You do talk to what you love, and if it is a place you are building, you might be heard talking out loud. Before May 21st the hut location was cleared of brush, beech tree, and years of moldy leaves matted from the maple trees raked away. Things were ready. The bulldozer operator hadn’t shown at the other job, so I walked home through the woods, picked up my tools in the shed and wheelbarrowed to the far corner of the backyard. I staked the four corners of the building site to visually “see” the hut, and chose the best face of this fifteen yards of ledge for the rear wall. A few diagonals and widths were measured off — it would have to be at least 12' x 12' to make room for the thick walls. All of the 12'x 12' location was made up of a two-foot high bank sloping up to the ledge. The bank would have to be cut down with a shovel and hauled away by wheelbarrow. It took about two days. I lost count of how many wheelbarrow loads, but each one was dumped only ten feet away near the topside of the pond. A good place to move it out of the way but accessible to use later. Most of the digging was bony, not good soil, but when a pocket of loam was struck I would save those shovelfuls for the six window boxes Susan wanted for flowers. The rest of the dirt could be used for the driveway washouts, repair of woods road, etc. The shovel work had an ease all its own and having it done by hand made early acquaintance with the hut. I found pretty good stone as I dug, and threw them to one side, to be of use later — especially the smaller stones that work naturally for shimming — never had enough of those. Shoveling down into the roots of stumps, and especially that beech stump, work slowed down. It took a good day, with a grub ax, clearing away so the shovel could work. For the time being the beech stump was worked around and beneath it, hoping to tip it out of the way. I work in blocks of time and two days was just right flattening the 12’x 12’ area. All the dirt was out of the way, roots chopped. The foundation trench was next to dig — four feet down from ground level and filled with gravel — better to use gravel so I could save the stone for the hut. The gravel was across the yard baking in the sun. Eight yards of gravel was enough for the small kitchen terrace, filling the trench, and to spread a few inches deep on the dirt floor of the hut. Later the largest and flattest stone I could find would be laid over the gravel for the finish floor. First, to dig the foundation, then start looking for the stone; I know where most of it is.
Most of the stone is in the woods of our forty-five acres. It’s a gradual climb into those woods and the lower twenty acres has become our woodlot. We’re year by year moving up the hill, a hand-built switchback access, as the firewood is cut. In the lower twenty acres there is quite a line of old stone wall. Some of it is ancient boundary lines, but most of it is fencing that was built from clearing the land. Cleared for cows to graze or potato planting. My neighbor Alden Bell tells me, with a sweep of his hand, that when he was a kid, most of these twenty acres were open potato fields. In the 1930s he was born in our house. A deer hunter once told me that he would climb the back roof of the house — in those years it was abandoned — and sit next to the chimney with his rifle and wait for the deer to poke down through the woods to the apple trees. Dirty yellow russets still grow on those trees. The deer love them. Porcupines fight over them. This hunter knew. He said he was able to see the deer coming, but now the pine and pin cherry and poplar have hidden the deer. When we bought the property a woods road was cleared by hand to reach the trees to be cut for fuel. A dozen years since and that road has become many small side roads looking for firewood trees. We cut the poorest trees, leaving the good timber trees and handsome monarchs alone. Not that we ever plan to log this land — firewood trimming is enough — we simply like the looks of those timber beasts; the maple and red oak. We selectively cut around them, and if one is dead, we might drop it. It makes little sense to lumbermen and all the sense in the world to us. One time a friend, who was studying college forestry, visited with a coworker and they wanted to walk the land and do a survey for their school work. I said sure. Susan and I walked with them for the enjoyment of the hike, but were joined by two very serious clipboard holders: measurements were taken, data logged, and a month later we received from this friend paperwork detailing what trees were good to stay and what trees should be harvested. To him the trees were a commodity. In some rare cases it works bridging the harvester with the woodlander. I’ve seen a few local farmers pay their taxes with saw logs and not put a visible dent into the forest, just graze it. I’ve seen others “firebomb” an area: cutting out every payable log-tree and mowing down any tree that is in the pathway of a dollar. We aren’t purists, we cut plenty of trees, but wish the trees to be kept woods. Having sunlight streaming into shade, look untouched, hold the dark powers. Since I’m not a purist and needed stone, I had to go after these stone walls in the woods. Borrow them from one place to go to another place. I had to harvest stone.
