Posted tagged ‘Ozarks’

a day in the woods

October 30, 2018

My plan to have an overnight at my little cabin on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks last weekend was upset by last-minute grandparenting duties on Friday afternoon, so we hauled ourselves out there on Saturday morning and made a full day of it.

My goal had been to have a fire Friday evening, burning up a lot of junk that had been accumulating, and sitting around it musing about the universe as the darkness gathered. Since there had been rain in the forest recently, I felt more comfortable about having a fire; the fire ring is well contained and circled by plenty of open gravel. Still, I worry, so a wet forest lessened my concern. Thus when we went down on Saturday morning instead, I decided we could still have the fire and more or less tend it all day.

Before that, though, we hiked up to our northeast property line to survey the clearing that our new neighbor is doing along the fence. He’s cleared what I guess will be a wide road there, but I didn’t see anything different about it since my last survey, though later in the day we did hear some heavy machinery up that way.

After that we poked around the cabin — the ripening buckeye in the photo above was a happy find — and looked at the much-diminished lake. The recent rain hadn’t recharged it and I always worry — I fret a lot, don’t I? — that the water won’t be deep enuf for the fish in it to overwinter. But that’s never been a problem in all of the years, so I should stop worrying, shouldn’t I?

Our feet had steered us into the acre below the dam where years ago I had planted 50 pecan trees in more or less straight rows. Most of them died so I planted 50 more. Of those 100 hopefuls, about a dozen survive and  though they haven’t begun bearing nuts, they are nearly all taller (much taller) than I am. In one I found what you see in the photo below. Is this a mockery of my pecan plantation ambitions or just some festooning for Hallowe’en?

Years ago, in fact I think before the cabin was even built, I had cut down a hickory tree and delivered the logs from the trunk to my friend Todd. He uses the wood for his barbecues (though my palate is not sensitive enuf to appreciate whatever distinctiveness this gives the cooked food). In that time, Todd had moved from Kansas City to some place called Reno, Nevada. And then he moved back to St. Joseph, Missouri. In all of his travels, he had carried these logs with him, cutting off whatever he needed for his barbecues. He told me recently that he was down to his last bits of hickory from my forest. He didn’t say outright that it was time for me to supply him with more, but that’s the message I took. Anyway, as we were walking back to the cabin from our pecan peregrination, I saw a shagbark hickory tree that I thought was the right size for cutting down and cutting up to deliver for Todd. And someday, I thought, I might even do that!

So, a wet forest meant that the kindling I could collect would be wet as well. And experience has taught me that wet kindling can mean that a one-match fire might not happen. I think this is why I dithered about getting a fire started, that I might not do it with only a single match this time. I don’t know why this is important to me (other than that One-Match Fire is the title of my novel and a “challenge” among the characters in it). But I had a lot of tinder (mostly paper bags from my many visits to the bagelry) and I figured that enuf of that would make the difference.

It only just did (with the application of two matches, sadly). I burned up all of the tinder I had and resulted in only a few tiny flames high in the teepee of kindling sticks I had so carefully built. (Normally, you want the flames to be at the bottom, working their way up.) So I frantically dashed through the forest, looking for more kindling to add to them, hoping I could keep the flame alive long enuf for it to dry the rest of the wood and catch properly.

Perseverance paid and I did get a real fire going, adding thicker kindling and eventually adding a few pieces of larger wood, also wet-ish but when it started snapping I knew the fire had caught properly. Here is a look at the fire, supplemented with one of those packets of razzle dazzle to enhance the flames.

I didn’t burn much of the trash lumber I have been accumulating. It’s mostly rotten fence pickets and braces, and they were more wet than the wood I found in the forest. I did burn one old bird house that had fallen from its nail in a tree. And I’d brought some fallen branches from home that went into the fire. But once we had enuf flame and coals to cook our lunch (pork chops we’d gotten somewhere), I stopped stoking the fire since I didn’t want to have some monstrosity I would need to tend into the evening as it burned out enuf to leave it (or quench it with the water I had at hand).

