June 30, 2009

Dean called yesterday at 6:30 AM. It was pouring near his home. What was it doing here? Pouring. We agreed not to build. Instead I spent most of the day fencing in the rain. After a while it wasn’t really raining. Just heavy mist. The clouds lay on the ground, spreading white fingers up the hillside and slowly soaking my coveralls.


Fencing is simple, repetitive, meditative. Just pulling lines and pounding metal T-posts, avoiding rocks and adjusting for plumb. A good job for a reflective, wet day. It only requires time and patience. I got 25 posts up.

My current dilemma is that I hate to put ugly electric fencing behind the future house, on top of Allen’s beautiful wall. Someday I will have post-and-rail fencing there. However I got a quote on post-and-rail and, for behind the 250′ wall, without installation, the materials alone are almost $2000. This won’t be happening any time soon.

Such is my love of the lines of that wall, however, that I found myself instinctively skipping that section, starting to make an upper pasture and a lower pasture, with nothing in between. But that layout would require more gates, more treated six-by-six gate and corner posts, more work, more money. For what? Logic tells me just to fence the whole area now as inexpensively as I can and change it later. The important thing is to be able to have the animals on that land, grazing and fertilizing it, as soon as possible. Moreover, I have all the T-posts on hand. A wealthy neighbor installed them and then ripped them out a year later, upgrading to wood. He gave them to me for $1 apiece, a small fraction of their cost.

But the beautiful wall… with electric lines on top? I’m dithering!

Digging a hole

June 29, 2009

waltertruckWhen I was 27 I was asked to write the history of the school where I worked. What a pleasure. For me, historical research is both soothing and addictive. In this case there were no “archives” to investigate, just sagging cardboard cartons of old files, jumbled letters, and unmarked photographs. As I read the papers of Walter Clark, the school’s founder, born in 1905, I fell hard. Walter had died years before but for the six months of my research he lived in my ear. He was a farmer, a progressive educator, a writer, and a gentle soul with a twinkling sense of humor. Like almost everyone who knew him in life, I adored him.

One result of intense biographical research is that the subjects live on in your imagination. As a researcher I carry a number of people in my heart whom I’ve never met. Most of them, of course, were dead before I “found” them. But for me their words go on echoing.

In 1975 Walter gave a speech at the Albert Schweitzer Centenary in which he spoke of a friend he’d known in the era before backhoes. The friend was a ditch-digger. Walter described the man’s happy nature, skill, pride in his work, meticulous care of his tools. Though ditch-digging is back-breaking labor, this man “worked so gracefully, and with so little apparent effort, that I almost imagined him as a would-be ballet dancer.” Walter explained that as a schoolmaster he would excuse any child from regular classes to work with such a man, “a great teacher and a great artist.”

I was remembering this artist yesterday, as I had to dig a 3’x4′ hole, six feet deep. I would not have put anyone in mind of a happy ballet dancer. Perhaps a surly grave digger out of Dickens.

On the first day building the garage Damon had looked at the concrete foundation and asked, “Where are the holes?”

“Holes?” I replied vaguely.

“Water. Power. Sewer.”

Could it be possible? The foundation plan supplied by the kit manufacturer did not make provision for utilities, and I had not known to look for it. After all the struggle with this foundation, we’re now going to have to chop holes in it for pipes!

After a certain point, I can’t absorb bad news. There’s no more energy for an emotional reaction. For once I am reduced to pure logic. The numb feeling is almost restful.

“OK, we have to chop holes in the foundation. Next?”

Well, to do that (not an easy task) we first need access to the footings six feet underground. Though Allen wanted to bring out a backhoe to help me, I couldn’t afford it — not and also save to bring him back with the excavator later in the summer. Thus my weekend with a shovel.

Nine hours of sweat in the rain and mud later, it’s all done. Digging, I ran into a number of rocks about the size of a microwave. They’d have been nothing to the excavator — not even as big as our negligible “trash rocks.” But four feet underground in a pit, without machines, they might as well have been the size of a dumpster. I couldn’t budge them. There was no space in the hole for a lever. Finally I figured out how I could work with a crowbar and fulcrum to get a chain underneath, and, festooned with chains like Marley’s ghost, each one was pulled out with my truck.

