Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Budget in Water

I posted on my other blog recently about how for the first time in my life I'm seriously applying myself to working within a budget, not just of money but also of time.  (You can read that post here, if you're so inclined.) 

Now that I'm doing this, I'm really appreciating the whole concept of a budget, which is really just a recognition of what one has and how to use it.  Living by a budget is a demonstration of how freedom can come through discipline.

One thing that occurred to me in playing with this concept is that while I was living on my land over the summer, I was living by a budget of water.  I had my two seven-gallon containers and I had icemelt from the ice chest, and that was it.  Having this limited water supply meant disciplining myself to use that fifteen or so gallons completely and creatively.  It meant I could see exactly what I had and where it was going, and so, as I posted earlier here, it was a rewarding experience. And I realize now that the sense of empowerment that comes with living by a budget is directly related to the ability to control one's resources.

What's interesting for me in the water budget framework is that most of us (including me, now that I'm living back on the grid for the winter) have no concept of how much water we "have" and how much we use.  So while we have the relative freedom of a seemingly unlimited water supply, which also doesn't burden us much in terms of cost, we are actually missing out on the empowerment that comes with budgeting.  And I don't just mean on an individual level; I see this is at the heart of the whole problem with the developed world.  How can we have a sense of responsibility about how we use water if we have no working concept of how much there really is and where it's all going?   

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Project Gingerbag House

In the Earthbag Building book, it's suggested that one make a model of one's house before attempting to build it.  While the idea intrigued me when I read it, I didn't seriously considering making a model of the Enviro Dome I'm going to build until this holiday season, when it occurred to me to make one out of gingerbread.

Since my house will consist of domes, I decided that I would construct my gingerbread model in the same way you make a clay coil pot, which would be similar to using earthbag tubing.  I looked around online to see if anyone else has made a gingerbread house this way, and while I didn't find any, I did find a few gingerdomes that were constructed in other ways, such as this geodesic one:  (The image is password protected, so I couldn't copy it in.) I also found a really cool site that features "green" gingerbread houses

I wanted to make the model as close to scale as possible, and I used plastic yogurt container lids of two different sizes as my templates.  They weren't precisely the right diameters, but close enough. 

I started forming the first "course" of "tubes" around the templates,


 but then realized I needed to place them on a base.

I used Jolly Ranchers topped by half a Life Saver for my door forms, and planned on removing them for the baking process, then putting them back in afterwards as the actual doors.

Justin was really good at making the "tubes,"

which I then moistened and stacked, trying to bring each "course" in just enough to get the corbelled dome effect.  Once the domes were finished, I removed the candy doors and replaced them with a tin foil form.

Into the oven went the house.  When it came out, it looked like this:


I had suspected this might happen, but other than the fact that I couldn't do my cotton candy berm now, I really didn't mind.  The purpose of this experiment was more about going through the process of creating the domes, rather than having some perfect finished product. 

In retrospect, building the gingerdome this way was more like building with cob than with earthbags.  And like cob, which needs to dry between building sessions, I should have baked a few "courses" at a time, just enough to give it some solidity before adding more.

Graeme and I were standing over the blob, gazing at it rather forlornly, when he said, "Wait!"  He turned the baking sheet around, and said, "Look - it's a perfect troll face."  And indeed it was.

Well, it wasn't quite what I'd had in mind, but who was I not to go with the flow?

That was one tasty face.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Shimming the Tree

Here's a confession which will give you a very clear understanding of just how "inexperienced" a builder I was before beginning my housebuilding project:  I didn't even know what a shim was.  In fact, even after I looked it up because it was referenced in the house plans I bought from Owen Geiger, I still didn't really understand the term.

It wasn't until I helped Aly hang her doors that I truly comprehended shimming.  Thank God our friend Jeremy (who helped me move the bus way back when) was there too.  Because while Aly at least knew what a shim was, neither of us was really prepared for the exercise in precision that hanging doors is.  Jeremy, however, is a construction guy (and a really great teacher, I might add).  He was very patient with our ignorance, and walked us through the whole process.  Because Aly's doorway wasn't quite plumb, we had to make shims, so I got to see exactly what they are and what they're for.  Pretty nifty.   Jeremy even let me operate his circular saw, a first for me.  Turns out I'm pretty good at it, but power tools still kinda freak me out.

Sorry for the crappy quality; these were taken with my phone.

My second experience using shims has come unexpectedly.  I bought a Christmas tree last weekend, and while installing it in its stand, I realized the trunk was too skinny for the screws that hold it in place, so my four-year-old's dad helped out by making four shims, one for each screw.

Useful buggers, shims!  You just never know where they'll come in handy.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Winter House

It's been almost two weeks now since I moved into my "Winter House."

