Monday, August 25, 2008

A Story About Four Musical Instruments


The pictures show four musical instruments-two guitars and two Appalachian lap dulcimers that currently reside at our house. The guitars are nice factory made instruments. The dulcimers are hand crafted "instruments of distinction". All of these instruments are special to me and all have a story behind them.

The guitar pictured on the right side of the guitar picture is the second guitar I have owned, bought in the summer of 1969 right after I had been discharged from the hospital following surgery on my right hand. I had suffered a complicated fracture of the index finger of that hand almost two weeks before and had gone without a positive diagnosis for a week following the injury. After X-rays finally revealed the true nature of the injury, doctors failed two attempts to set the shattered finger and had scheduled me for surgery to splice the broken bone together with wire. I can vividly remember my going to the music store right after leaving the hospital out patient department on the second day the doctor had failed to set my finger, and trying out that guitar. The salesman apparently was both amused and astonished to see me trying out guitars with my right hand wrapped with bandages and a splint. I think I was at least partly trying to assuage the mix of physical and emotional pain I had been enduring and still facing right after receiving the bad news that I would have to make yet another trip to the dreaded hospital for admission and surgery. The next day I was admitted and I was operated on the following morning. I spent the remainder of that day in agonizing post operative pain and immediately after being discharged the next morning, I went straight to the music store and bought that guitar for seventy dollars.

Several months later I faced the need for extraction of two severely impacted wisdom teeth, removed in separate operations spaced about a week apart. Both times I spent the evenings following the extractions in the upstairs of the old farmhouse singing and playing my guitar to take my mind off the throbbing pain in my jaw.

The guitar on the left side of the picture is one I picked up about twelve years ago for twenty dollars at an auction. I had paid thirty dollars for my learner guitar right after graduation from high school in 1967 and as my son Hans was then beginning to show some interest in learning the guitar, I saw this one as a considerably better instrument than the one I had started with and I bought it for him. He took to guitar playing like a young duck takes to water and today is dreaming of owning a $2000(?)Martin or something similar.

As I fled my exploding house over a year ago these two guitars were lying on a sofa and easy chair in the living room and I grabbed them, one in each hand, seconds before bolting out the door. I could have grabbed more valuable things like my dulcimer(It has a story behind it too.)or the $350 digital camera I had just bought several weeks before. Hans would later tell me how grateful he was that I had saved that guitar because it was the one that got him started with a passion that will take him to much higher levels of accomplishment than I will ever attain.
The instrument on the left side of the dulcimer picture is one Hans made himself in an inter term class on instrument making he took several years ago while a student at Berea College in Kentucky. He built two dulcimers in that class-a lap dulcimer and a small hammered dulcimer, and he did a fine job on both of them. I only wish the picture would show in more detail the most interesting and original tree shaped sound holes he cut into the face board. Another interesting feature is the walnut wood grain pattern showing a graceful curve of contrasting heartwood and sapwood in the strum cradle at the lower end of the instrument. Most important of all it has a really nice mellow sound. I still regret not taking this instrument with me to show to Warren May when I went to buy my new dulcimer from him this past spring.

The other dulcimer of course is the one I recently bought from Mr. May when our family traveled to Berea to attend Hans' graduation. I had first visited his shop and showroom in downtown Berea about six years ago when there to attend my daughter Rhonda's graduation. I was so impressed by his craftsmanship with not only dulcimers but also furniture, and wowed that if I ever have a reason to buy another dulcimer, I want to get one of his.

I had decided in advance that I would probably buy one of his middle of the line instruments which would cost in the range of $450-$500 but I walked out of there with one of his top of the line instruments which set me back monetarily for about $700 including sales tax and a few amenities like a songbook and a carrying case. That's ten times what I paid for the other dulcimer during my student days at Virginia Tech way back in 1971! Several things that make it special is his signature engraved into the strum cradle, several flowers wood burned at intervals onto the fretboard, book matched face and backboards, and an inlaid strip down the middle of the backboard. All of his instruments sounded fabulous, but this one, made of walnut back and sides with a Brazilian rosewood face board, sounded just a hair more fabulous. What really made this experience special was chatting with the guy who made it and watching him put on some extra finishing touches(some of which I specially requested)like the extra fret between the sixth and seventh frets and extra grooves in the bridges on either end of the instrument which allow alternative spacing of the strings for some special tunings.

