The Building Tree

The smell of two-stroke fuel fills the air. Hands slick with chain oil, metallic teeth glinting in the sun. Behind me the forest is calm, quiet, unassuming. The trail, marked in pink fluorescent tape, billows slightly in the wind. It’s only twenty yards from where I stand to our house site. A site that we’ve exterminated of stubborn willows and optimistic shrubs. I’d be lying if I said it felt good clipping them.

But it’s child’s play compared to what I’m about to do. I grab the chain saw, set the choke, and give the string a confident pull. I’m out of my league. 12 months ago I couldn’t have told you the difference between a joist and a stud. Now, tucked beneath the pages of The Independent Builder is a stack of graph paper, erase marks and crinkles bleeding into the pages. But somewhere along the way, a structure appeared, represented by lead to be built with wood. It looks so pretty and neat with those perfect squares and right angles. Making it come to life will be another matter.

The saw vibrates in my hands as I walk towards my first obstacle. I take no pleasure in felling these trees. But it’s something I’m familiar with. I know how to notch them, make them fall just so. If our winters in British Columbia and the Inian Islands taught me anything, it was how to make a Stihl roar. The first tree is a pine. It looks withered, old and bent. A few stubborn green needles continue to poke from the limbs. If it isn’t rotting already it will be soon. Whatever life it has left ends now. Because I said so. Because 18 months ago we walked onto this property and decided this was where we would live.

With a guttural growl Stihl comes to life, fine papery shreds of bark and wood fly into the air, the sweet savory smell of the forest. Within seconds it’s over. The pine tips and cracks. I lock the saw and scurry for cover. It falls where it’s supposed to, the concussion quieter than I could have anticipated. In the years to come we’re going to need help. Pouring concrete will be like speaking a foreign language; intimidating and embarrassing. At least our inevitable mistakes with wood can be fixed with a cat’s paw if we catch them fast enough.

But this, the Stihl digs into the next tree and it begins to sway, this I can do on my own. No one needs to coach me anymore. And for the first step, simply clearing a path to the house site, it means a lot. It displays at least a modicum of competence. And for my ego if nothing else, that feels good.

Within an hour the path is clear. The final tree falls atop its comrades, the Stihl is extinguished, the surviving forest quiet. I walk back down the gap I’ve created with the simple grip of a trigger and a bit of fuel. Right in the middle of the trail stands one final Charlie Brown tree. The hemlock is only five feet tall, not even worth the saw. But as I stare at it I can’t shake the sensation that it’s staring back. Our land is wet. Last September when the rain pounded Gustavus our water table was plus 18 inches in some spots. The price one pays for a glacial outwash. A few big spruce have bucked the odds to grow 100 feet high. But this is the only hemlock I’ve found. I would no sooner cut this tree than kick a kitten.

But it can’t stay here. The excavator comes in a matter of days, if I don’t take it now it will be run over by the wheel’s of our personal progress. There’s only one thing to do. It must be relocated. We’ll find a quiet and (relatively) dry spot for our building tree. I’m aware of the irony. Saving this little tree when I just felled ten. A home built with the old growth of Chichagof and Home Shore. In no way does rescuing the hemlock acquit me of my lumber consumption. I’m not sure why it means so much. I walk past the homesite to one of the big spruces. The spruce that we vowed we’d never cut. I run my hands along the bark, “I think you need a friend.” 

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Standing Still

The April sunshine should feel good. I should be sprawled in the grass soaking up the rays like a hungry plant that’s been inside too long. But I feel none of it. What a picture I must make, a whiskey bottle hangs loosely in one hand, my gait awkward and uneven on the rocks. A cool ocean breeze floats through the hemlock but inside I’m stifled. I can’t breathe, a weight presses down on my chest that the liquor can’t alleviate. I stumble and collapse against a washed up log, long ago it was left high and dry, left to rot at the whims of the universe. I feel a kindred spirit with the rotting wood and crumbling bark. I savor another sip of the brown stuff, close my eyes, try to breath. How did I get here?

For most of my adult life I have rambled. A modern hobo with a 75 liter pack in place of a branch and tied handkerchief. I reveled in it. Up and down the coast. Again and again. British Columbia, Juneau, Gustavus, the Inian Islands. Surely this was the way to live; free and uninhibited. From one wood cabin to another. Again and again I scoffed at the “every man.” The poor saps in their cubicle jails. Shackles of security holding them down. Worker bees. Drones. The nine-to-fives. A pity.

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

The ramblings of a young man.

A knot from the log presses into my back. It does little to alleviate the fear that clutches at my chest. For the past two months we’ve operated under the illusion that the Hobbit Hole would be our home for the next three years. Full time caretakers at last.

It would come with stinging consequences. Eleven months a year here meant precious little time with our tribe. We dreaded the conversations we’d have to have with our dearest friends. That we felt called to be here, to help the Inian Islands Institute get off the ground. That a growing desire to be educators had taken root. But there’d be no denying that three Gustavus-free years would change the bonds that we had tightly forged. Was it really a sacrifice we wanted to make?

This would be our last hurrah. The job as caretakers promised to pay well. Enough that we could return in three years and get the house built that existed only in SketchUp. We’d at last admitted that building a house on a guide’s wage wasn’t feasible.

But two hours ago Brittney walked down the stairs, terror and pain in every syllable, “we didn’t get it.”

