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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

'Twas the (Off-Grid) Night Before Solstice

‘Twas the night before solstice, as long as can be.

Temperature falling, from 13 to 3.

Generator felt eager---“Please plug me in”---

certain the ‘morrow be cloudy, again!


The cord-wood were nestled, all snug in the box,

with visions of lit match, their energy unlocked.

‘Twas my sweetie and I with spirits to mend.

We’d lain long hours.  “Would this night ever end?”


When through the east window I spied such a gleaming,

I sprang from the bed.  “Perhaps I was dreaming.”

Out of the bedroom, through hallway so dark.

I stumbled to south windows, hoping for stars.


And yes!  There they hung, same as summer eve.

The lion.  The virgin.  Even the farmer, Bootes.

When what to my east-roaming eyes should appear,

but a rim of purple-pink. “Could a real dawn be near?”


When a thin beam of yellow put clouds on the run,

I knew in a moment it must be the sun!

Brighter than new snow, his great ball now forming,

I swear that he shouted, announcing his morning.


Come tritium.  Come deuterium.   From deep in my core,

smash now together and unleash your storm.

Rise to my surface, a million years and one.

Then dash away!  Dash away!  Dash away photon!


As dry grass that before the prairie fire does quiver.

My arms sprouted goose bumps and my shoulders did shiver.

When onto the ridge-top his gold paint he brushed

all the creation fell frozen and hushed.


And then, through the window, I felt on my cheek,

the touch of his brush.  “Ho my!” I did peep.

With his bundle of joy flung from afar,

he looked like an angel, the most generous star.


His light how it cheered me, as I turned my head.

And there stood my sweetie, just climbed from her bed.

I reached for her hand, but the sun found it first.

Then her eyes shone like sunbeams and her laughter did burst.


“It’s the sun!” she did shout.  “How could this be?

On the shortest of days?  Through the coldest of breeze?”

Then we stood hand-in-hand as this low yellow ball

---the life force of our home---began doing it all.


Generator fell silent.  He wouldn’t be needed.

Because panels of solar grew giddy and gleeful.

As photons from smashings a million years old,

sent electrons from our yard and into our phones.


Then up from the cellar we heard such a whirring.

“What could it mean?”  The pump must be stirring.

Hot water!  How glorious.  From the rising sun’s power.

By noontime we’ll surely be caressed by a shower.


Then he wrapped us in warmth, as his long-angled beams,

came streaming through windows and under the eaves.

The cord-wood stayed nestled; no reason to strike,

a match to the tinder, we’d have heat until night.


Speaking no more, he magnified his work,

raising our spirits, on this winter-side of earth. 

Laying his warm finger, on the old ice of our hearts,

he leaned into the west, preparing to depart.


At last he slipped beneath the rim, where both day and dream abide.

Behold! he tossed what paint remained, upon the canvas sky.

Until he sets at last on us, we’ll recall his parting words.

“Night is but a shadow, the shadow of the earth.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Source of Energy

Funny how my own perception of myself can be SO different from…well…yours.  A couple months into the project, Builder Tom finally confessed that he and “his boys” had a nickname for me, a name I never would have taken to myself.  Energizer Bunny.  One moment they’d see me splitting firewood at the high spot and the next buzzing a trail through the far east hedgerow.  Tom laughed as he told me, “The Bunny met his match in those boys.”  He was right, after a night and a day trying to keep up with my friend Heather’s two young boys, I was sputtering.  Bleary eyed, my proverbial batteries were indeed running low.

Or was it the batteries?

Watching (and occasionally tending) our off-grid electric has made me hyper-aware of the source of energy.  Initially, of course, all our power comes from the sun, the array mysteriously converting photon flow in electron flow.  But this power is fleeting---use it or lose it immediately---unless I store each and every unused electron.  That’s the job of our 16 Rolls batteries.  All of our electricity---even the juice powering the computer as I type---rises out of the battery, whose performance I have often marveled.

Turns out my perception was wrong.

In last week’s Report Card, I gave the off-grid electric a B for cold-season performance based on 1 / month need to start the loud, stinky, diesel-guzzling generator.  I’m reconsidering that grade.  I started the generator Monday morning and I’ll likely start it again this afternoon.  Turns out the batteries are under-performing.  We expected they’d provide 4 days of power with zero input from the sun.  We’re only getting two.   Question is how’d I miss that until now?

The answer is our awesome solar panels.  The perform so well, providing so much power in all but the gloomiest days, that we never get zero input from the sun.  Until now.  Until the deep dark fog-shrouded days of December.   I now understand why even in places like Seattle, where winter is relatively warm, that all their beautiful gardens, even the grasses, stop growing.  There just isn’t enough juice.  They’d starve. 