The weather was about as perfect as it could have been. We arrived in the 40s, but by lunch time (approved of and shared with the dogs), the temps were somewhere in the 70s. It was easy to sit in the comfy chairs and eat our late lunch (supplemented in my case with iced tea, unsweetened, of course) and watch the fire. And we did this for a long time. We talked vaguely about power washing the cabin exterior and re-staining it. About maybe getting more gravel spread on our road through the trees when the men (finally) come to repair the washed out spillways (an unasked-for but appreciated benefit of the lake being low is that I don’t have to worry about the spillways being fully breached by a big water event). About upcoming travel plans. About everything and nothing.

The fire sputtered and mostly died. I quenched the sizzling coals with water and spread them around the ring. It was time to pack the truck and head home.

And then I experienced something I never have before in my forest, but that’s another tale for another day.


back to the woods for me

July 26, 2018

I had grandparenting duties on Saturday, and because there was a chance my son and daughter-in-law would be coming to Kansas City the following weekend, I took the chance to sneak out to my cabin on Sunday. (Actually, I wasn’t sneaking; my wife and the two dogs came along.)

I had no great agenda other than to survey any damage from yet another wicked storm that had moved through the area the week before. There were some downed limbs here and there but nothing serious. And since I remembered to bring the gasoline, I decided I would clear the scrubby growth around the overflow drain in the dam.

The overflow drain is the first line of defense when the lake exceeds full pool. It bleeds off the excess water and drains it out of a pipe at the base of the dam. It is built into the dam, near the top, and it’s basically a screen-covered catchment with a big drain pipe leading from it. But since it’s built into the side of the dam, plants grow up to and against it, and sometimes over it, covering the screen atop the catchment, thus hampering its ability to bleed off the excess water. (Are you following any of this?)

So now that I have that fancy weed whipper with the steel blade on the end, I felt equipped to take on the weeds around the drain. So I marched myself down there and began creeping down the steep side of the dam to get close enuf to the weeds that needed eviction. I whipped and whipped, then stopped periodically to collect what I had cut and (attempt to) throw it over the top of the dam so it wouldn’t wash onto the screen when the water was high again and block the drainage. The blade attachment on this whipper only works at the base of plants. If I tried cutting a stalk of tall grass from the top, the blade would just slap the grass out of the way. The blade needs the resisting force of roots to cut through the stalk. So my work on the steep slope around the drain involved poking the whipper into the denseness, trying not to hit too many stones or the concrete structure of the catchment.

I spent about a half hour at this, clearing an area large enuf to keep any falling or leaning plants away from the drain, but it’s the kind of work I need to do every few weeks all summer long, and the reason I’d made this my first chore of the day was because it wasn’t as hot then as it was going to get later, being a summer day and all.

Once finished with that, I walked back across the top of the dam, whipping this or that plant but hardly making a discernible difference to the lush growth. And then I worked on the open area below the cabin where I had whipped on an earlier visit but left parts unfinished. (I whip until I’ve used up one tank of gas. That’s about all of the nerve damage my hands can recover from.)

So that was done and that left the rest of the day.

I have limestone gravel around the cabin, in part to keep the area walkable but also to have a firebreak. But in the gravel grows a lot of unwanted plants. Because the cabin is close to the lake, I don’t want to use herbicides on this growth, and there are just too many little weeds to even imagine pulling them all out by hand. One method I use that I think I’ve mentioned before is to spread a tarp over the gravel, starving the plants of sunlight. In the growing season this achieves its effect in just a few weeks; I pull away the tarp and then rake away the dead weeds. It only lasts a year, and the tarp is in constant movement around the gravel.

But a fried who recently spread some gravel at her rural place had told me that one benign herbicide I could try is straight vinegar. (She also said a layer of gravel at least two inches thick is usually sufficient, so when I get mastery over the weeds, I’ll spread more gravel.) I was eager to try the vinegar method since it did seem harmless. So I brought along the remains of a jar of vinegar from our home in faraway suburbia and poured it into a spray bottle. Then I sprayed several areas around the cabin that were discrete enuf for me to remember the next time I visited. I could see if the idea worked. I don’t know how long it will take or how permanent its effect will be, but I do know that the cabin site smelled like pickles.

I was debating then whether to go for a swim or to do more serious work. It was certainly warm enuf for a swim, and the water was beckoning, but there is a project I’ve been wanting to get done with the fire ring for a long time, and somehow actual motivation overcame me and I did it.

