Friday, October 31, 2014

Chopping cedar is like Thanksgiving

I've been chopping cedar several days a week for a few weeks now. This is the first pile I amassed. It was as long as maybe two pick up trucks parked end to end and at least as tall as I am. It was such a lovely pile ... so tightly woven that David said it just made him want to light a match. He's a funny guy. Anyway I was so proud of that pile, the way it was coming along. I kept thinking how photogenic it was, that I really needed to snap a picture. Then one evening, as the sun was setting, I happened to look down the hill and there it was, one end of that beautiful pile up in flames! I flew out the door, phone in hand, shouting, "Wait, wait!" I got this shot. Then I worried aloud how smart it was starting such a big burn at dusk. David laughed. He said the pile was so dry and tight it would be ash in less than twenty minutes. He was right. I couldn't believe it. All that chopping and cutting into wagon-loadable pieces, hauling it down the hill, dragging the wagon back up (a great tush workout by the way) ... all that work, gone in twenty minutes.

"It's like Thanksgiving dinner," I said to no one in particular. "All that cooking for days and it's gone in twenty minutes, too."


At least there aren't dishes to wash.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Story House, Chapter 4 - The Labor of Love

This thicket is to the right of where I cut. Really doesn't show the
awful amount of deadfall. Can you believe there are oak trees
in there?
The window over the sink in my garden shed overlooks a sinewy path leading to a little meadow, but you can’t see the meadow for the cedar that chokes the view. I’ve watched the foxes and the cottontails come tiptoeing through it, and I’ve seen the chaparral rushing headlong under the lowest branches in that hilarious way they have. No question the cedar is a great cover for wildlife. But as a thicket, it was so untidy, a stickery gray deadfall below giving way to needled feathery tufts of blue green above. And there was so much of it that none of the individual trees had much of a chance to thrive. Every day when I looked out on that thicket, it called out to be thinned.

Me and Mr. Poulan. I learned the hard way it's best to gear up
in jeans, long sleeved shirt and boots
First I tried with a Sawzall, but all it did was chew the cedar bark and vibrate in my hand until my teeth, even my bones, rattled. So I went to the box store and bought a small, Poulan electric chain saw. No one was very happy when I showed it off. Even I had some doubts about using it. About that time there was a story about a guy who somehow got a chainsaw stuck in his neck, I think. He lived, miraculously. Still, it gave me pause. But I read the manual for my Poulan. David added oil and made sure the chain was tight. He said what he always does, that he couldn’t do anything with me when I got one of my ideas. I tried a few test cuts on some branches. I was eager to start the clearing on my home site, which is opposite the messy meadow. I’m not going to lie, chainsaws make me nervous, but this one was light in my hands, and it handled well. Still, I didn't persist. Instead I stored it and waited for a day when David could do the cutting, and I could help by dragging off the limbs and smaller trees to the burn pile. A few weeks later, Chris cleared the rest of the home site and opened it up to the spectacular view. But every day, I was confronted with that cedar snarl on the other side of my property, outside my window. It weighed on me. There were oaks in there, a vine of some sort, who knew what all treasures could be uncovered? But it was no one’s priority other than mine. So a few days ago, I got out the chainsaw and went to work. I’d bought a cart, too, after researching what was the better means of conveyance for the jobs I have around here, not only hauling felled limbs and trees to the burn pile, but also transferring the rocks that were thrown up by the construction on the garden shed. Turns out that for me, a garden cart, the Gorilla cart to be exact, was a better option than a wheelbarrow.

At first, sawing down the trees was daunting, even maddening. I didn’t think I could do it. It wasn’t until I went out the second time, when I got the hang of it, that I stopped at one point and thought how much—not fun—I wasn’t having fun, exactly. In 90 ยบ heat, the work was and is horrible, hot, filthy, sweaty, backbreaking and bloody. But it was so satisfying, as the trees were limbed or felled, to see the sun dapple the ground, to think how the ones left standing would have more water, more nutrients. To see the clumps of wildflowers and that pretty, big-leafed vine revealed, not to mention the oaks. Thirteen of them will be unearthed by my effort when I'm finished with this particular scruffy patch! I have a lot of wildflower seed saved up, poppies my sister gave me, milkweed for the Monarchs, delphinium, and bluebonnets, of course. Now that everything is breathing better, I’m going to sprinkle the seed along the path that uncurls through the little woods.