By the time I was five feet underground I no longer had room in the hole to lift my shovel. I was less in a grave than in a well, encircled by mounds of dirt and rocks. Finally I had a brainwave and found the tiny spade I’d bought for Lucy when she was a toddler and my gardening companion. With this doll-sized implement I could continue to excavate the last foot — even if only by the teaspoon thrown high over my head.

Walter would not have been inspired. No artistry. No teaching. But plenty of learning, on my part. Always read building plans very carefully.

One in, one out

June 27, 2009

DH is home! Always a thrill to see him walk in the door with his heavy pack and a two-week beard, tanned and happy.

Lucy with her hand-made packbasket, camp 2008

Lucy with her hand-made packbasket, camp 2008

He was here for breakfast before Lucy left for camp. One of the many perks of DH’s job is that our children have been given so many opportunities we could never have otherwise afforded. One of them is summer camp, seven weeks of living in a tent, running barefoot, swimming in the lake, hiking, canoeing, and singing camp songs around a bonfire. Since Lucy is on the property here I will see her from afar over the summer but I always try to play by the rules and avoid seeking her out. Independence from Mom’s managing eye seems like a side benefit I don’t want to deprive her of. Though Lucy has a managing eye all her own. While I was working last week she gathered all her gear and labeled it. All I did was fold it, pack it in her duffle, and kiss her goodbye.

hockmark82DH had a wonderful time climbing in the Sierras with Mark, his best and oldest friend. They met in the 1970s in the Alps, two scruffy young Americans in Chamonix who didn’t speak French and were looking for climbing partners. Though they live on opposite ends of the country they have met every year in the three decades since to climb together. The photo (right) shows them on emerging from their first showers after climbing Denali in 1978. Once upon a time Mark nicknamed DH “Tweetie Bird,” due to his bright blond hair. Thirty years later a lot of the hair has gone and what’s left has darkened, but they’re still El Presidente and Tweetie Bird, twin pillars of a loose group of old climbing buddies that call themselves The Fossils.

DH had emailed me that one night on this trip, after a very long climb, he and Mark found themselves benighted, caught out on a ridge far from their gear. Though they are both careful climbers, they’d seriously underestimated the time needed for the route, which required roping up for at least 14 pitches. It was 28° in the high altitude, and they had no tents, sleeping bags, or food. At 10:30 PM they lit a small illegal fire to dry their socks and then spent the night sitting on their ropes with their feet in their packs, leaning together to stay warm.

cell phone photo from the summit at 7 AM

cell phone photo from the summit of Lone Pine Peak at 7 PM

I mentioned this episode to Allen the next day. “You know, my husband and I have completely different interests when it comes to recreation. But we both do seem to enjoy knocking ourselves out.”

Allen gave me a long look. “One of you’s a nut, the other one’s a squirrel.”

Day 7

June 26, 2009

IMG_3546A good day, very hot. If it got any hotter Dean would be in a bathing suit. As it was, while I was insisting that Luke join me in putting on sunblock, Dean was slathering himself in tanning oil.

We put up 2/3 of the lower sheathing. It was very satisfying to do something with such an immediate visible effect (as opposed to nailing up blocking or joist hangers).

Luke was a big help. The sheathing and roofing OSB look alike — but one is 5/8″ thick and one is 7/16″. When we’d unloaded them from the delivery truck we hadn’t noticed the difference and had stacked them together. Now Luke and I had to sort the hundred sheets into piles and then find the sheets numbered for the kit. It was a jigsaw puzzle with pieces 8′ long. Dean can barely walk on his bad leg, so having teenaged muscles on the other end of the boards that had to be lugged up to the site was a real boon.

IMG_3548Luke’s reward was that Dean taught him to use a nail gun. If there is anything that bonds males, it appears to be explosive power tools. Dean is very safe but one can hear the little-boy glee in his voice and the smile on Luke’s face was ear to ear. Talk about John Wayne! These cowboys were packing a nail gun.

