Notes From The Forest

1. A Change Of Style

Just as I was getting the hang of Hong Kong, it was suddenly time to leave. In the near future, I will post some observations about my time living in that bright vertical city, but here is some background about where I am now – in a forest! I don’t have electricity (just wifi), so it is difficult to answer emails at length. But I make notes by hand, and dictate to my computer when my battery is charged, and then I can quickly upload a blog entry.

How did it happen that I find myself on a wooden porch of a log house in a forest? Now my small domestic tasks include things like filling a hummingbird feeder with nectar, when just a few weeks ago I was tying my plants to the railings of my 10th floor balcony in Hong Kong, to protect them against a coming typhoon. Quite suddenly our world changed, but slowly too: it took us three months to turn our eyes away from the logical, the obvious, and believe that we might be allowed to take this outlandish path.

A sudden retrenchment caused our lives to stop and for us to rethink our immediate plans. An ideal possibility had been offered, but not until next Spring – we couldn’t wait that long. Or could we? Not if we stayed in expensive Hong Kong, living that city life, but maybe we could last if we were prepared to try a very different sort of existence.

The rents in Hong Kong are as high as the buildings and this was certainly a factor in our move, but it was more than that: the chance to step out from living in a big city, being one of millions of cogs in a great industrial circuit, and return to a brave project begun decades ago.

At first it seemed a childish fantasy, but we asked ourselves, “Why not? We are strong and young and free, we’re allowed to try this…”

Believing that the richness of experience was worth more than dollars in the bank, we packed up our lives and put things in storage, and set off to finish a log cabin in the woods. It has stood waiting for a long time, nearly three decades. It is about 80% finished – the heavy lifting to create the structure was done years ago, but it still wants quite a bit of work, and a few big ticket items, before it changes from a camp spot to a home. Now we have time to provide the labour, for “free”. A man, a woman and a youth, reasonably fit and agile, with hopefully complementary skill sets, and positive attitudes – we’ll see how far we get.

We sent on winter clothing in seabound boxes, and sacrificed quite a bit of space in our carried luggage for our business clothes, as we may have some consulting work – pocket money to feed the forest habit. So we arrived with the clothes we felt we could work in, and appear in public in, to last a mild summer and into autumn. Interesting to see how we look over here, in our new lifestyle. We know what we were, just a minute ago, in cosmopolitan Hong Kong, but now we are three people who live in primitive conditions in the woods. Gone are my crisp, flowing linen clothes, perfectly pressed by my hard working Filipina maid. Instead I wear jeans and some embroidered cotton shirts bought in Southeast Asian markets.  Somehow, over here, they make me look like a hippy. T, having shed his business suits, wears t-shirts, jeans, and corduroy shirts, manages to look just a bit rednecky. N looks strangest of all, wearing an old Chinese army coat with a false fur collar – it seems cold here, after the heat of the tropics. He is a slender lad with rough cropped hair, and the big green padded coat makes him look like a homeless waif. In the streets of Seattle, street kids ask him for cigarettes.

2. “Um, where are you, exactly?”

Camano Island, Washington state. This area is called the Pacific Northwest, its distinctive climate and landscape created by the ridge of mountains that runs along the western side of the North American continent: the Cascades. This is a volcanic range stretching from Canada down to Northern California, with magnificent pointy peaks rising up to 14,000 feet, virtually straight up from sea level. The highest are covered in snow even in summer, and there are glaciers too.

Glacial Lake in the Cascade Mountains

We are less than 90 minutes north of Seattle, and about the same distance south of Vancouver. Camano Island is saved from being an isthmus by a strand of the Stillaguamish River and a slough. It lies in the deep, cold waters of Puget Sound, among many islands, which are roughly divided between Canada and the United States. The much larger Whidbey Island lies west of us across Saratoga Passage, spread in a protective embrace, and beyond that are the lovely San Juan islands and the Canadian sea border – a ferry will take you to Victoria in little more than an hour. South and West is the Olympic Peninsula, with another majestic range, the Olympic Mountains, which form an attractive backdrop of snowy peaks behind Whidbey.

Puget Sound Scenery

The Salish people lived here for ten thousand years; their descendants still persist, giving their names to local features such as rivers and districts: Snohomish, Skagit, Tulalip, Snoqualamie. In this beautiful land, with its wide green rivers, great stands of cedar and fir forests and the clean waters of the sound, their lives were rich enough to support a tradition of feast giving, Potlatch, in which chiefs tried to outdo each other with the bounty of their tables. The oceans are filled with fish, and the rivers too – herring, salmon, trout, oysters, mussels, clams, Dungeness crabs. And seals, whales, porpoises, orcas.  There are deer in the forest and otters in the rivers and bays. Then there are the many native berries that grow here, and rich volcanic soils support all sorts of crops: potatoes, corn, peas, barley, beans, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blueberries. When white settlers came to these coasts in the mid 19th century, the natives were friendly and generous; there seemed plenty to share.

The Skagit River

So they came and settled, harvesting logs from the great forests, and dyked the swampy land to create farms. Gradually, urbanisation came. Despite the plague of western civilization, there is still a lot of beauty, in large stretches of wilderness, and life is still rich here, with plenty of edible treasures from the sea and land. At the entrance to Camano there is a giant model of a crab bearing the motto: “Come out of your shell on Camano!” Indeed, it is the crabbing season now – at low tides it is possible to walk along the shallow beaches and pick them up with rakes.

Camano Main Road

All around are towns and communities of varying degrees of cuteness and facility, but on our island, there is no town as such – there is a general store here, a guesthouse and restaurant there, the odd gas station and two little shopping centres. There is a brand of local organic, fair trade, shade-grown coffee. Coffee is important in the region – it is, after all, the birthplace of Starbucks. The island’s population live, in between patches of state park, in an interesting mix of rural properties, luxurious seaside villas, hidden retreats in forests, and also overbuilt new communities, as suburban as anywhere. Just as well, that leaves more tracts of wilderness.

