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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.