Tag Archives: building

Tangible Progress

Light is fading. Beneath the tarp the tape measure’s black dashes are starting to blur together. Brittney huddles over the top of the tape, her nose almost touching it. Every few seconds I hear the carpenter’s pencil scratch against a two by four. I bend another 20-foot piece of rebar and drop it into the forms. For the last two years the cabin has been a figment of our imagination. It exists on graph paper, our minds, our hearts. But soon it’s will be physical. A sign of what Melanie Heacox calls, “tangible progress.”

For the last hour snow has been falling. Under normal circumstances the first snowfall would be cause for celebration. An excuse to drink coffee and watch the world go white and quiet. Tonight I’m cursing it. Concrete needs to stay above freezing after it’s poured. Special blankets can be placed on top of the pour, holding the heat produced by the chemical reactions of the setting cement. All we need is four hours above freezing to mix, pour, and scree. Snow seems problematic. But maybe snow on concrete day is a sign of good luck, rain on a wedding day.

The light drains like water from a bowl. Brittney sets the tape measure on the table and we stand there for a moment. The forms are a foot wide and six inches high, a square trench 17-feet in length. Tomorrow they’ll be filled with 1.2 cubic yards of Portland cement, sand, and rock, we think. We hope. With a chill I remember Elm’s words a month ago when the house site was cleared and leveled.

“You screw up the concrete you may as well put the house somewhere else.”

Gulp.

We drive back to the little second story apartment we’re renting for the winter. We’ve brought the bags of concrete with us so we can put them in front of of the wood stove for the night and keep them as warm as possible. After a day of setting rebar, measuring, and general scrambling we’re both drained. The final act of lugging the 94-pound bags of concrete is a fitting conclusion. I’m struck by the irony of carrying our house in our arms, keeping it warm for one more night. It seems like a small penance to pay for what could be decades of faithful weight distribution and sturdiness beneath our feet.  I lie awake far too long. My head filled with 4:1 ratios, stem walls, square, level, right angles. Build a box.

Morning comes. The snow stuck but the day is dawning clear and crisp. A little too crisp. We lug the concrete back down the stairs to the car and wrap it in a tarp like Christmas presents. How bold it had felt to travel up and down the Pacific Northwest, all we owned in the back of our car. There had been times we didn’t know where we’d be in six months, where the next steady job was. I remember that freedom being more exciting than daunting, child’s play compared to this. As we close the car doors and back out the driveway I’m aware my mouth is dry, my stomach churns. There was no going back, no running now. We’ve never built a birdhouse. Now we’re building a cabin? What have we gotten ourselves into? Muir’s words float through my head, “we must risk our lives in order to save them…”

Gustavians are notoriously late. Like wizards they arrive precisely when they intend to. But when you tell them concrete pouring is at noon, they show up at 11:50 and bring wheelbarrows, shovels, soup, and beer. As I watch Craig, Emily, Zach, Laura, Elm, and Patrick walk up the clay infested trail towards the house site, the fear that has had a hold the last 24-hours disappears. We’re not alone. We’re never alone. Elm and Craig have poured concrete many times before. Elm fires up the small gas powered mixer and begins shoveling in sand, rock, and cement. He goes by feel, an artist who knows when it’s right.

When the recipe is just so we hurry wheelbarrows beneath the churning machine and half push half carry them to the forms. A curious dance begins, the clock begins to tick. One advantage to pouring in 39 degree weather is the concrete sets slower. More time to shore up a corner, fill an edge, scree it all flat. For the next hour and a half I don’t breath. I don’t think I blink. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow falls into the forms. My knees are soaked, gloves dripping with concrete. It’s going well though I’m insanely glad I bought one last bag of concrete that morning. Zach, Laura, and Craig have to leave at 1:30 to catch a boat. They stay until the final minute. So does Emily who’s late to her daughter’s parent-teacher conference and arrives with concrete on her forehead. As Patrick helps us dump the last wheelbarrow and Elm shuts off the mixer the gorgeous silence of this place returns.

We stop and breath. Elm cracks a beer, his voice carrying through the woods, he sounds as excited as we are. It’s level, it’s square, just let it sit for a few minutes he advises. Brittney can’t stop. She grabs a 2×4 and lovingly runs it over the top of the forms, leveling the concrete beautifully. Kim and Melanie show up with smoothies and smiles. Kim congratulates us on a successful pour and compliments us on our site selection that overlooks the willow sluice. I remind him that if it wasn’t for him we’d never know this spot existed. So much owed to so many.

Eventually Elm and the rest of our help return home, leaving the two of us to finish the leveling and wrapping it blankets to keep it warm. After this it’ll have to sit for a week. That’s fine with me, I’m ready to breath, turn my attention to wood and nails and table saws. The sun begins to set and we stand in the middle of our crawlspace, grinning at each other. It feels as if we’ve entered some sort of exclusive club. We’d earned our concrete badge. From here on out our mistakes can be corrected with a cat’s paw and hammer.

We pile the leftover food in the car and drive home. I glance at the weather forecast and one last grin crosses my face. There’s nothing but freezing temperatures for the weeks to come. We’d literally grabbed the last window of the year. Nothing like waiting to the final minute. Professional procrastinators.

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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.”