Before the House the Land Built, I always thought of “solar houses” as the ones with the (somewhat funny looking) panels on the roof. And yes, even if you put the panels on the ground, as we did, they still look a little funny.
But today, I gained a new vision of a “solar house”. An hour before sunrise, I leaned into a face-ripping northerly as I walked the ½ mile from our little cabin to the house. And as I entered the house, I awaited the ‘ah’ of warmth. It never came. Anxious to read the thermometer, my sorrels clomped across the plywood that is our kitchen floor. Yikes! Only 55F, down from 63F the night before. Sheetrock mud might take days to dry at that temp. For the first time, I stuffed the masonry heater full of oak (not the lighter boxelder) and lit it. Now, some folks say they’ve had challenges getting oak to really go. Not our masonry heater! Fifteen minutes later, I had to back away from the inferno I’d created.
What heat! What power! And then it occurred to me; this is solar power. For at least two hundred years, that oak had sucked carbon dioxide out of the air and converted it into, well…itself. All powered by the sun. And as I stood there, feeling the release of that stored solar power, the sun peeked over the cloud-fringed horizon and beamed through the south-facing windows.
Oh, for that glorious touch on my sun-starved winter face. As I basked in passive solar warmth, I saw the solar panels out the window and dashed down the basement. Yes, it was cold down there, but the solar invertor’s Mate3 display---already claiming 700 watts of power-- said, “I can give you warm”. So, I plugged in an electric space heater (borrowed from landlord Kim). I stood back in awe as it immediately took the chill off that concrete floor.
What a power chain; from the solar panels down into the battery through the invertor to the electric panel and finally, to this little dynamo. Even the space heater is solar in our off-grid home. Chores done, I meandered, saw in hand, across the prairie down to the east hedgerow. At noon, I stopped to admire it all. My stack of wood, all solar. The acres of prairie, all solar. And beyond, nearly to the ridge top, the House the Land Built, far more solar than I had ever imagined a “solar house” to be.
“What are you doing in order to make more heart decisions and few head decision?” Damn! Don’t you hate good questions? And at lunch today, for goodness sake. That’s my friend Kim for you, always making trouble by pointing over the spring rolls toward my better self. But now, as the project enters its DIY phase---paint the house, acid-etch the concrete floors, lay Marmoleum tiles on the kitchen floor and cork tiles on the yoga loft floors---heart is getting harder to find. As lunch turned into 3 hours of soul searching, I came to this: I default to my head, to find my heart requires intentionality. Yoga. Splitting wood. Sipping tea with a friend. Taking one extra minute to pause and consider sunrise in front of our little cabin (pictured). So, I’m asking each of you a favor. Please, send a warm thought my way. I’m going to need it. At least for a couple months, when our house will finally became a home and you and I can sit and drink tea, split wood and stand on our hands in the yoga loft.
I hope it doesn’t sound like a cheap cliché when I say that Linda-- love of my life and partner in this, this most amazing journey---completes me. Complete is probably a bit strong since, even with all her support and help, I no doubt come up lacking at times. But she certainly brings skills to the table which I lack. Take this blog. Without complaint, she edits my Word document for punctuation, except on Tuesday and Wednesday’ when she works in Minneapolis. Then you might notice an errant word (or ten) and a seemingly random comma. I just ain’t got that gooda grammar. Yet as I write this blog my creative juices feel unleashed, comforted by the safety net of her editing.
I can’t imagine what I’d do without her as my House the Land Built partner. Just this morning, after letting me know she liked my Tuesday blog, I learned another way she “completes me”. Picking colors actually engages her heart! I couldn’t believe it and I told her so. She seems to get so agitated as she flicks through the Hirschfield paint color fan. And I thought I understood why. A paint chip means nothing to me. My mind can’t picture how a square inch of Danube Blue might translate to an entire wall. At the design stage, all color seems muted, like the house photo in dawn’s low light. Not so for Linda. And I always knew that. She can imagine color like I can imagine shape and form. But this morning I discovered more. Linda can picture how the color will make her feel. Sage Green feels protected. Rooted. January Sky Blue feels open. Expansive. As she flicks the paint color fan, considering one color then the next, so too her heart, considering one feeling then the next. I had no idea. And how could I? It’s just not something I’m capable of. I wonder if sometimes there’s a connection between mind and heart. Perhaps my heart can better engage that which my mind can better picture. If choosing colors engages Linda’s heart but not mine, then so be it. Maybe, as she flicks the color fan, I can touch her skin, feel the rootedness of Sage Green, the openness of January Sky Blue. And if my heart doesn’t feel that, it’s bound to feel something.
