behind him Brackett and Bobby Fall patiently rig the lines.

    "Her keel was laid two hundred years ago this year, so in essence she would be building. I was thinking about it the other day," he says. "The keel was laid in 1794. She was launched in 1797. The funny thing is we are two hundred years and a quarter mile away."

    Two hundred years later they are still building the same ship.

The Constitution had not sailed in 116 years. No ship this old, of any type, still sails. After the 1927-30 rebuilding, Old Ironsides made a "thank you cruise." The ship was towed, without sails, from Bar Harbor, through the Panama Canal, to Seattle. More than four million turned out to see the ship. Since then the ship has been confined to Boston Harbor. Once a year, on July 4th, the rudderless Old Ironsides was pulled out of the dock by a tugboat like some fabulous invalid, and turned around to weather evenly.

    On the 200th anniversary of the ship's launch, July 21, 1997, a gray drizzly day, Old Ironsides sailed downwind for five and a half miles at almost four knots. Six new sails were set, battle configuration in its forty-four victories. (About one-third of the possible sail area.) The U.S. Navy was a little short on experience in sailing a three-masted frigate. On the first day of practice, it took three hours to set the sails. ("Brace all yards square to the wind!") By the voyage, it took ten minutes.

    Four knots is not too fast, but it's fast enough to outsail those ancient philosophical questions. "The ship is alive," said Boatswain's Mate First Class John Hutchinson. "She's talking to us. She's talking," said the head of the volunteer Marine detachment, Bill Moss.

    "The ship is kind of spiritual," said Boatswain's Mate Chief Joseph Wilson, captain of the deck. "Why is this ship still around? Why is the document that the ship is named after still around?"

    "To sail her was what the hearts and minds of the American people wanted," said Commander Michael Beck, the ship's sixty-fourth commanding officer. "All those things that people talk about—courage, commitment, honor—they're all embodied in the ship's sailing."

    The Constitution's victories in the War of 1812 stunned the British, as well as the Americans. "It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken," said The Times of London, "but that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them."

    "We went into that war as Carolinians, Virginians, and Bay Staters," says Tyrone G. Martin, naval historian. "We came out of it Americans, largely because of this ship."

    Nine former commanding officers were on board for the sail. When the "old man's club" meets for its annual dinners, a place is set for Captain Isaac Hull, who gave the U.S. Navy its first great victory at sea.

    A descendant of the ship's designer was also on board. Joshua Humphreys created a stronger, faster hull. He had one advantage: live oak from the south, which is almost 40 percent denser than other oak and rot resistant. The live oak and white oak hull, two feet thick at mid-deck, gave the ship the "iron sides" to stop cannon balls. Lying next to the drydock where the ship was restored are a few dozen live oak tree trunks. They are being dried for the Constitution's next major restoration in 2010 or 2015.

Igloos, the Ise Shrine, Old Ironsides—these are, admittedly, the purest examples. We don't always get the same ax. The ax is changed by joyful invention and stubborn blindness. The blade may be duller, the handle awkward. Things are changed in their use. Sometimes they are worn into a new shape; sometimes they become their opposites. Sometimes it is the same ax—a living heritage, and sometimes it is just the best ax at hand, a mix of the old and the new.

    A refinement: It is not the same igloo, not the same ax, but the life of the ax, igloo, temple, or ship that continues.

    Endeavors guided by the spirit have a double life. Restored tools, houses, farms, nature sanctuaries, telescopes to observe the night sky, are important in themselves, and in the acts of preservation and loving attention they call forth.

    In remaking an ax, in restoring a house, we carry the fire of the original spirit. We commit anew, plant, put our hands to touch the work of a craftsman hundreds of years gone, and then once feeling that work, pick it up again. And therein lie renewal and hope.

    In America we tend to the crash program—the discovery of impending disaster, the urgent fund-raising appeal, the high-tech application. The scaffolding comes down to reveal a factory-fresh, new-old building: epoxy-injected, scoured, and laced with steel.

    We focus too often on the finished object, not on the craft to restore it. These things exist for us to revive. They call us back to a proper relationship with the world, to our home place. We don't have village gods, but we need ways to feel the spirit of a place. Restoration is our version of making an offering, getting closer to the animating spirits of wood, brick, mud. This the closest thing we have to a pilgrimage—the kind where you bow down and pray at each step.