The Indian grass on our prairie has known this for eons.  And in those eons they’ve developed impressive batteries---roots tunneling 10 feet underground---enabling them to store solar energy for six months.     So what’s the source of their energy?  What enables their amazing spring green-up?  The sun?  Their roots?  Or could it be their conservation?  The winter shut-down itself? 

So I’m asking this about myself.  Now, in the deep dark fog-shrouded days of December, the Energizer Bunny is sputtering.  Why?  I'm not sure.  And given the magnitude of the mistake I made on our off-grid electric, I’m not trusting my ability to well-answer the question.

Is it my batteries?  Is my capacity to store energy less than needed?

Is it my sun?  Is there not enough energy coming in?

Am I not conserving?  Am I attempting to get out more energy than I take in?  
I now know why I never liked Builder Tom’s nickname.  It’s about the battery and I think of myself as a sun guy.  Just go get more juice!  Yet, as I gaze out upon a head-high stalk of Indian grass---ghost of autumn, promise of spring---I wonder.    Perhaps there are other options.  Perhaps I have much to learn from the Genius of this Place.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Report Card



Warm Season
Apr 1 to Oct 31
Cold Season
Nov 1 to Mar 31
Off-grid Solar
Backup Generator
Hot Water
Backup Tankless
Masonry heater
Passive Solar
In-floor Solar

Rainwater Cistern
Sawdust Toilet

Before I explain the report I should explain why this?  Why now?    Yesterday afternoon, Linda and I sat for yet another interview with the media regarding our “newsworthy” home.  But this one was different.  Brian Todd, who posts a Green column for the Rochester Post-Bulletin, had returned for round 2.  Having posted an article on us last June, he felt compelled to drive out again and see how the systems are working in the winter.  “How much water you got in your cistern?” 

In addition to our two hour conversation, I wish I given him this report card.  Unfortunately I didn’t have it until 4:30 this morning when I woke up with it in my head.  Like a parent-teacher conference, we might as well “discuss” the low grades first, because…well…until we do we won't pay attention to anything else.

Hot Water.Cold Season = C.  Solar providing maybe 2/3 of hot water in the long dark, requiring us to use the dreaded Bosch Gas Tankless Water Heater.  If we could be granted a mulligan, one do-over for the entire project, I’d vote to get rid of the Bosch.  

Cooling.Warm Season = C.    I’d give it a B if I was only rating temperature performance.  While mostly keeping the house under a tolerable 80F, maximum inside temperature was 86F after a brutal string of hot nights.   C is for humidity.  Doors swelled and wouldn’t close.   The problem was designed in.  If its 90F outside and 80F inside, then the inside %RH is necessarily much higher unless you get rid of the moisture. 

What about the B’s?  Electricity.Cold Season:  requires backup generator about 1 / month.  
Heating.Warm Season:  April / October shoulder season challenge.  Water:  lack of transparency.  We don’t know exactly how much water we’re using or how much remains in the cistern.  Could only tell Brian that the 5400 gallon cistern filled on Nov 7, and will last until April if our daily usage is under 35 gallons. 

Do we finally get to brag about the A’s?  Electricity.Warm Season:  solar provided 100%.  Hot Water.Warm Season:  solar provided 100%.   Heating.Cold Season: masonry heater and passive solar keeping house very comfortable for Linda during her recovery from surgery (68F to 75F).  Humanure:  sawdust toilet never plugs, never leaks, no odor issues, easy to clean, saves thousands of gallons of water, makes compost instead of pollution. 

Additional Comments:  Home the Land Built’s systems were stressed to the max during the first few weeks of Linda’s recovery from double hip replacement.  Performance = amazing.  Also, this is just the System Report Card.  What about the top two needs of Home the Land Built?  What about connecting us the the Land AND welcoming family and friends?  Seems another, more important report card is due.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Genius of the Place

Three straight days of London fog blanketed not only the photo-voltaic array and the solar hot water array and the passive solar bank of windows, but my spirits as well.  By the third of December, Home the Land Built relied on its backup systems.  I started the ear-splitting, diesel-reeking, tractor-powered WINCO generator for the second time this season.   The unimpressive---deserving of an entire blog---Bosch tankless heater warmed enough water for a quick shower.   As for lack of passive solar heating, I could have started a second fire each day in the masonry heater.  But we didn’t need to.   Believe or not, it was warm out.  Or as near to warm as southeast Minnesota comes in December. 

