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Friday, March 30, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 2

The experiment is ON.    While this whole thing---this rainwater harvest, off-grid electric, solar hot water, masonry heated, composting toilet...alternative home---has been one big, bad experiment, the results really didn’t count until now; now that we’re living in it.    So far I can honestly say that everything is going as expected, that is, absolutely nothing, not one single alternative system, is working as hoped.  The masonry heater experienced the perfect storm of challenges. 
*****Geek WARNING!!!!  If, unlike me, you have no inner geek whatsoever, stop reading NOW.  If you choose to continue reading, don’t say you weren’t warned.  End warning*****.     The perfect storms collided like this.  I hadn’t fired the masonry heater since we moved in; with so many sunny 70 degree days, who needs it?  So the masonry was cold, cold, cold and it takes at least two days, lighting a series of small “break-in” fires to get it heated up again.  We were out of town Saturday until late Sunday, so I couldn’t fire the heater until Sunday night.  The concrete floor is still relatively cold since the in-floor heat is just now working, maybe.   The forecast high for today, Monday, was 45F.   The upshot is this:  by Friday, when the 45F temperature forecast came in, I knew I was screwed.  “It’ll be like camping,” I told Linda.  In the end, even though today’s outside temperature has yet to climb above 40F,  it hasn’t been too bad.  I’ve managed to keep the living room at 66F, thanks mostly to serious insulation, including our R5.5 Serious windows.  I lit the first small “break-in” fire last night soon as we arrived:  a puny, smoldering wisp of a thing resembling a campfire of wet wood.  Even today’s third and final fire required an inelegant, open-the-door-quick, smoke-in-the-house lighting rescue.  But it’s going.   And frankly, Linda hasn’t complained once about feeling a chill.  Then again, she spent much of the day cleaning the old tiny cabin, where 70F always feels drafty and our house never, ever feels drafty.  Fact of the matter is, I had a blast!  I’d missed the masonry heater and enjoyed crafting my log cabin style fire with the kindling-on-top (called the top down or upside-down fire method if you want to YouTube it).  I hope Linda doesn’t get too frightened when she learns how much fun I had; she’ll accuse me of creating failures just to work my way out of them.  Hmmm.  So, maybe I was wrong.  Maybe everything is working like I hoped it would; that is, maybe nothing is working like I hoped it would.

 Today I lived the ‘Home the Land Built’ life.  Almost.   Every half hour, from 9:30AM to 7:00PM, I searched for the cause of the dripping tankless hot water heater, recording potential X’s on a spreadsheet, graphing the results, from which, in the end, I learned nothing.   

I know, I know, what could be more fun than a line plot in Excel?  Yet still something was missing.  As for the 25 minutes or so between data acquisition sessions, I spent those atop the Poet’s Tower, or at least Amelan, my novel’s protagonist, did in an effort to finish his final scene.  I keep telling him we’ve got to finish by Easter, but he keeps saying, “but wait, there’s more!”  Drat those characters!  Whose story is this anyway?   His I’ve learned, and the story, especially this new ending, get better and better as I get out the way.
I know, I know, what could be more fun than being told what to do by a fictional character?    Yet still something was missing.
Supper!  Ah the harmony, they synergy, the symphony of food here on the Land.  Steaming on back of the stove:  wild greens picked in five minutes within 100 feet of the house.   Stinging nettles.  Curly dock.  Dandelion.   Sautéing in front:  root vegetables from the Dietz’s, dear neighbors and organic growers.    Stirred together with plenty of Hope Creamery butter, snowed on with parmesan cheese.   Supper doesn’t get much better, especially with a cup of honey drenched nettles tea steaming alongside. 
I know, I know, what could be more fun than feasting on plants pincushioned with stingers?  Yet still something was missing.
And that something is you. 

