46: Debarking is seasonal

Poplar trees and probably any other kind of trees -- they are much easier to de-bark in April and May than in August.

There's a metaphor, relevant to my cyclical University life, in there somewhere.

45: an end to logging

Tonight, Tobias and new friend, Mark, spent the late afternoon helping me drop three trees, yielding five 15 foot logs, six 14 foot logs, and one 12 footer.

As always, Tobias, my friend, the master sawyer, is more of a performer or artist than a laborer when working with a chainsaw. The feller can fell some trees, for sure, not only dropping them safely and landing them on target with the precision of a fighter pilot (this is a nice metaphor since he was USAF kid and his dad flew), but stopping to describe to Mark and I how he was using wedges, and a bore cut, to counteract some back-lean and influence the hinge just-so.

Mark just moved to Cullowhee with his family, and his two girls will go to school with Nate. A mathematician, he's naturally bright and analytical. He's also observant -- I measured one log too short, which he noticed, although it was his first time on the site. My rough-around-the-edges cabin building exploit falls on one end of a wood-working continuum on which Mark is waaaaay further along in yonder direction. The man builds racing kayaks out of wood, even building his own forms, dealing with light stuff and sharp tools, applying a level of precise attention to detail necessary to create something light and functional but also that results in art.

Once again, I'm humbled by and grateful for the generosity of my busy and talented friends. That's a theme that runs through this blog like a thread, or holds it and the continuity of the whole project together more so even than the timber anchors I'm drilling into every corner notch.

This time, it was Mark's truck that brought brute force to a task that could have been brutally physical. Recalling the adventures I had with Jeremy and John, and then again with Greg who suggested hauling the logs with a truck and had even brungalong a chain to do it, I couldn't help agreeing to pull the stuff we cut with Mark's 4x4 four-door Tacoma. Greg would have been thrilled if I'd taken his advice that day instead of after-the-fact, for sure.

We thought about using my 2wd version, but Tobias said, "You could try it, and the locking differential might help, but then it wouldn't work, and you'd be sad." Sigh. I have truck envy.

We also took the 12 footer I accidentally measured, and Tobias milled or ripped it end-to-end with my sharp new chain. That one's going vertical, flat side against the wall, to support the ridge beam.

I'm pleased to have all the logs I need now. Soon, I'll have them de-barked and on the wall -- then, all we'll need are rafter poles!

44: Update

This picture, borrowed from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park Facebook page, illustrates the beauty of our home -- it was taken pretty close as-the-hawk-flies from our log cabin site.

This Sunday, I'll cut the rest of the logs I need. In the meanwhile, Sugar, Nate, Baby Sophus Bocephus, and I will be home but also out and about on the Highland Plateau, looking across two or three smaller but striking ridges, across our own Savannah Ridge, toward the nearby backbone of the Smokies, enjoying the natural Eden in which we live.

43: My favorite author

I found this quote long ago, within a long-time favorite essay called "A walk in the woods to Alum Cave" which I discovered in an out-of-print coffee table book that I own, produced by photographer Eliot Porter, who collaborated with Edward Abbey, who wrote all of the text, who transformed it from a picture book to something much more profound. Antithetical to the saying, Abbey's words have the potential to say even more than pictures. 1000 of his words may beat a lifetime of clicking and take us to a deeper place than can our sense of sight. Genius writing supported by nice pictures is even better; however, my point is that these essays, with their thread of continuity provided by Porter's theme, stand alone. Appalachian Wilderness was written during or right after the time that Abbey taught at the small university where both Sloan and I teach and work with college students today.

Here, I copied it from a review of this intriguing book, which is now on my list:

But here's the original book, which I highly recommend:

I inherited my copy from my grandparents, Jack and Peggy, who had received it as a gift from her brother, my Great Uncle Leroy, then dean of the medical school in Wisconsin. They were socially conservative people, self-made for sure but also from a socioeconomically fortunate family, members of the greatest generation. Unlike Abbey, they were not so influenced by Kerouac, or even Steinbeck. There is a note written in Uncle Leroy's doctor's script that says, "the pictures are wonderful but the text is somewhat controversial." You got that right, Uncle Leroy.

Gulayihi writes about Abbey's time at Western here. A friend and colleague, a retired English prof who goes to our church, Newt Smith, is actually mentioned in the last pages of Appalachian Wilderness. Sugar noticed the reference first, about when we moved here from Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2002: "Hey, I think I met him at new faculty orientation!"