As meteorologist (and worthy of a superhero’s cape) Paul Huttner explained in his Updraft blog, the unpredicted fog was caused by warm moist southerlies blowing over cold, even frozen, ground.  If I had asked him, I wonder if the Huttner would have applied his explanation to my own personal funk, my brooding fog? 

Would he perceive the ice of our agony:  Linda’s pain (and even terror) of double hip replacement, the pain I felt just watching her?   Would he perceive the recent warm southerly?   Caressing her steel hips, a sudden healing breeze lifted her from the recliner onto her feet and out onto the prairie where she now walks twice a day!  Would he be surprised that in the meeting of the two, the warm healing and the cold agony, created an unexpected weather?    Would he be surprised that in my transition from 100% caretaker to…well…something less than 100%, a fog enveloped my heart?   And if not, what would, what could he have done about it anyway?  

 Why don’t I have a backup system like Home the Land Built!  A backup generator for my sagging energy.   A backup tankless heater for my chilled blood.    A backup second fire, penetrating my fog with its warming light.    While I’m sure I do have backups---something is keeping me moving forward in ¼ mile visibility---Home the Land Built and I are quite different in one respect.

Recovery time.

By design, Home the Land Built recovers instantly from deprivation while I require considerable time.   When primary systems fail, Home the Land Built’s backup systems leap into action, instantly filling the void.  Minimal recovery time.   I, on the other hand, respond quite differently to change, requiring time to adapt.    Lengthy recover time.  And for me this recovery time---even when moving from a tough situation to a hopefully better situation---feels unsettling.  The current situation, no matter how bad, is visible.  While the future, no matter how hopeful, is hard to see.   What will this sudden southerly bring?

And so if this is it---a lengthy recovery time---for which I must allow, then I need different tools.  Not the quick changeover, instant gratification tools of Home the Land Built, but the tools of slow adaptation.  Patience.  A willingness to learn.  An extra splash of cream in my chai tea.  

And if I had to do it all over again, I wonder if Paul would design Home the Land Built differently.  We asked Paul to design us a home that enable our connection to the Land.  And from everything I’ve observed its seems the Land and I share one trait:  slow adaptation.  We both experience the thrill (and terror) of finding our way in the fog of change.  What else did Alexander Pope mean—other than wildly creative adaptations to new situations---by the Genius of the Place?

Maybe that’s the next home, the Home of Adaptive Genius.  Until then, I need to find my way in the fog.  I need to slowly recover and adapt.  I need to find the Genius of my Place.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Breath of Ice. Breath of Fire.

When Locus Architect Paul showed us his first crude drawings I knew---or imagined that I knew---that Home the Land Built would connect me to the rhythms of the sun.    How could it not?  There’s the solar panels, generating power whenever the sun shines.  And the bank of windows, all seven facing south where the sun lives.  Even the 2.5 foot overhang above the windows, shielding us from hot summer sun, inviting in the light when the sun is low and cool.  Yet there is one solar connection I’d missed entirely.  Perhaps Paul knew it.  Or perhaps he too will be surprised to hear what I've learned.  We’re breathing ice.  We’re breathing fire!

All because of passive solar, that low---supposedly anemic---November sun slanting through the south-facing bank of windows, painting the concrete floor, warming us like a greenhouse.  By 11AM, even though its only 15F outside, its raised the temperature inside from 68F to 76F.  “Ah summer!” I say, stripping down to shorts and a t-shirt.  Just when I was contemplating a refreshing umbrella drink, I hear a party-ending groan. 

“I’m so-o-o-o-o HOT!!!”.  It was Linda.  Poor Linda, barely 2 weeks after having both hips replaced.  Confined to the now sun-scalded recliner, her ravaged and drugged body regulates temperature with the skill of a block of concrete.  Mostly too cold.    No longer. 

Almost puking she begs, “Open a window.  Please?  Open a window.”  OK.  I’ll admit I hesitated.  I loved the heat.  And besides, I’d just had an epiphany.  We only needed one masonry heater fire a day, not two, when the sun shines.  Not that I mind starting fires.  I mean what could be more thrilling than a roaring inferno in the middle of your home?  But this passive solar was just way too amazing.  Who would have thought that here in Minnesota, the sun could play a major role in home heating, without anything fancier than efficient south-facing windows?  
Pop!  My passive solar bubble burst.  Of course I’d open a window.  I might be an imp, but I’m no demon.  I could see how truly miserable she looked there in the chair.   Cranking open the lower window in front of her, I felt the bite of the incoming air falling upon my feet.   She still looked miserable.  Off to the bathroom, I flicked on the exhaust fan, sucking a cool breeze past the recliner.  Past Linda.  “Ah-h-h-h!”  She felt better.  And just as slight disappointment rose within me---the end of my passive solar heating dream---a new thrill filled my lungs. 

