Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mad Max Meets Little House on the Prairie

The land
You know how certain snippets of conversations stay in your memory, no matter how long ago they may have taken place or how insignificant the person you were talking to may have been in the grand scheme of your life?  Twenty years ago I had a conversation with a guy who I had a brief but intense friendship with (can't even remember his last name now, pretty sure it was Italian and started with an M.)  But there was something about this conversation that struck me as prophetic at the time, and while I can't remember much of it now, what I do remember is this:

We were discussing the impending collapse of civilization, and I, in my youthful exuberance, was all excited about it, saying it would be liberating and return us to a simpler way of living.  My friend - Jay - said, "Like Little House on the Prairie."  And I said, "Yes, exactly!"  And he said, "Yeah.  But it's going to be Mad Max first."

The reason I'm thinking about this now is because my blogging friend Claire commented on my last post that what I'm doing makes her think of Laura Ingalls.  And since that conversation with Jay is never too far from my mind, I've come to automatically think of Mad Max when I think of Little House on the Prairie.  In my weird little view of the world, I actually enjoy this and see it as a kind of balance.

The thing that struck me this time though, is that where my land is (yes, that's right - MY land!  It's official; I'm now a land owner - WOO HOOOO!!!).  Anyway, ahem.  Where my land is, it's already a lot like a cross between Mad Max and Little House on the Prairie.  So the prophecy really is coming true, just not in the way I'd imagined.  The truth is, if when Western civilization collapses finishes collapsing, life out there will simply be MORE like Mad Max/Little House on the Prairie - a change in degree rather than paradigm.

I guess now would be an appropriate time to mention the movie.  Sigh.  I've been avoiding this because this little movie about the Mesa, called Off the Grid: Life On the Mesa, presents an exaggerated and one-sided view of what it's like out there.  Like any other place in the world, there are good "neighborhoods" and bad ones (as well as the very human tendency to overact for a camera crew), so if you watch this movie, please keep that in mind.  There is also a mix of people out there that is far more varied than just what's shown in this film.  The Mesa's a pretty big place.  My friend Rusty actually wants to make a different film that would show another side; I'll enthusiastically help him if he does.

That said, however, there is definitely an outlaw sort of feel to the place, which actually appeals to me for a variety of reasons.  It provides a certain kind of freedom (e.g., from building codes) that makes it worth dealing with the inevitable dangers of such lawlessness.  That's the thing about freedom - it's more often than not holding hands with danger.  And I'm fine with that.

Since I've made a pact with myself that I won't get too spiritual/philosophical on this blog, I'll shut up now, but if you're interested in reading more of my ruminations on freedom vs. safety, I posted on my other blog about this about a year and a half ago:  http://thepollinatrix.blogspot.com/2009/10/swan-song-for-moment.html

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Water, Power, and the Sky Bus

It is amazing how complex it is to plan a simpler life.  I am up to my ears in researching water storage, greywater systems and plumbing, varieties of composting toilets, and generators.  The closer it gets to time to move to the land, the more pressing these concerns become.  My housebuilding notebook is getting fuller by the day, and in looking back over what I've written, I can see how I'm revisiting the same topics in ever-more refined detail.

With such a huge project, breaking it down into a timeline of steps has been most helpful and is an ongoing process.  I still haven't sold the van and am now considering the strong possibility that I will not get as much for it as I was hoping, so my timeline reflects some budget changes.  Rather than having enough money up front to deal with several steps at once, I'm now looking at the bare minimum of what's needed to move to the land, set up the bus with preliminary water and power needs, and begin building.

And that's okay.  In fact, it's kind of nice to be planning at this more manageable level.  I've realized that all I really need for water in the bus is a couple of 55 gallon drums for water, one of which will be placed on the roof of the bus to supply water to the faucet, and the other for water catchment and storage for outdoor needs.  There's a community well, and a friend of mine who lives on the Mesa has a pickup truck he's going to let me use to haul water, so I'll just need one more drum or tank to use for transport.

The bus has a simple bathroom with just a toilet, so I'm considering just digging a deep hole under it and using sawdust, as a sort-of indoor outhouse.  This definitely wouldn't be a workable longterm setup, but I figure it can work for a few months while I'm building.  I'm also planning on setting up an outdoor solar shower.

