South Haven, Michigan
After work last Wednesday, I dropped the kayak in and paddled up river to the beaver lodge, taking in the only news I can stomach these days.
A pair of trumpeter swans (black billed) have found a congenial welcome by Keats, the omnipresent mute swan (orange billed). Keats is a curmudgeon with uncompromising rules about his territory. Yet there he was being nice. This is above-the-fold news, people.
As the sun set, I paddled back towards my house on the peninsula. There’s plenty of yard work to do and writing deadlines weighing me down, yet the water gives me a sense of calm. It’s hard to feel pressure or anxiety here. I am happy with the idea of growing old in this littoral place that is now serendipitously mine . . . the hard work of getting here rewarded by a contentment both unfamiliar and constant.
I may just mark my height on a doorsill and measure how much shorter I get every year I grow older and new in this place.
It is a Finnish word that cannot be translated directly into English, but we understand the concept of Sisu. It means having the courage to do what must be done. There’s nothing exclusively Finnish about that assignation, still I respect that they have a word for it . . . that this concept can even be reduced to a single word.
A lot of Fins, Franks, and Scots settled in Northern Michigan, up at the Sault (pronounced Soo) and points west across the Upper Peninsula (UP). Plenty of them settled in the Lower Peninsula, below the Mackinac Bridge, where they mined and logged and bore sturdy children who had to grow up too fast.
Folks in the UP refer to anybody living below the bridge as a “troll.” I am not Finnish, I’m Scottish-American; but I am a troll, born and bred, and like most people from this rust-belted, snowblinding place, I am familiar with Sisu.
Michigan is shaped like a mitten, easily recognizable on the map of the United States. We natives just hold up our right hand to locate and navigate ourselves (and to annoy the non-natives). My great-grandfathers and uncles of that hardy era built the sand road around the tip of the Thumb of Michigan. They cleared a lot of the land up that way when they homesteaded. They were Clan Ross folk from Cromarty on the Black Isle, and the McGeachys from the Kintyre Peninsula of Scotland by way of Ontario, Canada.
For the record, McGeachy is pronounced McGathy—it’s a Gaelic thing. In my ancestry are names so Gaelic and vowel-less that I sometimes use them in an internet password because they already look encrypted. At any rate, the family made it to Michigan before the Civil War, which was a long time ago, relative to U.S. history. As such, I can’t explain how—several generations later—my Grandpa Ross seemed to have a little bit of a Scottish brogue. He would say “wee” instead of “little” when describing a small thing. He must have picked it up from his grandparents, although he himself was born August 13, 1900, right there in a log cabin in Huron County that has been twice replaced by larger frame houses on the homestead.
So my family has been in America a long, long time, some of them were here during Colonial times. One of my great-great grandfathers from Port Austin marched with William Tecumseh Sherman from Atlanta to the sea. He was wounded and limped badly ever after, walking with the help of an elaborately decorated cane, I’ve been told. I wonder what happened to that cane. I don’t have it, but I still have the story because I am the Seanachie of this generation.
The Seanachie is the person who keeps the family stories. I was set aside for this duty as a child by my paternal Grandfather Gillespie (also Scottish; he said our name derives from gillie, the Gaelic word for servant, and Spey, for the River Spey. I’ve no idea if this is actually true . . . there is no one alive to dispute it). When everybody was out playing lawn darts during family gatherings, I was seated in my grandpa’s study for the newest installment of family history. I was miserable about this back then, but am grateful to have this genealogy today. And I am constantly shocked by people who don’t even know their own mother’s maiden name. Geez, I can tell you the maiden name of my fifth great grandmother (on both sides of my family); and I know how her name became Anglicized to “Mustarde” but that’s another story.
In the summertime, it’s very hard to imagine northern Michigan’s sugar-beeted, evergreened, pine-strawed landscape as the frozen white cerement it becomes shortly after Thanksgiving. That feels far away in the campfired, star-smothered nightscape of August . . . my toes circling acorn cups in sugar sand dimpled by the rain. It’s a forestful place.
Honestly, I love Michigan frozen or flowing in all seasons, although I’ll admit that early spring is endurable only for the promise of lilacs. My muse gestates and the Great Lakes are amniotic. I can feel the heartbeat of the stories I’m holding inside me.
There is something so reassuring about the land here, and the water . . . the plentitude of flora and fauna. It’s good to feel life going on about its business, taking happiness and sadness in stride. There has been amplitude of both, but the sad stories still get told—the baby brother who went missing one bleak, frigid day of winter over 125 years ago—this is where that happened, to my family in this place.
