We pull up to our new driveway at Story Road. I get out of our little black Mazda. Snow covers the land. It is wonderfully cold here. On the drive, there was not any snow on the lower elevations, so now it feels as if we just stepped through the closet and arrived in Narnia.
The air is fresh and good. I take a walk to the Southern Magnolia tree. The snow falls down and the green of the tree looks startled by the cold. Everything is awake: the birds, the goats, the trees, my body in this forest.
Vincent and I are here today to measure the length of the land and figure out how far away our house will be from the property line. There are certain codes we need to follow while building a house. One of them is that the house should be set back at least 10 or 20 feet from the property line.
Next to our property are two residential houses. The man who lives next door came to greet us this summer. He has an old dog and a motorcycle: Sterling. His mother named him after playing with an Ouija board and asked what her son’s name would be. Sterling tells us this with a laugh.
Sterling likes to find metal objects and take the rust off of them. As Vincent, Sterling and I are talking, he looks to the right of my feet and says, “Oh! A horseshoe.” I pull it up from the soil. It is covered in rust and mud. The Amish drive their carriages up and down these roads. I imagine the show flying from a great big, black horse’s foot.
“It’s lucky!” I say.
Sterling asks to take it and fix it up for us. A couple of hours later, he arrives with the horseshoe. It is no longer rusty, but black and polished. Vincent nails it to our cabin. We point it upward so the luck won’t run out.
WE NEED ALL THE LUCK WE CAN TAKE AND MAKE
When building a house, when looking at the dirt of the land, at the trees swaying in the wind, there is a real sense that one needs luck. There are so many problems that could happen and we are just naive enough not to worry about them. Our eyes are clouded with hope. We are blind to what we will find out here. We are still young and hungry for a house. A house to rest in. To spend the day forest bathing or sitting and reading by the pond. We think we want to Airbnb it, but we are nervous about the details: getting a cleaner, any problems the guest might have, being an hour and a half away from the property. I am so glad we have each other during this process and it is nice to all these good country people.
Sometimes when Vincent and I are up working at the land, a car will slow down and pass us, look at us, give us a wave, sometimes even stop. This is how we met Pat. Pat is an energetic man who leaves the car running as he stops to talk to us (it seems everyone we meet leaves the car on). He tells us he can help us make paths in our forest with his small tractor. Later, when Vincent goes up to the land alone (I had a freelance writing project due), Pat and Vincent spend part of the day driving around. Pat shows Vincent his land. I think he owns about 40 acres in this part of Sparta, New York. He is energetic and eager to help us if he can.
When we first got the land, Vincent was working outside and I was inside the shed, making coffee or cooking, trying to avoid manual labor. Vincent comes back with a pretty, pink dish towel and two orange pot holders. They are from the woman who lives two houses away from us, also named Pat. She tells Vincent to specifically give them to me. This makes me laugh. I try to avoid gender roles but then get trapped in them all time. I will always choose cooking a meal over carrying trees or blocks or cement or all of the old roofing tiles that are on land. It hurts my body: my back, but in another way, it makes me feel strong and determined.
A month later, Vincent is working at Story Road with our friend Clément. When Vincent comes back he has a wreath from Pat. I hang it on my front door in our city house. It says “Our Country Cabin” on it. I like it. It’s cozy. I write Pat a thank you note. I will be happy to meet her in person.
I am not used to the country. I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY. My aunt and uncle live in the Finger Lakes. At Thanksgiving, I leave their house at night. It is surrounded in darkness. There are no street lamps. It is so quiet and dark. I am slightly afraid of the country. All that darkness. The emptiness. Bad things could happen in all that space; it scares me. But, here at Story Road, I feel safe.
At night we bundle into wool sweaters and wool socks. When I have to wake up to go to the bathroom, I am too groggy to be afraid. I go out into the woods, under the stars and pee. It is not scary. The moon seems protective. The trees watch over us.
The person who digs our well is named Ron. He calls us “city people.” He has a good sense of humor and cracks jokes as he uses his excavator to try and find the 70 foot well. We are so hopeful that it will work, but when he finds it, he empties the water out of it in less than three minutes. It’s a dry well. I almost feel like crying.
SAVING THE TREES
All the contractors tend to treat us with curiosity and enthusiasm for the project. Chris, our main contractor, seems to really get our project. Randy, our civil engineer, came out to the property with his girlfriend, Kim who takes the notes. At one point in the conversation, we learn that to have our leach field (for our septic tank) we need to cut down a bunch of trees. Chris tells Randy that if we cut down too many trees the whole point of our project is destroyed. I am so happy when he says this, as the trees are the most important part of the land for me. I want to be a steward of the land. Removing all the roofing tiles and other debris makes me feel that I am tending to the land. I am, in some ways, mothering it.
Randy has a very calming presence and he says that they can run the pipes in the leach field in a certain way to avoid cutting down a lot of trees. This makes me and Vincent very happy.
Our next adventure is figuring out how to get a camper on the land so that we can have a proper bathroom and sink (currently, we use a bucket). Yesterday, we drove over to Rochester, NY to see a camper. We meet a woman named Leah who shows it to us. It is small and not very aesthetically pleasing, but there is something I like about it. I like the idea of having a small place on our land that is warm and dry. Vincent knows that I don’t think it is very beautiful, and he says, “We could hang lights on it outside. We could make it nice.” I smile at the thought of the camper. It could be just what we need: a place to temporarily live in as we build.
And, so, the project continues. The people we meet are interesting and unusual. I like all of them. I am so grateful that they will help us make this work. It makes me realize that you need people. Even among all these trees and frogs and the moon, we humans need each other.
When we leave Story Road that day, we drive away past Sterling’s house with his old dog and Pat’s house with her cute holiday decorations. We drive back home to our city: rusty, lovely, Buffalo. We aren’t country people and probably will never be country people. But, we can step out of these roles, like stepping out of a Halloween costume. We are just people. People working together to make something calm, beautiful and wild.