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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Alternative Home Builder: Week 30

Do I hear the beat of distant drums?  The clear ringing of silver trumpets?  Has the sun stopped, if just for one blazing moment, to peek into my west window?  For it is here, in the yoga loft, that I’ve chosen to write my first blog at House the Land Built.  Or perhaps the yoga loft chose me.  Me and Yo-Yo-Ma’s Appalachian Waltz, so achingly beautiful, like this room, this house, the prairie I’m so lucky to see out this window, finally still now after two days of bowing and rising with the wind.  It was Linda’s idea, you see, for me to leave the cabin and come.  “So beautiful here,” she texted while painting.  “Bring computer. Make phone calls.”  Laptop stuffed into backpack, bag of chips and salsa in the sack (she said to bring a snack), I quickly trekked down the grassy lane, through the pasture gate and up the long, compelling draw of the Land.  Then the steep climb up Pheasant Run---a stem of Indian grass brushing my face--to our gravel road.  Ten maybe twenty more steps to the high spot and there it is.  Our house.  Or perhaps I should say, our home.  I don’t know what acts make a house a home but certainly this blog is one.    Yes, the stuff matters too.   Home Insurance:  check.  Murphy bed mattress:  ordered.  Kitchen bar-top:  Wednesday.  Kitchen counter-top Thursday.  Bathroom counter-top:  Friday.  Sinks, faucets, plumbing:  Monday.   Solar hot water and in-floor heat:  next week.  Water:  still a bit of a mystery (Excavator Steve is trying to sweet-talk a milk-hauler).  I’m excited about all these things, but what I want, all I really desire now, is just living, being, with my friends and family.   We’ll kick up into a handstand against a yoga loft wall.  Sing Doug Weatherhead’s Requiem and Steve Larsen’s Songs of the Corridor, at the same time if it pleases us.  Play 500, “eight hearts!”, at the dining table in front of the fire.  And then, surely then, the House the Land Built, infused with our spirit, your spirit, will become the Home the Land Built.  I’m clicking my ruby slippers three times.

Again sitting in the yoga loft, I now recall that home also consists of the less ethereal, salt-mine digging, tasks like this one.  Taxes!   
Ho my gosh, as not only an alternative home builder but an alternative life liver, I can’t imagine doing this without the help of Wolter & Raak, my local tax preparer.    “No big deal,” I thought, as I quickly completed their Yes / No section of their 2011 Client Organizer.  Then, as I began sorting my records, I noticed  a Charles Schwab statement.  “Oh yeah,” I thought. “I did sell some nearly worthless stock options before retiring from Medtronic.  Dang!  More income.”  Then, as light snow changed to heavy rain, drumming on the steel roof overhead, I found surprise after surprise.  Class action lawsuit receipt from Charles Schwab.  Retirement payouts (technically I didn’t retire, I took a voluntary termination severance).  Soil and Water Conservation District cost-sharing for our prairie burn.  Of course, none of this would have been a surprise if I actually remembered it.   While Linda might tell you I don’t always have the best recall, I’m declaring the freakin’ crazy year exemption.  Still, I hope our alternative home and farm deductions balance it all out:  off-grid solar electric, solar hot water, solar in-floor heat, PTO-driven generator, tractor maintenance.  I should have done my taxes yesterday, in the glory of the sun, rather than in the dark and driving rain.  There, I put on a Sara Thomsen CD.  All’s better.  Much better!  Time to check the fire, bundle up and brave the slap of cold rain on my face as I trek the Land back to our tiny cabin.  Truth is, I’m kind of looking forward to it.  As Tom Brown’s grandfather, Stalking Wolf, once said.  “At least the cold is real.”
I believe.  If I’d ever doubted the amount of rainwater that can runoff an impenetrable surface, like my steel roof, and fill a depression, like my concrete cistern, I’ll never doubt it again.  And this I learned without my steel roof being “connected” to my cistern.    At dawn, or whatever we call a rain-veiled  daybreak, I set out from the cabin and carefully skidded down the ice-coated “grassy lane”.  Passing through the gate I found I could go no further.   
The little ice-covered puddle was now a river.  Eventually I discovered a downed branch beneath a “falls” and bush-whacked across.  Now I was excited!  What happened to the ponds?  Not until I saw them (we have two), did I believe.   A week ago I’d visited to campsite pond to harvest cattail duff to use as cover material for our composting toilet.  Then, I had to reach above my head and bend the stalk in order to shake the cattail duff into my bucket.  So today, as I crossed the pond-forming dike, I felt awed  at what I saw:  the tails barely sticking above the water.    
At the base of the dike, twenty feet below me on the other side of the pond, water gushed out the “trickle tube”, doing its job at preventing the pond from rising to the height of the dike and burst it.  “But the east pond has no trickle tube,” I thought.  I nearly ran the half mile.  Panting, sweating, I reached the ridge top and gazed down.  “Shwew!”  A pond.  A dike.  Still, rushing down the hill, I felt terrified (and thrilled!) to cross the dike.  
Yesterday’s little pond, outlined by a ring of white ice, now pushed would have overflowed the dike had it not been for the spillway, a slightly lower depression on the far end.  And there, where I’d walked a hundred times before,  I could not cross.   