Some houses are weekend getaways, some are retirement homes, some belong to people who don’t want to live in cities. The north end of Camano is just commutable to Seattle, and certainly within the catchment of Everett, where one of the Boeing factories is. The south end is a little quieter, perhaps more arty even. A neighbour on our road told me he had to move out of the North end because there were too many Californians. But too many anythings are always too many.

It is all quite beautiful and calm and even a bit rich feeling, a little cold but that is the price for this lofty landscape, and you can’t blame the people for being perhaps a little smug in their lucky situation. At least many people are cheerful and friendly – keeping, perhaps, the generous spirit of the Salish, in a land of plenty. We are getting over our wonderment that everyone speaks English, and getting the hang of the way things are done here.

3. A House In The Woods

Cabin on Camano Island

When T was young he spent eight summers in Montana, and never quite got over it, all those mountains and tall coniferous forests. He worked on the ranch of a friend, falling trees, clearing land, stripping logs and making posts and poles, all hard work but satisfying. He conceived the idea of building a log cabin, like the pioneers did in the old days, and wondered if he could. With his siblings, he bought a patch of land high up in the mountains, and they built one – now it is a hunter’s lodge.

Years later, somewhat settled in Seattle, he was ready to try again, and chose this patch of forest on Camano. It is real forest: secluded and quite deep, yet within cooee of civilisation–just an hour and a half or less from Seattle, easily reachable on a Friday night. Importantly, the county had owner-builder codes, and the island could be reached by bridge.

When the land was chosen, T went to the eastern side of the Cascades, to Lake Wenatchee to choose his trees. As he did in his youth, he walked through the woods, chainsaw in hand, and chose the trees he wanted for his house. He was able to do this because the National Forest Service had a program for thinning pine trees in favour of Douglas fir. He was able to buy the trees that he felled himself, for a penny a foot.

Lodgepole pine was named because it was commonly used for teepee poles – and it is also great for log cabins. It grows tall and straight, with little discernible variation in diameter for 75 feet, and possesses great stiffness and strength. Although the local Douglas fir is suitable for log cabin building, T wanted to use pine, as he was familiar with its qualities.

Having carefully calculated the number of logs needed, he cut down one hundred trees, 55 feet long or longer – 12 inches diameter at the butt, 8 inches at the top – two full trailer loads of logs. He cut the trees after a couple of hard frosts, so that the logs would have less sap, and be less likely to split.

On a couple of sunny mornings in November, the log truck made its way carefully up a muddy lane on Camano Island, and dumped the logs by the side of the road. There they lay in a pile until T and his former wife, and a group of loyal friends, could carry them up to the site for the house. This took many weekends, as they had to be carried by hand, four people or more to a log. T said that all of his friends would say he broke their backs: no breakfast, no coffee nor any type of comfort until at least 4 logs have been carried up. The logs were stripped, using spud bars if the bark was fresh or draw knives if it had hardened. Having no power tools, they did everything by hand, and moved the logs into position using pulleys, turning them with peavey hooks. These tools have been used in cabin building for the last century and a half; the designs have changed little.

Double pulley block

Holes were the laboriously dug into the gravelly, glacially compacted soil for the pier block foundation. The logs were lifted into place using block and tackles, and each log was carefully turned to make the best fit.

The log cabin, as it grew, resembled a box of sticks, 25 foot by 35 foot. There are two mezzanine platforms, one over the porch at the front, the other inside the box at the back. The upstairs floorboards are made of Douglas fir, which show beautiful soft colours when washed: pink and gold, peach and apricot.

Two hefty beams, thicker than the rest, were chosen as the central supports. Then, on a great day, the ridgepole was lifted into place, 44 foot long, straight and true as an arrow. This is the spine of the building, and suddenly the box of logs became house shaped.

It resembled a box of logs

The rafters were then raised, 44 logs marching along the ridgepole like a fish’s backbone. They are a fraction slenderer than their brothers that form the walls, each 24 foot long, smooth and straight, forming the high pitch of the roof, 24 foot from the floor. They are much more even than the wall logs, and more elegant, forming the beautiful cathedral-like space of the inside area. All are Lodgepole pine, their uniformity the key to their beauty as well as their usefulness.

All except one. Despite their careful counting and measuring, when every log was carried up, prepared and lifted into place, T and his cohorts found themselves short by one. So T picked up his chainsaw and walked around his property, looking up at his trees, and found a young Douglas fir of the right thickness and height. Stripped and cleaned, it now lies among the 43 Lodgepole pine rafters; only an experienced eye can pick it out.

One Douglas fir among many pine

Douglas fir planks were laid over the rafters, and over them, tar paper, and then shakes of cedar. This made the structure weatherproof, though the gable ends were open. The overhanging roof protects the insides from rain.

A single door was cut, opening in from the porch. It had taken about 250 working days to get to this point, or about two and a half years of weekends.

Then T got the call that took him to a job in Taiwan, and the beginning of his career in Asia. So building stopped, and the structure sat silently in a quiet forest for 25 years, visited only briefly during summer breaks.

The quiet forest

It is surprisingly unchanged after all this time, apart from some wearing of the shake tiles on the roof. Unchanged too is T’s enthusiasm for this home-made house, this collection of beautiful timber, that is so clearly made from real trees. His happiness in being here, his admiration for the wood, both the living wood of the forest surrounding us, and the cut wood of the cabin, is infectious. We live quietly under the tall trees and the lofty pitched roof of pine and fir, and dream of what we will build next.

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