Life has shifted dramatically, and I'm still trying to get used to things like having running water, working at home again, and cooking in a "real" kitchen.  I'm definitely not complaining; it's just very different.

One of the first things I did after getting settled in was bake pumpkin bread in the oven, using organic spelt flour and a pumpkin I got from the Morning Star Farm CSA.  Yum.

I also have been taking baths, staying up late (because I have electric lights!), and buying more food than I need immediately because I can store it in an actual refrigerator, with a FREEZER.

The house I'm renting belongs to a woman named Karen who lives in it half the year and in New York the other half. So I will be here until she comes back in May, which is great timing to move back out to the bus again.

One of the contrasts to living in the bus is having excellent insulation and passive solar gain.   Karen had this house built out of pumicecrete, with lots of south-facing windows, and radiant floor heating.  The result is that it's almost always warm in here, and the heat only comes on late at night, if at all.  I actually lived in this house when I first moved to Taos, and even in the winter, you could sometimes leave the front door open during the day because it got so hot in the house.  It's really amazing how well this place holds heat, which reinforces my decision to build my house with scoria, which is basically red pumice.

Now that I'm building my own house, I'm noticing things about this place that I didn't the first time I lived here.  Like the layout - it's not an ideal use of the square footage, in my opinion.  There are little areas that are not very useful.  This makes me even gladder that I'm building domes, where every "square" inch of space will be used efficiently.

I also feel that the passive solar design is a bit overkill, that there are actually too many big south-facing windows.  It's extremely bright in the living room and one of the bedrooms during the day.  And, as I mentioned, it gets too hot, even in the dead of winter.  Once again, this makes me appreciate Owen's design for the Enviro Dome I'm building, as it incorporates passive solar gain primarily through the French doors that provide the entrance to each of the main domes.

All in all it's nice to be back on the grid again for a while, but I do have to say that there's a certain level of unconsciousness that seems to go along with it.  I can distract myself on the computer or watching movies whenever I want.  I can read until all hours and barely be aware that it's nighttime.  I can run any amount of water down the drain without having to think about how much it is or where it's going.  I can turn on the oven without having to worry about how much propane is left.

Having on-grid conveniences means that my time and mental energy are freed up to focus on other things, but the trick is deliberately choosing what those things will be rather than just falling unconsciously into life-sucking time-wasters, like playing hours of computer Solitaire.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Snow Changes Everything

So yeah.  In my last post, I waxed poetic on the joys of continuing to live in the Sky Bus in fall, and setting up my woodstove.

But then, it snowed.  Really snowed.  FOUR inches.

I was driving home after dark when it started.  It had already been raining for hours, and when I saw those first few flakes mixed in, I didn't think it would last.  We got back to the bus, and started working on getting a fire going.  When I went out for wood a few minutes later, the ground was already covered, and big fat flakes were coming down like the devil's dandruff.

Needless to say, it was extremely cold that night, but I didn't really mind, although Graeme did.  The snow was a beautiful novelty, and felt like an unexpected gift - I got to be present on my land for the first real snow of the season.  I drank hot tea, lit a candle, and sat by the woodstove and reveled.

However, the next morning, beautiful as it was outside, something in me just sort of snapped.  The digging party was supposed to be that day, but there was snow everywhere, and even though it was rapidly melting, it was still uncomfortably cold, and the fire, once I finally got it built, kept petering out, since I didn't have enough smaller pieces to feed it with.  I was using my mattock to attempt to split wood, which didn't work so well; a friend was supposed to bring out an ax to the party, but that was hours of freezing toes away.

I finally decided to cancel the digging party, because I knew that once the snow melted the roads were going to be terrible, and also, all I wanted to do was go into town and get warm.  My fingers and toes hadn't thawed all morning.

At that point, I also decided I was not going to stay another night in the bus.

So we packed up the Blazer with stuff like the plastic set of drawers I'd been using a dresser and the ice chest that had been sitting in the same spot in the kitchen for months, left a ton of food for the cats, and vacated.  It felt really weird, but was also a relief.

We stayed at Jeremy's last night (that's my friend who helped me move the bus to the land way back when), and this afternoon we'll go back out to feed the cats and pack up more stuff.  We'll take down the tent that's been up since June, and I imagine it will be strange to see that spot empty.  I'm also going to take out everything that's stored under the sleeping benches in the back of the bus and then load up that space with earthbags.  Then, we'll use the tarp that has been covering them outside to drape over the top of the bus to keep snow and rain from leaking in through the two busted skylights over the kitchen and "living room."

And once we're done with all that, we'll come in to town for the night again, because it's supposed to go down to 28 degrees.  Call me a wuss, but I just don't feel like dealing with that kind of cold in an uninsulated bus anymore.    