In the book, Abbey describes his return home from some hike, or from a writing binge (I don't recall), to "drink beer" with "old Newt Smith" in his "corn crib" -- what better tribute could one want? Abbey captured their association for posterity, better than Newt's masterful storytelling ever could. We should all be so worthy, or lucky.

Newt can tell a story or two. When asked about the probability that with them being young, like-minded men there could have been some monkey wrenching during his time spent with Abbey, he's a wee bit evasive. And his eyes twinkle too much much for innocence, although he could be guilty only of feeding your imagination. I did hear third-hand from a forgotten source that there was some story involving one of those ugly billboards that Abbey hated and lambasted in several of his books. Newt does tell a great story about his wife and Abbey's, and of course the two of them, pioneering the Lamaze method of childbirth, together with their first children, when such things were way ahead of their time in Jackson County. So much for my perception that Abbey would be cigar-in-the-waiting-room kind of guy.

If I could entertain any guest, living or dead, in my log cabin, it might be Abbey. Maybe, in his place, Newt would come sometime to drink a beer and tell some tales.

42: Names of places

An outsider from another state named our neighborhood. This is obvious, because it's a bland, vanilla, developer-type, suburban-like name that doesn't resonate with any sense of place or reflect the personality of any community with roots. It probably looks good to a city dweller or flatlander, some of them anyway, looking for a whitewashed mountain resort experience, behind a gate, far from real people, out of a magazine.

The old gentleman, Mr. R.O. Wilson, told me that our greater valley, entered only through its mouth near the Tuckaseegee River or over a steep, switch-backed, narrow pass called Gribble Gap, used to be called Hogrock. Pronounced matter-of-factly with no hem but a big ol' "haw," in his deep voice, authoritative, full of character. You can hear his voice at minute 11:40 of the soundclip at the bottom of this post. He said that folk from around there used to slaughter their hogs and hang them from a huge, prominent, overhanging rock by the creek in the bottom land, where a horse pasture sits today, near the huge cornfield and tiny dairy farm that still graces the valley.

So we could call our place Hogrock Holler, I guess.

Except another old man, from down the road in an old two-story farmhouse near Gribble Gap, one who at age 78 strapped on antique steel spikes and climbed 30 feet up in a tree to help me once, told me that our unique cove used to be called "Cabe's Cove" after the people who lived in the small 1905 farmhouse at its mouth. Of course, nobody but mica miners, loggers, hunters, or a boy chasing his dog would have climbed up into our inhospitably steep and high reaches. The old man would say something, punch me in the gut for effect, and laugh. I wanted to hear more, and that was his storytelling style, so I was sore around the middle the next day.

Supposedly, the old house stood vacant because of a brother-uncle or cousin-cousin murder, something about an axe. I don't know if the fellow's story was true, or part tall tale, or if I didn't get it all wrong, but the old house was creepy and empty, guarding the dark, deep, steep cove like an eyeless skull, a windowless sentinel. It was barely visible in the summer amidst massive magnolias, ancient dogwoods, criss-crossed young white pines, green brier, downed rotting trees, and looming head walls with an overhanging canopy of oak and tulip poplar. It had been bypassed by our gravel road, with no way to even reach it across the bridge-less creek. Until when, about three years ago, the buyers of that property paid Matthew Cole, local artisan woodworker and timber framer, to restore it. It's still empty, but with a new porch, windows, roof, and paint and with an out-of-place wrought iron gate and stone pillars, constructed to attract the buyer, maybe for the better (except for the gates), it's been robbed of this aura and brought back into time.

Cabe's Cove. Hogrock. Painter Knob. Gribble Gap. Long Branch. Names are important, and used to mean something to everybody instead of nothing to anybody. They captured the mark made by a family with the guts and commitment to settle there for generations. Some folk still live where their great grandparents, or even grandparents, made a life without electricity, good roads, or easy shopping, and planted by the signs. Sometimes, the name is all that remains. How dare we change it to suit ourselves, for glossy marketing purposes, cleansing an old place of its history, however unwashed or colloquial it may be. When applied to ethnicity, culture, history, or community, "cleansing" can be a dirty word.

Of course, names are fun, too. I kind of like living in upper Hogrock. In Ruminations from the Distant Hills, Gulahiyi speculates on some of them, and gives some amusing examples.