What is the source of abundance?  I’m not sure, but Home the Land Built was designed and constructed to engage this question, this question of primal importance.    Today the Home sprouted one little bud of an answer:  diversity.  Thanks to diversity, I bathed in the luxuriously warm waters of abundance.   Literally.   Today, for the first time, Home the Land Built heated herself with all three heat sources:  masonry heater (wood), in-floor (active solar hot water), windows (passive solar).  While the masonry heater and passive solar have been doing their job since December, the in-floor, dependent on the active solar hot water system, cranked up today.  Such an exciting moment.  Taking a break from writing my novel, I wandered down the cellar.  For a windowless, subterranean hole, the cellar is an exciting place when the sun is shining.  In fact, when I’m down there, I can tell you exactly how much sun is up there.  By reading gauges, yes, but also now by listening.   In this case, a gauge told me to start listening.   The hot water storage tank, fed 175.2F heat by the solar panels, now read 144F. 
I’d programmed the in-floor pump to start when the hot water storage tank exceeds 140F, using the excess hot water---more than we could ever use for bathing and dishes---to heat the concrete floor and thus our house.  I waited, listened, waited some more.  Nothing.  I ran up the steps.  Adjusted the in-floor thermostat.  Ran down the stairs and then…and then…click!  Whir!  The sound of a pump!  The in-floor heat pump!  Pulsing water into our floor.  And the solar panels, still sucking up heat from the sun, out-produced it.  When the hot water storage tank climbed above 150F there was only one thing I could do.  Take a shower.  A 10 minute plus long,  luxuriously warm shower.  Ahhh!!!  And when, finally, I was done with that, and shaving, and doing dishes, the tank still read 153F.  And the in-floor pump still filled the floor with hot water warmth. 
And the windows still bathed the floor with direct sunlight warmth. 
And the masonry heater still radiated wood warmth, from a fire I’d built seven hours earlier.  The living room thermostat read 73F.  I opened windows.  Inhaled the fresh air of the Land.  Now that’s abundance.  Did I get that right, Home the Land Built?

The blogger, overdosing on newness and dangerously low on familiarity, harvested the abundance of his old Minneapolis haunts:  soul-engaging Pink Flower lunch with Heather and Kim dearest of former Medtronic co-workers, gooey Salty Caramel ice cream cone from Sebastian Joe’s, teeth-ripping duck jerky from Clancey’s Meats, on demand organic peanut butter from Linden Hills Coop, a butter-slathered fist-sized sample of mushroom-swiss cheese bread from Great Harvest.  Finally, buzzing from Anusara Yoga with Monica and his kula at Judson Church, and knowing that if he stayed one minute longer he’d stay for a year,he pointed the Prius southeast and said “home”.    

