Sunday, June 27, 2010

The other voice of doom, I mean neighbor, from last week

The second discouraging encounter I had doesn't fit so tidily into a stock movie script. I spoke to the woman who lived in our cabin one owner ago. She and her husband now live in town with their three children, and I had called her to try to set up a playdate for Forest. Although perfectly friendly, as one who “didn't last” she did not have anything more positive to say about our place than, “it's a beautiful spot.”

On the flip side, she was more voluble: “Yeah, it was after the seven weeks we couldn't drive the road, and I was hiking in and out with a one-year-old on my back along with gas for the generator, that I told my husband, 'We're moving to town.'” Fair enough.

When I asked her if the cabin was very cold she said they had burned 14 cords of wood one particularly hard winter, “and we were never quite warm.”

I asked, sorely hoping the answer would be “no,” “Did you have under the house sealed off?”

“Of course.”

'Doomed,' I thought to myself, 'doomed.'

Aaron has partially convinced me it is different now. Lots of time and money have gone into the road and by all reports it is improved. Additionally, the most recent owner of this cabin sprayed insulating foam wherever she felt a breeze coming in. Okay. Both good. But I can't believe filling in the cracks is enough to make this cabin comfortable in the winter. And according to our across-the-way neighbor, this road did inspire an entire town to move. Yup, our town center, now located more than five miles away, used to be on this road, but after enough washouts the post office and everything else were relocated to a more sensible spot. At this point, the town will no longer even maintain the road and much of the $6,000 worth of gravel that was put down five years ago has already washed away. Our house is off-the-grid, and so is our road. All plowing and washouts are our responsibility, along with the nice young couple across the way and Mr. Bread Truck.

I am so curious how long we'll last.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Speaking of the movie version of this move (see my last post) and meeting the neighbors...

So, Forest, Walker, and I went for a playdate at the pipe fixing neighbors' and, as Forest kept saying while we walked back to their house from meeting their pigs and sheep, “This is a really fun day. This is a really fun day.” In addition to the sheep and the pigs, they have three kids under the age of six, chickens, cattle, a garden, a nascent orchard, grape vines, and, perhaps most importantly, a sandbox. Quite probably, there is more I don't know about. As far as I can tell, they are doing exactly what we want to be doing—sustainable, small-scale food production. And from what they said, it sounds like there are other people in the area doing the same thing. Community! What a concept.

Our whole homesteading enterprise feels more feasible knowing we are not going to be doing this entirely alone. How I'm feeling today stands in stark contrast to how I felt after meeting neighbors last week.

Our road has five residences on it, two are at the beginning of the road and are on-the-grid, three are about half-a-mile down and don't have utilities. Our across-the-road neighbors are a friendly, helpful young couple, but we hadn't met the other person. We had, however, been warned that he is fickle and runs cranky. Some days he'll say hi, some days he won't. Last week we saw him driving up the road as we were about to pull onto the road. (If we'd met him on the road, one party would have to back up to one of the few pull-off spots, perhaps all the way to a driveway, because the road is narrow and shoulder-less.) He was bouncing along in a beat up panel truck that says “Country Kitchen” over the cab in faded red letters and didn't pull to a stop until he saw that we were smiling and waving. We got out and went to say hi.

In the movie version, you'd be able to understand him much better despite the missing teeth and the accent. In the real life version, I can only give you the gist of what he was saying. But what he was saying holds for both movie and life, the grizzled old-timer to the eager, fresh scrubbed couple from the Big City: You're doomed. His kept coming back to two phrases: “They didn't last.” and “Good luck to you.” He left the “You're going to need it” unsaid. Listening to him talk reminds me of listening to people talk Finnish, I can pick up enough to understand the topic of conversation, but not enough to know what is being said about that topic. So I don't know what he said about all the other people who didn't last in this cabin, even though he said a lot. But his overall message was clearly communicated: Doom for all who have gone before. Doom for you.

Be he right?

We have hot water!

Our to do list is so long, we had decided to forgo fixing the hot water pipe until next summer, especially since we may bust another one this winter anyway. But when I met the neighbors who live across the road from our road, I forgot we'd decided that and asked them for the name of a plumber. When the husband heard why we need a one, he was quizzical, “You don't call a plumber to fix a pipe.” I explained that there was one spot Aaron hadn't been able to solder because the pipe was too close to the pine log wall and the output on his flame thrower, excuse me, blow torch isn't adjustable. “So why not throw on some Pex with some Shark Bite?” Hmmm, yes, why not? Our learning curve in so very many areas is so very steep. Then this neighbor that I had literally just met said he'd come and fix the pipe.

