Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trees and voices.

Late spring found the roof on and the dormer framed up. A dormer on a roof that has a sloping ridge is a really odd thing. Had I known that the slope of the ridge would screw with that many of the angles of the frame of the house I would have punched myself in the nose and told me to just make a normal roof. As is happens I did not punch myself in the nose and the roof came into being as it now sits. Adding to the mayhem was the constant use of salvage material. All told, the wooden components of the house are about 80% recycled/salvage or harvested off the land itself. Soon the gable ends were enclosed and the preparation for the construction of the strawbale walls on the main floor was well under way. The walls sit on a rubble trench foundation made of a combination of creek rock from the creek at the bottom of the hill and “urabanite” as it is called. Urbanite is a green builder terminology for broken up concrete slabs typically gleaned from construction sites. The base of the foundation was tamped road base with a drain formed by stacking the concrete chunks in a way as to leave a small tunnel at the base. The front and south foundation wall is made entirely of hand stacked concrete slab chunks. These were placed in a somewhat running bond and ready-mix concrete was used as a spacing mortar when needed as the slabs were no of uniform thickness. These two walls exhausted the supply of urbanite and, being resourceful and fairly broke, I went with the next best and available thing. Creek rock.
At the base of the hill my little cabin perches upon runs a small creek. It is dry much of the time but runs clear down to bedrock in places. Beautiful place. I began taking the pickup down the path to the creek and loading it with the biggest rocks I could lift. These would be carted back up the hill and I backed as close to the building as I could and unloaded them. These rocks became the west and north foundation wall.
I dry-stacked them, nearly four feet tall and about two and a half feet wide at one point on the downhill side. Little by little, day in and day out I built up the wall. Once it was to the full height I needed, I mixed about twenty bags of cement to a wet slurry and shoveled it onto the wall. It ran down into the crevasses and locked things into place. This was like putting together a large puzzle that has no picture to guide you. On numerous occasions, my judgment was flawed and, sometimes after hours of hauling and stacking rock, a section would destabilize and crash down.

I wish I could say I was a trooper and dutifully picked up the pieces and started anew, but there were times I would sit down after being pummeled by exhaustion and the laws of physics and feel a sense of complete hopelessness. Months had passed and I was still many long months further before it would be livable, meanwhile we were paying rent and using what little money there was for the essentials, leaving precious pennies to dedicate to this project. There still was no power at the site and I would work long into the nights using a single light from a small generator given to me by a friend. It’s get-up-and-go having long since got up and went , it could just manage to chug out enough power to keep a 350 watt halogen lit. I was working one evening by that halogen inside the gable ends. Hanging sideways and trying to operate the hammer with about three inches of swing while squeezing between the frame, I heard the strangest sound. It was as if someone put a large ball bearing in a steel drum and rolled it down the hill. I stopped and listened intently as it grew to a steady thwack-thwack-Thwack-THWack-THWACK-PUH-TANG. The space went dark. Do understand that when I say dark, I do not mean the “Wow, it’s so dark I can barely see in front of me”. No. It was a moonless night in the woods. I was under a roof and tucked into a gable with a void below me. It was black as pitch. Gollum can’t find Bilbo dark. I stumbled around by feel, somehow found the ladder and climbed down. I didn’t even try to find my tools, spread out from the evening’s work. I just walked to the truck, hopped in and drove the fifteen miles to town and the crappy little apartment. At that moment, I felt neither good nor bad. No depression, no euphoria. I felt utterly beaten and completely numb. The next day I found that it had literally thrown the rod out the side of the block.