Outside of communicating with the UPS man, I try to learn, resurrect, and celebrate at least some of the old names. It's about preserving the habitat for collective souls in a space (they might leave a place called "Green Forest Gables"), respect for those who came before, or at least the appreciation of place.

41: Blueberries are in!

Sunday, we took a break from cabin building to head up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. There, you can drive over Richland Balsam, its high point at 6058 feet, and park at a secret spot, from which a trail can be accessed, a trail to heaven, a path that snakes through the mysterious deep shade of high-altitude, old-growth spruce and climbs to a West-facing knob on top of which there is a dense laurel slick. Except this one isn't populated by typical mountain laurel. Instead, blueberry bushes, waist-high, stretch across and up and burst at the perimeter of an amoeba-shaped football field.

This particular spot appeals deeply because of its obsurity and the privacy made probable by a one-mile hike in. Also, it sits above and faces the Caney Fork drainage. Every drop of water that lands here, nearby to the high sky, sometimes even amidst the clouds, will eventually flow through and past my own neighborhood, only ten miles away, or closer, as the hawk might fly.

With baby Angus in my backpack and Abel scampering sometimes out-of-sight amidst the ripe bounty, we picked for less than an hour and filled a gallon milk jug with our combined take.

40: Protection

I haven't had the talk with our cabin yet -- the one about protection. Using locust beneath it and building a good overhang on the roof will help. But it being high summer, I've grown anxious to prevent any initial fungus, rot, or invasion of pests. So, last week, my seven-foot-tall neighbor, Eric (second picture here), came over from his adjacent branch of our holler with an extension ladder to help me string up a 40x20 foot tarp, hung like a kite to drain water, high enough to build our roof under its shelter. Pictures soon -- it was an adventure, and I'm grateful.

Also, I sprayed the logs with this, recommended by John at Schroeder Log Home Supply -- he was very helpful, and their website and print catalogue are excellent resources:

And I'm very curious to know what kind of small beetle or insect is causing these tiny tubes of sawdust to protrude from some of the logs, like ash on the end of a cigarette. It had to have just invaded, because we cut them in June. I'm not worried, but if the Penetreat doesn't get them then I'll have to figure out how to address it.

Readers -- can you help me identify the problem?

39: Perspective and scale

Here's a similar blog I just discovered -- another fellow built a cabin and wrote a blog about it! His is a wee bit larger than mine and required lots of mechanized equipment. Anytime I feel fatigued with my project or impatient with my progress, I can glance at this and feel grateful for its simplicity and manageable size. There are more differences than similarities, although it's spooky-coincidental that he chose the same blog template. He's building a log "home," albeit with no kit. I'm building more of a frontier cabin with hand tools, like this one but without the chimney.

Still, read this blog and scroll back through his older posts. It's impressive.

38: A Tale of Two Saws, part 3 of 3

Josh Burt, expert crosscut saw sharpener. Master of a lost art.

Several days after meeting R.O. Wilson (see A Tale of Two Saws, part 2 and part 1), I got a call from Tobias, with whom I had consulted about crosscut saws. Toby was calling from a cell, and I could barely hear him because of the spotty reception on my own: "Hey Mike, you remember that guy I told you about?" Which guy? "You know, the one who is probably one of the top crosscut saw guys in the country. Well, he's here in the park now, finally out of the woods, done with his Southwest Conservation Corps program. We're at Guadalupe Cafe, then we're going home, and he's flying out tomorrow. Want to come over?"

I said "of course," grabbed both saws, jumped in the truck, and got to Tobias's house right after they did. Josh was a younger guy than I expected, younger than me and certainly not cut from the same cloth as Mr. Wilson. He seemed too young to know so much, anyhow. He looked a lot like some of the guides and kayak instructors I've known at NOC, but there was something else, some other subcultural element with which I was less directly familiar. That he lived in Tucson reminded me of rangers I've met in the canyon country, seasoned with red dust and baked in the dry red rock oven of a backcountry very different from ours here. Under the spell of this association, he reminded me of an Edward Abbey character, although Hayduke and Earth First with their symbolism and extreme activism aren't in any way like the experiential learning and service-oriented employer for which he works. Not that he was that extremely rugged, either -- bearded and tired from a week of working on trails in the Smokies, yes, but mainly just quiet and competent with a difficult-to-explain desert/Southwest attitude, picked up over the time that he's lived there. Inexplicably, he's from Ohio, but I don't hold that against him. Nice guy, generous about evaluating my saws and sharing his knowledge, and obviously pretty sharp, like the tools he tends.

