Tuesday, October 11, 2016

old growth wood

Before we headed off on our summer road trip, we delighted in the idea that, while we were gone, our house was going to get a fresh coat of paint, something it has needed quite badly for some time now.  

We imagined returning home to a house that was sparkly fresh and better than before we left.  And I envisioned the garden in full bloom and full of produce beside that gorgeous house.

We spent our last days in June, before we left for six weeks, cleaning the house, readying it for our house sitter, weeding the garden, getting the bees ready for our time away, and packing, of course.  During all these preparations, we painted squares of potential house and barn colors and then visited the options for days as we walked by, seeing how each of the possibilities looked in the different lights of morning, midday and evening.  On sunny days and grey days.  We visited neighbors and historic homes in the area and asked them about the colors they had chosen for their homes.  

We thought we were pretty fortunate that the worst of the construction, and all the home chaos this would create, would happen while we were away. 

Suffice it to say, several phone calls and many texts from our house sitter/house painter, who became essentially our contractor we realized we needed far more than paint.  Moreover, all these updates came during our trip with spotty and sometimes frustratingly difficult cell service.  We soon realized that yes, we were incredibly fortunate, because our newly minted "contractor" just happened to be an extremely skilled woodworker interested in renovation and care of historic homes.  

Needing those skills, however, mean we were unlucky in many other ways.

We had carpenter ants.  Lead paint.  And water damage.  And very, very significant rot.  There was much discussion of structural integrity and other terms that describe what happens to wood when exposed to long term moisture and hungry insects.  One such discussion occurred while we hiked on a trail that led to incredible pictographs painted on cliff walls a hundred years older than our house. That conversation sticks in my mind as I looked at the cliff walls and simultaneously heard and saw what happens to structures when they are pounded by the elements over a very long period of time.  

Those carefully chosen color palettes seemed a bit silly in the face of so much work that needed to be done.  Luckily we were in good hands.  

And though it makes me a bit jealous that I missed seeing all of the action here, and seeing just what our 230 year old home looked like as it was stripped of nearly all of its clapboard and then stood bare awaiting the unanticipated supplies and remedies and treatments while we continued our trip, I am also glad we were away for it.  From photos sent to us while we were gone, it was not a good time to try to live in our house when, for example, it stood heavily draped in plastic that then fluttered constantly in the wind.

When we returned very late on the last night of our trip, despite all the phone calls and pictures and conversations about what was happening here at home, we were nonetheless still a bit surprised when our headlights danced across the yard as we drove into the driveway.  And we were certainly more surprised when we took a look around the next morning.

The garden this year, well, it had run wild.  It was, and continues to be, survival of the fittest out there (the fittest seem to be grapes and potatoes, strangely.  Oh.  And plus one well fed garden shed dwelling groundhog), as it has received little tending since we returned, so close to all the activity and bustle of workers on scaffolding and power washers and nail guns and piles of wood covered in tarps.  Ah, well. There will be other years for it to be well-tended.

Fortunately, I could still satisfy my curiosity about how the house was built. I could still see where there was evidence that additions were made, where original roof lines ran, where there used to be a door that is now a window. And I have our devoted workers still here to ask.  Plus the job has become so huge that there is still much to see as they continue their repairs.  I walk around peeking under the plastic, spying the old wood versus new in the areas not yet covered.

We could think of ourselves as unfortunate that the house was in such bad shape under the trim and clapboards, leaks leading to significant damage.  

But then, we could consider just how old this house is.  Just how many people have lived here, and how well it held them and now us.  And just how lucky we were to decide that now was when it needed to be painted, and that we had someone here who has been able to assume the role of preserving this historic house, who has worked tirelessly to recreate the care and detail that this house deserves.  Before, say, the roof collapsed on itself late one night in a blizzard.

The house, as is the way with older homes, has had a lot of care and change over the years.  But much of the wood, the bones of the house and some of the clapboard and trim, is original.  Which is kind of incredible. That's 230 year old wood.  The wooden structure deep in the walls and beneath our feet, holding furniture that has moved in and out with families who jump, run, stomp, slam doors and throw open windows.  And wood outside, exposed to weather and wind and wear.  