I cut down a tree.
It is funny the things that hold in the memory, those seemingly insignificant moments that hide the catalysts of great epiphanies. I reached this point not long after when I cut down a tree.
I had continued to work on the place fitfully throughout the summer. The foundations were completed. Atop each one, in preparation for the walls, a sixteen inch wide, four inch thick reinforced bond beam was poured ( all told, I mixed over three hundred bags of cement by hand for this project. Later, I did the math and calculated that I would actually have saved much time and a little money by forming the whole thing up and pouring the dang bond beam from a truck. I can only hope it built character or something…) and the conventionally framed wall off the kitchen was in. This was all done at a very slow pace as I continually fought with a sense of complete demoralization. Looking back I can see so many opportunities to use the resources I had available and do better, but at the time I did not, hindsight being only available too late to be of any service. The project was floundering and I was having a very difficult time keeping on track. I found it difficult to remain focused and would often spend much time just standing and staring at it, trying to become motivated, trying to envision a plan. Seldom did I rise above the hazy fog that engulfed me. I would plod along, little dab here, little dab there, not really accomplishing anything but just floating in a dreamlike paralysis.
In retrospect, I think I was in a fully involved inferno of clinical depression. I had all the psychological signs; couldn’t sleep well, often daydreamed about apocalyptic escape scenarios, unable to focus, feelings of being trapped, of being useless, etc. I talked a good game to most but I was rotting away. Contributing to this was a complete lack of any support group. I had few friends and those had moved away or were busy in lives of their own. The feeling of isolation was debilitating. I withdrew into myself and yet did my best to hide the extent of it from even my wife. It was the beginning of a dark time.
The tree was a seed that planted itself and began the ascent from this. My wife had dropped me off at the cabin one fall afternoon. It was early fall but the temp was just chilly enough to make a t-shirt feel brisk. I was walking around with an ax, looking for a dogwood tree to cut a few chewsticks (old native thing, chew on a dogwood branch for a while and it splinters up into a nice toothbrush, the sap in it has mild antibacterial and cavity fighting attributes, as it turn out) and I was a long ways from the cabin and the chainsaw and such. There was a tree. It had a perfect trunk. This trunk was straight as an arrow for a good fifteen feet or so and I needed a good fifteen footer for a part of the project. I thought about getting the chainsaw but didn’t. I took that double bit ax and swung it. A second swing gave a satisfying thud and a large chuck flew from the tree. It was cathartic. I set my feet and began swinging. Soon, the T-shirt felt fine as sweat slowly beaded on my face, dripping onto my glasses. Again and again I swung, chips of white oak littering the ground, feeling the change in the shuddering handle as I moved from the soft sapwood in to the solidity of the heart. A stroke down. A stroke level. A chunk flew to the ground. A couple hundred swings later, the familiar crackle began. Like arthritic knees rising in the morning, the tree crackled like bacon and, slowly at first, bent it’s knee in obeisance to the man with the ax. A crash in the woods and it lay there.
This was not the first tree I’ve ever cut. I have felled many. Somehow though, this one was different. I had already built the basis of a home with trunks of trees. Here lay another. The realization that I had, without the input of any mechanized helpers, without the belching fumes of fossil fuels, without the trappings of our modern age, just generated from the resource at hand, the raw materials for a home struck me like a brick. At that moment I realized that, if I was equipped with nothing but an ax and my own two hands, my family could have a home. Oh it may not be the home that most aspire to, but I had the capacity to create a shelter that would keep them warm and dry. It was a bombshell. I suddenly felt a tiny bit of control over my world. For the first time, instead of the overwhelming situation sucking the life from me, it ignited. I felt the world pushing and a spark flashed in my soul. I felt that most empowering and motivating feeling a man can have. I got pissed off.
I had my own little demons running about inside, cutting wires and shorting things out and making sure I knew that this was hopeless and impossible. All of a sudden it wasn’t the situation, it wasn’t the world that I was angry with, it was those voices in my own head that gave in to the weight of discouragement. For the first time in a very long time, I rose above the fog. Clearly I could see the path I needed to follow. The next week or so was one of the more productive I have had.
Now anyone who has dealt with depression knows that it is not so lightly discarded. It was the beginning of the upswing to be sure, but in the woods still I was, as the good Jedi master would say. I still pushed against that flood of emotions, though it’s intensity decreased and I gained strength over it. To this day it lives in me, generating angst and poetry (writing is one of the most effective outlets for me. I can sooth my own soul by putting proverbial pen to paper) and sometimes, feelings of that same despair. Each time I see it though, I remember the tree, the stinging calluses on my hands, the feel of the cool air in my lungs and that fire sparks to life. Ghandi once said, “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” These words are true, even if they are spoken to yourself.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I learn to fly