I built the fire ring out of cottage blocks, and they’re designed so that when you stack a second layer, it is offset and set back a half inch or so. This is great for building a wall since the wall “leans” into the ground it is retaining. But it’s not so great for building a ring.

I had built the base with the blocks fitting nicely, just as they’re designed to do. When I put the second layer of blocks on the ring, however, I faced a problem. I was using the same number of blocks to build a ring with a smaller circumference. Everything seemed fine until the two ends of the ring met. The blocks didn’t fit. I had to misalign them to complete the circle, and while that doesn’t seem horrible on the scale of problems, if I ever wanted to add a third layer of blocks (because the ash from so many fires had grown that deep), it really wouldn’t work.

So my plan was to remove the top layer and then pull out the blocks on the base by a half inch or so, making their circumference larger than before so that the layer above it could have a better fit in its smaller circumference.

Here you see how I had removed the top layer. The next step was pulling out the lower blocks slightly and then returning the upper ring. My efforts paid off because the blocks on the upper ring fit perfectly. (And yes, I realize that if I ever add that third layer, I’ll have to do this all over again.)

So it was a productive stolen trip to the woods.

the latest from Roundrock

May 21, 2018

I managed to get myself (and my dog) down to Roundrock between violent storms last weekend. I’d actually skipped out of work early on Friday, spent a little time packing Prolechariot (my truck) and then trying to sneak off without Flike (my dog) knowing. But somehow he discovered what I was doing and whined to his mother, and soon he was in the truck with me, burning up the highway betwixt here and there.

If I think I’m going to be visiting my woods in a coming weekend, I tend to study the weather maps throughout the week, watching as the forecasts change and get refined. If the reports were true, then my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks had received rain all week. This was good since I had more old wooden fence to burn in the fire ring. Friday evening was my window of opportunity. (As I was loading the rotten fence bits into the bed of my truck I was amazed at how much work I had actually gotten done in my last fit of motivation. No wonder I’ve not been motivated at all since!) I much prefer having large campfires when the woods are wet.

The last few hundred feet of road leading to my cabin goes through the middle of my woods, and first I can see the green roof of the cabin between the trees, then I can see the lake. Ever since I’ve had the lake I’ve worried that I would come out and find it missing. (This came close to happening a couple of times!) I worry that the heavy spring rains will fill the lake so that it overcomes the overflow drain and the two spillways and washes over the top of the dam itself. If the dam began eroding, it would likely continue until the lake behind it was drained. That hasn’t happened yet (though, as I said, it came close twice), but I still peer through the trees every single time I drive down that last bit of road to my cabin.

As it was when I visited on Friday, the lake was about three feet below full pool. That’s fine with me. That gives it capacity to absorb more spring rain without using the drain or spillways. (The lake was built in a gravel-filled valley. Plenty of water leaks underneath the dam — and through it in some places — so even when it’s full, water is bleeding away from it.) I took the picture above from the top of the dam, looking west. It’s always a pretty sight. Flike wasn’t too interested though.

Here is the view from the front porch of my little cabin. I spent my first hour or so there on Friday just sitting in a chair and taking in this view:

The light-colored bit of shoreline you see in both photos is the same spot.

I may have mentioned that a phoebe has built a nest on the wall of the cabin under the porch ceiling. I checked it when I arrived and found five baby phoebes huddled in it, and during my hour of decompression, mama phoebe was scolding me from the trees nearby by to get lost.

My plan for the weekend was to burn a lot of stuff on Friday (though preferably not my hamburgers) and on Saturday to take my awesome weed whacker into the acre below the dam where I have a hapless plantation of pecan trees. I want to clean out some of the scrub growing in there that is beginning to look like trees as well. Wading into the tall grass and scrub to do this work would, inevitably, cover my body with ticks and chiggers, so my plan after that was to take a dip in the lake to wash off as much of that infestation as I could. But as I think I’ve said before, nature always wins.