Friday, March 23, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 1


We’re here!!!!!  Even more than sleeping in our own bed in a real bedroom, with a door on it,  and even more than Kirby Cat howling in the hallways and still managing to pretend that the Yoga loft---where I write this blog as golden dawn washes the prairie--and the staircase up to it don’t exist, the surest sign of home, Home the Land Built, is food.  Meals!  What, in all our shared memories, feels more home building, community creating and downright pleasurable?   What builds more connection?  I should say Connection with capitol “C”.    Even Kirby Cat, after his puking episode on the car-ride over, settled with surprising speed into his Indigo Moon filled bowl.  And later that Saturday, Linda’s mother Carol provided dinner and supper (lunch and dinner in urban English), featuring warm homemade buns lathered with butter, for we move-weary workers.  Sunday, as I found a couple more Rent Joe’s Box to mule from the shed into the house, I heard the rumble of a motorcycle followed by the unmistakable laugh of a child.  Peaking my head out the hayloft door, up the driveway, I saw my dear neighbor’s, the Dietz’s, hand in hand, coming to call.  After hugs, Sandy, both mother and grandmother to the gathered, extended a white plastic bag.  “A gift from sister Ruthie.”  Watercress!  Fresh snipped from some cold and hidden stream.   Sandy knew I loved the peppery crunch of watercress sandwiches.  “Bacon and watercress salad.   Mmmm!” suggested daughter Erin.  So that was the first meal I cooked in our new home.  Found the recipe in new favorite cookbook:  Brett Laidlaw’s Trout Caviar, Recipes from a Northern Forager.  Ho my gosh!!!  We devoured a pumpkin sized bowl.  As scrumptious as that was, last night’s supper---thank you again Trout Caviar---seemed the best yet, Nettles and Wild Rice Soup.  Each ingredient seemed a character in the plot-twisting story of our life.   Apple Brats from Clancey’s Meats (we could feel Kristin’s smile).  Hope Creamery butter, churned just down the road from Linda’s 90 something Aunt June.  Linda’s chicken stock, long-simmered in her old 4140 Harriet kitchen (hope Mark and Kari, the new owners, can still smell it!).  Hand-harvested wild rice from Whole Farm Coop, our Judson Church partner.  Potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic from the Dietz’s organic farm (again!).  Organic Valley Cream from the Winona coop.  And of course the nettles.  All I had to do was walk the north hedgerow a few steps from the house.  The greener than green shoots shouted, “pick me, pick me” if I passed one by.   And my leather gloved fingertips obliged, gently pinching the topmost leaves.  Never once did a nettle decide to sting me. 
Oh, and the soup itself?  Whoa!  I can’t wait to serve you a steaming ladleful. 
House the Land Built still promises to keep me busy this week.   Chest freezer and fridge arrive today.  Stairway carpet tomorrow.  Piano Thursday.  Perhaps even solar hot water, but if I held my breath for it I’d likely perish.  Though I look forward to each of them, House the Land Built essentials, they seem now less important, save the piano.  The sound of music.  Fur Elise!  Let it Be!   I’m loving just living.   So come, as soon as you can.  We’ll pick nettles.  Slurp steaming soup.  Sing Do-Re-Mi as Linda plays the piano.   Sure we’ll tour the place, then we’ll quickly get on with living, nudging House the Land Built on its journey toward Home the Land Built.   

I’m not used to not working.  150% that is.  Sure there’s always a box to unpack and dings to touch-up.  I’m not yet harvesting rain off the roof.    And then there’s organizing…well…the whole gosh-darned house.  Please, stop by, choose something, anything---binoculars,   whole wheat flour, garbage bin, and put it somewhere.  Anywhere.   If it were summertime then living would supposedly be easy, if there be wisdom in song.  So, with Linda gone and working in Minneapolis, I did paint and unpack and organize and prep for carpet installation and freezer arrival.  Though work tugged at me like gravity,  part of me, the better part, sought desperately to get away.  Had it not been for Trout Caviar and Kirby Cat I may never have achieved escape velocity.  After last night’s success with Nettles and Wild Rice Soup, I felt enticed to try my luck with ramps.  According to Trout Caviar, ramps, our native wild leek, thrust up their green onion-like shoots the very second the frost comes out the ground.   Inspired, I pulled on my muckin’ boots, tromped across the corn stubble and entered the wood.   The north and east hedgerows of the Land border the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, the WWMA, a steep, gorge cut, 30,000 acre wilderness of valley walls snaking alongside the Whitewater River for twenty miles until spilling into the Mississippi.  Once inside the WWMA, I quickly realized I had no idea where, amongst the 30,000 acres,  one might actually look for a ramp.  And as I zigged and zigged along deer trails---the sides of my feet desperately clawing the steep hillsides for traction---another and more profound realization began to gnaw at my mind.  “I’m not sure I’d know a ramp if I saw one.  And I don’t care.  Ramps are an excuse to be here.  To live.”  So I did, keeping up the ruse by scanning the mould.  Thank goodness, else I may never have found the cliff.  
And the rock-hugging wildflower, a star shining above the mould. 
I do not know her name.  I’d like to think she doesn’t have one, that I’m the first to lie nose to petal with her.   So when I returned home and failed to positively identify her in Wildflowers of Minnesota, that only proved our special relationship.  And freed me to just hang with Kirby Cat.  And so we did.  Venturing out the front door, to the far end of the west porch onto the driveway.  Crunching popcorn during the meadowlark’s solo (backed by the chorus of frogs) from the east porch table. 

