In the middle of October we had a warm spell, hovering around 70F for a week. Still, firewood was on my mind. Our friends Kath and Paul joined us in renting a log splitter and doing the work. First we worked at our place, splitting all those old rounds that had been cut last year and were cluttering the side of the driveway. Then we hooked the splitter to my car and drove over to their house, about six miles away, where fresh cut rounds awaited the brute force of the hydraulic monster.

It’s noisy and stinky (gas powered) but oh the gratification when the wedge explodes those knotted ones that no maul work can budge! I had told my mom that we were going to do this and she expressed her envy. My parents helped us two years ago and she remembers the joy of that hard and so all the more satisfying work.

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Over here we added about a cord of firewood to our stash.
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It’ll dry for over a year while we use up the dry wood that we still have left from that earlier cutting: some of the middle stack and all of the right stack in this picture of warmer times:

All this wood is from our own property, mostly from that massive tree work we had done in 2011. We still have ten or so of those downed logs in the front garden, but now, after a lot of whittling, they’re like mikado (pick-up) sticks and not easy to buck anymore. Maybe, with one good weekend, we’ll get those done too. That wood is getting old and is in the way of other plans.

Last week I split some of that dry wood into smaller pieces and started the stacks in the porch, so they can dry extra before the time for a fire begins We had a couple of cold nights, when the fire in the stove was welcomed for another season.

The yard smells of split wood, the house of apples. Of my 120 lbs of apples only one box (20 lbs) was left and I turned it into more applesauce. The rest has been eaten, sauced, juiced, dehydrated, and some bartered away for hive-over-wintering supplies. And I’m paying my friend, who picked up the tab at the orchard, with eggs, by the way. Gotta love that!

Yesterday night it went down to 9 F (-12.7 C) and tonight they predict 5 F (-15 C), -1 F with windchill. That’s cold. The two inches of snow that remain creak and crunch under your boots. Speaking of which, I shelled out for a good set of boots: MuckBoots, with steel toes. I read some reviews, especially Anna’s on the Walden Effect, and went for it. No more this:

DSCF9863 wet feet, frozen toes

Now I’ve got warm, dry feet in these:

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But I am most impressed with my hens. They have no heating, no insulation in their coop, and I leave the little door to the first part of the run (which is predator proof) open at night. They are all healthy and energetic, not even a touch of frostbite on their combs. Unfortunately, yesterday when closing the larger coop (not predator proof, I forgot to check for eggs. So this morning I found this:

DSCF3737frozen egg

We are visiting my family in Belgium, so I’ll be off line for a while. We’ve got a friend house sitting, a marvelous arrangement for both him and ourselves that I might write about later.

 

 

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 Glue gun where have you been all my life?!

Amie and I have been dreaming up a Tiny House. She would like a house of her own (she just skips the room of her own) and I am always looking for ways to populate the ole homestead in more comfortable ways. We often have lots of guests at the same time, and often guests for a long time as well (months)…

Recently we got the opportunity to think on our Little House a little. For school Amie had to build a model Pilgrim House, following up on their field trip to Plimoth Plantation. She had opted for building a Wanpanoag wetu, but too many students  in her class had done so, so the pilgrim house it was.

DSCF3730We left the other side of the roof open so people can see in

Since DH has been traveling, it was her and me and sometimes a friend in the same predicament. I’ve love every minute of it! It invited lots of interesting conversations. For instance, at first Amie and her friend kept stacking the popsicle sticks on top of each other, like they were building a European house, brick by brick. I kept reminding them of how houses are usually built in North-America, by framing with wood. Why would that be? Perhaps there were not enough trees in Europe? Then, once they figured out how to make sturdy and somewhat straight three-way corners (those lettered blocks in the garden beds), it was like they had just discovered the third dimension, and the houses soared.

Even the discovery of a detail, like how to place clapboards, was great. She was placing them, as she went up, one behind the one below it. I suggested we took a walk around our own house, and then she got it: if she placed them in front as she built up, they would shed the rains instead of funneling them inside. And where are the holes in a chimney so the smoke can escape? And why would the outside door close inward? We looked at our porch door, which is the only outside door that closes outwards, and she remembered immediately that that’s a problem in winter, when snow blocks the door.