When he wasn’t calling us Moe and Larry, Dean referred to Luke and me as his “apprentices.” Having spent the week watching the newest three Star Wars movies with my children, the next time he asked me to do something I replied, “Yes, master.” Dean pretended to be gratified. “Oooh, I like that. Of course when your husband is around, plain Dean is fine.”

As usual we had to quit by mid-afternoon due to Dean’s PT appointment. While I re-covered the lumber Luke finished shooting nails down each of the studs.


Here’s where we were at 3 PM, with Luke carrying his empty lunch bag to the truck. Part of me feels a twinge to see the view blocked but most is simply so excited to be moving ahead.


Next week we should finish this lower sheathing, get the apartment floor laid down, and then either start framing the second story, or frame the mudroom ell (depending on whether we have a third person to help me carry the heavy framing for the upstairs or if it’s just Dean and me).

Luke at 16 is — understandably — looking for a summer job where his companions might not be 48 and 50. Of course the job market is terrible and the nail gun is fairly enticing… We’ll see.

I dropped Luke off to catch his ride and then returned to the farm for chores. As I was turning into our driveway I saw an adolescent black bear streak from our side of the road, gallop across the highway, and disappear into the woods on the far side. I was enormously cheered. Though I often see evidence of bears, I haven’t seen one in the flesh in twenty-five years.

I wonder if the young bear sensed and was trying to outrun the storm that was about to detonate? Driving into the farm I found Allen there, returning milk bottles. He and I were chatting in the driveway when he looked over my shoulder at black clouds rolling in. Allen can read weather. “I got to let you do your chores,” he said. “That’s coming in fast.”

Five minutes after he pulled out the sky went dark and the wind was suddenly gusting at 50 mph. Thunder boomed. Lightning cracked. The birches on the hillside bent sideways under the force of the wind and the tarps covering the lumber whipped free and began to snap like 20-foot sails. My t-shirt tried to blow up over my head. Chickens tumbled by, carried head over heels. Then came the rain. It was definitely exhilarating to be drenched and fighting the elements to tie down the tarps, with lengths of baling twine in my wet hands and a knife in my teeth!

Day 6

June 25, 2009


The lower framing is almost done! Given Dean’s schedule we have been moving a bit more slowly than we might be, but when he’s there, we jump ahead. The garage is starting to resemble a building. At the end of the day yesterday I amused myself by “looking in the window.”

As always, click on a picture to see it larger.


IMG_0117I took these photos while the water trough for the pasture was filling. As I focused and shot, a pair of Eastern bluebirds came and lit on the frame. The male investigated a large knothole in one post (bluebirds are cavity nesters). I caught my breath. So small. So very blue. Mom, you see that?

Working on this property has so often been a lonely affair of pushing against the odds. For years I’ve had a vision that no one else could see or else pooh-poohed. “You’ll never grow grass,” said the state biologist, looking at my soil after I had the land logged. Nevertheless I’d be out there cutting brush or trundling around with a wheelbarrow and spade, picking rocks, spreading lime and grass seed, pounding fence posts. Often in the rain. Progress seemed infinitesimal.

Now, however, every day brings a little more advancement and clarity. The idea that I am building a tiny wilderness farm, with a home, is starting to become a recognizable reality. And to think “I have bluebirds!” fills me with fierce joy. A symbol of happiness, indeed.


We’re not working today. Earlier in the week, looking at a weather report that called for thunderstorms, I arranged for us to take today off from building. I need a day to clean, wash floors, fold laundry, pay bills, and get the family organized before DH returns from his climbing trip and Lucy heads to camp on Saturday.

Now the forecast has changed and we appear to be looking at a solid week of rain. Today’s forecast is actually the least dismal, but it’s too late to switch the schedule.

Oh well. I struggle to remain philosophical. Maybe I can get more grass seed spread.

Searching for jeans

June 24, 2009

I need new jeans. I hate that. Shopping is one of my least favorite things and clothes shopping is the worst. But my four pairs of old jeans are all fraying and the knee of one blew out yesterday. Just dissolved like tired tissue paper. So I need to start looking because I wear jeans every day and it’s clear that by the end of the summer I will be in rags.

