the levels


During John’s recuperation from double hip surgery in late fall, I took on almost everything necessary to care for him and keep our household going. I did it gladly. We’ve been together 42 years and there’ve been times when he’s done the same for me. I remember one particular morning when I’d brought up a breakfast tray for him and picked up the various things he needed during the night to take back downstairs. (One day I wondered how many times I went up and down the stairs in a day and I kept a little tally. 27 trips was the number I recorded but I might have forgotten a couple.) He said to me that morning, How can I ever thank you for everything you’ve done for me? And I answered, A greenhouse. Done, he replied, without skipping a beat. We did a bit of research and decided on a model and after Christmas we ordered one. It’s a kit. A young(er) friend offered to help us with it once we’d decided on a location but then his circumstances changed so the kit—3 boxes of pieces…—has been waiting for us to figure out how we would do it ourselves. We built our house 40 years ago (I know exactly how many years ago it was because Forrest turns 40 at the end of the month and he was 2 weeks old when we set up our tent and our saw-horses and unpacked the Black and Decker saw, the hammer, and ordered piles of lumber) and we’ve built other structures since: a printshop, a garden shed, several additions to the original house. But of course there was that double hip replacement surgery and the unexpected injury resulting in a paralyzed foot. I was never the carpenter of our relationship but the person who lugged wood around, held up walls as they were nailed into place, nailed down the kitchen subfloor, and made sure things were level. I remember squinting at the levels and wondering how to say that a beam that had been perfect a few minutes earlier was now not. I had no spatial sense at all so I just did what I needed to do at my end of the wall. Luckily I’m strong.

I have to say I was lost. I couldn’t “see” any of these spaces. When John would ask at other people’s houses if the room we were in was, oh, 12×16, he was relating space to basic plywood, which came in 4×8 sheets. There’d be less waste if we went with dimensions that were multiples of 4×8. He could make adjustments in his head, think his way through possible difficulties, and I’d be asking, Will there be a windowsill over the kitchen sink for my shells and stones? Can we have windows low in the dining area so we can see out while we’re eating? My particulars were not his.
                      — from “blueprint”, an essay in Blue Portugal, out next year.

We are making slow progress with the greenhouse. It took us a while to decide exactly where we wanted it to be. Then we (but I really mean John) needed to think about what kind of base we’d use. A platform was one thing we considered. But a wooden floor wasn’t ideal with all the watering and misting the plants will need. I wondered about a pad of gravel and sand and then paving stones (or concrete slabs) on top. They’d hold the heat in winter and could be hosed down in summer to cool off the space. How would we frame them? Well, with 4×4 lumber, lag-bolted at the corners, and then the base of the greenhouse could be bolted to that. All of this was thought about carefully. The site isn’t level because, well, nothing around here is. It’s what one guy who came years ago to give us an estimate for blasting called Basic B.C. But we figured we could use concrete blocks and posts to bring everything to level and fill in the raised sides with big rocks. The rocks and beams will buttress the gravel bed and they will be more or less held in place by cross-bracing. And the rocks will also provide a good place for snakes and lizards, good for keeping pests under control.

We are such slow workers now that we’re no longer those two young people swinging hammers and raising walls. And honestly there’s no hurry. The tomato seeds have just sprouted so there’s still time before I’ll need space to set them out in larger pots on benches we’ll build of cedar. We have the tools. 3 levels! The tiny one at the front was made by John’s paternal grandfather when the family was leaving England for Canada in 1953. That grandfather made his son—John’s father—a toolbox for his new life. (I wrote about it in an essay in Red Laredo Boots.) I keep the level on my desk because it’s a beautiful object of brass and oak but it’s also practical. Set it on a beam and you know what you need to do to make a solid base for a structure.

So much I’d forgotten about this kind of work. The smell of sawdust as the posts are cut, the usefulness of roofing felt for shims, the utility of squares and handsaws and levels. And even how you can search around in the old outhouse, taken from its original location once real bathrooms were functioning in the house to become a storage shed for propane and rope, anyway, you can search around until you find the two ancient jacks, once part of a jury-rigged boat-trailer that a welder named Shakey (I know!) replaced with metal supports, to hold up the beams while the posts are cut to size. You can see one of them in situ at the back of the photograph.

Maybe by the end of the month we’ll have a functioning greenhouse, solid on its beams, clean slabs of concrete set in sand, the hammer and drill put away and the saw hung up in the workshop. In the meantime, today there was a moment when time wrinkled as it does and bending to read level, I was also wondering to cook on the Coleman stove that night when we finished work and whether we had enough lumber to finish the last wall of the kitchen.

8 thoughts on “the levels”

  1. “My particulars were not his” made me laugh. Vive la difference! Boy, John sure does not sound like a man with a new hip and a paralyzed foot. Bravo to you both.

    1. He’s making slow but steady progress! (And full marks for enthusiasm and stubborn resourcefulness, as in, Can you find those old jacks so I can use them to support these beams while I cut posts?)

  2. Great to see your progress with a real greenhouse, not just plastic over a metal frame. Made me think of some expressions: level-headed; I will level with you, a level playing field. As a kid I played rugby on a sloping field; it made the game more interesting.

    1. I looked for my copy of Seamus Heaney’s Spirit Level while writing this post but I think I’ve loaned to someone. How often we’ve used a level and never thought of that particular context…

    1. The process is ok but I will really enjoy setting up the finished space! (One forgets how heavy a bucket of rocks is or how difficult it is to push a barrow over rough mossy ground!)

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