Sure enough, the next afternoon, he came with yet another neighbor and they fixed our pipe. Now we have hot water, which is one of the more lovely modern conveniences. But more important than the hot water is the psychological aspect of getting that help. To have two people—one a virtual stranger, the other a literal stranger—come and help us has bolstered our spirits enormously. 'Oh, right,' we've been reminded, 'we are off-the-grid, but not alone in the wilds somewhere.' And not only are we not alone in the wilds, it turns out we have fantastically nice neighbors. We might even, hope, oh, hope, become part of a strong community.

They invited us to come meet the neighbors at a happy hour hosted at someone's home. They also all get together for supper regularly, potluck at a different house each month. And we're invited there also. Really? And here is where the Brooklyn in me comes to the fore, a mosquito-sized buzz of a voice says, “These people are too nice.” So helpful, so friendly, surely it is only a matter of time before they start trying to get us to drink the Kool-Aid. And, indeed, in the movie version, they would turn out to pod people or members of a cannibalistic cult. But I'm not actually too worried because they aren't exhibiting any of the dead-give-away signs: they don't smile just a little bit too broadly or hold those smiles for just a little bit too long and their eyes aren't just that hair too wide open when they smile. In all seriousness, they really just seem remarkably nice.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

We invite some chicks for a ticknic*

I guess it isn't really much of an invitation when you take someone home in a box, but our self-serving intentions are friendly enough. “Come, live in our yard and feast on the all-day tick buffet.” They won't get to laying age by the time we have to head back to Brooklyn, so either we will give them away or eat them a la Cornish game hens. We would have preferred chickens, or even pullets, but there were chicks for sale on route to the Hannaford's grocery store in Belfast, so it's 2-week-olds we've got.

It turns out they are pretty endearing. I can hear them peeping away in their current home, a blue plastic storage bin with hay and coconut fiber bedding that we move around our house as temperature dictates. In two weeks, they'll be hearty enough to live outside. For now, we can put them out on warm days. After several feeding dishes that they tipped over or shook the corn out of, Aaron hit upon the perfect solution—a simple construction of upside down duplex blocks (large legos). Their water bottle, taped into a corner for stability, is a 7.7 oz Poland Springs water bottle with a hole cut out of the side.

We have a fever pitch of peeping at the moment, I just threw two ants into their box. Although the biggest of the five always gets there first, the others give chase as soon as they notice what's going on. They also love spiders, mosquitoes, and, yes, ticks. I still hate finding ticks, but having a hungry horde to toss them to certainly eases the creepy crawlies. Lets hear it for the chicks!

*Thank you to my uncle for the word “ticknic.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Back in Maine

The new wall has made a big difference. As has removing the spiral staircase to nowhere that was looming in our living room. The wall of tyvek that divided out house is almost all gone, revealing the 1x3 framing and the (straight) staircase. Before we get the sheetrock up, we could stage the “Romeo, oh, Romeo” scene from R'nJ in our living room, utilizing the landing at the top of our stairs as the balcony. And, at the rate we're going, we probably would have the lead time to put up a play before the wall goes up. But what really matters is that it feels much better around here and, praise be, is more functional. Aaron and his brother really did themselves proud.
Other good news is the abatement of the ticks. Of course, it is all relative. Today alone, I found one on Forest's potty, one on my arm, one on the floor, and picked one off my back. As my dad pointed out, just because ticks can live 200 days without feeding, doesn't mean most of them do, and who knows how early they hatched. There is hope they are starting to die off.
But best of all, to this mama, is that Forest is much happier than he was last time we were here. His fear of flies and mosquitoes seems to have evaporated while we were in Cambridge, and he hasn't once said he wants to go home. Whew!
I'm writing this by the light of a propane lantern on my “dana” by Alphasmart. Here is what the lantern looks like by day:
The “dana,” meant for schoolchildren, is a plastic keyboard with a small screen and some basic text editing software. It requires very little power, what with the no whistles and bells. While I don't need much, an option to illuminate the screen would be helpful. Instead, I have to stand at the kitchen counter to have enough light. The lantern over our only table is broken. We'll have to be sure to get that fixed before Forest is at the homework stage.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The kids' bedroom has four walls!

Thanks to Aaron and his brother, we now have a proper bedroom for the kids. Hurray! This is more for our sake than for theirs--it was absurd trying to get stuff done in total silence whenever they were sleeping.

Now we are all at my parents, Aaron and his brother arrived yesterday. It has been lovely staying here, and I wish I were more excited about returning to Maine. At best, I'm curious to see if it will all feel better going forward. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When you smell the gas burning, you make more modest energy choices.

