What Us Worry?

Most of our house is buried to save on energy bills. When the wind tears through in the spring and fall, however, I find myself wishing we’d buried the entire thing until I look at the sleeping Sisters from a Different Litter.  

The wind and rain have completely blurred the view from our cave at times this morning. It howls through the mountains, making 100 year old trees dance and sway like a bunch of twenty-somethings doing the Batusi — and it’s just as hypnotic (and occasionally horrifying) to watch. I play Monday morning sportscaster, wondering which tree will twist too hard and go down and which one will live to play another day. Anything that could fly into a window is secured against the house, but every once in a while a gust will come from the south, actually pushing on the glass. A gust will come through the forest at the north end of the house making us wonder if that massive pine tree is too close to the part of the house that isn’t buried. 

But then Monday morning sports turns from Tree Dancing to the Sleeping Sisters competition. Today’s event – who will move from their cushy spot last (with no cheating by the refs by opening the food bucket lid in the kitchen)? Popular wisdom has it that animals can sense when something is wrong, so when the gusts make the entire forest seem to bow to the ground, I always expect a response from at least one of the Sleeping Sisters.


The wind has made the windows heave at least three times, and, so far, the Sleeping Sisters are in a dead heat.  Literally.

So, for the moment, I’m listening to popular wisdom and putting my faith in their instincts over my over-active imagination. 

For Pulpy Mountain Majesties

The first wave of firewood arrived shortly before the heatwave. Conquering Mt. Cordwood is a family affair, and it has to happen quickly, as more is on the way.

It takes a little over 4 cords of wood to heat our earth-sheltered house. We don’t use any other heating source. Some years we cut more than others, but the Big Guy and I mind paying to have it delivered far less than we minded paying for oil in our old house. We know the woodcutters, and it’s nice to have the bulk of the money coming into the community.

it is NOT Cold

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At this time of year, the big challenge of living off-grid in an earth-sheltered (read: 3 feet of insulation on 3 sides) is to remind yourself 69 on the thermostat would be T-shirt weather if it were describing the temperature outdoors, but when the only thing reflecting light back at you as you let the cat in at 5AM for his morning nap is the frost coating the world outside your door, it’s hard to remember that it’s too early in the year to light a fire. 

Homework

Going Green

It’s 5:00 AM, and I’m just sitting down to work.  It’s going to snow today, so I opened the vents on our big black wood cookstove to get the embers from last night’s fire heating again.  The running of the stove has become a rhythm that’s as comforting as the heat itself, but it getting to this point has been an education.

A friend of mine is the co-owner of one of Vermont’s finest country stores.  On any given weekday morning, a thick circle of pickup trucks and cars surround it as contractors and carpoolers stop in for pastries, beverages and – if they have the time – some steaming hot politics.  Weekends are just as crowded, especially during ski and foliage seasons, and you can always hear the store’s owners giving directions as first time visitors absorb the atmosphere.  They chuckle at the jauntily decorated mannequin by the register and the plastic sign that reads, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”  The owners manage to keep the place constantly smelling off fresh cookies or fried foods, and wide creaking wood floors complete the ambience.

The store’s welcoming atmosphere is why so many tourists, wandering the aisles, find themselves suddenly contemplating a move to Vermont.  They’ll start asking the locals and the proprietress about real estate or schools.  She always answers them honestly and good-naturedly, but she ends every Q&A with the same admonition, “Just do your homework.”

I was lucky enough to join a writing group with this woman and a few of her friends, and she and they became my first close friends in Vermont.  She was one of my many sounding boards as we began considering and then building an earth-sheltered, off-grid house.  She listened to our idea and my excitement, and, after encouraging me, put her hand on my arm and said very solemnly, “Just do your homework.”  So we did.

