by Emma Parry
In England, you can’t remove a branch without getting permission from a phalanx of officious finger-waggers. Which made it all the more exciting to find we could design our house over a few nights on inky napkin backs, and, without any agonizing, get a green light. (It might have helped that for all our intentions to be unfettered by tradition, our drawing bore a boring resemblance to the colonial homesteads our predecessors might have settled on centuries ago.)
Then we had to decide exactly where to put the place. More than views, we wanted the house to feel rooted, grown from the land instead of plonked on top like some vinyl-sided blight or alien visitation. Having been rude about suburban developments named for the trees cut down to build them, we tried to do right by the land, keeping tree loss to a minimum, and spent a very fun day looking to find lines for our road that might plausibly have been coursed by water over millennia (rather than yanked out, as they actually were, in an excavator’s afternoon). We paintballed the trees in our chosen path and returned to the city, trusting the elusive heavy digger to clear the road by which we’d forever come home.
The timber frame studio being built. Photo by Joshua Briggs.
We gave the felled trees to a nearby farmer, our nearest neighbor, to preempt the disturbance of our presence, and returned to clear the frozen snow from our newly dug foundation over a long weekend. It was cold hard work that digging, but I was immune to anxiety and tiredness then, and this chill was still something of a thrill for someone raised in the indeterminate, temperate greys of an English winter. Plus those hours spent hacking away in our footprint were invaluable for plotting where to put things like the sink.
The brilliant blue, gaspingly cold day of the raising finally came. We drove early to the land to meet the master craftsman, a merry-eyed, rosy-cheeked, timber-framing genius whose gaze revealed the inner geometry he saw everywhere his eye fell. He was constantly assessing angles, gridding the universe on some invisible matrix and gesticulating busily with hands missing the tips of several fingers (clearly, he’d been hastier with the lathe back in the day).
We’d come to trust the master craftsman, as much for the buildings he’d raised previously as for his dizzying ability to build complicated frames in miniature with matchsticks that withstood the best winds lips could blow.
He had taken our sketchy design and seen through it to the essential skeleton beneath. We’d chosen the woods, and he’d handhewn the timbers, which would realize our dream. A weirdly ambitious dream given we had so little money, but less than a year after meeting there was a permanence about our commitment to the land that was bigger than us and our budget. I loved the idea that our wooden carapace could last 500 years. Plus, if it was strong enough to withstand mountain winds and whatever weather the centuries pelted it with, we figured we could take our time earning the cash to actually black it in.
For the day of the raising, the master craftsman had summoned a band of carpenters, all seemingly called John (or Jon. One Joe). With no crane, we were reliant on them showing up if we were to raise the frame in the little window before the next snows came. Josh and I set to work whittling the pegs that would hold the frame in place while I belatedly wished I’d made gallons of hot cider and vats of chili—some feminine al fresco hospitality worthy of “Witness” anyway.
Gradually the woodsmen materialized. Emerging, loping in long strides out of heavily weathered trucks, they were flinty eyed and sinewy, all hard, carved features, hand-rolled cigarettes and wry, laconic exchanges—some kind of Catskills’ answer to cowboys.
There was something so appealing in their banter and limber teamwork—and, for all their manifest strength, the complete absence of macho bluster.
There was a glamour to those reckless and rakish woodsmen too, a bit of the English Green Man about them. They lived their lives defiantly, wielding their freedom with pride, but their situations would come to seem more precarious than could be right given all their skill. None of the Johns had cellphones or bank accounts then. They would work cash-in-hand, time and materials, some jettisoning phone numbers each season to shed expired relationships and evade escalating claims of child care.
We got to know them better over the years it took to finish the house and add bits. One, who lived high on Ohayo Mountain, proved fearless, with the deepest voice I’ve ever heard. He was a great house painter but impatient, and would bounce his ladder round the house rather than lose the time to climb to the bottom and move it. Another, more gnomish, lived at the top of another nearby peak and could fix or grow anything, however unforgiving the conditions. He would later build us the most beautiful changing table a baby could have. Yet another, who had come from a Boston fishing fleet to apprentice with the master craftsman, and whose hands and pencil marks are on almost every beam here, was a talker, prone to endearing malapropism. He’d repeatedly end a story by picking up tools and assuring us “Well, we’re not getting any older.” A Freudian slip which fit perfectly with the Rip van Winkle theme of these hills.
We got to work with them that day, steadily winching the timbers into place while sudden breezes lifted layers of sparkling snow, bringing the air alive with twirling motes of light. Pine needles shimmered, tickled by the breeze, while the happy sound of mallet on peg steadily gave shape to the place.
I thought the world revolved around us then. I’d even been naïve enough to believe that the realtors had assembled for the closing on the land because they wanted to wish us well rather than out of any legal necessity. There was more of that vanity to our happiness the day of the raising, but I have to hope our pleasure was infectious. I remember everyone at their best.
The intervening years have been ruthless with those woodsmen: the wrong women, drink, and prison have caught up with some of them, and though I feel for the children left in their wake, it’s hard to think of those men of the woods effectively banished from the State or imprisoned so far from their element.
I like to picture them at full strength, raising frames again with easy skill and witty repartee in the dappled greens of the Catskills. Surviving whatever their Winter and living to build another day.
Next month excavators, the specter of sectarian violence, and a near death experience…
Emma Parry is a writer and literary agent with Janklow & Nesbit, NYC. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the Hudson Valley.