Chapter 11. The Wisdom of the Weak

At our Sechelt place we were anxious to avoid making irreversible mistakes. If, for example, we should later wish that we had a tree growing in the exact place we had earlier cut one down, we couldn’t set the fallen one back up again on its stump. We therefore made a practice of thinking things out carefully before we made major moves. Planning takes time, but it pays.

We first selected the place where our future “dream cabin” would stand—up the slope but near the front and center of the lot. Within that area we agreed that the trees might be cut and a flat shelf dug out of the fairly steep slope. All around that area everything would be left as nearly in its natural state as possible. We would let sleeping logs lie. Their mossy blankets and tiny ferns were already an ornamental garden in the forest. We would make a curving set of steps from the waterfront shelter up the hill to a flattish area at the north side of our lot—perfect for a tent platform. More steps up to a second tent site where the ground flattened out toward Carsons’ place. The steps could be rounds cut from big logs.

We all liked living down at the shore under trees that stretched out toward the water. Our shelter there was the center of all our activity. We knew, however, that the high tides that come in November would flood that place. Even our boat ramp might float away. Clearly something had to be done to secure our use of the waterfront. That zone between the highest and lowest tides was no man’s land. The sea had prior claims on it. Though we needed the foreshore more than the waves did, who can dispute with the sea?

One sunny midafternoon when I was too hot and tired to keep working, I went down to the shore and sat on a rock. It was low tide, and the kids were building a sand castle in a pocket of sand between big waterworn stones.

As I watched them I began musing. Each particle of sand there had once been part of some rock or shell. It had been pounded loose by rolling stones, the age-old tools of the untiring waves. Water seems so soft and yielding, but given enough time, waves can demolish a whole continent. By turning stone against stone with force stolen from the winds, the sea can tear anything down.

The sea’s moist breath rises over the land and condenses into clouds that can roil up the sky into the dark, spitting savagery of storms. Those white cascades that slash into the mountains are really the naked claws of the sea, driven into the flanks of the hills, relentlessly raking them down in the torrents. However high the mountain, it is doomed to succumb to the sea.

While such thoughts were forming, the tide was sneaking up on my family’s architectural masterpiece. The water began to nibble at the outer fortifications of their sand castle. The kids frantically tried to build the walls up higher and thicker, shrieking and working like mad. But the castle was only sand, and that sand belonged to the sea. The kids, of course, eventually—as always—lost their battle.

I said to myself: In this world there is something sneaky and sinister that seeps past all human walls, outflanking our bastions and breastworks. It floods into our courtyards and undermines our strongest keeps and castles. Eventually these will all lie as flat sand in the water, brought low by that insidious spirit that lurks in the sea.

Soon the water was trickling over to me, reaching for my bare feet. I caught myself kicking back at it with uncharacteristic violence.

The water was creeping up the sloping side of my rock. Barnacles dotted its side like little white teepees. As the water rose over their closed tent-flaps, the barnacles opened up to receive it. Little black arms came out, waving greetings to the life-giving waters. They were welcoming the sea which I had kicked away.

Among the barnacles a limpet stuck tight to its home base. Let the waves roar. That little Chinese hat would not be lost at sea . . . at least not yet. The hardy race of limpets has outlasted countless shorelines of rocks. So have the barnacles. They must have some secret by which they defend themselves—something more than just holding tight to a rock.

It’s their conical shape. When the mass of a wave hits them head-on, the sloping sides of their shell-cones deflect the water aside so that it spends its force on the rock, not on them. The impact of the wave only presses them more tightly onto their anchorage.

A sly smile spread over my face, and I nodded like my father. “There’s always a system for everything.”