As we designed and planned and sub-contracted, I got to know every off-grid site on the web.  I acquired a three-foot high stack of magazines and books on everything from ‘High Thermal Mass Construction’ to ‘Heating Your Water with Your Woodstove.’  We had every issue of Back Home Magazine (a periodical for do-it-yourself off-gridders), and every time I met someone who was using solar hot water or solar panels, I ambushed them with a barrage of questions.

Almost a year after we broke ground, we moved in.  The walls were primer-ed and the rudimentary kitchen (which I later added to with tag sale cabinets) had only the bare necessities.  We had a pantry with no shelves, and were sweeping and mopping up dust for the first three weeks.  But the first day in the new house was a glorious, sunny June day, and we were overjoyed to see what we had hoped to see.  Our solar panels were charging the new batteries beautifully – even with our appliances plugged in.  We figured we had made our energy calculations accurately, and hugged each other.  Then the sun went down.

Suddenly the fridge we had brought from our old house made its presence known.  We watched the energy meter numbers plummet from the 30s to the minus 20s.  It didn’t take much calculating to realize that at this rate, our batteries would be sucked dry by morning.   We knew we didn’t want to keep our old fridge, but finances had kept us from buying the ultra-efficient one we wanted right away.  We also knew, however, the key to our success would be keeping our consumption low.  So it was off to the appliance store where we bought the least-consumptive fridge we could find. It was also the smallest fridge that could still be called a fridge, but it did the trick.

Again, we congratulated ourselves on our research and problem-solving, but we had just begun to scale the learning curve – and it was about to get steep.

One of the key components of our winter off-grid plan was our wood cookstove.  We had purchased it from a store that catered to the Amish community in Montana, and our plumber had installed water jackets in it for us.  These jackets would circulate water from our domestic tank to the stove using only the heat in the jacket water to propel it up and around the circuit.  The first day it was cold enough to have a fire without turning the house into a sauna, we lit one.  What we got was not a sauna, but a swimming pool.

About an hour into the first fire, we heard a roar from the back of the stove.  When the my husband (a.k.a the Big Guy) and I recovered from our shock, we went over to see what had happened and, as we stepped in a massive puddle, realized that the stove’s pressure safety valve had gone off, releasing the gallons of water that had heated to the boiling point.

This was not supposed to happen.  We had researched this thoroughly – we thought.  The Big Guy has an engineering background and, working with the plumber, quickly realized that our original calculations missed a variable when deciding where to put the stove.  Several weeks of cold showers later (we had to stop the water flowing to the stove) they re-installed the welded jackets and a small motor to propel the water.  The stove has given us a toasty house and piping hot showers for almost seven winters now.

Over the years, off-grid living has taught us a lot, but mostly it has taught us about ourselves.  Naturally, we have learned – as our friend still advises – to do our homework.  We have learned about the necessity of finding the delicate balance between principle and practicality.  We have learned how to make do and to do without.  We have learned patience.  But we have also learned that  the most fundamental education comes when you take the test, and while Life is pass or fail, as long as you’re still trying, you’re passing.  In any other venue we might be getting a strong C, but it’s a score we’re proud to post on our new super-efficient fridge.

 

Home Alone – Almost

 

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I like to think my writing group met today – even though the advance of Hurricane Sandy kept attendance down to two of us.  We even managed to speak of writing a little bit and even about the logistics of blogging.  In reality, our mini-meeting was just a little bit of a day with the girls, and it was just what this gal needed.

I’ve been part of a writing group for the last five or six months – Hubbard Hall, a local community theatre and arts center in Cambridge, NY.  Led by author Jon Katz, I initially came to the workshop with specific ideas about what I wanted to write and what I wanted to learn.  I hoped that the year-long experience would be my long-coveted MFA in writing.  It has turned out to be so much more than that for so many reasons, and today’s get together highlighted that once again.

From an educational standpoint, the Writer’s Project at Hubbard Hall has been an awakening for all of us.  No longer do I call myself a wannabe artist or writer.  I am now simply on a creative journey that will hopefully last a lifetime.  And, as I read the posts of my comrades, I see the same exuberant embrace of this ideal permeating our increasingly tight-knit group.

