"Where'd you get the dirt?"
After the third neighbor asked this same question, we realized we were becoming something of a spectacle. I was making trips up and down the main road with friend John's Mitsubishi and almost wished I had thought to do this under the cover of darkness. This wasn't just "dirt," it was gravel. Gravel is starting to become as valuable and treasured on Matinicus Island as cash, check, a dozen roses or a hot pizza off the airplane. My little pile of gravel riding down the road in the back of the dump truck was becoming a sort of a parade. Each trip from my mother-in-law's property, where the gravel originated, to mine, where I am setting up to build a little workshop for my forge, passed at least one islander who asked the same question. "Where'd you get the dirt?" indicates more than curiosity. The deeper meaning is "Can I get some? Is there any more? Is it for sale?" Sorry, no.
The island is dotted with played-out gravel pits and exploratory holes in the ground. Some contain old cars, some water and ducks, some make a spot for target practice. Gravel for the roads used to be easily had and taken for granted, at least whenever there was a backhoe on the island, which of course was not all of the time. Recently, however, people are less interested in having a huge crater in their back forty, and finding roadbed material has been rather a challenge. The Matinicus airstrip has benefited this year from the addition of a few truckloads of gravel imported at great expense from the mainland, but before the existence of the Island Transporter and similar heavy carriers, that was never an option. All summer we hear the critical inquiries of visitors who, with a slightly superior squint, query somebody as to why "we" don't make certain improvements to the infrastructure. Little do they suspect the expense.
We had been referring to my future backyard workshop as "the blacksmith shop" but that isn't right; "the Blacksmith Shop," properly, already exists, now only as another islander's garden shed. Years ago, when Aunt Marion ran the store (and everything else around here, by most accounts, under her benign dictatorship,) there was a working blacksmith shop. Most Matinicus Island structures are referred to by the owner of record two or three owners ago, and likewise "the Blacksmith Shop," which has not been such for many decades. Many island homes are called "Aunt" somebody's, such as Aunt Marion's or Aunt Belle's, despite the fact that these matriarchal figures have been gone a very long time.
I asked Warren Williams, who had come to the island and worked for Aunt Marion when he was a boy in the 1930s, about the Blacksmith Shop, and specifically about the blacksmith. I had hoped to discover that some islander had owned the forge and made his own tongs and perhaps a few artifacts might be found, fireplace tools or ox-cart parts. No, said Warren, he'd never heard of that, possibly somebody had done it before his time. In his memory the way it worked was people got together once in a while and hired a smith, more like a farrier, to come out to the island and work a short while in that shop affiliated with Aunt Marion's store, shoeing horses and oxen, (of which Warren could remember three pair in his day.)
The conventional wisdom concerning oxen was that when planning to put up any home, shop, fish-house etc, one should leave room enough between it and the neighboring structure "to drive a yoke of oxen between them." I am not sure which historian told me that.
The Matinicus Island Historical Society, being in its infancy anyway, had high hopes for evidence of ironwork or livestock hardware, and I was ready to play "Rock Paper Scissors" with the Town Historian for any repairable tongs that might surface, but nothing so far. In digging up the back lawn to set the foundation for my building (prior to unloading all the precious gravel,) John's skid-steer did turn up a perfect and undamaged bottle once containing Fellows Syrup of Hypophosphites. The Historian didn't get that from me yet either.
We didn't hear about any historic relics or usable forge tools found in the old Blacksmith Shop, but I did acquire an anvil, found in the miscellany of a summer home, and traded with that home's younger generation for the anvil, offering to their satisfaction a submersible well pump, brand-new and in the box.
Anyway, I had to tell John with the skid-steer and the dump truck to watch out for the pheasant chicks. Mr. and Mrs. Ring-necked Pheasant had decided they liked the looks of my "dirt pile," after Mr. Pheasant had finished fighting his buddies for it. Matinicus is well-stocked with pheasants, and the males are a sight to see in the spring, strutting around thinking they're beautiful which, of course, they are.