This is the fifth chapter in my book The Bailey Line Road Chronicles, the 30-year story about moving from the city to live a modern homestead life deep in the country on Manitoulin Island, Canada. Missed Chapter Four? Click here to read it.
THE BAILEY LINE ROAD CHRONICLES: CHAPTER FIVE – THE LIE OF THE NATURAL
As welcome an upgrade as it was to have an outhouse, the tent was getting tiresome as accommodations. It was just me and my dog King most of the time. Mary was down south completing her studies as a nurse, but just the same a 7×9 foot tent that’s 5 feet tall at the peak was just too small. My original plan had been to live in the tent until our house was built, but that wasn’t going to work. In the end it would take four years of spring-summer-fall sessions to get a dry shell of a house built and that’s way too long to live in a tent. Comfort was the main reason why. When it rained, life became perpetually damp, sometimes for weeks. You really appreciate sunny weather when it means you get pulled out of continual dampness. Besides, climbing out of a sleeping bag when temperatures are near freezing is refreshing in a way that gets stale pretty quickly.
Looking back now I would have been smart to buy a little house trailer instead of living in a tent at all, then sell the trailer when I was done with it. But a trailer didn’t seem like something I should scrape money together for at the time. Besides, I’ve always found house trailers cheapen the look of a property. I know, it would have only been for a few years, but I wasn’t ready to become a trailer person then, even as a temporary thing. These days when people come to me for advice on homesteading, the first thing I tell them is to get a decent house trailer.
My answer to the challenge of upgrading from a tent to something more comfortable was a small building. We called it The Shed early on, and that’s still what we call it today. The Shed wasn’t well planned, it was poorly built (because I didn’t know better at the time), and it’s always been homely, even when new. It looks even homelier today than it did when I built it in 1986, but we still love the thing. I’m not sure what I’ll do as it ages to the point of disintegration because all the kids (and me) have a sentimental attachment to The Shed. Mary’s not sentimental about physical things in life, perhaps because her roots were always being torn out as a girl when her family moved for her dad’s work.
The job of building The Shed turned out to be much more than just a small construction project. It was also the thing that brought me face to face with a massive misconception I’d been laboring under my whole life. I call it “the lie of the natural”.
In developed parts of the world, people almost universally assume that things untouched by human hands are best. This is why the term “natural” is always a good thing. To call something “natural” is never a criticism. It’s synonymous with purity and wholesomeness and an untainted connection to a perfect world we somehow lost. Without ever thinking about it, I’d grown up believing that the natural world is best in all ways, and the more natural I could live, the better I’d be. Most people think this way, especially people who live in cities, far from the reality of the natural world. The difference for me is that I actually tried to live the natural ideal beyond the superficial. I don’t know any proponent of natural living who has actually done this to the extent that I tried, and that probably explains why few people understand the harsh reality of wrestling with the natural world. I was never content to satisfy myself with small things such as “natural” shampoo from a plastic bottle, or “all natural yogurt” packaged in a handy resealable tub and delivered to refrigerated supermarket displays by truck. If natural really was good, I wanted an authentically natural life in every way. I also wanted as much natural as I could get and in every realm of my life. After all, natural is 100% good, right?
The collision between my urban, theoretical ideas about the natural versus the reality of the real world involved a painful realignment in my thinking that took three years to complete. It wasn’t until 1989 that something clicked in my mind and heart and I saw things as they really are. I consider this one of the few miracles in my life and I’ll tell you about it later. The thing about miracles is that they often involve pain at first, and the pain of building the shed was one step towards my miraculous moment.
Imagine you have a piece of land and you need some shelter. The land has nice, flat areas of soil, there’s sedimentary bedrock poking through the surface here and there in the forest. You’ve also got an unlimited supply of roundish igneous stones piled along the edges of fields by pioneers, and you’ve got poplar, cedar and balsam fir trees. You have a few hundred dollars in cash, plus hand tools including a shovel, a pick axe, a felling axe, a broad hatchet, a hammer, a tiny homeowner-grade chainsaw with a 12” bar and an old pickup truck. How would you use all these things to build as “natural” a shelter as possible? That was the challenge I faced, and there are two things I remember especially about it at this early stage.
