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.”