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.
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.
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.
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.
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.