The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a ThrowAway Age By Howard Mansfield University Press of New England 288 pp., $26
It might be an object of obvious artistic merit: an heirloom quilt, a hand-painted teacup, an embroidered napkin, a grandfather clock, an exquisitely crafted desk. Or it could be something of historical interest: an arrowhead, a Colonial spinning-wheel, a vintage automobile. Or sometimes, it is simply an item to which one is deeply attached: a faithful old typewriter, a favorite chair, a well-worn pair of jeans.
There are some things we just can't bear to throw away.
In "The Same Ax, Twice," New Hampshire journalist and author Howard Mansfield celebrates those who prefer to repair and restore things rather than destroy them or throw them away.
He begins with a riddle: "A farmer ... says he has had the same ax all his life - he only changed the handle three times and the head two times. Does he have the same ax?" On the one hand, both parts of the ax have been replaced, so it is no longer the same piece of metal affixed to the same piece of wood. On the other hand, to mend something by replacing its parts is an act of restoration.
Mansfield draws a parallel with the human body, insofar as it maintains itself by replacing cells; thus, we "are, and are not, the same person we were only a year ago."
By the same token, Mansfield explains, the Ise Shinto shrine in Japan is made of wood and has been rebuilt almost every 20 years since AD 690. Because it has been rebuilt 61 times, it is not considered "old enough" to be on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. Yet, in a deeper sense, Mansfield argues, the act of continually rebuilding the wooden shrine is perhaps a better way of "conserving" it, of preserving its true meaning.
Mansfield takes us on a highly eclectic tour in which he visits places where people are engaged in restoration or preservation of one kind or another. We meet auctioneers, appraisers, curators. We meet rebuilders of old houses, old machines, old churches, entire villages, not to mention Civil War buffs who reenact the Battle of Antietam. There's a woman who has restored an old farm and runs it in the nicest old-fashioned way. There's even a man who searches out increasingly hard-to-find places where he can record the sounds of natural quietude: bird songs, the lapping of water, the soughing of wind, the rustle of trees, unspoiled by the whoosh of traffic, the whine of machinery, the roar of jet engines, or the throbbing of helicopters.
Although there's probably something to interest almost everyone in all these various doings, it's hard to imagine the reader who will find all of them equally fascinating. So many detailed accounts of so many different types of activity scatter the book's focus - and the reader's attention. It's easy to miss some of the gems of perception and wisdom embedded in Mansfield's rather meandering narrative. His deadly accurate parody of the 6 o'clock TV news, for example, is a brilliant portrait of the shallow, sensationalistic mentality that coarsens the sensibilities of viewers. His account of his own appearance on a TV talk show underscores this point: "You really don't have to answer the questions," he observes. "Whatever you say, the next question will be right along. You could advocate the violent overthrow of the government, or announce the cure for cancer, or sell a new lint remover - it doesn't matter. It's all pitched at the same level, one mellifluous net of happy talk.... The answers don't matter. The questions don't matter. The flow is all that matters."
Mansfield champions restoration as a way to help repair a troubled world. Recalling the teachings of 16th century Jewish Kabbalist Isaac Luria, Mansfield likens restoration, rightly done and done for the right reasons, to what Luria called Tikkun: mending the broken world by rituals, prayers, and moral actions. Mansfield suggests that we can also apply this spiritual principle to the material world of nature and objects, asking: "Does it restore harmony? Is it on the side of life?"
*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society