I try to imagine my great grandmother, Catherine, who was just a girl then . . . her frantic siblings—all 11 of them searching—one no doubt had been in charge of this toddler. Their anxious father and desperate mother—my great, great grandmother—her name was Ladesna Ann Ross, nee Schell. She was actually German, not Scottish, and her father was killed by Indians at Schell’s Bush which later became Herkimer, New York. That was before the American Revolution. Some stories do not have a happy ending. This is how we learn Sisu.
Today, the land that was my ancestors is still in the Ross family; at least some of it is, although my Rosses have a lot of other names now. But we’re all drawn to the old homestead under a sailcloth horizon that stretches over rows and rows of navy beans edged with rock piles and copses marking the end of one farm, and the beginning of another. These fields are older than most of the trees now. They square off in neat 40 acre parcels, quilting the spans, and then diffusing into the forest that grows right out to the Huron waterline if you let it. Of course, we never owned that land because “you can’t farm a beach.”
In all seasons, the seagulls coast the cotton-clouded skies from Port Austin to the Saginaw Bay, as they always have. Their ancestors no doubt saw the whole thing. Somewhere in one of the deep ditches along Etzler Road, little Donald McGeachy’s frozen body was found by Albert Hokkanen, the neighbor boy whose parents still spoke Finnish. An anguish that could not be born was added to the family lore. It was a very long time ago, but several generations later I still feel that story hanging in a low place of my heart like a cold fog.
Somehow life went on . . . glacial. Time pried the grief slowly from another day, a month, and then a year, and another. But a wee quiet thing with no voice at all like an unmatched sock . . . an empty swing or the wind in sotto voce . . . he was lost and we couldn’t find him. Life would break apart again.
It broke and mended, broke and broke but mended because it had to . . . there was no choice. We do what must be done. Life goes on, says the wave to the shore . . . the sand to the rock. You carry the sad stories in your heart carefully like shards of glass. You hold up your right hand, bleeding but alive . . . now navigate. This is Sisu.
Except for the pic of me by my daughter, all © words & pictures by Leeanne Seaver 8/2012 Photos taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan
See a version of my story in the April/May 2015 issue of Mother Earth News Magazine:
Squinting against the bright September sky, project foreman Rick Collins surveyed the scene before him. Something extraordinary was about to happen to a small town in Michigan. “I would go so far as to say that it’s probably been well over one hundred years since anyone has built a structure this way,” he declared. The 120-by-46-by-24 foot post-and-beam construction would take 70 timber framers and 29,000 board feet to build…plus about 3500 paper plates (recyclable). More specifically: carpenters and apprentices from 20 US states, Canada, France, England and Poland; white ash, oak, black locust, poplar, and cherry donated from local landowners; and paper plates full of homemade food prepared by 330 members of the local community. All that after two years of dreaming, planning, and the fundraising necessary for the vision to be realized: a pavilion where the farmer’s market, summer festivals, and special events of Vicksburg, Michigan, would have their home for the next few centuries.
Assuming certain minor details could be worked out.
“Did you pick this portapotty spot? …because if you did, I’m going to start doubting your management skills. I’m about to pick another one.” The very no-nonsense Alicia Spence didn’t wait for the local historical society hosts to answer, but delegated the relocation of the mobile relief stations without breaking stride. Spence, project manager extraordinaire of the Timber Framers Guild, knows what it takes to deliver a project of this magnitude efficiently. That’s why she’s in charge—the HMFWIC, as it were. For the uninitiated, that’s “head-mother-bleeper-whut’s-in-charge,” to quote the English-accented carpenter who put it that way. Laughter followed from his mostly-American colleagues in “Braceland,” the tent where the group was busy building braces. Apparently, the HMFWIC is a universally understood referent.
Indeed, the pace of progress over ten early fall days required vast quantities of leadership, skill, efficiency, and people. According to Collins, who owns Trillium Dell Timberworks out of Knoxville, Illinois, “you need about five thousand man hours to do a project like this. Based on the crew we’ve pulled together, that means every person has to be productive for ten hours a day on this site.” Incredibly, that’s just what happened. “Although it’s not all been perfect, but I guess we don’t want to anger the gods,” said Kristina Powers Aubry, a host from the Vicksburg Historical Society. Co-host Bob Smith added good-naturedly, “Well, I’m more worried about angering the guys with the power tools.”
