Wish to Live Deliberately: Building a Cabin and its Consequences
for a piece of land for a number of years, but after wasting my
time on the high-priced real-estate of British Columbia, I finally
began to rethink my rationale. I had originally avoided looking
in New Brunswick because the east coast is subject to the pollution
of the entire continent carried on the prevailing westerlies.
When I was young I watched an untended field become more and more
acidic with what was likely the effect of acid rain, and I worried
about what would happen to the land where I wanted to live and
have worried. After only a few years of looking at acreages in
the west which cost hundreds of thousands, I realized that even
if my land became a bit more acidic over my lifetime, I could
easily treat that with lime. My original worry had such a long
timeline that it was essentially unfounded. If I could grow vegetables
now, I could reasonably expect to grow them for as long as I was
alive. I stopped planning for the centuries.
Once I turned
my attention back to New Brunswick, I found twenty-four hectares
relatively quickly. I bought the property in October of 2007,
and then came back in late fall to live on it and decide what
I wanted to do with my latest project.
on the Land - 2007
- Looking for Land
When I was
first informed through a friend that a peer from my high school
had land to sell, I had the feeling that others might describe
as mystical. I wouldn't go that far myself, but I began to get
excited about the possibility, and a feeling of certainty grew
upon me that this might be my opportunity.
I had perused that was listed as vacant land was either too far
from what I wanted or too close to other people. As well, it was
usually too expensive. The idealized land I had imagined had a
swiftly moving creek descending with enough head to use the water
pressure for electricity generation, and was wooded with a mixed
forest, although I also liked the idea of a recent clear-cut.
A clear-cut would be a piece of land that could not easily be
destroyed; it's difficult to inflict more damage than the people
who run tree harvesters over discarded oil jugs and pop cans.
Also, I knew that much timber is discarded in clear-cuts. Often
companies find it financially unfeasible to have a truck return
merely for a half a load, so unless they can make up the shortfall
elsewhere, they leave the logs to rot in a pile. I imagined spending
the first year collecting wood and then building from the discards.
I also imagined
the property covered with hardwood ridges, beech and what we used
to call rock maple, and a bubbling spring I could tap for fresh
water. I saw huge pines hanging over the desolation of the clear-cut,
for they are often left in the clear-cut because they are not
worth the trouble to bring to a mill and too large to be handled
for pulp. I imagined mint along the creek, large pieces of granite
ledge on the ridge, and a hill high enough that a windmill could
catch the wayward breezes.
When I went
with my old high school acquaintance, none of this materialized
in exactly the way I had imagined it. Instead, we looked at three
plots of land, although the last acreage was too far from the
road to do more than ponder from a distance. The first lot was
more interesting. We looked at it briefly, discussed the property
boundaries with a garrulous neighbour, and I made plans to return
for a walk about.
day, my girlfriend and I parked in the short logging road entrance,
and walked down the rather steep path to the fast moving creek.
Although it wasn't running down a hill the brook was lively and
looked clean and clear. We trekked into the woods for a half hour
or so, more uncertain all the time if we were still within the
same property lines even though we had borrowed a compass. Having
seen the front of the land, and using the aerial photo we had
borrowed from the seller, we followed a series of logging roads
until we came to an opening in the trees near the back of the
property. It had been a log staging area for the harvesting, for
the land had been cut over some twenty years earlier.
quite fit into my image of my idealized property, for I believed,
erroneously it turned out, that any timber left over would be
too rotten for use. The advantage of the older clear-cut was the
thick brush. Where the balsam fir had grown near the creek it
was so tight we were forced to turn sideways to pass through,
and even in the back of the property, pin cherry maple, and gray
and white birch, fought poplar for available sunlight. Nearly
the whole acreage was covered with such disturbance trees, and
I felt comfortable cutting a few where I would be building the
cabin without feeling like I was destroying the forest.
area for logs at the back of the property was quite lovely, since
it was up on a hill and the wind blew the small trees about as
we walked over it. The mid-October of 2007 was unusually warm
and dry so even the swampy area on the way to the road before
we mounted the second hill was solid. Despite the uncharacteristic
aridity, there was one large puddle of relatively clear water
which I took to be a spring, although it turned out I was mistaken.
