Stepping into Grace Land (02/14/08)

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Stepping into Grace Land (02/14/08)

Post by anna »

When we returned to the U.S. from Iceland, we returned with the intention of buying land with a house on it in Nova Scotia, and settling there. Just prior to leaving Iceland, we had considered buying something there, and applying for a visa in Iceland. However, in those days, it was difficult to live in Iceland without sponsorship, and that seemed just too complicated at the time. This was enough of a leap of faith, just quitting the comfort and security of a government career, and we thought perhaps sticking closer to home would make that leap less enormous and frightening. At this point, we were “of little faith”, and thus the enormity of this decision was enough to occasionally take our breath away. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that, if push came to shove, we could always return to the Foreign Service. This was an open invitation when S originally resigned, because he was a high caliber officer in that agency, and they were universally sad to see him leave. When times got particularly scary, we would remind ourselves that we always had this alternative, which, within about a year’s time, receded into the past, and by then was no longer an alternative in our minds at all. Once we removed ourselves from the glamorous, privileged, and closed society of the Foreign Service, we began to fully see how cloistered and in many ways, superficial, artificial, and limited it truly was. It was fun while it lasted, but it was certainly not conducive to any kind of inner growth.

That was essentially as far ahead as we had looked. We were not even aware that our lives would be spent searching for God, or finding the truth, nor devoted almost exclusively to that pursuit. Instead, we just wanted to find a piece a land and build a house. Maybe set up a garden, and S would write, and I would paint. And how we would do that we had no idea either. Neither of us had ever built anything, we had never owned a house, much less did we consider building one, at first., Nor did we know how to go about finding the right piece of land. We hardly considered how we would pay for all of this. We had a lump sum of S’s retirement plan from the State Department, and it wasn’t a particularly large lump sum, but that was about the extent of our finances. We anticipated using all of that lump sum to buy a house. How we would continue to pay for bills was in the future, and we had not really thought much about that. We were young and we could always find work. We simply consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we had good educations, and knew how to use the library and use books. Anything could be found in a book. So we started reading books about land, building, what to ask, what to avoid, what to look for, how to deal with realtors, and not to be afraid to ask questions and to build it ourselves. We read literally hundreds of books about this subject. One of the best was “Finding Land and Building in the Country." I think it is still in publication.

When we started north by automobile to the Canadian border from Boston, where we had disembarked from the Icelandic Freighter that we adventurously sailed across the Atlantic from Iceland when we quit the State Department, we anticipated reaching Nova Scotia in a couple of days. So en route, we wended our way through the state of Maine, following Route 1 up the eastern seaboard, stopping in Ellsworth for lunch, and deciding to take a quick look around the area just out of curiosity. After all, moving to Canada entailed visas and complications, and our intention was to find country land, wherever it was less costly. Nova Scotia seemed logical, because an airline pilot friend of ours had suggested we seek land north of New Hampshire, where, at that time, in the early 70’s, air pollution as seen from his cockpit, stopped at the New Hampshire border. It is unfortunately no longer true; Maine now suffers from great flows of air pollution in the summer drifting eastward. Sometimes it is even dangerous for susceptible persons to venture outside in the peak of summer-time heat waves. I can remember the early years of our transplant to Maine consisting of cool summer nights, so cool we needed blankets, and where the Milky Way was a regular vista in the heavens, because of the clear, pristine air. Air conditioning was not necessary, and the days seldom reached above the mid 70’s. It was hard to grow watermelons and warm loving plants without assistance in the form of protection in our garden. We could see the lights of moving cars in the town of Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island, which was 45 miles in the distance because the air was so clear. That is seldom the case nowadays. Indeed, frequently now we cannot even make out the huge mountain of Mount Desert Island due to the heavy pollution we suffer every summer.