That small, eclectic group of writers is the other, completely unanticipated, aspect of this project.  Our first meeting was pleasant and friendly, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only attendee who worried that my work might not measure up.  In the course of the last few months, however, this creative collective has conjured its own special magic.  Wielding encouragement and hope, constructive critiques and glowing reviews, we banish anxiety and trepidation everyday online.  Today, two of our number sat at a kitchen table and compared notes and shared the histories of our creative lives,  and we banished it again.  

The rest of the group was sorely missed, and we’ll meet again another weekend with the entire crowd.  Assembling even the tiniest fraction of this group, however, was invaluable to me not only because it was a chance to talk about our work.  For me, it was the first grown-up, face-to-face social activity I’d had in over a week of chauffeuring children to doctor’s offices and pharmacies when I wasn’t working at or setting the kitchen table.  For me, the few stolen hours at that same table chatting and snacking with a new friend was just what the defense I needed against the dulling monotony that lurks at the corners of my very domestic life.  

Retro

The falling leaves are bathing Vermont in antique gold, and lately I feel as though I’ve entered a malfunctioning time machine that teases me with glimpses of the past.   Leaves and, soon, snow are coming to cover the painted yellow lines on the asphalt, camouflaging the trappings of the twentieth century.  But this only heightens my curiosity, not about the recorded history of the area, but about what life was really like.

In some ways, our off-grid, out-of-the way life gives us unique peeks into an older lifestyle – we heat and cook with wood, we grow and put up some of our food, we hang all of our laundry on the line.  But every time I pop a tube of roll up cinnamon buns or hamburger helper in my shopping cart, I wonder how ye old housewives managed to do all of this by hand.

I loved the Little House books when I was a kid, and Farmer Boy, the one about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband, Almanzo, as a boy, actually took place not too far from here – you can visit his homestead in upstate New York.  The story of their family was fun, but my favorite parts were always the copious descriptions of how Ma and Pa put up a house, a garden, a bear they just killed.

It’s at this time of year when I’m freezing instead of canning the last goodies from the garden or when I’m nurturing my inner slacker mom in other ways that I most often think of Laura’s Ma, and the detailed description of Almanzo’s Ma – the original SuperMoms – raising a sizable brood of super-obedient kids in nearly pristine houses stocked with food they grew and furnished with homemade furniture covered with homemade quilts.  I don’t just wonder what it was like to be them, I wonder if there was something magical in the well water back then.  I get exhausted driving my saucy kids (no idea where they get it) to school, bringing home part of the bacon, and trying to keep the house just neat enough to keep from being condemned.

I don’t yearn for life in that “simpler” era.  I like antibiotics and being able to vote.  But I would pay good money to know their secrets.

Ma Barlow

 

One of the disadvantages of living in an earth sheltered house is that a lack of planning can cause unusual conundrums.

Today was the the perfect example.  I was pulling things out of the fridge for dinner and noticed that we were out of propane. It is fall, and in our old colonial farmhouse I would have automatically fired up the woodstove and made a stew.  Our current woodstove is even better for these situations – its massive oven and cooking surface make me feel like Ma Ingalls whenever I start it – but wasn’t the perfect solution in this house in this weather.

It’s jacket weather outside, but between the low-hanging sun blasting our house with heat and the three feet of earth on three sides keeping it in, the house was already 71 with no additional help.  Lighting a fire hot enough to cook with would not have made the place more comfortable.

So now it’s 6:15 PM, and I’m standing in the kitchen of our earth-friendly, earth-sheltered house trying to decide between making sandwiches or doing the ultimate ‘un-green’ thing by opening all the windows and building a fire.  I’m rationalizing – it’s going to rain tomorrow and the fire will give us hot water, so it’s not a total waste.