I knew now what to do with our waterfront. These old waterworn rocks were deeply furrowed by crevices and crannies. With a stout cold-chisel and a heavy hammer I could probably split apart most of them and pile them up like cordwood to make a sea wall. I’d fit them together as best I could, without using cement. When a wave smashed in, the outer edges of my stones would turn the water aside, allowing it to rush around past them through between more stones, on and on until the wave had utterly lost its force deep inside the whole pile. And I’d slope the outer wall back from its base to the top so that the force of the waves would only drive the stones more tightly together. The ever-present hordes of young barnacles would move in and spread their cement between the stones. I stamped my foot scornfully into the water and uttered my most triumphant laugh. Bring on your waves, O sea! By the wisdom of the barnacles I’ll defy you!

I brought down a hammer and cold-chisel. When I pounded the chisel into a crack in one of the rocks, the whole thing split in two. I could break them if I worked hard enough. And since I could pile them up faster than the sea could wear them down, a big flat space beside the sea could be reclaimed. That big realization made me a happy man. Those tumbled rocks which had once seemed to be nasty liabilities could be transformed into valuable assets. I patted them with anticipation.

Next day I purchased a heavier hammer, two stout cold-chisels, a sledgehammer and a long-handled peavey. Easterners would probably guess that a long-handled peavey must be some kind of strange bird. It’s really a tough wooden pry about five feet long with an iron point, a swinging iron hook at one end and a ball-shaped hand grip at the other. Big John Allan had showed me how a logger uses a peavey for rolling a log. But I intended to use mine for moving rocks.

I surveyed the jumble of rocks out front to see which ones could be split up or moved. Some of them were anchored to Asia. These would also anchor my seawall. Between them I dug down to bedrock, or to a layer of heavy clay. Then I rolled big boulders into the long trench.

Some of the shore boulders were so big, so smooth, so hard and so round that I could do nothing with them at all. They just sat there, decked out in their barnacles, and smirked at me inscrutably. I bided my time until the tide came in and covered those obdurate ones. I found that, while the big stones didn’t exactly float, they were certainly much easier to move under water. I was delighted when those that were formerly immovable rolled along like obedient elephants. This work was as much fun as judo. I was using the powers of my opponent, the sea, in order to defeat it.

In a few days the long foundation across in front of the tent platform and the kitchen shelter was complete. Any wall I might build there would be only as good as its foundation. The soundness of any building project largely lies in its having firm foundations.

As the seawall rose higher, the expanse of clean sand beach out in front became greater and greater. The kids joined me, picking up nasty toe-stubber stones and throwing them over behind the wall. Kay discovered that each sargasso weed she saw at low tide in the shallow water was anchored to a stone, often hidden just under the sand. Using the weeds as indicators, she could dig out these stones faster than the rest of us could lug them to the wall and heave them over. The race between us was useful.

We were making a fine swimming beach and a safe living space at the same time. That’s great economics! Two things built at once with the same set of operations! We were using the “holes” left behind when we removed the stones. They filled up with sand when the tide came in.

Eventually the wall became too high for me to lift up any more of the heavier stones. So inside the wall I set up a hoisting pole, its butt end secured firmly to a rock. Ropes running back to trees at either side held the pole up as it leaned over the wall, and at the same time kept it from swinging from side to side unless I deliberately pulled it sideways. We would roll a heavy stone onto a square of old fencewire lying on the sand. Then, after hooking the wire by its corners onto a block-and-tackle arrangement which dangled from the end of the hoisting pole, my “slaves” would pull the rope and raise the cradled stone up higher than the wall. As I’d pull the hoisting pole sidewise, it would swing around inside the wall, and at the same time the stone would rise still higher before we lowered it into the place I needed it.

The supply of hoistable rocks on the shore eventually ran out. While I was thankful for the cleared beach, I realized that we needed a new source of building stone with which to finish the sea wall.

At the south side of our lot, back under the overburden on the slope I found there were loose stones of all shapes and sizes. Great! Any big stones I found there could be transported downhill to the sea wall instead of having to be lifted uphill! So I began to excavate stone from the hillside.