As for power, ultimately my plan is solar panels, but the cost is prohibitive for me right now, so I'm looking at getting a 2000-watt generator, probably a Honda eu2000i.  After scouring the Internet for reviews of different generators, this one seems to have a consistently high rating.  My power needs for now are minimal:  two laptops, a low-wattage microwave, and two or three lights.  No refrigerator, and this is something else I'm thinking a lot about, considering such radical things for the future as building an icehouse and root cellar rather than conventional refrigeration.  This line of thought leads into a whole lot of other stuff, like considering what my family eats and why, how I do my shopping, how to eat and shop more simply, how much food I will grow myself.  I may end up with a conventional refrigerator once I have solar panels, but in the meantime, I really want to avoid it.

I checked on the bus yesterday and finally took some photos.  My short-term goals are simply to get it moved and clean enough to live in, but I've been thinking of longterm possibilities as well.  I'd like to keep it around as a guest house and eventually make it look nice and be more liveable (i.e., better insulated).  I've been considering the possibility of cobbing the outside of it, and covering the north-facing windows this way for passive solar benefits, but we'll see.

In the meantime, this is what it looks like.  Consider these the "before" photos.

When I looked at this photo, I realized that the colors of the bus match the sky, which is why I've dubbed it "The Sky Bus."

Notice the chimney pipe for the woodstove.  Brilliant!

I love that this bus was made in 1968, the year I was born, and also that it has a New Hampshire license plate:  Live Free or Die!  As I'm never going to attempt to register this vehicle to drive, I'll leave it on there.

Dining and kitchen area.  With all those windows, it really feels spacious and airy - another reason to call it the Sky Bus.
Sleeping area.  Note to self:  Remove tire.
Each sleeping bench is wide enough for a twin-size mattress.  Sweet!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thinking Outside the Grid

As fate would have it, about a week after I made my decision to build an off-grid house, the Taos area experienced a gas outage that lasted several days, which nicely reinforced the value of living off-grid.  As I listened to radio updates that cautioned people to drastically reduce their use of electricity because of the overload on the grid due to the increased use of electric heaters, it became very clear to me that living on the grid is a form of enslavement.

I've just finished reading Off the Grid, by Nick Rosen, and it has definitely given me food for thought.  The main thing I've been thinking about is what "the grid" actually is.  The obvious definition is the electrical grid, but as Rosen points out, that definition has been extended to include any public utilities, and even the ecopolitical structure as a whole.  In the book, he travels around America talking to people who live off-grid, and for different people that means different things and is prompted by different motives.  But what he points out is that these motives can be classified very simply as either fear-based or from "a sense of joy."  

What the gas outage experience brought home for me is that I do not want to be dependent for the basics of physical survival and comfort on entities whose primary purpose is to make a profit off me, especially when said entities, and my cooperation with them, are contributing to the illness of the planet.  However, I operate in life on the principle that ultimately I can only be enslaved by the grid of my own thoughts, emotions, and corresponding responses, which is why my decision to build off-grid was prompted by a sense of purpose and joy, not a feeling of enslavement.  

I'm certainly aware of the ways things are falling apart and the dangers of the world we live in, but I choose not to live in fear, and so I don't give my attention to those things any more than necessary.  The freedom of building an off-grid house for me is not so much freedom from a system as freedom to create.  It's a subtle but important distinction that makes all the difference in the world.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why I'm Building With Earthbags

When I first started researching alternative building methods several years ago, earthbags weren't even on the radar.  I never once came across them in my many hours of wandering the Internet.  With this recent round of research, I discovered them right away, literally within minutes of Googling "alternative building methods."  Why?  Because of two men, Owen Geiger and Kelly Hart, who have taken it upon themselves to disseminate information about this method freely and widely.

After reading on their Earthbag Building website and on Owen Geiger's Earthbag Building Blog, I was quickly sold.  Earthbag building is a simple, dirt cheap way to build an elegant, incredibly strong structure with little or no building experience.  