Throughout the rest of the winter, work went extremely slow. I spent more time with my family being warm and stopped in every few days to look and plan and take care of the dogs. I built a large strawbale doghouse for them, a sort of tarped off igloo that kept them cozy and warm. I February, needing to get closer to the project, we rented a cheep apartment in the nearest town so I could see my wife and kids while I worked on the cabin.

As spring began to sprung, work commenced. I purposely built a pole structure because I wanted to get a roof on it as quickly as possible. The stem wall and bond beam that would support the perimeter wall was not in and, as it would be a non load-bearing plastered strawbale wall, it needed to be under roof before to keep moisture from getting in during construction (more on strawbale construction later). The sheeting of the roof went slowly, but without incident. Each 4X8 sheet had to have the ends cut to properly match on the odd sloping roof. I had the occasional use of a small Dewalt battery trim saw which would cut somewhere in the neighborhood of…. 1 sheet. After that it was back to hand sawing. Eventually I got out the chainsaw and had at them with that. It must have looked a little odd, but it was effective! The roof was soon sheeted and ready to weather in.

The roofing I chose is a product called Onduro. It is an asphalt impregnated fiberglass corrugated panel system. Each panel is about 4’ X 6’ and it is rated at 150 mph wind and has a 40 year warranty. A little tricky to work with at first, but it goes on fast once you get the hang of it. The front of the roof went well and soon I was moving on to the back.

The sloping ridge created a nice parabolic sort of shape to the roofline and made a varying pitch. On the short side it was about a 5/12. The tall side was somewhere in the 9/12 to 10/12 range. At the end off the roof it was somewhere in the neighborhood of eighteen to twenty feet off the ground. The edge of the eave was an eleven foot drop, information about to become very important. I stapled down 30# roofing felt first and laid the roofing over that. The front of the roof was done and looking great. Rolling the felt across the back and downhill side of the house, I had a little incident. I had rolled three rows felt up the roof and was rolling out the fourth. As I reached the end of the row and, as it happens, the steepest portion of the roof, the staples in the felt I was standing on tore out.

At the time I was holding a large slap stapler and a hammer and wearing a full set of carpenters tool pouches (the two bag variety) with about fifteen to twenty pounds of tools in them. When working alone one does not want to have to crawl down every time a tool is needed, easier to just bring ‘em with you. As I leaned down to slap the next staple in I heard the quiet and sickening sound of felt ripping. At the same time I felt my body start to move.

Life went quiet and the world switched to slow motion. Once before in my life I have experienced this. Then, I was hit by a speeding kiddy pool being towed by a fourwheeler and flew, end over end until I landed on top of my head. (but that’s another story altogether) It is as if the mind, wondrous machine that it is, recognizes that we have now reached a place in which prioritization of inputs will be of lethal importance. All the sights and sounds of the forest around me disappeared. I was alone, watching as I began an unwilling descent to an unknown end. I spun around and, somehow, maintained my balance enough to remain upright as I began the short surf down the slope of the roof. I don’t know if anyone waxed my tar paper surfboard but it was doing fine. Directly below me was an extension ladder leaning against the house. It occurred to me in the nanosecond approach that to be entangled in an extension ladder while falling off a roof was probably not a really healthy thing (as opposed to just falling off the roof…) so, accelerating faster now, I gave it a mighty shove as I crossed the edge, sending it clattering down beside me. I distinctly recall sailing through the air, watching the ground getting closer and closer, though it all happened in a blink. I hit in a pile of dirt and rubble and mud with all the grace and finesse that 250lbs and a pouch full of tools can muster, which isn’t much. I grew up jumping out of trees and across creeks and such so I knew how to land, knees bent, roll out of it, etc. and I came to rest sitting upright on a pile of rocky dirt, empty handed. My first thought was to start checking and wiggling stuff because I knew the chances of me doing that and not being broken were slim. To my growing relief and amazement, though things were smarting a bit and I could tell I would be feeling it for a few days to come, all the fingers and toes and legs and such were structurally sound. Shaken, I rose to my feet as my wife, who was there at the time with the kids and heard the din as me and all my stuff went sailing, came running down the hill to me. To this day I am amazed that I walked away. Looking down at my empty hands and tool pouches I realized that, though I have no memory of doing it, somewhere between the paper ripping and me hitting the ground I slammed the hammer back into the hammer loop on the back of my belt and put the stapler in the right tool pouch where it belonged.