At least, I do. And how quickly it fades as I stay here, on-the-grid, at my parents.

Of course I know that when I turn on my computer or blender or whatever in a utility paying home, either coal has been mined and burned or nuclear waste has been produced to power that modern convenience. And I know that there are appalling costs associated with both means of producing electricity. For instance, fishing permits in Maine come with warnings because the fish are so contaminated. Coal is burned, the smokes goes up and rains down far, far away. These aren't even coal plants located in Maine. As a result of all this, I try to limit my energy use, but only up to a point, a point that is pretty convenient for me.

Turns out, it feels like a brand new equation when I have to flip the switch myself, hear the generator growling, smell the gasoline burning, and decide just how charged up I want those batteries, anyway. My choices changed immediately. I wouldn't even open the fridge without thinking first to avoid letting the cold out more frequently than necessary, and I swept rather than vacuumed. The flip side is that when the sun shines I could be profligate with my energy use completely guilt-free.

But even with the cost of energy use concretized so recently, now that I don't have to flip the switch myself and I don't even know where the coal and/or nuclear power plants are that power this home, I've slipped back into opening the fridge door without so much as a first thought.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A pox upon false advertising

So much for at home web surfing this summer. V***'s "monthly access" plan, which was presented to us as a pay-by-the-month,-cancel-at-any-time option, has a $179 charge if you cancel in under a year. Obviously, this won't work for us since we only want service for three months. I still intend to maintain this blog (thanks to wi fi access at the local library), but it will be more sporadic than I had planned, especially since the library is only open four days a week for four hours a pop. Pesky.

So, starting this Sunday, I'll be online only once or twice a week. Makes for a more "authentic" homesteading experience, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Division of Labor

It is remarkable and a bit shocking how instantly and completely Aaron and my labor divided as soon as we got to the country. Aaron works outside and on the infrastructure; I cook, do the dishes, and tend to the kids. In part, this is because I'm nursing and, to be perfectly honest, because I've been avoiding the ticks. But it also turns out to be easier. When we are in Brooklyn, both working outside of the home and both working to maintain our household, we regularly have to consult, negotiate and divvy up tasks. Even so, there things that fall through the cracks because each of us thinks the other will take care of it and conflict results. In Maine, with nary a boo about it, we fell into perfectly gendered roles and, wadda ya know, it all went smooth as Weleda Calendula Diaper Cream.

This won't last in such an extreme form. Just before we left for my parents, I started tucking my socks into my pant legs and marching out the door for planting (herbs), tending the nascent compost pile, and so on. Aaron got a turn watching the kids. Still, I don't think country living will be as fuzzy on the gender roles as big city living, especially not while Walker is still nursing. Look at our current situation. I'm here at my parents' diapering (the kids not the grandparents), playground hopping, and reading "Whoo! Whoo! Goes the Train" several times a day. Meanwhile, Aaron's up in Maine with no hot water, shooting at squirrels, hardware store hopping, and on Friday he hauled 3400 pounds of drywall into the house. And the fact of the matter is, I don't want to learn how to use a chainsaw and am on the fence about learning how to shoot, to mention two examples out of many. On the other hand, I'm happy to chop and saw wood and anticipate lots and lots of digging. (Man, do we have a lot of digging to do.) In short, I find I can't predict how stereotypical our roles will be once we have settled in a bit more.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Things that go munch in the night.

The first few nights we were in Maine, I was woken up by a munch-y, crunchy, chewing noise. It sounded like something gnawing on hard plastic under the house. The third night, since it was going on longer than usual and since it seemed possible the creature might cause damage, I grabbed my flashlight and got out of bed. (The up-side of limited electricity: your flashlight is right there when you need it.) I walked across the bedroom to the front door, stepped down a few steps and leaned over to shine my flashlight under the house at the piping. Nobody there. Our stairs have open risers, with blocks to hold up the treads. Without knowing why, perhaps I heard or saw something, I shined my light down at my feet, and there looking up at me from under the stairs was a large porcupine. It is my good fortune that porcupines like wood, not toes. This one was so close it could have chomped mine if so inclined. But I wasn't the least bit nervous, it's brown eyes looked very mild. I gave it a friendly "hello" and asked it not to chew on our house anymore. As it lumbered away it turned back to look at me several times. Cuteness! I'm not sure if it heeded my request or if I simply can't hear it now that we moved our bed to the second floor, but I'm pretty sure it's been leaving our house alone.