Geiger also has a blog featuring nothing but a cornucopia of earthbag plans he's designed, which further simplifies the process.  For a very reasonable cost, you can order any of these plans from him.  The plan I've picked out is the Enviro Dome:

I've chosen this plan because it's one of the simplest to construct while still providing enough space for my needs.  I also like the fact that it can easily be added onto later.  Using the dome structure means that you don't need a separate roof, which is another plus; you just earthbag it all the way up, using a simple compass to keep the angles accurate.

On another level, the dome structure appeals to me because it resembles a beehive (I don't call myself The Pollinatrix for nothing.)  For years, I've been fascinated by the peregrini, wandering Irish monks of the early Celtic church who would set up beehive-like cells wherever they stopped and stayed for a while.

Monastic beehive cells, circa 6th century,
on the island of Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland
Soon I will get to live in my very own 21st century "Be Hive," as I've come to think of it.    

Geiger estimates that you can build a house with earthbags for around $10/sq. ft., using recycled and scavenged materials.  The polypropylene bags needed can be bought from a variety of suppliers at low cost, especially if you buy misprints.  However, these bags can also be obtained for free with a little perseverance.  I've starting looking for local suppliers, and recently found my first bag benefactor, a company in Santa Fe that goes through 20 - 30 bags a week, which would otherwise be discarded.  I am in fact going there today to pick up my first free load of bags.  I figure if I can find about five more suppliers such as this, I can likely build my house without ever having to purchase bags.  It's just a matter of finding businesses like farms and ranches, breweries, etc, that regularly use materials like grain and feed that are packaged in these bags.

One of the wonderful things about Owen Geiger is that he is 100% invested in helping people build this way, as was quickly proven to me when I first began commenting on his blog.  Every time I've asked him a question, he's responded within a day or two with a helpful and detailed answer.  When I first commented that I had decided to use earthbags, and sent him the link to my blog, he immediately responded with enthusiasm and suggested that I use scoria for my bag fill, as its plentiful in my area (there's a volcano nearby).  Kelly Hart built his earthbag house this way, and it's just brilliant.  Scoria is highly insulative; I recently came across the blog of a couple who've built their earthbag dome house this way in Montana, and they say they've been warm all winter in it with just a crappy woodstove.  Scoria is also much lighter than dirt, so the work goes "ten times faster," according to Geiger.  It's also way less messy than using a dirt fill, which needs to be mixed with water.

Since choosing this method and starting this blog, I've discovered a variety of other bloggers who are either in the process of building with earthbags, are planning an earthbag house, or have already completed one.  Just peruse my blogroll, and you'll see what I mean.  I've even found a couple of people in my area who are or will be building with earthbags.  All of this is just incredibly encouraging, to see that truly anyone, no matter how inexperienced at building, can do this, and do it very inexpensively.  And to be part of what feels like a true movement at a time when that movement is really taking off is exciting, especially when there is a sense of community simultaneously building around it, no matter how "virtual."  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Limbo and The Research Phase

I've mentioned before that I really enjoy research.  In fact, I enjoy it too much; when I get on a roll, with seven different windows open in my browser, I can get totally lost in it and ignore pretty much everything else around me.  Like the dishes piled in the sink.  Or the article that's due tomorrow.  Or those other creatures I happen to live with, otherwise known as my kids and cats.

As of now, I've probably watched three hours worth of two-minute YouTube videos and have a list of bookmarked websites that exceeds the length of my computer's window.  Today I received the two books I ordered (Earthbag Building:  The Tools, Tricks, and Techniques by Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer, and Water Storage:  Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds by Art Ludwig), and it felt like Christmas morning.  I've also been reading two other books simultaneously (On the Mesa by John Nichols and Off the Grid by Nick Rosen.  Because I will be both off the grid and on the Mesa - how cool is that?)

I've researched earthbag building, house plans, earthen floors, water catchment and storage, composting toilets both lo- and hi-tech, generators, propane appliances, and much much more.

And it's all been really fun and inspiring, but sometimes, on days like today, when my three-year-old wakes me up at four in the morning and I'm just plain tired, it's all a bit much.  At these moments, I suddenly get a peek into my life from the point of view of some disapproving stranger, some really nice normal person who's frowning at me and my messy house and hungry cats, asking, "What the hell are you thinking?"  (Except they're probably not saying "hell" because nice people don't use words like that.)