Friday, October 7, 2011

Like a Squirrel

Originally, the plan was to move into town on October 1st, but the place I thought we'd be moving to fell through, so we're still out at the Sky Bus until this Tuesday.  When I first realized we'd be out there an extra ten days, I have to admit I was really dreading it, as cold as it's been getting.  I've been sleeping with a hat and two pairs of socks, inside a sleeping bag with a comforter and another blanket over it.

But today I am feeling honestly grateful that we were "forced" to be out there a bit longer.  It's given me more time to get the bus and land ready for winter, and work on the trench.  Yesterday, Graeme and I set up the woodstove that came with the bus.  The day before, I had bought wood from a friend of mine, just enough to fill up the back of the Blazer.  I figured that would be enough to get us through the next few days and have a little left over for when I want to escape to Serendipity over the winter.

The timing couldn't have been better, because it's predicted to go down to about 30 degrees tonight.  And yesterday while we were setting up the stove, it actually started SNOWING.

The whole task was tedious, backbreaking, and took longer than I'd anticipated (of course! I should know better by now), but I had such a sense of accomplishment when it was done, and I built our first fire.  I used to have a woodstove at the house where I lived for several years in another part of New Mexico, and since we moved from there, I've really missed having one.  I love splitting wood and building a fire, then sitting in front of it, toasty and mesmerized.  I love the sound and the smell of a good fire.  I'd almost forgotten the satisfaction of all that.

This morning, it was cold and overcast, still wet from yesterday's rain and snow.  I got up and unloaded all the wood out of the Blazer, and stacked it next to the bus.  Then I disassembled the shower "stall," and used the tarp to cover the wood; I felt like a squirrel stashing acorns.  It felt bittersweet to take apart the shower - a true acknowledgement of the change of seasons.

And that's the biggest reason I'm grateful to still be out there.  I once had a boyfriend who believed you couldn't truly know someone until you'd gone through every season with them, and that applies completely to the relationship I'm developing with my land and bus.  And even though I won't be living out there over the winter, I look forward to visiting from time to time so I can at least have a taste of winter deliciousness on the mesa.

A last little view of summer.  These guys are gone now; I'll miss them.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Changing Seasons

The Fall Harvest Festival has come and gone, and life is slowing down a bit now.  The earthbag workshop went well, and was fun to do.  We had eight attendees, and they were all very interested and asked a lot of questions.

Photos by Enrico Trujillo

The trench is coming along nicely, although slowly.  So far I've only been able to put in a total of about five hours on it, but have managed to do around twenty feet, which isn't bad.  And it's fun work.  One thing I've realized lately is that there are distinctly two kinds of people:  those who love digging and those who hate it. Turns out I'm one of those who love it.

This Saturday I'm having a digging party, as I've had several people offer to help.  I really want to get the whole trench dug before the ground freezes, and I figure if a few of us spend an afternoon on it, we can make some good progress.  If you're in the area and want to come, please do!  If you're a non-digger type, you could just hang out and be a cheerleader :)

Five more nights at the Sky Bus, and then I'll be living in town again for winter.  It's been getting quite cold at night, and both Graeme and I are really looking forward to being in a warm house.  I've really enjoyed living as we did over the summer, but I'm also ready for a break.  And in addition to simply enjoying things like a bathtub, an oven, a refrigerator, and stuff like that, I'm also looking forward to taking time this winter to refine my plans, so that when we move back out to the land next spring, life will be a little more organized, and I'll be able to put most of my energy into building, instead of feeling scattered and stretched thin as I did much of this summer.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Earthbag Buddies

Aly and me in her outdoor kitchen.  Photo by Mary Longe.
One of the cool things that happened this summer is that I connected with Aly B, of Building an Earthbag Home in Northern New Mexico.  We had been following each others' blogs and emailing a bit, but then one day she walked into the cafe where I do most of my writing work, and I recognized her from the photo on her blog.  Since then, we've visited each other's places and hung out for barbecue (and had a bit too much fun at the Station Bar at KTAO Solar Center one night).  She even loaned me her truck for a couple of days when mine was in the shop. 

It's been great to have someone else to talk to about all this stuff that most people don't know jack about and/or couldn't care less about.  I mean, how many people want to get into a passionate discussion about gravity-fed water versus electric pumps? (Well, in Taos, probably more than the average place, but still.)

And then the fact that she's another single woman building a house on the mesa is a major blessing.  One thing I've found since I've started my project is the need for some men to try to take charge in subtle - or not so subtle - ways.  There is a LOT more I could say about that, but I'll refrain.  (If you're a woman, you're probably already quite familiar with what I'm talking about, and if you're a man, all I can say is it's not a bad idea to watch for the tendency to talk down to women and feel entitled to take control in some way under the guise of being "helpful."  Enough said.)

