Some thirty-five years ago we started to construct a human ecotone in the forest;
a place where a family could live in reasonable harmony with the natural world. In the beginning I was alone. I cleared some of the trees, mostly hemlocks, but certainly a good number of hardwoods on the north side of this hill to let some light in to a place where I could situate my tipi. The logs that were harvested from the trees were eventually turned into lumber at a local sawmill. This lumber was dried and used to build our cabin and house a few years later.
Life in the tipi was interesting. Although I am not a nomad the tipi seemed like good inexpensive housing at the time. My two dogs, Hickory and Scruggs did not seem to mind the outdoor life. I went to work during the day. The dogs stayed home, hanging around the tipi. In the evening I came home, cooked some food over an open fire, and went to bed when it was dark. It was a fine lifestyle in the summer, but winter made things a little more challenging. The dogs sometimes came to work with me spending part of their day in my work place and part of the day in my truck. At night we would go home and build a fire for light and warmth. The tipi would be just getting above freezing when it was time to turn in. On weekends when we were home most of the day the tipi could be kept above freezing on most days. As long as someone was there to put wood on the fire the tipi was reasonably comfortable. Too bad there are only two weekend days. Two years of that lifestyle was a good experience.
With the greatest of all fortunes love came into my life. I met my present wife Maureen and she did not think me so weird that she wouldn’t date me. She had no interest in living in a tipi with me and the two dogs, so as our relationship developed we talked about building a structure for a home.
I think our love was a little overwhelming. After a year or so we wanted to move in together and knew that if we built a house ourselves with primarily materials we could get off our land that it would take a long time. Our solution was to build a small cabin from boards sawn from some of the logs I had cut when clearing the land. It was a decision made in September with a move in date before Christmas. Holding down a job while building this little cabin was good preparation for our house building future. The cabin was comprised of one twelve foot by twelve foot room with a sleeping loft with a second room that was used as a kitchen. It was a more civilized life style than the tipi and I was really happy to have someone that I loved to share life with. Maureen loved our little cabin as did I. On cold winter nights we would play scrabble and listen to “Prairie Home Companion” on the radio. We would drink homemade dandelion wine and talk about the future. Our lives were about as uncomplicated as they could be.
Our love and commitment to each other lead to discussions of marriage and children. Whenever we talked about kids Maureen would smile and laugh and be as happy as any sane person could possibly be. We knew that family meant we would have to begin our building our house, and so the next spring we set that process in motion.
Building a house meant more land clearing. The good part about that is land clearing meant more logs. Logs were turned into framing material and boards, once again at a local sawmill.
Clearing part of a forest is an awesome responsibility. We did as much as we could without heavy machinery. Each tree to be cut was painstakingly evaluated. It is difficult to be an absolute minimalist when creating a homestead from the forest; we had several important needs; room to have a garden to grow our food, room to pasture a few animals for food, and room to build our house. In all we cleared only a few acres.
Our little clearing is surrounded by thousands and thousands of acres of forest. From the beginning we wanted to create a human ecotone that would not only allow us to house ourselves and grow some of own food, but to create a habitat that would provide diversity of plant species and forage for wildlife in the immediate area.
Maureen and I worked side by side for two years building our house. We had help from our friends, but the two of us did the majority of the work. The house was small, built largely from materials from the land and recycled building materials, and provided us with daily entertainment for over 700 days. There was no electricity near us in those days so much of the power was provided by generators for electric tools, and our own muscles for hand tools. We were not experienced builders, and so mistakes were made. Some of them are still evident and are a good reminder of why we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.
Children were raised here and now are adults living their own lives. Hillsides were terraced and gardens were nurtured here and still provide food without the use of chemicals. Our fruit trees yield apples, pears, blueberries, and cherries; much of the fruit is shared with wildlife. We share our homestead with the other dweller of these woods and they share their territories with us.
As the years past, the gardens grew, fruit trees were planted, and our pasture clearing was expanded slightly. For years the pasture was graced with goats, pigs, cows, and beefalo. We no longer grow animals for meat and the pasture has reverted to a field that is used by wild turkeys, ground nesting song birds, deer, fox, and coyotes. We mow the area every three years or so in the autumn with a walk behind brush mower to keep the area from becoming a brush lot. Hopefully we will get to that chore soon before it’s too late.
A little hard work, a lot of love, the will to pay attention to our surroundings, helpful suggestions for our neighbors, and a great appreciation for the forest and the natural world have all joined together to help us enjoy life.
A human ecotone in the woods; just one little story about life in the country.