An Ascendant Tone

I was finishing up a small project for a neighbor woman, converting her two car garage into a bedroom for her two grandsons who had recently moved back in with her. I have known the boys for several years now, they visit us at the farm off and on to make cider, put up hay bales in the summer, that kind of thing. At the end of the day as I was nailing some trim pieces I noticed the sound of the nails being driven in, methodical, repetitive and simlar to a musical scale slowly ascending — bump, bump, bump — each swing of the hammer sending the nail deeper into the wood producing a perfect tone that rose with an almost mathematical precision. I have swung hammers most of my life, I have framed, trimmed, roofed, sheetrocked and every other type of task possible to do with hammer and nails and I have heard this progression hundreds of thousands if not millions of times, but I never noted this phenomenon consciously before. Later that afternoon as I was doing chores on the farm I tensioned several fence wires that had begun to slack off from the deep cold. The wire is held fixed to itself with crimpers at the terminal ends and corner posts, but the tension is maintained in the middle of the runs by small ratcheting devices. I used lineman’s pliers to grasp the spud tightly and as I tightened the first line my ears immediately picked up on the musical tone of the wire becoming taut, a sound I haven’t got the words to describe beyond a metalic ping, which like the hammer blows I had noticed earlier rose in a measured and precise swing from low to high. “Like someone tuning a guitar” I thought to myself as I stood in the sacrifice surrounded by cattle and broken snow.

Last summer I was working on a set of fence posts with one of the neighbor’s boys. He’d slowly dig at the hole with the auger and pause on occasion to remove the cobbles from the hole while I measured and cut the rails for the previous posts we’d set. If he got a good lead on me in the morning, say four holes dug out ahead of me, I’d be able to catch up to him by lunch and we’d break with a complete section as our reward. I do not do a lot of talking while I work unless there is a specific question or a correction to be made. We generally go over the scope of the job beforehand and set to it. When we do sit down and eat our lunch it’s another thing and on that day I decided to ask him about his school year past. He was about to become a junior in high school and is clearly on track for college judging by the conversations we’ve had. Somehow we got onto math and I asked him if he’d ever heard of the Fibonacci sequence. He hadn’t and so I drew it out for him with a stick in the dirt. 1,1,2,3,5,8,13…. and then next that I showed him how to graph it out, one over, two up, three back, five down, eight up, thirteen over, etc. Then I took the stick and slowly connected the points from the center, expanding in an ever widening gyre. I remember the look on his face as he caught on to the beauty of it, math in nature neither creating it nor immitating, but singing through it, the two things as one. He was smiling even as we stood back up to dig another series of holes in the rock filled drumlin on a hot summer day.

Before supper my daughter was standing at the kitchen sink helping my wife prepare our meal. The water was running and from my chair where I sat reading I was only half aware of the work that they were busy with; the rattling of silverware, the crunch of the knife blade chopping vegetables on the cutting board, the soft hum of feminine voices back and forth. I grew up in a home where opera or symphonies were always playing softly in the background, but I live in one now that is filled with another kind of music, the sounds of loved ones busy at something and I have come to notice that they are far more similar than not. As I sat there I became aware of the faucet running to get at the cold fresh well pumped water and my daughter holding the glass carafe beneath the flow. As the level reached the throat of that vessel there it was again, the slowly ascending tone that sounded akin to a human whistle this time rising in perfect pitch, one note at a time until the bottle was filled.

The Colonel stopped by the other evening to say hello to the family before he left for Florida. He usually heads down this time of year and we keep an eye on his place in his absence. We discussed 3-D priniting he had read an article about recently, Alexander the Great, my oldest son’s plans for his birthday and appropos of nothing I asked him about the phenomenon I had recently become aware of, the hammer blows, the tightening wire, the rising level of water in a container and the tonal quality of things reaching completion and if he had noticed it himself. The Colonel is originally from the hard streets of Boston, a “Southie” as he refers to himself, but he is well read and curious to the extreme. I can’t think of many topics we haven’t discussed over the years and I knew that if anyone could understand what I had noticed it would be him. He took that look as if gazing through an inner library looking for the right book and then refocused on me. “You know,” he said, “I can’t say that I ever have.” Then he smiled at me like the neighbor’s son had when I showed him the Fibonacci sequence in the dirt. “But I will definitely look into it.”

I walked him out and we said our good-byes standing in the dooryard and wished each other well. I watched him drive back down the hill until the taillights disappeared, their red glow reflecting off the snowbank until it too was gone. Looking up into a moonless sky you would have sworn was pitch black until you realized that it wasn’t, punctuated by countless stars and the spreading stain of the Milky Way stretching from north to south above me. I wondered if there wasn’t another sound up there just out of my range of perception, an ascendant tone as pitch perfect as everything else, a spiralling sequence I’d never noticed before and I smiled.

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