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Jeff Nania asks, Do inanimate objects have stories to tell?

Jeff Nania is the author of the Northern Lakes Mystery series. You can find out more about him on his website,, or by clicking here, read his last post here, and see his books here.

A Carin, or stacked rocks, with water in the background.

“Inanimate” is defined as something not alive, especially in the manner of animals and humans. A pile of rocks laying in a field or an old piece of farm equipment would meet the classic definition of inanimate. They will likely lay where they are until the winds and waters of time turn them back into the dust they once were. They only move if offered assistance from man, woman, beast or machine. Or in some circumstances the earth rebelling against their presence pushes or shakes them aside. 

I am not a collector of antiques, but I have managed to accumulate some interesting and potentially useful old things along the way, almost always items that don’t eat and can be stored in a corner of the barn or shop until needed. 

Recently I found a piece of steel protruding from a stone pile at the edge of a field. Probably a remnant of the machine that moved the rocks to the pile. I pulled and prodded and eventually wiggled it loose. Three feet long, two inches wide and a half inch thick. With minor modification it was the right size I needed to repair my old brush hog. A simple and straight forward transaction. An inanimate but useful object appears, is recovered and put back into service.  A repair not unlike dozens of others, not much of a story. That’s not saying there haven’t been any repair adventures, not at all.  Most involve some sort of foolishness on my part that I don’t care to revisit, like doing a welding job while wearing shorts. 

Bow of a canoe on the water in a northern lake.

But a handful of inanimate objects will rise to another level. Some years ago, with my interest in accumulating items pretty well established, I took a trip with a group of friends. We had started a tradition of taking a long canoe trip usually around the end of May each year. The selection of the location and the planning of the trip rotated through our group mostly focused on the river country of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario.  

It was my year to plan, and I was excited to do it. Elwood Shannon, an old family friend and guide in Northern Ontario, had told me about a river that he had trapped and hunted on as younger man. He had never run the river after break up, always sledding home over frozen water and ground. He told me that the river had been dammed during logging days. Logs were staged on the ice and when the thaw came the dam was opened and millions of board feet of potential lumber cascaded down the river, herded by the able hands of lumberjacks. Forever etched in the history of the north country. 

The river was everything that Elwood had promised. Gin clear waters running cold and clean, every pool stacked with fish. On the third day we paddled quietly during the early misty morning through a little bay. There on the shore was a bull moose indignantly stomping the bullrushes with his huge front hooves.   

Scenic beauty, quick water, and sharing the land with its permanent residents, a wonderful adventure.  

 A couple of days later we made an error. Thankfully not fatal. We were paddling a stretch that had many formidable rapids and we were forced to portage several times. The bush was thick, and the mosquitoes and black flies were hungry. Towards the end of the day, tired and ready for camp, we decided to run the next set of rapids without scouting. As we rounded a sharp river bend the wall of whitewater that met us was a truly amazing sight. It sucked us in and spit us out the other side, like so much kindling.  

We recovered most of our gear and all our crew and set up camp on a huge flat rock at a calm water stretch where a breeze blew strong enough to keep the bugs at bay. I was walking along the shore and looked down into the water and saw an inanimate object of interest. It was the remains of a tool that James Peavy invented in 1858, a logging peavy. In its heyday it would have been outfitted with a stout hardwood handle about five and a half feet long. A thick spike protruded from the end and a hinged hook was attached to the head by a square bolt and nut. A lumber jack would sink the spike into the end of the log and use the hook to swing the log into place.  

I fished it out of the water. The handle was gone, but the head was in good enough shape that with a new handle could be put back to work. Pretty impressive for a tool well over a hundred years old. As I examined the old tool, it began to talk to me. As I held it in my hands, it told me a story of the lumberjack who once wielded it.  

Three lumber jacks standing on a pile of logs using peavy tools to move them.
Photo courtesy of Logs End. Used with permission. Learn more about the history of the peavy.