Anyway, Aly and I are doing a mini-earthbag workshop together tomorrow at the Fall Harvest Festival that I'm coordinating.  It will be at UNM-Taos' Klauer Campus, if any of you want to come out tomorrow. 

Working on this festival has been a LOT of work, but I feel pretty passionate about it because the focus is sustainability, and we're offering a bunch of different free workshops on things like solar energy independence, water catchment, adobe brick-making, just to name a few.

Aly and I are going to just give a basic introduction to earthbag building in our workshop.  We'll talk about why it's a good choice for owner-builders with little or no construction experience and limited budgets.  We'll show them the basic tools, and what scoria looks like.  We'll show images of finished earthbag houses.  I think it's going to be fun!

I also think, after this festival is over, I just want to go hide in a cave for about a month :)  Well, it won't be a cave, more like an apartment that I'm moving into at the end of the month, but same difference.  It's been a very active summer for me, both in terms of the physical labor of working on the building site and in terms of organizing this festival.  And a lot of other things too.  I'm ready for a break.  I'm still hoping to get the trench finished before winter, though, and will probably have a "digging party" around the middle of October.

But for now, I've got a festival to get through tomorrow, then moving the weekend after.  Miles to go before I sleep.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Diggin' It

On August 18th, I finally started digging the trench that will become the foundation for my house.  For those of you not familiar with rubble trench foundations, you can go here to read all about it.  Basically what I'm doing is digging a trench around the circumference of the domes that is 18 inches wide by 18 inches deep.  Then I'll fill it with about 6 inches of rubble consisting of rocks from around my property and then another 6 inches of scoria on top.  (Scoria is also what I'll use to fill the bags later.)  In the building plans it says that the first two courses of earthbags will then be double-bagged and will constitute the foundation of the house, with the top of the second course 6 inches above the pad, which will be finish floor level. 

However, Owen Geiger emailed me the other day suggesting that I raise the building site by adding two extra courses of earthbags, then later laying scoria up to finish floor height, which would then be about a foot higher. (He also posted about this process here.)This will help keep snow and rain from entering the house, and the insulating properties of the scoria will mean a toastier floor.

So I think that's what I will do.  However, that's a ways down the road.  At this point, I'm hoping to simply finish digging and fill the trench before the ground freezes.  

And speaking of freezing, the weather has shifted dramatically here in the past couple of weeks.  It's like summer just up and ended, BOOM.  It's been raining a lot, and it's gotten alarmingly cold.  I haven't been able to shower at the bus let alone dig my trench.  The plan now is that we'll be moving into town for the winter at the end of this month.  

I'm actually looking forward to it.  If it was just me with no kids, and the bus was enveloped, and I had an indoor bathing system set up, I think I could live in the bus for the winter, but none of those things are the case.  Also, I've begun to miss certain things.  When I first moved out there, I was afraid I'd really miss a bathtub; what I wasn't expecting is how much I miss having an oven.  I love to bake almost as much as I love to bathe, especially in the fall and winter.  Pumpkin pies, Christmas cookies, my eggnog cheesecake (which once snagged me a marriage proposal), all that good stuff.

I just hope the weather clears up enough for me to get some serious digging in before I move out.  I can still go out there and dig after I move, of course, but it's just not as easy as getting up at the crack of dawn and walking out to the building site.

I have to say I've really been enjoying digging.  There's something so primal about it, so satisfying.  I love seeing the bold outline of the circles begin to take shape.  It's actually hard to explain what's so fulfilling about it to me.  I keep trying to think of metaphors and the only thing that continually pops into my head is using a cookie cutter.  Making shapes out of a blob of dough.  This is kind of like that except at a much, ahem, deeper level.  I love the feeling of slicing down through the dirt with my shovel.

Also, there's something about going down into the earth that strengthens the sense of connection with it.  As soon as I had a few feet done, I had the irresistible urge to get down in the hole.  And it's a whole different perspective from there, quiet and solid.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reflecting on Water

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain. 

~ Tao Te Ching

Human beings were invented by water 
as a device for transporting itself from one place to another.
  ~ Tom Robbins

Sky Bus living is in many ways, life at its bare essence.  Fire, earth, air, water - each of these things is recognizably, distinctly involved in my daily existence in a way that I had never experienced before.  I cannot overstate the value of this.

The relationship I've developed with water in the three months that I've been living on the mesa delights and inspires me.  I can't just turn on a tap and have water appear then run down a drain and disappear.  And this makes all the difference in the world.  Moving water around, orchestrating its use, watching it come from somewhere and then deliberately taking it somewhere else so it can be used for more than one purpose - these things have given me a whole new appreciation for water.  I've become more aware of the water content of my own body, and meditating on water has become richer metaphorically because my actual interaction with water has become richer.  I have gained awareness of myself as water, water bearer, and also borne by water.

