Archive for August, 2010

I’ve mentioned before that I am a transplanted city girl. No rural background. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I am so “city” that it is at times downright comical. When I moved from Montreal to Calgary years ago, I’d heard tell of “Cow town” and pictured horse drawn carriages, farms and quaint corner stores with benches outside, women sipping lemonade while exchanging stories. As I flew over parcel after parcel of flat prairie land I imagined how I might fit in with my new scene, clips of Little House on the Prairie running through my mind. I was, therefore, extremely surprised to suddenly see great big buildings and bright city lights as we began our descent into Calgary.

Calgary was not at all what I’d expected when I randomly picked a place off the map and decided to move. Nonetheless, it did feel very ‘small town’ as compared to Montreal where I’d grown up and spent most of my life. Granted it’s grown over the years, but it still feels very much like a “new” city. It didn’t have the charm, in my opinion, that a small city sometimes claims though. I found the anonymity and transience difficult to adjust to, having been used to knowing neighbours who’d not only lived in the same areas for years, their parents and grandparents had too. And I missed the cultural identity that a city only develops over a long period of time.

Anyway, when we moved to the Special Areas- a couple of years back now- the adjustment from city to rural life was even more pronounced than my transition from East to West. Don’t get me wrong- I feel more “at home” than I have anywhere else in my life. I think I was meant to be country all along. But there are hiccups along the way, and it’s a learning process with a steep curve.

I don’t understand what people are talking about a lot of the time, though I nod my head in agreement and make “mmhmm” noises at what I feel are the appropriate intervals. I had to ask Shane today what on earth a “quarter of beef” is- i.e. exactly how big is that? Half my freezer apparently. Interesting. And I’m not used to iron in my water, or traveling to the store, or places being closed evenings and Sundays… I resent that I have to pay more for less variety in groceries, and don’t understand how local women picked up on the eighties trend of “big bangs” but no trends thereafter… I’ve adjusted to the fact that when a utility goes down, there’s no sense in calling it in- it’ll be fixed when it’s fixed- but I’m still a little indignant that my monthly bills don’t at least buy me the right to complain when I can’t access my internet, or power.

I’m not very domestic either. It’s a stretch. I don’t like cleaning, or dishes, or laundry. I used to say that “I’m a professional, a microbiologist” as if to explain why I couldn’t possibly take care of a home as well. It made sense- to me at least. But now I’m not only a domestic diva by necessity, I’m having to learn about all sorts of things that are complete foreign to me- gardening, water treatment, harvesting wild yeast (a feat I still haven’t mastered). I am completely out of my comfort zone.

Sometimes I miss what seemed a simpler life in the city. Like today. I’ve pulled a new muscle in my back and am pretty much useless so I’ve had time to notice that my hair is a disaster, and my nails are beyond reproach. I don’t remember the last time I had the opportunity to muse over which shoes I should pull from my collection to go with a particular outfit. Ah, my shoes… My beautiful, beautiful girls. I don’t even know where I’ll put them in the new house. Maybe I should be considering building a separate home just for them. I can visit them if nothing else.

And occasionally I am seized by a moment of panic as we move deeper into a ‘natural’ existence, one more in tune with the planet and our surroundings. I can’t remember what Shane was suggesting the other day but my reaction was immediate, “I don’t want to live like a hobo!” He laughed, but I was serious… “It’s not nearly as romantic as it sounds,” I tried to explain but he was already onto other things. Sigh. I’m going to miss hot water on demand in our new home, and limitless electricity. Sometimes I think Shane could live in a cave and be happy, me- not so much.