Josh looked at both saws, and I learned more in the next thirty minutes than I ever expected from a gu
y who's forgotten more than I'll ever know. I learned how cutters are sharpened, and I was told how to set them with a hammer. I learned that for cutting across the grain of green hardwood, the long, snake-tongued rakers needed to be maybe 1/1200 of an inch shorter than the cutter teeth. I learned that some sawyers tap the two wayward points of each raker, bending the edge over, length-ways to the saw, giving them a sort of chisel angle so that they pull more shavings out of the cut made by the cutters they follow. This is called "swage" and pronounced "swedge." Swaging the rakers.

Josh agrees my saw might be an Atkins from maybe the early 1940's, not an "offbrand" like my other saw, and that it has a Champion tooth pattern, usually used for cutting green hardwood. Now, I need to get hold of some tools, and build a saw vice. I have the other saw on which to make mistakes, and learn. Here's the grocery list that Josh gave me (in his words):
A good starting kit for sharpening your saw might include:

  1. jointing: Combination filing tool like the "Anderson" style filing gauge
  2. dressing rakers: 8" triangular file
  3. swaging rakers: Anderson gauge, Estwing Geologist's Hammer (or similar hammer with a small face but enough heft to move the metal)
  4. pointing cutters: 8" slim taper single cut bastard file
  5. setting cutters: Tack Hammer, Setting Anvil (any hunk of metal with a flat side you can hold in your hand up against the tooth)
"As for the saw vice. Saw vices for vintage hand saws are available on ebay regularly, though I've never tried one for a larger "D" handle. Plans for making a larger vice are available through a Forest Service publication called "New Tools for Old Saws" available from the Missoula Technology and Development Center. Those plans can easily be tweaked to fit your saw. "

Here's a photo of Josh and an axe at some work site:

Thanks Josh! This project continues to introduce me to good people and interesting experiences.

37: Some random pictures

These hark from the previous several weeks and show some bark spudding, notch hacking, and such things.

36: cutting a way in

Monday, Abel as usual came to inspect my late-evening progress on the cabin. It has been my habit to get home, pull on Carharts and boots, grab a wooden tool box full of sharp things, stick the buck saw under my other arm, and slog up the trail. That evening, I'd added some logs, and suddenly, it was tall. So tall in fact that getting my tools to the interior began to seem a challenge. Tall enough to require the use of an eight foot stepladder outside and a six foot ladder inside.

Abel arrived with a cold beverage (good boy!) and news that my presence was required at "our real house" -- dinnertime! Of course, he couldn't leave without conducting a full inspection, so he started up the ladder. "Dad, I'm scared!"

He should be. I'm glad he's willing to climb, but scared enough to be careful. A fall from up here would break something for sure. The problem is, you should never stare toward where you don't want to go, whether it's an undercut rock on a river, some other guy looking for a fight, a prideful dog who just might bite, or the abyss. He's transfixed by the ground.

Me: "OK son, hold on, and I'll pull you over." I grab him under the arms from the other ladder.

Abel: "WAIT DAD!" ...and he's over the top. "oh thank you Dad. It's tall!"

This won't do. That afternoon, I stopped by the hardware store to pick up a new, sharp chain for my saw. I could use the crosscut saw for this, but my policy of applying the right tool for the right job is licensed by the quasi-accurate inclusion of the descriptor, "postmodern," in the project title, right? Anyhow, I tacked up some scrap one inch board, drew a plumb line, stuck the nose in, and created an aperture suitable for access and egress. I think I'll keep it hobbit-sized too, but before I frame it in, I'll cut down into the bottom log to create a threshold and up through one or two more logs to increase the height a bit.

Here, Abel and Angus check it out for the first time.

35: Up with the walls!

The colorful pics were taken by a professional photographer; the others with my cell phone. Can you tell which are which?

We're movin' on up, so to speak. Last week, I took a couple of days off to get some of the logs off the ground. Here, you'll see some of them being placed, notched, and set. Thanks again to friends Justin and Chris for helping hoist, and especially for keeping me company. We worked till it started to rain and then grilled steaks.

Look closely at my leg in that last picture -- I'll be sure to continue to wear triple-ply Carharts when working with these sharp tools! Steel-toe logging boots have saved me on several occasions now, too.

About Me

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I use this blog to chronicle certain aspects of my life near the Smokies. I'm building a cabin. I kayak. Sometimes I bike.