Today I felt like Treebeard when he said, “I could spend a week just breathing.” Even this morning, as I walked from our tiny cabin to the homesite to tend the day’s first fire, I felt the exhale of the Land, already moist and warm. And there was something else in that air that made me stop and just breathe. A sea tang? Some wayward Pacific breeze?
And then, as I cleared the ridgetop and gazed down upon the sunlit homesite, I felt the inhale of solar panels. The two guys who tape and mud our sheetrock walls had run drying fans all night, draining our off-grid batteries down to a record low 61% capacity by dawn. I feared I’d have to start the tractor-powered generator for the first time since we powered up the array. But now, as the photovoltaics inhaled the day’s first light---even though veiled with high-clouds ---a spring-like hope filled my lungs.
By noon, weather.com was declaring the impossible: 49 degrees in St. Charles. Though it may have occurred, I can’t recall 49 in January in all my Minnesota days. Suddenly, anything seemed possible, even picking paint colors. Linda ran from one room to the next wielding her paint color fan and by 2:30 we had colors, from Seaspray to Ancient Oak. Why not order our Marmoleum Click tiles for the kitchen? Done! And we even had time to just walk. Walk and breathe. Like a stroll upon the beach.
It seemed like the sun should linger for hours, letting us sip a margarita at the bench. But, no. It was still January. By 4:30 we were leaving, heading west down our driveway, when I stopped the Prius and jumped out.
While my camera captured the view, what I really wished to capture was the feeling of the air. Warm, moist and tangy. I inhaled. I exhaled. I could have spent a week just breathing.
“That heater must be full-time job,” said the sheetrock mud man as I picked a couple more split logs out of the cart and stacked them alongside the garage’s inner wall. I didn’t know what to say. I’d never really thought of it like that, but in a way, he’s right. Consider today.
6:30-7:30. Light first fire. Drive from cabin to homesite. Check house temperature: 72F. Hurray!!!. Scoop ashes out of firebox into metal bucket. Retrieve, crisscross and stack 3 buckets of wood into masonry heater fire box. Carefully stack paper and kindling on top and light. Wait for bottom logs to catch and burst into the still terrifying “inferno”. Flick lever that allows escaping smoke to flow under the bench. Drive home.
9:15-9:30. Drive back to homesite. See that the inferno has already reduced all that wood to mere coals. Open heater door (ho my gosh, that’s hot on the face), stir coals with metal rod, close door. Flick lever that reduces the flow of combustion air pulled from outside via a 6” pipe under the house.
9:30-11. Chainsaw boxelder into 16” long logs for splitting. This big ol’ mother tree, like so many lying dead and down in our hedgerow, was expertly felled 5 years ago by the Minnesota Conservation Corps. Chain-sawing went well until a bar nut fell off (as usual) and I couldn’t find it (as usual) and I discovered I’d used up all my spare nuts. Why did I ever buy a Stihl? At least this time, I stopped cutting before the chain fell off.
11-12:15. Rolled the barrel-width 16” long logs into small piles. Fetched splitting maul to see if I could actually split these behemoths. I could. Barely. Brutally. When it’s all split, stacked and dried, I imagine it will provide a month or so of heat next winter.
12:15-12:30. Light second fire. (Same technique as first fire except less wood).
Before bed: Light third and final fire. (Same technique as first fire except more wood).
So if mud-man meant to say that the masonry heater requires a great deal of my time and energy, I agree completely. I guess what I object to is the term ‘full-time job’. That’s what I did for the last 30 years at Seagate and Medtronic. I worked for them. They paid me. Not a great deal of connection in that exchange. And I don’t really know how to explain what it is, exactly, that I get out of heater related effort. But one day, when you come down here and together we light the first fire of the day, or split wood, or buzz the chain-saw, even scramble in the mould for the lost nut, then you’ll understand why, for me, this is something entirely different. Entirely connecting to the Land. Entirely engaging with my life.
And boy, when we’re done, a fried-egg sandwich never tasted so good.