This phase of the operation went very well. Any miscellaneous junk rocks and fragments of rubble went into the hole behind the wall as “fill.” Big, flattish, long stones found their places in the rising wall. By the end of the summer an eight-foot-high seawall had been constructed across the whole front of the shelter area and the big pocket behind the wall was being filled up. A place to live and work, above and beyond the waves, was being wrested from the grip of the sea.

During successive summer holidays our level living area was lengthened until it extended across our lot’s full ninety-foot frontage. Looking in from the water, you could see a wide patio at the left for campfires and barbecues. The shelter stood in the middle, and great stone steps curved down to the beach near both ends of the shelter. We preserved a nice sandy bay on the right where boats could land at almost any height of the tide. The kitchen shelter was enlarged and roofed with green fiberglass. The kids gave their mother a wall-to-wall carpet made from fine water-washed gravel which they ferried across the inlet. If we had a windy or cold day, plywood panels with clear plastic windows could be set up to windward between roof and floor. On the landward side we could roll down big sheets of heavy, clear plastic. While these somewhat dimmed our view of the hillside’s greenery, they did hold in some heat.

Making do

The heat? Oh, it came from a stove that had once done time as an ordinary gasoline drum. We stood it on end. A hole at the back near the top accommodated a smoke pipe, and a fireplace opening was cut into the front a little above the floor level. On top of “Old Smokey” Kay could heat water for dishes and keep a meal warm. On nasty days we usually stayed in the shelter and played games, protected by our plastic walls. We ventured out in the rain only to get more wood from the pile.

Since the fire was kept burning all the time during poor-weather days, Kay sometimes used its heat for unorthodox cooking. She lined a washtub with shiny foil to reflect heat, and turned it upside down on top of Old Smokey. In that oven she could bake potatoes, chicken and yummy cakes.

Kay also made a reflector oven by slicing a big cardboard carton diagonally in half, lining it with aluminum foil. She installed an old refrigerator grill as a shelf inside this contraption and set it up on edge facing the heat from the fireplace opening. In this ingenious reflector oven Kay baked some of the most scrumptious golden-brown tea biscuits that ever got soaked with butter and honey. We even looked forward to rainy days!

The tide brought our firewood right to our door. First thing each morning we scanned the inlet out front for drifting logs or other floating pieces of wood that we might want to haul in and cut up for fuel.

Once a heavy forty-foot-long fir log arrived on our beach. It was over two feet thick at the butt. As long as it lay there flat on the sand, it couldn’t be cut all the way through with a chain saw: if the chain hit the sand, the saw would be ruined. But who could lift the weight of that log up off the beach? That wonderful store of fuel wood lay tantalizingly right out in front of our place, but I had no way to take possession of it. With a forlorn hope in my heart I nevertheless drove a spike into the butt and tethered the great log to a tree onshore.

The whole day went by but I couldn’t think of how I could saw up that log. That night I slept fitfully. About three o’clock I found myself awake looking out at the moon through the treetops. If only I could harness the moon to that big log! Aha! Inspiration struck and I conceived a marvellous plan. I could use the tide—it’s harnessed to the moon.

When the next rising tide had lifted the huge log, I took a short length of foot-thick log and fastened it across and under the big one with a rope at the point where I figured the long log might balance. Next morning my heavy clean log was lying out there on the beach on top of my little log, ready to be sawed. At one end it was resting lightly on the sand. When I put my weight on the high end, the end on the sand went up like a teeter-totter. As blocks were cut off each end alternately, the log gradually became shorter and lighter. Soon the whole length lay there in handily splittable blocks.

Once again I had been wrong in thinking of the sea as my opponent. It had threatened my living space, but it had also helped me to move the very rocks and logs that would keep us safe, dry and warm above high water. The sea had also floated our boatloads of tent-platform flooring and fiberglass roof panels to our building site. It had transported our goods and belongings when there was no other road. As long as we respected the sea’s ancient ways, it cooperated most helpfully.

