leave old job....leave old home...enter new home...engage new life...maintain what matters

Friday, December 16, 2011

Alternative Home Builder: Week 19


What a difference a day makes.  Friday, numbing cold, blinding sun, a day that warmed the heart if not the toes.  Today, unseasonably warm, monotonous drizzle, the kind of day Minnesotans love to complain about.  But for me, my off-grid power plant brought a never-before-experienced drama to an otherwise gloomy stage.  On Friday, the sun produced far more power than Electrician John and his crew could consume with their noisy drills, blower and saws.  But today, as mist veiled the sun’s power, I knew the challenge would be completely different;  how would the batteries keep up without the sun recharging them?   By 10 a.m., Electrician John and his crew had already drained 10% of the available juice in the battery, much more than I had hoped: a thrilling call to action for my inner geek.  So I called Solar Curt and let my inner geek do the talking.  “According to the Mate3 display, John’s crew has drained an average of 300 watts per hour for 2 hours.  That’s 600 watt hours.  And if 10% is already gone from the batteries, then the batteries must only hold 6000 watt hours.  I was expecting 30,000 watt hours, including a 25% de-rating for the cold.  Is there a problem with the batteries?” Curt said he’d get back to me.   If I ever talk that way to you, feel free to throw cold water on my face and bring me back to the real world.  My inner geek would only laugh anyway.  He’s having fun.  But at high noon came the day’s biggest thrill;  the solar panels actually produced measurable power.  While it was only 100 watts, nothing compared to Friday’s 2500 watt burst, the rain-glazed solar panels managed to soak up sun that I couldn’t even see for all the gloom.  And in our new LED lit house, 100 watts will illuminate the entire kitchen and dining room.  Today, of all days, I learned anew a Tolkien truth.  “There is a light when all other lights go out.”


In yet another life first, I just completed a week-end long yoga retreat.  And now---having not only survived it, but basked in its energizing pulse---I’m wondering if yoga and my house aren’t really the same journey.  The parallels, too many to describe, keep spiraling in my mind, until aligning and fusing like one great DNA ladder, urging and carrying me star-ward.   Yoga, according to John Friend, the retreat's approachable instructor, isn’t about exercise, or even the famous poses like downward-facing-dog and cobra.  According to John (to whom I apologize profusely for all the misquotes and misunderstandings I’m about to make) the purpose of yoga is to better enable my Dance with the Divine.  To become fully free.  To embrace love---the pulsing breath of life and light---and, by shining it out, make the world a better place.   The poses and principles serve to engage me, both humbly and energetically, in the Dance.   All I can tell you that two days later I’m still dancing.  Just like John struggles to explain why the purpose of yoga is not butt toning, its hard for me to explain why this house is not about green and sustainable.  When it comes to alternative homes, ours included, what often attracts attention is the sexy (photovoltaics, invertors) and the quirky (sawdust toilets, rainwater cisterns).   Yes, they’re energy saving, green, sustainable.  All good!   But now I see them as poses, tools to help me engage the dance.  Through solar panels and invertors, I will dance with the sun.  Through steel roofs and concrete cisterns, I will dance with the rain.  Through sawdust toilets and compost heaps I will dance with the very circle of life and death and life renewed.  The House the Land Built is rising to engage me more fully in the Dance.   Some think I’m crazy.  Chopping wood.  Igniting prairie fires.  Hauling buckets of pooh.  And sometimes I do feel crazy, having devoted so many years toward controlling my life outcome, rigidly leading the march.  And maybe the Dance is supposed to feel crazy.  Lovingly, blissfully crazy.  Like I did Saturday, when John Friend invited me to notice an aligning light, centering me in Warrior II pose.  Like I did Friday, when we invited the solar panels to align with the sun and light our home.  Come to think of it, the feelings were amazingly similar.  Just as John (and yoga grandmother Ali and yoga teacher Monica) invite all of us to join them in the Dance, so do I.  Come!  Come to the Land!  Come to the House the Land Built!  And together---through headstand in the yoga loft or just chopping wood---we’ll Dance with the Divine.


Hah!  And I thought Monday was gloomy.  Even a wooly-skinned Irishman would grouse about today’s slice-it-with-a-knife mist.  But not me!  Tom the Builder is moving the project along, wielding a cattle prod apparently.  On Monday, Electrician John’s rough-in passed the state inspector’s scrutiny.   Yesterday, Mike the Mason finished capping the heater with limestone and Plumber Kirk’s boys flung pipe like ninja’s swinging swords, finishing their rough-in as well.  And today, the insulator’s---clomping about upon stilts---sheathed the ceiling with a plastic vapor barrier, readying the attic for insulation.  Needing little from me, I was left to again ponder the wonders of off-grid solar power.  You have no idea how good it feels to be freed from the tractor-powered generator.  Freed at last by solar power!  Solar power? Doesn’t there have to be sun to generate power?  Apparently not.  For at 11AM today, amidst a drizzly fog-bound gloom, the invertor claimed to be pulling 100 sun produced watts of electricity.  “How could that be?” I thought as I peered at the ghostly solar array (can you even see it in the picture?)  “100 watts could illuminate 10 LED bulbs,” continued the ponderings of my inner geek.  So I pictured 10 LED bulb hanging over the 20 foot long by 10 foot wide array, lit now by the 100 watts.  “Blinding!” I thought.  “I couldn’t even look at it.”  And yet the array itself seemed cloaked in gloom.  “Where’s all the light that the array is turning into light?”  Now my inner geek understands that the sunlight my eyes “see” is only a fraction of the sunlight hitting them.    Perhaps I didn’t really understand.  Perhaps I’d only read about such things.  Yet today, not only my inner geek, but every wonder-struck bone in my body began to understand, sense even, the staggering power of the sun.  And it’s for exactly this---this visceral, put my book down and see for myself, moment of connection---that the House the Land Built rises.   