With the bank shoveled out and the ground for the site raked flat and the sun very hot for late May, it was time to dig out the foundation with black flies biting around the dirt. I would dig out a trench four feet deep shaping the outline of the three side walls, and it would be two feet wide. Enough room to work in the trench with a shovel and pick, and the correct width for the stone walls. Water was found two feet down in some places — with the pond nearby it wasn’t surprising. Three feet down clay was struck, then a large rock exactly where the 6" x 6" pressure treated posts would be fitted for the doorframe. It would have to be dug out of the way since the doorway wanted to be center with the line of ridgepole. Like most rocks it got bigger as I dug, and by the end of the morning it turned out to be three feet high and almost as wide. I eased it with the iron-bar to make clearance for the doorposts and it rolled on its shoulder into the front right corner — perfect for the footing. The next day five yards of gravel was wheelbarrowed across the yard filling the entire foundation trench, while the same time setting the doorway posts in place. Susan helped steady the posts while I dumped loads of gravel around them and packed it. Lined up the posts with a taut line level and double-checked with the four-foot level. Since all the working plans began from the apron of ledge, and that ledge is uneven, rough, and certainly not plumb, a bit of guesswork and trust of the eye was needed. The foundation trench was dug, filled, and the doorway posts were in place and solid. I would wait a week for the gravel to settle, and luckily we had two days of rain which helped pack it. After the rain the three 6" x 6" rough hemlock timbers were delivered — one was sixteen feet long for the top plate and lintel over the doorway, the other two were fourteen feet for the top plate on the two side walls. Each would be notched together and held with a ten inch spike. Holes were drilled into the notches to allow the spikes not to split the unpredictable grain of hemlock.
|Spruce & hemlock 4 x 4|
I harvested from trees
on our land
The hemlock was cut and sawn and delivered by Russell Denison’s family sawmill business in Colrain, Massachusetts. Russell and I are friends, and he’s also a friend with my father who is a lumberman, but not a sawmill lumberman like Russell. Russell has his nephew Lee cut the trees for most of their logs and Lee’s father Marshall is the sawyer. After you get to know Marshall his hands will begin to show you the wear and tear of thirty years in the logging life — no missing fingers, just a sight of nicks, scars, and wayward joints. He cut timber as a kid with Swedes who showed him how to sharpen and set the band of a crosscut saw and the simple pleasure of a bowsaw. It was a life, which eventually moved to chain saws. The heavy models first, then the lighter weight, and now the models finished off in hard plastic. When you walk into the sawmill shop, to the right of the door, on a Saturday afternoon when no one is usually logging, four or five chain saws are there on the cold concrete floor smeared in bar oil and woods grit. Jonsereds and the older yellow McCullochs, good timber saws. Marshall complains about the younger choppers who don’t keep a chain tight or sharp. It’s the difference between one chopper doing it as a job and Marshall who does it as his life. Like all the old photographs of loggers, no matter if it is New England loggers of the early century or Kinsey’s redwood fellers, Marshall is lean. A shy face with a ready smile, who now after years of logging trees, planing lumber, teaching his own son the ropes, sits some of the week sawing logs into lumber in his tiny control booth of the mill. He’ll stop the big blade if you need to pick up lumber when no one else is around. Open heart surgery awhile back had him lose almost a year of work, but he couldn’t resist being at the mill. Sawchips on his pants, lumber smell. Patiently he worked his way back. He found some dry 6" x 6" hemlock the day I called Russell looking for beams for the hut. Had them delivered the next day. Marshall also goes by the name Bing with people who know him. I call him Bing but like the sound of Marshall. It reminds me that my mother’s name is Martha but my father liked the name Penny and so she changed it to Penny, but every night when he came home from the lumberyard, and kissed my mother in the kitchen, he called her Martha. Marshall didn’t get up here to see the stone hut until it was completed. It was no big deal anyway, but I knew he also enjoyed working with stone. It was early winter of this year and I was putting in a new ceiling in one of the downstairs rooms and ordered ten panels of sheetrock from Russell. Work was slow that day, so Marshall brought it up. We unloaded it together into the woodshed. While we were out there his eyes lit into the backyard full of snow; first passing by the geese, then the old apple tree, looking a bit further until he landed on the hut. He looked at it quickly, then asked, “Say, is that your dog house?”
all photographs by Susan Arnold
a builder's notebook
a builder's notebook