An Un-Random Act

From the first year we were married, living in a basement apartment in Boston whose only highlight was the extremely shady but private 12 x 12 ‘yard’, I knew I needed to garden.

Once my gardening was simply a way to be outside and be near something green – something sorely missed in the city.  Then it became a path to  greater food independence. Still later, it became my place to experiment.

Now, even living surrounded by farmer’s markets and CSA’s, I still grow at least some of my own food and flowers each year.  Sometimes I struggle to explain my addiction to others and even to myself, and, as I went out to rescue what may be the last of this year’s hot weather veggies from an impending spate of bad weather, I meditated on the question once again.

This mental meandering always takes my mind from the why’s of it all to the smell of the basil leaves in my pail and then to the the chirping of the crickets nearby.  I listen to the song of the tree frogs and then travel to thoughts our toasty kitchen with a homegrown savory stew on the wood stove.  I wonder what the people who worked this land a hundred or two hundred, or even four hundred years ago would have grown.  I wonder how they survived without a country store three miles away and if we could if we had to.

And, finally, my travels take me to a place where I want to keep these skills, even if we may never need them to the degree we have in the past.  They take me to a place where I am connected to our land and to its history, to an act of faith that something good will come from my labors each year, and to a place where I am truly mindful of my senses.  And, most of all, they take me to that place where I am determined to cultivate – for as long as my body will let me – the peace that comes with the knowledge that those places do exist.

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.


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Why a Flock Needs a Mudroom

Piazza San Mudroom

One of our first – and favorite – country life endeavors was the acquisition of a flock of chickens.  At the time, the backyard chicken movement was in its infancy, and most of the books we found were republished versions of guides from the 1980s, so most of our education came from trial and error and picking the brains of our more experienced neighbors.

Now, there are a lot of books out there that will tell you what you need if you want to keep chickens. You’ll need something to keep the varmints out. You’ll need a watering system. You’ll need housing and a place to keep their food from getting moldy. But the one thing they don’t tell you is that every backyard chicken owner needs a good mudroom and a healthy tolerance for messes.

Our chickens – my husband liked to call them ‘The Girls’ in his best South-Chicago accent – were truly free range. To be sure, we locked them up at night, but in the daytime, they had the run of our garden and yard, and our flock became very friendly with us. They followed me into the garden, scratching and digging and weeding. They’d follow the kids around the yard, risking death by flying baseball to enjoy their company. And, if we left the front door open, they’d follow us into the house.

The first time it happened, one of The Girls had followed me in when I went to get a garden tool. One of them inside momentarily was adorable. She hopped around our cluttered entry way, exploring until I decided that we were in danger of invoking Murphy’s Law and, playing it safe, tossed her out.

Little did I know that she had discovered the bin of cracked corn we had leftover from winter feeding.The next day, I had two companions close behind me as I walked to the door. This was threatening to become a trend, so I put my foot between us and warned the family that the girls were suddenly interested in the house.

This kept on for a while, and The Girls being more persistent than we were vigilant eventually began finding their way regularly into the mudroom. The only thing that kept our house from turning into a giant chicken coop was our mudroom – our Maginot line against feathers and chicken poop. It got even crazier when winter weather rolled in making them completely dependent on the corn bin (in the summer they survived on bugs for the most part).

Now, I did draw the line at the living room door – the only chickens in the main house are in picture frames (along with the rest of our family), But, when there was 6-8 inches of fresh snow on the ground and another 4-6 inches on the way (cracked corn sinks), the mudroom/poutry bar was a really convenient way to feed the ladies.  And, somehow, the new mom who had been revolted by the sight of pigeons feeding from and off of tourists in the Plaza of San Marco in Venice had morphed (in a mere five years) into a chicken lady, cooing as she fed The Girls and snapping pictures when it was her husband’s turn.  No one who knows me would ever have mistaken me for a neat freak, but convenience and necessity were teaching me not to let my feathers get ruffled (sorry – I had to do it).

A couple of summers ago a fox a way into the coop and decimated our flock. Fixing the coop and restocking is fairly high up on the to-do list, but, in the interim, the mudroom has been cleared and re-cluttered several times, erasing any evidence that it was once a poultry bar.  I’m still sure that a mudroom is a must-have when you have chickens, but now, even at its most cluttered state, it feels a more than a little empty without our companions, making me wonder if the mudroom needs chickens to be complete.

The Sweet Spot

A Side Order

It was just like any other Friday night.  We were planning on a dinner with the kids at our favorite diner – a babysitter wasn’t in the budget -and then a night on the couch in front of the tube.  The only thing that set this Friday apart was the fact that it was our sixteenth anniversary.

We weren’t celebrating another decade or any major milestone, but, in some ways, our run-of-the-mill family night routine made it as special as a gourmet dinner out.  It was mundane, but it was a recognition that we’ve arrived at that sweet spot where we can’t remember a life before we were together or imagine any life in the future without each other (even when we hit the inevitable rough patches).  And it was a reminder that happily ever after isn’t always about champagne and caviar – sometimes it comes with a side order of fries.

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.