Notes from the forest (cutting into the box)

 

4. Cutting into the box

A log house in general has great strength and durability, and amazing thermal retention (once it is chinked). This particular log house, I’m told, is designed to resist the advances of a bulldozer, should one come wandering through the forest. It was constructed following the principles of Skip Ellsworth, who advocated simplicity in overall design, yet exact attention to some important details.

The uncut walls

The logs are joined with reinforcing bar (“rebar“), and are not notched, so the heartwood doesn’t rot easily. As the roof overhangs the building by three feet on all sides, the famous Pacific Northwest rains are kept away from the wood. It could easily last 100 years and more – providing a Big-Leaf Maple doesn’t fall on it.

Being so proud of the cabin’s strength and integrity, and liking those nice, long, straight Lodgepole pine logs so much, it was a bit of a psychological leap for T to cut into the walls. Every cut would reduce the overall strength and heat retaining abilities. And he remembers all too well how hard it was to lift each heavy log into place, and how each log was turned, and turned again, to find the best fit and to show the best of the wood. The uncut cabin was a monument to human effort, and history.

To turn the box of logs into a home, the mundane is required: windows, doors, rooms, plumbing, electricity, cabinet-making, and of course chinking (chinking is the process of filling the gaps between the logs with mortar or some other filler). We need to create window holes and then put glass into them, then chink the walls, so we can finally seal up the cabin and make it livable through the cold, wet winters.

The new old door

The first thing we did when we arrived was to make a couple of clean spots to sleep in. We’ve gradually spread the cleanliness to all parts, and ruthlessly threw out the debris of 25 years. Many trips to the dump were made, and dozens of old rotting wooden-framed windows, kept for years as candidates for the long awaited window cutting, were discarded. Building codes have evolved: now thermal double- paned opening windows are required, and these are more desirable anyway. Fortunately they are readily available from salvage yards. We kept a narrow door of some charm, which we thought might make a good back door. Many hours of sanding later, I have learned not to try for perfection, and to love the door’s honourable scars. It is a cabin, after all.

Making the space for this back door became our first job. The first cut in 25 years, into logs that were rimed with lichen like old rocks, was a big step. There was a flurry of measuring and buying of tools and two-by-sixes to make the frame, and then it came to the moment of action at last. T fired up his chainsaw as though he had been doing nothing else for years, and calmly stepped up to the wall of solid wood.

A snowstorm of sawdust
A peephole into the forest

The horrible roar of the engine inside the dim interior seemed much too loud and violent – it is not a machine for indoors. It was like a dangerous animal screeching to get out. N and I stood by, tense and watchful, covering our ears. We realised suddenly that we had no idea what to do if anything went wrong, and had to trust that T knew what he was doing.

He did, though he admitted cheerfully afterwards that it was hard: he had been a lot fitter, back in the day. But he gave no sign of strain and worked steadily, each movement slow and rather delicate: the chainsaw seemed to lick the logs only, stroking them in a stream of sawdust. And then, amid the wild clamour and the suddenly thick air, the log would move (each one above it also shifting a little, ominously), and then finally fall, creating a peephole into the forest. Very soon there was a doorway, and green dappled light was finding its way inside into the dark corners of the cabin for the first time.

Once the first hole was cut, to such delightful effect, T lost his reluctance for cutting the precious logs completely: three large window holes followed. We gaze out of them at the tree trunks nearby as though we’d never seen them before. There is light everywhere, and framed views of the forest, intimate and detailed tableaux. The windows even seem to enhance the walls, drawing attention to the remaining logs, and throwing enough light to see them by.

Although the house is still apparently bulldozer proof, to me it seems rather insubstantial at this stage – light seeps through the gaps between the unchinked logs, and pours through in the newly cut holes. It seems almost like a line drawing now, a pencil sketch of the house that is to come.

Drawing in light

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