June 11, 2012

Birch Blessings

This week we felled a tree.

Patrick returned from tying up loose ends back home, arriving on the night train with a laden rucksack topped with a heavy chainsaw.

We watch from an upstairs window as he skilfully scales the birch tree in the yard. The branches grow at odd angles due to careless bollarding over the last few years, stunting the growth of the central walnut tree and blocking out a good deal of light from the main house.

It has not been an easy decision and now that the time has come, we all watch with baited breath. First the limbs are severed and then all at once the tall trunk crashes smoothly into the yard.

The deed is done. Maia stares in amazement and then trots down to touch the strewn branches, looking up and then down and then up again with wide eyes and a gabble of incoherent words. Saskia and her playmate dance up and down the inert trunk, soaking up the excitement of such a dramatic change to the inner courtyard.

The work continues for most of the day. The smallest leafy branches are loaded into a wheelbarrow to mulch the young trees growing along the edge of the roadside pasture. Then the limbs are cut into neat logs and stacked on a pallet against the wall of the 'sauna'. The straightest section of the thick trunk is trimmed and set aside to be planked at the sawmill. A few round disks, two or three centimetres thick, have also been saved as experimental chopping boards. Half a dozen slender poles are ear marked for the hay rick and the last scraps of the tree are neatly stacked in the corner for outdoor fires. I manage to salvage a good collection of bark for experimenting with oils and dyes. The only trace left is the stump, now a perfect seat at the edge of our newly built fire pit.

The courtyard feels much bigger now that there is a natural gathering point at the fire pit and a circular flow around the liberated walnut tree. My day of gathering salads and  slow-cooking a hearty bean stew - generously spiced, interspersed with meaty Polish mushrooms and a final smattering of ground elder and nettles – has paid off, as our guests for the evening arrive. Nine children dash around the yard exploring, chasing, hiding, laughing and dancing under the awe-inspiring arches of the hall. The elders talk and eat for hours as our last joint of mutton (from the sheep once resident here) gently spits over the hot coals.

We have recently discovered that an old granite staircase exists below the concrete steps entering the flat. They curve into the downstairs room, bi-passing the crumbling lobby. The original entrance would have been on the south side of the courtyard, where now there is but a window. It would be a big job to reinstate the old staircase, but viewing the main house as an integrated dwelling, it makes perfect sense. The lobby could then be rebuilt as a conservatory and with a double glazed window at the foot of the current stairs, the house would stand a much better chance of retaining heat in the winter. Winter plans have to be at the forefront of our minds, even now on the edge of a mild and abundant summer.

So with the rain still bursting through for days on end, we begin drawing charts and drafts of possible changes - heat, water, light, energy and utility all requiring equal consideration.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com

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