Shot of trees and roof of new house, April 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We’re back from a week in Toronto, mostly recuperating at my Aunt and Uncle’s place. Soon, I promise, there will be news about Amie’s now incessant “why?” question, her need for getting naked to go “swimming” at the most inopurtune moments, potty-training (almost complete), and more puzzling (with 24 pieces) and drawing (clothes are now in the picture as well!). And maybe I’ll reveal some about my novel (been getting requests)…

But first, a question to my readers (well, some of them, the farmers and gardeners in particular)…

One of our first priorities at the house is sowing a cover crop on the soil that was disturbed and left bare by the installation of the septic system. A lot of that beautiful dark humus-like topsoil – years if not decades of leaves had been allowed to stay and degrade where they fell – has unfortunately been turned under, and in many places what is at the surface now is light brown subsoil.

So: what should I sow to protect that bare soil from washing or blowing away, and to prime it with new organic matter and nitrogen for growing vegetables, herbs, berry bushes and fruit trees come next spring?

Crimson clover, hairy vetch? Rye? A combination of any or all of these? I don’t mind resowing as the seasons change from warm to cold. I’ll be cutting it down with a scythe and turning it under with a fork, but we’re only talking 0.4 or so acres.

Shot of trees and roof of new house, April 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We closed yesterday. It was pouring outside. The lawyers and the agents sat with us at that big “conference table”: witnessing. At the end we made out a check to the seller for the leftover oil in the tank: $1600! How ironic. We are planing all kinds of alternative energy sources to avoid oil consumption, but apparently it comes with the house! Let’s just say that, once we’re done with our work, that amount of oil will have to last us two if not three years.

Then we drove to our house, opened our door with our key, and turned on the water. Played with the taps – it was a way of appropriating it, of making it “appropriate”: our own. We walked through, chatting, noticing new things, planning. We kept an eye on the time, the $15/hour for the babysitter time…

We finally felt how exhausted we were, from the stress of this whirlwind, needlessly complicated buying process, as well as from the bug that Amie brought home several weeks ago. She’s still fighting it, but is frustrated by the cough that wrecks her sleep. I “adopted” it a week ago, and DH was coming down with right at that moment.

It was strange, finally leaving the house, knowing that it will be two weeks before we return. This week is crazy busy at DH’s job and next week we’re off to Toronto for nine days. Then we’ll begin. Then… Seems like we’ve been waiting (postponing?) for decades.

The novel is on hold while I recover and while Amie is home from daycare for the second week in a row. I am so close. I almost finished chapter 13, after which I was going to send it out to my trial readers. That’ll have to wait as well.

But we’re not waiting, really, are we. We’re planning, dreaming, knowing, now, that it won’t be long.

Photograph of small farm on river bend

We’re closing on Monday. We’re going to do this! And even before it begins, I feel the urgent need to document it all. Hopefully I’ll have the time to write here more often again.

Last week a new septic system was put in, which tore up the entire front and back yard. We knew about this of course, and welcomed it – it allows for the 2 bedroom to become a 3 bedroom if we wish. The result saved us some work: it made the sloping front yard a little more gradual, got rid of lots of scrawny trees (we requested the wood was left), so cleared space (and light) for the garden. Psychologically, with “the woods” removed, it is now easier for me to see the garden.

But the place looks so violated: all that bare earth! It’s not my own yet and I feel for it already. Also, the leach field we now realize is humongous (looks it, in any case), and as I balk from growing veggies on it, my first reaction was to lament the loss of space. I know it’s only a small loss, really, only a small area in the grand scheme of our almost-an-acre. I know my perplexity has more to do with my reaction to all that space and the question: what to do with it. Or rather, where to do it all?

The space as it exists now overwhelms any kind of vision for the future.

As for the space that exists… With all that emptiness after the construction of the septic system, the garden in front is one, large, amorphous space, with a dense cluster of trees (some mature, some not) to the left and a path of destruction all the way up to the house.

In the back and to the sides, there are unrelated pockets of space, segmented by little stone walls and trees and most obviously by ugly, metal fences. They cut the space apart and even exclude land that turns out to belongs to the property too.

Add to that the contents: so many trees we’d like to keep, so many types of soil and microclimates, most of which are unknowns as yet.

I approach this torn-up, fragmented, schizophrenic space with my equally fragmented vision.

There are so many functions that we want our garden to fulfill: vegetable garden, herb garden, bird garden, insect garden, orchard, hedges and paths, play space, discovery space, wild space, calm space…

And so many elements to incorporate. Things that are already there: the huge masonry BBQ (make it into an oven?), the old stone ring, which we’d like to keep. Structures to be built: a root cellar, Amie’s play structures (swing, seesaw, jungle gym), a little house for her (cob?), fences, and walls to train fruit trees on, a green house, a composting place, a woodcutting and curing area, maybe a tiny pond…

But standing there today, among the budding trees and the birdsong and the rustling of all those fall leaves that were left there (leaf mould!), and surveying the front from the house on the hill, I had a vision that clicked into place! And that’s exactly what we need: to make space into place, then to make that place into home.

It began with a path, a wall and a gate. Exactly the three main spatial elements that aren’t spatial themselves at all, but that divide and integrate and open space.

It’s a single meandering path that runs down the slope. It meets a small wooden gate in a thick and a low, curving wall.