Even potato-ing on the living room couch. 
We went everywhere in our new home together, except the yoga loft, which apparently doesn’t exist.  Kirby walks right by the stairway without a single glance up.    He needed something to not be, which does.  And I needed something to be which doesn’t.  We both have our tricks, coping mechanisms for engaging this, the biggest change in our shared life. 
Kirby Cat just braved the yoga loft.  He’s up here with me.  Hurray!  
Now, I’m the only one gathering strength from an illusion.  Not today.  Today I pursued reality, the nettles once again, down in a deep grassy draw we affectionately call Lyndale Park, hoping the name alone would confer healthy growth to the trees we planted.  It didn’t.  But the nettles grow well there and they’re much better eating.   I’m learning to listen to the Land.  And here in the yoga loft, with the porch door swung wide open, it’s easy to listen.  The oak-a-lee trill of red-winged blackbird.  The listen-to-me-I-have-something-to say caw of crow.  And accompanying them all, the chorus of frogs.  Of course, that’s just what I hear.  Listening is something else, something more interactive, more connecting.  I have much to learn.
Speaking of learning, we now have our super-energy efficient fridge / freezer triad.  Atop the kitchen cabinet sits the Sunfrost, a smallish fridge-only storage for ‘I need you now’ kinds of food, like a ½ gallon of milk   
As of this morning, a pair of dancers are chilling in the cellar.  The dancers---pictured next to the batteries from which they are not supposed to draw so much juice---are the chest-style Sundanzers: one fridge, one freezer. 
In theory, the chest refrigerator stores ”I can wait for you food”, like the other two gallons of milk.  And the freezer, well…I guess we just dash down into the cellar when we need something.   I don’t mind.  At least, I think I don’t mind.  Or maybe I’ll learn not to mind.  I don’t know.  As a visitor to the US once said, “There’s only one thing you Americans fear:  inconvenience.”  Part of the journey of the Land is to paddle out to the edge of inconvenience and discover what’s there.  Do I fall off?    I’ll find out.  At least now, I can gather strength for the journey ahead from Kirby Cat, explorer extraordinaire of the yoga loft. 

The home is alive with the sound of music…ah, ah, ah, ah!!!   Today, our generous friend, Debbie---having cared for our piano since last May---said good-bye to her foster child.  Soon after, we watched as the truck arrived, the most anticipated of countless deliveries to our house, one of only a few that turned our house into a home.   I don’t how to describe the feeling as Linda sat herself onto the bench, opened Moonlight Sonata and touched the keys. 
More than the lilting, aching beauty.  More even that the shared moment:  Linda, myself, our dear niece, Rachel, bathing in our home’s musical baptism.  
Tears, which don’t come easily for Linda (unlike me!), found their way down her cheek.  Perhaps it was just the unleashing of memory.  The piano arrived the morning of our wedding day, a rainy June 9, 1984.  It’s safe to say that our relationship with Linda’s mom and dad had been strained, nearly to the point of  breaking.  So when that piano arrived, their gift to us, the ice broke, sweet summer rain poured in.  And today we felt that sweet rain, not only with the piano but literally, as a drought-buster unleashed itself upon the prairie, drumming our steel roof.  Do you play?  Then please come, sit, right here on the bench.  Stretch your fingers.  Unleash the sweet rain.  If not, just come and listen.  The musical baptismal awaits.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Alternative Home Builder: Week 32