I’ve stopped pretending that our off-grid lifestyle is as environmentally altruistic as it is self-serving, but we do like being green when we can .  Sometimes, though, figuring out how to do the green thing and still get dinner on the table and homework checked can be a real head-scratcher.  I was still scratching my head when the Big Guy waltzed in the door and announced he had finished switching the tank on the stove.  Tonight getting dinner on the table without wasting our wood heat became the green thing.

Mom and the Apple Pie

It’s the Big Guy’s birthday, and I’m making apple pie.  He and Thing1 eschewed birthday cake in favor of pie a few years ago, so after a day of excavating our mudroom (perfect birthday activity), I pulled out the Joy of Cooking and started making the crust.  I go back and forth between the Joy of Cooking recipe – is it possible to use that and not think of your mom – and the one in the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, but, as I was peeling apples, I remembered I was out of the lemon called for by both of these recipes for ‘Classic Apple Pie’.

It’s amazing how your mind wanders when you’re peeling apples, and mine usually has a good head start anyway.  I was on the 3rd or 4th apple I started wondering, not if  I should make a dash to the country store – but how Classic Apple Pie became a classic.  It’s the quintessential New England dessert in fall – every year we get so many apples that we sometimes have pie or apple-something every night for a mont.  But, almost without fail, most Apple Pie recipes call for lemon juice.

Now, I know Joy of Cooking has been around for a long time, and it was certainly possible to find lemons in urban areas of New England even a century ago, but our town had year-round residents living the original off-grid lifestyle just 50 or 60 years ago.  There was a country store – the one we still shop at – but it’s hard to believe lemons were a commonly stocked item then, and certainly not 100 or 200 years ago.

Now, I’ve learned not to use dinner guests as culinary lab rats, but I figured the Big Guy might want to eat adventur – I mean, authentically – on his birthday.  I started thinking about what the earliest European settlers would have used for their Pie.  I planned to google it later, but it was getting late, and I opted for experimentation over transportation.

I figured a mountain mom who made it to the country store every few weeks or so might have kept flour, sugar, and molasses, and maybe some kind of spices on hand.  They would have had milk and butter, of course, and probably some kind of lard/shortening.  But not a whole lot of lemon.  Now, Julia Child’s mantra may be ‘Keep Calm, Add Butter’ (an admirable outlook on life), but in Vermont the rule is, ‘When in doubt, add maple syrup’.   I figured that tradition was probably established early on and decided it was a good substitution.

Later, as I sat on the couch smelling the results of my experiment bubbling in the oven, I did a quick google and found that Apple Pie goes back in history as long as apples and flour were in existence.  Some old recipes call for champagne in place of lemon, others were just apples mashed with flour.  Apple Pie a la Mode made its first appearance at the Cambridge Hotel in Washington County New York in the 1890s, and the phrase ‘American as Mom and Apple Pie’  was coined in World War II.

But whether it was mom or the cook in the castle kitchen, experimentation was the most common component.  The pie pan emptied quickly, and in the end, the family decided that it was also the most delicious ingredient.

 

No Shame

 

Serenity for Imprfect Parents
Grant me the Serenity to accept the messes I can’t get to, the Courage to clean up the ones I can, and the Wisdom to remember that Picking My Battles is more important than picking up.

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You might think that because I write a blog dedicated to my failures as a housekeeper, I would have no angst about the unexpected guest.  I thought so  myself until Thing2 came home from school with a friend.

I knew the parents would come to pick up our tiny guest very soon.  However the work day was still in full gear. I realized that when these mystery parents came to get their offspring, our unkept house would play center stage.

Our guest’s father arrived and wanted a tour of our energy system (we’re off the grid),and I instantly began preparing him for what he was about to see.  He held up a  hand and assured me he had seen worse, and I suddenly decided it didn’t matter if he had or hadn’t.

The house will get clean sometime – not today, but someday.  In the meantime, I’ve decided to enjoy our house – clean or not – with no worries and, most of all, no shame.

