Like with all of my previous cob projects, the first step was to translate the footprint of the house/foundation from my paper plans to mother nature's belly. Because I had been required to be very specific about how near the building was going to be to the property lines, it was very easy to chart out where I should start digging. After beginning to mark out the boundaries of the foundation with bricks, it became very clear that step one was going to be removing the double-trunked tree that you see in the photo below.
I had previously spent quite a bit of energy and emotion worrying about this tree. I went as far as to re-design the entire house around it, so that it would become a feature, rather than a memory. However, I later consulted a landscaper/neighbor, Sheldon, who informed me that it was a Box Elder, considered to be a weed tree in this area. I happened upon a chainsaw quite unexpectedly, and took it down minutes after marking out the foundation. It was added to my pile of firewood, below.
Quite interestingly to me, as I arrived at my site a couple days later, a guy named Joe was backing into my driveway with a Ford F-150 and an attached trailer. He was laughing as he bounced over the curb and his truck jiggled like it was having a seizure. He saw me on my kick-scooter and said "how ya doing?." I told him "fine," and asked "what are you doing?"
Joe: "Well, it looks like this here lot is abandoned, so I'm going to get that stack of wood into my truck and take it back to my cousin. He is over 500 pounds, and can't do it himself. And he doesn't have any wood ready for winter, and it's cold."
After a bit of explaining about how unabandoned the lot actually is, I decided that since I didn't actually have plans for the wood, and because he came across as a jolly fellow, he could take what he needed. One less thing taking up space in my chaotic yard! So he stuck around for quite a while, alternating between loading logs, and asking me about my project. He was a nice guy to talk to, and told me that he'd be willing to bring me trailer loads of gravel later on for my foundation if I needed it, for a discounted price. He was amused by my choice to excavate by hand, and exclaimed that he wished he had brought his camera to take photos to show his wife.
Removing the topsoil:
(rather cute) Child labor shot #1:
(especially cute) Child labor shot #2:
Here's the underside of the stump. It was resting awkwardly on a bed of sand and some loose bricks, and so was very easy to yank up. You can see all of the bricks that I've been digging up, even just in the first 6 inches of topsoil. The house just past my truck is owned by the same neighbor, Ken, who sold me my lot. He just began fixing up the house, with plans to sell it later this year. It will be nice to have it occupied - it's a very good-looking house, in need of a lot of work!
Here's a good idea of the lay of the land. There will be quite a good-sized backyard. Hopefully big enough to accommodate my mother's dream of having a complete forest ecosystem to provide animal habitat (and block the sun from getting to the passive-solar house that I'm building...).
The sandy roots from the stump:
I've been finding a good amount of sheet metal in the ground. This crumpled piece was lodged between a tangle of stump-roots. It's annoying to dig through, and unpleasant to find, but is beautiful in its own right:
In the beginning it seemed as if every other swing would find my pick stopping dead against a brick:
Down into the clay layer! Leveling a pad:
A friend, Nick Fox, came to help for an afternoon and asked "are you going to keep digging the whole pad to this level, or will you step it up a bit (to account for the rise in ground level - and save on digging)?" I hadn't planned on it, and said "nope, same level." After he left, I thought to myself "why would I do all of that unnecessary digging, if it's just going to be a tiny crawl space anyhow?" So here I am, scraping down a sharp end to the first pad, before digging into level 2. Thanks, Nick!
And here is what it looks like as of today.