I prefer to buy clothes on sale and in bulk. If I am lucky enough to find something that fits me I tend to buy a bunch. Jeans, Lands’ End turtlenecks, Bass outlet t-shirts, Jockey-for-her underwear, whatever. Once I found my favorite bras were being discontinued by Jockey and were marked down at the clearance outlet in Lake George from $24 to $3.99 each. I had the store send me all of them available in upstate New York! (It was a comforting feeling to be rich in bras… but five years later I’m getting to the bottom of that shipping box.)

The only downside to buying by the half-dozen is that eventually entropy seems to happen all at once. I will be bumbling along in a fool’s paradise and suddenly one day every single pair of underpants I pull on will be parting from its elastic waistband. Or the neck and cuffs of each shirt will be fraying. Or every pair of jeans will have developed holes at the tacks of the back pockets, be white at the knee, and have shredded at the hem. Or all my socks will have worn through at the heels. Obviously this is the time to discard and buy new but my dislike of clothes shopping inevitably makes me put off the evil day as long as possible.

Occasionally I have required intervention. The last time my big sister visited she exclaimed, “Sel! Throw away that shirt!” DH has been even more direct. If I’m wearing a particularly disreputable pair of worn-out jeans he has been known to give me a hug, slip his hands into my two back pockets, bunch his fists, and rip the jeans in half.

My problem in buying jeans is that my shape is not very feminine. I have no waist. I am not an hourglass, I’m a 2×4. Straight up and down. Thus, generally, if I buy women’s jeans and get them to fit my hips, the waist is so small I cannot breathe and I’ll have a purple welt around my middle. If I get them to fit my waist, the hips are enormous and balloon on each side like jodhpurs. Then there is the basic fit. I once said to my brother-in-law, “I like my jeans to be loose.” “I noticed,” Don said dryly.

About fifteen years ago I discovered Eddie Bauer Loose Fit jeans. Perfect! Easy waist, loose in the leg. I’d buy them at outlets. But something has happened at Eddie Bauer. First they discontinued colors. Then they cheapened the fabric, substituting flimsy denim of half the weight. Then — horrors — they added elastic. Now they’ve discontinued the line altogether. Eek! All the new jeans seem to be tight with low waists.

I hate low waists. I don’t like the feeling that I’m going to lose my pants when I bend over.

The obvious solution is to go to men’s jeans, as I did before Eddie Bauer. But that means actually driving to a mall (at least an hour away) and trying on various styles for size. Just the thought makes me wilt.

Instead I tried ordering some Carhartt pants from an online warehouse outlet. Carhartt is a workwear manufacturer. Half the people you see building roads or on construction sites are in Carhartts. The pants are double-fronted, with rivets, and wear like iron. Feel like iron, too. The duck material is so tough and heavy it barely bends when you first put them on. I love them.

Sierra Trading Post carries Carhartts, even women’s Carhartts. Even in tall sizes. Last night my order finally arrived and I tried on a pair. Oh, dear. Carhartt, how could you? The women’s pants have been re-designed with a low waist. Obviously the ladies in hard hats holding SLOW signs on the highway want to look more fetching than I do. And of course are younger, with flat bikini bellies, not middle-aged sag.

Sigh. The Carhartts will have to go back. And I’ll have to keep looking.

Day 4

June 23, 2009

Hooray!  Dean is back! Due to the demands of physical therapy and doctor’s appointments for his knee, he will often have to work short days, but it is thrilling to be moving forward again. Also, when it’s just he and I, the pace is slower, the pressure is less, and he can take the time to teach me small carpentry skills. I’m very happy.


When I built the barn back in ’06, I simply followed the directions. Dean understands the whys of the kit and is constantly eyeing boards for crowns, bows, crooks, and wanes, double-checking for level, and pulling them until they are, in his mysterious phrase, “butter.” Hitting the mark exactly. Before we nail anything he always calls out to me at the other end of the board: “You satisfied? You happy?”

“Carpenters don’t want it good enough,” he often says. “Carpenters want it perfect.”

