The Quest for Fire, and Other Stories


Hello, blog followers. It’s been awhile. For someone who spent much of the summer lying in a hammock and thinking about the future, I have been reluctant to take action, and the months since my last series of posts have been full of self-induced stress.

A Summer of Renovation Projects and Small Disasters

My beloved seven-year-old poodle, Hazy, suffered a gastric hemorrhage on the drive from Austin to Maine, setting the stage for a season of emotional burn out and self-doubt. IMG_3106One minute I was taking photos of a quaint mountain town in North Carolina, the next minute I was looking at a mess of raspberry colored blood and tissue that my dog squirted out all over the sidewalk, sighing politely, unable to wait a second longer. The next day, after many frantic phone calls, I found a veterinarian who was willing to examine my dog and take him for the day to give intravenous fluids. Apparently dogs die not from shedding out a layer of their intestine, as horrible as that sounds, but from the severe dehydration that follows.

The dog returned the next morning for evaluation and was pronounced good to go; in the photo above, he is resting with the IV port still in his leg. I highly recommend Riversong Vet Clinic in Brevard, North Carolina, by the way. They are skilled and compassionate people who did not hesitate to help an unknown animal in need despite having a heavy case load that day.

The road trip was rife with other annoyances, such as a flat tire on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a power outage that shut down the entire city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, forcing me to seeking lodgings elsewhere, but the dog and I also enjoyed views like these as we inched our way toward the Shenandoah Valley.

IMG_3138 Our arrival to the property was presaged by many messages and photos from Dave Simmons, the handyman I hired a few months earlier to take care of the place. Ben Webb, the excavator, postponed work on the septic system through an unseasonably warm autumn, the entire winter, and into the spring. IMG_20170511_154446Dave sent a photos of the property in April showing the complete upheaval of the front yard and removal of the stairs leading to the porch. It was a mess for a long time, something my neighbors let me know about whenever I spoke with them that summer.

Finally, in late April, Ben smoothed dirt over the concrete tubes of the leach field and planted grass seed. He was not done with the project; the lines connecting the two septic tanks still needed to be buried in the side yard. That part of the project was incomplete until July, when the first Airbnb guests of the season arrived.

Meanwhile, the handyman and my new carpenter, Henry Borntraeger IV, convinced me that I needed to roof much of the Estemeer (or north wing) of the house, mostly to get rid of a deep swale on the west side of the building caused by a quick structural fix some years back. The swale wasn’t causing damage — structurally, the whole building is pretty sound — but no one could be convinced of that fact, and since the whole roof really needs to be replaced anyhow, I let them go at it.

Generally speaking, when contractors look at this section of the building, the advice is to tear it down. I understand. It is a hodgepodge of pig sheds and outhouses creatively grafted to what was once, perhaps, the summer kitchen. But it’s my favorite part of the house, and rather than destroy it, I am going to restore, insulate, and turn the Estemere into a workable year-round apartment for some young couple who wants to live on my place and help with chores. At least, that is the goal at this writing.

About That Fire?

A while back, I wrote about my misadventures with a certain chimney sweep. Since that time, I’ve lost another chimney stack and found out that none of my existing fireplaces are safe, though occasional use of the Franklin stove in the Anchorage kitchen was deemed acceptable. A hole directly over where former occupants stacked the firewood in the garage off the barn led to some extremely smoky and disappointing fires in that uncomfortable hearth, making me all the more eager to roof that part of the barn before too much damage sets in. In the meanwhile, I had the roofers cover the affected areas with plastic tarp.

This autumn’s goal is to get at least one fireplace — namely the fieldstone hearth in the great room of the Cabin — in working order. This one structure has already cost me nearly $5,000 since it had to be cut around when we lifted the Cabin last summer in order to put in a solid foundation. The carpenters had to saw through two main beams that may or may not provide structural support; since the room seems to have been built along the classic principles of pier and beam architecture, one would assume that they are, but on the other hand, the left side of the chimney was built right into a beam, which feels more decorative than supportive.

No one can figure it out. Right before I left Maine for the season, I had the structural engineer out to meet with the carpenter in order to see what steps needed to be taken to preserve the structural integrity of that portion of the building. (I had already contracted a mason who, for just over $7,000, would rebuild the entire top of the chimney stack and remove the lead flashing, which now hung uselessly, like fish scales, about six inches shy of the new roof line.) It was a fruitless meeting in which the two men basically decided that they agreed with one another about everything, and I remained none the wiser about what, in fact, would be done.

I may not have been paying the best attention, though. I was at my wit’s end because my 80-year-old mother had just major surgery after spending months in agony from a cyst that had grown up against her spine and was pressing on the sciatic nerve. I wanted to spend time with my parents, but my father was angry at me because I was not spending enough time with my parents, and his wrath was keeping me both guilty and away. After years of worrying about what might happen if my father died first, I had an unpleasant flash forward to that alternate reality in which mom left my father on his own. I didn’t like it. My father is so anxious and set in his ways that my mother absolutely has to outlive him.

