How to Build a House, part 1: Start With an Armful

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Some days I dream of a house.  It’s not that I don’t love the yurt–I do.  This round womb of a home has kept us warm and dry for over three years, its simplicity let us move to our land quickly, and it held us inside the circle of its arms as Waylon was born into the world. For all of that, I love the yurt.  But there are reasons I dream of a house…insulation, for one.  Windows, for another.  To have morning light stream into the kitchen–to have a proper kitchen.  I won’t get into too many “to haves,” though.  Those kinds of statements always end up sounding whiny, impatient.  Instead, I will share my actions.

I just started reading A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams by Michael Pollan, a book about his journey to build a writing cabin behind his house.  At the end of the first chapter, when he shares the idea with his Architect friend, Charlie, Charlie asks:

“So where do you want to put this building?”
Aside from someplace in the landscape framed by that window, I had no idea.  Much as I’d been daydreaming about the buildng, I’d neglected to settle on a spot for it.  I hadn’t even ventured out those three hundred feet to walk the land yet, at least not on foot.  I realized I’d flunked my first test in Concrete Reality.
 
“Look, there’s no point talking about this or any other building in the abstract,” Charlie explained, “because the site is going to dictate so much about it.  This thing is one kind of guy if we perch him on the edge of the meadow looking back toward the house, and something completely different if he’s sitting off in the woods all by himself.  So that’s the first thing you need to do…”
 
Charlie was trying, gently, to bring me and my daydreamy notion down to the ground.
First this, then that.
The time had come for me to site my building, to fix this dream of mine to the earth.
 

I myself have spent countless hours dreaming of a house, searching the internet for timber frame house plans, sketching out the open floor plan and bedrooms and attached glass greenhouse.  Edge and I do have a general idea of where we want to put the house: just past the Northern edge of the pasture, where a red pine plantation had been harvested before we bought the land.  We’ve paid attention to how long it takes the winter sun to spread up each inch of the slope.  We’ve visited the area on snowshoes, in the afternoon, in the spring, slightly less in the summer (all that farm work, and my pregnancy last year).  But for me, this house has remained mostly in the wispy dream world of my mind.

So yesterday, with Waylon on my back, I walked to the Northern corridor, stepped over the threshold where pasture turns to brush, and began moving debris.  Layers of branches is all that’s left of the pine plantation, and who knows just how thick they lay.  Wild brambles have begun to poke through in some places, and hardwoods–birch and maple–create a dotted border line between the debris and the pasture.  There is a sizable break in this border line, a window into the cleared strip, where you can stand and look into the pasture, and out beyond it to the southwest, into the valley and the soft hills that rise to the Worcester range.  The slope here almost levels out before heading down again to the northwestern corner of the field.  To the north, hemlocks anchor in a steep hill leading down to the brook, and beyond that is forest.  This is the spot.

View from the Northern border in winter

View from the Northern border in winter

I started with an armful, taking the dry pine to the edge of the field.  And I continued like that, carrying a load of smaller branches, dragging larger ones along the ground, piling them higher and higher for a future bonfire or the creation of wood chips.  It didn’t take long to see a site begin to appear, and as I worked I envisioned different layouts: the entrance into a mudroom, the south-west windows into the living room, the porch off the down-hill and western end of the house.

There are faster ways of clearing land, I know.  But there was nothing else I needed to do.  And how else am I to ground my dreams to the earth?  I must start somewhere, and this clearing, armful by armful, is a means of discovery.

How long until a house is built?  Who knows.  A year?  Two, three?  I hope not four.  But I am beginning, in the way I know how, in the way I can with Waylon on my back: with my own two hands.

The Benefits of Stoking the Greenhouse Woodstove at 1:00 am

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*The snipe, who has recently returned to the field, lets out a wild call that vibrates in your chest and pulls you outside.

*A rising moon, just cresting the treetops in the Southeastern sky, pours deep yellow light on the pathway to the barn.

*In the greenhouse stove the bed of coals is thick and glowing–it only takes a few minutes to load heavy logs and feel the heat go up.

*Walking back, you notice how the entire expanse of sky is illuminated by the moon, how the brightest stars shine, speckled across the blue night.

