Gathering in, filling in

I wanted to write this at the end of summer, when the evening skies were thick and golden. I would sit by the fire pit above the cabin at the end of the day, a mug of tea in my hands, the flat, dry heat of the flames heartening. Instead I spent my time gazing at the flames, and watching the Big Leaf maple leaves fall, and gather in drifts. They are huge leaves, yellow and russet (sometimes with bright green splotches), and the winged seed pods are as big as moths.

Big leaf maple seed pods
Big leaf maple seed pods

The summer seemed to last and last. We worked for many weeks past the time we thought we would have to stop, because the rains were slow to come, even though the cold increased steadily.  Suddenly it was over – tasks were finally completed, and we were packing up to leave. We had people to visit and promises to keep, and a whole lot of new and old places to see. My hard-drive crashed and died, and though I wrote fleetingly in my notebooks, I mainly just looked at the new world outside the car window.

After travelling far and wide we are resting, and reflecting. In our resting place snow surrounds the house, and the colours here are the silver greys of winter. But I can call up that golden time easily enough, with an exile’s fondness.

At the end of summer we had come so far: it is hard to imagine how we’d lived before, when we first arrived from Hong Kong. Our outdoor, quasi-camping life had changed, we had settled in. And moved inside.

The windows downstairs have now all been placed; sturdy, double-paned thermal glass in solid wooden frames, collected from salvage yards and recycling stores. Upstairs we filled in the gable ends – a little reluctantly as it was hard to lose those great triangles of light, but the creeping cold drove us on. We did look hopefully at triangular windows on offer at the salvage yards, but none had the right pitch. Eventually we settled on large rectangles that could be opened – an important feature for the upstairs places.

The gable ends were framed with solid fir planks and filled in with plywood – they still need to be clad, inside and out, but at least they can now hold warmth in. There was an unsettling period when small birds stunned themselves against glass that was suddenly there, after 25 years of free passage. One by one we filled in the gaps between the top logs and the eaves of the roof; the cabin became an inside place, the birds stayed in the wild woods outside.

After many necessary steps – a journey of almost three months – electricity arrived in the house. By the time we left we hadn’t quite learned to take this for granted, as we had done all our lives. We paused for a moment when switching on lamps, finding their warm light wonderful. The day after the master switch was finally flicked, T went out and bought a second hand refrigerator, and releasing us at last from the need to buy ice every two days for food storage.

The gaps between the logs were painstakingly filled by us and various friends, who didn’t mind helping. Before the chinking came the long and tiring task of preparing the logs: each one had to be washed and bleached, scrubbed to remove detritus, and then coated with protective layers. This had to be done by hand as we were not able to use pressure-washing, having no water to pressure. Four times we attended each log, studying and touching every inch, but at last it was done. Our logs lost their grey weatherworn look and gleamed a rich golden brown, as though new again.

Working on the walls
Working on the walls
The gables framed
The gables framed

This lengthy process taught us our working mantra: “It’s just a cabin!” We didn’t want it to look seamless and perfect, we wanted the signs of our labour to show, the marks of our clumsy love.

With this mantra in mind we collected furniture too. On Friday mornings (Fridays are the best days) we toured yard sales on the island and nearby, gathering chairs and tables and chests of drawers, pots, dishes, vases, cushions, chopping blocks, mats, tablecloths, and lamps, many lamps. Even a kitchen sink. I remember the dismay on N’s face one day when we carried a large striped sofa in, his “what have you bought this time, magic beans?” look. He was thinking of the mildewy old armchairs we had just thrown out. “It’s different now!” we assured him. “It will be a real house soon…”

As the chill of the shortening days began to gnaw at my bones, a couple of sensible men came and installed chimneys. It took them all day, and we were nervous when they crawled along the spine of the main roof, whose cedar shakes were disintegrating after so many rainy seasons. But they didn’t falter, and the roof didn’t leak after they cut holes in it and installed 30 feet of pipe. Old trusty wood stoves were brought back into service and both cabins became cosy places.

In the living room
Inside at last

I could leave the fire pit then, and sit by the crackling stove with a pot of tea, cosy on the big striped couch by an enormous window – an indoor life of comfort and warmth, with golden lamplight instead of hissing propane lanterns.

There is still a lot to do of course. But when the season turned and we downed tools at last, it was good to take a break before we grew too weary of the work. Now we are looking forward to getting back to it, and the honest feeling of working physically, in this most basic of tasks: homemaking. It is only a cabin, but it is our cabin: a homely house to come back to.

Let’s hope a Big Leaf maple hasn’t fallen on it.

At the end of summer
At the end of summer

One thought on “Gathering in, filling in

  1. Hey PTX What an amazing transition you guys have made to your home and to your new life, congratulations. I’ve finally moved into my place in the gong and with great intentions to do major renos over summer only managed to do a little on the balcony and spent the rest of the time beaching and enjoying the festive season, now off to Antarctiica… look forward to the next installment

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