First, my quest for all-natural accommodation was already tainted from the start. I could see this plainly. Even if I ignored the fact that the pick, the axe and the hammer were made in factories that were very far from natural, manufactured from ore that was mined in the usual unnatural way, my gas-burning chainsaw and truck were anything but natural. They certainly didn’t have a Homelite chainsaw and a can of mixed gas in the Garden of Eden. But as disturbing as it was for me to be something of a cheat on the natural front even before I got going, my ideals would soon take much more battering. In fact, they were being battered even before I began building The Shed in July of 1986.
Early on in my preparations for the Manitoulin adventure, before I actually got onto the land, I realized I needed a wheelbarrow. That’s obvious enough, but I didn’t want an ordinary contractor’s wheelbarrow with a pneumatic tire and a steel pan. That was too expensive and too unnatural. My solution was to build a wheelbarrow entirely out of wood, including a wooden wheel with spokes and a hub turning on a wooden axle in a wooden bearing. To make this wheelbarrow as beautiful as possible, I’d also use hand-cut dovetail joints where the sides met the front, and I’d carve a nice, big, round Tudor rose in the place where I could see it while I pushed the wheelbarrow. I know this sounds crazy, but this whole wheelbarrow saga is entirely true. I’m a little embarrassed to tell you about it.
I can’t remember for sure how long it took me to build the wheelbarrow in the workshop I’d set up in my parents basement, but it was probably 60 or 70 hours. I used 1”-thick rough pine boards that I planed by hand for the sides, maple for the handles and support structure, and ash for the wheel assembly. Metal seemed like cheating to me at the time (way too unnatural), but I did need to use some 1/4” x 3” carriage bolts, nuts and washers to hold the layers of wood together that formed the wheel rim. Making that wheel I felt like a combination of Charles Engels from Little House on the Prairie and those stories they kept telling us at school about the Metis people living so many years ago travelling in Manitoba with their Red River carts and the squeaky wooden axles.
In the end, this wheelbarrow was beautiful and it operated perfectly in the workshop. The wheel spun nicely and the carved flower looked stunning under its protective coat of spar varnish. I was delighted with my natural wheelbarrow, but the delight didn’t last. Failure set in as soon as my creation encountered the real outdoor world. It took less than a day for the wooden axle to swell to the point where it wouldn’t turn. I took the axle off, shaved away some wood, then got the wheel spinning before it seized up again after a few days rain. More rain made the wheelbarrow quite a bit heavier than it was before, too. Dry, thirsty pine is a sponge. The empty wooden wheelbarrow with dovetail corners and a flower carved in the front was heavier than a contractor’s wheelbarrow with a small load in it. Even when the wheel did occasionally spin after periods of dry weather, the rim was rigid enough that it wouldn’t roll easily over bumps. Although I wouldn’t admit it to myself, I didn’t actually have a wheelbarrow at all. I had a piece of indoor furniture that looked like a wheelbarrow.
Looking back, I wonder what my neighbour Ivan Bailey thought of me as he walked over one day and saw my wheelbarrow. This grizzled backwoods farmer was born in 1909 and spent almost his whole life wrestling a living out of a natural world that was reluctant to provide one. I was a 20-something guy from suburbia whose idea of the natural world had been formed by watching Walt Disney specials involving talking animals while eating popcorn on the couch in my pajamas. I’d also just been through four years of the kind of left-wing, socialist, environmentalist indoctrination that universities everywhere dish out no matter what your major is. But here I was, the guy who’d spent 60 hours building the world’s most insane natural wheelbarrow that wasn’t working, standing next to a man who began using real wheelbarrows for real not long after World War One ended.
Ivan was a quiet man, and when he offered advice it was only once and usually indirectly. “I bought a wheelbarrow years ago”, he explained. “It came with a steel-rim wheel. After a few years I changed that for a wheel with a rubber tire that you put air in. That rubber tire wheel was the best investment I ever made.” Ivan turned and walked back home.
I hadn’t yet allowed myself to admit that the entire wooden wheelbarrow design was completely flawed at its core. I did take Ivan’s comment as a suggestion to replace my wooden wheel with a metal one on bearings with a rubber tire. I was both horrified at how philosophically wrong this would be, but also keenly aware of how philosophy doesn’t matter at all if you don’t have a wheelbarrow you can push.