Friday came together just as I planned. I made a one-match fire (it’s all in the tinder — this time I used a year 2000 paper map of some place called Iowa) and was soon tossing rotten fence pickets onto it. They are made of cedar, so they popped and sizzled as they burned. They gave a lovely light, as the poet said, but I began to have misgivings about burning the fence. To me, a campfire is a place for quiet reflection not a place for disposing of trash. I much prefer burning oak logs I have cut and split myself than trash I’ve hauled 100+ miles. So I’ve decided that I’m not going to bring any more ex-fence to the cabin for burning. (I still have at least two fires worth of fence parts already down there.) I cooked my burgers and gave half of them to Flike, and I waited as I always do to hear a whippoorwill. I didn’t hear one. I understand that they are in decline in their natural range, and I think it has to do with habitat destructions. I try to maintain my forest as much of a wild place as I can, and I want to think that a whippoorwill will find it a favorable place to live and raise a family.

I did manage to burn up what I think are the last of my grad school spiral notebooks.

How long ago had I scribbled in those pages? And never opened them once since then! Simplify, as Mr. Thoreau says.

I stopped stoking the fire after I’d burned up about half of what I had hauled down that day and let it smolder into ash, then I retired, heading in to the cabin for a restless night with Flike burrowed against me, panting with anxiety because despite how much he thinks he wants to go to the woods, he always hates it. (He’s afraid of flies and thunder and it turned out we had an abundance of each over the weekend.) So Flike, probably more covered with ticks and chiggers than I was, nestled very close to me on the bed and panted. He was in high anxiety mode. I told him to stop panting a number of times, which he did, until he didn’t any longer. I saw a long night ahead of me, but then a bit of redemption came. Outside the cabin, through the open windows, from what sounded like a tree directly above me, a whippoorwill began her repetitive call. I stopped counting the iterations when I got into the thirties, but she stopped as well and then returned once more a little later. So I got my simple desire after all.

I slept until I woke, well after sun up, which is rare for me. Flike must have gotten the message because he had moved himself to the rug on the floor beside the bed and didn’t pester me with his frantic panting. Before I rose from the soft mattress, though, the whippoorwill gave me one more serenade.

When I’m staying at the cabin on my own (wifeless, that is), I rarely cook myself a hot breakfast. (I make do with bagels or beef jerky or such.) But on this Saturday morning, I did. I set up the propane stove out of the porch and heated enuf water for two bowls of instant oatmeal. Nothing fancy, certainly, and hardly even cooking, but along with a banana and plenty of iced tea (unsweetened, of course), it was satisfying. As I was puttering about with this work, I could hear rumbling in the southeast. The sky was blue that I could see through the trees, so I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. There is an Air Force base within a hundred miles, but that is to the northeast. And there are some two-lane highways far beyond my southern ridge. But neither of these explanations seemed sufficient. Nor did I think the normal doings of the cattle ranch in that direction would be so noisy. As time passed, the rumbling didn’t. In fact, it grew more well defined. It was definitely thunder I was hearing, and as I glanced up through the trees again I saw that what I took for blue sky before was actually unbroken blue gray cloud.

Flike hates thunder, and he was soon back in the cabin, under the bed, panting frantically. There wasn’t anything I could do for him, so I just watched and waited. The thunder was almost continuous, and I realized that the good people to my southeast were getting a wicked storm. But the thunder was getting louder, the sky was getting darker, and the temperature was actually falling. It looked like I was going to see the storm next. (Also, a curious thing: when I arrived the night before the lake water was a monochrome brown, which it generally is after a storm since it plenty of mud and leaf matter has washed into it. My guess is that as the storm approached, the barometric pressure dropped because soon I was seeing the green mats of algae floating in the lake. I guess somehow they felt free to rise to the surface with their load of brain-eating amoebas given the change in pressure.)

So the stars were not aligning for me. While I could certainly weed whack in the rain and thunder, it wouldn’t be fair to Flike to make him suffer through it locked in the cabin (or in my truck). With the temperature falling as it was, I didn’t see myself getting in the lake that day at all. (It was in the 60s then.) And on top of that, there are three seasonal streams I have to cross to drive out of my woods and reach pavement. Two were dry when I came in the day before, but they have hundred-acre watersheds (each) and if I waited for the storm to hit, it was possible I couldn’t get across them if they were torrents. (This has happened, though I was coming from the other direction at the time.) So with all of those consideration, I began to pack up camp and prepared to go home early. Flike eagerly jumped into the truck when I made the offer and graciously let me pack up and clean up. As it was, I left the mouse trap baited but unset, so when I return next time I should find the cheese missing and the mouse laughing. I also left a small bag I use to carry things back and forth for cabin life. That was no big problem, but still.