Will I care what I paid for this work of art a few years down the road when its tone will have mellowed and matured even more from long hours of being played? Nahh!!
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Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Craft of Grafting

I have always wanted to try the art of grafting trees. The concept seems simple enough. You take a small twig from the tree you want to graft from, cut the lower end into a wedge, cut a slit into the tree you want to graft to, fit the wedge shaped twig into the slit in a way that the sap wood of the two are in contact, and cover everything up good and tight with grafting tape and wax. Should work shouldn't it.

I remember first trying it as a teenager. Somewhere I had gotten my hands on a book or magazine which featured these neat diagrams of various grafting techniques--whip grafting, cleft grafting, bridge grafting, bud grafting etc. Bud grafting looked to be the simplest of all, just peel a bud off the tree you want to graft from, cut a T shaped slit into the bark of the tree you want to graft to, lift up the bark on the vertical part of the T, fit the bud under the bark, and wrap with tape. So that is what I decided to try. I don't remember if I was ever successful.

During the ensuing years I never had a good reason to try grafting again. I went to college, got married, and became a dairy farmer. Out of sheer necessity I learned how to do such things as assisting complicated calf births, giving intravenous injections to cows down with milk fever, and doctoring foot rot or acute mastitis, but I never messed with fruit trees much. Oh I did learn how to prune trees in a "learn by the seat of your pants" sort of way, but I never needed to do any grafting.

Then about ten years ago I started planting some pear trees. Well it turned out that several of the varieties I had selected turned out to be real duds. They were susceptible to fire blight and they just wouldn't ripen right. I fooled with them for a couple of years after they reached bearing size without ever getting a decent crop and finally decided that they were not worth messing with any more. I did have one variety that I was happy about. This variety grew into a nice shaped tree that was relatively easy to prune (not true for most pear trees),resistant to fire blight, and it produced wonderful tasting and nice sized fruit that did not turn to mush as it started to ripen. In short it was everything you would ever want in a pear tree.

So last year I decided to turn all of my dud pear trees into Magness pear trees. I had also planted a bunch of Asian pear trees that, although difficult to prune, thin, and keep free of fire blight, their fruit so enamored me that I decided they were worth keeping. So I had my excuse to play with grafting again. I decided to take scions off my Magness trees and graft onto the duds on the upper end of the orchard and to graft scions off the Asian pears onto the duds on the lower end.

It was already too late to be grafting when I went out in late April to early May and sliced off some scions and stuck them into some trees. The trees were already leafing out and every one of my attempted grafts promptly wilted and died.

Last winter I decided to try again. I got on the Internet and pulled up some nice diagrams and read up on the subject. My biggest mistake had been my failure to collect my scions when the trees were still dormant and to do the grafting in early April just as the buds are beginning to swell.

I already had one strike against me. Most of the trees I wanted to graft onto were past the age for optimum grafting success and had been so damaged by fire blight and repeated hacking back that I no longer had nice rootstock to graft onto. Most would need to be cut back to a one to two inch stump and cleft grafted. One offered only a good sized water sprout that I decided might work for a whip graft. A whip graft is considered to be one of the more challenging to execute, but if successful, makes a smoother and stronger graft and is the preferred choice of professional grafters. The main thing of importance is that the scion and the rootstock needs to be approximately the same diameter, no more than one half inch.

So I bought some grafting wax, sharpened my pocket knife, cut my scions in early March, and stuck them into the ground cellar. When I brought them out to do the grafting a month later, the buds on the scions were already starting to swell despite being cut from the tree. I got along okay but found it necessary to melt down the estimated amount of wax I would need ahead of time instead of trying to soften it in my hands like the instructions said. It was a cold day and the wax incredibly sticky and difficult to work with. I ran out of melted wax when I still had a few more trees to do. I had poured the melted wax onto some waxed paper laid into a small dish. I was getting tired and frustrated and did not want to run back to the house to melt more wax so I decided to take a shortcut on the last few trees by wrapping the grafts with the sticky wax paper instead of properly sealing them with copious amounts of wax like I was supposed to. I thought to myself, "If this works I am going to be surprised!"

