Saga of Othala, ch. XIII: Hand Built Life

If you listen closely on a golden sundown, you can hear the trembling of polar streams, and the trilling of spring peepers in the fens. You can see the myriad shades of green of our skedaddle forestry, rising out of the muted earth tones of straw yellow and tan browns. Moss keeps the memory of the wet season in soaked barefoot steps, and solar rays now beam strong enough to darken the skin. Fiddleheads are in season. Bloodroot, swamp cabbage, and trout lilies roll out the green carpet for the keen forager. The brooks are rippling with the procession of rainbow trout and silver fish, some of the first oil and protein rich life available to harvest since thaw. In the garden, volunteer chives blaze up a few blades from sweet bulbs alongside planted rhubarb, sage and tarragon. I drink bullet proof coffee on a rustic wooden chair on a pallet and barnboard porch and enjoy the liminal time that exists between the permafrost and the mosquito plagues.

Thee last transmission of mine carried the theme of bearing burdens, and responsibility, little did I know that in the following days of the post I would be laid off from my occupation in the sugary. Four men had been hired from Guatemala, and unfortunately this meant the burden of being jobless, at least for a spell. Survival instincts run deep in me, whether out on the land gathering wild flora for the cooking pan, with a bow and poison arrow in the Savannah of Afrika, or prospecting in the stone’s throw for meaningful local work. By the next morning I was chisel deep in the woodshop, carving out mortises to be jointed with their tennons. Maybe nowhere else in New Brunswick was such craft still seeing a tradition. This little parlor behind our village shoppe felt akin to the Nordic workspaces of those industrious and clever dwarves, turning out odd wooden furnitures and creations with nae’ more than peculiar hand tools and building songs.

This was purely a labor of love, done by hand, with patience as the timekeeper. Rough cut 1×6’s, and 2×4’s would transform into beautifully wrought doors, and slotted window frames, puzzled together with tongues, grooves, and handmade dowels. How many people can say they know how to use a biscuit cutter, a flush saw, a whetstone mill, or a bit and brace? What about getting a square peg to travel through a round hole? Or using kindling scraps for useful bracing to hold a window square? I for one could not until now, and if a field of cotton plants represented each moment of gratitude I have felt during this learning journey, well.. there would be a lot of cotton.

More the gift it is while tooling, carving and rendering this handbuilt home alongside someone so special and significant in my life, whom will habitate the dwelling after it is raised this summer. The woman of my heart glazes an eye over her creation, and builds it a thousand times in her imagination before any timber is actually set. The structure is actually the prototype garden cabin in the Appleseed Homes line of affordable tiny houses. Launched by a mentor and and elder of the Knowlesville community. The first of its kind and almost entirely hand tool centric, with heritage elements of the build revived from a bygone age when everyone built their own homes with their family. Framed, planed, slotted and carved with great care for design, and longevity. This house was the furthest from the run of the mill, instead like beavers in a swamp, we chucked, chiseled, bored and braced the pieces one by one, each bearing the uniqueness of a piece destined to represent itself. Honoring the fact that these woods were species and lives, not measurable resources and products.

Anyone worth their salt also knows that homesteading can sometimes produce epic failures. These are the outcome of trial and error, and inventive troubleshooting that arise through the endless project to do list and the need to get things done, allow me to introduce you to one of mine. When I raised my Mongolian ger in the chilly days of October in New Brunswick’s mini monsoon season, I forgot one essential step and dismissed another equally consequential one, ultimately leading to disaster.

For starters, the platform was constructed by a brother and I without any major earthworks. No burgeoning dump trucks hauled crushed gravel from a pit to make a base. Instead I used the bedrock chips that emerged from my well drilling operation to rake into a circular pad that justified the free resource as being purposeful for a yurt foundation. On top of this lay cinder blocks around the edge of the ring with 8×8 tamarack beams bridging the diameter of the circle to support a plywood platform for a five lattice wall yurt. In between the spans of lateral tamarack joists were freshly cut straw bales, one bale wide on the sides and two bales wide in the center for underfloor insulation. The birch ply was anchored onto the tamarack joists and arranged into a 400 square foot symmetrical stage. Then trimmed with a sawzall into a circle just a few inches greater than the circumference of the yurt. I ripped a meranti board into strips to make a belt that would ring the platform and contain the footings of the yurt lattice walls from bellowing out and shield against water coming in. The downfall was that the platform did not sit entirely level, nor was there any vapor barrier between the ground, the strawbales, and the bottom of the plywood. During the heavy wet weather, rain that would condensate on the canvas on the yurt on the west side would percolate inwards with gravity towards the slightly lower east side of the yurt, instead of dripping off the sides of the canvas evenly above the skirt of the ring. Kind of like when your pants hang over the top of your boots, nothing can get inside.

