Late August, 2018
“You know I’m going to cry the first time I see all these trees down,” I told Sam, the man I’d hired to excavate my land. He chewed his lower lip a little, glancing sideways at me from under the brim of his baseball cap. “I’ll get over it,” I continued, “but I wanted to make sure you were prepared.”
Sam grinned and shook his head. He and I shared a goal for Joyous Gard: maximum accessibility and safety with minimum cutting. “I know what you mean,” he told me in his Appalachian twang. “It’s gonna be hard to see these big ones go.”
We were standing on the patch of ground I’d marked as the future site of my yurt and kitchen cabin. Towering pines, encircled by tiny orange flags on thin metal stems, swayed slightly in the breeze, their crowns nearly blocking out the sky. All around them, small oaks and maples and poplars struggled to grow tall enough to touch the light. On the west side of the plot, a broad-trunked pine I’d taken to thinking of as the Mother Tree loomed over us. Just to the north of her, a slightly less robust pine S-curved into the sky, threatening to bring down everything around it with one good storm. Each had its own personality. Each had a place in the world. And many of them presented a potential threat to my safety.
Joyous Gard’s narrow, deep shape and the placement of the access road made choosing a home site an angst-ridden venture. Despite my resolve to allow the land its own expression, with minimal interference from me, the best place to build was just about at the center of the wooded acreage. Further north lies the nearly-circular patch of crowsfoot I regard as sacred space, and just beyond that is a deep draw (which the locals call a “holler”) slicing between the crowsfoot and a steep rise abutting my neighbor Arthur’s cattle pasture. To the west the tractor road divides the wooded area from a plunge down to the thin slice of jumbled weeds and brambles running along Arthur’s barbed-wire fence on that side. To the east, peeking through the trees on the other side of a small ridge, are Eric and Pam’s home and Eric’s wood-shop. The south-most side of the property gently slopes down to a 15-foot bank that falls abruptly to the winding asphalt road. It’s the most level ground, as well as the prettiest part of the woods — a view I wanted to preserve, not only for myself, but also for Pam, whose living room picture-window looks out onto it.
No matter where I planned to erect the yurt, there would be challenges: extensive (and expensive) excavation to the north; possible flooding from the stream to the west; neighbors to the immediate east; and the main road to the south. Add to this the need for “perc-able” soil where septic wouldn’t interfere with ground water or a well, and the need to clear enough trees to let in enough light for solar — I nearly drove myself crazy trying to figure out where to start.
But two half-day walks through the trees with Sam providing perspectives, and a bunch of flags and colored tape later, start we did.
getting started on the road and driveway
I’d originally intended to cut in a driveway at about the middle of the tractor road that would wind south and east to where I wanted Sam to clear the site for my yurt and kitchen cabin.
But when Sam went out to prepare for the perc test, he’d found a small notch in the bank farther down the tractor road. Apparently, the previous owner had begun cutting the southernmost of two planned driveways, this the one that would have led to the living quarters for her organic farm and education center’s future caretakers and interns. Sam had widened the notch and cut it deeper to get his machinery up to where we’d planned my home site, explaining that if we moved my driveway from where I’d planned it to where he’d already started, he could cut fewer trees. He’d need to do a little back-filling, where someone from the distant past had trenched the earth in search of a feldspar deposit, but the new path required much less leveling and clearing.
It was a fine idea, so we went ahead with it.
Almost every construction project involves a fair bit of destruction, and although Sam tried to minimize that aspect of the project, I was still taken a bit aback by the number of trees he felled and the amount of earth he excavated. The silence usually gracing my woods shattered with the groaning and grinding of heavy machinery and the screams of chain saws. I winced as the ground shook with each new tree that crashed through its neighbors to the ground, scarring bark and breaking branches as it fell.
But it was the impact to the wildlife that really shook me. Butterflies high up in the canopy scattered, fluttering to the ground covered in dust, some with their wings torn. A tiny toad leapt about in the aftermath of one tumbled tree, muddy and dusty but — much to my relief — otherwise unharmed. I worried about birds and squirrels and other creatures who lived up in the branches that cracked and shook as the surrounding giants fell. I sent a silent prayer, asking their forgiveness.
I mourned the marks I was making on the land in order to make it my home. I tried to focus on the joy living there would bring me.
home sweet home site
Rain delays stretched the project into weeks. When it rained on my side of the mountain, Sam would try to catch up on drier land with other projects he had scheduled (and delayed), which sometimes further delayed him from finishing up on Joyous Gard. But after nearly five weeks, the road was graded and graveled, my driveway cut and smoothed, and a small home site cleared and crowned for drainage.
Trees still crowded close around the bank’s rim, and Sam expressed concern about them falling onto the yurt in a wind. We assessed the closest trees pressing in on the site and cleared a few more. We decided to wait to cut any more, the effects of the damage they sustained as surrounding trees fell would reveal itself in the coming months.
As the peace and stillness characteristic of the place settled back in, I could begin imagining myself living there again. I was still far from ready to set the yurt up, partly because my bank account needed replenishing before I did anything further and partly because winter weather would soon halt anything I started. Nonetheless, I had what I needed to take my next steps — whatever those turned out to be.