The Meaning of Progress

8 02 2016

I know I keep stating the obvious — our home lives have changed drastically since the September move, but this weekend was a marked example of some of the ways in which a little bit of crazy can bring a whole lot of good.

Saturday our friends, Laurie, Trevor and their son, Cameron, came for a visit early in the day while Gwen and Kaherdin were off with friends over the hill. We gave Laurie and Trevor a tour of the house and property then ended our visit at one of our favorite haunts, Olita’s, a Mexican restaurant on the wharf in Santa Cruz. After a nice lunch, we made our goodbyes and Danae and I continued south toward Watsonville.  We had made plans with Hilario (one of the men who worked on our house) to pick up some firewood from his property.

Hilario, a framing specialist, had spent many hours in my house from the very first days of the remodel. I was always taken by his friendly demeanor — polite, quick with a laugh or a smile — and over time we shared stories with each other about our houses, our kids. Hilario shared that he lived in a rented mobile home that he had put some work into. On his last day of work here he was taken by all the progress that had been made (by other workers and by us) and was really liking the way the house had come together. He wanted to share with me pictures of a new addition he’d made to his home — a hearth and mantle where he put a wood stove given to him by his cousin. I’d heard about this wood stove. The first winter Hilario and his family moved into this place, the family had to huddle in the living room under blankets and still couldn’t keep warm. The addition of this stove, along with insulation and sheet rock work Hilario had done on the place, had made the home not only livable, but comfortable. I was excited to see it.

Riding in what we call “the goat van” is always an experience. It smells like hay and goat and in all the winter months it has been sitting under the shade of the trees, it has developed quite a collection of mold colonies throughout. It’s gross. And, truly, I am never certain if turning on the heat or air conditioning is actually worth the agitation of mold spores. Thankfully, Saturday was gorgeous — sunny and warm to the point where rolling down the windows was really the only option.

We pulled off highway 1 and began making our way east on little roads — following directions in the very British sounding voice that Kaherdin had chosen for Danae’s phone. The road ran along several marshes before we came to a road called “Elkhorn” and I realized that we were on the back end of the slough. I have kayaked Elkhorn Slough any number of times and have always enjoyed the myriad of birds, otters and other wildlife that come with a paddle along that waterway. Here we were at the outer end of it noting that beyond the popular part of the preserve, there are still many bird species resting in the marshes. It was beautiful.

The British voice told us we were reaching our destination — a cluster of mobile homes on a hillside — many with the same official address. We pulled into the parking area of a couple of homes where an older Mexican man was sitting out front in a chair. Danae got out and asked him in Spanish where we could find Hilario. I really do love it when she speaks Spanish. It’s almost like, in those moments, I enjoy my own ignorance of the language. I can understand a lot of Spanish, and can speak a little, but I lack the confidence to even try most of the time. Danae just busts out with it and I guess her abilities and confidence make me feel taken care of. And, of course, as an introvert, I never really want to be the one to ask anyone anything anyway, so it works out.

The man pointed us up the hill and said that Hilario was the last house on the left. We got back in the car and drove up a bit and there I recognized Hilario’s tan Honda. His three boys were washing the car. I was immediately in love with the place. I think my kids have washed my car once — years ago — but seeing these kids enjoying the process of the chore made me feel transported back to my own childhood when I used to wash my mother’s and grandfather’s cars.

We greeted the boys and one ran around back to get his dad. Hilario came out and greeted us then he invited us into his home — excited to show me the mantle. I’ve never actually set foot in a mobile home before and I was taken aback by how it really felt no different from a conventional home on the inside. It was small, but comfortable. And Hilario’s mantle was adorned with multiple pictures of each of his sons. I could see the work he had put into the place. Insulation, sheet rock, rain gutters, windows — he’d made it better for he and his family. Outside he showed us where he’d cut the hillside back to make a flat space outside his back door. Then he showed us the wood — eucalyptus. He explained that the tree had a huge branch that hung directly over the home. The landlord had the tree trimmed and left the wood on site to use for burning. The front of the property was rolling hillside studded with oak, manzanita and eucalyptus. In many ways it felt idyllic to me.

“Do your sons climb the trees?” I asked. We are not short on trees where we are, but climbing redwoods is better left to the professionals.

He pointed to one of the oaks. “Yes, they do like to climb that one.”

He went to get his chainsaw and began cutting pieces down to size for us. Eventually his saw ran out of fuel and he had trouble starting it up again.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We have a chainsaw, we can cut the pieces down.”

“Do you want me to show you how to split a log,” Hilario asked.

Suddenly I felt like we were on a reality TV show. This was one of those “experience” scenes set up by the producers.

“Sure,” I said, as though my contract for the show obligated me to do so.

Hilario went and got his wood splitting maul. He showed us the difference between a splitting axe, which flares out behind the blade, and a chopping axe, which doesn’t.