We of course initially looked for land that had 100 acres, a stream, waterfront, hills, and perfect views. We settled instead for 15 acres at the end of a dead end road, fully forested, with no stream, but near a lake, but no waterfront, and no view to speak up, and only sloping land to the south, which was simply fortunate, because we did not know in those days how important a southerly exposure would be. The piece of land that we stumbled upon was a piece that was just listed with this little broker we arbitrarily picked in Ellsworth. We saw a sign outside that looked interesting, and just dropped in for a look see. He happened to have a just newly listed bit of land which was being sold by an old timer who owned enormous tracts of land for four generations back. And he NEVER sold land, but had just put this piece up because he needed some cash for his son. He was asking $8,500 for 15+/- acres. After visiting the land, and standing within the trees, that same day, and finding that we felt rooted, positively connected and at home, we offered $3,000, that day, which by that time was all we felt we could afford, combined with the costs of building something, would quickly reach the top of our budget. The agent looked appalled, but was required to pass on the offer. In fact, we insisted that we make the offer personally, which was totally out of character and generally not acceptable behavior according to the irritated agent.

We met the owner and his wife the following day, explained our limited budget and our reason for moving to Maine, and the man and wife accepted our offer stating, in typical Maine fashion “We are willing to sell this land to you because you will be our neighbors, and the kind of neighbors we want to live with are more important than money in the long run.” The entire transaction was too simple, to perfect, and too ideal to have been just random.

In many ways, this entire event happened in spite of us. We were driven, and somehow found the right contacts, did the right things, and successfully accomplished what needed to be accomplished by the grace of God, though at the time, we would not have called it that. In retrospect, this was a time of enormous growth, grace, and magic. However, being ignorant and young, we took much for granted and claimed much of the miraculous as our own efforts.

The purchase of the 15 acres of woodland in Maine, in a small town with only 280 citizens was fortuitous in the fullest sense of the word. It planted us in a non-distracting, beautifully natural setting, one that might just as easily have been a retreat anywhere in the world. A place that was conducive to introspection, and isolated enough so that the distractions of worldly endeavor and glittering consumerism were no longer around every corner. The nearest shopping was 30 miles away. The people who lived in the town were used to privacy and independence, and the locals did not intrude in any way whatsoever in our lives. Most had lived there for generations and were extended families. This was a poor town by most standards, although today, with all of its lakes, it is becoming a haven for transplanted real estate developers. Because they were relatively poor, they did not have airs, nor did they expect others to have any. They had virtually no building codes, so one could build whatever one wanted, without intrusion by officer’s enforcing codes. There was a laissez-faire attitude within this town that permitted and encouraged self-sufficiency and neighborliness. It was an environment that planted our feet literally on the earth, and generated a deep connection with nature, the soil, the trees, stripped of things and stuff, simplified down to the basic essentials of living.

Many of our early contacts with more knowledgeable home builders and carpenters, of which there are many of the latter in these small towns of Maine, discouraged us, even laughing at our “naiveté”, when we suggested we were going to build our home ourselves, design it, clear the land, do the foundation work, the plumbing, the electrical work, the whole thing, from start to finish. Part of the reason for this ambitious undertaking was that we found we did not have the money to purchase a fully constructed house. In addition, those that we could barely afford were in such disrepair that we could not bring ourselves to consider purchasing them. We had figured that if we did the labor, then perhaps we could come out of the final cost without incurring any debt, which, in fact we did, with the exception of a small $5,000 loan. In total, we figured that the house, including the land, would cost us about $25,000. Which it did, when fully completed. That included the cost of living in a rented camp during the construction, as well as all other incidentals of living during the construction process.

Lowering our expectations, and our demands, determining instead our needs and bare minimums for comfort and not opulence, was a stroke of genius, because it avoided indebtedness, which freed us considerably during those years of commitment to freedom from just such indebtedness, either in the form of money, or any other seeking such as fame, ambition, material possessions, and the like. Slavery comes in many forms, and is often almost invisible, but it is slavery nonetheless. Indebtedness is one of the more insidious forms.