I drove home in the downpour. For most of an hour I had the wipers on their fastest speed and my truck at a much slower speed. Fortunately, most of the good people in that part of rural Missouri had sense enuf to stay out of the rain, so the road was all mine.

On Sunday, the county where my cabin is issued a flash flood warming. It seems I skedaddled in time.

So I’m not sure when I’ll get back again. This weekend has possibilities.

two days in the woods

May 1, 2018

On the last weekend of April I made my first visit of the month to Roundrock. The weather wasn’t very cooperative through the month, and with my wife away in Seattle for two of those weeks, I had chores and other things keeping me bound at home. But the stars aligned and I was able to dash down to my woods on Friday afternoon (with my dog, Flike) for an overnight. I managed to get some chores done but my big ambition, to wreak some havoc among the pecan trees with my industrial strength weed whacker, didn’t happen. I had left the gasoline for it at home.

Still, I managed to occupy my time. Back home in faraway suburbia I have been regularly repairing and replacing parts of the wooden fence that has surrounded my back yard for three decades. It rots. The neighbor dogs eat it. (Really!) The wind worries it. And so when time, resources, and gumption are all in one place at the same time, I repair or replace this part or that, going for the most grievous dilapidation generally. (I think over the decades I’ve replaced nearly all of it, which leads me to ask if it is still the same fence or if I have my own version of Theseus’s Paradox.) Then I collect the rotten pickets and braces and drag them down to my Ozark cabin to add to the campfire. You can see some of the fence parts in the fire in the photo above.

This was a one-match fire (unlike my last attempt with wet wood), and the trick to a one-match fire, as everyone knows, is the amount of tinder you use. Lots, mostly. We will collect scraps of burnable paper as we’re puttering about the cabin to use as tinder for our next fire, but on my most recent visit I used something unprecedented. I used old paper road maps that have been sitting in the door pocket of my truck for years and years. Who needs paper maps anymore, right? And I can testify that they make excellent tinder. The pickets are made a cedar and as they burned, they snapped and popped. The oak logs I normally burn aren’t as noisy.

As I was standing around the fire, adding fence parts slowly, I heard a commotion down near the lake and looked up at just the right time to see a large bird fly across the lake and alight in a tree down the hill from the cabin. The branch it alit on broke under its weight and the bird flapped about for a while before settling on a larger branch of the tree. I had to peer at it through the trees (since I didn’t want to scare it off by approaching for a better view) and I could see that it was dark brown with what looked like a white head. I have seen bald eagles high in the sky over my woods, but I had never seen one in one of my trees before.

And I hadn’t this time either. As I watched, the bird took off again and flew in a large circle over the lake. From this I could seen that its underside was white, which meant it was not a bald eagle. Later, when I retired to the cabin for the evening, I took down one of the several bird guides we have on the shelf there and by lantern light determined that what I saw was an osprey. With the massive Corps of Engineers lake to my north, it is not unlikely to see an osprey in the area, but I always assumed my lake was too small to interest them. Perhaps not having any humans around my lake for a month made the area appealing to one, though if so I guess I jinxed that with my visit. Still, it was nice to see such a big bird at my cabin, just as it was nice to hear honking geese splash down on my lake after dark.

Had I remembered the gasoline, I would have ventured into the tall grass in my pecan plantation (twelve trees are all that are left of the hundred I had planted years ago) to clean up woody scrub and such. But since I couldn’t do that, I didn’t want to wade into the grass or scrub at all since tick season has begun in the Ozarks. On Saturday morning (when I rose after sleeping eleven hours!), I kept myself around the cabin doing what chores I could there. I did more backfill behind the new-ish retaining wall, and I used some repurposed cottage blocks to extend the retaining wall behind the cabin. And I did a very thorough sweeping inside the cabin. Every spring we have a hatch of lady bugs and paper wasps inside the cabin. It’s not much of a nuisance, but if they can’t get out of the cabin (say, for example, the door is kept shut for a month straight), then they expire. And so the floor was littered with their corpses. I pushed the broom around, poking into corners and under things, and I shoved the little carpet sweeper on the braided rug (rescued from my mother’s house when she was moving to Kentucky). Flike was not much help with this work, but I managed to get the job done pretty well.