Yesterday we spent our five hours putting up the rest of the apartment floor joists. (Jon has been biking in to town every day, job hunting, and he stopped by on his return and took these photos.)


Dean loved the come-along set-up that Gary had devised last week when Gary and I had done the first half of the floor. The come-along pulls the building together, making it much simpler to lift each board to its correct spot and have it tightly held for nailing.


sellaughing“This is great!” Dean exclaimed, adding mischievously, “My God, it makes it so easy, two women could build this kit!”

I think the teasing and jokes are at least half what I love about these jobs.

(I happened to mention yesterday that I am always the driver when our family goes on long road trips. Dean, an old-fashioned male, was shocked. “I think some of your chromosomes got mixed up,” he told me cheerfully.)

When Dean had to leave for an hour I spent the time nailing up joist hangers. Joist hangers each require twelve nails. It’s tedious work, perfect for unskilled labor, but not without its own small tricks — as I’ve learned.

joist hangers.0

Gary discovered last week that I had put up sixty joist hangers in the barn without ever knowing that each one has small points to be hammered into the wood to secure it for nailing. Instead I’d held each one, with its stiff sharp metal edges, in my hands and bent it into position. (A note I’d written in ’06: “I stood on a ladder putting up joist hangers all day by myself. I got half of them (30) up. My knuckles are swollen and stiff today: yesterday they were scraped and bleeding from a dozen cuts from the raw metal.”)

Nailing up joist hangers the way they’re meant to be hung is simple and does not involve bloodshed.

This is the sort of thing I run into all the time. Joist hangers do not come with directions because anyone building something large enough to have a floor obviously must have the basic skills to put up a simple joist hanger. I think it also may be a guy thing, as in my observation most men on a construction job are impatient with written instructions and will barely glance at a picture.

selonladderI, however, am someone with a great (perhaps too great?) faith in the written word. The original Joy of Cooking, with its famous opening directive, was written for people like me: “Stand facing the stove.”

So I’m clueless and make many mistakes. But with so many teachers I’m learning every day. And though I often feel stupid and inept, the learning is more fun than you can imagine.

Creating a lower pasture

June 22, 2009

Renting the $50 brush cutter again, I spent the weekend cutting saplings and clearing brush on the two acres below the cabin that run down to the “pond.” (Really an enormous gravel pit at the moment. There is water in it but it never fills due to leaching through the sandy soil. Someday, when my ship comes in, I’ll have it lined, either with a liner or bentonite clay.)

In two days’ scything in the rain I got most of the land cleared, except for the small section where Allen and Damon, back in 2005, never smoothed. That half-acre is full of rocks, stumps, fallen logs, and gullies. As so often happens, my money had run out before they could finish.

I realized yesterday that I have totally incorporated into my thinking the concept that I have a friend with Superman powers. As I was clambering over stumps in the rain I was thinking, “Oh, next time he comes I’ll have Allen rip these giant stumps out, throw the huge dead trees into the woods, smooth away this hillock, fill in that gully —” Piece of cake!

Obviously I am “Danny” and Allen and the big excavator are the dinosaur.

In an effort to find the money to bring them back for one last day I’ve posted my 1951 Farmall C tractor on Craigslist. I bought it cheaply in 2006 with the money I earned on an internet editing job. A friend had checked it out and hauled it to me. Unfortunately he never noticed that it didn’t have a PTO, so for many applications it is useless. I’ve since come to the conclusion that it is smarter for me to rent a modern tractor for the two or three days a year I really need one.


After sitting all winter the Farmall was coughing and wheezing, the engine cutting out after only a minute or two. I’m advertising it as a working tractor. Damon and Allen stopped by to get it running for me yesterday and within minutes had it firing smoothly. (Then we stood around talking in the rain for half an hour. They wouldn’t take any money for the repair so I’ve baked them some chocolate chip cookies.) It’s unclear if any tractor fanciers — collectors of “old iron” — will be interested in this machine, especially in this economy. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

The next task on those acres will be to pick up all the cut brush, brambles, and rocks, a mighty task. I dream of a tow-behind york landscape rake, but they’re far beyond my pocketbook. I think this will be another one of those jobs that just requires switching off my brain and bending my back. So often as cold rain soaks my shirt or I feel a bit sick from gasoline fumes or I stumble over stumps, I entertain myself by picturing the future pasture I’m struggling to create. “Someday this will all be grass and no one will ever know how tough it was to clear!”

