Archive for June, 2011

Gold Leaf and Butterflies

I’m standing in the basement of a century-old three story brick apartment building in Boston. The space measures forty by sixty feet, or about the same area as a good-sized house. This particular basement is filled with stuff, packed in so tightly that it is difficult to move a ShopVac around the piles.

My parents moved into this building over 40 years ago. My Danish mother, an art conservator by training, whom we all suspected was really a pirate, had a workshop down in the basement. She would disappear for days at a time, building furniture, restoring artworks, puffing away on her pipe, and bartering with Siberian yak traders, who would pass that way from time to time.

The building had three apartments; my folks lived on one floor, and there were renters on the other two. For most of my family’s tenure, another somewhat fuzzy pirate-type, named Larry, lived on the first floor.

There were certain ways in which Larry and my mom understood each other perfectly. They were both incredible craftspeople who could make anything with their hands. They understood materials and they hated the poor quality of modern goods and the rampant waste of modern society.

And so, they both saved and collected things. Walking along the street, they would spot an old well-made rolling chair on someone’s garbage pile. Into the basement it would go. A decent lamp in need of re-wiring? The basement. Sales on acid-free paper, book-binding cloth and other curious items with unfathomable future uses? The basement. Viking longboats, in good condition? Yeah, the basement.

Larry spent a lot of time in underbelly of the building. He turned one corner into a sound-proof music room, he brought in table saws and drill presses, he strung lights, sinks and deer’s heads from the ceiling and had wild parties. Although he himself moved out of the building a while back, his stuff never got around to following along. Apparently, he has nowhere to put it.

When my mom passed away a few years ago the basement fell under a mysterious enchantment and faded from our memories. Oddly, I didn’t even see it when I was passing through to put out the garbage for my dad or grab a shovel to clear some snow.

But last month, during a visit to Boston, I was zipping obliviously through the basement on some minor errand when a curious thing happened. The magical haze of cobwebs and dust, which was slowly obscuring all traces of the bustling civilization that had once flourished down there, cleared for an instant. I realized that someone had to deal with the stuff in the basement.

I know I keep saying the basement was full of “stuff.” If only. “Stuff” is badly made, often intentionally manufactured to break, wear out, or become obsolete relatively quickly, thereby requiring the purchase of yet more stuff. It’s what most of us buy most of the time.

This basement, however, is largely filled with real things. Things that were built to last, things that were salvaged from a past when raw materials, such as metal and wood, were valued enough to be used carefully.

On this spring day I’m in the basement to meet Larry so we can begin the clearing process. Right on time, he strolls down the stairs.

We roam around, feeling lost and nostalgic, identifying what is his and what was my mom’s. I look at his pile, steadily growing as he pulls things from the rubble. “They don’t make chairs like this anymore,” he says as he hesitates before putting three old rolling chairs in the give away pile.

Nevertheless, he takes rusted fans (I can fix this up), old PVC pipe (I’ll make cubbies out of this), boxes of mixed screws and bolts. He agrees to get the bulk of his stash out by July. It would easily fill a few small moving trucks.

I open a box marked by my mother as “træuld.” The Danish translates delightfully as “tree wool.” Sure enough, in the box are long spaghetti-thin aromatic cedar wood tendrils, curled in tight springy ringlets, the packing materials from some ancient shipment of old country goods. I wonder if it’s been saved all these years for some higher purpose than to become kindling in my wood stove.

As I roam, I think about trash-pickers the world round, who re-melt bent nails to make new ones, who tie together broken string to make fishing nets, who expose themselves and their children to terrible toxins as they disassemble our old computers and cell phones to recover precious metals.

To honor this spirit, to honor my mother and Larry, who believed in using things up, all the way, to honor this basement chock full of the world’s irreplaceable finite resources, I know I will need to find homes for most everything in here.

Someday, when things are scarcer than they are now, we will want back all of our well made rolling chairs, our stainless steel sinks, our Christmas lights, our acid-free paper. I will not be the one who throws it in the landfill.

I pick up another slim box nearly pancaked with age. My mother’s neat handwriting on the side says: Gold Leaf and Butterflies. I expect nothing less as I open it.

In one bag is a heavy pack of gold leaf, the real thing, squares of the thinnest imaginable layers of gold, thinner than paper, a pirate’s treasure glowing from between dull layers of brown tissue. Sometimes, you see, a person needs gold leaf.

Next to this bag are tiny ziplocs with butterfly wings, the real things, collected over a lifetime of stopping by the roadside to pick up the pieces of humankind’s collisions with the natural world.

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