To the right you see a shot I took standing in the place I landed.

I took a few moments to walk down the hill to a sacred place. It is nothing more than a bluff overlooking a ravine at the back of my property. The ground is rocky and steep and two trees, a white oak and a red oak have grown together, creating a tall, narrow arch. It is a place that feels serene and sacred to me. There, in the tradition of travelers the world over, I made a small pile of stones. Many native cultures did this as a small offering to the great spirit, the Mother goddess, or whatever was right to them. My tiny altar was to all of them and the spirit of the forest itself, which I feel so intimately when I am there. I took a moment to contemplate over a cigar, left most of it to burn away on the stones in tribute and, after walking back up the hill to my future home, climbed back on the roof and finished up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Journal entry, 11/14/2004
Two and a half months have passed since I left the manacles of the General Motors Corporation. I suppose it really wasn’t that bad, just really… robotic.
I am back at Parkway now and four day weeks are nice, but I hate the drive. I’ll live though.
The first week after we closed on the house was strange. The moon was full. By eleven o’clock or so each night the woods were lit up in a beautiful glow. I stayed in a tent and tried to work on cleaning up as much as I could. When we moved we ended up with a ton of odd and end junk left. In the hurry to get the trailer unloaded it was just thrown off and created a major trashpile. The path to the homesite looked like a junkyard. Now it’s a bit more manageable. Everything is under tarps. My plan is to get a small pole barn up with a lean-to off the back to store a lot of the junk in and possibly even live in. It’s been a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me. Our chronic lack of money has caused us to dip into credit. Granted, our lack of funds is greatly due to mismanagement, mostly on my part. This will be an exercise in imaginative building, that is for sure.

Journal entry, 11/29/2004
A Drawknife, when pulled through the rough, outer bark of a white oak, at first sounds like a wooden cup full of steel bb’s shaken gently. As you get down to the more solid inner bark though, and begin actually separating the tannin rich, porous skin from the solid sapwood it clings to, it shifts to a sound I can only describe as that of someone slurping soup from a spoon…watery soup. There is a stark beauty left in the tree with the bark removed. The white sapwood quite nearly sparkles and sings. After a few minutes of exposure to the air, the thin bits of inner bark left here and there begin to shift to a dull pink and eventually turn an orange-ish color, giving a soothing texture to the giant shaft of solid wood. Not all the posts are straight. Most have knots and imperfections, adding to their character. The south ridge support beam has a lot of that. Granted, that is my own fault…
You see, when you cut down a tree, you have to cut a notch on one side and a score on the other. One would, under ordinary conditions, put the notch on the side you wanted the tree to fall on. I, by some feat of cranial flatulence I seem to excel at, cut a notch on the wrong side. The result was a tree that wouldn’t fall. My only choice was to raise the Bobcat bucket up to full height and push the tree over. The tree, not caring for my methods, chose to split about fifteen feet of the trunk and remain dangling in midair. [added note, the tree was on a slope and was leaning such that it should fall downhill. With the notch screwed up, there was no way to approach the tree and push from down hill, enabling it to fall into the goofed up notch] This is an incredibly dangerous situation.
When a tree falls it changes its nature. What was a tree lands in a heap of tangled branches and dirt (or in this case, mud) and instantly becomes a huge, coiled and deadly spring. The energy pent up in a fallen tree is enough to easily snap an arm, leg or neck should the wrong cut be made and that force be released. Thanks to my poor felling, that spring was fifteen feet in the air. I did manage to get it down with the help of my dear friend, Bob the Cat though… and without any medical bills.

