Sweat Equity

Six parts sand, four parts lime, one part Portland cement and a bucket of dirty river water. I couldn’t find the hog bristles that the traditional log chinking formulas require, and Tim refused to humour me by shaving into the mix.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

–W.B. Yeats

The spell of beautiful weather in Ottawa has been broken. We got several inches of rain yesterday and were saved some lumberjacking by the wind. The gales put me in the mood for chinking. Chinking is the kind of primitive house project I can really get behind. To chink, you mix concrete according to whatever crackpot formula Google invents, and daub it on the gaps between the logs. In my case, I slop it on, admiring how my lumpy mix matches the silver cedar logs, dropping huge gobs on the leaves until it occurs to me to put down a plywood blob-catcher. The process is satisfyingly close to clay-and-wattle daub, in which we would all still be shivering if progress relied on people like me.

I am reading The Walls Around Us, by David Owen. The subtitle is “The Thinking Person’s Guide to How a House Works.” He’s a New Yorker kind of guy, so it’s heavier on the deeper meaning of gypsum than on practical application. (Did you know that Benjamin Franklin brought gypsum to America from France?) Because he’s tweedy, I trust him more on his descriptions of what his contractors did in his eighteenth-century Connecticut house than on his own excursions into DIY(Do It Yourself). But if you can tolerate the smirkiness of a former editor of the Harvard Lampoon, it’s interesting. And now I get to parrot nonsense about the history of lime as I make concrete in an old wheelbarrow with a garden trowel.

Six parts sand, four parts lime, one part Portland cement and a bucket of dirty river water. I couldn’t find the hog bristles that the traditional log chinking formulas require, and Tim refused to humour me by shaving into the mix. I’m also hindered by my inability to mix more than Lilliputian amounts of concrete at a time. A sofa-cushion-sized bag of sand weighs more than half my weight. Though I’m a crack baker who doesn’t own an electric mixer, my pastry arm is still too puny to stir more than a few teaspoons of this stuff.

The winter lodge is still at the, uh, drafting stage. My sister has blessed me with a crop of new Canuck in-laws who are kindred spirits. When they left college, Kim and George moved into an old building on forty acres at far side of Ottawa. It’s off the grid, and they didn’t have the money to get the power lines extended. Undaunted, they built an extraordinary modern house around it over several years. Their best stuff is salvaged: the mortuary-refrigerator doors into the garage, the hospital cabinets, the mid-century modern furniture rescued from the roadside. It’s elegant enough to have been in Architectural Digest, and completely solar and wind-powered. My first Canadian Thanksgiving was spent oohing and ahing at this marvel while the kids ran as wild as my ideas.

George was glad to help enthusiastic building newbies. Tim’s cabin has plenty of room for one or two people, but you can’t insulate an old log cabin properly without destroying the essence that makes it cool. “Why don’t you insulate it temporarily?” George said, “Wrap it in Tyvek and stack haybales outside it. That’ll get you through a winter while you plan something really good. And you can practice on a small structure in the meantime.”

So that’s what we’re doing. Chinking. Roof insulation, covered by painter’s drop cloths. Tyvek and straw bales for that Three Little Pigs appeal. That hairdryer-plastic stuff on the windows. Preparing ground. Taking out wobbly and/or inconvenient trees. Figuring out a year-round water supply. Planning a little practice building, just for fun–a Japanese bathhouse (pattern #144) maybe. And after all that I can go to Ireland for the winter, morally secure that Tim will not freeze due to my dereliction.