Listing a few specifics of place

Lessons of the soil. Our clay.

The raised beds and asparagus patch.

Our berm.

Start with composting. Collecting all the bagged leaves each autumn, to compost. Two hundred, at times, stacked somewhere in the yard.

The heat, followed by red wigglers.

It’s a particular place, after all, in a specific region. I had never thought I’d view sprouting maples as weeds. I quickly recognize other invaders, especially the ground ivy. Soon, uprooting them becomes reflexive.

Six years into this, I realized our soil was improving. I’d pull up the weed maple sprouts, roots and all, easily. No need to find the pliers.

* * *

The outdoor room I called The Smoking Garden.

It’s panels of ferns. Lilacs.

The necessity of a brush pile.

Bird feeders.

Skunks.  Opossum.

Tiki torches.

* * *

The house across the street, once so right, now showing serious signs of neglect.

Our array of drip-line neighbors.

Also behind us, the dogs. And a kitchen renovation followed by another before we could do ours.

Old Ernie passing, opening way for the young Yuppie couple who quickly had four sons.

That is, within neighborhood.

Waiting for the brood to return from their mission in Bolivia.

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* * *

Look ahead. Work far from done. Our five-year plans. Our twenty.

My loft.

Downstairs bathroom. Stairway. Rerouted driveway.

Replacing the shed.

Side screened-in porch, with the hot tub.

Will it ever be done? Will one or both of the kids return, with children? Will we be, in the New England tradition, a multi-generation household? Or will my wife and I outgrow this, and abandon our asparagus patch?

All the money, rebuilding this house, how many times over?

* * *

Stacking two cords of firewood in little more than a day (with two more on the way)   – oak, maple, birch, this round. Its aroma after rain when I return past midnight.

Select squared-off pieces for erecting corners. What would you or I have to barter?

All the hard work of the old days already done: felled, transported out, cut, split, and delivered. Here, since the woodpile will be more a square than a row, demands extra care – sloping inward, expecting settling. The finished stack like a sculpture (do not touch). In the wood, touches of pink, yellow, burgundy in the end-grain (will weather to gray). Working a puzzle, the multiple ways each piece might fit, made solid, knowing movement will yet appear. The satisfaction, expecting the family to find comfort by winter fire. Gloves, my hands soft from the office, prone to splinters. My desire for everything in place, ready, functioning.

My practice, going to the far side of the dumped wood first.

What critters will be taking refuge here?

The energy factor (don’t ask).

But here we are, together again, with friends on the way. A home, after all.


Re: vision

Buying a house changes a man’s vision. More accurately, buying a property and its landscape changes that vision, with the house itself becoming the domain of his spouse. He will do what he can there, for her, in their wellbeing. In the process, he will perceive much that previously eluded his awareness.

Squirrels, of course, as they really are. Or the appearance of dampness in inappropriate places. Flaking paint or shingles. Many other signals for combat, as well, for the list is long.

In our case, a New Englander in walking distance of downtown in an old textiles mill city. (The particular design … purchased, unaware that a side lot we’ve come to call “the swamp” was included.) The impact of deferred maintenance … chimney relined, immediately, and then having the roof replaced, not with the standing-seam metal I’ve admired but rather a durable, affordable shingle the recommended roofer favored … the furnace boiler …

And then to the barn – a carriage house, actually, though that sounds pretentious.

Drip line. The crooked boundaries.

Jacking up on clay and roots. Drawing into the air, seemingly.

Working with Rick, a master carpenter and licensed electrician.

The monolith, a thick cement slab we had to remove from the back door when it came time to replace a rotting sill.

The kitchen renovation, long overdue.

Painting is the easy part, and even there I fail.

* * *

I remember his appalled expression when I voiced a thought about metal framing, rather than wood, which I now know will warp or settle. The uneven floors, the hurt look of a bed-and-breakfast owner when I mentioned his bathroom.

As Rick and the plumber both grin, “Old houses, you gotta love ‘em.”

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* * *

In the television episodes, I used to be appalled by their all-too-quick readiness to rip out walls or fixtures. Now I find myself cheering them on, while the money and work crews are available.

The amateur work we keep uncovering here.

Still, in a project involving framing or drywall, I find myself in awe at the various stages of construction. Stand in the empty room, pondering. Trying to envision, with some futility, how the next step will actually appear. Even when I’ve put all this to paper, drawn the lines and measurements, it holds mystery. There’s a great satisfaction, too, when the final result proves right.

New understanding of various eras emerges. The lack of closets and storage. How tight the space, in the utility room. All the shelves we’ve added (with all of our books expanding).

There had been a second stairway, up the back. Or was the bathroom a later addition? The one closet, blocking hallway light.

What was in the side yard, and what filled the swamp?

The questions, like weeds, keep growing.


Maybe it’s the artist in me, this desire to dwell in either a sturdy old house or else a clean-lined contemporary masterpiece. It certainly hasn’t originated in any builder’s skills in my hand or heart, or in any large income or legacy. Oh, there was a fleeting hope for a while of living in a center city apartment, close to the cultural and political action. What I’ve never wanted was a suburban existence – no ranch house or split-level or garrison for me, where one must drive everywhere, constantly. Instead, for most of my career, I’ve rented – in a railroad-junction downtown loft, at the edge of forest, in an orchard, beside a river, on top of a wooded hill, even in a federal-era Baltimore rowhouse. Which is another way of saying, I’ve been more nomad than I ever desired.

Until now, the only break was a couple of years when I owned a brick craftsman-influenced house in a steel-mill Midwestern city, hardly enough to introduce me to the homeowner experience. With the marriage splitting apart, there was little incentive or energy for big projects, for continued investing in the land and structure. Instead, the sojourning continued, and when there were problems, I learned to call maintenance.

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Even so, in the final years leading up to my second marriage, I became enamored with the public television show, This Old House, especially its Colonial-era project in Milton, Massachusetts, remaking not only the house but a barn and workshop as well. Never mind that the undertaking cost more than my lifetime earnings, I identified with something in this effort, and it wasn’t simply the fact that so much of New England is infused with similar houses. It was more, too, than the fact I had hiked about the Great Blue Hills Reservation a few miles away or that I was rapidly outgrowing the townhouse I rented. Maybe, feeling rootless, I wanted to be lord of the manor and all that go with it.

For me, surprisingly, the house and grounds have become an expression of family – not a nest for a solitary, monkish writer – and the beloved, sleek style I’ve admired for so long may be all too fragile for the rough-and-tumble reality of children. Girls, surprisingly, can be at least as hard on a place as boys are. The same goes, of course, for antiques and collections of all kinds. Hard lessons, I admit.

Flash forward, then, to the search for a house of my own and the dismal recognition that within this market, we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. (What we saw in the range of what we could afford was utterly depressing.)

And we now recognize how fortunate we were to land even that, considering where prices went soon after.

Notice, of course, I say “we” – a new wife, two stepdaughters, and – shortly – a mother-in-law, in the barn.