Idle thoughts like these crowded my brain, joining the series of renovation plans that needed to happen, might happen, and would probably never happen. I also had this to contend with:


Two dogs in the backseat. Two dogs needing to be fed, taken out, driven over 2,000 miles back to Austin. One of them peed about once every 20 minutes. No wonder I was unable to concentrate. I was at the absolute maximum of what I could handle.

To Sum Things Up

The masons are still working on the chimney, and they have pointed out that I’ll need to have the firebox rebuilt as well. In case anyone has been keeping tabs, that’s close to $15,000 just to have fire in one fireplace. IMG_20171009_151126The carpenters finishing trimming the wall where the Cabin’s second chimney used to be, and somewhere along the way, they dropped a tool on the brand new lavatory sink, causing a massive chip in the porcelain finish. No one has accepted responsibility for this damage; the caretaker merely suggested that I should purchase a new sink. The old sink had to be replaced because the washer was shot, and given the age of the sink, there was no way repair it. The new sink had been installed for less than a month when this happened.

I am back in Austin. It’s been a hot and humid autumn. The puppy has grown almost to the size of my adult poodle. My mother is mending nicely. Before long, it will be Winter Break.

Panoramic Anchorage

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I took this shot a couple of days after returning to Maine. It is not at all how a person would actually visualize the houses in relation to each other, but at the same time the panorama image captures the ramshackle essence of the Anchorage pretty exactly.

Three different builders have suggested abolishing the Estemere — the spot where (I guess) a pig shed and outhouse were joined to the kitchen ell — but for me those additions make the house special. It is not just an original farmhouse but has served two unique purposes, first as a farmhouse and then as a summer house. Both are worth preserving.




The Summer Prequel, Part Two: the Gordian Knot

The state of things at the Cabin last summer.

Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.

— Jean Cocteau

I got an email from my caretaker yesterday. He couldn’t figure out how to activate the electricity in the Anchorage, which I had turned off for the winter. Emera, the service provider, told me that all he needed to do was press a button underneath the meter. In the end, this turned out to be true, but it caused Dave to make several trips out to the house as we both puzzled over what it could mean — Had they activated power to the wrong house? Had they even bothered to turn on the power in the first place? Are you sure they said “a button”?

This feels like a metaphor somehow.

Restoring a historic Maine homestead is more difficult than I thought it would be.

There, I said it.

When I first walked around the place, I realized that both foundations needed work. The Anchorage needed a new roof and some paint. There was water damage on the west wall of both buildings from ridiculous gutter systems that leaked storm run off directly down the outer walls. I soon learned that no one could even locate the septic tank for the main house.

On the whole, this was not discouraging. My ex and I had basically disassembled our Austin home and put it back together. I had sanded floors and stripped acres of wallpaper on my own in various rental properties to make them more appealing. Besides, my Realtor showed me six other houses, and all of them had flaws that would require extensive remodeling. They also had impediments to water access or no way to tap into passive income once I moved up there. I didn’t want to cash out my retirement funds without having a property that paid for its own taxes and maintenance, at the very least, because then all the cash would be tied up in the house, and the only way to liquidize the equity would be to sell or refinance. I wanted a property that I could rent in the summer — and still live on. And with my budget, that meant renovation and restoration was in the cards.

The inspector’s report contained mostly good news, especially considering the age of the Anchorage. Thanks to conscientious attempts to counteract the forces of gravity, there was remarkably little structural damage. For all practical purposes, the Anchorage was move in ready.

Nevertheless, as the previous owner wryly remarked once the closing papers had been signed, the place “has a lot of moving parts.”

IMG_0274The first sign of systematic trouble came in the form of the water testing report, which showed high concentrations of arsenic and heavy metals in one spring, the one that feeds the Cabin, and lower concentrations of arsenic (but no heavy metals) in the Anchorage spring. The springs themselves are enormous; one has a cistern that is thirty feet long. Falling down “houses” in the woods cover them both, and plastic tubes run through the boggy woods to the property. These springs once fed a property up the road as well, through a system of pipes that run hundreds of feet east to what must have been a pump house.

There is no shortage of water. It flows all the way down Caterpillar Hill, through my woods and into the marshy foot of my meadow, where it inundates my neighbor Pat’s careful landscaping in the spring. The dampness below is what’s kept the wood of both houses in pristine condition all these years.IMG_0293

Thus, it was a bit ironic that the well guy, a taciturn Yankee who looked for all the world like a sea captain, had to bring in special equipment to fracture the bedrock once he got down to 400 feet and still was coming up dry. That cost a pretty penny. The well, now full, sits amidst a glorious expanse of sand that Ben Webb, the excavator, trucked in to support the weight of the concrete mixer that poured the foundation last summer. I’m set to tap it this summer when the plumbers reconnect the Cabin’s plumbing. If it contains arsenic, I’m going to cry.