Over the course of many rains, and out of sight to my observations the rain was soaking the underlayers of the birch from leaking rain, and rising moisture from the earth conducted via the strawbales which absorbed huge volumes of water. During the first winter I did not live in the yurt, there was no furniture, flooring or signs of comfort. Only a solitude Vermont casting woodstove, a couple of hearth stones, and a single bed. The urgh skylight was covered, and no bay window was yet inserted. In my lack of adequate care, the yurt suffered the tumult of ice, snow and rain which eventually melted and started to rot the birch subfloor and some laminate boards which I won at auction that had covered only half the platform.

The signs did not show until the next fall when white fungus had bloomed on the surface of the birch. By this time several friends had come to stay in the ger and yet another had resolved to shelter the winter while I was away in Africa. The birchwood was still hard, and I thought so long as an apple cider vinegar wash was applied regularly and it was kept adequately dry with the woodstove burning, there would be no lasting damage. The mushrooms had already penetrated the fibers of the wood, and the fruiting bodies of course were the evidence of a mycelial takeover in between the layers of the ply. Nourished by the fungal loving conditions of heated air in the yurt meeting the moist cool floor, not unlike the topsoil of the earth. The platform began to sink like on quicksand as the frost heave accentuated the dearth of the level. Where there was too great a span between the tamarack joists, the bowing and caving in of the floor was noticeable and resembled an undulating wave. In the deep freeze, the problem seemed to inert itself long enough and habitation resumed rather cozily, as the insides were always warm, dry, and tended to. It even sheltered a silver fox rabbit, along with his owner, a scruffy bushman who ran survival camps for the children of the village and an all around friend who worked with me in the sugar woods.

By easter, the thaw of days softened the grip on the ger, and resumed the cycle of destruction incured by the grim weather. By this time, my friend was in transition of moving out so I could remodel the platform, and the damage was far worse than I had grown to expect. The beautiful white birch had blackened, the bottom of the laminate boards had been soaked and were caught in a rain after the yurt was taken down. The strawbales were soaked into the consistency of oat porridge with a bit of chaff, and the meranti board skirt was frayed and withered. I spent the better of four days prying up the boards I could save, recycling screws for other projects, and stacking the poor plywood into a heap, destined to burn. The wet straw does serve as a good resource for my new and improved garden. But it’s the most expensive straw I have ever paid for, as the damages to the yurt stage cost over a $1000 in materials alone, offsetting the resource to be merely a token blessing of such epic setback. My morale was fairly bleak for a few days, but I am already dreaming up the next platform design, and hustling to make up for the deficit. Lessons come harshly when you live out on the frontier.

From where I stand, I am of the mind that homesteading has a great deal to do with the labor of the hands. In polarity to the hyper domesticated, ultra fragile lifestyles lived by the prevailing majority, where machines are tasked for completing every chore from grinding coffee beans, to tilling a field. I believe most of the urbanized and developed world, and the humans that choose to live there, have lost the capacity to feel deeply the levels of trust one can glean from doing things with their connection to source, by hand and heart. I often look at my own hands and marvel at what they have done; like planting a quarter million trees, or massaging a lover to relieve her stress, cooking for a house of people, or writing this post. They perform miracles everyday and they do not receive enough credit, but they are humble hands. They are calloused, scratched, bitten, tattooed, dirty, inflamed, and sore hands, by the things they do. Their lines hold on to the past and yet they are still so eager for the future. Like peasants, we bear burdens, and do things by hand, steading our homes like tough mares to tame.

As a homesteader I consider it a great responsibility to un:learn much of the redundant urban information downloads like transport schedules, public mandates, social trends, and google map routes to new restaurants, and the outsourcing of useful potential skill bases to appliances, computers, machines and robots. Rather to re:learn what it feels like to be exhausted after a full day working outside in a garden with hand tools, knowing how to fix what you own before buying new, understanding the dynamics of a properly seasoned cord wood stack, and getting a grasp on as many real world country skills as humanly possible. A few in my own firing range that have come into the fray as of late are tanning and curing pelts, mortise and tennon construction, seed sprouting, cook stove installation and operation, dreadlocking, rustic furniture making, shelf building, or stone carving. I’ve also been learning a thing or two about solar power optimization and turf roof design. Though I aim to place stress on the hand made, hand built, hand worked kind of lifestyle that I actively try to uphold because it makes sense to me, and carries within it the secret of simplicity.