Now before anyone gets up on their hind legs (I’ve been dying to use that expression), I am not ungrateful. Nor do I really wish that I were anywhere else. Most of the time. I love the freedom that rural life offers, the ability to be self-sustaining, to not feel the deep-seated but unidentified guilt that comes with mindless consuming and working to feed the corporate world. I love the fact that I can work outside in my underwear, and that I can hear someone coming from a mile away so have time to get dressed again before unexpected company arrives. I love the two finger wave that drivers give each other upon passing, and the fact that traffic means more than one vehicle on the road. I love the careful consideration that comes with knowing you will see someone again, and can’t just flip them off if the mood strikes. I very much appreciate the fact that growing our own food makes us less susceptible to the hardships that will surely accompany upcoming food shortages. I could go on- I know in my heart that I belong here and that we are doing the right thing. Our lifestyle is more attuned with our values and priorities than ever before, and continues to align itself even more closely with every day.

Just sometimes I miss the little things that city life had to offer. Good hair and shoe shopping.

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It’s been a while since an update and still I feel there’s not much “new” to report. (“What do you want to do today?” is kind of an ongoing joke around here- the answer being “how about we build some more?”) The weather is getting interesting again, being August and the end of our (altogether too short Canadian) summer. One day I was out working in a t-shirt and finding that entirely too much clothing for the +35 C temperature and the next it dropped to a high of 15 C. It’s been holding steady about there since.

So- what we have done is switched focus to one of the domes. They’re getting quite high and the corbel is progressing so better to put all our energies into one at a time and get these puppies up. The kitchen walls are now above door height, by a fair amount- I can’t recall the measurement offhand. We now have some experience with fan bags and keystones. Interesting process, but did slow us down a bit as they take longer to place and shape. A couple more rows and we’ll put in the loft space and remove the door forms- which’ll be fantastic as we weren’t thinking when we built them in three pieces and have had to crouch every time we move through.

The walls are officially too high for me to build on my own anymore. Shane has built some makeshift scaffolding but I don’t have the upper body strength to carry the amount of weight that’s in the buckets while climbing and then balance on the walls with them. (My fear of heights has kicked in as these are the same walls I had no trouble “balancing” on when they were several feet shorter. Of course, I have already fallen off a wall so the fear’s not entirely baseless.) So I’m relegated to plastering for now.

I’ve covered the bags with a very rough base coat, just enough to prevent UV damage, and I’ll focus on chinking this week. Not the easiest job (though I’m hard pressed to say what is) and I now see the value in paying as much attention to tamping the exterior of the building as the interior. We’re going to go through way more plaster as a result of inattention in the early stages.

That’s about it. Walls continue to climb, weather is a new kind of sucky, several new injuries, and we’re still trying to beat the clock… If we’re lucky we have about a month and a half before first frost. No pressure.

Coming along- soon we'll begin work on the loft

Front view- looks shorter than it is because of the sunken floor

Shane's scaffolding- not for the faint of heart

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The building has gotten quite difficult in the last while. I’m not sure that my ninja skills are entirely up to this task but I know there’s not much choice at this stage of the game. The combination of the height of the domes and the door and window frames being “in the way” have made for some tricky maneuvering and lots of climbing up and down (and up and down and up…). Not so long ago it was easy enough to just put the buckets of mix next to us on the ground, or along the wall, and heft them into the bags. But now the walls are so high that we’re having to climb with the buckets, and because of the frames we can’t simply line the buckets up on the wall. I did try leaping over a frame yesterday, unmindful to the fact that I was wearing sandals, and managed to stab myself in the foot with barbed wire as I came down on the other side and lost a shoe. The amount of blood was impressive. Alas, it won’t leave a sexy scar like the barbed wire that caught my neck and jaw the other week so I’m stuck with just the pain of walking on it right now.

Anyway, so the progress has become painfully slow. And it’s late in the season- I’m f*cking tired. And wondering why I didn’t just lie to Shane at the outset of our relationship and pretend to be one of those fluffy women, the kind who likes to lunch and get pedicures and sit sipping ice tea under the shelter of a big umbrella? That’s the problem when you marry your best friend- too late to lie. And then- this is the kicker- I’m the one who suggested that we could build our own house out of mud. “Why not? We can do it!” What the hell was I thinking? I don’t even get the satisfaction of asking, “who the heck came up with this bright idea?” Of course Shane is always suggesting that I “take a day off” and the thought is appealing, but I’m afraid that a day off would entail catching up on the housework I’ve put off for several months now. Ya, no thanks- I’ll keep working the site.