    Each time we renew the meetinghouse steeple, replant a forest, heal an injured animal, teach someone to read, each time we do this we are restoring the life, the best in us, as well. Mending the world, rebuilding it daily, we discover our better angels. We are on the side of life.

    True living preservation is the baton passed, the handing off of skills, beliefs, and love. It is not mummification, it is not stop-time.

    Good preservation is a life preserver thrown to us in a shipwreck. Good preservation keeps us in touch with the graces of this life. It's bricks and mortar, yes. It's arguments about true colors and authenticity and representation. But true preservation is like the hand that shelters a fire from the wind. It protects the spark of life.

    You can't save the dying breath of yesterday. But you can keep breathing—keep the love, work, and ideas alive. People rummaging through the myths of other religions, and books on the soul, are looking for breathing lessons.

As for that college administrator, he went on bulldozing and leveling houses. He only understood the lessons of commodities in a throw-away age. He would have long ago thrown away that ax for a chainsaw. With new things at his touch always, he would have lacked renewal.

Table of Contents

Preface: The Fires of 1899xi
The Same Ax, Twice1
Unearthing the Mammoth11
Building the Elephant31
The Belated Tourist53
The Birds Keep Their Secrets90
A Moment's Bright Flash127
Old Home Day, Every Day159
The Lost Language of Villages184
Solace on the Block193
Buzzland; or, A Prop's Short Memoir221
Tomorrow's Another Working Day232
Freegrace Farm: My Prayer Sincere238
An Arkload of Noahs249
Some Concluding Restoration Principles, Pleas, and Prayers273
About the Author291

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
manirul01 More than 1 year ago
Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In remaking an ax, in restoring a house, we carry the fire of the original spirit. We commit anew, plant, put our hands to touch the work of a craftsman hundreds of years gone, and then once again feeling that work, pick it up again. And therein lie renewal and hope.” —from The Same Ax, Twice. Moving easily between meditative reflection and compelling insights, Howard Mansfield offers lively descriptions of some of the extraordinary people who are imaginatively, lovingly, sometimes obsessively, realizing their own visions of the restorative impulse. Mansfield immerses himself deeply in the search for restoration. He travels with Civil War reenactors to help recreate the Battle of Antietam; he enrolls in auctioneer school to observe the endless recycling of artifacts, and he compares the process to the sterile preservation of these same objects in displays and museums; he observes the ongoing work of preserving the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” a ship which has been replaced over the years board by board. The act of restoration, Mansfield concludes, whether it’s rebuilding antique engines or reviving the village model of community organization, must contain an element of renewal. Rejecting the sentimentality of nostalgia and the superficiality of commercial images, Mansfield argues for an understanding of restoration that is as much concerned with the future as it is with the past, that preserves and communicates a spirit as well as a form. “The Same Ax, Twice is filled with insight and eloquence… a memorable, readable, brilliant book on an important subject. It is a book filled with quotable wisdom,” said The New York Times Book Review. “The Same Ax, Twice is one of those quiet books that foments revolution,” said William Morgan in Boston Architecture. “Howard Mansfield has just the right combination of erudition and humor to challenge conventionally held ideas about historic preservation. Like In the Memory House, his wise 1993 exploration of the New Englander’s defining relationship with the past, The Same Ax, Twice ought to be on your bookshelf along with Wendell Berry and Noel Perrin.” “I know I will never think about any part of the past—including my own—in quite the same way ever again. Mansfield just blew me away with this truly remarkable, engaging and yes, inspirational piece of work,” said Judson D. Hale, Sr., publisher of Yankee Magazine. “ ‘The best restorations,’ writes Mansfield, ‘are truly restorative.’ Reading this book is equally so,” said Publishers Weekly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Mansfield holds up a mirror to those of us who think that words like 'preservation', 'restoration', and 'conservation' are important words, which includes Mansfield himself. He then good naturedly starts to chuckle at us and in short order we are laughing at us, too. No matter how much you value Historic Preservation, this book will cause you to question how and what we do when it comes to keeping the past 'alive'. If the dogma cannot survive the critique, then I doubt that it is because of the critic.