Fresh air!  It’s winter outside and I've not only got a window open but---like a hot summer day---I've got a fan going.  Not that there’s a shortage of fresh air here on the Land.  There’s a greater abundance of fresh air than anything.   I've never let the cold fresh air just pour in.  My epiphany was this:  Instead of burning less wood when the sun’s fire heats our home, what if we pull the cold air in?   Inhale the Land.  Breathe the winter’s ice.  Breathe the sun’s fire. 

And I guess that’s been the trick of Linda’s recovery.  Ice and fire.  Literally she’s wrapped in ice right now, trying to shrink both her swollen legs and her surgical pain.  And before icing she fired up her legs muscles, dutifully performing the exercises, strengthening her cut and reattached hip muscles.    Then there’s her Zimmer implants.    Once cold and lifeless, they’re now being transformed---one breath at time by oxygen-guzzling mitochondrial fires---into Linda. 

And then there’s our life.  Her bone-on-bone arthritic hips were descending her, and me at times, into a winter.   Not only the constant pain, but the nearly frozen hip joints slowly isolated her from the Land, forcing her inside.    The air became stale.  We knew we needed to open a window but how?  There was only one way.

Add a lot more heat!  Scalpel, drill, hammer.  Neighbors, family, friends.   Faith, focus, fire.  
Now our days---though spent inside, mostly in front of the bank of windows--- feel anything but stale.     As I type, she’s working an old puzzle on the dining table:  Minneapolis, 1984, the year we were married.  Exhale the old.  Breathe in the new. 
My is she feeling new.  “I think I want to try walking outside today.”   Why not?  November’s morning clouds are finally breaking.  The firelight of the sun, slanting through the bank of windows, is beginning to warm Home the Land Built.  Soon she’ll back away from the puzzle and groan.  “Open a window.”  And I will.  Breath of ice.  Breath of fire. 

And as the sun warms our greater home, perhaps we’ll open the door, and walk out onto the porch, onto the driveway.  And breathe.  Ice AND fire.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Yes of No

In some ways these 14 days since Linda’s double hip-replacement felt like some of the most grueling of my life.  Doubts.  Worries.  Cabin fever.  Loneliness.  Exhaustion.  Ragged sleep.   And yet they've also been some of the best, in part because I did what I do best. 

Ruthless prioritization.  For good or for ill, I feel the thrill of saying no.  And no is what these 14 days are all about.  No work, no projects, no conversations, unless  relevant to the task at hand:  healing Linda.  I've come to understand that I’m peculiar in my affinity for no.  And a few months ago I discovered why.
During an incredibly engaging conversation with my friend Bob, he asked me something no one had ever asked before.  “How are you thinking about our conversation?  Not what, mind you, but how?”  I must have stared blankly for several long minutes.  “I see no words.  No solid images either,” I finally tried to explain my thoughts.  “I feel what can only be described as a vortex of energy.   Some things swirl toward the front:  the epiphanies of our conversation, the warmth I feel with you right now.  To these I say yes.  And at the same time there’s an equal and opposite reaction,  the wind of no thrusting out the back of the vortex, propelling me forward like a rocket toward the yes.   Just what it is I’m going to say no to isn't clear yet.  But it will be when the time comes.  The decision is already made.”

We’d never have said yes to Home the Land Built without saying no to so many things.  No to my career at Medtronic.  No to my neighbors and house in Minneapolis.  No to expensive vacations.  Even long ago, when we said no to having children.  All these things allowed me to shout “Yes!” to Home the Land Built.

“How’s the book coming?” my friend Sarah asked this week.  It took no small amount of energy to firmly recall the novel I’d worked on every day for the past 8 years, the novel I’d committed to self-publishing by Easter.  “Haven’t really given it much thought,” I shrugged.  Apparently even the novel was expelled in the wind of no.  The decision was already made.  Ruthless prioritization.  To what end?

To the yes of no. 

To engage so fully---to say no to everything else and say yes to Linda’s recovery--- is worthy of a novel itself.  The terror of her post-surgery low blood pressure.   The thrill of her rising onto her feet.    
The wee-hour dance of me and Linda, of nurse and patient.  The problem-solving fun of configuring the composting toilet for Linda (and it worked!).   
And today, to witness as her own legs pushed down and closed the recliner.  She’s free!  We’re both free.  She can sit and stand at will AND I---no longer required to free her from the chair---need not sleep in the couch next to her.  Tonight I will sleep in our own blessed bed.

