Venturing: Recycling

Posted Wednesday, July 20, 2011 in Opinion

Venturing: Recycling

by David D. Platt

If you’ve never read “Tree in the Trail,” an illustrated book for young people written over 60 years ago by Holling Clancy Holling, you should do so. At least you ought to read it if you’re interested in saving the planet, by which I refer to re-using the stuff we’ve stolen from it for so many years.

For the past year I’ve thrown myself into a massive recycling project involving an old building in Falmouth. In 1833, the narrative goes, a group built it on a site about a mile away from where it’s located today. They put up a handsome 30-by-40-foot wood structure, clapboarded on the outside and spanned by hewn kingpost trusses that allowed for a single large room inside; no posts except at the corners. In terms of design it was the standard sort of New England meetinghouse: double-hung windows around the outside with a central doorway in front and a belfry on top.

We think it was used as a public school at its first location; then in the 1850s it was moved to its present spot, altered somewhat and used by a private academy and a music school. The first set of windows appears to have been replaced by a second set. The story continues: by 1880 the various schools no longer had a use for this now 50-year-old structure. It stood derelict for a time before being purchased by members of the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), who proceeded to turn it into their lodge.

The Odd Fellows added what we think was a dining room at the back and boarded up (or completely removed) all the windows in the oldest part of the building. The Odd Fellows continued to meet there (they did considerable foundation work in the 1970s, when they raised and moved the building slightly, and at some point they turned the dining room into a pool hall) but didn’t alter things further. Last July, short on new members and tired of maintaining the place, they sold it to me.

I tell this story because it’s all about recycling. This building began life as a meetinghouse or school; migrated a mile down the road; served two other schools; then provided a home for a fraternal organization that modified it to suit its purposes. Now it’s a private home – recycled yet again, if you see what I mean.

I’m quite certain it was “Tree in the Trail” that got me so interested in old stuff and how it can be used in different ways. The book describes a long-lived cottonwood tree that once grew alongside a route to the West. Native Americans would gather in its shade and leave arrowheads imbedded in it; over the years migrating Europeans would use it as a message board and leave their marks as well. Finally the tree dies and an enterprising soul makes a chunk of it into a handsome ox yoke. Off it goes, down the trail where it had witnessed so many others traveling west. Recycled, re-used, appreciated for different things – the tree seems the very symbol of efficiency and sustainability. Nothing goes to waste.

My recycling project is much the same. We’ve stripped away additions and come to understand how this building has been altered over the years. We’ve salvaged and re-used doors and lumber. We’ve revealed a lot of the building’s history, such as the mysterious set of carved initials on one big timber, the effects of 50 years of schoolroom wear on the floor that underlies one installed in the 1880s (so that’s why they covered it!) and the location of a long-gone staircase. Best of all, we’ve come to appreciate what others have learned about this building over the years: a well-built structure – with “good bones,” as they say – can be made to serve many purposes, and the resources we put into it won’t be wasted when conditions change. No need to become obsolete, in other words – school becomes lodge; lodge becomes house; dead tree becomes ox yoke. Each tells its story to the next generation.

It’s a sad fact that a building like this one also tells the story of the Maine Woods and how we’ve squandered it – a story that begins with huge pine logs cut in the 1830s or earlier and sawn into boards more than two feet wide. It extends to smaller spruce boards available after the Civil War when the interior was altered; to still smaller spruce and hemlock that went into a replacement floor; finally to products made of wood chips that we used in our own renovation. “We started with the king’s pines,” goes one description of the forest and how we’ve spent it down – “and now we’re down to the chips.”

Sad as that tale sounds, it’s one well told by my new old house, where recycling has been a way of life for 180 years. My thanks to Holling Clancy Holling and “Tree in the Trail” for helping me to understand it.

David D. Platt edited the old Maine Times and then Working Waterfront.

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