An extraordinarily ordinary day.  The intrigue of doorknob selection.  The challenge of documenting wire locations.  The sparkle of lights as we save big money at Menard’s.   Even the off-grid electric ho-hummed along, losing a little as Tom the Builder’s boys rocked the garage, gaining much of it back despite yet another cloudy day.  And I’m so lucky that even my most ordinary of days begins in the Corridor, that snaking, razor-wire Fenced place my novel’s characters---Amelan, Elli, Emo, Skye---have called home since June 2004.  The same year we purchased the Land!  Coincidence?  I think not.  But today---this  extraordinarily ordinary day---I’m beginning to accept yet another (and perhaps even freakier) synchronicity:  that my novel and my home will complete at the same time.  One day this spring, when the last wall feels its last paintbrush stroke, I imagine that Skye, my hero Amelan’s daughter, will finally---and for the last time in this the seventh revision---get to narrate my novel’s (hopefully) riveting conclusion.  How weird is that!!!???  What forces of nature are at work in my life?  And a force of nature is the only way I know to describe the origins of my novel.  In 2004, when I felt the call to bring this story to life, I had no idea what I was getting into.  Looking back over each of the seven 350 page revisions, I now understand why it took so long.  I needed to write every day for five years just to become a good enough writer (maybe?) to devote two years to writing the tale as it deserved to be told.  Okay, I’m just going to say what I believe happened.  Like the House the Land Built, I feel called to birth a gift, to myself, to you, and to all who want it.  This I’ve felt for some time and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be granted the opportunity to try.  But, oh you source of divine intervention, do I have to give birth to paternal twins?  What if I deliver the house and THEN the book?   What?  Is that you I hear laughing?    


One problem with my relationship with the Land is that...well…it’s a relationship, and like any relationship, the best of Mike does not always show up.  For instance, I can sometimes take the weather personally.   And this morning was one of those instances.  Shortly after sunrise, as I walked from the cabin to the homesite to meet HVAC Aaron, the sky---which had cleared at sunset and remained clear all night---suddenly began clouding over. 
“Just my luck!” I thought.  “Six cloudy days in a row.  And when the sun finally appears, he pulls up the covers.”  I’m sure my favorite meteorologist, MPR’s Paul Huttner, could present a sound scientific explanation,  but I could feel a lot more miserable choosing to take it personally.  Fortunately for me, two forces conspired, which eventually would raise my spirits above the clouds.  First, the sun didn’t completely leave me.  Instead of thick blankets, he wrapped himself in silky, see-through sheets (how risqué!).  And second, our off-grid electric leaped into action.    All this gloomy week, poor off-grid struggled to produce 100 watts.  And that, according to its Mate3 display, is where he began today.  But soon, the output started climbing.  200 watts.  500 watts.  900 watts.  1500 watts!    And the batteries, depleted down to 79% of capacity, began to fill again.  81%.  84%.  89%.   Suddenly, I was witnessing the most exciting spectator sport of my life.  On this side, the clouds.  On the other---my newest hero, the sun.  And today, his winning attitude began to inspire me.  An hour earlier, before the festivities had begun, I’d torn off the rag-tag tarp I’d strung over the west entry to keep out the snow.   Too ugly for my house!  Now, ignited by the sun’s winning ways, a new snow-fence idea emerged.  I grabbed my hand-saw and strode off over the ridge and down to the pasture, where (as you can see in the picture) literally hundreds of cedars have sprouted.    Linda often worries about so many cedars, but I’ve always felt that they were a resource.  For what, I didn’t know.  Until now.   I felled my first cedar, a lopsided eight-footer.  Side-body long, shoulders on my back, I dragged it up Pheasant Run and down the driveway.  Intoxicated by the scent of cedar, I laid him by the west entry.  By morning’s end, seven more cedars joined him. 
But before each trip to cut the next cedar, I’d rush down the basement and check the score.  91%.  93%. Go sun!  And at 11:59---my halls now decked with boughs of cedar---the sun was knocking on the door of perfection:  95%.  And I---having found the best of Mike in this relationship---felt way over 100%. 


  1. gotta get those exercycle-generators going.

  2. Come on down Alphabetty. We'll pedal together. I'll even provide the hamster fuel.

  3. That is amazing. soaking up rays when you cant even see the rays. Word.