Selling the real estate
Fifteen Canada geese are flying south from near McCall, Idaho and honking like an unwarranted traffic jam. Ospreys have already gone, silently, flown to the coastal states in the same pattern they took last year: along the rivers. Gone too is the lurid beauty of mountain bluebirds, scarlet tanagers, and goldfinch, flown over mountains in hops. I haven’t seen black bear or grey wolves on my property for two years, but I know they’re there.
The apple trees haven’t been raided this year and the golden green apples lie rotting on the ground or are saved in the bowl inside my shabin. They were raided two years ago by a bear; it had camped out there beside the apple tree for two days and tore down three big branches. A pack of wolves apparently got a little too close to a band of domestic sheep two summers ago. You could hear the helicopter all night, near my property. I heard wolf howls the night before and none since. As for the domestic sheep, they were herded along the Farm-to-Market Road two days after the wolves were dealt with and I followed slowly behind the massive herd in my car for at least a mile cursing the sheep for being in the way of wolves. A small herd of elk will soon pass through my land, taking the same route they’ve travelled for as long as I’ve been here, on their route to a higher, safer landscape, away from bullet riddled hunting grounds.
These are the circumstances as I pack my shabin, getting ready to move out for a place in the valley and the city below. A wintering place and possibly more. It has become too expensive to live in McCall, at least for a writer in the harsh winter of Valley County. You might ask what is a shabin? Part shack, part cabin is a shabin; a place that a developer simply calls a “teardown palace.” Reporters call it a ramshackle, ticky-tacky hut, a place uninhabitable for any sane person. But that depends on your perspective of sanity. It has sheltered me for five years, as developers have deserted their nice homes and lives, bailing out of heavy loans or mortgages for the obvious threat. For what it’s worth, I have none of the crushing debts, but still I have some that I can’t afford to pay without a consistent job. Jobs in Mccall haven’t been consistent and selling this land would get me out of the hock I’ve been in for all of the years that I’ve lived here.
Granted my shabin is a one room building that was permitted by the county for a five dollar storage unit permit. It isn’t quite legal to live here in my storage unit but I have built a composting toilet, installed solar panels power lights, music, and a well pump. The well was drilled easily 50 years ago and had stood capped since then. I opened it four years ago and tapped its pure water. I built the shabin for about $5,000 after living for a year in a wall tent.
Any carpenter could make the shabin into a more kindly cabin by putting siding on top of the hardboard plywood and covering the inside insulation with more aestheticly pleasing boards. It was built by my friends and me with muscle, beer, and kindness: putting piers under the floor, tilting-up the walls, lifting rafters and attaching them to the walls, roofing the top, putting in a front door, windows to the eastern view, a loft, a counter, furniture, a wood stove—and that friendship and labor convey much unpaid value. The shabin became a writing retreat, with my girlfriend living a few miles away that was home about half of the time. The land upon which it stood, however, has been much more that a place to stay. The land has taught me more than my traditional work has and the view was spectacular. Or I should say is spectacular.
I’ve been an environmentalist since 1984 and have worked with a number of organizations at a number of levels. For 24 years I’ve transformed this land from an overgrazed horse and cattle lot to a place of tall grasses and encroaching forests. This land is transitioning from one where 85 foot tall Ponderosa pines grew, into one where 85 foot Ponderosas will again grow. In between, the big trees were cut down and shade intolerant lodgepole pines grew for twenty-five years. It was these trees which provided the shade in which Ponderosas could again grow. Now the lodgepole pines have experienced an infestation of bark beetles and many of them are dying, allowing the Ponderosa pines–now that they’re reestablished–to reassert their dominance and grow again.
Aspen trees are expanding into the forest and beginning to cover the open land that had been used for grazing. They grow in several groves of identical clones and each individual stand has a different “time-clock” turning the leaves classic autumnal colors: from green to gold, orange, and scarlet. The aspen groves turn colors at different times and make the shifting colors last for several weeks. They are growing together and mixing colors on a palete unique in McCall.
Grasses on the neighbors land, which has been grazed for many years, run along the fence enclosing the cattle-free land on my side of the fence. Here the difference is stark, as the grazed land has many small patches of bare soil and shorter grasses than the vegetation on my side of the fence. However, the conclusion that I’ve reached is that vegetation on the ranchers side is more diverse than that on my side. On my side the grasses haven’t been chewed down and the roots have established themselves in thick mats, which means that other plants have little opportunity to grow. On the other side, trampling and eating of the grasses by livestock gives other flowering plants–buckwheat, yarrow, aster, pentstemmon, sego lily, and chickory- the opportunity to grow on the bare ground. That has increased the number and diversity of different plants that can survive in the spring when the ground is still damp. My land needs to be grazed by elk, deer or, heaven forbid, domestic cows, and it should be burned occasionally, so that other flowering plants can live there. This is not what I would have thought when I fought grazing as an environmentalist! But time has mellowed me.
A little. Not a lot, actually. But time also tells me to move on from this land and tackle other challenges. The dreams move so slowly! As slowly as the recovery of land and nature and my heart.