I eagerly watched my grafted trees daily and after about a week one or two grafted twigs began to show signs of coming to life. Meanwhile the remainder of the trees were leafing out nicely. Over half of my grafts were showing no signs of growth and appeared to not be taking. However I consider myself a patient man and thought it prudent to give them plenty of time. Every couple of days I would check again and each time I would find another twig or two beginning to bud out. It must have been about two weeks before the whip graft started to show signs of taking. I had all but given up hope and when it became clearly evident that it was going to succeed I was elated. Meanwhile I watched the trees that I had done the "quick and dirty" job of wrapping the grafts on and they too began taking. Somewhere I had read or heard that professional grafters can expect 80 to 90 percent success. I considered that if I achieve a 60 to 70 percent success rate I will be doing bloody good. I kept watching my grafts and a few finally began growing as much as a month after I had made the grafts. When it was all over every one of the eight trees I had grafted onto had succeeded and of the 15 or so twigs I had grafted only one failed to grow. Eventually I will have to prune away some of the grafted material. Not bad for an amateur eh?

You know what? I just recently read in an issue of "Growing for Market" that someone is successfully grafting heirloom tomatoes! Really?! Will I ever try it? I'll surely let the world know if it works!
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What a Difference a Year Can Make!

The two pictures of our house site were taken a little more than a year apart.

The first was taken in late March or early April 2007 soon after the debris was cleared and the foundation covered with tarp. It would remain looking this way for another three months as we sought to work out the details of preparing to rebuild. The winds of springtime did their best to try to take the tarp off and the site became even uglier as the tarp became increasingly tattered and we desperately tried to hold it in place by piling on dirty cinder blocks and scrap metal to hold it in place.

The second was taken in early May 2008 after the front yard landscaping was nearly completed and enough grass became established to make it possible to walk across the yard without getting muddy feet.

As I write this we are about one year removed from the time that we were finalizing the process of drawing up workable blue prints and lining up a contractor to get the rebuilding started. The actual building started in the first week of July and we were ready to move in by the end of December.

One year ago we were living in a rented house about a mile and a half away and burning $2.00/gallon gas to run 15 – 20 miles per week back and forth to tend our farm. Today we are burning $4.00/gallon gas to run our vehicles as little as possible.

For most of the past year piles of demolition and construction debris clung like scabs to the broken and scarred landscape surrounding the house and were finally sloughed off and hauled away as springtime approached. Slowly but surely the yard and our emotions are healing.

This coming weekend we are looking forward to a family trip to Berea, Kentucky to attend our son Hans’s graduation from Berea College. We have rented two cabins at Red River Gorge state park located about 50 miles from Berea where we and some church friends, who are going with us, plan to lodge for about 3 nights. Red River Gorge is a beautiful wilderness area noted for its many rock climbing sites. My son-in-law Craig Good is talking of indulging himself in some rock climbing on Saturday afternoon. I’m looking forward to visiting Warren May’s woodworking shop in downtown Berea and purchasing one of his handcrafted Appalachian dulcimers. We will be attending Baccalaureate services on Sunday morning and the graduation in the afternoon.

The busy season in the garden is hard upon us. As usual I feel about a month behind in doing everything. Right now I cannot imagine how we coped last year, but we did, and we are going to do it again this year. The tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, string beans, lima beans, soybeans, corn, summer squash, winter squash, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and watermelons, all ought to get into the ground this week. This may not sound like much until I tell you that at least half of all of these categories are transplants represented by an average of 500 transplants per category. In addition to all this we are harvesting strawberries, lettuce, peas, fava beans, and asparagus, spraying the pears and apricot trees for fire blight, leaf curl and brown rot, looking after a few PYO customers, going to farmers’ market and fighting weeds. It is time to make hay and the steers need to be castrated.

Hey, I think I am going to stop writing about all this busyness and talk about looking forward to sitting at dusk in the recently bought rocking chair on our nice big front porch, strumming my dulcimer, and watching the fireflies.
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