He was surely strong and tough as boot leather, hands hard and callused from a life of rough work. Most likely, a long way from home working through the winter, he was here to take the crosscut saw to the giant white pine. Then with a combination of horse and manpower the logs were rolled onto frozen water.  Each log end branded by the crew who felled it. When the spring thaw came and the river let loose, the logs charged down river in strong current. Then with his peavy, he would walk along the bobbing logs to make sure those under his watch stayed in line and prevented a deadly log jam.  I couldn’t help but ask myself, What about his life off the river? Did he have a girl back home? Was he married with a family? It was common for experienced hands to sign on for the winter and spring and take their wages home to their home and work farm ground until winter came again.  

It was equally as common for a lumberjack to complete the job take his pay and head to town. Any number of entertainments were waiting there to separate him from his hard-earned money. Would my lumberjack be the guy who slams his glass on the bar for another round, falls temporarily in love, and wakes with pilfered pockets? The starter or finisher of a barroom brawl? 

Impossible to know, the only thing left that speaks for his life now resides in my shop.  

I have decided to find a new handle, five feet long and stout enough to apply Archimedes principle with meaning. Eventually the new handle will break, the head set aside, for later repair. Maybe forgotten until the next scrounger comes upon it and turns it over in his or her hands. I wonder what it will tell them about me.      

Jeff Nania

Award-winning author Jeff Nania draws upon careers in law enforcement, conservation, and a passion for our natural resources in his bestselling Northern Lakes Mystery series. Jeff’s narrative non-fiction writing has appeared in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Double Gun Journal, The Outlook, and other publications. Download a free short story and read more of Jeff's writing at, or follow him on Facebook, Instagram, or Goodreads.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    What a great story! I love speculating about things like you did. And I love canoeing. But I can skip the camping part.

  2. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Great reading. The logging industry contains so many tales. I love the idea of using objects to spark stories and to be our own personal link to real history. You can have the black flies, though. Experienced them once on a canoe trip with friends. The bottom of our canoe ran red by the time we had finished swatting and landed ashore.

  3. Avatar

    My dad was a collector of “things.” His car, his office, his closet were full of stories like this. For a while he even had a warehouse to store everything. So many stories….

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    I loved reading your story, especially because I was a “LumberJill” at Hambleton Brothers Lumber Mill on the Columbia River in Camas, Washington. And while my stint wasn’t in the century you spoke of (it was in the 1970s as a fifteen-year-old runaway), it still made me smile.

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    Avanti Centrae

    Great story, Jeff. Reminds me of the original Blade Runner title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. 🙂

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    Jacqueline Vick

    How fun. I remember seeing abandoned logging sights when I would camp in Canada. A very cool tie to the past. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    My stepdad is a collector of things. His only measuring cup was Depression Era and dented, but it came across the country with the Okies on a Model T, which he kept until he went to college. Great post – thanks, Jeff!

  8. joyribar

    Such a thoughtful blog post, Jeff. When I read this, Henry David Thoreau came to mind and my classroom discussions about Walden Pond, and the idea of owning things. The wonder of coming upon an object, whether or not it’s a useful exchange, triggers good creative conversation about its past.

  9. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Great post, Jeff! I’m a book collector–big surprise. I found my collection of Nancy Drew mysteries in various bookshops and garage sales over the years until I had all of them. Each time I pull one from the bookcase, I open it to check inside for its provenance. Sometimes, there’s a name. I’ve often wondered who that previous owner was, what their life was like, and what we have in common beyond a love of the world famous Girl Sleuth. Objects are definitely fodder for stories.

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    Pamela Ruth Meyer

    It’s magical, the way THINGS seem to be able to stop time, or perhaps it’s more like they cross time. There is an awe that seeps into us when touching something another touched so long ago, creating a feeling of being there as well as here, of being then as well as now now. You touch on that magic here, Jeff. Thanks.

  11. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    This is a wonderful post, Jeff. Food for thought. Throughout my life I’ve collected things that spoke to me. Some hats, antique jars, an old bird cage. I probably would have brought the peavy home with me, too. And I would have wanted to tell its story.

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