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Mansfield ponders meanings of home

Author will be at Toadstool on Saturday

In the introduction to his latest book, “Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter,” Hancock author Howard Mansfield writes, “The mystery that holds my attention is that some houses have life — are home, are dwelling — and others don’t. Dwelling is an old-fashioned word that we’ve misplaced.”

These days, Mansfield says, many people have housing without having a dwelling. Our houses are shelters from rain and snow, but they aren’t true homes, capable of nourishing and sheltering our souls. So we go house hunting, looking for a fresh start, pondering the benefits of great rooms, granite countertops, spa bathrooms. That’s not the answer, Mansfield writes: “We should ask: Give us room for tumult and quiet, for solitude and passing the time with friends. Give us room for ordinary pleasures, for a day well lived.”

Mansfield, who is the author of seven books related to preservation and history, including “Turn & Jump,” “In the Memory House,” and “The Same Ax, Twice.”

“I’m a guy who goes around and asks questions,” he said last week, when asked what prompted him to write this book. “It’s basically just being curious and looking around. If I get interested in something, I try to figure out why it is the way it is.”

He divides the new book into three parts, with each section containing a series of essays on a related theme.

The first section, titled “Dwelling in the Ordinary,” focuses on once common things that are now vanishing. Mansfield’s account of how he and his wife, author Sy Montgomery, made it through six days without electricity or oil during the 2008 ice storm leads into a lament about the loss of the hearth. The gathering place for the family has been replaced by electric light and central furnaces. But in the ice storm, Mansfield writes, “The old campfire reasserted itself. We were thrown back to an ancient ordinary — chop wood, carry water. This ancient ordinary sleeps in our houses.”

Another essay in the first section tells the story of Mansfield’s experiences on the committee that developed a restoration plan for Hancock’s Main Street a few years ago. Townspeople said they didn’t want modern sidewalks; they liked the crooked paths in front of the Main Street homes and wanted the new construction to look old.

“Our longing for the old ‘soft’ landscape is more than nostalgia,” Mansfield writes. “We have a hunger for the older values because they are closer to the earth... An old worn path can be a lifeline thrown to us in the shipwreck of planning manuals, zoning codes, traffic engineers and planning committees.”

The second section “Dwelling in Destruction,” includes Mansfield’s reflections on how he was building huts in the woods as a child in the 1960s while watching on TV as huts were destroyed in Vietnam. He also writes about the bombing campaigns in Europe during World War II targeting areas far from the battlefields that actually proved ineffective and may have even strengthened the will of the civilian population. And he describes a visit to Mississippi more than a year after Hurricane Katrina, when Peterborough photographer Annie Card was leading a volunteer effort to rebuild homes.

“Hurricane Katrina is a disaster we cannot face,” Mansfield writes. “It’s a year and a half later and people are still lacking beds and houses. ... They want a house; they want to go home again... But after Hurricane Katrina your home is like no place you have ever known.”

The book’s third section focuses on “Dwelling in Possibility.” Mansfield writes about his experiences as a census taker: “As I walked around, I came to wonder about the possibility of dwelling in the ordinary. What would it take? Why is it that the ordinary is so hard for us? Not the nine-to-five daily slog, but the grace of the ordinary. The world is a cup running over with grace, and we walk about parched.”

Mansfield will be reading from his book, which is published by Bauhan Publishing LLC of Peterborough, on Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough.

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