Winter retreat project 1 – holz hausen

Beginnings
Beginnings

I arrive in Margaree Harbour at a cottage with sweeping views of the Margaree river delta and Cape Breton Highlands. The arrangements were made in the fall so my firewood order (about 2 face cords) is “green” – meaning it’s not cured/dried for a year yet, and will not burn well.  I begin to think about how to relate with this wood pile and come across the holz hausen, a European wood-piling technique. It creates beautiful conical or beehive masses. Some argue it dries wood faster. I decide immediately it will make a relationship with the land I am visiting for the next four months and embark on building one.

Beginning wood pile
Beginning wood pile

One of the downsides of “sweeping views” is there is little protection from the wind, which is extraordinary here.  Many days have steady winds with gusts of 40-50mph from the west, and at least one day a week the winds are gusting 70-100mph from the southeast. They call this wind “Les Suetes”, which evolved from the Acadian French for “the southeasts”.

The cottageThe holz hausen works best at drying if placed with maximum exposure to wind and sun. I find the place where my driveway forks into the field. There is a natural bend that embraces the side of the cottage that receives Les Suetes, and is also exposed to sun throughout the day. Because the wind can feel like an aggressive force when it shakes the house, this location feels like a guardian spot.

 

 

Day 3
Day 3, drifting snow

 

The dimensions for my holz hausen are to be 7ft diameter by 7ft high. This is described in the research I find as being approximately 2 cords of splits. I think initially that I have 3 cords to work with, but later realize that I actually only have 2 cords of wood to stack, and am burning about 12 sticks a day as I go as well, to keep the house warm.

After a snowfall (shoveling out)
After a snowfall (shoveling out)

 

Center pole and cross-braces in.
Center pole and cross-braces

I have no wheelbarrow; I carry the logs by hand, 3-4 at a time.  The time I have to work on this is also limited as I spend my first 10 days in the cottage in a solitary meditation retreat. Also, the elements are wearying. As I carry the logs, local crows and a squirrel observe my progress. I feel also that the valley is watching this gesture take shape.

My body becomes achy and I am tired each morning. I also notice my strength increasing. I buy a maul (a kind of axe with a sledgehammer thickness) and enjoy swinging the flat head into the sides of splits frozen hard in the ground. The feeling of creating something physical outside, placing each log carefully, feels purposeful and satisfying.

Day 16. Running out of wood.
Day 16. Running out of wood.

After I have been working for almost two weeks, and also burning my wood for heat, I realize I won’t have nearly enough pieces to rise to 7 feet. Since I have already placed the center pole, I feel a pang of disappointment as I know this will now be sticking up instead of hidden within, making the sculpture look like a caramel-dipped apple. I had been thinking “minaret.”

The wood supply ran out quickly. This morning (January 24) I took the maul and a crowbar and whacked out the last 20 pieces from the frozen ground and finished the roof. I added some of the old wood rounds on the property to close the hole at the top.

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Finished, January 24th. Les Suetes clouds forming.

 

Tonight, the completion date, we are expecting 170km/h gusts (100mph), the heaviest since I’ve been here, as a big storm is carried in by Les Suetes across the Bay of Fundy.  My friends who used to live in this cottage tell me to make sure to push all the glassware back on the open shelves, since they can vibrate off and break during these winds. Will the structure’s dome shape receive these winds easily? I sleep restlessly as they begin to pound the house around midnight, rising at 2am and again at 6 to check the stove. When light arrives around 7:30, I look outside. We’ve had inches of rain that washed away all the snow and filled the furrows with water. The air is damp and warm – almost 50 degrees! The holz hausen stands intact, undisturbed.

Morning fog on the Margaree
Morning fog on the Margaree

 

I have about 4 day’s worth of wood set aside to heat with, then I will begin to dismantle and burn the logs in the holz hausen. It will be gone by March.