Nobody who knew the Hewitt family could believe they were leaving their homestead behind and starting over.
By Ben Hewitt
Jan 31 2016
The author cuts ridge supports for the new barn.Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt
By the middle of January, the snow is thigh-deep in the woods, and when I attempt to drive the tractor down to the copse of balsam fir I’ve been eyeing, I make it less than halfway before becoming mired. I shift into reverse and let the clutch out, but the deep-lugged tires churn uselessly, foiled by the sheer accumulation of snow.
Stubbornly, I keep trying to extricate myself, shifting from forward to reverse and back again as quickly as the tractor’s balky transmission will allow, but every rotation of the tires only sinks the machine a little lower into the snowpack. I can feel my spirits sinking with it. In any normal winter, I’d simply wait for a change in conditions—a January thaw, perhaps, or even the inevitable shift of seasons.
But this isn’t a normal year, because just three months ago, we closed on a parcel of land a dozen miles to the north. Within a month of that, we struck a deal to transition our current homestead to friends. This means that as of this very January morning when I find myself unable to reach the trees that will provide the lumber to build our new home, we have less than 10 months in which to erect shelters for our animals and ourselves.
Ten months to fell the trees, skid them, then lift them onto the mill and saw them into the constituent parts of our new home. Ten months to stack and sticker the green lumber, still redolent of balsam’s earthy sweetness. Ten months to install the septic system and develop the spring I found entirely by chance, tucked into a little hollow at the base of a rock outcropping about 600 feet uphill of the house site, a stroke of good fortune that prompted me to whoop in delight. Ten months to peruse Craigslist for used windows, and then to drive to western Massa-chusetts twice in our old Subaru, returning with so many windows strapped to its roof that I can barely hold highway speeds for the wind resistance. Ten months to plan and replan. Ten months to measure, to saw, to hammer. Ten short months.
Alas, the historic winter of 2014–15 has magically transformed 10 months into even fewer, and as I climb down from the tractor to begin the process of extrication, I feel a tentative, licking flame of despair. What were we thinking? That we could build a house and barn in less than a year, each constructed of lumber we’d sawn ourselves? Hah! If there were no other explanation for a winter of record-setting cold and relentless snowfall, perhaps the sheer arrogance of our plan would have been reason enough. The gods generally do not let arrogance go unpunished.
I trudge and wallow through the snow, unreeling the winch cable I’ll use to pull the tractor to higher ground. The balsam will live another day; the road into the woods is simply too long, and the snow too deep, to make plowing it practical. I’ll retreat to the house to stoke the woodstove, set the coffeepot atop it, and revisit the plans Penny and I sketched out on graph paper.
Already, we’ve revisited them a dozen times over, but what else can we do? In the face of everything we must accomplish before the last autumn leaves fall to the ground, inactivity is not an option.
Our decision to pull up stakes for a parcel of land a dozen miles to the north of here is rooted in a medley of good old-fashioned Yankee pragmatism, and something that is less easily defined but no less meaningful: an evolving understanding of how we want to carry out the latter half of our lives on this earth. For us, that means downsizing and simplifying our lives even further: a (much) smaller house; a lesser array of outbuildings, designed for the ways in which our homestead has evolved, ways that we couldn’t predict 15 years ago.
Not inconsequentially, we were smitten with the jettisoning of belongings that our new, half-sized home will necessitate, for it’s a homeowner truism that no matter how big you build, you will fill it. Despite taking pains to minimize consumption, we’d filled our first, 2,200-square-foot effort, and our belongings had become our albatross, as if we bore their significant weight on our shoulders.
And so we did something we never imagined we might do, surprising both ourselves and, it’s fair to say, everyone we know (one friend literally had to sit down when she heard the news): We committed our lives to another piece of land. “You’re crazy,” was the common refrain, or some mildly more polite version of it.
And on some level, we couldn’t disagree, because it was crazy. Our home here, the one you’ve seen depicted in photos over the past year, is wonderful. It’s rustically beautiful and, furthermore, sound of structure and spirit. Our children were born under its roof; Penny and I were married at the knobbed height of the land.
What’s more, the land itself is ideal-ly suited to our purposes. The pasture is thick and verdant, the garden soil rich and friable. And our neighbors! All winter, three evenings each week, the boys have snowshoed or skied down to Melvin’s barn to help with evening chores. A half-mile over his hayfield, and then down the steep pasture hill, and then back again in the inky winter dark. Sometimes they’ve complained before leaving, for often it’s been below zero and gusting, but always they’ve returned home full of accomplishment and carrying the incomparable odor of cow barn. “You smell barny,” Penny and I say, stretching out the made-up word for full effect.
We considered all of this before we made our decision. We considered, and sometimes we cried. We struggled for months with our decision, and the odd thing was, the moment we realized how happy we could be if we stayed, that was precisely the moment when we felt as though we could do this: despite our love for this place (or maybe because of it); despite the many ways in which this place is ideal for us; despite everyone who thinks we’ve gone off the rails. (And here’s another thing I’ve learned: One of the best ways to know whether a major change is right for you is if everyone thinks you’re nuts and you still want to go for it.)
The land we’re building on is profoundly beautiful, albeit in very different ways from this property. It’s 96 acres or thereabouts, mostly wooded, with a seven- or eight-acre abandoned apple orchard. There’s just enough pasture to graze our small herd of cows. At the height of the land resides a cathedral-like sugarbush, not large enough to interest a commercial sugar-maker, but ideal for our purposes: 100 taps, I’m thinking. A year-round stream bisects the property, and already the boys have identified the most prolific brook-trout holes. Already they’ve found bear and raccoon tracks in the silt along its stony edge.
The next year will be as busy as any we’ve known. We still have this property to manage, gardens to plant, animals to husband, winter stores to put up. Despite spending much of the winter selling and giving away the half or more of our belongings that won’t fit into our new, as-yet-unbuilt home, we’re not there yet. We’ve dispensed with the easy stuff, the unsentimental accumulations of the past decade and a half. Next comes the harder stuff: the boys’ favorite toddlerhood toys, the make-believe kitchen set Penny made them. It even has burner knobs and an oven that opens. But it must go.
Still, I think we’ll hang on to it just a little longer. There’s no reason to be hasty: After all, we’ve got 10 whole months.