Last summer was all about the Cabin foundation. The house was sinking into a bog at the northwest corner; in another decade, the support beams would have snapped. Since this is the house I’m going to live in, I needed to act fast.

The house was in the air for almost two months, while Ben built roads and moved dirt around to create new pathways for the water to go, and the very handsome — sorry folks, no pictures of that crew — family of Joel Wilson built forms and poured the concrete in stages. Finally, it was carefully lowered back on to the new foundation with system of many hydraulic jacks jerry rigged into a control board.


This summer is all — or mostly — about plumbing and water. Ben dug the leach field in my front yard last fall before the first frost, and sometime soon — ahem — he is going to put in the tanks and lay the connecting sewer pipes. The plumbers need to

  • divert some pipes.
  • install a pump beneath the foundation on the west wing to help the water flow.
  • install a pump in the well itself.
  • reconnect the plumbing in the Cabin.
  • insulate the pipes so that I can have water year round in the Cabin.
  • connect water to the Anchorage, either from its spring or from the new well.

Meanwhile, putting a solid foundation beneath the Cabin has led to problems of its own. The carpentry crew needed to cut around and stabilize what were then two Cabin chimneys in order to do the lift. Sadly, I lost the chimney in my bedroom in that maneuver; it had been poorly built and was cracked. No romantic fires in there for me. The silver lining will be a larger master bath, complete with skylight.

Creating clearance around the stone chimney and hearth in the Cabin’s great room cost thousands of dollars and has left structure damage that still needs to be repaired. Moreover, stabilizing the foundation, which settled all the windows down into their sashes for the first time in many years, has caused damage to the roof, last shingled when the house was crooked. A mason needs to come in and re-flash the chimney, and the whole building has to be re-roofed.

Move one thing, and two others break. It’s a Gordian knot, all right.

Fortunately, I am a poet.

The Summer Prequel, Part One: Getting There

IMG_3019In five weeks, I start my annual journey from Austin to mid-coast Maine.

The route I took last year is marked on my old Road Atlas in orange. I went through the Jim Crow rice fields of Arkansas and straight across Kentucky, cruising on its generous and restful parkways and veering north to cross the Ohio River on an old trestle bridge. On the drive out, I had my daughter, Jane, with me, and we shot straight up Ohio into New York so that she could see Niagara Falls. On the way back I cut across West Virginia on Route 50, taking on Appalachia one stubborn ridge at a time and plunging straight into the humid South, like Dante entering the gates of hell.

This year, I am going to avoid the sad flat part of Arkansas and cut across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, states that I have never seen. On some future trip, I will drive the back roads through bayou country, but this year I plan to take on the full length of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Georgia to Virginia, so I’ll make quick work of the redder states. I know the route from Virginia to Boston well; I lived in Charlottesville for six years. If I weren’t stopping off to see my parents, I might continue north on the Taconic and drive from the Adirondacks across the Green and White Mountains into central Maine.

I do love road trips. I like waking up before dawn and hitting the road as the sky begins to pale, smelling that early morning freshness as I tank up for the first time of the outskirts of some one horse town. I love one horse towns and even towns that are just a strip along the interstate. I like that sweet glimpse of life seen in the moment you drive past a backyard in some little town — a girl chasing her dog, a family seated outdoors at a table decorated with balloons and a paper cloth.

As many people have observed, the United States is full of small towns. They all have downtowns, hearkening back to the day when downtown was the center of life and commerce. Now that life has shifted elsewhere. I remember sitting on the high curb of my childhood downtown, Saxonville, watching an Independence Day parade.  Soon afterward, the carpet factory that was poisoning the water closed down, and Saxonville ceased to exist, just like that; letters mailed to us no longer mentioned it in their address, and even the elementary school changed its name to honor one of the former principals instead.

Our village became part ofsax04 Framingham, and the downtown shopfronts went to wrack and ruin. Of course, some a civic-minded former mill worker devoted her life to sparing the carpet factory from being torn to the ground; there is always someone like that, at least in New England. Her efforts paid off; the nineteenth-century buildings of that downtown, along with the Dickensian spires of the factory itself, were placed on the Historic Register in 1992. But as a community, Saxonville was gone forever.

Downtowns across America have met the same fate, and this is something you cannot help but notice when you drive across the country. The poorer the state, the more it seems apparent: in wealthy states, like Massachusetts, historical societies step in to protect us from our inclination to kill the past.

