Two-man felling saw by Eugene Zelenko from wikipedia. 

Knud Merrild and Kai Gótzsche were Danish artists who spent the winter of 1922 with Lawrence, high up in the mountains of New Mexico. Their experiences were recorded in Merrild’s memoir A Poet and Two Painters. In the third of eight blogs, we see how sharing everyday tasks helped bond the group together.    

The Del Monte Ranch consisted of a ranch house and two cabins that formed a sort of triangle – with all three homes a few minutes’ walk from each other. These needed whipping into shape and so they began roofing, carpentering, plastering, glazing, paperhanging, painting, whitewashing and fumigating while Frieda sewed curtains. ‘Lawrence enjoyed himself thoroughly doing all of these odd jobs,’ notes Merrild. Hard graft was gratifying, ‘it felt good to be a labourer.[i]’  

Once the cabins were complete, the next task was to find a dead tree for their winter supply of fuel. They found a 75ft Balsam Pine that was eight to ten feet in circumference and began the arduous grind of sawing it into logs with a crosscut, two-handed saw. It took several days to complete the task. Although Lawrence ‘tired quickly, he stubbornly kept on[ii].’ Naturally, he complained when things didn’t run smoothly, and it was always the fault of the tools or other people. ‘It amused us that he thought himself so clever, when it was he who was at fault.[iii]’ They even raised the question of why when they worked together ‘it runs smoothly all the time; but when either of us saws with you, we get stuck every time[iv].’ Lawrence retorted ‘It’s because you two are doing it wrong.[v]’ ‘He just wouldn’t be told anything; he was preaching and teaching all the time.[vi]’ On the final day they worked into the evening and heard howling coyotes nearby. It tickled their spines. But the job got done, nobody was eaten, and now all that remained was to rent horses and a wagon to get the timber carted to the cabins. 

Meeting obstacles and conquering them was part of the pleasure of their remote lifestyle. But when it came to finely chopping up the wood, it was too much for Lawrence and Frieda stepped in. He bitterly complained ‘Rot. If the Danes can do it, I can do it, too. I don’t want them to saw my wood![vii]’ But they insisted: ‘Nonsense. We are glad to do it for you. You do many other things for us.[viii]’ A compromise was eventually reached. Lawrence would split the kindling. ‘He wanted to do his share. He was a really good sport[ix]’ Merrild acknowledges, sentiments that are repeated throughout his memoir.  

Lawrence was 36, Gótzsche, 34 and Merrild, 28. Despite similarities in age, the Danes were far more athletic. They had previously laboured in construction and so were physically superior. A good bath was needed after their physical excursion and so they took a seventeen-mile trot to the hot springs. Lawrence rode on the only real horse, a tall and athletic Sorrel. The Danes and Frieda had cow ponies. This meant he led the way. ‘Lawrence towered above us, a real general. He looked well on the horse. He had a huge, grey, five-gallon hat, a leather jacket and checkered trousers tucked into a pair of long, high-heeled riding boots. His horse pranced and side stepped, strutting about in a lively manner.[x]

When Gótzsche dared to overtake Lawrence and disrupt the pecking order, he was scalded, and they had their first falling out. Frieda, observant as ever, commented, ‘You are like the horse you are on. You can’t bear to have anybody ahead of you[xi].’   

They couldn’t drink from a nearby water basin at the ranch after a pig fell in and drowned. But it was good enough to wash clothes in. Snow was melted on the stove for cooking and drinking. Limited resources and being a fair distance from town meant food was basic. Oatmeal and porridge became a regular fixture of their diet, sometimes eaten at breakfast and for tea. But a dab of syrup or honey helped make the mush more bearable. When available, salt meat and potatoes made up the evening meal. Apples were in abundance, allowing Lawrence to create cider. The Danes reciprocated by teaching him a classic Danish dish involving fried apples and bacon. Each day brought fresh, newly milked raw milk and fresh churned butter. Lawrence, who did most of the cooking, made the bread. Sometimes the rancher could get his hands on fresh meat. If not, the woods were full of rabbits waiting to be shot. Despite separate living quarters, ‘we spent much time together, seldom less than three to five hours daily and frequently all day, from breakfast to bedtime (…) We were at peace even in disturbances[xii].’

Frieda enjoyed sowing and embroidery and made curtains, pillows and sheets for the Danes as well as woollen hats to keep their ears warm in bed. ‘She took good, motherly care of us[xiii]’. Lawrence loved the simple lifestyle and filling his day with tasks. It was like a religion, with him preaching ‘the more machinery intervenes between us and the naked forces, the more we numb and atrophy our own senses. Every time we turn on a tap to have water, every time we turn a handle to have fire or light, we deny ourselves and annul our being.[xiv]’  

Their evenings were spent sat around the fire with Lawrence expounding his views on a variety of subjects. ‘He had the ‘gift of interest’ and could make one interested in almost anything (…) He had no social, moral or intellectual affectations and was free from any kind of snobbery. He had his fits once in a while, but on the whole, in everyday life he was easy going.[xv].’ And even if they disagreed ‘we were at peace in disturbance…it is these hours I treasure as among the most precious moments of my life.[xvi]

Source: Merrild, Knud A Poet and Two Painters: A Memoir of D.H. Lawrence. George Routledge & Sons, London, 1938



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