As housing systems grow more complex, mechanized, and automatic, one’s level of engagement with the stuff of your life is decreased. Either one’s work is outsourced to experts, who slave away for their clients doing one thing really well, in order to ‘make a living’. Or one is tempted by every tool and gadget that proffers to make life easier (read: convenient, mindless, less involved), which is then installed in place of the hands to perform some particular and exclusive function and grows incumbent upon constant maintenance, electricity, parts, servicing, and the ever present feeling that this thing does not actually make you happy. Living off grid with hi-speed wifi, a bread-maker, and a generator will have you listlessly harvesting more screen time instead of outdoor time, buying overpriced gasoline from foreign nations, to power more loud toxic machines, and never experiencing the miracle of bread rising in the yeast of our cosmos a hot summer afternoon, of which I promise you it will taste superior to the automatically produced loaf. When systems stay simple, one can be away with expensive investments and debts and find contentment in evening candlelight during a blackout when the power wanes. To find satisfaction in repairing and fixing things with your own cleverness and resourcefulness, everything from broken cups, and ripped clothes to water filters and wood stoves. There is a pleasure in saving and reviving the life of things, tangible items like tools and gear, and thus your money and time to acquire new ones. And also your dignity, for something is lost when giving over so easily to consuming with such an insatiable appetite for the new. Sometimes I think, what would Henry David Thoreau do? He would probably re:handle and self sharpen his hand forged felling axe a hundred times with genuine hickory before going to the hardware store to buy a new one, let alone a chainsaw and scare all the animals away from Walden pond.

If machines did not exist, what would your life look like? How would it be different and what would remain the same? Are you aware that all of the tools, appliances, and mechanical implements you use have an analog component to them, and that the function they perform can be accomplished almost entirely manually. You need nothing more than good hands, ingenuity, perspicacity. When the will is woven with the working, you can build a house with shaped iron and carved wood. You can cook a meal over smouldering logs. You can birth a baby, off the grid without computers or monitors. You can even travel long distances, by pedal power, or in creative vehicles that use no fossil fuels or run on veggie oil.

The analog lifestyle, marries well into the off grid lifestyle, which coiincidentally pairs handsomely with the d.i.y. lifestyle, and most real bush and country folk I know align with these paradigms naturally. I am seeing more men with unblemished hands, but less are those who are handymen. I shall not claim to hold any specific mastery over the handicrafts of any one genre, but the Gods know I can wield a hammer and chisel in Thor’s name to carve a stone, or rip a board with a vintage saw and build a live edge shelf, a porch, or a doorframe. I need no chainsaw to fell a tree, a right handed hewing hatchet is good enough, and strips the bark thereafter for an evening snack of spruce cambium. My arrows pierce the forest silently, with no recoil or deafening boom to disturb the perfect frequency of forest wilderness. And the hearth of my home draws no electricty from the steel giants and buzzing drones of hydro-electric generators, just the crackle of popple, and sussuring of maple on a cool hibernal night. Call me a Luddite, but I can boast for a sound nights sleep without the added magnetical frequencies invading my temple, no wi-fi within these longhall walls, and the only link to the stars are my eyes.

My homestead is embellished with the signs of the the human hand. The torch burnt posts upholding my ceiling, the cedar bark logs and stumps that raise the tables aloft, woven alder and dogwood seats for the village guest and the master host. Nothing is quite level, the doors don’t quite close aright, the teeth scrapings of small animals on the wood where they have denned, fixed cracks in the coffee mugs, and dents in the old kettle. Anything new is a luxury and a rare acquisition, instead a vintage hand me down will do just fine. Technological greatness is a perspective of a conditioned mind from a contrivial era. I’ll forever trust in the bicycle before the car, and walk to an outhouse in the snow in the middle of the night before installing a modern toilet. A small library lines my walls, and the pages do not hurt my eyes when I read them the way screens tend to, and there is something sublime in hand pumping your water up from the earth and heating it over fire to wash oneself, clean the dinner’s dishes, or brew a fine cup of herbal tea. We can all manage ourselves with a greater hand and eye coordination for what I believe is the essence of work. The work known thoroughly through experience because the work is lived, not just performed. Then and only then can one’s leisure be reaped like so much grain, imbuing a remarkable satisfaction of the hand built life.

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