My solution was to scrape together some precious pennies and buy a contractor’s wheelbarrow with one of those very practical and highly unnatural air-filled tires. It was orange and made by a company called Erie and I still have the wheelbarrow today. I’ve used it to haul hundreds of tons of stone and mortar over the last 30 years. I ordered the Erie from the local hardware store in Gore Bay and the moment I used it after assembly, life was like heaven. So light, so strong, so easy to roll. I still used the wooden wheelbarrow now and then for a while, mostly to avoid admitting that the whole natural wheelbarrow plan was completely flawed. And though I wasn’t yet ready to entirely abandon my flawed concept of the natural, the wheelbarrow experience did leave me with something valuable. My collision with reality was working. If I was going to deviate from the idea of natural in terms of tools and technology, I was going to do it in the most high quality way possible. No bargain basement wheelbarrow for me. If I was abandoning my principles, I was going all the way. Only the biggest and best wheelbarrow would do. I’ve followed this same idea of the biggest and best tools since then, and it’s always served me well.
It took about three years for the wooden wheelbarrow to rot to the point where the maple handles broke off and the carving disappeared into a small sea of evolving barn board. It had been years since the wheel had rolled. In the end, I carefully moved that crazy, ill-planned wheelbarrow just on the other side of one of my rail fences to a final resting place in a little grove of cedar trees. The remains are still barely visible today if you know where to look.
I built the wheelbarrow originally to follow a philosophical perspective that proved to be unworkable and untrue. But in the end, that wheelbarrow did stand for something very true, just not what I thought it was going to be. What’s this truth? Sometimes our most cherished ideas and values need to be retired to a final resting place “on the other side of the fence” because they don’t align with reality and never will. This was the lesson the wooden wheelbarrow taught me, but my training wasn’t nearly complete yet. I wasn’t ready to give up my veneration of the natural, so my hard lessons in the school of reality would continue with the construction of The Shed.
As I mentioned before, The Shed wasn’t just built badly, it was badly planned, too. It was mostly due to errors of omission. I didn’t plan enough. The floor dimension of 10×20 feet was something I just picked out of thin air, and I failed to think enough about the foundation I’d use. I did have the sense to talk to Ivan about using a framing square to lay out rafters for the roof. They never taught us that in high school shop class because we only ever worked with tiny, scale 2x4s measuring 1/4” x 1/2” when building model house frames.
“What pitch will you be using for the roof?”, Ivan asked.
“I don’t know, what would you use?”
“5/12 is good”, he said. Proceeding to show me how to use a carpenter’s square to step off the length of rafters for a 5/12 roof on a building 10 feet wide.
There were two opposing realities about to collide at this moment, but I didn’t know it. First, I knew I wanted a steep roof on The Shed. I grew up in the land of the shallow-roofed, cookie-cutter bungalow, and a steep roof was my heart’s desire. Second, a 5/12 roof is very shallow but I didn’t know it at the time. This angle is at least as shallow as the roof on all those bungalows I disliked so much. As Ivan handed me a rafter pattern he made for me to duplicate into all the rafters I needed, I could see the slope was way too shallow for my taste. I didn’t want to offend Ivan with a request for a steeper rafter pattern, so I went with it, hoping the results would look better than I feared. But sometimes hope can be a dangerous thing when it’s misplaced, and now was one of those times. Looking back from today, the too-shallow shed roof is no big deal at all, but at the time it caused me a moderate amount of agony. Once again my ideals were being compromised, this time on the aesthetic front. Painful, yes, but there was also great joy in building that roof, shallow as it was.
You already know that I was born into a frugal family and I count this as a good thing. Frugality is also something you find in large measure out here in the country, at least amongst the old timers. Ivan lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, all the time in a particularly poor little corner of Canada. Things like this have an effect on a person, and this led to one of the most satisfying building experiences of my life. As Ivan handed me the too-shallow rafter pattern, he asked if I’d be using balsam poles for the rafters. I didn’t understand until he explained that small balsam fir trees make excellent rafters.
“The old timers always used them for barn roofs”, Ivan explained. I found it strange to hear an old timer talking about a previous generation of old timers as a separate social group than himself. “Balsam rafters last forever because they’re always dry. They won’t cost you anything, either. You have lots of them in your forest.”
