... Conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm.

Saving Times

Howard Mansfield


. . . cultural observer and reporter. A writer, Mr. Mansfield is author of The Same Ax Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age, which has been compared to the writings of Henry David Thoreau. He also wrote Skylark, In the Memory House and Cosmopolis. He contributes regularly to a number of newspapers, American Heritage Magazine and The New York Times Magazine. He and his family are at home in New England.


Restoration in a throw-away society is twice a gift, according to Howard Mansfield. It gives the restorer a deep satisfaction while passing along an abundance we too often overlook.

Mr. Mansfield is a journalist who has sought out unexpected people, individuals who seem to get the elements of life in the right order. He offers ways to focus on process in his stories of restoration and preservation. He sees the power of attending more to what it takes to do things, less on the end-result. Take the long way around to the finished product, he suggests. Preserve the old skills and the old ways.

His stories range from a woman millworker rebuilding a dying town with her tapestry to a man reconstructing an exact replica of the Wright Brothers' first plane, to police and military guys finding a powerful sense of community around the campfires of a Civil War re-enactment. In every case, these are also people restoring the silences necessary to counter mindless consumption.

Seeing, Mr. Mansfield believes, is the first restoration. It may also be the most important one. He became one with America's oldest gathering of stargazers. These are people who build their own telescopes, lug odd-looking creations across the country to Vermont, then wait together for the night. Why? To restore true scale, Mr. Mansfield believes. Witnessing the stars reminds these amateur astronomers that humans are small, the universe big, says Mr. Mansfield.

And more. For all of human history, the Milky Way was there, prompting stories that were the backbone of the cultures around the world . Now it is largely washed away by light pollution. Dimming our sight distances us from the fundamental human experience of the stars and much more, Mr. Mansfield maintains. He believes seeing the stars is just one of many things where it's true -- we don't know what we've lost until we see it. Which gets us back to those dark and chilly Vermont vigils.

No, Mr. Mansfield says, you can't step into the same river twice. But with preservation, historic and otherwise, you can get into the heart of that old saying's contradiction. He named his book The Same Ax Twice with the hope that he can get us to pay attention to preserving all kinds of skills -- how to make and remake and make things again -- an ax, a house or a community.

Pay attention, he suggests, to the care and loving attention it requires to keep things in service. Then pass those skills along. And don't be so concerned about the thing itself. It's the process, not the product, that merits our attention. It's heart? Respect -- whether it's a tool or a democratic town meeting or the half animal-half machine with which two Ohio boys gave humans flight.

   [This Program was recorded January 15, 2001 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, U.S.]

Edited Excerpts of the Conversation:


Conversation 1


Howard Mansfield describes "Noahs" (as in Noah's Ark) and, after applauding Noahs' efforts, he compares the current era to the tumultuous Gilded Age. He wonders if we confuse change with a sense of flow and gives examples of people countering that confusion.


Conversation 2

Describing himself as a person who goes around and listens to people, Mr. Mansfield suggests we live in the midst of great optimism. He gives examples of everyday people working to mend the world, living in an historic narrative. He shows how we create the future when we restore the past, and distinguishes this from nostalgia. He gives examples of high tech driving a need for high touch. He describes a really good walk in the woods, then compares two ways the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight was celebrated.



Conversation 3

Celebrating the genius in the moment of invention, Mr. Mansfield gives examples of when he sees machines as great instead of overwhelming. He describes people who are machine literate and gives vivid examples. He talks about the wealth we have lost in focusing only on money, suggesting the more we have, the less we have. He recalls the powerful experience of a Civil War re-enactment and summarizes the disturbing peace he experienced there, then retells more of the Wright Brothers' plane restorer's stories. Mr. Mansfield explains how constructive it is to be an importer of and from the past.


Conversation 4

Mr. Mansfield enumerates things we can learn from New England and elsewhere: a sense of civic obligation, a belief that troubling things can be turned around, a sense of history, a human scale, and an expectation that individuals will be heard. He uses meeting-houses to make his point about democracy being a rough ride. Mr. Mansfield reveals the joke and lesson behind the title to his book, The Same Ax Twice. He gives several large-scale examples of his point, then explains why he thinks its hopeful that we have so many options for solving seemingly intractable problems. He applies his point to individuals.



Conversation 5

The essence of personal experience is explored, with Mr. Mansfield offering tangible examples. He discusses bad restorations and their impact. He maintains that rarely can a "house museum" be both at the same time. He suggests where he considers ãbelatedness.ä Historic Deerfield is used as an example of the ripple effect of house museums and restorations. Seeing, Mr. Mansfield reminds us, is the first and maybe the most important restoration. He offers star-gazers as his example and mourns the fact that we are losing the night sky and a larger sense of quiet. He argues for us to reconnect with all our senses and gives examples of a generalized need for simple things.


Conversation 6

Mr. Mansfield amplifies on the kinds of change he thinks drive people crazy. He cautions against the dangers of being overwhelmed by stuff, to the neglect of more essential non-things, beginning with time. He elaborates, giving examples of restorers' and re-enactors' traditions of passing along a quite different kind of abundance. He relates to the power of Thornton Wilder and of silence.



Related Links:

The Same Ax Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age is published by University Press of New England.
You can find more about Howard Mansfield's work at his website.

From February, 2000 'til March, 2005 we produced several hundred one and two-minute programs for CNNRadio International and, later, for These programs were excerpted from our 1-hour conversations with hundreds of "leading edge" individuals. Included was this segment with Howard Mansfield: "Meetinghouse".

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


We are fortunate, indeed, that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas introduced us to The Same Ax Twice and then to Howard Mansfield and Peterborough, New Hampshire. Howard's reporter/author wife, Sy Montgomery, was diligent in getting us all to the right places at the right times. And the New England snow was spectacular when Howard and Sy welcomed us to their home. Christopher Hogwood, their pet pig, did exactly what he wanted to do, we had Perfect Canine Escorts, and the handsome chickens let Paula pet them. What a memorable excursion! Thanks to all.


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