Our Cool Cave

Our Cool Cave

A quick tour of our house – even at its cleanest – will reveal our deep affection for the ‘Early American Garage Sale’ style of decorating.  We each adopted this approach to interior design out of economic desperation years ago, and our hoarding natures served only to affirm our love affair with ‘Post-Modern Pack-Rat.’  And, while no one will ever accuse me of having flair, our embrace of all things eclectic served us well when we decided to build our current house or, as we like to call it, Our Cool Cave.

I had been googling owner-built and low/no-energy houses since a move to Germany in 2000 introduced us to new conservation concepts.  Germans have experienced much higher transportation and heatings costs for years, and that has pushed them to adopt many energy-saving innovations.  Some we expected to see, such as the well-known public transportation system.  Others, like the numerous solar-powered buildings in my cousin’s town of Freiburg were a complete, inspiring surprise.

To my Favorites folder I added links to low- and high- tech building ideas.  I added links on the block house construction so prevalent in Germany.  I added links about super efficient water heaters, convection heating and cooling.  But what really caught my eye were the websites featuring Earthships.

Originating in the southwest and often owner-built of recycled materials such as earth-filled tires or even soda cans, these designs employed what, at the time, we considered to be innovative but extreme (and out-of-reach) ideas for conserving heat and water.  The High Thermal Mass of these buildings kept the interior temperature relatively constant, and, while our German apartment building had been built with the same idea, we realized we were just scratching the surface in terms of energy savings.

Five years later, I was sitting in the kitchen of our charming antique farmhouse looking at the not-so-charming oil bill for the coming season.  It had increased almost 30%.  Our electric bill was always high, despite our often-draconian conservation methods, and the high price did nothing to stave off the frequent power outages that accompanied storms, Nor’easters… the breaking of a twig five miles away…..  I knew there had to be a better way – I had seen it online, and we had lived it.  Moving back to Europe was not on the table, but I knew I was not going to pay another oil bill.  All I had to do was convince the Big Guy that he was tired of paying oil bills, that we should build a low-energy home to get away from them, and (if possible) that it was his idea.

So I dug out my old Favorites folder and started trolling the Earthship sites again, becoming increasingly enamored with the earth-sheltered and underground versions.  Surrounded or buried by at least 3 of dirt, these homes take advantage of both the voluminous insulation and the constant 55 degree temperature of the earth.  Many are owner-built, but there are a growing number of companies that are marketing these modern sod house.  Earth-sheltering became my new drug.  I quietly collected a folder of clippings and waited for Mother Nature and/or politics to create my opening.

One fall afternoon after a particularly long power outage, I waltzed into my husband’s workplace with my folder and said, “We need to make a change.”  I spent the next fifteen minutes building up to my pitch, pulled out a flyer from an underground home builder and waited.  The printout didn’t even hit the counter between us.

“I love these houses!” Exclaimed the Big Guy.  “I’ve wanted to build one of these since the seventies!  Don’t you remember me telling you about them years ago?”  Obviously it had not sunk in then, but it did now.  I couldn’t believe it, we weren’t just on the same page, we were on the same page.

We spent the next year and a half researching and finally building the house.  We gave serious thought to having a specialized builder do the design and construction, but ultimately decided to be our own contractors.  Managing the design and construction of a house has ended marriages, but I think willingness to experiment helped us build a better house and not go too crazy in the process.  We relied heavily on humor and the diverse sources of information we discovered as we went along.

In the end, we came up with a design that got us off of oil (we now heat with wood) and met the lifestyle demands of our growing family, abandoning formal living spaces in favor of flexibility.  Extensive conversations with builders and engineers led us to bury the house on three sides only with super insulated conventional roof.  Cool in summer and cozy in winter, our mostly-finished six-year-old house is the most comfortable place we’ve ever lived.  The piles of earth surrounding the concrete shell insulate us from sound so well that we often aren’t aware of even violent storms unless we go out.

