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.

A Few Words About the Trees

There are two large deciduous trees blocking a clear view of the Reach at the far side of my property:


The leftward tree obscures the view of my neighbor’s house across the field; right next to it is the other tree. These trees are marked for execution, and before the end of the summer, I hope, they will be gone. They have to go not because they block my water view but because they have grown up inconveniently, among the electrical wires. In fact, the rightward trees has grown right around the guide wire that serves several other properties, and the power will have to be suspended when the trees come down so that no one dies while the work is being done. Continue reading “A Few Words About the Trees”

I Battle the Local Telecommunication Provider, and Other Headaches

cropped-img_17751.jpgThis morning finds me at the Blue Hill Library, a comforting establishment that is hand’s down nicer than any branch of the public library that I’ve patronized in Austin. It’s a pleasant place to work, with several quiet rooms where folks with laptops and devices congregate. When my daughter was here last month, she spent many afternoons here watching movies and television on her iPad. The library also sponsors a wide variety of events — there is even an art gallery upstairs — and has things on display like the facsimile edition of a book written in calligraphy and magnificently illustrated by Carl Jung. It’s a great resource to have.

The Peninsula is an interesting amalgamation of wealthy summer people, writers and artists who live here year round, and locals who keep the infrastructure running. I feel that I simply could not have picked a better place to live once Jane graduates high school and I move here for good. My neighbors are friendly and welcoming. Several women are fixing up (or have fixed up) old houses on their own, just like me, and my next door neighbor is cleaning out the Anchorage for the first renters.

Yet the process I’ve stepped into is daunting.

For instance, I am here at the library, rather than drinking a cup of coffee and sitting at my laptop in the privacy of home, because Fairpoint Communications refuses to install my wireless. Well, refuses is perhaps not the right word. They can’t bring DSL to my property because they are at capacity along my phone line and need to put in some new piece of equipment to boost the signal or whatever it is they do. Speeds at the tiny Sargentville Library branch, just three doors down from the Anchorage, are considerably down from last summer, suggesting that the boost is needed already.

And yet, a simple fix that would take three days in Austin is scheduled to take three months in this neck of the woods. I have been calling the company every few days, but they are comfortable stonewalling and remain resolutely courteous, a tough nut to crack. As the only internet provider to this part of the world, they can simply do what they want. The worst part? The DSL capacity is 15 mbps. That’s not enough to watch a movie or download any documents of consequence, so it looks like I’ll be working at the Blue Hill Library some days even after the service is finally installed.

And There’s More

Complaining about the lack of a 15 mbps internet service seems ridiculous when problems are cropping up everywhere around me:

  • The foundation of the Anchorage desperately needs shoring up beneath the dining room floor. The obviousness of this problem, which I feel should have been taken care of last year, makes me doubt the carpenter’s abilities.
  • There is a serious looking drywall crack in a downstairs corridor ceiling that I hope the carpenter can fix before the renters arrive on Saturday.
  • The gardens are a mess.
  • The woman who mows my lawn quit after breaking two windows last time she was here because she kicked up rocks under the mower. (She did fix the windows. Sort of.) The rocks are there because the excavator never cleaned the site after moving earth last year. I hesitate to reprimand him because he so cheap and otherwise decent and has a huge backlog of work. Besides, I hired the woman who mows to seed those areas. That work was not really done satisfactorily. The woman’s elderly mother has wrested the account from her daughter and will be coming to do the lawns tomorrow after a day of chemo treatments. This is not confidence inspiring.
  • The tree guy I hired has completely disappeared on me.
  • There has been some sort of argument or misunderstanding between the painter and the carpenter, and some of the work I contracted never was finished. I don’t believe this is work I paid for, just work they promised to do and never did. I have spoken with them several times, and they play dumb. Very frustrating.

Looking around the cabin yesterday afternoon — one can ascend into the building from a stepladder placed on the concrete footing where the bedroom fireplace once stood — I noticed something rather alarming. The north wall of the building is a bit out of whack and seems perilously close to slipping off its support beam. This would be kind of bad. Some of the workmen will be at the house tomorrow, and I’ll have them take a look and see what can be done.

If I had internet at my place, I’d post a picture of this problem. Instead, enjoy this little video of two poodles playing at the local beach.