And the thing about researching all of these different aspects and stages of the process all at once is that it takes the emphasis off the one step in front of me right now, the one thing I can actually do today, like making a flyer to sell my van or inquiring about a possible source of free bags for building with.  I start peering into the future and wondering how I'm going to fit everything I need into a bus, where I'm going to get the money for solar panels, how I'm really going to feel when I'm out on the Mesa with just my teenage son and my preschooler.

Believe me, I have no illusions about it all being peaches and cream; I know I have months of hard work, chaos, and ordeals ahead of me.  Which is fine - but not when you try to contemplate all of that at once, because in reality, it's not going to happen all at once.  And there's nothing I can do about it anyway, except back out of the project, which is not even close to being an option.  Despite any difficulty this project presents, I can't begin to imagine anything I'd rather do with my life.

Because the van still isn't sold and the land is not safely mine yet, and because the bus still sits at the Two Peaks junkyard, I'm experiencing an unsettling sense of limbo.  I'm tired of sitting on my butt in front of the computer, and itching to get outside and do some real work.

But this too will pass, right?  Patience and trust are my keywords right now.  Patience and trust, and putting one foot in front of the other.
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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Buying Land: Part II

Negotiations ensued alongside my new friendship with Rusty.  The trouble was, he wanted more for his land than my budget will allow.  And it was way more than I had originally anticipated a piece of land on the Mesa would cost.  I'd heard so many stories of cheap parcels out there, as low as a few hundred bucks.

What I've been learning though is that a) land prices on the Mesa, like everywhere else, are rising; and b) you can still get those dirt cheap pieces, but they're not necessarily in a savory spot.  You get what you pay for, as we all know.  It didn't take long to realize that I was willing to pay substantially more than I'd initially factored to get Rusty's land, largely because it's located in an ideal spot near the slope of Cerro de los Taoses, also known as Two Peaks, meaning its features are more interesting than most of the Mesa, which is just plain flat, and it's in a good "neighborhood," which is extremely important on the Mesa for a variety of reasons I'll go into another time.  But beyond these practical reasons, the truth is I already felt that this was where I belong.  Graeme and I both felt it as we stood there watching the moon rise that first night.

That sense of certainty led me to wrongly believe that I could make an offer to Rusty and he would immediately agree to it, tra-la, even if it wasn't for the amount he wanted.  I had decided on a maximum amount I could put down, and I wanted him to let me finance the rest over a period of a year, but he wasn't keen on owner financing at all.  

The other trouble that entered paradise at this point was that Rusty was less than excited about my plan to use earthbags, as they involve plastic, something he considers ugly and evil.  He spent a good bit of time in the beginning trying to talk me into a different method of building, and I found myself conflicted, because just as strongly as I felt his land was the right place, I believed that earthbags were the right method.  

After a rather intense week of spending a lot of time together both socially and negotiation-wise, I decided I needed to leave it alone, and let go of what was already an attachment to this land.  I resisted the temptation to call Rusty and badger him to make a decision about my offer, and I began to look at other land for sale on Craigslist and such, albeit halfheartedly, I'll admit.  

I began to wonder if the serendipity was running out, especially when I didn't hear from Rusty for close to a week.  However, during that time, a wonderful new aspect of this project developed, which was that Nicole, my very best friend in the world, and I began to discuss buying land together, as we've often longed to live together as single mothers, building community and supporting each other.  If she bought a quarter acre of Rusty's land, which is what she could afford, then I could afford to pay him the minimum he would take for all of it up front.  (This minimum, however, was less than what he thought the land was worth.)

We were on the phone one night discussing this, and I was telling her I just wasn't sure anymore what was going to happen with Rusty's land, that I hadn't talked to him in many days.  Then the other line beeped.  And guess who it was, calling to tell me he'd decided he was fine with me using earthbags, and that he could divide the land into an acre parcel for me and another quarter he'd sell to someone else, if I could come up with the  the exact amount Nicole and I had been discussing pooling together.