Honest, I didn’t plan it.   Even if I had, what chance is there that it would have worked out?  And yet it did!  We installed our composting toilet on Fix a Leak Week. 
According to the EPA, the average American household annually wastes 10,000 gallons of water due to leaks.  That’s a trillion gallons of “clean” water for the US.  And the number one offender is that darned toilet, always running.  Had we dug a 700 foot deep well and buried a 1500 foot long grid-attached cable, we could have provided the massive amount of electricity required to consistently pump the 10,000 gallons we’d waste on a leaky toilet.  But we didn’t.  Instead we buried a 5000 gallon concrete cistern in the ground to harvest the rainwater which spills off our roof and erected 12 solar panels to supply the (relatively) meager electricity needed to pump the water from 14 feet below us.   Had we a flush toilet, we’d need to fill our cistern twice each year just to feed the leaks, stealing a third of all the rain that falls on our roof.  And we haven’t even flushed the toilet yet.  Even a dual flush toilet consumes 15 gallons a day or another cistern full of water per year.  So a flush toilet would consume half our available water.  So yesterday we installed the only toilet that never leaks.  Ever.  Our composting toilet.  There it is!
The first cherry toilet in Winona county.  While most of what you see in the picture is self-explanatory, you might wonder about the tower on the wall.  That’s our “tank”.  The bin.   It provides the sawdust you’ll scoop to “cover your stuff” in the bucket beneath the bamboo seat.   If you look closely, you can see the fill level indicating the bin is about half full.  I’d just poured three five gallon buckets of sawdust into the top of the bin.  When the bucket is full, I do the flushing by dumping the contents into our compost heap, which after covering with straw, doesn’t even interest our neighbor dog with its smell.  And best of all, it’s beautiful!  Like Linda said yesterday, “No one ever calls a flush toilet beautiful.”
Mark the day in red letters!  Saturday, March 17.  Official move-in date.  Or---since we’ve been moving stuff in for two weeks---perhaps it’s move-out day:  the day both our bed and Kirby cat move out of our tiny cabin and into our new home.  And on St. Patrick’s day, of all days.  Not that I’ve typically celebrated or even know much about St. Patrick.  But I dearly love my Irish friends.  Especially you, Martin, if you’re reading this.   I just unpacked that beautifully bound Lord of the Rings you gave me and displayed it proudly on the bookshelf in your guest room.  In fact, the guest room is waiting for you now, clean sheets on your Murphy bed. 
And if you raise the bed into the wall, you can relax into the rocker by the window with a good book (you know which one). 
Come Sunday---this very Sunday, mind you---you can rise and join me, cup of tea at the bar before the fire.  We’ll crack the window, just a little, and invite in the smell of morning.  And the song of the meadowlark.  And if you would, you’d also crack open that copy of Mary Oliver on the table and read to me from Making the House Ready for the Lord.  “And still I believe you will come, Lord:  you will, when I speak to the fox, the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know that really I am speaking to you whenever I say, as I do all morning and afternoon.  Come in, Come in.”
Suddenly everything’s got itself in a hurry.  The sun, having skipped March and April and moved right on to May, replaced the biting wind with the sleepy song of the meadowlark.  The ponds---swelled with melt-water rushing off the surrounding prairie hills, first heaved then swiftly melted the room-sized blocks of ice.  Then two, perhaps three minutes after ice-out, a spring peeper tapped his baton on the podium.  And the night chorus swelled.  Only to be joined by red-winged blackbird and robin and those too excited to sleep.  Now we’re caught up in the excitement, too.  After our year long marathon, we’ve sighted the finish line.  Spirits high, we’re sprinting to Saturday.   Painting.  Staining.  Hauling box after box from both cabin and shed.  Making our house ready.  Working until sunset, and maybe a little beyond, we finally retire, in t-shirts and shorts, to the yoga loft porch. 
We open the wine, the binocular covers, but mostly our ears as meadowlark gives way to the night chorus.  All we contribute is a sigh, the well-earned sigh of the sprinter. 
Is there yet another one up here amongst all the dusty boxes in the hayloft?   Well lookie there, hiding under the carpet pad.  Is this the last one?  I hope so.  The last unopened Rent Joe’s Box.   Small, heavy, I wonder what’s inside?  The “Memorabilia” label doesn’t mean as much as I thought it would when I wrote it on the tape strip last June.  Brush off the dust.  Cough.  Slice the tape.  Snap!  Pop!  Open.  Peer inside.  Oh!  Our wedding album, professionally photographed, leather bound.  June 9, 1984.  Look at you!  Like some fairy I stumbled upon in a wood, so beautiful!  And there’s your dad.  And there’s my dad.  Happy as can be, considering they have to have their pictures taken.  Sad they can’t be here Saturday, another red letter day for us:  March 17, 2012, the big move.  They would have loved the house in their own ways.  Or they would have loved that we loved it.  And they also would have loved the idea of a man-cave up here in the hayloft.  Still a jungle of boxes, that’s all it is right now:  an idea.    Coffee mug in hand, my dad would have loved to talk about that idea: a semi-primitive hang out.  Turntable and vinyl.  Card table and lamp.  He wouldn’t understand the writer’s corner and he’d just have to get a wood fire up here somehow.  Your dad wouldn’t talk much once I assured him that women, the girls, are definitely, most especially, invited.  And he wouldn’t really care about the idea; he’s a doer.  No matter.  He’d just smile and set to building us bookshelves from scrap lumber.   And as I stand here, holding the leather bound wedding album---holding you, my two dads---I gaze out the hayloft window through your eyes.  To our new cedar-sided house, our home. 
Over the steel roof to the prairie.  And beyond to the wooded ridges and the mist rising from the Whitewater.  