He raised the axe above his head and came down close to the outer edge of the log. Eucalyptus, he told us, is nearly impossible to split toward the center. The fibers in the wood do not run straight, which makes it more difficult to split. He broke off several perfectly sized split logs for us before getting tired.

“Do you want to try,” Hilario asked. Again, like a reality TV show.

We both laughed, knowing full well we would provide nothing more than entertainment. In the show, this would be the part where Danae and I start bickering, or where one of us gets hurt.

“You try,” I said to Danae.

Always the sport, she went for it with little success. We agreed that we were not going to split anymore logs today.

Danae, Hilario and I began loading whatever would fit into the van before the tow hitch was close to bottoming out.

Hilario picked up huge pieces — long, with the circumference of telephone poles — and loaded them into the car, as Danae and I picked up what we could. Eucalyptus is an incredibly dense and heavy wood and is not popular for burning in this area due to the fact that it creates build up much more quickly in your stovepipe than other woods such as oak or almond. Still, we like it. The eucalyptus doesn’t ash as much as oak, and the logs (being that they are so dense) last much longer and give off a lot more heat.

Running a continual fire all winter has done more than give us a nice visual point for morning tea or an evening glass of wine, it has kept the air in the house just dry enough to combat the moisture in the air outside. This house, which was riddled with mold when we bought it, now doesn’t have a spore in sight. And while the propane heaters are effective on some level, on a very cold night, the heater in the living room doesn’t stand a chance of getting the room up above sixty degrees. The wood stove keeps the house between 68-72, which is perfect.

As I brought load after load of wood up to the van I began to laugh. What the hell are we doing? I imagined what our new life would look like to anyone from the outside that hasn’t watched the progression over the last five years (let alone the past five months). Why get goats when you can buy milk at the store? Why move to a house where your supply of gas and water are your responsibility and where you don’t have a seemingly unlimited supply? Why leave a comfortable existence in the suburbs and exchange it for work work and more work? To someone it would be more like a regression than progression.

The question calls to mind the 2011 documentary “Surviving Progress.” If you haven’t seen it, you should. In the film, Ronald Wright describes predicaments he calls “progress traps.” An example would be the Ice Age hunter who learned how to effectively take down a mammoth. Progress. Then Ice Age hunters learned how to take down two at a time. Progress. Eventually, they figured out that you could cause a herd of mammoths to stampede, running hundreds of them over a cliff face at one time so you could feed your entire clan for a year or more. Progress trap, because now there are no more mammoths to make more mammoths and once you finish all the meat you have, you’re pretty much screwed.

This describes so much of what is going on on planet earth today. We feel that because we CAN make things more complex, that we SHOULD do so. That if we can make something less work, that we should do so. We continually applaud ourselves for each and every quality that qualifies us as “civilized”.  And yet, in an age where first world people have more stuff and more opportunity (whatever that means) than they ever have, we have more people quietly suffering in private. People depressed, scared, uncertain of their own purpose.

Yesterday was another gorgeous February day. Danae and I decided we would go up to the top of the hill and work on constructing the new chicken run. We have been saying for months that we are going to do this, then priorities shift and the materials just sit where we originally deposited them.

Friday night I had taught Kaherdin how to make crepes, just the way my Hungarian almost-mother-in-law had taught me back in the days when Daniel and I were still together. Kaherdin picked it up instantly and made batch after batch of crepes. His crepes are slightly golden and thin. Perfect. He made breakfast crepes for all of us — to order. Goat cheese blintzes, dankles, whatever you want. We ate a leisurely breakfast then Danae asked what the kids should do for the day.

“They’re coming with us,” I said. “Helping us with the chicken run will be their chore for the day.”

My kids had chores on Garden Street, but it was hit or miss whether they got done. And, quite frankly, the chores we gave them were easy enough to do ourselves that we never really fought with them about getting them done. It is different here. There is more work, and that work HAS to get done. The way we ask them to help is now more out of necessity and team work than out of a middle class notion that kids should have chores. The kids now stack wood, sweep the floors, feed the animals, load and unload the dishwasher…

“I think we need to start teaching them,” I continued. “What good is all of the know how we’ve collected over the years if we don’t pass it on?”

Danae agreed.

At the top of the hill both kids asked, “What’s my job?”

I told Kaherdin that I was waiting for Danae to bring up the chainsaw, that I wanted to thin out a couple of spots on the property where baby trees had sprouted up over the past decade.

“I can take them down,” Kaherdin said.

“How do you propose to do that,” I asked.

“I’ll go get the axe.”

Kaherdin bounded down the trail back to the house then, a few minutes later, returned with a huge chopping axe that I had bought a couple months back.

“Which one do you want me to chop down,” he asked.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his enthusiasm, but I ran with it.