The path is terraced by wooden dividers and covered with stones, all found on the property (oh many stones!). Over it at intervals are trellises and arbors, and along it (invading the garden space), benches, a birdbath. The wall is made of cob and the larger stones, painted a deep, warm brown. Along it on the inside grow the fruit trees. On the other side is the street. It is not meant for privacy: any person of average height can look over it. It is meant as an invitation.

The gate does the inviting. It sits in a higher, thicker part of the wall, with space above it for a cob sculpture, and generous chinks for preliminary glimpses of what lies behind it. It is a wooden, painted gate, rounded on top. There is perhaps a bell – with a clapper, maybe a chain (and a notice to the effect of “bell is optional”). There’s a niche for the mailbox next to it, and some flowers or a little object. Maybe a bench, on the outside, for weary passers-by.

It says: home. We live here, we are native here. And you are welcome.

Maybe I’ll draw it for you sometime. Maybe I’ll even get to build it!

Things have really come to a head here at MamaStories. DH and I (and occasionally Amie too) looked for a house with land in one particular community close to Boston, and after exactly a month and about 16 properties later, we found what we were looking for. We made an offer, got a counteroffer, accepted the counteroffer, and we were off!

0.7 acres is suddenly quite intimidating. I am sort of disappointed but also kind of relieved that we’re not going to do any landscaping or big-time gardening this growing season. We’re too late (we;ll move in at the end of June), and will stick to exploring the land, improving the soil, and making lots of plans. But I did download and order heaps of seed and plants catalogs. I will need the advice of many of you readers!

And we want to concentrate on the house first, which needs insulating as well as a new heating and water system. So many exciting alternatives out there! Ever heard of geothermal? Imagine my excitement when I got Lehman’s Non-Electric catalog in the mail today, with much homesteadin’ goodness.

Also, after going through all that trouble finding a preschool for Amie here in Brookline, I’m going through all that trouble again, but on a much shorter notice, in a place I don’t know much about.

Meantime I was and am working on the last couple of chapters of the novel. The prospect of shopping for an agent and sending the manuscript into the big bad world is on my mind every day now. My faith in the book oscillates across the board in fell swoops left and right, up and down.

We’re not there yet, but close, very close!

Photograph of small farm on river bend

We are getting the house. It’s so exciting, I can’t blog a word. It has .7 acres! Okay, I really can’t say more. We still have the inspections to do! Gotta go.

Amie loves this quality drawing paper. It is stiff so it won’t buckle under the pressure of her pen, and it’s smooth, sucking up the Tombow’s ink just right. Expensive materials for a two-and-a-half-year-old, true, but it’s worth it. The only thing that bothers me is that the paper is a bit larger than letter-size. Amie utilizes the page from edge to edge, so when I scan it some part of the image is cut off.

She now automatically draws bodies and attaches the arms and legs to them. I’m afraid this time it really (almost certainly) is the end of the tadpoles. Sometimes there’s even a chin or a neck, and usually also a mess of big floppy ears and crazy hair, with here and there a beard thrown in.

Amie’s drawing: man with body, signed, 12 March 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten Amie’s drawing: man with complex body, signed, 14 March 2008 - see video (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I videotaped her drawing the second drawing above. It got really messy as she forgot which was the head and which the body so it ended up looking like an alien! I’ll try to get it on YouTube soon so you can get an idea of her drawing: very spontaneous, with big gestures and with running commentary. It’s so funny and clever.

She is also keen on signing her name now that she can write the letters without our physical help (some verbal cues are still appreciated). In the first drawing below she ran out of space for the letter I and E so she added them in front of the A and M. And sometimes she rotates the page to get at the empty space to sign her name. So, no, she didn’t draw the human figure on the last drawing upside down (I love, though, the way the ears attach to the hairdo!)

Amie writes her name, 13 March 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten Amie’s drawing: man with body, signed, 13 March 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

To witness the development of Amie’s drawing, check this out or click here.

Some more pages from my 2004 zine The Puffin!

Puffin 1, page 9 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten Puffin 1, page 10 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten Puffin 1, page 11 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten Puffin 1, page 12 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Pages 9 and 10 make me laugh. I like the second last drawing (page 11) best of all. I still remember that meal in detail: how the food tasted, what we talked about, the atmosphere in the kitchen, even at the end of what kind of day it came. I’m sure that if I hadn’t drawn that scene on the spot, that whole event would have been lost to my memory.

Carcassonne game played with Amie, March 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

A lifetime time ago, when we were still kidless, we used to get together with friends and spend the evening eating a home-cooked meal, drinking homemade wine, chatting and, eventually, playing Carcassonne. I know, you thought I was going to write “passing out” or some such, but nope, we just played this nerdy board game.

What with a toddler around… forget it! The tiles would go all over the place, get lost, and what’s worse, Mama would lose because she would constantly get distracted.

Or so we thought. Then David, the owner of Eureka, a puzzle and games shop here in Brookline, suggested we play the game with Amie. Just treat it like a puzzle: let her match the tiles up! It’s very simple: match grass to grass, road to road, castle to castle.

Amie took to it right away. We take turns, and to make it more interesting draw tiles from one another, then put them down on the “board”. We play for about half an hour, and she has become quite good at filling up tricky gaps in the landscape.

Amie playing Carcassonne, March 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I’m sure there are many more games around that can be adapted like that for much younger kids. Yes! You can relive the fun and games of your old life, or at least  somewhat modified versions of them….