To you.  To both of you.  I’m glad you’re here.  It’s a big day!  A red letter day.  Get out the camera.  Wait!  No!  Don’t go.  I’m sorry I mentioned the camera.
Saturday March 17 Move In Day
We packed up the litter box, carried Kirby Cat into the car where, on the card ride over, he proceeded to puke on Linda’s lap.  So please, if you would be so generous, extend good wishes, prayers, thoughts, loving energy our way.  Thank you dear blog readers for all your support! 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Alternative Home Builder: Week 31

Water!  Clear water streaming from the tap.  Such a simple pleasure.  I wonder what the plumber’s thought of my unabashed delight as I watched them turn on faucet after faucet.  Kitchen sink.  Bathroom sink.  Shower.  Tub.  Of course my mind, overly visual at times, saw the entire flowing stream, from the stainless-steel filter-head floating one foot below the top of the 5400 gallon concrete cistern, through the pump at the bottom of the cistern, out the cistern, under the floor, both our bedroom and dining room, then finally into the cellar and up the water pipe to the sink. 
I recalled the day, last November, when Excavator Steve and I stood in the cellar and threaded that blue plastic water pipe beneath the floor and into the cistern.   Unable to stop my imagination, it visualized an even bigger stream:  the flow of electricity from the solar panels down into the batteries, converted by the invertor into usable AC, then sent on down the line to the bottom of the cistern to the pump, the beating heart of our new water system.    I never knew I could feel such wonder, and terror, over electricity.  Would it work?  It sure did.  Even the plumbers seemed amazed at how the off-grid electric not only provided the big pump-starting surge each time a faucet handle was turned on, but they also noticed how the invertor kept claiming the batteries 100% full.  The hazy sun easily satisfied the hungry pump.    Busy as the plumbers were, fitting pipe after pipe, they couldn’t help but stop and ask me about the water.  Would it be safe to drink?  They weren’t asking about the water now splashing into the kitchen sink, courtesy of City of Plainview, but the soon to be harvested rainwater.  After my long explanation about first flush diverters and Big Berkey filters, I could only shrug,  “I think so.”  It will be another step, a huge step mind you, in this grand experiment we call House the Land Built.  Stay tuned!
We got water alright! 
Not only is H2O coursing through our in-floor heating tubes, but everywhere it seems. 
The ponds (overflowing), the ditches (running), our driveway (oozing, a happy soup for Mad Max monster trucks but my 4WD CRV nearly drowns).  Like the ponds, ditches and driveway, the in-floor water lacks one thing: heat.  49F reads the gage probing the inside of our “hot water” storage tank.   
While our pond isn’t apt to feel warm for a month or three, the hot water tank’s temperature probe may actually read hot (120F) in a day or three.  Tomorrow, if all goes all, we’ll supply the tank with solar generated heat.  I hope Solar Curt can make it happen.  I hope Solar Curt can make it down our driveway!
 Oh first wooly bear, are your bands an omen of winter to come?  Or do they remind of the gentle winter already ending?  Or are you just living the now, crawling behind the shed, being a caterpillar.  That’s me.  Or at least that was me yesterday.  There’s nothing like being completely consumed by activity to force my overly imaginative mind out the past and future, and into the now.   And yesterday was one big now.
Sunfrost fridge.  Super-dee-dooper energy efficient. 