I started the summer with a 55 gallon plastic barrel that Rusty brought me.  He would bring me water from the community well at the entrance to the mesa, then siphon it into the barrel for me.  Then, I in turn would siphon it from the barrel into my two 7-gallon square plastic containers.  

I absolutely hated siphoning, sucking water up through a length of yellow garden hose until it felt like my lungs would burst, only to have the water finally shoot out into my mouth and choke me.  Ugh.  And then Rusty and I stopped communicating (not going to get into that here), so I had no way to fill up the barrel.  I had put in an application for membership to the West Rim Mutual Domestic Water Users Association (Cost:  $150), which, once approved, would supply me with a refillable money card to slide at the well.  (Cost per gallon:  3 cents.)  However, I didn't get the application sent until just barely after the June board meeting, so it wasn't approved until July.  And they happened to be out of water cards at the time.  They finally sent me one in late July, but it got lost in the mail, so I didn't actually get it until the beginning of August.  So for most of the summer, I simply hauled my containers into town and filled up at friend's houses, which actually worked pretty well.     

I keep one of those containers outside as backup, and the other in the kitchen, sitting on the counter next to the sink. 

The spigot turns on and off easily, so it's kind of like having real running water.  Kind of.  At the risk of stating the obvious, it differs in that a) the water is only one temperature - whatever the air temperature in the bus happens to be, which varies distinctly by day and night, b) it is a finite supply, so conservation is ever a consideration, and c) when it goes down the drain it doesn't just run away to some treatment plant, it goes into a 5-gallon bucket which eventually gets full and has to be emptied.

I may have said once or twice that dirt is heavy.  Well, water is heavier. I have been getting into shape in many ways with my new lifestyle, and hauling water has probably been the primary way.  A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, so every time I haul a water container into the bus, that's 56 pounds I'm lugging.  The hardest part is lifting up onto the counter.  But it's getting easier.

When I want to wash dishes, I use water that I've drained from the ice chest, which I store in a bucket solely for that purpose.  I heat it up on the Coleman stove, then pour it into a bowl.  It really doesn't have to take much water to wash dishes, I've discovered.  

I also use the ice chest water for mopping, and watering the cats.  And since the bus leaks when it rains heavily, sometimes I use the water that puddles on the kitchen floor to mop.  Might as well, since it's already there.  (I don't have a rainwater catchment system yet, but look forward eagerly to the day when I do.  One of my neighbors has a cistern that holds between four and six thousand gallons of collected rain and snowmelt, and she says she rarely has to get water from the well.)

I use the greywater from under the sink to water my plants outside.  In addition to several baby pine trees, I have the two tomato plants Kerry and Richard brought me, two borage plants, a bee balm, basil, and jade, and before the monsoon season started, this greywater was their sole source of hydration. 

Borage.  I bought it because it was supposed to attract bees, but there are NO bees on the mesa, sadly.

Spare bus tire with bee balm (which hangs in there but doesn't thrive), jade, and basil.
One of the things I've become versed in is dealing with the varieties of greywater.  The stuff under the sink is frankly, gross.  It's not grey at all; it looks more like vomit.  Sorry, but it's true.  I learned early on not to let the bucket get completely full before emptying it, because splashing it onto yourself is no fun at all.

The greywater from the solar shower, however, is truly grey.  And it smells good, like the locally-produced Aromaland rosemary mint shampoo and the Dr. Bronner's lavender soap that we use.  That water is collected in a black rubber tub I bought at Taos Tack and Pet Supply whose purpose is really for horse feed.  I frequently use this water for the plants in the bus, or to rinse the composting toilet bucket.

When I was getting ready to move to my land, planning and designing the shower was, for some reason, my favorite obsession.  It went through an evolution of changes, even after I set it up.  This is what I ended up with:

I used the tow rope that broke when Jeremy and I tried to tow the bus to hang the 5-gallon Coleman solar shower that I bought for 7 bucks.  (The shower worked great for the most of the summer, then the handle ripped right through.  I bought the new one pictured here for twice as much, and it was twice as crappy; the handle ripped within days, so I returned it, and bought another Coleman one.) 

I used my old baker's rack as the outside wall of the shower stall, and the saltillo tiles I got for free at the beginning of the summer to make a floor.  I simply laid them down on the dirt, and it works fine, although it's not completely level. 

I got this tarp from a friend, and I love the fact that it matches the bus. 

