Things I’ve Learned While Toiling on “The Hill”

As I write these words, my mind vacillates between “eager” and “apprehensive”.  Last night brought us the first fairly heavy rain since my latest attempt to render our driveway passable—a quarter-mile stretch of treacherous up-and-down terrain that I prefer to call “the road”.  If I’ve learned nothing else about engineering over the past month, I have come to realize that the course naturally chosen by water deserves respect.  You work against it and seek to impose a superior path upon it through an act of human will only at great risk of receiving a lesson in human folly and puniness.

I hope I have at last figured out where the water wants to go and how I can take it there while keeping my road from being gnawed away.  We’ll see.  Deepening certain drainage ditches so that the dominant one would suck in all the troublesome strays was no easy labor.  I’ve devoted myself to a backbreaking waste of time if the steep slopes are again feathered in dozens of rock-strewn ruts.

Speaking of rocks… to my amazement, I have also discovered that “the hill” (my name for the elevated clearing where our house sits) contains a lot of natural crystal.  I was highly annoyed (still am) about the job of “clearing” done on—or to—the lot, which left excavated stone tightly compacted with gluey clay and random colonies of straw gumming up drainage rather than sheltering non-existent grass seed.  Why, the natural grass that I’m uncovering as I hack my way to the tree line, scything down three feet of opportunistic weeds that took over after the initial bulldozer passed months ago, is much more benign than the crawling, low-lying, star-shaped nuisance fighting me for control of the yard!  Did some idiot really sow that stuff?  I have to believe that it, too, was opportunistic growth; otherwise, the wicked neighbor who sows tares in the farmer’s fields must have paid me a midnight visit.

Anyway, as I have grubbed and hacked about in the red clay, I’ve discovered case after case of straight-edged, flat-surfaced, or perfectly right-angled stone.  At first, I carelessly mistook this evidence for the industrial leavings of laborers that had shown themselves none too eager to clean up.  At some point the scales fell suddenly from my eyes.  The hill has a quartz core, it seems!

I can’t explain why this so fascinates me.  I do wish I had perhaps directed my professional life in the direction of geology… but then I’d just be telling drillers where to sink holes, if I were lucky enough to find a job.  My grandfather was a geologist, both by profession and by amateur enthusiasm.  He was also descended from a long line of “planters” (as they were called in South Carolina).  What would he have said about quartz?  I know that it possesses unusual conductive properties.  I strongly suspect, besides, that our electricity-saturated environments at work and home are not entirely healthy for us.  Could a background of quartz siphon off some of the buzz that sets us postmoderns on edge, making nervous insomniacs of us in the mold of electricity’s anti-social patron saint, Nicola Tesla?

Don’t know, don’t really care so very much.  Just know that “the hill” is extraordinarily peaceful.  And I will admit that I’ve begun circling certain of my trees that are struggling in quartz rings… just to see, you know.  An experiment.

And speaking, finally, of sloppy builders… here’s where I shift into political incorrectness.  Feel free to cease reading now and retreat to a safe zone.

So far we have found the following spectacularly careless gaffes in our new house’s construction: a washing-room door whose latch didn’t engage the plate in the doorframe, a pantry door with an entirely different kind of catch but showing the same lack of alignment, a screw missing from a light-switch plate, at least three instances (and counting) of molding that was neither nailed nor glued in place, other instances of poorly trimmed molding where holes remain at junctures… a drain-pan not installed (as per code) under the hot-water heater, a front door painted the wrong color, light fixtures hung in the wrong rooms, a doorbell box that randomly buzzes daily for about ten seconds, a window installed with a hunk broken out in the corner, nails sticking out of the deck’s rail where they were supposed to enter another two-by-four… and forget about the grass seed that was never sown and the “leveling” that shuttled all my good topsoil into artificially created varmint-habitat.  I’m focusing on the actual domicile.

The builder is responsible for the behavior of his sub-contractors as a captain is responsible for his crew.  The blame belongs at the top.  Nevertheless, I recognize that this particular builder was being pulled in several directions at once: I recognize that the crew, at some point, should be capable of adult professional behavior without having an overseer crack a whip overhead.  The jokers who did the detailed work on our house half-assed it: pardon my bluntness, but it comes from the heart (or somewhere nearby).  They couldn’t even close a door to see if the latch entered the plate.  They couldn’t even peek beneath a rail to see if the bullets they were merrily shooting from generator-powered guns were close to the target.

One lesson I have learned from these disappointments is to rely on no one but yourself whenever possible.  We have corrected, or will correct, most of these flaws ourselves.  Harassing the builder with one phone call after another, only to have the same hack show up at last to half-correct a half-finished job, isn’t worth the grief.  And lawsuits… come on!  They know you’re not suing, and you know you’re not suing.  Who can afford a lawyer?

Every group of subs that we encountered spoke Spanish among themselves, and some seemed to understand no English at all.  (They also understood my Spanish only when they felt like it.)  I’m going to say it: part of the problem here is workmanship on the part of journeymen who will be a hundred miles away next week and who have no stake whatever—social, cultural, or even economic—in your community.  They’re hired guns.  They wish they were somewhere else, but here is where the pay runs highest.  They put on their tool belts, turn up their radios, whip out their drills or sanders, and start thinking about lunch.

Gone are the days when the Klausmeiers, a family of stonemasons whose shop front has adorned Main Street for three generations (or ever since old Werner senior arrived from Bavaria), rush to serve your every need with a true craftsman’s pride.  We don’t live in that world any more.  We’re a society of guns for hire and contractors who hire guns.  The cultural circumstances that made a “village” no longer obtain.  Anything that takes a village now will end up like the marred lumber discarded hither and yon along my quarter-mile driveway.  Thanks, by the way: I’ll find a use for all that.  But the village will not.  The village is now a myth—or, more accurately, a sales gimmick.  Don’t buy it.

Some will say (in a Pavlovian reaction produced by four years of “higher education”) that my comments are “racist”.  No, they’re strictly and explicitly indexed to culture.  Culture is not race: race is DNA, but culture must be “cultivated”.  (I used to teach freshmen how to comb out such fine distinctions before my composition class became a crash-course in website design and the word “freshman” was banned.)  A culture without borders, where labor roams freely like a shark smelling out its next feed, does not generate work of high quality.  I scarcely even know how to confer the word “culture” upon it (at least if I observe the rigors that I once demanded of my students).  What you have, instead, is a wide-open frontier of tasks that need “knocking off” and assesinos who underbid one another in volunteering their bullets.  “What’s the difference?  He’s dead—you didn’t pay me to put a frame around him.”

No, I don’t like that world… but I can’t get from there to another by magically transporting myself to the Wild Wood.  What you do in the woods is learn to become your own carpenter, your own electrician, your own engineer.  I knew it would be this way, so I have no room to gripe.  Do you realize that this is “the road” ahead of us, and that you’ll have to do on your own whatever maintenance needs doing?