There were some local old timers in the town that encouraged us, and brought us into their own circle of friends. They gave us needed reinforcement and the will to persevere, despite the negative responses from the professionals who we early on consulted, and who we eventually ceased consulting entirely. We needed guidance on how to clear the land, who to turn to for well drilling, septic building, driveway, and preparation of the site for building. We found those by listening closely, asking with respect and appreciation, and by enthusiastically taking the old timers’ advice in gratitude. Too many new comers to Maine, some of whom became our good friends, thought they knew better, and found eventually that they did not know better. We managed to avoid that pitfall, by some fortunate accident. The old timers knew these things, and knew how to do it right, knew who to consult, and who NOT to consult. Knew who was honest and who wasn’t, and knew who to respect and who not to. These people had lived for generations in these hills, and when moving to the country, to ignore their warnings and suggestions was to imperil your own success in moving to the land. We had both transplanted or “from away” friends, and the old time locals. We found the old timers to have an essence and wisdom that far exceeded that of any of the transplants or ourselves for that matter. Gurdjieff always believed that the “peasant” retained his “essence”, and the same could be applied to the old timers in the back woods of Maine. They had, and have, stability, a core, strength of character that is unique and rare. They have their faults, of course, but they tend to have a clearer vision of character, than we did in those days, perhaps because our vision was so clouded with middle class values and conditioning. However uneducated some of them may be, their wisdom and depth far exceeds many of the highly educated people that we honor so much in our culture. It is from this initial introduction to the old timer that S and I first began to be aware that what we call ignorance may be wisdom, and what we call knowledge and wisdom, may be in fact ignorance.

We initially constructed and then lived in a small hand built shed on the property, with our puppy and two cats, while we built the main house. The puppy was the result of an excess of enthusiasm brought on by a box of them by the side of the road, for free. This puppy developed into a gorgeous mixed breed which out-of-staters would periodically ask about, requesting the name of the breed, he was so beautiful. But it was stubborn and outrageous and never learned to come when called, but brought dead rabbits to me periodically as a toy, tossing it in the air, and running off with it when I tried to retrieve it from him. He would do this with my books as well, when I lay them on the ground. It wasn’t his fault, he grew up in the midst of constructing a house, and rarely received any directions or discipline.

Having little extra cash, we needed to be frugal and careful. This new experience in counting pennies was instructive and humbling. The entire process of finding land, and building a house, which the two of us did ourselves, by ourselves, but with advice of the locals, was in essence, a miraculous event. We cleared a full acre of land, piling the brush (trees) into huge bonfires, in the middle of the wooded forest, holding our breath that we would not start a full-blown forest fire, while our woodsman old-timer friend reassured us that it would not occur. It never did. We lifted logs, and whole trees, to make ties for a 34 foot wide building which were laid across the top plates of the outer walls for the building and ran clear across the open indoor space to the other outside wall to “tie” them together so they wouldn’t fall apart from the weight of the heavy roof. Understand, this was an entire spruce tree, bark removed, as well as branches, of course, which just the two of us lifted up to these plates and secured with huge spikes down into the wall plate. How we managed to do that alone still astounds me. We had to have had someone lifting these with us, and yet, we never saw them.

We cleared the land ourselves, with the help and guidance of the local woodsman, a wise and incredibly intelligent man who remains our friend today. The land was thickly covered with huge trees, all of which needed to be cleared. S learned from this same man how to wield a chain saw, and became every bit as adept at using it as any old time woodsman is. He also taught us how to walk through a forest without getting lost, useful in the area which was primarily timber land, of which our piece of property was a part.. We swatted black flies, thick in those days in a forest that had never been disturbed for some 40 odd years. The first day they appeared, we were surprised by these little bugs, but took no precautions against them, so that when evening came, my neck was swollen as was my face and hands from the nibbles these bugs take out of your skin to inject their itching venom to keep the blood from clotting as they drink their dinner. Horrible things -- and it took many years before I developed something of a resistance to the itch from their venom. Those too are dwindling now with air pollution, global warming, and increased population – one of the pros to counteract all the cons to all three events.

At the same time, we cleared an area for a garden, and planted our first tomato plants, about 50 plants, not having any idea that 50 plants were considerably more plants than we could ever use, can, or harvest. We were new at gardening, and it would take another year of reading appropriate books to learn to garden organically and successfully.

It took us from the spring to fall of 1974 to close it up. With two cats and a badly disobedient puppy, we were safe from the first snowfall. That building still stands, some 34 years old, but I am sorry to say, after we sold it, it went speedily downhill and now looks like a dump! Houses require care, and this was a great lesson in detachment for us after selling it 7 years later and then watching it fall apart.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers........Wordsworth