Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Gate (fragments)

Oak, old and new. 2017
Re-assemblage of fragments of old garden gate, honouring the skill and life of an unknown village carpenter from a previous century, and the complexity of the human networks that touched this wood. With a speculation on the future.

The industrial revolution crept up slowly to the Lincolnshire Marsh, electricity making it to some parts only after the 1953 flood.  Long before that a village craftsman made a gate. Just an ordinary garden gate, from oak, using only hand tools and with no nails or screws, just held together with pegged mortice and tenon joints. The gate served its purpose for many decades, perhaps a century. It must have been a satisfying job when completed and the customer pleased to receive it, the work of a skilled man fulfilling a valued role.
Inevitably time took its toll and the gate gradually fell into disrepair. By 1990 its post had rotted through and for the next twenty years it filled a gap but had to be lifted and replaced rather than swung on its hinges. Eventually its joints gave out; the gate fell apart and was consigned to the firewood pile.
Fragments survived, their shape and the remains of pegged tenons in their mortices, catching the eye. Here was a reminder of a long forgotten craftsman’s work. Could, should, these fragments be preserved to honour the unknown labour and skill therein embodied?
The gate’s history stretches back into time. A century or more before the carpentry began someone must have sown an acorn and planted and nurtured a young oak sapling. It may have been local. There are plantations along the Marsh edge at the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds, perhaps remnants of ancient forest but felled and replanted many times over the centuries. Or the timber may have travelled from the Baltic. A trade bringing Russian oak to Boston was ongoing in medieval times and continues to this day. Perhaps these wood fragments come from timber first cut by a water-powered sawmill in some Baltic state. The boards would then have been transhipped in coasters arriving at Saltfleet or to Tetney for onward transport on the Louth Navigation.
Wherever the timber was grown and felled, converted to boards and delivered to the gate-maker, that wood must have touched many people’s lives, foresters, shipbuilders, sailors, carriers, merchants and all the people who service their needs. The vast network of the political economy of a continent through time is linked to a few fragments of wood.
And so the oak boards arrived at the village carpenters workshop. He may have left them, ‘in stick’, to dry out, the boards separated by half-inch thick sticks to allow the wind to pass through the stack. Imagine the conversations round a kitchen table discussing whether to order a new gate from the village carpenter. The purchase of such a thing would not have been trivial and the buyer may, justifiably, have expected the gate to outlive him. How often can we say that about the things we buy now?
The gate did indeed outlast both its maker and owner. When I first came to it, 1987, its original post had already been replaced by a new timber, repurposed from elsewhere. But the gate itself was fragile, crumbling and the hinges rusted. After a few more years it was propped open, the gap in the garden wall not really needing to be closed. Perhaps the gate was put there just for the sake of appearance or maybe the enclosure had been home for a pig.
After thirty years in my possession the gate was finally consigned to the firewood pile, but the circle of the peg-end on a broken joint caught my eye. Three pieces were laid to one side. These are now presented as an homage to the man who made the gate and all the people, unknown and unknowable, whose lives were touched by these pieces of wood.
What of their future? I shall keep them safe as long as I am able and then one day other hands may discard them, or, a little hope, perhaps by naming the fragments as a sculpture, a work of art, they will be kept for longer. What is the chance that, in perhaps half a millennium, when global warming has caused sea level to rise sufficiently for the Lincolnshire Marsh to be abandoned to the Greater North Sea, Gate (fragments) will survive in some museum of older days?


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