For the past two summers I have done landscaping work at very luxurious properties in the Gallatin Valley of Montana (Bozeman, Belgrade, Big Sky area) and now the Lake Sunapee region of New Hampshire. At most job sites I find myself looking at the extravagant house -- a polygonal footprint, stone accents and features, ornate trim work, multi-pitched roofs, massive windows, 20+ foot walls, thousands and thousands of square feet, millions of dollars of material and labor -- asking the same question: how the hell do you even know where to begin building something like that??
Seems like a simple question with a simple answer (From the ground up! Duh!) but if you think about it, at some point nothing of the structure or landscape were there. The architect had to supply the vision as to what could be brought to life, and then someone had to make the bold move to put a stake in the ground and say "Here. The front right corner of the house will start here." And maybe that stake shifts slightly: the whole house pivots on that point a few degrees one way or the other, or the entire structure shifts laterally a few feet. But from that one starting point everything else can begin to happen: the other corners can be laid out; excavation work can begin; foundations can be poured; frames and rafters can be erected; siding and roofing can go on. Slowly a house of any size -- shack or summer mansion -- will stand up. And, it all began from just one point.
That point, I have now learned from my dad and my own cabin construction project, is called a datum. It's a word that's been used constantly as we work. A datum is a fixed starting point of a scale or operation. It's the first move, the stake in the ground, a structural north star. Taking a scientific term to the creative world, I would define it as a commitment to turning an idea into something tangible. The cabin I am building is so far removed from the scale of the homes I have worked at. I'm pretty sure it's total cost would be just one day of contractor labor on some of those operations. But despite the micro scale of the project, I was asking myself the same question at the beginning: where the heck do we even start? It began by having the vision for what could stand where tall pines once did. Those pines came down, the ground was leveled out, and then we picked our datum. We said "the back right corner of the cabin will go riiiighhhhtttttt.... here." My dad and I committed to bringing this mental vision of a cabin to tangible form, and from that datum the process began. The corners were laid out, the pylons were poured, the decking was put down, the walls went up, the rafters were fixed on top, the siding was added, doors and windows were installed, all to the point where I can now stand back and look at a physical structure in front of me.
The cabin isn't done -- I apologize if that ruins the direction you thought this post was heading! The roof still needs to be fully shingled and there is plenty of interior work still to be done: wood stove installation, cabinets, desk space, kitchen counter, shelving, somehow getting a bed into the loft. But when I step back after each session of working on it, this process of starting with such a singular point and ending with something much larger has been on my mind. One of the best parts about this process is to know how it started. People will see the cabin when it's done and might appreciate the final product, but it becomes a different building all together by knowing what it looked like when it began. That datum is like a hidden secret beholden to the builder. I think that applies to any handmade process. A painter might know where the first stroke was that began a famous piece. A writer might know what the first sentence was that came to mind and prompted a story. A craftsman can probably say which piece came first in a finely carved table. The commonality is that they all started with a simple point (their "datum"), began from there, and then allowed the rest of the process to follow suit one step at a time.
I think that's a pertinent lesson for everyone, and one I am absolutely finding ways to apply to other ventures as I work to create my first documentary film (blog post coming on that!), and build a new portfolio of work in outdoor-based retail photography. It could be something like planning an extensive bike packing trip in the future, too. Anything where the final product seems so grand, so far reaching, that causes you to pause and think How the hell were you made??
Have the vision. Pick your datum. Just begin. The rest will be built one step at a time... with a few curse words and frustrating moments along the way!