Yesterday Linda suggested I take a walk.  And so I did.  My first since the surgery.  I’m not too proud to admit that I wept as I walked the trail, where golden prairie Indian grass meets hedgerow boxelder, sparrows flitting and chirping in the naked branches.  The Land missed me and I her!  This morning’s fog, a blanket of no upon our view saying yes to the miracles inside Home the Land Built.

OK.  Maybe that wouldn't make much of a page-turner.  Not for you.  But for me, its priceless.  Gripping.  Its my reward.  I've no doubt that Linda will not only recover but---for the first time since we've moved---fully engage the Land.  And Linda and I will dance as never before, upon the green, green grasses of June.

The yes of no.   I've felt it.  I feel it now.  I’m propelling toward its light-filled future.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Off-Grid Stress Test

We always knew we’d do it.  More than once we’d wished we’d done it BEFORE the big move, BEFORE leaping off the grid into Home the Land Built.   But we didn't.  And last Wednesday that day came.  Or perhaps it was Friday.    On Wednesday, Olmsted Medical Center replaced Linda’s arthritic bone-on-bone hips with bionic implants.  Both of them.  Indeed a red letter day, frighteningly ripped with pain yet pregnant with the possibility of new life: to once again stride confidently over prairie gopher mounds, to feel the vibration of the chain saw as she slices through next year’s heat source.  Friday brought another challenger, and we’re still trying to determine the color of that day. 

On Friday, bionic Linda returned---gripping her ribbon-draped walker---to Home the Land Built.  What would it mean to nurse Linda back to health, while at the same time keeping our off-grid electric, solar hot water, wood heated, composting toilet, rainwater harvest systems alive and healthy?  Though I’d never nursed anyone, I believed I could learn.  Silly me!!!  Perhaps it was good not to know what I didn't know:  managing medications, enabling Physical Therapy, changing dressing, keeping her comfortable, plus all the newly challenged activities of daily living:  toilet, shower, sleep.    And if this weren't enough I needed to maintain the systems:  monitor the batteries, feed the masonry heater, haul buckets of pooh.   And when I dashed out to fetch wood, my worries lingered inside, “Is she alright?”   So here it was, the great stress test of our off-grid home.  How would we hold up under the pressure?  Could we heal AND keep the home healthy?

By end of day Saturday, I had my doubts.  I’d progressed from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence.   Aware now of what I didn't know about nursing, I longed for my old denial.   And while I knew how to keep the home systems healthy, I struggled to find the time.  Four full buckets waited in the garage to be emptied.   The morning routine with Linda delayed the fire, letting a chill creep through the windows and into the home.   But now, only days later, all that seems weeks ago. 

We've hit our stride, managing Linda’s pain between 2 and 4 (10 is worst pain ever).   Like new mothers, we sleep when we can.  The home is toasty while two full buckets wait patiently in the garage.   What made the difference?

Friends.  Family.  Neighbors.  You.  In the end, stuff is stuff, work is work.  What feeds me, what sustains me, is love.  We can feel it!  Love---expressed in thought, prayer and deed---pulsing over the long miles to the Land, rooting into the prairie and rising like a healing fire into Home the Land Built.   And at night, when sleep is hard to find, Orion leans over his dog and peaks through the great bank of window.  We asked Locus Architect Paul for a home the enables our connection to the Land while welcoming family and friends.  Well Paul, you did it.  Not only in good times, but in these trying times, this off-grid stress test. 
The test is far, far from over.  We’re still one hour at a time.  Yet rarely do I fear failure.   How could we when surrounded by so much love?    A chorus---a coyote roused chorus please--- for community reliance!

I’m a lucky man.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

When All Other Lights Go Out

Abundance AND scarcity.

Sunlight is scarce, at least here beneath the somber clouds of November.  Accurate weather forecasts are scarce, especially regarding cloud cover. has promised some sun every day for the last 3 days.   Even this afternoon, as the drizzle began anew, insisted on promising Partly Cloudy.  Time is scarce.  OK, that’s an exaggeration.  Yes each day gifts me 24 hour, but tomorrow I could use about 33 or so.   Battery capacity is scarce, falling to 75%.    Actually, we’re well above the 50% threshold for permanent damage.    But with the scarcity of sunlight, accurate weather forecasts and time tomorrow, I did something I haven’t done since last winter.

I started the backup tractor-powered generator.    Like it or not, there’s an abundance of smelly diesel fuel.  Or at least, they never seem to run out down at the Elba Convenience Store.  So I harvest this apparent abundance.    That’s the problem with the grid---any grid---it’s so complex, so impossibly opaque, I’ll never be able to “see” their capacity, unlike my off-grid batteries which are now at 95%.    If November delivers just a little sun, that will hold us until Friday. 
Friday:  the day Linda is scheduled to return home from her bilateral hip replacement.