By the time
we came to the swampy area, I had made up my mind. We went up
the second hill on our way back to the car and I told my girlfriend
that I thought I would buy it. She cautioned me against hasty
judgements. She told me that I was likely overexcited and might
regret a purchase made on such an unfounded impulse.
At the time
I disregarded that rather obvious sign that she didn't understand
my way of thinking at all, and instead of heeding the implicit
warning, I told her I was not in the least motivated by excitement.
I had certain criteria in mind and I was merely ticking off a
mental list as we walked. A fairly important component of the
decision was the price. For ten thousand dollars I could move
onto twenty-four hectares-or fifty-nine acres-which was economical
even for vacant land in New Brunswick. It was almost worth buying
even if I only used it to camp when I visited the province.
were equally important, however. It was heavily wooded, even though
the trees were for the most part small, which meant privacy and
no four wheelers and snowmobiles tearing through the ecosystem
and reduced my fear of trespassers vandalizing the cabin when
I was absent. The mix of trees indicated varied land acidity and
fertility, and the huge pine trees I had imagined were few but
majestic. I liked the creek beside the road, although I doubted
I would build next to all the other hunting cabins fearfully crowded
against each other within spitting distance of the passing trucks.
variety of the terrain was good habitat, and answered the more
environmental reasons for the purchase. I wanted a place to build
a cabin, but I also wanted to ensure that at least some of the
province remained wild, so that animals dispossessed by logging
interests had somewhere to run. As an added benefit that I hadn't
previously considered, the property was near some good friends
and not too far from a small city where I could buy groceries
and check my email.
the seller and he organized a lawyer for both of us, and after
paying taxes and lawyer fees, within the week I was waving the
envelope of my completed paperwork. My girlfriend had had enough
of New Brunswick by that time, unfortunately. My proposal that
we take advantage of the beautiful late summer weather and camp
on my property fell on deaf ears. I wanted to plan where I would
build, and possibly even clear a spot for the cabin. She wanted
nothing of the sort. Her back was bothering her-I think her lumbar
region responded especially poorly to the idea of camping-so instead
we drove to Boston to visit friends, before I took her to Toronto
so she could fly home.
I don't think
she thought much about it, but although I was hopeful that by
the time I returned to the land in early November the good weather
would hold, I knew I had missed my chance. In Toronto I picked
up some lumber, eavestroughing and even a carpenter's square from
a friend who was cleaning house, so the trip wasn't a wasted one.
Soon I was passing through Montreal on my way back to the property
that I was increasingly excited about.
The long drive
from Montreal was uneventful, luckily, although I noticed, with
a shiver, the ice in the ditches and hanging from the shaded cliffs.
I stopped for a nap near Quebec City while the sun warmed the
car, which meant that I had barely time to enter New Brunswick
by dinnertime. The only glitch was a RCMP officer who took a long
lazy look at my car when he pulled into an Edmundston gas station
as I was leaving. My New Brunswick inspection sticker was out
of date, and I doubted the car could pass, so I was leery of such
attention. Fortunately, he decided that doughnuts were more important
than me and I was saved for another day.
I drove the
gauntlet, as I call the one hundred and eighty kilometres from
the border of Quebec to where I turned off the main highway. On
the way down the tertiary highway I clocked the distance to my
road to see how far I was from a grocer.
proved to be passable if I angled the car out of respect for the
hillock and my exhaust and suspension, and once I judiciously
snipped a few saplings with my new shears, I was ready to park
far enough off the road so I wouldn't be easily seen.
I took out
the banister and eavestroughing my friend had given me in Toronto
so that I'd have enough room to sleep across the front seats.
The rear was piled high with stuff from Toronto, as well as a
bucket I had found on the road, but I hoped I would be comfortable
enough, and more importantly, warm enough, for the weather was
beginning to turn.
