How The Village Smith Began

. . . as she spoke of neighbors and passersby gathering outside her father’s blacksmith shop, my imagination conjured them under Longfellow’s spreading chestnut tree, sharing their lives, their loves, their interests, their joys.

“The Village Smith” newspaper column (now blog) was not born of just a clever idea igniting from a single spark — like my surname and the famous poem, “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was a culmination of many ideas, some I can even pinpoint.

As a child, for some odd reason, I loved to memorize poetry, especially ballads, and give orations, often just in my room alone, or out on the hills to the dairy cows who looked serious and solemn as I said them. The Village Blacksmith was one of my favorites. It is a ballad about a simple, homespun man whom people trusted because he was an honest, solid, hard-working family man with strength and endurance.

But the poem wasn’t the only reason for this name choice. Besides being a writer, poet, jack of many trades and generally clueless about what I want to be when I grow up, (even at this late stage) I am also a semi-professional genealogist (self-educated). Among the many relatives I’ve interviewed since I began seriously in 1976, was an octogenarian cousin in Tennessee whose father, William Castleton Harper, was a blacksmith. The longing for that simpler time and place shone from her eyes and voice as she spoke of neighbors and passersby stopping in — just to talk. Sometimes there would be quite a crowd. And as she spoke, my imagination conjured them under Longfellow’s spreading chestnut tree, sharing their lives, their loves, their interests, their joys.

My dad used to talk about how he missed the chestnut trees, what he called “horse chestnuts”, lost to blight many years ago.

In researching Longfellow’s poem, I learned that this worthy man of letters did pass a smithy and a “horse chestnut” tree, on his way to the university in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Some of the subjects I will write about may reflect this longing for a simpler time and place. Then again, some may reflect the fire for adventure which has burned in me since as long as I can remember, playing at creeping through forests of ancient trees with snaking gnarled roots, pretending I slept among them at night on my way to . . . some great and noble destination. Much of this imagination was spawned by scenes much like that here in the hills and mountains and forests of St. Clair and Jefferson Counties in Alabama. I even roamed alone over them beginning at the early age of eight or nine, when I could slip away unnoticed.

But in the course of life, I have found that there is beauty and grace and depth of meaning — and, yes, adventure, and humor — in so many things, that my taste in books, movies, art, and music have become eclectic. Often, these things are not apparent at first glance, and I am often saddened that other eyes skim over them, and that so many people miss so many blessings. One of the finest compliments I received when my professional writing was in its infancy, was from a woman who worked long hours in a factory where I was doing interviews for a story on the city’s industry. She mentioned a column I had written about springtime (I guess I’m partial to April). Since I’ve never been able to comfortably take a compliment face to face, I simply said, “Oh, it’s all there for everyone to see.” Then she quietly replied, “But only you would have noticed.” 

I know I wasn’t the only one to be aware of nature’s colorful show, but I do ask God to grant me the grace to keep on “noticing” things in ways that will help others to see them in new and different lights. I understand that every subject I write about will not be everyone’s cup of tea because they are so many and varied. But, as in books, music, and movies, I do hope the readers will be willing to take a look at the redeeming qualities I see in them.

Here is the gist of what I learned from that worthy old friend of a lonely childhood, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!