All this with water, from one night of rain upon our prairie’s frozen soils.  If only I’d hooked up my rooftop gutters to my concrete cistern.   Would it have overflowed?  Ran like a river down our yard?  I’ll find out this spring.

Suddenly everything’s moving so fast I feel whisked away like a paddler in a stream, swift, ever-turning, and stunningly beautiful.   Look, around the bend, our kitchen bartop!  Should we pull up our canoe and lunch under its red elm shelf?  Oh! Oh! What’s that sparkle behind the bartop?   Kitchen cabinet countertop. 

Why not lunch there?  No, wait!  What’s that, around this boulder of a masonry heater and through the narrow channel behind?   A gold woodland of maple, of boxelder?  No, it’s the bathroom countertop!  

Who needs a sink?  Besides, there’s no water.  Speaking of water, what’s this we’re floating on and what’s that I hear?  Splashing!  Gurgling!  Quick, around the bend, out the front door onto the driveway.  A waterfall!  Have you ever seen, or heard, anything so beautiful?  There she gushes from that huge stainless steel truck into the open manhole of our concrete cistern, 5000 sparkling gallons!  Thirsty?  Where’s that ladle?  Let’s drink our fill.  But what’s that I hear, sweeter sounding than even the fall of water?  Turn!  Turn!  You know I can’t steer.  Listen!  Hear that?  Laughter, the music of friendship!  And look, there in the living room, it’s Bob!  Our dear friend, Bob!  Yes, he’s gifting our house with his wood wisdom, helping us finish our bookshelves. 

I could bathe in his generosity.  And I do, but you know what’s even better?  Stopping!  Right here in this pool, this swirling eddy.  Where I relax and just be and breathe with my friend, Bob.   Here, I’ll hold the canoe while you step out.  Please, sit, there on the window-seat ledge overlooking the stream.  I’ll build a fire.   

I failed in my duty.  The most important hat I wear---have worn for three years---as alternative home builder is alternative systems manager.  As Tom the Builder told me when we first signed our contract, “I don’t know how to do any of this alternative stuff.  I need your help.”  Indeed the last eight pages of the contract delineated the alternative systems for which Tom was not responsible:  off-grid electric, solar hot water, solar in-floor heat, rainwater harvest, composting toilet, solar ventilation, passive solar heat, Murphy bed, LED lighting, Marmoleum kitchen tile, cork yoga loft tile, acid-etched concrete floor,  wool stairway carpet and, perhaps the granddaddy of them all, the very heart of the home, our masonry heater.  Daunting?  Yes, but also exciting!  Adventurous.  I quickly discovered that my new hat bestowed no super powers.  I still couldn’t actually do any real work.  I wasn’t going to install photovoltaic panels or lay concrete block (kind of sad for the son of a mason).  My role was to find the people who could and get them working, together if need be.   And together is exactly what was needed for our solar heated water systems supplied by Solar Curt, HVAC Arnie and Plumber Kirk.   I needed to them to understand where their job ended and where the next contractor’s began.  Exactly.  Consider the 80 gallon hot water storage tank.  Solar Curt agreed to provide the tank and the solar generated heat source.  
HVAC Arnie agreed to pull excess heat out of the tank and into the loops within the concrete floor.  Plumber Kirk agreed to draw water out of the tank, heat it more if needed, and provide for our in-home hot water needs.  Yesterday was a big day for our solar heat.  At least, it was supposed to be;  Solar Curt was coming to start the loop which feeds solar-generated heat from the three panels just outside the house to the water tank.   But soon as he arrived, I realized my mistake.  “I thought you said you had water.  There’s no water in the water storage tank.”  We had water alright.  And in the tank.   The wrong tank.  Our 5400 gallon cistern is full, but there’s no water in the hot water storage tank.  Curt informed me that Kirk needs to complete the plumbing so that water can flow from the cistern into the tank.  “He’s doing that on Monday,” I said, to which I wanted to add, “and I told you that!”  But I didn’t.  Yes, I’d sent him an email.  But I’d fallen victim to the greatest mistake in communication;  the assumption that it has occurred.  Somewhere between emails, my lack of understanding and a rush to get things done, communication fell between the cracks.  “I’m sorry,” I told him.  He did a few simple system checks, perhaps just to make us all feel a little better, and left.  He’ll return next week after Plumber Kirk is done.  Thank goodness, I learn so much from my failures.  Three years of wearing my alternative home builder hat and I’m still blessed with so many learning opportunities.    


  1. where are the posts about other weeks?It is a nice post.

    1. I hope you can find all the weeks under the Blog Archive: Feb, Jan and 2011