And then, since grandson Emmett was due at my house in faraway suburbia that afternoon, I packed up the truck and pointed it in the direction of home. I’m not sure when I’ll get back down to my cabin again, but I’ll watch for my chance.

meanwhile, at Roundrock

March 28, 2018

It hasn’t been all writing fun and games for me. I have also been visiting my Ozark acres and little cabin in the woods. I was there two weekends ago for an overnight that involved having a large fire to burn more junk as well as to do battle with the blackberries and chores around the cabin.

I’ve told my wife that when we retire, I no longer want to have a yard to care for or gutters to clean or all of that suburban nonsense that we endured in order to have a nice place to raise our children. (And now that we have two dogs, we’re pretty much still raising children.) I can see myself in some two-bedroom urban condo, a floor or two above the street, maybe with a nice view of the downtown and no lawn to mow or neighbors to “keep up with.” (I’ve never been a joiner or one to want to fit in especially, but I also recognize that if you live in a community — even vanilla suburbia — you live with a community and there are certain minimum appearances — like a mostly green lawn — that must be maintained for the good of civilization.)

And all of that is a way to say that though I may yet realize this ambition, having 80 acres of Ozark forest with a small cabin and a lake that leaks is pretty much taking my suburban woes and multiplying them. My yard is 80 acres! And each visit to Roundrock* means chores and chores and chores to be done!

On this most recent visit my main chore (after doing battle with the blackberries among my pine trees) was to set up a new place to stack the firewood I cut. Several “problems” aligned in this latest project, and it was mostly the delivery of the load of gravel (recounted here) plus overcoming inertia that allowed me to address them.

I’ve been maintaining and expanding the graveled area around my cabin not merely to have a tick-and-chigger-free space there to move around in but also to keep a buffer between the wooden cabin and any ground fire that may sweep through the forest. (Ground fires are not uncommon in the Ozarks, though there has been only one during my tenure and it didn’t get close to the cabin, and they’re mostly considered benign as long as they stay on the ground and don’t get into the tree tops.) By having an area that is not combustible, I feel that I am performing my due diligence (so that the insurance man won’t reject my claim should I need to rebuild the cabin).

A fact of life about any forest is that leaves will fall from the trees. And then they accumulate, often just where you don’t want them. (One of those places is the north side of my cabin, and raking leaves from there is a year-round chore for me.) The past structure I had for my firewood was too low to the ground. It allowed leaves to pile up against it. Not only was this a potential fire hazard, but it provided haven for all sorts of vermin I might not want too close to the cabin, and it allowed any rain that fell on the firewood to keep the wood damp since the leaves prevented normal evaporation. (Same three points regarding the leaves against the cabin.) So my hope was to create a new place to stack the firewood that would be raised sufficiently to allow the wood to stay mostly dry and to allow any blowing leaves to pass under on their way elsewhere.

Another chore of mine through the years has been to build a retaining wall in front of my cabin. I did this originally because I worried that the cabin was perched on a hill too steep for the good of the concrete floor/foundation. So I got several pallets of cottage blocks over the years and built my wall to shore up the cabin. (I backfilled the wall with very good soil so that I could have a garden of red flowers in front of the cabin to attract hummingbirds. Nature had other plans!) But this wall has continued to the east, toward the area where the fire ring and its attending wood pile is. Part of this extension was not only to satisfy my human need to impose order on chaos but also to ensure that not all of the gravel I (and others) laid down would wash down the hill.

This wall extension needed to be higher than the current level of the gravel since I intended to lay more until it and the gravel bed were level, thus allowing blowing leaves to keep moving and not collect. And then I got the gravel delivery two days before Christmas last year, and my excellent son-in-law shifted about a third of the delivery to its new location against the wall, but the woodpile area remained untouched.

And so this story finally comes round to my visit two weekends ago. I had my wall of cottage blocks. I had my pile of gravel. I had weather that was just slightly chilly, which is ideal for running and manual labor. I had a full day before me. And I had that rarest of things in my life: actual motivation!

The first task was to move the too-low-to-the-ground current wood pile and disassemble the existing “rack” I had built for it. Much of the wood, it turned out, literally crumbled in my (gloved) hands because it was so rotten (from being constantly moist). The former rack consisted of several bricks with an old hickory wheel barrow handle and a thick cedar plank stretched across them. Once I had those out of the way I could begin my real work.

