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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.