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Monday, 29 August 2011


Peace has returned to the red house. The roofers and their heavy plant have taken off. The unfortunate part – apart from my catching a cold off one of them -  is that the job’s not quite complete. Working around the dormer windows meant that a large number of odd-shaped pieces had to be cut out that they ended up two sheets short.


In some ways this whole enterprise has been not unlike an old-fashioned barn-raising. We all know that the material costs of a job like this are only the tip of the iceberg. By my crude reckoning something like 170 man hours went into it. But after Matt and Kitty had shelled out for the roofing material, that’s all it cost them. These guys were friends, or friends of friends. They came from all over the state. They included line-men, construction workers, highways guys, bound by a common interest: hunting. And that’s what they get in return, a chance to kill deer up here when the season comes around. Two of the guys are actually planning to turn outfitters for a couple of parties next season, and they’ll be back to do a few more interior repairs. With luck, the last little bit of roof will be fixed later this week, and the chimney capped – because the feeling is that that’s where most of the rain-water has been coming in.


Considering the battering the house has had from the elements over the many years since it was used as a regular residence, it is in remarkably good shape. It was built with good timber, for example – as we saw when the old shingles were ripped off the roof. Matt told me that when he first came down here some years ago to tidy up, the doors were off their hinges, the windows were out, and the crap on the ground floor was up to two feet deep. Raccoons, badgers, rats and sundry birds had been living here; so in effect this new roof is part of a long-term restoration programme.

For me, it’s been a fascinating experience being around a bunch of hardcore westerners who are neither farmers nor ranchers. I have learned a lot about how these guys live, and realised the depth of my ignorance about the hunting culture; and a lot of the time I’ve been baffled by the language they use about the different type of deer, elk or antelope they kill. As ever, I have been struck by the friendliness and hospitality they have shown to a visitor from another planet. They’ve given me a lot to think about, and I suspect that this brief experience has helped shift my view, once again, of the way I shall approach this book I am writing. I am starting to see Mari Sandoz becoming a little less important, and the red house itself assuming a more central role.  One way or the other, I have to do some more thinking. Maybe that’s what I should’ve tried to say to the young man who asked me, ‘So, Alan, what do you do with yourself all day down here? What’s a typical day for you?’ Thinking is a lot of it. In fact, I would say that not thinking is as important. Observing is another part – be that the sky, the wildlife, the plant-life, the odd passing roofer. And sometimes it’s a matter of just being; living life day to day. Lessons creep up on you, truths slip unnoticed into your consciousness; and sometimes you can almost hear the clunk as a piece of jigsaw slips into place in your head.

Some time ago I mentioned that I thought the wee bird who’s taken up residence in the tin box outside the front door was raising a brood in there. Last week I realised that this was indeed the case. She was spending every daylight hour commuting between the long grass and her nest with, amongst other things, pieces of grasshopper in her mouth. I was of course extremely worried about the sudden invasion of a construction gang – especially when a huge pay-loader growled its way up to the front door.

But despite that, and despite the constant shouting and banging, the clattering of aluminum ladders against the eaves, the ear-splitting noise of the electric saw cutting through sheet of light steel, the sporadic hail of empty beer-cans from up on the ridge, that little bird just carried on doing what mother birds have to do.



And yesterday afternoon, when everybody had gone, there she was, charging around the yard trying to round up three or four fledglings who had flown the nest and were investigating the deer-skulls and antlers in the crux of the apple-tree.




I’m in recovery today. I need to gather my thoughts, do a bit more tidying up around the place, and fetch my tent back from up the hill.