I really thought I'd miss having a bathtub, but I haven't, until very recently.  Taking showers has been a treat.  The trick is finding that perfect window of time, when it's hot and sunny, the water's just the right temperature (it takes three hours to fully heat up), and the wind's not blowing.  It's only in the past week or two, as the days are getting cooler and we've been getting frequent rain, that I've begun to miss having an indoor shower.  But for most of the summer, while it was extremely hot and dry, it just felt glorious.  There's something about showering outdoors, with the sun shining on your skin, that's incredibly satisfying.

And as with dishwashing, it takes far less water to get clean than people normally use.  Graeme and I both can take adequate showers with the bag not even all the way full.  I did cut my long hair at the beginning of the summer though to save water. 

I'm really grateful for the relationship I've developed with water in this "pioneer phase," as my blogging friend, Kel, has called it.  My experiences around water this summer have actually influenced my plans for water in the house.  I've decided that I don't want a shower in the house at all, just a bathtub.  I am a huge fan of baths, especially in winter, and that is the one water luxury I will keep.  I'll set up a permanent (and more attractive) outdoor shower for summer use.  Why not bathe differently with the seasons?  This way, I won't need a water pump at all; I can just set my cistern up on a berm and use gravity to get the water where I need it to go. 

Simplicity is so lovely.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Rainbow over the building site
In the earthbag house plans I bought from Owen Geiger, it says, "First, clear and level the building site."  That one sentence, those seven little words, became my entire summer.  And this, initially was for two main reasons:  1) I didn't have enough money to hire a guy with a backhoe, and 2) because of having to work, I could only work on the site an hour or two a day, and not even every day.  Compounding these were the intense smoke from the Las Conchas fire through most of June and July, and the intense heat during the middle of the day.

I had this idea starting out that I could get the house finished before winter, and if I had hired a guy with a backhoe, maybe I would have.  But after I realized that this simply wasn't going to happen, something very cool happened.  I gave myself over to the work; I allowed myself to fall into its rhythm. I began to look forward to moving my daily inch of earth, just as I looked forward to other little daily tasks unique to my new living situation.  It's all just part of this life, I now understood, each task as significant and ultimately meaningless as any action in life.

I came to look forward to rising at dawn and brewing coffee on my Coleman stove, writing in my journal, then going out with the mattock to chop grassy lumps, and eventually with a shovel, a rake, and a wheelbarrow to move dirt around to level the site.  I didn't care how long it took anymore or how hard it was or how dirty and imprecise. 

I realized I didn't actually want a guy with a backhoe to do it for me, even if I could afford it.  One day it struck me that the process I was involved in was much like giving birth at home - it was MY work, my transformation.  I was about halfway through the leveling process at that point; I was leveling the earth as it was leveling me.

My handheld tools powered by my lifeforce and gravity will have provided the foundation my house will rest upon until it is not more.  And that could be a very long time, far longer than the life of the body responsible for it.  Because it is not in fact the body that does this work, but the spirit does it through the body.  The body is just another tool.

In the Earthbag Building book, Kaki and Donald say, "Action dispels doubt," and that has become sort of a mantra for me.  Every time I've felt overwhelmed by the scope of the task, not having a clue what I'm doing, I've simply gone out there and started, and something in me has known what to do.  It's as though the earth in my bones is listening to the earth beneath my feet; it's an intuition deeper than than an idea.

When I first realized how hard and time-consuming it was going to be to level the pad by hand, I started looking for shortcuts.  I thought, Hmm, it's really only the rubble trench foundation that needs to be level, so I'll just start digging from the highest point and measure the 18 inches from there, and then level the trench with rubble later.  And then the floor can be leveled with scoria much later.

I could have done that, but that intuitive earth in me wouldn't let me.  On the practical level (no pun intended), I realized that I'd end up spending more on scoria down the line, but deeper and more primary than that was the need to become intimate with every inch of this project, this land.  The need to do it completely, to inhabit it.

And the joy of seeing that little bubble in the center of the level window is so worth it.  The joy of raking earth into spirals starting from the center of each dome circle and working my way out.  The joy of standing on the ground of my one-day house and seeing it now flat and round, looking like Owen's construction drawings.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dirt is Heavy

I have been thoroughly enjoying living on my land, but I have to say, July was a frustrating month of major obstacles.  Trying to get anything done in July was like trying to ride a bicycle backwards.  I knew going in that things could take longer than I was planning but had no idea just how incredibly slowly it all would move.  Part of it is because of things like computer problems and checks that came late - things unforeseen and not directly related to the building work.  But part of it is that I didn't have a clear idea just how long it takes, and what hard work it is, to clear and level a pad by hand.