Technically, I’m breaking right now. We were ridiculously low on baked goods so I have cinnamon rolls baking in the oven and I get to rest for another fifteen minutes or so. But it’s at a price as I watch the temperature on the thermometer rising by the minute and dread how hot it’ll be on the site by the time these are done. What a scorching summer it’s been. So you get the picture- complain, complain, complain- breathe- complain some more. That sums up my attitude over the last few weeks. Don’t even get me started on how my body feels- our house currently weighs about 75 tons and that weight has been moved several times, from the gravel pit, to the cement mixer, to buckets, and into bags. I’m 5’7 and small boned (okay, whatever, ‘medium’ boned) for goodness sake- I’m not built for this shit.

For all my complaining, I was reminded yesterday of why I am doing all of this. As I stood on top of the dome wall in my underwear watching the blood drip off my foot and onto the bags below I heard a familiar shrill call and looked up to see two eagles circling. I stopped and took a deep breath in. Clean air. Eagles soaring above me. The sound of coyotes in the distance. Our garden overflowing with abundance next to the house we’re building. The house we’re building. On land that we’re giving back to instead of just taking from. Incredible. Such a long way from the city life we led not so long ago. And once we have this thing established we’ll be able to simply maintain it, and it will provide for all our needs- rather than going to work and having someone decide how much our time is “worth” only to turn around and spend said allotment on our needs… And I’ll get to spend all of my time with the coolest guy I’ve ever known- hanging out, tending the garden, keeping bees, learning…

Yeah- I guess it’s worth the blood, sweat and tears put into it now when you look at it that way.

Graceful like a ninja, or dancing bear

Man with the iron jaw

Almost over the frames

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I reported a while back on getting started on our raised bed gardens. The soil out here is crap and it’s really difficult to grow anything in it so I had to start from scratch with soil building. I haven’t had much time (what with building a house!) but I’m happy to report that it’s going well in spite of the neglect.

I’ll have to start a notebook with some of my observations about which pairings seem to work the best, drainage issues with certain plants and so on, but right now I am just thrilled beyond belief that we’ve been eating something out of our garden every day. 

Some interesting tidbits… The potatoes in the tires? Doing remarkably well! The plants were getting so big that we had to add a second row of tires. Ditto with the potatoes that I threw in that big pile of dirt- growing like weeds. I expect we’ll have lots of potatoes this year without the headache of having to dig them out of cement-like clay earth. My tomatoes are also doing remarkably well. A little too well in fact. I may have to prune them and will definitely need to pay more attention next year as I wasn’t aware that tomato plants could grow so wild and bushy. Our swiss chard has been a delight, with lots of salads and steamed chard for dinners and lunches. The cutworms* did enjoy the feast as well but thankfully left plenty behind for us. And our red onions flowered, producing lots of seed for next year. I’ll need to harvest some and mix them up for next spring.

I made the mistake of planting the butter lettuce too close to the now mammoth tomato plants so it was nice while it lasted but is now just big and stalky. Oops. And not all of our raspberry bushes took so we’ve been plucking raspberries here and there but not enough to do anything with other than a quick snack. The nasturtiums are not only beautiful to look at, and have drawn bees and butterflies, but are a nice spicy treat in our salads. And the strawberries are coming along at long last. I’m not too sure whether our pumpkins and squash will produce though. They’ve flowered and some have fruited but it seems awfully late in the year… Guess we’ll see.

