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The Wish to Live Deliberately: Building a Cabin and its Consequences


I searched 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 grow food.

I needn't 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.

Living on the Land - 2007

Mid-October - 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.

Other property 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.

The following 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.

That didn't 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.

The staging 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.

Other criteria 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.

Also, the 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.

I contacted 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.

Monday, October 29

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.

My entrance 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 it.

Tuesday, Oct 30

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.

I dressed 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.

Thus ensued 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.


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