We started, as I've mentioned here before, by hacking away the sagebrush.  In retrospect, that was the easy part, although it's probably good that I didn't know that at the time.  And that grass, oh my God, the grass.  That stuff has incredibly deep roots, and it's hard to even see where it all is.  I'd think I'd gotten most of it but then I'd notice  - oops, here's a spot, there's a spot.  And have to drag the mattock out again.

I got to a point with it where I just wanted to do something, anything to feel like I was making progress, so even though the site was still all lumpy and sloped, I put my center stakes in for the two main domes, and tied rope to them, which I had premeasured to the radius of each dome.  Then I drew out the circles and marked them with orange chalk powder.  Somehow seeing it laid out like that cheered me and gave me a new sense of momentum and energy to go back to dealing with the clearing/leveling process.

Doesn't look like much, but believe me, this represents hours and hours of hard work.
But then, wouldn't you know it, it started raining.  Which, as anyone who lives in a dry climate knows, one may NOT EVER complain about, so I won't.  I don't even want to; the rain has been glorious in many ways and for a variety of reasons which I'll go into some other time.  However, it washed my orange circles away as well as prevented work on the site for several days, during which time the grass GREW.  Aargh.  Well, at least it was more visible now.  And truth be told, it's nice grass and I'm sure I'll enjoy having it around my house, once it's built.  Just not IN my house, thank you very much.

Anyway, in the past few days I've managed, with Graeme's help, to churn up what was left of the grass (I think, I hope) in the circle of the main dome.  And since then, I've been shoveling and raking and shoveling and raking to redistribute the soil from the highest places in the circle to the lowest.  It's getting there, although I hesitate to say, "I'm almost done," as I've said that before and then been disappointed when I realized I wasn't anywhere near.

But out of all this - this long drawn out building process and readjusting my entire life to living in a bus and doing all my work at a cafe and hauling heavy things like water and dirt around and dealing with dead rodents my cat brings in and watching the enormous moon rise full over the little lights of Taos spread out and waking in the middle of the night to seven cows surrounding the bus and spectacular skyscapes daily and on and on - dare I say it - I've developed patience.  

I'm not in a hurry anymore.  The house will be done when it's done, and in the meantime, I have land to enjoy and a bus I'm in love with and a lifestyle that fits me like my favorite pair of jeans.

driving home in a rainy sunset
Graeme's the pot of gold
Sky.  Two Peaks.  Bus.  Oh yes.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Of Mattocks and Muscles

I've always had a hard time - being a writer since practically birth it seems - keeping up with all the things I want to write about.  It's especially frustrating these days, because I write for a living so most of my writing juice goes to that, but now there's the added (huge) factor that I'm building a house.  There are so many things, dear reader, that I want to share with you:  the daily morning soap opera of the hummingbirds that gather and fight around the feeder I've erected, the gloriousness of my outdoor shower.   I want to wax rhapsodic about the directness, the immediateness, the unobstructedness of simply everything the land is showing me:  Wind.  Water.  Fire.  Earth. 

But what I'm going to do is tell you about a girl and her brick.

When I was around 18, I used to go out on Chimes Street in Baton Rouge.  It was a magical place, hard to describe.  It was just off the campus of Louisiana State University, a tiny little street with a couple of hip dive bars on it, but it deadended at what was commonly called "The Enchanted Forest."  Truman Capote reputedly lived on this street for a while, in a small apartment complex known only as "The Ghetto."  The best bar on this street, The Bayou, was featured in the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, the director, is from Baton Rouge).  Sadly, the Bayou has since burned down.

Anyway, my point - and I do have one - is that one night while wandering around Chimes Street and the adjacent neighborhood, I came across a heap of bricks in an empty lot and picked one up.  It felt really good to hold it, to feel its weight in my hand.  I carried it around all night, and I later wrote a poem with lines inspired by that experience:   "A girl and her brick/ has become a woman building."

It just hit me that I am now truly that woman in a way I was nowhere near imagining when I wrote the lines.  No, I haven't laid a single earthbag yet, but I've been mattocking sagebrush, having graduated from a garden fork and trowel.  And I looked in the mirror today and saw muscles.  Muscles! 

What could be more rewarding than seeing how every day I can spend a little more time smashing and pulling sagebrush, raking and wheelbarrowing, before I get too tired and have to stop?  I know there are a lot of people who start working out at a gym and stick to it long enough to experience the triumph of increasing their weights, losing 10 pounds, etc. - but this is so much more than that, because all of this means that at the end of a morning or evening of work, I can stand there and survey the site where my house will be.  That I will build.  On my land.  That is mine.

Almost all the sagebrush has now been removed from within the boundaries defined by the little hot pink flags, which were carefully placed by measuring the diameter of my domes and the length of the whole house.  I have to admit, I stand there long and just look, every time I finish for the day.  Yes. Yes. Yes.