First I raked the area clean of the collected bits of bark and forest debris and whatever might be living in it. This all went over the side of the wall (being only two blocks high). Then I began moving fresh gravel into place. I estimate that I shifted twenty wheel barrow loads of gravel into an area maybe fifteen feet long. It’s not hard work while you’re doing it, but you remember doing it the next day. Then I needed to level the twenty piles of gravel, grading them to the top of the wall. Easy enuf work as well. So the prep work was done.

Many years ago, a friend was making an addition to his house and had many paving blocks and bricks he wanted to get rid of. He offered them to me and I hurried to his house with my eldest boy to stack them all in the bed of my truck. I don’t know how long I drove around town with that weight in my truck before I got to visit my woods, but as I remember, it was a couple of weeks. When I did get down there, I unloaded the blocks and bricks and stacked them beside a tree where they would be handy when I finally found a use for them. They turned out to be a fine place for two forest creatures to call home: black widow spiders and scorpions. (Yes, I saw the scorpions with my own eyes. Black things with yellow chevrons. I’ve never found their match in any critter guidebooks.)

Eventually the blocks became my original fire ring. They served there well for many years until I got my latest load of cottage blocks and built a new fire ring. So the old paver blocks were stacked neatly near the new wall, waiting their next role in life. It happened that I had eighteen of them. I thought that if I stacked them three high and stretched steel bars across them, they would be high enuf to allow blowing leaves to pass through and strong enuf to hold firewood. The trouble was finding steel bars that were long enuf to do the job. (The steel fence posts I have all over the place are only about six feet tall.)

When we had bought the land (how long ago? I would have to look it up to know), the realtor said that our particular 80 acres had been leased to the Have to Hunt Club. (There was even some signage left of their tenure.) In addition to the lake that we added, there is a small pond on the property, and this is a game magnet, especially favorable to deer hunters. Near the pond was an old blind up in a tree. (It would be a tree fort if you were a child.) The tree was dying. The blind was rotting, and the whole thing was going to fall soon, possibly across my road in. But one solid piece of the blind was the ladder leading up to it. When the blind finally fell after a strong storm (not across my road in) I collected the planks and parts as well as the ladder, which I just knew I would have a use for someday. Many of the rotten planks and parts went into the fire, and now they exist as the ash that is rising there. Some of the planks I use to weigh down a tarp I spread over parts of my graveled area to kill the upstart weeds. But the ladder just rested against a tree for years, awaiting its new life.

And because I could not find the steel bars I wanted, I realized one day that the ladder (made of good quality, treated lumber it seems) would serve just as well. I carried the ladder to the area I had added the latest gravel to so I had sense of how long my new wood rack would be. Then I spaced the old blocks along it to make six stacks of three blocks apiece; the eighteen blocks divided so nicely it seemed meant to be. After a bit of leveling, the old ladder rested evenly on the blocks, and you can see the result here:

There are a number of things to say about this photo. First, the lighter colored gravel is the new stuff I laid down. (Farther up in the photo is the gravel my excellent son-in-law laid down in December.) To the right along the edge of the photo is the older gravel. It’s darker for several reason: it likely came for a different part of the quarry and it’s been in the weather for a decade at least. In fact, after the oak trees release their pollen, everything has an orange tint, including this white gravel. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but the lighter gravel is higher than the darker gravel. I need to spread more gravel there to even out the two, the darker gravel being on ground that rises up the slight hill on the right.

You can also see some of the retaining wall at the top of the photo. That’s the old part. The cabin is to the right of this old part. It happens that the new part aligns exactly with the left side of the old ladder; it’s there, just under it.

You can also glimpse the lake through the trees on the right. When we visited, we were delighted to see it as full as it was. (About four feet below full pool.) I watch the weather in the area, and I hadn’t thought there had been enuf rain to fill the lake this much, especially as dry as the forest has been in recent months. Much of this will leak out under the dam, but spring rains will also fill it. (The night we spent there, nine Canada geese circled the lake a few times then splashed onto the water. They spent the night. Keep in mind these were not golf course geese accustomed to humans. These were truly wild ones, and it warmed my black and shriveled heart to think my attempt at stewardship was working.)