Suddenly, time feels scarce.   After months of preparation angst, the surgery scheduler says we must arrive at the hospital by 8AM tomorrow.  And as Linda’s official “coach”,  I’ll be helping her---navigating, cheering her on---from the time she wakes up and rises from her bed (yes, they insist she stand almost immediately) until she’s whole again.    Until Linda returns, I’ve little time to tend Home the Land Built.  Accurate recovery forecasts are scarce, especially when replacing both hips at the same time.  And light feels scarce.    By 5:00, the November drizzle drew the curtain shut outside our bank of windows.    To see beyond the darkness, we harvest what we have in abundance.

The lights of friendship.  The lights of community.  The lights of love.   

Linda’s star-studded walker, draped with ribbons by her yoga kula.   E-mails, Facebook comments,  phone calls.    Best wishes from Paul,  a man we met only once at the Solar Home Tour.    The love we feel---pulsing over the miles to us here on the Land---from so many of you. 

Galadriel is right.  There is a light when all other lights go out.   And if I could, I'd say there's not only a light, there's an abundance of light when all other lights go out.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Edge of the World

1.3” inch rain.  64F room & slab.  Batteries 63% slowly climbing.
As I read Linda’s 2:55 PM text, such a sigh blew out of me that a couple students turned their heads.   Numbers can feel so potent when viewed from the edge of the world.  For the first time I’d left Linda alone for a week in Home the Land Built to teach at Medtronic in Minneapolis.  Brave Linda has spent everything to just live.  With hip bone grinding on her femur, she hadn’t the energy to learn our new systems, especially some of the complex startup procedures.  So a nightmare scenario would go something like this:  I’m not there, the batteries need recharging and the masonry heater needs starting.  So now on Thursday, day 4 of training,  my nightmare scenario appeared was unfolding.   And from my view, teetering upon the edge of the world, I began to perceive layers of meaning in Linda’s text. 
1.3” inch rain.  Translation: 1300 gallons of rainwater harvested from the roof, enough to fill the cistern.    Enough perhaps to last us through the frozen-gutter drought of winter.  Great news!  Sorry I'm not there to celebrate.
64F room & slab.   Translation:  House is cold and if I trust highs in the 40’s and lows in the 20’s---it’s going to get colder and colder.   If I were home I would have started the heater 6AM Thursday by building a tiny fire.  A mere 5 lbs of wood.  A bucket of kindling.    Then at 2PM I’d start an 8 lb fire followed by an 11 lb fire at 10PM.  This gentle start allows moisture to slowly escape rather than detonate like a steam grenade.    But I wasn’t home. 
Batteries 63% slowly climbing.   Translation:  Off-grid batteries in jeopardy of permanent damage by falling below their 50% limit for capacity.   At 2:55PM on a cloudy day they weren’t apt to climb much higher.  Overnight they’d lose at least 10%.  Now they’re at 53%.  If again I trust a sunny Friday---we’d be alright.  If I were home, I’d already be firing up the tractor-powered generator.   But I wasn’t home. 
In a rapid sequence of texts---me frustratingly stuck in the back of the training room---Linda said she’d come to the same conclusion.  “Are you worrying?” she asked.
Finally,  from the edge of the world, I perceived the layer beneath the layer beneath the layer.   “My only concern is you.  Batteries seem fine,” I replied.
Such a burden to lay on my sweetie.  A week from tomorrow, Nov 7, she’s getting both hips replaced.   “We have very high expectations of you,” said the Physician’s Assistant remarking on her vitality and positive attitude.  And so do we.  But her bone-on-bone hips had enough to bear without a frigid house and the fear of damaged batteries. 
So how does this story end?  I started my little 5 lb fire in the heater Friday night.  We woke to a 57F Saturday morning.  Wool socks, slippers, blankets.  Today with sunshine and another 20lb fire, we topped out at 73F.   I’m t-shirted as I type.  Batteries are fine.  The sun made a 3 hour appearance Friday morning.  71% when I got home.  And on a sunny Sunday they filled to capacity.    Even the cord wood is ready to heat our home.
Now I see beyond percentages, between worries about damaged equipment, to my real concern, my real joy, my real reason for being here:  to share it all---the agony and the ecstasy---with the love of my life.     And we have.  And we do.  And we will. 
We have very high expectations!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shoulder Season