*Climbing back into bed, your baby snuggles into your body: his legs scrunch up onto your stomach, his head nestles into your chest, and a calm settles into you as you drape one arm around his body.  This moment is a long breath in and out; it lasts all the way to morning.

Latte-Da

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I slipped out the door as Edge rocked Waylon to sleep for his morning nap, and drove into the valley  for a little writing time before work at the Post Office Cafe.

“I’ve been dreaming of a latte,” I told Leslie, who laughed and said she and Betsy, the two owners of the cafe, have dreamed of lattes, too.  I can’t remember the last time I had one–before my pregnancy began for sure.  Leslie offered me the options: single shot, double shot, half-caf, full-caf, caffeine free.  I chose the single full-caf version and took a seat by the window looking up the hill toward home.

The latte came to me in a little cup and saucer, the foam a combination of perfect caramel-brown with a heart of white in the middle.  Its smooth heat slid down my throat as music played overhead, a deep-voiced woman singing a slow but upbeat jazz tune.  The froth blended together as I sipped, one lobe of the heart elongating towards my mouth.

In New Zealand I fell in love with lattes.  As a newly single woman 17 times zones out of balance, cafes seemed to beckon me to them, the promise of caffeine unfogging my mind.

I floated away in nostalgia for a while until the last sip delivered a mouthful of froth, millions of tiny bubbles falling into each other as I swallowed, the sensation playful on my tongue.  Just as I got up to leave the sun broke over the eastern hills, flooded into the window, and splashed against my face.

This is the kind of morning lattes put into motion: beautiful, hopeful, the subtle romance of a lone sun in the expanse of sky reminding me that radiance can exist on its own, breaking through the cold clouds of winter to shine, unaware of any reasons not to, shining for the sake of light, for the sake of living from the core, burning and bright.

New Growth

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It was 17° when I walked outside yesterday, and though the air dropped as I drove down into the valley, it still felt warm at 9° after the subzero temperatures of the past week.  This morning, too, is mild, but unlike the last two days of sun, the sky is muted gray.  The air feels heavy with water as the trees slowly drip melting snow onto the roof, and in the soft gray warmth of the morning, the chickadees’ calls sound somehow casual, as if they, too are lazily waking from sleep.

It’s the first day of spring, and as the equinox marks a noticeable shift in the daylight and length, I am also feeling a shift within me.  My internal landscape mirrors the external, and the sun is reaching its rays through the tangled briars and frustration to loosen their thorns and turn their energy instead to blossoming.  I find happiness in simple things again–a quote on my tea bag, “Inspiring others towards happiness brings you happiness,” brings a smile to my face; the feel of potting soil on my hands enlivens me; the thought of seedlings emerging in a few days propels me forward with hope and grounds me at the same time.  It will likely be weeks before the snow really starts to melt, but I feel spring waking up nonetheless.

This morning I am thankful for winter’s lessons, though they were hard to learn at first, and I am thankful for the optimism of spring and the new growth this season always promises.

Home Again

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We are home again, pulling up to the yurt at 11:00 pm Wednesday night, stepping outside to a cold, clear sky filled with stars and smoke gently rising from the yurt chimney.  Our week in New Jersey brought rest, family, and indoor toilets (not that Vermont doesn’t have these…just that our home doesn’t).

Cape May oscillated between winter and spring, our first day there windy and in the 30s, then gradually warming until Sunday when we brought Waylon to the beach for the first time and sat in the sand in the sun and 50 degree warmth.  The next day brought more wind and snow.  I’d never been to the ocean in winter, and before we left to go back to Edge’s parents’ house, I jumped out of the car and ran through the snow to the water.  Frozen sand lay beneath the snow, an orange sunset stretched across the beach, and the waves churned, invigorating me and bringing my heart to beat harder with each crash, bringing life to my body with each round of waves in and out.

Being away brought the space I needed, and it also reminded me of how I love our home.  Walking into the cozy yurt at night and being greeted by the dogs, tails wagging and bodies wiggling, brought such comfort.  As we snuggled into bed, I smiled and whispered to Edge, “It’s so nice to be home.”

A Practical Reminder for a Simple Life

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“Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.”

~Gary Snyder

May your day be filled with wonder, and may you find wholeness, wherever you choose to walk.