In the same way I had often thought of gravity as my opponent. Everything I had to lift reminded me that something was pulling it back to the ground. Carrying water from that stream up the shore over to our shelter was hard work.

Back up the hillside on crown land, Herb and I had located two springs. Through the jungle of undergrowth we cut a path up to them. When we had placed two settling tanks in the ground downstream, we laid black plastic pipe up to them from a tap at Carsons’ place.

When all the connections had been made, the two families gathered at the tap for an inaugural ceremony. To impress us all with the significance of the occasion, Herb looked around at us and said, “An end, and a beginning.” He paused to let that sink in, then turned on the tap. With a spluttering paroxysm of coughing, the air trapped in the pipe burst out, followed shortly by a gush of muddy water. Then at last beautiful clean water flowed out in full stream. Everybody cheered. Then followed a joyful and appreciative silence. We’d never have to carry water again. It seemed appropriate, so I gave thanks to God for water and what it means for all life. Everybody drank some and declared that it was good. A new era had begun.

The next day we laid a water line over to our place. With running water in her kitchen, Kay felt like a queen. Later came shelves in the shelter, a counter and a real sink. Her next luxury was an open-air shower where we could wash off the salt after swimming in the sea. Ah, civilization is sweet, especially when you’ve made it yourself.

Well, almost by yourself. I mustn’t forget the help of gravity, my tireless opponent. Gravity brings the water down from the springs and gives us constant pressure. The very same force that makes it so hard for me to heave up big stones to build walls, holds them in place right where I want them. Many more opponents turn out to be best friends. Bless you, dear enemies—if there are any.

Exit one stump

In order to obtain more building rocks for the seawall, I had begun to dig into the hill. Every rock that I removed from “the excavation” would eventually give us more level space to move and work.

In order to get enough fill for the area behind the seawall, I began to cut a ledge higher up on the hill for our cabin-to-be. Unfortunately some three-foot stumps straddled the area with long roots out in every direction. They were determined to hold their position. We hacked out the soil all around them and sent it down a chute. When we had enough fill down below we began hoisting the soil higher up the hill on a swinging teeter-totter pole. I would walk downhill, leaning my weight on the pole, raising a bucket full of soil and swinging it uphill to my slaves, who dumped it into various depressions up there under the trees. Our principle was never to waste soil or rock or wood. Someday we might need it for something.

The younger children liked to pull ground out from around those huge stumps. Martin and Karen worked away day after day with miniature pickaxes which we called “hack-‘n-choppers.” One after another I chopped off the great roots until each monster stump looked like an amputated octopus. It was always a great day when we could tumble another big stump down into the excavation. The kids would cheer and in the cloud of dust I’d beat my chest like a victorious Tarzan.

But whatever do you do afterwards with a ton or so of the toughest unsplittable wood that ever grabbed hold of a hill?

One particular stump had provided the base for a mighty Douglas fir. If such a great tree were to be kept from falling during every wind that had blown throughout more than a century, every fiber had had to intertwine with every other in a mutual bracing. That stump was not only big, but tough.

Someone else had cut down that tree. For my part, however, I somehow felt guilty about uprooting the last memorial of a tremendous arboreal achievement. At the beginning, those great roots had been only tiny, soft threads, the roots of a seedling groping out through the darkness in whatever soil then covered the rock. Some of those exploring rootlets discovered little cracks and pushed into them to search for water and nourishment. As the cells swelled with growth, their pressure outwrestled teams of rock crystals that linked elbows to resist the invading roots. It was the rocks that gave way in the strain. Year after year those roots which tasted success flexed their muscles and split the rocks open still further. What I sometimes could do with a hammer and chisel, the roots did by hydraulic pressure and the sheer determination of life.