Next year should take things to a whole other level. With any luck I’ll have considerably more time to devote to gardening, with the bulk of building behind us. And I’ll be able to finesse some of these polycultures we’re playing with. The trick is to find out what works best in our environment and with each other, not an overnight discovery. I’d definitely like to expand the variety of what we’re growing, and throw in some larger crops like corn and red wheat, and we’re planning on adding some more bushes and trees to the property.

In the meantime, it has been so rewarding to eat something from our own garden at every meal. I haven’t eaten this much fresh produce in my life- and I’m loving it! Whether it’s salad, or yummy pizza toppings, or rosemary in our bread, or rhubarb jam- there is something home grown in every serving. There’s something immensely satisfying about feeding ourselves. Not running to the store and purchasing food, but producing it. I think this is the beginning of a long and happy relationship with our land. Like any relationship, there’s the period of figuring out what works, and works best, and what doesn’t- but how sweet the rewards.

One of many tasty salads fresh from the garden


*A note on the cutworms- diatomaceous earth sprinkled around the plants seemed to help reduce the number of pests quite a bit. We’ll build a bat-house this winter though, and hopefully that will help to manage the numbers more effectively next year.

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Scavenging has become an important part of our building process. One of our (many) goals is to keep construction to under $5,000- no small feat. Sure, we’re definitely saving by using the earth beneath our feet as our primary construction material, but there are other materials needed along the way. Most of which we’ve been able to scavenge from transfer sites, garbage bins outside of construction sites and businesses, and donations from people throwing out perfectly usable ‘things’.

We collect, well, pretty much everything. Which is not to say we’ve allowed the place to become a dumping ground, but we’re much more open to what things “could be” rather than the old mindset of deciding what’s needed in kind of a ‘grocery list’ manner and seeking them out. Spend some time with a few seemingly useless items and you’ll see what I mean. A little time and imagination can bring forth all sorts of ideas for items that appear, on the surface, useless.

Some things we have sought out though. We needed barbed wire for our earthbag construction- lots of it. So far we haven’t had to buy any. Farmers unceremoniously dump their old barbed wire into ditches when they replace their fencing, and we’ve been using what we’ve found. We need bags and easily enough obtained a very large quantity from local breweries who were happy to support our project and donate their used grain bags. We needed wood for window and door frames and have collected a tremendous amount of that from transfer sites, considerably more than could be used for framing and has gone into other projects as well as a large stockpile that we keep in the shop. Nails and screws left behind in multiple coffee cans around the property have been put to good use, pallets have been transformed into compost bins, and used 5 gallon pails hold our soil mixes.

We’ve picked up junction boxes, cast iron pipe, an antique heavy iron stove top, water heaters, rigid foam board, duct work, grader blades, 55 gallon drums (good for rocket stoves & water harvesting), an old parts washer that we’ll modify for our CaTo stove, a small shingled roof we’ll use for something down the road, fence posts galore, and had a couple dozen full size telephone poles dropped off by workers replacing a line nearby. Just last night we picked up a shovel and a rake, as well as a whole bunch of garden stakes, while dropping off our garbage.

I’d have never pegged myself for a ‘scavenger’. There was a time, not too long ago, I’d have been horrified if Shane had suggested that we go to the dump to see what we could find. But it’s amazing, what you can find just lying around or disposed of that can still be put to practical use. And I feel good about it. We’re not only saving money, we’ve managed to reduce our own waste (un-freakin’-believably) and we’re able to put other people’s waste to good use as well. Go figure. And all we had to do was open our minds to the possibilities.

Telephone poles, fence posts & a shingled roof- a few of our finds

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It’s really taking shape now. The kitchen and living room walls are now taller than me. And we’ve started chinking, though there’s a long way to go. We’ll add a light plaster to protect the bags from UV damage soon. Here are a few of the latest pics of our progress… Not bad for a couple of months and two city kids with no real building experience.

Getting tall & we've added another 2 rows since

We've started the chinking & will add a light plaster next to protect the bags

the door arches are now in place

It's really starting to feel impressive

You can see the front entrance in this one

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