We’re in-between.  Sometimes warm.  Sometimes cold.  Sometimes bright.  Sometimes dim.   Back in my 4140 life,  I had little awareness of this shoulder season, perceiving only that there was indeed a brief period between too-hot-to-sleep and too-cold-to-sit-on-porch.   We called this often-pleasant time fall or autumn.  We programmed the thermostat for 68F daytime and 60F night and the natural gas powered furnace warmed us as needed.  And electricity---consistently available as ever---was forgotten really, except for the monthly auto-pay notice.  I thought even less about hot water.  It was just there, like my jacket in the hallway. 
No more!  Grabbing me by the collar, Home the Land Built shakes me and shouts, “Its shoulder season!” 
We learned last April---during the other shoulder season---that the masonry heater becomes useless.  By the time I got the heater really going, a good 4 days, it was warm outside.  “Turn that thing off,” complained Linda as she stripped down to t-shirt.  Though I’ve stacked wood in the garage, we’ve yet to fire up the heater. 
We rely on passive and active solar, sunlight through the south-facing bank of windows and excess solar water pumped through the concrete floor.    Strangely, Home the Land Built experiences the temperature range as 4140:  60F to 68F.  But the 68F is fleeting, felt only for an hour, late in the afternoon on a sunny day.  And I mean a sunny day.  Not diffused light through high thin clouds.  Not passing popcorn clouds.  Not sunny until 2 and then clouds.   Of these differences---unable to perceive at 4140---I’m now hyper-aware. 
And in the fading light, both electricity and hot water are noticeably less.  While the sun still does a far better job of generating electricity than hot water (we’ve used the backup LP hot water but not the backup generator) my mind is far more on the electricity.  As it spit rain today, I must have checked the battery status hourly, actually clapping my hands when it reached 100% on a late afternoon sun rally.  Why does the electrical steal my attention away from the hot water?  Because when low, the electrical requires me to do something:  start the tractor-powered generator.  The hot water automatically switches to LP when the sun fails to heat the 80 gallon water tank above 100F. 
When Linda and I asked architect Paul to design a home which connected us to the Land, we “thought” that solar might do it.   I mean there it is, beaming right into our batteries, windows and hot water tank.   But now I learn that it matters whether I’m involved or not when the sun fades away.   The mere “threat” of needing to start the generator engages me more, connects me more to the Land, than an automated hot water backup that is actually being used. 
I didn’t say that I always like this connection, this heightened awareness of real solar energy.   At work I used to tell my mentees that the secret to success was becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.  And now so must I.   If it rains tomorrow I will don a raincoat and walk amongst my teachers in the prairie.  “How do you do it Indian grass?  You love warm.  You love sunny.  For gosh sakes you eat the sun!    What secrets can you share?”  But I wonder if even the sun-wisdom of Indian grass can help my fully connect.
 You see, I’ve been grabbed by the collar and not-so-gently informed of another shoulder season.  Three weeks from today is election today.  Important?  I suppose.  But not compared to the next day, Wednesday November 7, the day of Linda’s double hip replacement.   That day is now close enough to feel, like a cloud approaching from the horizon.  Yet we cannot see the cloud nor know for sure what it portends. 
I’m very hopeful.  Hip replacement seems the closet thing there is to a sure deal.  Its worked miracles for everyone we’ve known.    Yet the process seems complex and automated, that I struggle to connect to it. 
So, in these challenging shoulder seasons, my connection remains with the sun, where so much light lives. And with Linda, where so much love lives.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Solar Home Tour

