Start by making a mess

Try this, if you can:

Go into the woods (sneak, if you must) or your yard, and choose a tree to cut. Make it small, about six inches in diameter.

Cut it down.

Now, cut it up.

I’ll wait.

Having to do a lot of work yourself means you have a lot of work to do.

According to de Tocqueville, your American pioneer “is, in short, a highly civilized being, who consents, for a time, to inhabit the backwoods, and who penetrates into the wilds of the New World with the Bible, an axe, and a file of newspapers.”

Well, we’re no pioneers. We have a chainsaw instead of an axe (so, so thankfully). Access to the world comes via the web rather than the newspaper. I suggest the original frontiersman likely had a team of oxen or at least a horse, while we have this:


Ever try hitching a matched team of Boston Terriers to a load of firewood? Me neither.

We talked about step two (the trailer) already, although plenty more to come. Let’s talk about step one: the land.

Simple goals: relatively close to the ski hill, relatively private, in our budget.

When we added that all up, it left us with three options. Two were tiny lots in a subdivision with annual assessments for road and sewer maintenance that exceeded the local property tax for the same things (which we would also be obligated to pay). The neighbors were filling their similarly tiny lots with three and four bedroom homes; except for the fact that the road was unpaved, it looked like any cul de sac or development anywhere in the US.

The third was an acre of forested land — probably third- and maybe fourth- or fifth-growth — next to a well-traveled road with electric and sewer. Neighboring parcels were identical acre lots, divvied up in the early 60s when the local logging company felt it had stripped enough value out and the time was right to sell. A small seasonal home was on the downhill lot; a modest year-round ranch home on the uphill. To the rear were two undeveloped — and nearly undevelopable — lots, boggy uplands and leaning firs. Beyond those, two more, then two developed, leaving a distance of 2 acres of forest behind before another house appeared.


Our front yard…eventually.

Making matters harder for most, but better for us, a small stream bisects the land diagonally; the developable portion of our one acre is therefore about a triangular third of an acre toward the road, mirrored across the trickle toward the back, with a right-of-way deeded on the edge of that back third. The stream and its cutting take about a third out of the middle. No good as a lot for a standard house. But very good as a setting for a small cottage.


This 12″ log and several like it have been laying on the forest floor for years, becoming heavy with moisture and settling right in where the don’t need to be. They’re no good as lumber, no good to burn, and they dull the chain on the saw PDQ as well. And they’re heavy to boot.

This weekend we camped on the land, and thought about where a cottage might go, and began to clear that spot. We are very tired today. My baby chainsaw is also tired and needs a sharpening — maybe a new chain altogether — and a filter change.


The back lot marker at the end of the right-of-way. Lonely real estate sentinel.


First tree felled, limbed. The brush-pile begins.

But we are also inspired. My friend Donn camped with us on Saturday night. He grew up in the homebuilding world with his father and for nearly 15 years after college he ran his own building company. Now, he’s a forester. That makes him an expert on two things that I’m happy to have expert advice on: building, and clearing land.

Together the three of us tromped around the acre with surveyor’s tape. We had some of our plans confirmed, and some of them altered. Even better, we had someone come and be inspired by those plans — in turn, reminding us of our own enthusiasm at the end of a hard day of work that showed little visible effect.

The best part is this: Donn can run heavy equipment, and wants to. That means that clearing the right-of-way, digging sewer trenches, and sinking holes for the foundation piers just became much, much less expensive.


Donn. Forester, builder, heavy-equipment operator, dream-sharer. He slept on the banks of our brook on Saturday night — our first guest.

This weekend Jamie and I will go back. Hardwoods in the building envelope will be felled and bucked into stacks of firewood and a big pile of brush will be mounted for a chipper. Softwood will be felled, limbed, and left; either sectioned for the chipper or left as logs for the mill. We’re going to try to incorporate as much of the wood from the land into the house as practical.  There won’t be much — most of the trees are too small, and we’re trying to disturb the woods as little as possible. The brush and slash fed into the chipper will go as groundcover under and around the building, keeping the soil healthy and reducing the mud that will inevitably come.


Our first semi-permanent structure. In the front corner of our lot is an ancient (well, old) foundation hole or sheepfold. I do not think Jamie’s fire ring will outlast it but a hearth makes a home of our campsite for now.

This week: more trailer work, calling the electric company for a site visit, and mollifying the neighbor, who thinks she owns the right-of-way.

She does not.

2 thoughts on “Start by making a mess

    • Ellen,
      No ticks yet! The undergrowth surrounding the creek is so dense though that I say a “hallelujah”every time I emerge without some kind of small furry mammal attached!


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