Much of the clapboard ultimately needed to be torn down and replaced, but there is one entire side of the house that did not.  It turns out that the technique for joining the clapboards -- with each one hand tapered and fitted together, the ends of the two pieces overlapping, a technique called skyving -- serves as good evidence that this side of the house was the one side that still had nearly all of its original clapboard, placed there in the late 1780's.  As one example of his care, our restorer has also skyved the joints for every single new clapboard he is installing.

Given that the home's builder and first inhabitant was in the tree business, originally harvesting wood from the area for the masts of King George's fleet, it is likely the wood for the house was harvested from here, too, or at least from very near by.  The clapboard on the rest of the house was newer, ends not skyved but butted up against each other where they meet, installed at various times as additions and renovations were made over the years.  It is this non-original clapboard that needed to again be replaced.  Yet it was the original clapboard that was salvageable.

We know much more now than we did about old growth wood, about how this wood is stronger, more durable, harvested from trees that had grown and stood strong for hundreds of years, untouched in dense virgin forests.  Given that these trees grew where there was limited light and space to expand, they grew slowly, making their growth rings closely spaced, ten times the number of growth rings per inch as compared to trees harvested in the present day.  Trees planted in the past century to meet the demands for lumber are chosen for their fast growth, such as the pine tree, and they are typically harvested at 20-30 years of age rather than 200-300 years.  Lumber from old growth trees is therefore stronger, denser, less likely to expand and contract in the various temperatures of our Maine climate, and far more resistant to rot and termites.  The trees that were here in the 1700's, that are now within the structure of our home, are why our house is still standing strong.

I walk around the house and pick through piles of debris and see just what years and water can do to wood, both old growth and more modern pine, and how rot works through a piece of wood, what stays solid and what falls away.  It's a lesson in wood, in growth, in aging, in preservation and maintenance versus starting fresh.  We -- well, our incredible restorers -- salvage what we can, and replace areas here and there with modern composite wood, using materials and designs that we have access to now, that we hope will withstand what the next hundreds of years will throw at the house.

New siding for the other sides of the house lays across the grass, between the heritage apple trees and the apple saplings we have added, the headstones of the former inhabitants of our home just beyond, This siding is getting primed and prepared for being placed over the huge swatches of modern moisture blocking Tyvek.  It's gorgeous hardwood, chosen for being as close to old growth pine as we can get now that there is no old growth wood that can be sustainably harvested.  This hardwood will last another lifetime...for forever, we are told.  

Given the age of this house, and the amazingly loving building and then care it has received and we hope will continue to receive, forever, when talking about trees and homes, is a really long time.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

the beehive

I have long been attracted to a certain hike in Acadia National Park, not because I have hiked it before, or honestly not because of anything I had heard about the hike itself, but rather because of its name, the Beehive Trail.  Ahem.  Beekeeper here.  But having landed on a description of the trail once when researching honey bees, (ah, Google), I read on and liked the descriptions of the amazing views while hiking, the dramatic climb, and the stories about the work and maintenance that go into the trail system in Acadia.  This trail, with its crevasse cross overs and iron rungs and ladders on exposed cliffs seemed a maintenance challenge if ever there was one.  

The trail would also be different than the easy meandering trails of our past life with young children. In most hiking guide books and pamphlets. hiking trails are typically divided into easy, moderate, and strenuous categories.  Somehow, we have become a family who can tolerate a strenuous hike, who's children would prefer a strenuous hike, and therefore Jonathan and I are throwing ourselves off cliffs...no...I jest...um...working at acceptance of our children's growth, and seizing the opportunities that their developing strength and maturity allow.  Doesn't that sound very accepting and positive of me? 


We are on a bit of a hiking tear here, back from a summer spent hiking in the Rockies. One or two or three of our children seem to have gotten it in their heads that the more bells and whistles a hike has, the more interested they are in doing it.  A hike toward a mountaintop lake?  Awesome.  One on which there might be mountain goats or bighorn sheep but definitely not a grizzly bear?  They will mix their own Gorp.  One that also has an ice cream stand at the top would be even better.  Sadly, there aren't as many teahouses and chalets with wood fire baked cookies along hiking trails here at home as there were in the Rockies, though I am thankful for the lack of grizzlies.  