Made of Sturdy Stuff
This kind of work isn’t for the faint of heart. Every gritty, safety-goggled worker bent over a tool was putting his or her whole heart and soul into the endeavor. Richard Barnes, who owns a saw mill south of town, turned the logs to timbers, then he joined dozens of volunteers from the TFG and local community who put in long days on the construction. For many, it was their first timber framing experience. Some were getting a good dose of OJT from TFG instructors. Others were the kind of woodworkers who just might be using some of their grandfather’s tools as well as an iPhone FingerCAD app. It’s that reverence for old world ways combined with new age technology that is the hallmark of timber framing today.
Spence says, “Timber framing is about rediscovering this age-old wisdom of constructing things with the raw material of wood alone…to bring the language of the past into the codes of the present. It used to be, ‘ok, I’ve got a snow load on this beam, how much will it take before it’ll break?’ Today, we take the tree species, the wind volume; we do a drawing in 3-D to apply stresses on a building, and then look at all the variables. The computer analysis figures it out. We can push the envelope of what’s possible.”
“We take the ancient art of timber framing and apply the science of technology. It’s a true gift of the computer world. Then you can build the whole thing without power, and we’ve done that.” Alicia hesitated just a moment, adding with a wry grin, “there are a few die-hards…the ’take an axe, get an ox,’ types; but me? I do love that mortise machine.”
Free Room and Board
With so many workers coming from faraway places, the question of room and board had to be answered. A tent city was put up beside the community garden next to the worksite for anyone preferring a camping experience. Others were welcomed into homes around town. The Nazarene Church was available for showers. It was one of many churches that provided hot meals. So did organizations like the local garden club. Member Martha Stanley dubbed her peanut butter oatmeal chocolate chippers Lumberjack Cookies in honor of occasion. As the workers came through the line in the dining tent, she’d ask each one where they were from and visit with them. “They were so friendly and thankful for the food. That made me feel full,” Martha said.
Members of the community and local businesses volunteered countless hours to ensure that three squares a day were ready for the crew. The Rise-N-Dine, Subway, Main Street Grill, Apple Knockers Ice Cream Parlor, Erbelli’s, and Jaspare’s Pizza all donated meals, complementing the homemade fare from local churches, groups, clubs, even designated neighborhoods. Karen Hammond of the Vicksburg Historical Society managed the herculean task of coordinating meal donations and the business end of things in the dining tent. Not a day went by that someone who hadn’t even signed up for food duty would drop by with something to keep the snack table stocked. Hammond says she loved every minute of it.
“The feeling you get from working together to pull something like this off is incredible. We could have just had it catered, or left cold cuts and bread on a table for sandwiches, but we wanted to put the extra effort in to show how much this means to us as a community,” she reflected. “The whole experience was something that might have been typical in my grandparent’s time, but for us it was really something exceptional. We made new friends, and got closer to the ones we already had.”
Connecting the Past and the Present
Before dawn, the smells of a morning campfire and fresh sawn wood from the cut-post tent hang in the air. There’s something time-capsuling about the scent—how it would have been the same for workers 500 years ago. It’s an olfactory trigger to timber framing’s visceral connection of the past and present. “You look at an old woodcut from the Renaissance period showing all the work stations and processes involved in putting up a cathedral maybe 900 years ago—every aspect of the trade; we’ve got that same thing happening here today,” says Rick Collins. “Everything is happening right here. You could call me a ‘localvore’. I like seeing local people and resources doing local construction. That’s sustainability. It’s the closest connection we have to our past. We lost that through industrialization…we need to regain it.”
When the Timber Framers Guild does projects like the Vicksburg Pavilion, it proves that people can harvest their own wood, use local labor, and make something that the whole community can be a part of, says Collins, “I believe we should be doing more of that.”
Sue Moore, the local Vicksburg maven who worked behind the scenes on every aspect of this project’s development and execution, agrees this “has brought the community together in a shared experience that emphasized giving toward a greater cause without hesitation, and the pride in having achieved something lasting.”
The real “joinery” of the Vicksburg Pavilion is about the community coming together. It’s a community that includes people who might have come from somewhere else in the world. Kristina Powers Aubry put it this way, “We’ve met artists, poets, philosophers, and kings, white collars, blue collars, and no collars from all over the world here in our little corner of it.” Alicia Spence agrees. It’s not just the wood work, but what happens when all those woodworkers meet in the dining tent at the end of the day. They’re all there to share the workload as well as the blueberry pie. “I would say the community service element is really what makes this a matter of the heart. There’s a lot of ways to build something. You could put a pole building up—it’s faster and cheaper. But with a project like this, there’s an old-fashioned barn-raising feel to it. It joins us together in a way that’s so absent in American culture. It really brings out the best in people,” Spence explains. “We’re not just building buildings…we’re building community.”
Words & Pictures by Leeanne Seaver © September 2013