Writing on the Beach, the First of March

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We’re on vacation. 

In the midst of garden planning and deciding when to fire up the wood stove in the seed house, we realized it was our last shot at one for the next few months.  So we left Vermont on Wednesday, and now here we are, in Cape May, New Jersey.  The bird observatory is still quiet as the spring migration is yet to commence in earnest, but the salt water, sand and sea birds are invigorating none the less. Edge’s parents have a condo here, so not only does Waylon get to see the ocean, but he gets to spend time with Gammy and Gampy, too, which means Mama and Papa get to spend time alone together.

We walked on the beach this afternoon, barefoot in the sun-warmed sand.  We drew a flower, branching and tall, in the sand, and I wrote:

I AM: LOVE, FREE, IMPERMANENT

High tide will come and wash my words away.  There is something invigorating about this.  As if it is a rebellious act, a person not focused on the eternal, but rather the momentary.  How much of what we do is for posterity–when do we instead let ourselves be washed away, wiped clean without resistance?

Writing on the beach, I left something of myself in the sand, knowing the sand will in turn release it to the water, and my sentiment will be carried away to float out wherever it may.

After, I faced the sea, the white fringed waves crashing and stretching up toward us.  “I bet the water is really cold,” I said.

“As cold as it can be.  Only one way to find out,” Edge said.

So we rolled up our pants and walked towards it, the water retreating as we approached, then surging forward again, enveloping our ankles, numbing our skin as an icy blanket.  Though I began to trot back, whispers of childhood and wonder pulled me toward the sea again, chasing the waves as they slipped back into the deep, then letting them lap once more at my feet.

Tomorrow we’ll bring Waylon to the ocean, too.  By then my words will be gone, my sentiment spread out on the waves somewhere, the sand brushed clean by the salt water.  What freedom there is in this world of wind and water: to be blown or washed away, to begin anew with each gust, each tide rising in and out.

 

Buckets of Water

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bucket of waterI love buckets.  Buckets of water, hauling water.  Buckets are great.  When I need water I go down there to fill them up, and then I bring them up here, and I have water.  It’s so simple.  I don’t pay anyone to get water, I don’t pay anyone to fix any pipes when they stop working.  It’s great.”

Edge declared his love for hauling water as he filled up a pot on the stove to heat dish water.  We’ve been hauling 5-gallon jugs from the greenhouse, where our frost-free hydrant is, up to the yurt for over a month.  The line attached to our indoor hand-pump froze in the first round of -25° weather, and in the subsequent arctic vortexes that have washed over us, we’ve not gotten it thawed.  So we wait for spring, and in the meantime, we haul water.

In our last yurt, where we lived on Applecheek Farm, hauling water was our only option, and in Alaska, where we met, water-hauling was the norm.  In fact, in the four years that Edge and I have known each other, we’ve only lived with running water for about three months.  Lately, I’ve been pining for the ease of a faucet and shower, but not Edge.  He loves buckets.

And I admit, there is something I love about them, too.

Last Tuesday I stayed home from work, in need of a mental health day, and after spending the morning writing and then taking a walk in the woods, I did the sheep chores, filled and hauled water back up to the yurt, and then chopped and stacked a pile of maple Edge had pulled from the woods.  When my mom drove up to drop Waylon off, she got out of the car and said, “You’re working hard for a mental health day.”

“Chop wood, carry water,” I replied. So much of our mental health is tied to our physical health, and the strain of my muscles working in these simple acts allowed my mind to clear and find peace in the rhythm of the chopping and the splash of the water.

Aldo Leopold, in his book A Sand County Almanac, wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”  Indeed, anyone who harvests, chops, and stacks wood knows that heat is generated in each act, long before the wood ever reaches the stove, but even hauling water from the barn to the yurt warms my body.

A deep appreciation is cultivated through the act of hauling water.  I know the energy it takes to fill a glass, to fill a basin for washing, to pour a cup of tea.  So much of the connection is lost with faucets–the energy it takes to spurt water from the pipe becomes a distant memory too easy to forget.  But fill a bucket, carry it inside, and you will pause when you pour that water out.

Enjoy the pause, drink in the moment.

Tonight, our buckets are full, and I am thankful for the water they hold.  So let us drink, and in the morning, we will haul them again.

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