We also discussed fences. In her memory of Plimoth she saw that the Wanpanoag village had no fences, not even around the garden, and that the Pilgrim village teemed with them – photos of the place confirmed this. This of course led to a conversation about the cultures behind that. And would she put plastic furniture in her house, or a little electric candle to simulate the fire? No, because they didn’t have those things yet…

DSCF3727You can take off the top floor and look into the ground floor

A wonderful project, with lots of time management and lessons on prioritizing and perseverance in the face of frustration and non-perfection. It made me wonder why the education at our elementary schools, here, is not more project-based. And then, I admit it, there were also Mama’s control issues. I never once said: “Hey, you’re doing that wrong!” Not out loud, anyway. They were all teachable, and often self-taught, moments. But, as a neighbor told me, too late: “You should have just built a house of your own.”

I’m planning to!

We’ll fill up the raised garden beds with potting soil so the blocks don’t show. But it’s alright that the glue shows, and the colored popsicle sticks.  That’s alright.

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This afternoon, taking advantage of the warmer weather and the abeyance of snow/rain, I spent a good three hours splitting, moving and stacking close to 1/4 cord of firewood. While I was at it I conversed with the chickens, whose coop is next to the woodpile and the chopping block (eek).

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Two friends happened by to admire my ax form and give me gifts! A. gave me a huge bag of carrots she and her family pulled at our CSA Farm’s carrot pull last weekend, and R. brought me a pumpkin she grew in her garden. I moved all the split wood to the porch and then the sun set.

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I came in and started a fire in the stove, which sealed the deal: a hot shower was in order to wash away the sweat, dust, wood splinters, soot and muscle stiffening. I give thanks for hard work, the reward of warmth, and friendship.

 

 

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The Life!

It’s difficult to keep the whole in mind. Thinking in terms of elements helps. I wrote about elements here and here. In the latter post I listed the elements in place at the homestead, and here I’d like to add (underlined) the few that have been added since then, that are coming up in the near future (in bold), and that we’re wishing for in the more distant future (in italics):

  1. Apiary (3 hives)
  2. Avian dinosaurs (6  hens)
  3. Veg, herb and fruit gardens, most grown from seed, moving toward more perennials
  4. The hang of putting up with a canner and dehydrator: read this year’s list here
  5. Rainwater catchment (5×60 gallons) PLUS two IBC totes (550 gallons)
  6. Gravity fed irrigation in the veg garden
  7. Hoop house (12′x20′): need doors and irrigation
  8. Compost: 3 bins 4x4x4 and 2 Earth Machines and sundry leaf and wood chip piles, a couple of Hugelkulturs
  9. Earth oven: still needs third layer and roof
  10. Solar clothes dryer
  11. Member of a year-round local CSA for three years (carpooled)
  12. Solar PV array (5.1 Kw – supplies 100% of electricity)
  13. Solar Hot Water (heats all of our hot water in Summer, about 70% rest of year)
  14. Firewood – wood grown on property – and growing splitting ax skills
  15. Reasonable numbers in the 90% Reduction/Riot for Abundance
  16. Lots of growing space left
  17. coming up: water heater for coop
  18.     freestanding PV unit (2 panels and battery) to deliver electricity to coop and backup in case of power failure
  19. wishing for: mushrooms
  20.    orchard
  21.    goats
  22.    high efficiency replacement for one car
  23.    trailer for other car (“work horse”)
  24.    tiny house on trailer

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For a while now we’ve been considering adding milking goats to our menagerie, but it seems like such a step up from bees and chickens.  Still, we got some encouragement recently.

My friend from a neighboring town, Kath of This One Good Life, would love goats too, and promised to be a goat buddy if we go ahead. Blogger Leigh from 5 Acres and A Dream recommended Nigerian Dwarfs, writing that they have wonderful personalities and that, being aseasonal breeders, they can be bred almost any time of year (which means if you have two, it’s possible to breed them in opposite seasons and have year round milk between the two). She also has a long resource list of “Goat Links” on her blog. I also revisited Sharon Astyk’s blog post on “The Lazy Goat-keeper,” which puts so much of goat-keeping into perspective (also read this blog post). (The goat in the picture is hers, a buckling called Cadfael.)

