Ways of knowing
For many years, the go-to guy on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore if there was rock ledge in the way of your project, be it a foundation or a grave, was Oliver Murphy. Mr. Dynamite, I’ll call him – a wiry-built man of generous spirit, now retired and with his wife Heather looking after the Murphy farmstead in West Chezzetcook at the head of Chezzetcook Inlet. I met them years ago at Ross Heritage Farm, where Oliver demonstrated finesse and focus in annual Hand Mowing Championships.
He stood out in the chair mowing contest. In this competition, participants are challenged to clip the grass from around and beneath a chair without even gently striking the legs. Oliver would go about the task cool as the proverbial cucumber, cool and methodical. His steady hand might have been a clue to his occupation.
I only learned of his blasting prowess earlier this fall when the Olivers hosted a Maritime Blacksmith Association “hammer-in” at their home, attended by dozens of blacksmiths, their families, and friends.
As the day and program of demonstrations at the forge wound down, I stopped by the house to say goodbye, passing the kitchen garden fenced high to keep out deer. (Not a weed to be seen, it had been cultivated that clean.)
The kitchen itself was still a whirl of clean-up activity from a noonday spread of sliced meats, salads, spring rolls, and more. Heather, close friends, and close cousins had outdone themselves preparing the feast. Still feeling peckish? The only barrier to quelling that was difficulty choosing from a table laden with a variety of cakes, pies, and squares.
The tree-shaded Murphy home is built on a sidehill. Oliver’s shop, downstairs from the kitchen, is bright with natural light, and has its own door to outside. As the garden was weed-free, so the shop looked as if sawdust has never been allowed to take root. Such order.
But what drew my attention like a toad’s eye to a fly was a magnificently crafted shaving bench built by one of Oliver’s cousins, a master carpenter, following plans from Lee Valley Tools. The bench sports more features than ordinarily seen for holding stock fast while shaping with plane or drawknife. A tool like that bench qualifies as a sculpture worthy of placing in most any art museum. Better, though, it is in Oliver’s shop ready to serve.
Back upstairs, Heather invited me to take a look at a fat three-ring binder of blasts from Oliver’s past that she has recorded and transcribed. I can picture long winter evenings the two would have spent compiling this tome, which has a sizeable leg up on your plain vanilla journal. In its pages the reader encounters not only the account but the flavour of Oliver’s voice in the telling of events.
Here is a taste. It is a story both fun and instructive. Oliver learns about dynamite. Picture early days in West Chezzetcook. With a large family to support, Oliver’s father supplements farm income by cutting hair in a shop down on the road.
Heather asks: “How old were you when you first handled dynamite?”
Oliver replies: “Maybe 10 or 12 years old. I know I was pretty young. . . . Dad always had dynamite around home. When we were kids, on Saturday Dad would be in the barber shop. My oldest brother would get some dynamite from wherever Dad used to store it. And we used to play with it.”
Heather: “So, you would be playing with dynamite while your father was working in the barber shop. . .”
Oliver: “There would be the four of us, my brothers and me, and my cousin. . . . And Mum would be busy in the house, cooking, and looking after the other ones, and she didn’t have time to check on us, so we had the day to play more.
“My brother would give each one of us a little piece of (the dynamite) – it was like a putty almost.
“We’d all have a try at it. We’d put a little piece of the dynamite on a rock and we’d hit it with a sledgehammer.
“And you didn’t have to lift the sledgehammer after, no, no! It would come right up. And as long as it didn’t come up and hit you in the head, well it was alright.
“We’d be laughing. We had fun doin’ that.”
They had fun and learned first-hand, without need of a degree from explosives school. Would that there was less emphasis today on book-learning and more on knowledge that comes by doing – even taking life-threatening chances along the way.
Come hard times, we don’t want people around with letters after their names so much as those who know how to grow food, catch fish, fell a tree with an axe, grow, cook, and preserve foods, and build shelters – and if there’s a rock in the way of digging a root cellar, an Oliver to lure out of retirement.
Dope is now legal in Canada. The crooks, not to be left wanting, have already shifted to harder drugs – speed, the opioids – which means law enforcement won’t miss a beat having to turn a blind eye to marijuana. There will be plenty to do, more serious and dangerous to-boot than chasing after folks smoking a joint.
I do believe lacing gummy bears and the like with extracts of cannabis resin is a big mistake. But then, so has been the merchandizing of mixed drinks – screwdriver-in-a bottle, for example.
Lord, I’m crotchetier with each passing decade. I’m not alone, “maturing” this way. A neighbour has posted a large sign by his drive saying “No Turning.” It is a big sign, so big you’d think there must be dozens a day taking advantage of the opportunity to change direction just there. I suspect, though, that it only took a couple of cars in a row to raise the ire. We love our peace and quiet, and are sure as shootin’ ready to go to war to protect it. DvL