Living in the Woods
While very young, I was often left in the care of my grandmother who lived near the edge of a small town in Vermont. Most days, she let me roam a patch of woods near the forested hills behind her house. There were no other children in neighborhood to play with, so I spent hours wandering, looking at plants, insects, and birds, and building "forts." The clean, earthy smell of the dark woodland soil, the purple violets, and creeping jenny that grew all around the rocks where I played, filled my lungs and made me strong.
Later, my family moved to the ever-expanding suburbs of Washington, D.C., but those early years gave me a great love for being outdoors, and I grew up longing to build a log cabin and live in the woods.
In 1984, after working long enough to save a little cash, I returned to Vermont, bought seven acres of white pine, sugar maple, black cherry and white ash on a small south facing hill, and built my cabin. Here, I have continued observing nature and studying wild edible and medicinal plants for twenty five years, gaining a greater appreciation and love for the natural world each day.
There were three criteria employed in the construction of this house. First, after having mortgaged two previous homes, and realizing that the payback on the interest on those mortgages was hundreds of thousand of dollars, I wanted to build this third home mortgage free. Using the profits on the sale of the first two homes to buy the land, hire an excavator for the foundation and the driveway, constructing the shell of the house, and getting electricity to the property, the rest of the construction was paid for paycheck by paycheck.
Next, but just as important, was that as much as possible in the '80s, this house would be built from natural materials, be energy efficient, and would harmoniously utilize some of the natural features of the land. A split level log cabin design was chosen to take advantage of ground temperature to moderate the interior climate, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer. Most log cabin kits at that time offered only six inch diameter logs and were expensive, so I found a local sawmill to cut eight inch diameter, eastern white pine logs for their better insulation value at a fraction of the cost of a kit. Since the land was predominantly covered with white pine trees, it seemed right that the house be made of this wood. Taking advantage of the southern exposure of the land, I built a thirty-six foot long greenhouse on the south side to capture the free heat offered by the sun. However, the solar gain was more than I expected, as the house heated to 155 degrees on hot summer days! To correct this, I removed the glass roof and replaced it with an insulated shingled roof with eighteen inch eaves to shade the wall glass from the summer sun, thus converting the greenhouse to a sunroom. Now there is ample warmth gained through the front wall glass on clear winter days when the sun tracks low on the southern horizon, but ample protection from the hot summer sun, so the house stays cool even in July and August.
Last, I wanted to build the house myself, both for the satisfaction gained from such an endeavor, and also to stay within budgetary constraints. Early in my working life I had gained carpentry and electrical experience, and learned enough plumbing making repairs on my first two homes to do the job. To fill the new pipes with fresh water, a trench six hundred and sixty-four feet long and five feet deep was dug to a spring at the top of the hill in the forest at the back of my land. The spring is almost one hundred feet higher than the house, providing enough head through the water line that a pump is not necessary. Gravity does all the work!
The house as it appeared in 1985. There is a sunroom to capture solar heat during the winter months when the sun tracks low on the horizon, and one wood stove for a little extra warmth on those 10 to 20 below zero nights.
We have lived in this house now for more than twenty years, enjoying the benefits of country life. Our small backyard forest provides fresh, cool air in the summer, and hundreds of different species of wild plants, trees, and fungi to observe, photograph, and utilize for food and medicines. As the years have gone by, I have become increasingly aware of the neverending cycles of life and death, and natural progression of flora and fauna. There is constant change. Nothing stays the same.
From a human perspective, most changes are gradual, like the decades-slow growth of a tree, but occasionally, some event like a huge thunderstorm with a torrential downpour will cause a washout, and suddenly what had been a small stream becomes a giant chasm in a hillside. Massive trees once growing along the banks of the stream tumble into the new ravine opening up the forest canopy, allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor. In a short time, new sun-loving plants appear where only shade tolerant varieties grew before.
Only thirty or forty years before we bought our land it had been a grassy hillside pasture. By the 1980s, when we moved in there were many young white pine, wild apple, white ash, black cherry, birch and maple trees. Over time as the white pines grew ever larger and shaded most of the hillside, the apple and maple trees began to suffer from the lack of light and began dying off. The Dryad's Saddle mushrooms shown on this website were growing on the stumps of some of these maples. Except for new young trees growing around the sunny perimeter of our land, the old apples have all died off, leaving their skeletal trunks and branches scattered throughout the forest. Some have become hollow, providing shelter for a number of woodland creatures.
Today, there are dozens of young American beech trees growing and thriving, as they have evolved to do, in the dense shade beneath the now massive white pines. Someday, these will be the dominant trees in this hillside forest, providing beechnuts that will attract new animal visitors here, including black bears. Perhaps, that's why we saw the first bear in our woods recently...
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