I wished I
had my headphones so I could listen to CBC on the radio my friend
Silvio had given me, but I was soon asleep. The next day was going
to be the first day on the land, and I was looking forward to
I woke up
early to the crystalline sound of snow brushing the windows and
when I reached up wipe away what I thought was condensation I
realized the car was blanketed. I shrugged the image off so that
I could get back to sleep but I was cognizant enough to wonder
how I would get my car out of the narrow trail I had cut through
the brush the night before.
When I woke
around eight thirty about an inch of snow had already fallen,
and I lay under the sleeping bags thinking about the combination
of good and bad luck that befalls a person. I'd managed to evade
the police in my entrance of the province, but now I had to spend
my first day walking over the property in wet snow.
even more heavily than I had for sleeping in the car. After a
hasty breakfast I donned two pairs of pants and matched a glove
with a sock. I spent a moment pondering the tracks which came
through the woods east of where I'd parked and then apparently
paused by my window. Someone had come in the morning and peered
in on me while I slept. Ignoring the implications, I set about
defining my property boundary with my compass. First I found my
front survey marker, and traced it to another stake near the creek
by reference to the licence plates nailed to a tree which represented
my western neighbour's attempt to mark his line.
I then tried
to pace off the land to the end of my entrance, but I was foiled
by heavy brush. Instead, I went to where I had made note of the
western boundary across the creek, and walked the line until I
came to the gravel pits, or tote yards, which are about halfway
back on my property. I had arrived at them precisely where the
aerial photo indicated the property boundary to be, so satisfied
that I was on track, I went back through the middle of the property
to the pine trees.
When I got
back to my car, my neighbour, Bashful-as I came to call him-who
lives just east of my entrance, was coming from the west through
the bush. I waited for him, in order to tell him that we had become
neighbours. He said he'd heard me arrive, and had crept over in
early morning to see me sleeping in the car. He'd returned a few
hours later to find me gone and mentioned that he'd wondered where
I had been.
a discussion in which I tried to be an accommodating neighbour.
We discovered, by perusal of our shared marker on the road, that
part of his road, a corner of his shed, and more damningly, his
toilet, was on my land. He was standing beside me when I noticed
and I asked him, "So you don't like to shit on your own land?"
He mumbled passive-aggressively that he would likely have to move
his toilet too, but I told him that I had no problem with any
of that, but I would appreciate it if he removed his deer-hunting
blind from beneath the big pine on my property. I used the excuse
that my friends might come with their children, so it would be
best not to have someone shooting. He was seemingly disgusted
with this request, and made several morose statements about how
he might as well give up hunting.
When I went
back into the property, and saw that he had slashed the tarp covering
of the board frame deer stand to ribbons. I realized then that
he was more angry, and quite possibly more bushed than I had noticed.
I decided it was best to carry on with my own business, although
I wondered if he was going to tear out his bridge because I had
asked permission to use it.
I spent the
rest of the day cutting a trail-which used part of Bashful's path
he had made on my property-back to where I decided to build. I
picked a spot that was on the brow of the hill on the south-facing
slope, a bit less than a kilometre hike from the road. It was
within sight of two pine trees, sheltered from the western winds
by a stand of fir, and with enough southern exposure that it would
be warmed by the sun.
At the end
of the day, the latter part of which was spent carrying in the
twenty referendum signs my Toronto friend had sourced for me,
as well as windows and other house gear, I was tired enough to
go to my farmer friend's place early. I also wanted to get my
axe and saw from his garage while it was still light. While cutting
trails I had encountered more than one sapling which defied my
lopping shears, so the trail was so tight in spots that I had
to turn sideways to pass.
I dug through
my stuff in my friend's barn and filled my trunk with tarps and
tools, and then I sat around until he came home with the kids.
We went into the house but the delight of hanging out with them
was mitigated by my wet feet. My shoes had leaked more than once
in the snow and I had foundered in marshy land as well. In fact,
I wasn't thoroughly warmed up until the next morning.