We come home to the forest
Just before the excavator rumbled up the dirt road and began digging the pit that would become our new basement, I paused at a stark realization: "This land will never be the same again." An unanticipated tragedy loomed.Skip to next paragraph
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We had first become acquainted with our 20 acres of forest land during the winter, walking among the cedars and old apple trees, plodding through snow drifts, following the deer trails up to the hill in back where the tallest white pines grow. We loved the varied tree growth, the clearing in which we envisioned a large garden, and the blueberry-covered knoll. Even the marshy lowland was enticing while frozen.
All that spring and first summer of land ownership, as we cooled in the cedar shade, picnicked, or slept under the stars, we grew more appreciative of the essence of our location: solitude, privacy, birdsong, animal habitat. Even the coyotes startling me awake one night at 2 a.m. were lovable.
But from the start, as we explored the land, it was with an eye toward siting a house, toward inhabiting woods that had yet to know a human dwelling. Though an 1870 map shows our land as a Perkins family farm (mossy stone walls, vestigial orchard, and plow layer in the soil attested to that), there is no fieldstone foundation or remnants of a hand-dug cellar hole.
We got out the compass and thought about sunrise and sunset light. We plotted from the point of view of sitting on a porch for breakfast, or watching birds and listening to spring peepers down in the swamp. We imagined becoming fellow inhabitants of the land, not just frequent visitors. What I didn't imagine was how building a house would change everything about our relationship to the land, until the excavator began scooping out a cellar. It made sense of a stanza in Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar":
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
I have never been to Tennessee. But was our foundation in Maine like the jar, a form not found in nature about to make this land conform to its specifications? Stevens added a chilling thought: "It took dominion everywhere."
Was the poem now making sense of the impact our house would have on the land? Was our house about to diminish the very thing that had attracted us to our land?
As our log home grew in size and impact over the winter, it seemed alternately huge or small. Our perspective changed as course upon course of beams was added, the ridge beam went up, the roof was shingled, windows and doors filled openings and best of all the long front porch was covered. The porch, in fact, seemed like the whole reason to have the house, since from the start it was to be our vantage point from which to observe and interact with that "slovenly wilderness."
There is another aspect to the anecdote of our cellar hole. When you place a "jar" in land with a high water table, you may have to contend with an unforeseen flow in the furnace room. Neither our excavator nor Stevens mentioned the possibility of sump pumps in the basement and a lot of time and consternation spent on the problem of drying out the floor.
Now that we are moving into our house, however, it is the pleasure of realizing our imagined vantage points that makes it all worthwhile. I can finally sit on my front porch and gaze at the oaks and maples out front, their leaves just budding, and listen to the peepers among the cattails. I can spy on the red squirrels in the fir trees taunting our dog, and wait for deer and fox to infiltrate the field at dusk. We can hear the coyotes and owls celebrating at midnight.
I must be satisfied that our dwelling will eventually harmonize with the landscape. The house is stationary, but the forest is dynamic: It is already growing back and will, in time, restore its serene, original character. Our house may one day grow mossy and hidden, like those Perkins stone walls. An initial sign of reconciliation is the fact that five robins have begun constructing nests in the rafters of our porch. Apparently, a good home is a good home, whether a tree branch or a cabin.