The prospect of avoiding the lumberyard and a bill for 2x4s was thrilling to me. My new neighbour was a kindred spirit in frugality. Ivan and I drove to the forest at the back of my property in my old F250 Mercury, we got out and he showed me the right size of balsam trees for rafters that would fit my building. He showed me how just two or three strokes of his razor-sharp felling axe would cleanly sever a balsam tree 4” or 5” in diameter. No noise, no chainsaw, just a smoothly cut pole. Amazing. Ivan left me to cut all the balsam poles I needed, then back at The Shed he showed me how to hew the top edge of each one flat with a broad hatchet, then cut a pocket in the bottom end to fit over the wall. Ivan’s approach at times like this was always the same: Teach once, then walk away.
It was after supper on a sunny, calm warm evening when Ivan finished his rafter hewing lesson with me. As the strips of balsam bark piled up on either side of the saw horses I was working on, a deep satisfaction set in. It was about 8pm by the time I hit my stride making those rafters. With the bark off, I used the broad hatchet to flatten what would be the top edge of each rafter. Ivan explained that you needed to eyeball the tree and make the flat surface on the crowned side, not the dished side.
As the sun eased its way down, whippoorwills began to sing. I’d known of these night birds before coming to Manitoulin, but never heard their haunting call before. My little corner of the Island is very quiet, with no road sounds except when the occasional car passes on the dirt road in front of my place. The experience that evening was a deeply satisfying combination of beautiful sights, beautiful sounds, a new skill mastered and productive accomplishment outdoors as completed rafters piled up. After about an hour, the sounds of Ivan’s fiddle music wafted over the field from his place as he sat on a lawn chair in the middle of the cedar trees he loved so much outside his front door, playing jigs and reels and breakdowns. Ivan had taught himself to play fiddle as a boy in the days long before our modern times when so many young people lose so much potential and focus as their thumbs twiddle, eyes glued to a smartphone screen. How many 12 year olds would even think of teaching themselves to play the violin today, let along pull it off? I’ve never seen one yet.
There’s nothing like deprivation and struggle to help you deeply appreciate the small comforts and accomplishments of life. The construction of The Shed involved more struggles as my misplaced allegiance to a false notion of the natural bumped into reality. I made the floor frame from poplar logs that I turned into beams, for instance. That seemed like something quite natural in theory, but proved to be an illusion as my screaming, smoky little Homelite chainsaw quite literally took 10x as long producing the beams as if I’d framed the floor with purchased 2x8s. The process wasn’t even natural by anyone’s definition. The wooden window sashes I salvaged from an old house leaked like crazy. The locally-milled pine siding I installed was too wet so big gaps opened up between boards as the wood dried.
But despite all this, my first night in The Shed was deeply satisfying. I can’t tell you how much. The sense of luxury I experienced in the fall of 1986 in what most people would consider little more than a shack was like nothing I’ve ever felt since then, even in the fanciest hotel. Scarcity, struggle and success – these are three things that lead to some of the deepest satisfactions we’ll ever experience in life. Could it be that too few people feel the thrill of satisfaction because of a deficiency of the 3Ss – scarcity, struggle and success?
I still had a few more years of struggle because of my misplaced notion of “the natural”, but I know now what I didn’t realize I was learning then. When I came to Manitoulin Island, I thought that mankind’s partnership with the natural world could be something like a polite waltz. I would take Nature’s hand in my own, she would curtsey, then we’d dance in harmony together, smiling. But humanity’s relationship with nature isn’t like this and it never can be. It’s more like a wrestling match. While we have a responsibility to be wise stewards of the natural world, the fact is that nature doesn’t yield the necessities of life willingly. In fact, nature will quite happily kill you if you let it. It’s certainly possible to ruin our little pocket of nature and make a very big mess, but at the same time I see now that tools, knowledge, skills and hard work are necessary if anyone wants to partner with nature in a way that actually works. Many people in the world today live under the illusion that “waltzing with nature” is possible, but only because they live so far removed from the interface between mankind and nature, supported by farmers, miners, fishermen, lumberjacks and drill rig crews who struggle behind the scenes making life so much easier for everyone else.
Want to be a key part of making The Bailey Line Road Chronicles a published book? I’m looking for a few good patrons to partner with me to complete this project. Just a couple of dollars a month gets you your own copy of the story when it’s done, and your name on “The Patrons” page.