So, I am searching for other motivators. Iron rungs and ladders are the bells and whistles here.  The kids are particularly fond of hikes that require a bit of scrambling over boulders, gripping with one's fingertips, or scooching around turns with dramatic drop offs beside you. So the Beehive Trail came to mind when we were researching hikes in Acadia.

The planning conversation with the kids went a little bit like this:

Is it hard? child number one asked.


Is it Scrambly? child number two queried.


Is it dangerous? child number three wondered, rubbing his hands together enthusiastically.


Good.  In unison.

And so, when in Acadia a few weeks ago, even despite the grey weather and fog that did not seem likely to burn off, we headed out for our planned hike.  This sign helped me to increase the overall enthusiasm.  

Well.  Honestly, it didn't help me.  I have a wee bit of nervousness around high places.  When I see one of my children step too close to the edge, I have a strong physical reaction that involves a particular full bodied plunging sensation.  And I get just a tad snippy with those who seem to be testing me or toying with my height issues.

And the Beehive, I read and have been told, is kind of scary.  And not just for people with height concerns.  But child enthusiasm was high, so we decided to give it a shot.  I positioned myself behind the shortest legs and the one I thought was most likely to get frightened.  And up we went.  

We were not alone.  There were many people hiking that trail.  It is, after all, the Centennial Celebration of the National Parks and it was one of the last weeks of summer.

The trail begins normally enough.  Just a walk through the woods here.

But eventually, you near the beehive proper.  And trees start to thin.  

So see, here's the thing.  This is what the view looked like:

I am sure that on another day this view is equal parts stunning, as it looked toward the ocean across the woods between us and it, and terrifying, as that is a hundreds of feet drop off next to the trail.  But, I could see neither.  So though tense, because I knew dangers were just there to my right, and to my children's' right, I was not able to see just how dangerous.  Somehow this was equally comforting and concerning that my fears were lessened by not being able to see just how we could die.  

When the smoothed-by-wear branches are no longer enough to keep hikers safe on the increasingly narrow and steep trail, iron makes an abrupt entrance.  In the form of bridges and ladders.

Lest you think it was all serious hiking...

I am sure that on a clear day, this moment, when one child is crawling across a wooden bridge and two others are on the other side and far beyond my grasp, cavalierly walking along a cliff with loose grips on iron rungs, this moment is terrifying.  

And though the sign told us we were at the top, we could see...nothing...sitting in the cloud that enclosed the mountain that day.  

That view and the very real but unseen drop offs in clouds, we focused on our feet, our hands, each other, and the height, steepness, and work of the actual climb. And thusly, laboriously, and slowly, waiting for the groups ahead of us to work their way up the metal rungs, we summited the Beehive.  On another day, we would have had our eyes cast toward the scenery, the vista, but instead I focused on the work of climbing and we turned to each other at the top instead of facing outward.  I think, actually, this might be how my children climb, typically.  I am not sure they are hoping for that gorgeous view, but instead want to feel the accomplishment of having done something difficult that they set out to do.  And a bowl of ice cream of course.

We stayed only briefly at the top, and headed right off to descend along the Bowl Trail.  This trail takes you past, well, the bowl, a mountainside pond.  It was, actually, beautiful that day, the combination of what you could and couldn't see.  Both under and above the lake.

The rest of the hike down was relatively quiet. And as we left the trail to return to our car, we turned around, and just in that moment, the wind sucked, the clouds shifted, and the beehive peeked out at us to give us a glimpse of where we had just been.

These clouds, that turned our focus toward the trail, away from the bigger picture, looking at our feet and our immediate present instead of the longer range view, the unknown, worries, and danger veiled for just awhile.  There, but not the focus.  What a hike this was, seeing all this growth as opening doors for new and challenging and exciting things they can do, and we can do with them. 

Back in the car, the kids yammered about how much fun that was.  So proud of themselves for not being scared.  

Were you scared Mommy?

Not really.

Could we find another one like that and do it now?  


And could we do the Beehive again, when we can see?

Absolutely.  I want to do that hike again as well.