Wherever I excavated on that hillside, root fibers were down deep in the rock. They had followed every lead, every crevice, every hope of finding new sources of life and of gaining a firmer grip on the stable foundations that tall trees need. Some rootlets came to blind alleys and lost. But others turned sharply to left or right, upwards or down. They bypassed every unyielding obstruction and pressed on. When I excavated them out of their tightly wedged corridors, I would look at their ugly angles and tortuous twists. Every sharp turn in a root told of an impossible obstacle faced and surmounted. A tender life had been locked in deadly encounter down there in the dark with an implacable mass—a tense, dramatic episode in that root’s lonely struggle to live.

Here was heroic history known only to God. I sincerely believe that he remembers and honors the fidelity displayed by such roots and trees. He too knows what it is to be massively obstructed in spreading his kingdom. He must surely appreciate each misshapen root and its meaning.

It had taken only a few days to set up a foundation for the wall I had constructed. Piling stone upon stone was hard work. But that big stump had been more than a hundred years in the building. All the while the stump was itself building a magnificent tree. I knew what it had cost me in labor to find hundreds of rough stones, transporting them into places where they would fit together. The construction job done by that tree stump had been performed far more patiently, in more delicate detail, and much more elegantly than mine. Down deep below, it had searched out the right mineral elements. It had reached out above into the air to capture subtler ingredients. It had raised some of these materials high and sunk some of them low until they found their place, fitted each other and turned into wood, bark, needles and cones. Above that stump a living wooden pillar had arisen, towering up to the sky. It had been built not from without, but from within. All of it had been growing at once—all together, not piece added to piece like my wall.

It was the remains of that majesty, that monumental miracle, that now lay down there in our excavation, toppled over, upside down, defeated, dismembered, dishonored, dethroned. In removing trees and stones, we loggers and quarrymen sin. We know not what we do.

That great stump now presented me with three problems: a spiritual problem, a physical problem and an economic problem—a soul to be cleansed, a dead weight in my way and a disgraceful waste of good wood. I couldn’t saw the big mass into pieces because it was so thoroughly impregnated with grit. It could certainly never be split by an ax. In any case, to use it as firewood would be far too unseemly and utilitarian an end for a prince of the forest. What a miserable comedown: heating water to wash dirty dishes.

As the sun beat down upon my bare head, an idea got through to me. From the fire of the sun that stump’s substance had come. From its fire had come the fierce energy that had lifted the soil straight up from the earth. Moved by that fire, earthy substances had flowed like a fountain up to the topmost tip of the tree, only to fall back again in dropped needles and cones. It was also in fire that the old stump should depart from its place. Then its vapors could float freely away, far, far away, to take part in other miracles on other hillsides.

So around the great stump I raked up a thousand dry chips from other wood blocks I had split. I added driftwood from a dozen different shores, and built up a splendid funeral pyre. As the flames caught hold and rose higher, I somehow felt that in that fire I was offering a sacrifice for my sin.

May the God who makes Douglas firs receive into his everlasting memory that dauntless one who discharged with all its heart its duty of being a faithful tree. And may God receive into his everlasting mercy people like me who appreciate most of his miracles only when it is too late.

As I lifted my eyes up the hill, I could see the smoke whirling across the sunbeams that were shining in straight bands through gaps in the trees. It took the smoke to reveal the sunshine. As the old tree was departing it was leaving a message with me. My heart was at peace as I walked away.

After three days the great fire ceased to burn. The prince of stumps had gone. Once again the blows of my hammer sounded up there in the excavation. The price of progress had been paid.

I think that the One who died upon a tree because of our sins, understands. He who worked as a carpenter knows that to build something new, something that God has already built must be destroyed. For a big fish to have supper, lesser fishes and crabs have to go. The first heaven and the first earth must pass away for there to be a new heaven and a new earth. 1 Sacrifice is written into any world where one thing depends on another, where there is a policy which reads, “Behold, I make all things new.”2 The cross is written in everything, even into the trees. If the followers of Jesus remain silent, the very stones will cry out.3 The cross is a fitting symbol for all kinds of technical development.


1. Revelation 21:1.
2. Revelation 21:5.
3. Luke 19:40.