But today Dean is back, so further land improvements will have to wait for the next rainy day or weekend.

John Wayne

June 21, 2009

Jon forwarded to me a link to a Roger Ebert column on John Wayne, written to mark the 30th anniversary of Wayne’s death.

I’ve always been fond of John Wayne. I grew up watching his 1940s and ’50s movies in grainy black-and-white on TV on Saturday afternoons. My big sister, being ten years older, was mostly aware of Wayne’s political foolishness, especially over Viet Nam (though he was no peach during the McCarthy era, either) and hated him. I kept my mouth shut.

After reading Ebert I googled Wayne and found, of all things, a book in which I am quoted about him. In it a biographer is attempting to place Wayne’s appeal. He describes the widespread embrace — especially by males — of the mythic hero Wayne represented. He also outlines the horror many felt over Wayne’s jingoism. Finally he gets to another reaction: women who adored him, sometimes to their surprise and in spite of themselves.

waynequote copyIt should be noted that this biographer was not playing fair, as he was quoting out of context and without permission a private email from me in which I was merely thinking aloud about the appeal to me of Wayne’s screen persona. Still, this is how I saw the John Wayne character and it is how I have always responded to it.

Molly Haskell put her finger on it when she identified this as a response to a father figure. It is not the sort of father I had, nor the sort of man I married. However it’s a type I’ve obviously always had a soft spot for.

The biographer continues: “Haskell pointed out that father figures ‘have gotten a bad name’ from some feminists, yet movies are full of fathers that nurture ‘heroines of the most spirited kind.’ Like Sel— —— and other ‘liberated’ women, Haskell’s affection for Wayne goes back to when they ‘were flat-chested adolescents, tree-climbers with dirty faces and more rats-and-snails than sugar-and-spice,’ to when little girls went to movie theaters and identified with the heroes rather than with their sweethearts.” Exactly.

I was also amused to read my old email and realize that the description of Wayne’s screen persona I enjoyed so much — tough, inarticulate, kind — would also describe many of the men I enjoy working with on these building projects.

Observing this pleasure, an old boss once said dismissively to me, “You just like dumb men.” I was deeply offended on their behalf. They are not dumb in the slightest. Their various skills are amazing. However they are not, typically, men who live in a world of books. They are do-ers, not intellectualizers. Their grammar may be fractured. Their language, like Wayne’s, can be extremely colorful, and their politics, also like his, are generally not mine.

But they’ve taught me so much. And quite often and in so many small ways they’ve taken care of me. I’ll never forget back in 2001 when I was falling apart in a major depression, the head of maintenance showed up at my door. He was 6’4″ and not much of a talker. I opened the door, my eyes swollen and tired. He surveyed me and then swept me up, lifting me right off my feet. (When you’re as big as I am, there aren’t many people who can do that.) He crushed my ribs and then set me down again.

“Thought you needed a hug,” he said. And left.

In a sense they’re all John Wayne to me.

Small Setback

June 19, 2009

Dean called at 6:30 this morning, just as I was leaving to milk, to let me know that he’d overdone at physical therapy on Wednesday, his knee has swelled, and he cannot walk. We’re not going to be working until Monday.

After concern for him my first reaction was a flutter in my chest: what, more delay on this project? But now I am philosophical. I have a thousand chores that can be tackled between now and Monday. Allen is particularly good at reminding me of the zillion waiting down at the farm.

“Got that grass seed spread yet?”

“Not yet.”

“No? How come?”

Or, “You gonna get those gates in?”

Or, “Surprised you ain’t hitched up that horse and twitched those logs out of there.”

He’s not chiding me, just an old farm boy noticing what needs doing.

I’ve made my list. Now I’d better shake a leg.

no work today; sheep grazing behind the quiet project site

no building today; sheep grazing behind the quiet project site