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.

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