The Gorilla cart. Don't know how many trips we made up and
down the hill to the burn pile. It's a great workout!
It may be woo-woo, but I’ve always thought as a gardener that working the land is the way you get to know it. It always involves a lot of muscle, but if a year ago anyone had said I’d be felling trees nearly as thick as I am I’d have laughed. I’d have thought it was man’s work. But here’s something else about this experience that just feeds my joy: the way it spurs me to try, to go beyond what I consider my limitations, mental, emotional and physical. It’s like raising my children. They challenged me; they led me beyond places where I thought I could go. I learned as much if not more from them than they learned from me. This land is like that; it’s teaching me, nurturing me, toughening me even as I work to restore its native life and beauty. The work is basic, simple and gratifying in a way that gives at least as much energy as it takes. That must be what is meant by the phrase, a labor of love, which would seem to apply to both children and gardens.

A memoir I read recently, THE DIRTY LIFE by Kristin Kimball, really resonated. In it she talks of her own transformation, how the land and farming involved her heart and soul.  

As for my chainsaw, I love that tool, and the cart, for all they ways they help me get the work done. I am getting teased around here, though. Chris and David call me Babe the Blue Ox. That is when they aren’t calling me Big Mama or Warden.

There’s a guy around here, a local fella, who when asked will tell you he’s just an ol' cedar chopper from Smithwick. Yep, I’d say that about sums it up....      

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Story House, Chapter 3 - Found Treasure

The view opens from the moment you pull into the drive and is
now visible from almost every vantage point of future homesite
and garden shed

On some days, I can’t decide if moving onto this property was the craziest, dumbest idea I ever had or the most joyous and perfect. There are moments when I’m just overwhelmed by all the challenges, along with the potential that seems to exceed the limit of imagination, and I wonder what ledge I’ve stepped off, whether there will be an end to the learning curve. But the moments of delight that are liberally sprinkled throughout the shadows of uncertainty, of pure frustration, are irresistible, and I’m pulled by them. Like finding the old barbed wire speared dead center through the cluster of live oaks that stands between my garden shed and what will be the front porch of my house. We think as long as 50 years ago, or more likely longer, someone put up a fence alongside the oaks, close enough to the trees that over time they grew around it, absorbing the wire, healing the wounds it must have caused. We unearthed a few of the cedar posts, too, and found them to be only somewhat rotted, which shows just how impervious cedar (or more accurately Ashe juniper) is to weather and time.

I knew I wanted to find a way to use the wire, to preserve it. It’s like the horseshoe I found and set on my front step, and the chair we found abandoned underneath one of the oldest oaks on the property that some hunter left behind. I pulled it up to sit beside my front porch for the time being. I’m amazed at how sturdy it still is. The things I’ve discovered here, from the clumps of pink-blooming wild flowers in full bloom for weeks now without a single ounce of my effort, to the fox burrow, to the shimmering tail feather a chaparral shed near the birdbath, is a link in the chain of this land’s history. Such finds set me to dreaming; they tell me a story. Even the gorgeous view that has widened with every cedar tree we cut down sets my mind off, wondering who might have stood here in this very spot a hundred, two hundred, a thousand years ago. Did they see what I see? Did their hearts rise? Were they overcome by a fierce wish to protect this land as I am? A few things they wouldn’t have seen a thousand years ago are the thick overgrowth of Ashe juniper and the barbed wire. Neither is native. But for better or worse, each has had their chapter in this land’s history. They’ve left a mark on its soul.

As for the use of the wire, what to do with it came to me the way a story does, in a sudden image. But instead of a character or a situation, I saw a wreath, studded with flowers. Weeks before, without knowing what I might do with them, I’d bought some vintage looking, painted metal flowers, and on the day I conceived the idea, David and Chris happened to be welding the roof structure onto the shipping containers David is remodeling into a house. So I took my length of wire down to them, and after David formed the hoops, Chris welded them in place, then I brought my found treasure home, wired on the flowers, and twined a garland made from finer wire through the hoop. The entire project took an afternoon and now on the door of my garden shed hangs a reminder of that old fence.

I look at it and wonder about the man who built it, his purpose for doing so, whether his plan came to fruition ... what happened to him and his family. Sometimes, when I sit on my porch steps, staring off into the blue distance, I can hear the voices of the ones who were here before me, whispering, telling their stories, weaving them from the lively, determined wind, and I lose myself in the sound.