But in Arkansas, the downtowns I saw were tragic. Boarded over shops and restaurants lined the streets. Big agriculture rules this part of the world, and the seed shops gleamed with newness in stark contrast to defunct general stores and cafes that were literally deteriorating. I took a side trip to Hope, the birthplace of Bill Clinton, on the way home. I could not find his childhood home. The signs were vague; I lost the trail somewhere in the back streets of yet one more falling apart downtown.

IMG_2790The only place that was really jumping in Hope was the McDonalds on the outskirts of town, near the freeway interchange. It had a brisk two columned line at the drive through when I pulled in a few minutes later to purchase something my dog might eat. I pulled into a spare lot at eight in the morning; the sun was already mean and glaring. The dog sniffed at the burger and looked away. I should have ordered scrambled eggs for him. I took a bite out of my own Egg McMuffin and tried to imagine life here, with the twentieth century dismantled and the twenty-first century not yet in place.

I had spent the night before in a motel where homeless people lived. When you travel with a dog through middle America, you will stay in a lot of motels like this. I don’t mind. Families congregated around the pool, talking. Watching their children jump in the water gave me food for thought. The children’s enjoyment was restrained, almost polite. I wondered if they would remember this place, because of the pool.

A young Asian family had purchased the franchise several years before, and they were barely making a go of it themselves. The place was under construction in the haphazard way of people without a dime to spare. They had hired people to clean the rooms in exchange for a place to stay, which is a good idea, except it meant the rooms weren’t passably clean and were being cleaned at all hours of the day and night. Children’s bikes lined the corridor behind the office; they were living in the place themselves. I had the woman behind the desk move me from the first room she showed me because the mini fridge was still full of food, and the former occupants had been heavy smokers. She did it in an expressionless way, without surprise.

I wanted to say to her, I understand. I have my own money pit. But to her I was just another Potential Bad Review who had been lured in by the brand name recognition and would not be coming back.

Garden Design Ideas for a Winter Day: Reminiscing About Thuya Gardens

Winds blew down from the plains of Canada again, bringing cooler weather to Austin. Does it feel like winter? Not really. But it’s nice to wake up to a cold house. Turning on the heat and drinking a leisurely cup of coffee in the morning are two of life’s great pleasures.

Last summer, my friend Sharon and I set off with our poodles on a pilgrimage to Northeast Harbor, an idyllic village smack dab in the middle of Acadia National Park. Many years ago we worked as chambermaids at a gray-shingled family compound right across the drive that led to Thuya Gardens. After I tidied the house for the day, I changed into shorts, tied a sweater around my waist, and headed up that drive for an afternoon of hiking. The sweater kept drizzle and deer flies at bay when I tied it, Laurence of Arabia style, around my head; it was the only thing I carried with me on the trails. I drank water straight from the streams that thundered down the rocky crevices through stands of birch and pine.

img_2421Thuya Gardens was my first stop on the way to the Asticou Map House, a rustic enclosure containing a bench seat and framed topographical map of Acadia National Park. From there, I would hit the trails.

I liked to walk straight through the front entrance gate of the garden — designed and hand-carved from cedar by Charles K. Savage, the man who created the garden — and out a lesser known gate at the back of the garden. The transition from Edwardian elegance to coastal wilderness never failed to thrill me. On foggy days, the herbaceous borders were shrouded with mist, the dahlias and staked delphinium beaded with moisture that bent their heads downward. There was a shrouded silence on mornings like this, only broken by the cawing of crows in the surrounding treetops.

The place hasn’t changed a bit in 30 years. There is still the shaggy backdrop of pines rustling behind the border wall, the pot-bellied urns standing sentinel, the brightly blooming flower beds. Charles Savage, a landscape architect and life-long resident of Northeast Harbor, designed the garden during his 37-year tenure as trustee of the land left by Joseph Henry Curtis, a Boston landscape architect who summered in Northeast Harbor. His house, Thuya Lodge, now houses a collection of botanical and horticultural books and is open to visitors during the summer months.

The garden’s design is a coastal Maine take on the work of two noted landscape architects, the British designer Gertrude Jekyll and Beatrix Farrand, who planned the garden at Bellefield, the estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Plants purchased from Reef Point, Farrand’s summer home in Bar Harbor, were some of the first specimens in Thuya Garden.

The garden features a central  corridor of gentle terraces that flow upward from the Japanese reflecting pond at one end to a red roofed shelter at the other. Hardscaping in native granite helps the garden both to have formal boundaries and to transition into the surrounding landscape. The beds host a combination of cultivated European hybrids and native North American flowers.

On summer afternoons, a few die-hard garden enthusiasts make their way up the Asticou Terrace Trail from Peabody Drive, where they are able to pause at several strategically placed shelters to catch views of Northeast Harbor. The place is never crowded, though, and serenity prevails.

Thuya Lodge and Gardens is open throughout the summer. Check out their official website for more information.