The nicest looking beam so far is the south west corner. It is straight and clean with no knots. After debarking it, I just looked at it for a few, sharing my admiration with the dogs (who were licking my hand) and a beer (who was filling my belly!)
This weekend I hope I am far enough along to have the ridge beam on.

The beginning of all things

This is the story of my fall, my rise and the lessons I learned and didn’t. I went from well paid to homeless, lived in a tent, ate beans and wild plants when I had to, and built a house in the woods with my two hands. I do not mean to judge those who do and mean no disrespect to anyone, but I am proud none the less to say that I never accepted food stamps, I did not go onto welfare or charity. In many ways I fell into fortunate circumstances, however I pulled myself through those circumstances in ways few men have the heart to do. This is my story.

I was a productive member of society then. Those days when I went each and every day to the line, clocked in and installed the taillights, the body panels, the hoods and doors. I was one of the best. I learned fast, I knew many jobs, I was the ideal employee.
They said we would be working a long, long time. They said we would be making the bucks. We'd be the stuff, man.

The euphoria was short lived, as it seems. The day came when they said it would end. It would be the end of September and we would clock out and go on to make our way in the world. The news was like a punch in the gut. Less than a year in the little house in town, two little girls and a wife to think about and the construction work I had done before was dead in the water.
We deliberated, the wife and I, and we decided to sell the house lest we lose it anyways. The sign in the yard was a daily reminder of our fortune. Early in September, we got a bite. A nice lady needed a home and ours seemed the one. We closed at the end of September and walked away from the Title company with a cashier’s check for $6.97. The truck was loaded to the gills as was the trailer and, like Jed Clampett, we drove off into our fortune.
Fortune, as it was, consisted of 6.27 acres of undeveloped woods we were fortunate enough to own, free and clear. With our belongings stacked on wooden pallets and bricks beneath the trees and our home a three man dome tent and a tarp strung between three trees, we moved onto the land. For three days we stayed in the tent, fighting to keep the kids under the blankets as the temperature dipped into the 20’s and 30’s at night, until my wife and the girls moved in with my family while I stayed on and began the long process of building a home. Her stay with my family lasted all of two or three weeks, at which point she abruptly moved in with her own family instead.
The cabin was to be 16 feet wide, twenty seven feet long and have a small sleeping loft. The piers supporting the posts as well as a shallow rubble trench foundation for the stem wall had to be dug. There was no money to buy both concrete and rent heavy equipment for digging so I dug in the ’79 Ford pickup bed and pulled out a pickaxe, a hoe and two shovels. Four feet deep by three feet circumference were the pits I dug in the Missouri clay to form up the piers. The rubble trench for the stem wall was about eighteen inches deep. I sweated in the cool days as I busted through the hard red earth. The nights were soon spent in the comfort of an old travel trailer a neighbor loaned me. After evicting the mice, burning the bedding and coating the entire inside of it with Kilz, it was a dry place at the least.
The piers were in by December, the result of more than a hundred bags of cement mixed by hand in a homemade mixing barrow. The posts were on order. By on order, I mean I was marching through the Missouri woods and picking them out. I cut them with a chainsaw, trimmed the excess branches and drug them back to the building site. I have an old drawknife. It used to be a file and some industrious fellow of ages gone by had the notion to change it. Thus I came upon it. With this drawknife I stripped the bark from the trees I had cut. A single strip at a time I loosed them from their skins. Seven posts, all about a foot in diameter, ranging from nine feet tall to eighteen feet I had hewn. With a hand auger I bored a single hole in the base of each to mate with the short section of threaded rod set in the top of each pier. I have the good