So, to goat or not to goat? We would love the milk, cheese and butter – we go through so much of it, and I hate buying it in plastic. I think the skills of keeping mammalian livestock and processing their food will be good to have. I believe we can fit two goats onto our property and into our daily lives. I’ve seen how good the hens are, for all three of us, for animal companionship and lessons in life, death and gratitude (I thank those hens every day when I take their eggs). And I inordinately look forward to taking the goats for a walk in the neighborhood. Amie is of course ecstatic and DH is open to the idea.

We do need to do some more research, but I’m aware that at some point research becomes an excuse to put off taking the risk and that one just has to take the plunge. Goats are resilient creatures, and I think they’ll forgive us our first mistakes.

My only concerns are getting a permit from the town, potential vet bills, and taking holidays.

At the end of the month we will all be going to Western Mass, me to take a training, Amie and DH to have  a trip. We found a wonderful place to stay: a community farm with permaculture, gardens, herbs, bees and… milking  goats! Getting some hands-on experience would be major encouragement and perhaps the final step forward.

On other animal news, we finally got back to four eggs (four hens). The broody hen, which we decided not to break, just to experiment, has finally started laying again!

The purple loosestrife and the goldenrod are blooming (*), and the sumac is on fire (**). Life is good.

I’m researching axes. I am sorely lacking in axe skills, which I think are the perfect skills to have: good for fitness through meaningful physical work, good for the mind as an exercise in mindfulness and purpose, and a skill to have down before the time it becomes necessary – a hard winter, a lot of trees down, TEOTWAWKI. At first I thought I wanted an all-purpose Hudson Bay Axe, recommended by Alex Leavens, whose axe skills video I’ve been studying. Though I’d still like one of those, I am now thinking I’d like to learn to handle a splitting axe first: an axe with which to split, not chop wood, but not a maul, which is too heavy for me. I’m thinking a nice long handle and a head that’s 4 lbs. max. I’ve been eyeing the Granfors large splitting axe, or maybe it’ll be the small one… We’ll see. I like to take my time choosing.

We’ve also begun talking about goats. Amie is of course all for it. She has already drawn the layout for the shelter and “play pen”. DH is cautiously interested, not so much for the milk or meat, I think, but for the shrub-eating capabilities (we spent two days battling the blackberries up front).  I’m the one who will be doing all the research.

I’m giving away three of the five kombucha mothers I made two weeks ago. Due to the high temperatures the teas basically jumped from tea straight to vinegar. It’s not a loss: the vinegar goes into the chicken’s water and into a jar for when I need it, and the mother pieces made vigorous “babies” for giving away. One mother I had to throw since it had mold in it. The fifth one I’m keeping to try another brew.

(*) The bees’ favorite nectar plants. They’re bringing in lots of honey now.

(**) I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain and knew I’d not be harvesting staghorn sumac berries for sumacade. Berries for eating or steeping should be harvested after a long dry spell; rain washes away the taste. That didn’t, however, stop me from driving to the landfill and harvesting 5 gallons of spikes (or panicles)  for smoker fuel. Dried sumac berries are good fuel, burning long and smoking cold. The area where the bushes grow is a busy road where trucks pass, so I wouldn’t harvest there for sumacade, spice (zatar) or medicinal purposes (it’s a powerful antioxidant). I do know a patch of sumac that is away from traffic and herb/pesticides. I’ll harvest those when it’s dry again.

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Handling these makes your hands slippery smooth and the sour-sweet smell is divine.  On the other hand, any small cut will start smarting from the acid. You also need to resign yourself to getting lots of bugs, some biting, some not, on you as you wade through the bushes or cut up the panicles.

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I cut away as much of the stems as possible, then spread the berries (with smaller stems) on screens that I put in our attic, which is warmer and drier than anywhere else in the house. When it gets really hot up there the fan comes on, making it a perfect drying area.