And now, some photos from the buswarming:

My awesome friend Nicole, who owns this land with me and finally got to see it for the first time.  Here she is making a masterpiece with a Shiner cap and some sparkly string.

Richard, Kerry, and their kids.  Graeme and I got our first hands-on earthbag experience at their barnraising in Colorado, so I'm really glad they came, and their kids had a great time with Eliana.
Richard and Kerry brought me two tomato plants along with two hand-painted tires and dirt for planting them.  They also brought me a ton of earthbags.  Yay! 
Richard and Justin (Eliana's dad) watch the kids play.

Have no idea what happened here, but I thought it was a cool effect.  That ghostlike creature is actually my good friend Alima, who brought me all kinds of goodies, including earthbags, a basil plant, a jade plant, and a braid of fresh sweetgrass.

Obligatory photo of self; have no idea who took this.  I love my new floppy hat with the chin strap to keep the wind from blowing it away.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sky Bus Living

Life is taking on an entirely new set of rhythms, and it's been challenging to adjust to them, but also very rewarding.  This shifting from one kind of life to another is kind of like when you're listening to music on your headphones and you walk into a room where some other music is playing.  For a minute, it's chaotic, until the old music fades out.

To put it in perspective:  I went from living in an on-grid house on a busy street corner in town to living in a bus with no electricity other than what batteries provide, a 5-gallon bucket under the sink to catch water that comes out of the 7-gallon container on the counter which is filled by hand from the 55-gallon drum outside (which is in turn filled from the community well down the road), a bathroom with a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat on it and a container full of sawdust nearby for scooping into it, a two-burner Coleman stove and a charcoal grill for cooking, and nothing around me but sky, sagebrush, and a few scattered dwellings.  Well, and a heck of a lot more birds than I would have imagined.  Twice, I've had hummingbirds fly into the Sky Bus, check things out for a sec, then fly back out.

The biggest part of the chaos has been adjusting my work schedule.  I have to say, I'm really grateful to be living a freelance life where I can actually do that.  My original thought was that I would come into town to work three days a week, but it's not turning out that way, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it's too hot to work on the building site in the middle of the day.  So I've been coming into town almost every weekday, mostly in the afternoons.  That way I can work on the land in the cool mornings and early evenings. I'm definitely having less time for blogging though.  I've been keeping up with most of the earthbag and off-grid bloggers that I follow, but often don't have time to comment.

All in all, life is good at Serendipity.  I would love to know who took that old schoolbus and turned it into the wonderful little home that it is.  Someone put a lot of thought and love into the design, and care into the work of it.  The kitchen, though small, is very functional, and in fact has the best pantry I've ever had.  The cereal boxes actually fit standing up!

The bathroom is tiny, so I don't have room to build a housing for my sawdust toilet, but I've been completely blown away by how well this system works.  The sawdust completely covers any odor or grossness, and it's just as comfortable to use as a regular toilet - if not moreso.  I'm sold.  And it's pretty darn cool that I can pick up bags of sawdust for a buck each at the sawmill that's on the way into town.

As for the bucket under the sink, I was just telling someone today how satisfying it is to take water that you've used for cooking and cleaning, and carry it by hand out to a tree that you're watering with it.  In the midst of sagebrushland, I am blessed to have four baby pine trees growing in the immediate vicinity of the bus.  This morning I finally got around to mulching them, but I've been watering them regularly since we moved in almost a month ago.

The best thing about the Sky Bus is the bedroom I share with Eliana.  I have rarely enjoyed sleeping anywhere as much as I have this room.  It's cozy, and breezy (has a skylight I can wind open and closed), and comfy like a bedroom should be.  And, it's pretty.  I am a girl after all.

Incidentally, I'm having a buswarming party next weekend (July 2), so if you're in the area and would like to come, email me and I'll give you directions.  You can bring a tent and spend the night.

And now, for a little before-and-after:

Front of bus before


Kitchen before


Graeme chillin' at the table.  He calls the bus our "summer house."
Bedroom before.  That tire now sits in my yard awaiting soil and plants.
Bedroom after
The cats love it.  And let me tell you a little story about that calico, Roxie.  She was the whiniest, most annoying cat EVER until we moved to the mesa.  She's a completely different cat now - quiet, calm.  And a dang good mouser.  On the other hand, Higglebottom, the other cat, is and always will be the chillest cat in the universe.
Bedroom detail.  Another little story:  I grabbed that Into the Wild DVD insert when I was packing to move.  I always put DVDs in a sleeve binder, then don't know what to do with the cases.  Since I adore this movie, I kept this one, and for whatever reason, decided to put it up in the bus....without even thinking about the fact that the guy in the story lived and died in a bus.  Hmmm.  

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