Solar Hot Water.   Still muckin’.

Viking range.  The entire purpose of our new home is to provide adequate shelter for this six-burner gas stove.

Frigidaire washer.  I hope it uses as little water and electricity as that big label promises.

Rest Assured Mattress.  Since Dave, Murphy bed builder extraordinaire and the delivery guy were first, would you like to be 2nd on the Murphy bed?
Oh wooly bear, I hope you slept well.

When is a shed no longer a shed?  When it stores---top to bottom, back to front, left to right---the contents of your old house.    In the jungle heat of summer 2010, when Tom the Builder completed our tractor shed, it began as all others do:  empty, gloriously empty.  Not for long.
On another hot morning, June 11, 2011, just as the first open-housers entered the front door of 4140 Harriet,  my nephew Daniel slammed down the door of our 17’ U-haul, and we hit the road.  Two guys and a truck.  And half our house.  After a quick two hour heart to heart followed by two long hours of unloading---like doing Stairmaster with free weights at 110F---the hayloft was full.  Save a narrow box-free aisle down the middle, the hayloft was no longer a hayloft.     
And on an even hotter morning, Aug 1, 2011, what remained of 4140 joined it.   And what remained nearly killed us.  Furniture.  Freezer.  Tools.  The 20’ truck nearly spilled onto us when Daniel flung open the door.  Two hours later, 4140 had consumed the shed’s “lean-to”.  The shed was no longer a shed.     
Until yesterday.
As the sparkling new finishing touches enter House the Land Built (fridge, stove,  washer, mattress…), I carry in the old, the familiar.  I carry in 4140.  Faded blue wing chair.  Well-wrapped wine glasses.  Maple bookshelf, which had dutifully served  as our “shed kitchen”, providing us with only a 10 minute drive to retrieve that Corningware piece which our tiny cabin just couldn’t store.   While these dusty boxes are helping turn House the Land Built into Home the Land Built, I have a confession.  I’m at least as excited to see the walls of the shed again.  Kick the gravel floor.   Replace Corningware with grease gun.  And perhaps best of all, open the end doors of the hayloft and feel the cool air, cold actually, moving freely.  Unimpeded.
Not totally unimpeded.  Much remains.  Boxes of books, lot of books.  Framed art, even a couple treasures.   DVDs.  CDs.  Cassettes.  Turntable and associated vinyl (Moody Blues,  A Question of Balance--can’t wait!). 
When is shed again a shed?  Soon I hope.  Very soon.
“You can do solar hot water.  It’s just plumbing.”   I’ll never forget those home-spun words of DIY encouragement, spoken by an early trailblazer as he generously toured Linda and I through his alternative home.  Yup, there’s the solar panels on his roof.  Yup, there’s the pipes leading up and down from his house.  Just plumbing.  Even then, I remember thinking, “OK then, I’m not doing that.”  I can’t plumb. 
And now, as I’ve painfully discovered this week, neither can Solar Curt.  At least not at the level I’ve come to appreciate watching Plumber Kirk and his oh so skilled crew.  Through no lack of effort on Curt’s part, House the Land Build still lacks solar hot water.  To the project, it means we’ll use LP gas to heat our kitchen and bath water for now and no heat in our concrete floor, still struggling to rise above 50F.  Such a shame.  Yesterday morning, at a chilly 18F, the sun beamed strong enough to turn our bare yard into cleat-clogging mud.  I could only imagine what it could have done to water.    And imagine is what I’ll do now, until Solar Curt returns from his weeklong vacation.  Diligent and smart, he’ll get it done.  Eventually.  And one day, as you’re lying there on our solar warmed floor, if you say something like “It’s just plumbing”, you’ll know what I mean by my reply.  “Exactly!”

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.