 

I often talk about making our own place into a model. At this year’s Earth Day, for instance, we’re doing Open Houses all over town, and ours is one of them. We’ll show the PV and solar hot water system (which they’re putting in as I write this), the compost, veg and perennial garden, bees, chickens and rain water catchment. We’ll also show plans and hopefully the foundations of the Hugelswale system, the fish pond and the orchard, which won’t be established yet. Most of all, we’ll show how it all fits together, how they’re all elements in a wholesome and open system, along with the line-drying, the solar cookers, the eclectic library, the cabinet full of homemade medicine…

But this talk of models and modeling doesn’t seem right. Not because of arrogance – I’m a firm believer now in Jenkinson’s observation, that you have to risk arrogance because, you know, we have a huge amount of hard work to do. No, it’s more about what it would mean for us to live in a “model house”. It would stop being the refuge that we want it to be (for us, our family and friends, the community), thus also stop being a model of what we really want people to see: a refuge. Long argument short: you can’t model a refuge.

I’d still want people to come, but not to come and see, not to find a demonstration for them to observe, pen and paper in hand.  They’d come to participate - which means, of course, to work. Not looking in at “life” behind a glass partition, but immersion.

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Is this neat or what? We have a SECUSOL system, manufactured by Wagner. The MassCEC sprang for the monitoring system. They get valuable data (which they use to determine rebates, etc.) and we get to look in.

The chart above is today’s. It was grey throughout. The top of the water tank (green line at the top), where the heated water hangs out, waiting to be drawn on, hovered around the desired 130F. However, as you can see by the thick red line bordering the pink area, the temperature of the heat exchange fluid coming from the panels was only around 70F to begin with, dipping further as the day got colder and the clouds thicker. That means that our backup (oil furnace) had to kick in the difference.  That also means, however, that it was doing some of the heating (indicated by the pink area) of the water in the cold bottom part of the tank. At 5:30, for instance, the heat exchange fluid released about 10F to that water: it was going into the tank from the panels at 70F and coming out again, as indicated by the thick blue line, at a little below 60F. Around 15:30 (3:30 pm for you Americans) the fluid in the panels was no longer warmer than the cold water in the bottom of the tank, so the system shut down, not wanting to cool the water in the tank.

(The thin black lines are interesting too: this flow rate indicates our water consumption. That tall peak around 9:30 is me taking a shower, and the two peaks around 13:30 are us replenishing our fish tank, and the last two peaks are DH clearing the drains).

Below is yesterday, the 22nd of Feb, a very sunny day and a very different chart from today’s. The panels provided enough and, between 9:30 and 15:30, sometimes even more than enough, heat to get the water in the tank to the desired temperature.

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Now I’m thinking we should adjust our water consumption schedule: shower on sunny days, and later in the day too. But first we’ll gather more data.

Back to patterns! Having a plan for the slope has re-opened my mind for the immediate front: the balcony, the level stretch of garden up top, the top of the driveway. This is what it looks like right now:

 

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I already analyzed one of the more general  problems: the negativity of this space. There are some more specific patterns that can be applied, or rather, actualized here to address that. Let’s start with the patterns that apply to approaching, entering, arriving and leaving. Alexander et.al. write: “The process of arriving in a house, and leaving it, is fundamental to our daily lives” (p.554). The first pattern is this:

 110. Main Entrance: Place the main entrance of the building at a point where it can be seen immediately from the main avenues of approach and give it a bold, visible shape which stands out in front of the building.

At our place the problem is not so much the lack of an obvious entrance, but a confusion between two entrances. At the moment there is only one way to approach our house, which is the driveway, and upon that approach you see the mudroom door and the “official” front door on the “balcony”.

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As the “official” front door leads straight into the living room, we prefer to use the mudroom door when it is cold, rains or snows. The mudroom has room for boots, umbrellas and coats and acts like a sluice, keeping the cold out. But when it’s warm we usually leave the front door open, with a screened door that allows light into the dark corner of the living room. Needless to say, in all but the situation when there is uncleared snow on the path and the balcony steps (as in the picture), visitors are confused: which door to use? Idea:  make it so that in summer and fair weather the “official” front door seems the way to go, and that in all other situations the visitor is directed to the mudroom.