***

Zach Brown and I sit in the garden. An afternoon sun playing over the water. He’s one of my best friends. I thought he’d be my boss for the next three years. But there was someone better. I’d heard the resume of the couple that got the position over us. They were what we had feared. They deserve to be here. The time has come to confront my failure, acknowledge that Zach and his board made the right decision. That Brittney and I never expected preferential treatment. That we still love him, Laura, this place, their vision. That we’re still in. But it’s hard to keep the bitter taste of disappointment out of my voice as we work through it.

Hank Lentfer, student of cranes and supplier of beer appears from the house and hands us each an IPA. It loosens our tongues, we say what needs to be said. It’s time to move on. It’s time to let go. I turn and look at the house, the deep green paint melding into the forest. The open lawn, the shop with the pool table on the second floor. It isn’t mine. It never was.

In the moments after we learned we hadn’t gotten the job I flew into a rage. I pounded the floor, screamed, and terrified the cats. Selfish words poured from my mouth. Phrases like, “we deserved this,” and “it was supposed to be ours” came fast and easy.

I didn’t deserve this. I didn’t earn this. Zach did. By hiking a thousand miles and paddling a thousand more. By fundraising and dreaming and believing. He may not have physically built the structures of the Hobbit Hole, but he has earned every stud, beam, and piling that they’re composed of.

***

Our final week at the Hobbit Hole. I’m back at the fallen log, my brain clearer and the pain a little easier. It still hurts, still in mourning, but I’m confronting the world with clear eyes and sound mind, perhaps for the first time. 

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

I long for the days in our rusted Pathfinder. Waiting for the next ferry in the parking lot of a Prince Rupert Tim Hortons. The warmth and comfort of knowing that everything I need is in the car with me; Brittney, the cat, the rabbit, a laptop to write on, what more did I need? How liberating, how comforting, how… safe?

The realization slowly sinks in until I must acknowledge it. I’m not the risk taker I pretend to be. What exactly were the chances I was supposed to be taking? For most of my twenties I could have bailed out at any moment. Our careers and choices could zig-zag across the world if we wanted to. There was nothing stopping us. We could change our stars on a whim.

But we fell in love with 4.2 swampy acres of glacial Gustavus outwash and decided we were ready when I knew I wasn’t. Perhaps life’s greatest risks isn’t running but standing still. What if those worker bees were the brave ones? I was always running, moving. Becoming a full time caretaker would have provided the security I had denounced for so long. Now, with a mortgage and uninsulated cabin, I crave it. I’m more scared now than I’ve been in 10 years of rambling. The irony bites hard on the ego gland, devours it whole.

***

Home. Four corners, the Shabin, Excursion Ridge, nightly beers with Patrick Hanson.  The Fairweather mountains still punch holes in the clouds, defiant white peaks blockading a blue sky. When you miss out on what you thought was a dream job—the coronation of your twenties— and still have Gustavus, it’s time to give thanks.

For years I have coasted on what other’s have built and earned. Paul Spong’s Orca Lab, the Hobbit Hole, places I have occupied and never fully deserved. This spring the universe has grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and looked me square in the eye.

“David, it’s time to stop running. It’s time to build something of your own.”

Dear lord does that scare me. I just learned the difference between a stem wall and a slab-on-grade. Now I’m building something? Deep breaths, they come easier than they did a month ago. What do I need to do first? Foundation, get a good foundation. I open the construction book, a notepad on my lap and read about concrete pilings, my pencil scribbling notes with the fervor of a procrastinating grad student.

***

Down one of Gustavus’s many dirt roads is an art gallery. On some weekend evenings it doubles as a music hall. Tonight it triples as a potluck complete with free beer. The place is packed as one musician after another comes to the stage and belts our their best. This town has to have more musicians per capita than anywhere on earth. But as the evening begins to wind down, one man in particular makes his way to the stage.

Justin Smith has collar length hair, a ball cap pulled over his head, skinny torso, and a long gait that helps him cover the aisle in a few strides. A buzz fills the crowd, when his name is announced the place erupts. I’m crammed onto the floor next to Patrick. We’re both clutching a beer. It’s not our first or second, I don’t think it’s our third. We share a wild look.

“Dude, he’s gonna play.”

Open-mic nights go way back in the annals of Gustavus lore. As much a part of our culture as deer hunting on Pleasant Island and picking strawberries. Eight years ago, at my first music night I watched spellbound as Justin and Kim Heacox belted out Cream’s, ‘White Room.’ Kim pounded the piano keys so hard his fingers bled. Justin made his guitar do things I didn’t believe possible.

But as the years have gone by, Justin hasn’t played as much in public. He’s raising a son that is the apple of the Goode River Neighborhood’s eye and just moved into the house he and his wife Jesse built. Another in a long list of role-models and heroes. He speaks quietly into the microphone, his voice soft and understated. Humble eyes and a sheepish smile pan the crowd.

But those that have heard him play know what is coming. Patrick and I bounce on our knees like it’s Christmas Morning. And for the next fifteen minutes he plays. Three instrumentals of his own creation. Listening to Justin play guitar is like reading the climax of a novel. The crowd leans forward, hanging on every note like turning pages. And for the first time, I’m relieved we didn’t get the job. This is home. In the good times and bad, sickness and health. Whether I’m ready or not, this is where we need to be.