No design is perfect, and if we had to do it over again, we would certainly make some changes, but the one thing we would not change is our status as modern cave dwellers.

 

A Slacker’s Guide to Going Green

Singin’ in the Rain

We found each other because we’re both a bit goofy, and that goofiness has led us all over the world.  Sometimes it has led us off the deep end, or so some of our friends and family thought when we decided to build an off-grid, earth-sheltered house.  In reality, it was one of the best decisions we ever made, and it has rewarded us in many unexpected ways.

When we moved to Vermont, we bought the quintessential antique farmhouse, but, after five years of paying the quintessential gargantuan wood, oil and electric bills that go along with any drafty, mouse-infested home, we decided to make a change.  The stint in Germany that preceded our migration to the mountains had exposed us to new and old ideas about building with heating and electric savings in mind.  We sifted through folders of clippings and evaluated any conventional and offbeat idea that popped up in the search engines.

Finally, we settled on the idea of an underground house.  At the time we didn’t plan to go off-grid – it was still just a fantasy.  But our site made bringing in the power more expensive than making it ourselves, and suddenly we had a new research project.  Ultimately, we ended up with solar power and hot water and a backup generator.  We bought the queen of wood cookstoves (my non-negotiable demand) to heat our house, food, and (in winter) our water.

We moved into the house in the fall, and, aside from having to quickly buy a much more efficient refrigerator, we noticed very few changes in our life.  Like most Vermonters – we already used a clothesline 90% of the time, we already had a garden, and we already worshipped our woodstove – but we still patted ourselves on the back for being so green.  The reality was we were (and are) slackers, and that was what drove most of our design and energy decisions.  It still does now.

So as the Big Guy walked into the house yesterday soaking wet, wrapped in his towel and carrying a bar of soap, I was amused but hardly surprised.  It was pouring out and after an afternoon fixing fences, washing off in the rain obviously seemed like a great idea to him(especially since we’re surrounded by trees and mountains and more trees), but I still couldn’t figure out  exactly what had motivated it today.

“Saving water,” he announced as he sauntered across the living room, leaving sasquatch-sized puddles on the concrete floor.

Later, as we were both not volunteering to mop up the water, I tried to decide what I love most about this house – the way it fosters zany outlets for our green and/or lazy impulses or the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere so that no one calls the cops when we indulge in them.

A Half-Folded Basket

About five years ago, we went off-grid and said goodbye to our charming, but mouse-infested, wallet-draining, blackout-prone 200 year old farmhouse.

That farmhouse had actually inspired our move – not because of its inconveniences, but because it represented a time when its inhabitants had not only survived, but thrived without electricity or a fat bank account. And, while we had no intention of turning our lives into a historical re-enactment, we knew we’d have to make some choices if we were going to live with only the power we made. So, after five years of washing my dishes by hand, I got a super-efficient dishwasher (it actually saves water and electricity) and said good bye to my dryer.

We had line-dried our clothes most of the year before we made the move, but going from line-drying with an electric-dryer backup to depending completely on mother nature’s good mood was a bigger change than we’d thought. It meant setting up a space for drying indoors in snowy weather and, in summer, timing our wash loads with dry weather.

And, if there’s anything that has taught me to look at life from a basket half-folded point of view, it was the adoption of line-only drying. I groaned, for example, the first time a sudden summer storm drenched a line full of laundry. But when the sun came out a day later, the clothes were softer and smelled better than if I’d used a luxury-hotel fabric softener. When winter settled in, I thought drying inside would be slow because of the lack of wind, but because we use the wood stove 24/7 in winter, clothes actually dried faster. And there was another bonus I’d never thought of – the evaporating moisture of the drying laundry was a perfect counter balance to the over-dry air created by the wood stove.

I haven’t found any miracles in the mountains of clothes that I end up having to fold in late-night marathons (when sleeping children won’t rearrange my sorted piles on the couch). But when I’m meditating as I work my way through the pile, free of distractions and requests, it’s more than just laundry.