Summer Essay: A labour of love

02:33, Jan 14 2014

The day Sam and I packed up our vehicles with the first load of building materials, it was mid-November, the sky a wide, blue vault above us. My son-in-law Sam had left his building job and taken on my strawbale house to build. We had a summer to get the frame up, ready for the straw. It was the unknown for both of us.

We drove through the Central Otago landscape, past the towns Cromwell and Alexandra, where we stopped for supplies, up over Tiger Hill, through Omakau and at last into the Ida Valley, the Hawkdun mountain range rising ahead of us. We pulled up on site on my newly owned rough piece of land, named Bastards Flat, and started unloading.

"Do you want to be treated like a grandmother or do you want to be treated like a builder?" Sam asked me

"I want to be treated like a builder."

"Good," he said, "because that way you'll do far more than you think is possible."

My old life had ended, (children left home, marriage over), though my life as a writer continued. And now builder. For I had the chance to help build my own home. And because I would live in the coldest valley in the country, and wanted a natural home, where people could learn to build together, I'd chosen to build with straw. I had no idea of the task in front of us. I was unfit, unskilled and 55 years old.


Carl Jung talked about the parallel meaning of constructing your life alongside building your dwelling. He built himself a stone house following the death of his mother. I thought of that when Sam passed me the spade and grubber. We were to dig the foundations by hand. If loss means a life taken back to bedrock, then I was here at my bedrock; nothing between me and the soil but my feet in boots braced on the earth and only the sky above.

I lifted the heavy weight of the grubber then dropped it into the ground, breaking up the clods, opening a seam in the soil. Sam worked ahead of me, banging in the pegs with a sledge hammer and screwing on the foundation boxing. I bent with the spade, scoop and out, and the ditch grew smoother, the space for safe foundations grew deeper.

By lunch time the next day I was so sore I didn't know what to do with my body. I couldn't dig or eat. I climbed the wire fence instead between my place and my new neighbour, the poet Brian Turner, and went up to his house for a cup of tea and succour.

"I can hardly move," I told him. So he read me a poem while we sat in the old chairs on his porch, looking out to the schist stone wall and the birds hopping among the branches of the cherry tree.

"I'll come and do some digging when I've hoed the spuds," he said. He turned up later with his own grubber and spade, heavy gloves on his hands, but we were miraculously finished. The ditch that seemed must go on forever, round and round the house, was done.

When it was time for the polystyrene sheets for the floor pad, Sam asked me to cut one. I took one of his pencils, his tape measure and the saw. The sheet fit perfectly.

"That's great," he said. "Go and cut me three more." Each time I carried him the cut sheet and walked back to the trailer, the builder's pencil in my pocket, I felt a surge of joy. The sun shone, the grass spread out green around the building site, and over the sound of birdsong the Ida Burn rushed over stones.

The walls went up. When Sam told me one day to put in joist hangers, I banged in some nails.

When he saw my job, he asked me what I thought the point of it was. I shrugged.

He said. "Before you put any nail in you have to ask yourself, what function is this nail performing? Know the result you want before you do anything."

That meant when I hammered nails in the plates joining one beam to another, I had to get every nail in true. I clambered over the framing of the house, happily hammering, my tool belt round my waist filled with nails. I started to think I was getting pretty good at this building job.

Until we started on the roof structure.

"Is it safe?" I looked up at the beams.

"Nothing is safe," said Sam. As I hauled myself up the framing onto the first truss beam, Sam said, "It's all about confidence. Walk that beam like there's no tomorrow."

The fact there could be no tomorrow if I fell was the point of my fears, I thought.

The wind was cold as I stepped out, one unsteady leg at a time. I held on and began hammering.

And yet even up there in the wind with nervous fingers there was still that pleasure of hitting in a nail. Life became simple and clear. I needed the co-ordination of eye and hand, and feet and stomach for balance, and to not think about anything except how to get the nail in.

I thought that was my hardest day. But the next day the building inspector was due, and we had to be ready for him. If he didn't pass our completed work, we wouldn't get the straw in before winter.

I looked up with dread at the joist hangers needing nails on the highest rafters.

"Sam, I can't do those ones up there," I said.

"What do you mean can't? There's no can't on a building site," he said, already up on the scaffold. "There's the job that has to be done, and I need you."

I had to climb across the truss three metres above the ground. My boots felt clumsy. My tool belt was heavy and lopsided with hammer and spanner and ratchet. I stubbed my foot and stumbled slightly. As I nailed I couldn't shake the sick feeling from my stomach.

Before lunch I got down and went back to the shed to make our salad wraps. First I climbed the fence and went over to Brian's place. I had a cup of tea with him and told him how Sam said there was no such thing as can't on the building site. Brian said his grandfather would say the same thing: There's no such thing as can't. You have to find a way to do it.

"Here," he said. "You look like someone who needs an orange," and he brought me a plate of segments. "And remember the rule of three. That's what we used when we were mountain climbing. Always have three points of contact and you'll be safe, no matter how high you are."

When I went back after lunch, I climbed up the ladder with my tool belt on and I felt strong again. I felt like I could do anything I needed to do. Where had my fear gone, and what had restored me? The orange, or talking to a friend with a cup of tea?

What's more, when I climbed up, I found that if I sat astride the joists I could reach more joist hangers. I felt safe to go higher up the rafters. When I had to stand in one point where I couldn't hold on, I tipped my head so my hat braced against the beam, my third point of contact while I guided a nail in.

The inspector came. I was still up the top nailing. When he drove off in the car, Sam gave me a big thumbs up sign. The roof could go on. We'd get the straw bales into the walls by the end of summer, and mud on before the frost and snow came.

I looked up from my perch at a hawk riding the thermals by the stream. In my old life up north, oyster catchers flew from the sea. Here, the hawks cruise the sky and what they think of us below, who think we own the land, we cannot know. We're just creatures like them, who place ourselves at the centre of the world.

Jillian Sullivan is a poet, short story writer and novelist. She has published eight books for young people and adults and has a forthcoming poetry collection with Steele Roberts. She and Sam Deavoll built her strawbale house in Central Otago last summer. She is a 2012 graduate of the Masters in Creative Writing programme at Massey University.

The Dominion Post