fortune of having relations who owed a skidloader and this I used to raise the post to their place. Working alone, I lifted each log with the bucket and slid it up onto it. Using heavy ratchet straps and some fairly unsafe perches, I would strap each post to the bucket and then slowly maneuver it into place. Once set, I used old barn lumber (salvaged it from a pole-barn that had blown down in a storm) to brace each one in place. The final one was the high point of the ridge and, at eighteen feet tall, it tipped the bobcat on its nose. I dangled for a moment and then righted it and commenced the project. I had quite nearly soiled my drawers but I was alone and that post just would not set itself.
Soon the posts were set and, with the deeply appreciated help of my Father-in-law, the 2x12 joists for the small sleeping loft were set in place and the salvaged palletwood floor of the loft was nailed down.
By this time I was beginning to frame the roof and the night-time temperature was somewhere in the 10’s. I slept in a parka with every blanket I owned piled above and below me. I heated water for showers and the unheated water in a cup next to me would freeze before I finished bathing. I had landed a job working nights as a maintenance electrician and I would arrive at the little trailer in the woods at around 2:00 am, just in time to fire up the kerosene heater to knock the chill off enough to go to bed. I rose about 9:00 am each day and crackled my joints out to the house to work on the roof. A small camp stove on a propane bottle was my stove where I heated water for oatmeal and canned soup. As it happens Bud Light freezes at those temperatures. Miller Light does not. Words to live by.
The roof of the house has a slanted ridge, about 22 degrees. Framing the rafters was interesting. There was no power at the site so each pocket, each rafter, each mortise in the post frame was cut with a large Japanese pull saw and smoothed with a chisel and large wooden mallet, a hickory handled, maple head mallet handmade by a good friend of mine. The rafters were run on 24” centers and then, as plywood wouldn’t line up because of the slanted ridgeline, purlins were laid horizontally. Each end piece and the rippers at the top of the ridge were cut by hand. Work was slow in the winter. Days would pass where I would have a single board, a solitary sheet of plywood nailed down before I had to gingerly crawl down and go warm myself enough to get to work for the evening.
A stomach illness had been circulating around some of my friends and family. A debilitating sickness that left one hardly able to rise out of bed and vomiting nonstop for a day or so. I arrived at my chilly camper home around 1am that January night. It was eighteen degrees and dropping. I ate a small supper and lay down. The air was cold enough that the hair inside my nostrils was freezing solid with each inhalation. The cramps began slowly. My head felt a little swimmy and I recognized that strange, floating and detached sensation of sickness. If I stayed where I was, hidden far into the woods and out of sight and mind, and came down with that sickness, I would freeze. There was no phone service, no electricity and no one would be there to check on me. Fighting the dizziness and the urge to release a tumbling bowel, I made my way to the little Toyota Camry and fired it up. It was an hours drive, first on back country gravel, cross a low water bridge (I was hoping the water was low enough)and finally, along forty miles of deserted blacktop down the Missouri river bottom (to grandmothers house we go) to get to the house where my family slept fitfully. I drove like a madman, barreling through the frozen water of Lost Creek, down the crisp night back roads, hell bent. Halfway there I rolled the window partway down, letting the frigid air scorch my lungs as I gasped in and out to try and stave off the nausea threatening to rise. After a hellish drive more miserable and cold and awful that any I remember since, I pulled in the drive of her Grandmother’s house, killed the ignition, flung open the door and vomited in a flying spew of angry Campbell’s chunky, all over the drive. I stumbled to the door, knocked as hard as I could and, in a few minutes, someone opened it. I remember stepping in the door. Then I recall waking up twenty something hours later to stumble to the bathroom. I was not out of bed for about three days.