“What should I get first, solar hot water or solar electric?”
By now, nearly six hours into my first Solar Home Tour, my ringing ears struggled to hear, let alone discern who, amongst a cellar-full of the off-grid curious, actually asked the question.  Part of me knew it was a good question, the kind of question I love.  But unlike the solar electric batteries on the far cellar wall---refilled to an amazing 99% under a brooding sky---my own batteries were unable to tickle my enthusiasm.  “Ummm…solar hot water,” I finally said, no longer capable of responding as she deserved. 
I stumbled upstairs and plopped down on the window seat next to Tori, our tour helper.  Apparently there’s a gage on my face similar to the invertor’s battery depletion status.  “You need a cookie,” said Tori.  So right!  I’d paid better attention to the electric’s battery than my own.    I grabbed a Mundt’s Bakery chocolate chip cookie off the serving plate.
I don’t know how we would have managed without Tori and her solar-knowledgeable boyfriend Nic.  They greeted the steady stream and showed them around until joining the next Linda or Mike tour.  We never dreamed so many people would drive so far---40 minutes from anywhere if you can find it---just to hear us babble about our off-grid, rainwater harvest, composting toilet, masonry heater home.  Many were drawn by the excellent article on our house in the Winona Daily News.  But that’s not the only reason.
I sensed so much enthusiasm!  They loved our house.  They loved what we were doing.  And yes, they loved our toilet, even when packed like sardines into our modest bathroom; the surprise hit of the tour.   My only regret was not getting the time to hear why they’d really come.  I could see it in their faces.  They were witnessing something here that they wanted.  Beyond PV.  Beyond well-charged batteries.  Beyond a composting toilet.   Had I not been so in need of a chocolate chip cookie I might even have taken a moment to draw it out. 
“Solar hot water or solar electric?” my better self replies now in a daydream.  “I don’t think there’s one answer to that.  In the end, solar panels are just stuff.  Cool, maybe even sexy, but stuff nevertheless.  What matters is what this stuff does for our lives.  Linda and I birthed Home the Land Built to enable our connection to the Land and welcome family and friends.  All this stuff just helps us do that.  So if you would, please share why you’re really here today, aside mere curiosity about our edgy lifestyle.  What burdens would you wish lifted?  What dreams do you dare approach?  Then perhaps we could talk about solar hot water or solar electric or LED bulbs or composting toilets and see which of these make sense for you.”  With that kind of conversation, and a couple chocolate chip cookies, I could have gone for another six hours. 
This afternoon I walked my own private Solar Home Tour.  Down Pheasant Run, autumn-blazed prairie grass waving fronds over my head.  Past the ever-falling limbs of mother tree, alive now with migrating sparrows, whose names I seem to know though not their species.  The cool October air, finally cleaned of harvest dust by the first rain in a month, soothed my anxious lungs.  Overhead, the gray dome felt now like a comforting blanket.  What glory! those tumbling clouds, their droplets warmed and lifted from distant oceans by the sun.  What glory! the autumn-blazed prairie grass, the ruin of mother tree, their each and every carbon molecule electro-chemically nabbed out of thin air by the power of the sun. 
Solar hot water.  Solar electric.   I love my solar home.
I’m a lucky man!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

End of a Story

Done!  Finished!  Complete!  No, that falls so short.  If only I spoke German.  Then I’d have the precise boot-stomping, bark-of-a-word for announcing the official completion of House the Land Built.  For today Oct 2 at 3:40PM, Doug compressed the final skip-textured coat of American Clay onto the masonry heater.   And perhaps we saved the best for last:  masonry heater, heart of the house, finally blazing like this autumn prairie, Amber Grain over Jasper Green.   I feel so compelled to look at it---even drawing my attention away from the sky-dazzling avian drama outside the bank of windows---that I can’t seem to type a sentence without peering over my shoulder.  
Of course we’re not totally done.  No project is ever 100.000% finished.  There’s always a to-do list:  paint the garage, install the solar ventilator, touch-up that one nagging paint splatter on the basement stairwell ceiling.  Yet, at some point, I need to declare victory by closing this book, House the Land Built, and starting a new one.  And to me, the book is not simply a metaphor.
Perhaps the greatest wonder of my humanity is that I get to live two lives:  my “actual” life (the in-the-moment experience of every creature) and the story I wrap around my life.    I am not only free, but bound it seems, to contemplate, create and ever-edit The All-True Tales of Michael Larsen.   Memoir.  Comedy.  History.  Mystery.  Science Fiction.  It’s all there, in my mind at least.  So much so that I wonder if humanity wouldn’t be better named as creature-of-the-story.   And it is my story that guides me, urges me, propels me forward.  I’d never, ever be sitting here, next to our newly finished masonry heater in our off-grid, passive solar, rainwater harvest, composting toilet home, without the power of a story that began when Linda said “I can’t go the rest of my life without stars”.  Or was it when she first opened the Omnivore’s Dilemma?  Maybe that’s the beauty and wonder: my story has a fluidness unmatched by Microsoft and Google.
Even the best of stories need endings.  And this house building story---whose ups and down I’ve chronicled since May 2011 in this blog---is no exception.  Like any really good read, I expect the feelings will linger long after I softly, reverentially, close the book and sigh.  If this were an actual good read, I might not be ready to start a new book.  Sometimes a book is so profound I need to wait a day or two. But ready or not, The All-True Tales of Michael Larsen must go on.  Even now, as I wonder about what tomorrow might bring---what it means to be done with House the Land Built---this very act of wondering is already penning those timid opening sentences of the next book. 
I’m a lucky man!

P.S.  Don't forget to check out the 2012 Minnesota Solar Home Tour this Saturday from 10AM to 4PM.  Come to Home the Land Built or any home on their site map.