‘At times the timber called for arms and backs stronger than mine. But I can build a house. My timbers will be smaller, my needs less lavish than Pedro, maybe even small enough to shoulder alone.’


 

I said I’d come back and I did. Pedro, rock-star, idealist, farmer, now budding builder, welcomed me back to the manifestation of his maniacal dynamism. Terra Alta is like the intricate pattern that can be uncovered at the bottom of a soup bowl, hidden from view, yet tortuously designed. A permaculture farm/laboratory for the earnest innovations of a fervent internet community of sustainable agriculturalists.

A hot air balloon, lofty from the solemn abstraction of university, I needed sink into a practical, tangible reality. Basic stonemasonry paid for a few years of roaming before moving to Scotland, but gung-ho, androgynous, eighteen-year-old-me had been invaded by a maturing awareness of the socio-political significance of her own femininity.

I was apprehensive. I’d signed up to learn Timber Framing and I’d never held a chisel before. I’d been duped by a fierce February who howled through drawn curtains. By May my desperate wave of escapist energy had ebbed. I pictured myself a bewildered spectator of fifteen burly Portuguese men, peacock tails of experience shivering, hauling timbers and revving saws. Trapped in a petit feminine cage, my inexperience would paralyse me. I contrived their ease out of my fear.

My notebook became my weapon, as novels and notebooks so often have. The habitual props of solitary travel. Their pages are a ship, bound north-east to my homeland of copious notes and detailed diagrams. I’d be doing this on my own one day. Faced with unsympathetic timber, no doubt petulantly dripping with the drizzle characteristic of times of desperation. At the genesis of my new home, this notebook will be my friend in reminiscing and revisiting the cyprus smell of this gladiator ring.

I was one of two women to sign up for the course. My counterpart was a chain-smoking, chronically introverted willow of a woman from Germany. Nellie also curled a notebook in her nicotined fingers, flaring its corners so they flurried back together.

Initially power tools drowned out my scholastic questions – the teenager would never have asked ‘why’ of an indifferent bulk of earth, and wood, and metal – I jotted and sketched. I footnoted, subduing in a twisting scribble, capricious snatches of advice. And when I wasn’t offered a tool, or hung back a moment too long, or couldn’t see over the dusty muscled wall of backs I filled my hands with a book, my book, my bible, an echo of my habitat, at once an invisibility cloak and a beacon of my unwieldy presence.

The gulf between this women, and that bouncy epicene teen, is the awareness of power that can be lost. Though ostensibly disabling, halting, inhibiting, the woman wields an agency the teenage couldn’t know. An awareness of a battle, provides an agency in winning.

‘Perhaps someone else should have a go’ – a pointed voice slices towards the towering Maltese man, whose strong, dusty hands swing the Skillsaw like a paintbrush. The effect was delayed: shrugging handed swung the toothy machine into the hands of the bloke to his left. Nellie and I fingered our notebooks. But the point had been made and the unintentional bias was more generally redressed. Soon I was chiselling, sharpening, measuring, scoring and power-tooling, brothers in arms.

At times the timber called for arms and backs stronger than mine. But I can build a house. My timbers will be smaller, my needs less lavish than Pedro, maybe even small enough to shoulder alone. Either way, when it comes to my own project, there will be plenty of hands to help. Yes, my excursion into the male world of carpentry was scary, but it was a success. I can, it turns out, be a woman and build my own house. Watch this space.

 

Charlotte Davis