Now, instead, I hear the squirrels that live in our roof. I don't know if they are munching in the night, but they are scrabbling. And in the day, they do some serious romping. I haven't bothered to ask them to vacate the premises because I know it will take stronger, um, persuasion to get them out.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective People - #7 Procreation

One kid will do, but two are better, and three or more would be best. For the sleep deprivation and attendant non-functionality alone, children are invaluable, but they also facilitate Habits #1, 2, 4, and 6. Just be sure to breastfeed and, if you are really going for the gold, use cloth diapers.

It is just what I expected, but, wow!, it is difficult to get anything done with an infant and a toddler in tow.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ticks, mosquitoes, and wasps. Oh my!

After we pulled up the long sweep of dirt driveway and parked that first night in Maine, Forest ran off with the unbounded glee of a two-year-old released from hours in a car seat. I smiled broadly. This was a sight I had been waiting to see: the freedom of a child in the country. It lasted all of 30 seconds, then he was rooted to the spot, hunched forward, and shrieking. I ran to him and found four mosquitoes latched onto his face. That night Forest sang the blues for the first time. He loves to strum his little guitar and make up songs. Until then they had all been devoid of emotional content with titles like "The Train," "The Backhoe," "The Firetruck," and so on. His new song included the following lyrics: "I felt a little bit sad in the car. Keetoes go away." "Keetoes" being two-year-old for mosquitoes.

Although he has gotten much calmer about the mosquitoes, we are all having a hard time adjusting to the ticks. Apparently, it is an especially bad year for them, but still. The end of our first full day there, I stopped counting after we had picked ten ticks off of Aaron and Forest (only two had attached). It's a bit better since we ran out and got a lawn mower, but despite full tick checks twice a day and quick clothes check anytime anyone comes in from the yard, I still am routinely finding ticks around the house, on the trash can, on the compost pail by the sink, on an egg, in Forest's hair as I'm reading him his bedtime story. One day at breakfast, as Forest was telling me why he hates Maine (mosquitoes, ticks, and dragon flies), I looked down and saw two ticks, one on top of the other, on the leg of the table. Ticks mating? On the plus side, we are very grateful they all have been dog ticks since Lyme's is in the area.

And we have a wasp's nest somewhere in our eves. If it weren't for the kids, I wouldn't mind that so much, but whenever there is a wasp buzzing around in our house, I can't relax for fear one of them might get stung.

So Forest isn't the only one who is down on Maine thanks to the bugs. I thought I'd be fine since I don't really mind mosquitoes or black flies and am fine with all the spider prowling our premises. But here I am like Dorothy and her friends going faster and faster through the dark woods. I spook at the sight of a lint ball, feel things crawling on me that aren't there, and resent all the time spent on tick checks. Basically, I'm more of a city gal than I thought I was.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

We are off the beaten trail in more ways than one.

Our new home is certainly off the beaten trail, but so are our computers. Rather than use Windows on our PCs, we use a Linux based operating system called Ubuntu. I really like how fast and reliable it is, but there can be bumps along the way. For instance, although Verizon claims their air card is Windows, Mac, and Linux compatible, they provide no support for the latter, and the only way to figure out how to get online is to do a whole bunch of online research. Consequently, we were stuck without access to the information super-highway until we got to my parents this weekend (as planned for a party to celebrate my sister's marriage). It took hours, but Aaron got us up and running with interweb connectivity. Hurray!

However, as I write this, contrary to the original plan, I'm still at my parents as Aaron speeds off towards Maine with a ladder strapped to the top of the car. We need some walls! Despite the stories we'd heard of people doing all manner of renovations and building with small children, we learned that it wasn't going to work for us, at least not initially. So, for starters, Aaron is going to build a wall to the boy's bedroom with the help of his brother who is coming for a visit starting Sat. That way we don't have to creep around whenever they are asleep, unable even to do dishes because otherwise Forest wakes up. Given all that has to get done, it felt pretty ridiculous and frustrating.

The highlight of my stay up in Maine so far was my (almost) daily walk along our road to fetch the mail. Our cabin is on a dirt road that is not town maintained. It stretches half-a-mile through delicious smelling woods to the main road, also dirt, and our mailbox. Sun-dappled, essentially car-free, with only two houses just before the main road, it feels like a walk in a state park or nature preserve. The smells, always delicious, vary with the temperature and humidity; sometimes the smell of ferns predominate, sometimes it's the pines, other times, I'm not sure who is responsible, but the smell is woodsy and sweet and leaves me breathing deep, walking slower the better to enjoy it. I'm glad it is enjoyable in the summer, because from what we hear, it washes out at least once each spring and we are told we will come to hate it. The ups and downs of being off the beaten trail.