But first, what to do with each of these entrances?  I’d like to apply to them the following three patterns:

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112. Entrance Transition: Make a transition space between the street and the front door. Bring the path which connects street and entrance through this transition space, and mark it with a change of light, of sound, of direction, a change of surface, of level, perhaps by gateways which make a change of enclosure, and above all with a change of view.  

130. Entrance Room: Arriving in a building, or leaving it, you need a room to pass through, both inside the building and outside it. This is the entrance room.

160. Building Edge: A building is most often thought of as something which turns inward- towards its rooms. People do not often think of a building as something which must also be oriented toward the outside. But unless the building is oriented towards the outside, which surrounds it, as carefully and positively as towards its inside, the space around the building will be socially isolated, because you have to cross a no-man’s land to get to it. Make sure that you treat the edge of the building as a “thing”, a “place”, a zone with volume to it, not a line or interface which has no thickness. Crenelate the edge of buildings with places that invite people to stop. Make places that have depth and a covering, places to site, lean, and walk, especially at those points along the perimeter which look onto interesting outdoor life.

The mudroom fully embodies the Entrance Room pattern: it is inside the house but also feel like outside, as it is unheated and full of outdoorsy things. The visitor can’t see this, however, from the outside. In order to draw him with the promise of a Transition to the inside, we could place a trellis above the door and grow a vine on it. This would also nail Building Edge, change that transition from a mere line into a place.

The front door satisfies none of these patterns.  You walk  through and you abruptly find yourself in  the living room. This is the case in many ranches, and I don’t understand why any architect or homeowner thinks this is appropriate. It’s disconcerting for everyone!  The line between inside and outside here is filter thin, not a place at all. The tiny balcony and the roof above it are not deep enough to create volume.

This is an area that has fantastic potential!

First let’s deepen the balcony. Alexander points out that any balcony that is less than six feet deep will not be used (Pattern 167. Six-foot balcony), and here we have an example if that. It is a mere 2 1/2 feet deep and no one ever wants to sit there. Let’s knock away the surrounding brick wall and add another five feet to the surface. Depending on what material we use, we can make it straight or rounded (think adobe!). We can forego a wall altogether and make it accessible by a step or two, all around.

But this place would be too hot in the Summer, as it’s south. So let’s make it into an Outdoor Room.

patt163163. Outdoor Room. Build a place outdoors which has so much enclosure round it, that it takes on the feeling of a room, even though it is open to the sky. To do this, define it at the corners with columns, perhaps roof it partially with trellis or a sliding canvas roof, create “walls” around it, with fences, sitting walls, screens, hedges, or the exterior walls of the building itself.

Let’s add a wooden pillar and beam structure around and over it, on which we grow grapes and other deciduous vines. The bare vines will allow the much needed sunlight to enter the living room in winter but the leafy canopy will shade the balcony in summer. And they grow food too (permaculture: stack functions)! The rest of the enclosure will be done with potted figs and other plants, benches, a hammock. Let’s fill this new space with all manner of places to sit, sleep, work and play in the sun, in the shade.

This will also bring to life Pattern 168, which to me is one of the most important patterns:

168. Connection to the Earth. A house feels isolated from the nature around it, unless its floors are interleaved directly with the earth that is around the house. Connect the building to the earth around it by building a series of paths and terraces and steps around the edge. Place them deliberately to make the boundary ambiguous.

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This will draw us outside, to the blueberry patch, the espaliered pear tree, the path to the vegetable garden and the apiary to the right. To the left it will draw us to the pond and the dwarf orchard. To the front it will draw us to the slope with its berry bushes and trees. This is really only possible if we get that slope planted: there can be glimpses of conviviality from the street, but there must also be privacy. And even in winter it will draw us out by the eye. When standing in front of the big living room picture window, we won’t be stopped short. One more bonus: that continuation on the same level outside it will make the living room seem bigger and, depending on the material we use, it will absorb the light and heat of the sun in winter and reflect that into the living room.

 

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Back to our original question: how to decide the visitor’s question which door to choose? When we’re done both will stand out and look inviting? I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe it will come when we look through the  patterns at the next area: the driveway and the car place.