“This one,” I said, pointing to a young Douglas Fir.

He began chopping away at it and, as is Kaherdin’s way, his body began to show him how to use the tool. He worked for the better part of a half hour without stopping before he needed a break.

“Do you want me to finish up,” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I want to know what it’s like to chop down a whole tree.”

He took the axe back up and it wasn’t long before he tipped it with his hand and yelled, “Timber!”

After a short break he said, “Any more trees you need cut down? This is one of my chores now, unwanted plant removal.”

I was shocked, amazed and impressed, but not nearly as much as I was when, by the end of the day, he had chopped down no fewer than five trees all with an axe, all under his own power.

Gwennie worked with the drill to drive screws into the posts and post stakes that make up the perimeter of the chicken run. It was tedious and it was difficult — particularly because we have an incredibly torquey drill.

When I asked her, “Do you want me to finish up,” she said, “No, I’m going to try a different way.”

Before now I would have categorized both of my kids as quitters. As people of little substance. But what we have given them, a wealth of responsibility, has put just enough weight on their shoulders to keep them grounded. And, by sharing my dream of what we can make here under our own power, that wealth of responsibility brings with it a wealth of possibility. They can see more clearly the relationship between hard work and a different kind of progress — not the figurative kind where you can afford the cooler, shinier gadgets, or the home that could easily be in a Restoration Hardware catalog, but the kind that shows the direct cause and effect between hard work and a better, more literal quality of life.

This mountain house will never be the model home that so many strive to have for show, but it is enough. And enough is the thing to strive for.

We stopped work around 1:30 for lunch, then Danae and I returned to the hilltop on our own to resume work. Once again, the chicken run did not get finished. Instead I worked on chopping the downed trees with the chainsaw, while Danae loaded the cut pieces into the Polaris to bring back down the hill. We finished one, then moved to a different section to work on some others. My back was getting sore from maneuvering the heavy saw, but I was game to keep on going. I positioned myself in a spot where I could get maybe five good cuts in a row then, on the fifth cut, I pulled the saw toward me and rested it on my leg unconsciously. The chain ripped through my pants and for a moment I was afraid to see what other damage might be done.

Danae gasped and ran for me, “Turn it off! Shut it off! Are you ok? Are you ok?” She was screaming, her panic more urgent than usual.

Just a week before we had learned of the death of our friend, Sharon. Sharon was 51, just five years older than I am. Both her kids went through school with Gwen. By all accounts she was fine, until last Saturday when she wasn’t. Her death was sudden and unexpected. The details of her passing have left many in our school community, as well as Sharon’s larger community, on the one hand feeling the loss of her beautiful spirit while grasping for their partners and checking their overall health and well being with the other.

Sharon’s passing was the source of more than a couple of nighttime panic attacks for me, during one of which I awoke unable to breathe and feeling an inordinate amount of pressure around my heart. I was certain I was about to die and began screaming, “No, oh God, no!” I woke Gwen, who was sleeping in the room with me. She was frightened, so I calmed her then went out on the sofa where Danae was reading. It took the better part of a half hour to stop shaking.

I know for Danae and I, the greatest loss we feel is on behalf of Sharon’s children. We have both been imagining — perhaps too deeply — the pain they might be experiencing that we hope our children never have to experience.

I gently widened the hole where the saw had cut in. Blood was slowly coming to the surface, but the cut was as minor as it could be considering the damage that could have been done.

Danae gently grabbed the chainsaw from me. “We’re done for the day. We need to just be finished now.”

She knows me. Had she not taken the saw from my hands, I would have insisted we continue.

“OK, I said. You’re right. Reason number 572 why I don’t use the chainsaw when you’re not home.”

We walked out of the small grove onto the logging road and over to the goat barn.

“You know,” Danae started, “We really need a bench up here. Somewhere where we can just sit and enjoy the space.”

“You know the view I like up here?” I walked toward the back of the hilltop, close to where we had been cutting wood then turned around. Before me, green hilltop, with the chickens in their coop at the back. We would move them soon enough and would begin transforming this space into a massive garden.

“Hold on,” Danae said. She grabbed a concrete pier and brought it over. Then another. Then she grabbed a plank of scrap wood and put it across the two. “There,” she said, “now you have your bench and your view. Sit with me.”

We sat down on the make-shift bench and looked out over the hilltop.

“This is where I want a yurt or a travel trailer,” I said. “And in front of that, a deck. And in front of that, a pool. And in front of that, an abundant garden.”

It is in moments like these when I feel like a child again. I have enough space to dream and I can teach my kids to be dreamers. And, at the end of a day of really hard work, that cup of tea or that glass of wine in front of that fire made from the wood that I cut, tastes that much better.

I have what I need, and it is enough. And that, in and of itself, is progress.

 

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