Author: Howard Mansfield

Publisher: Bauhan Publishing

ISBN: 97808723332508

Regional writing is my favorite kind. It is not big or ambitious. It’s about something other than self. It often is a love letter. I am crazy about Howard Mansfield’s books. His depictions of New England towns and buildings and weather and friends embody the idealized America for a lot of us around my age (79), even if we have never been there. They are about meeting houses and churches, barns, inherited clocks – and the kindness of discretion. How badly we need these reminders of what it takes to belong with others in community, in communion. This slender book of essays focuses on one place, Hancock, New Hampshire, and its inhabitants. But Hancock is a jumping off place for this thoughtful writer. From the get-go, he captures the shared qualities of American small-town life in observations, such as, “…villages are the story of the rise and fall of one commodity: clothespins, shoes, rocking chairs, buggy whips.” He notes: “The biggest house is next door to one of the smallest.” He tells us that the American version of the ubiquitous Queen Anne dining chair is like a gown made of denim instead of silk. The reader, wherever she is from, is compelled to do a lot of bracketing and underlining.

There is a kind of plot to Summer Over Autumn. The central question might be, “What will America be if this iconic lifestyle is no longer sustainable?” It’s like global warming. You know something is being lost incrementally, but you don’t usually see it slipping away. (The recent dramatic videos of the calving off of glaciers present an exception.) The essay titled “Summer Over Autumn” suggests that changes are anticipated. But those moments when one season becomes another are hard to identify, much less to predict. The author’s particular experience, seated in a kayak on a pond, evokes in my mind Emily Dickinson (“There’s a certain slant of light…”); he knows “the party’s over” and that the change from one season into the next is like “passing through a doorway.” Mansfield wonders: “If we could inhabit a still-point, floating as if we were in a kayak, would we be aware of the many doorways we daily pass through?” Yet he acknowledges cycles. A young loon attempts to lift off the pond, flapping the length, gradually rising, having to circle to get above the trees. A new creature pretending to be a bird. As always.

He acknowledges death. At a funeral, sitting in the steeply-pitched balcony, he realizes that everyone below is older than he is, and he will see them buried. “Looking down on your neighbors in their pews, the church is revealed as a ship on a voyage.” More than death and loss, there is an undertow of fear running through all these pieces, even in the hilarious tale of a pet pig, the runt of the litter that turned out to be too large to dispose of, a Zen pig, becoming what it eats. It is a monster. Mansfield writes about another unintended consequence, the yard sale. “What we are witnessing here is a moment of uncertainty,” he declares. Is it the end of an empire, a broken marriage, or, “Is someone decamping for another dream vector…?”

Mansfield is best known as an historic preservationist, but not of the kind who merely celebrates the superior craftsmanship of the past. More fittingly, he’s been called “a cultural psychologist.” He uses living traditions and artifacts as reflections of character. Notably, what we have is imperfect. The minister is not insightful. We allow the old woman to drive blind. Cellar holes, denoting failure and abandonment, dot our landscape. Mansfield’s last book was SHEDS. It had pictures. They are meant to be looked at closely for a long time. I feel the same way about these essays. I can’t effectively share his words of wisdom so deeply imbedded in the New England context -- and in his caring psyche -- that it’s like, “you have to have been there” (to understand why I’m telling you this), so it’s best I advise you to keep a copy by your bedside and read a chapter a night.