The first step in grading the barn is choosing where to have the finished grade. I take my saw station (a Stanley portable table with clamps for gripping wood), out to the middle of the barn and try to set it level. I then put a laser level on this [another tool I highly recommend for any large project, where a line or spirit level isn't dependable enough - but they're costly, $70], hold it level, and shoot a red beam at each post and have Rachael mark the dot with a pen.
We do all sixteen posts this way. I then measure down to the dirt with tape, and figure out the exact difference in height between the highest and lowest elevation. The ground drops 32" from the northwest post to the southeast. If I split the difference for the grade, that means digging down 16" on the back left post, which is only 24" in the ground. But it seems the only solution. That 8" will be secure in a concrete stem wall, and only half my foundation is post - the rest is a perimeter stem wall. So I think I can get away with it.
I found that if I just lunged low at the sod, getting right into the roots, I could yank a whole clump out at a time. I'm not saying it was easy, but much, much faster than a shovel. I could fill a whole wheelbarrow (8 cubic foot) full of sod in thirty minutes. So removing the vegetation from this 1,300 sq ft space by hand was still going to take days, but only a couple. And that's working dawn to dusk.
I start in the front and work my way back:
The posts make a grid of 16, all 12' apart, so you can break the barn into 9 sections, all 12'x12'. I worked to knock out one section at a time:
But as difficult as tearing all that tough sod from the soil was, carting a full load of it up the hillside really wore me out. I'd decided to try and transplant the sod over to some bare areas in the clearing, to see if I could get grass growing again. Some of the oaks also had huge barren areas around them, so I mulched them too:It's a great kid job - having them spread out the pieces of sod after I've dumped them from the wheelbarrow. I want the clearing to have a more park-like look to it, rather than forest that was only recently brutally cleared, with a few trees left standing, hanging on in the heat. Our property not only has a southern exposure, but because it's sloped it's tilted towards the sun, about 10 degrees. I do the calculations and it turns out we get as much solar radiation here as Key West. Again, great growing conditions, but the sun is fierce.
The heat is so bad we try to put up the tarp. It's a commercial blue 60' x 40' tarp, huge and heavy. We've tried to put it up once before, but even the slightest breeze gets the tarp billowing and impossible. But when the air's still, we give it another shot. I first take large pieces of insulation, and duct tape them to the tops of the posts. They look like toes. I've done this so the tarp won't rip as we pull it across them. It takes us hours to finally get the tarp into position, then it almost totally blows off, and I start over. It's a nightmare of racing with the ladder from spot to spot and tugging on it and tying it down. All in all it's about 7 hours of hell, and then it's up:
The shade is wonderful. But two grommets rip out of the tarp from the wind, and I'm pessimistic about how long it's going to last. Hopefully long enough to see me through the grading, because the heat was killing me.
I keep on hoeing it out:
Eventually it's done, and the place feels like a real construction site:
Now to grading. Here the key tools are pick and shovel. I've got a 5lb pick mattock and the half-length shovels, square and snub nosed. When it comes to a pick, get a real one, something light enough you're sure you can lift and wield, over and over - but don't go too light. On my patio job I'd tried a smaller pick and it lasted about 10 minutes. The mattock end hit something hard and bent all up. If you want to get whipped in to shape, and get your body turned into steel, I highly recommend pick and shovel work. Otherwise it's hell.
I tape the spot for grade on all the posts where the dirt needs to rise, then start swinging. Because it's hot I'm working in shorts and sandals. Sandals are not something I recommend when swinging a pick. But I'm trying to avoid getting overheated.
The nice thing about where I'm grading is there's not a single rock. Not one. The surface is sand, as you go deeper it gets denser with clay, there's an area about 20" to 24" down where the dirt actually gets softer, a rich crumbly red clay/sand mix, that I call "clay crumbles". Then beneath this is clay so solid it's like bedrock. The heaviest swing I can muster with a pick only penetrates this region about 1/2". But I'm only digging this deeply around the perimeter, for the foundation. The dirt inside the barn where I'm grading is never this dense.
Here I'm dumping the excess soil from the northwest corner into the low southeast one:
There is definitely a lot of technique to swinging a pick. I find that if instead of swinging down I try swinging from the side, I use different muscle groups, and I can pop a hunk of soil right out that's been loosened. The key is to avoid coming down on my feet.
Here's the back of the barn cut out, but still not deep enough:
The posts here are 6x6.
The girls can't really help me here, so they go tree identifying. They label their finds with twine and a little tag. The lone trees out in the clearing are red oaks. The grove of big oaks in the northwest corner of the clearing are white oaks. The young pines are either white or shortleaf. There's also a lot of red maple, dogwood, sweetgum, sourwood, cherry, and a whole grove of crabapples up behind the barn, all in flower.
Brooke, the youngest, picked up a 2" wolf spider and carried it around. Here's she's got a bumblebee on her hand:
And she's got videos of herself with beetles. She's really in to insects.
Spiders I would have run from as a kid, she adopts and plays with. I admire that.
We have a windy day. Several grommets rip from the tarp. It starts whipping so violently it looks like it's about to snap a post, so I have to cut it loose. We roll it up, and put it in the attic of the shed. There goes our shade.
The grading in the sun hour after hour is exhausting. I try to go lay down in the shed, to nap, the gravel is so cool, but the mother bird keeps darting in and out, and I can't sleep. She's been doing this for weeks. She essentially has taken over this shelter. I just can't take it anymore.
There's an old birdhouse nailed to a pine at the front of our property. I go take it down and break it open to clean out old nest material. I'm going to take her nest (I think she's a flycatcher - by looks and call, and we've often seen her with flies) and put it in this birdhouse, and nail it up to an oak right outside the shed. I'm determined to have her out of here. And it's been so long . . . I think those eggs will never hatch.
I try to pry her nest loose from below but it's really stuck in there. So I climb the ladder to better pull it down. And just as I've got my hand out to move it, there are the chicks:
Well, they're not going anywhere. I call the kids over to see. It's pretty exciting.
The garbanzo beans I'd soaked and cooked in well water taste like metal, totally inedible. I'll have to start using creek water to cook, till we can afford a filter.
I confront a mouse in the shed. It's scampering away and then it stops to look at me, with that sort of rat-like curiosity, then scampers off.
A tick has bitten me right where I pee. I tried to pull it off with tweezers - I got the body, but couldn't get the head. It's still attached. I'm hoping eventually it will fall off. Ticks always go for the groin, or armpits, sometimes scalp. Your advantage is that they wander over you for a while looking for the right spot. But they're hard to kill by hand. I either burn them with a match or cut them with a knife or sharp rock. In fact I've got a little pan I set them in to burn them - I call it the killpan. They're not going to hurt you, their worst bite is like a pinch, but they are a nuissance. Every night before bed you have to check yourself, and pick off a few.
One morning I hear birds screaming, and go out to see them divebombing Mishka. He's got one of their chicks, and has killed it, throwing it around. I try to feed it to the large black rat snake. But he just takes off.
I take a walk along the top edge of our clearing and see tons and tons of blueberry flowers. I mean millions. There are huge blackberry brambles down in the ravine beside us. The kids and I take a walk around the area and find black cherry trees, umbrella magnolia, where it's moist, an autumn olive growing off the road, and about a half-mile down the road from us a huge creek, a river really, with a pure flower-rich brook flowing in. There's a pool the kids might be able to swim in. For the moment I feel like this property, and this setting, are perfect.
My wife has ordered 25 blueberry shrubs and they're going to be delivered soon. I'm going to dig swales and plant them on the berms. So I take a break from grading, and start the swales.