I don’t think I’ll ever cut enuf firewood to fill this rack. I’m not sure I’d ever want to have a need for that much. But I have capacity now, and I hope it works as intended to prevent leaves from accumulating.

I still have most of the pile of gravel; I don’t think my son-in-law and I have moved half of it yet. But as I said, there are areas I need to bring to even grade, and it would be nice to have an actual level area near the fire ring so we could put a table there that doesn’t cant down hill and let dinner slide off.


*Roundrock is the name I’ve given to my property because of the obvious reason that it is filled with round rocks. I realize naming property is a bit pretentious, but I tired of referring to it as “the land” since that was vague.

sonder, out yonder

January 17, 2018

I once found a stubbed-out cigarette on one of the blocks of the retaining wall behind my cabin.

My first reaction was alarm. The back of the cabin is where dried out fallen leaves collect against the wooden wall. Cigarettes require a flame and themselves burn. But it seemed that the smoker was fastidious about his habit (I assume it was a “he” though I have no reason to think that) and snuffed it safely, though packing out his trash was apparently beyond the range of his perceived responsibilities.

But after my initial alarm, I began to imagine my interloper and his visit. Had he arrived by car or had he walked the considerable distance from anywhere to reach my end-of-the-road little cabin? Did he come down my road or hike cross country? Did he walk around the cabin and appreciate the setting? Or did he sit on the retaining wall as he enjoyed his cigarette? If so, why at the back of the cabin and not on the porch where he could look down on the glinting lake? Though perhaps he started there and merely sauntered. Did he try the door to see if it was open? Peer in the windows? Did he sit in one of the chairs? On the porch or around the fire ring? Did he heft the round rocks all around? Did he come with intent, to see the cabin in its place? Had he heard of it? Or was he just wandering the woods that day and come upon it? How long did he stay? And what did he think while he was there? Did he imagine for the time that the place was his own? Imagine throwing a line in the water? Throwing a steak on the grill? Telling stories around a fire? Or did he scoff at its humble setting? What was his name? Was he tired when he arrived and rested when he left? Was he alone? Did he meet someone there? Has he ever been back? Does this happen often?

I sometimes find the spoor of interlopers in my woods: beer cans, candy wrappers, footprints, emptied shotgun shells. Once, a horse shoe.

I have no illusions about the concept of private property, especially in isolated places infrequently visited. I also think it’s presumptuous in a way to think of “owning” a piece of land, at least on the time scale of land. I sometimes think of myself as more of a tenant of the 80 acres than an owner. A caretaker, maybe. A steward. Transitory. I can point to my influences, the changes I’ve made, both successful and not, and speak of the emotional connection I have to the place. But in a century, my connection won’t really be known to the next tenant in the woods. It seems unlikely that anyone will ponder who I was in my time and tenancy.

Maybe that’s why I write stories. To live beyond myself.

Chapter 14 begins

April 13, 2008

With that insertion chapter 8.5 behind me, I was able to get back on the trail of the story. (Hiking is the activity in the novel.) I already have an excellent start on Chapter 14. As I hoped, it is writing itself. I have more than 2,000 words down, and it won’t take much more to complete the chapter. Let me restate that. It won’t take much effort to complete the chapter, but I expect that at least another thousand words will contribute themselves to the cause.

This is an important chapter (aren’t they all in their way?) because a part of the mystery is revealed. My plan all along was to have one of my two sleuths figure out part of the solution and the other to figure out the other part. Ann will know the “who” of it all; Greg will know the “what” of it all. If they can get together to share what they know the mystery will be solved. Alas, forces prevent this from happening.

Tension has racheted up significantly by this point in the story, and now suspense gets added. By the end of Chapter 14, the reader will have serious concerns about the fate of one of the protagonists. And because I am devilsh about it, the next two chapters will head off in a different direction, leaving the reader with unresolved concerns for the time: suspense.

I had serious doubts about this novel for a long time. I was certain that the word count would be too low, but that’s already resolved itself with at least three more chapters to come. And I worried that the story just wasn’t any good, but now that I’m in the climax section, those worries have gone away.

It’s still rough, but I’m much more confident about it. I’ll give it a read through when I’m finished to smooth the rough spots as well as I can, then I’ll let it sit for a month or so. There’s plenty of other writing to be done will I let this novel incubate.