I called her back when I was done talking to Rusty, and get this:  She'd been doing a Tarot reading while I was on the phone with him, and the card she'd gotten in the future position was a picture of women building a house together.  No lie.

from the Motherpeace deck, the card Nicole drew

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Buying Land: Part I

"Buy land; they're not making it anymore." 
~ Mark Twain

A bit of backstory:  The seed was initially planted for my decision to build a house back in December, the night my van broke down.  I had gone out to a favorite music venue (the Adobe Bar at the Historic Taos Inn) and immediately met a man who I ended up conversing (and dancing) with all night.  It was one of those instant connections, where you feel as though you're reestablishing an old friendship.  When he walked me to my van at the end of the evening, out of the blue it just wouldn't start, so I left it there and he brought me home, but we didn't exchange phone numbers, and the next day, I wished we had.

I was without the van for a month while local mechanics tried to figure out what was wrong with it.  After thinking it was one thing and ordering the wrong part, they finally decided it was the ignition switch, and because a) it operates with one of those ridiculous newfangled keyless systems, and b) our local Chrysler dealer closed down THE DAY my van broke down, I ended up having to get it towed to Santa Fe to get a new "key" reprogrammed.  So this was when I first started thinking about selling the van, which of course led to thinking about what I would do with the money (my parents said they didn't want it back).

The first day that I looked on the Cid's bulletin board for land for sale - Valentine's Day as it so happens - I saw a flyer featuring a really nice 1.25 acres on the Mesa, and as I was studying it, up sidles the man I'd met that fateful night (I'll call him Rusty), and he says, "I'll give you a good deal on it."  Yes, it was Rusty's land.

You'd better believe we exchanged phone numbers this time.

I was checking out other pieces of land too, so the day I went out to see Rusty's, I looked at another place first.  My 13-year-old son, Graeme, who will be my main building partner, went with me and we spent a lot of the afternoon wandering around some land that was definitely a good deal, and being sold by a very nice guy I'd talked to on the phone earlier, but didn't feel right at all.

By the time we got out to Rusty's, it was pretty late in the day, and I was tired, overstimulated, and feeling very uneasy about taking my prissy van down the rutted dirt roads of the Mesa.  We went down the wrong road and almost got stranded on some rocks, so at that point I was ready to hang it up and go home.  But then Rusty drove out to meet us and led us the rest of the way.

The moment we stepped foot on the land, a truly magical thing happened.  I looked over to the west, and the sun was just dipping below the horizon, which was lovely enough.  But then, I looked to the west, and the enormous full moon was just barely peeking up behind the mountains.  We watched it rise in awe.  So quiet and vast, that Mesa.  This photo was taken just a few moments later:

Click to enlarge - you won't regret it.
While walking around that first place Graeme and I had visited, I'd been hoping for some sort of sign to let me know if this was to be my land - an interesting rock, a feather, maybe.  Something.  I had no idea what was in store for me on Rusty's land, in that perfect moment of stunningly beautiful balance.

Serendipity.  Apparently it's one of the hardest words to define, but from reading Wikipedia's discussion of it, and combining that with what was already my visceral sense of the word, I would define it as "meaning-laden good fortune that surpasses that which was sought."

Hey, I have a Master's degree in English - I can make up definitions if I want.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Budget, a Blazer, and a Bus

Since I made the decision to build a house on the Mesa, things have been coming together in a serendipitous way.  In terms of the initial financing of this project, the plan consists of several intricately timed steps, including getting my tax refund and then using that to buy a used 4W drive vehicle and and an RV to live in while building, and then selling my nice newish (and completely useless for the rough terrain of the Mesa) Chrysler Town & Country, in order to pay for land and get the initial things in place needed to live and build out there (i.e., a cistern, a generator, tools, and building supplies).

Wanna buy me?
I realize that it's somewhat taboo to publicly discuss the details of one's financial situation, but I will be flying in the face of that taboo on this blog because part of my purpose in writing about this project is to demonstrate that it's doable for anyone, no matter their budget.  As a single mother receiving no child support, I have been on and off food stamps and Medicaid for years.  With rent as high as it is in Taos, I've even considered getting housing assistance, but something in me has never let me go and turn in an application.

I do need to clarify that I have been blessed with parents who can and will help me financially from time to time, and my van was a gift from them.  In that sense, then, I have it a bit easier than many single mothers who find themselves dancing with the welfare system, but honestly, the level of my resolve at this point is such that even without the van to sell I would find some way to move forward with this.

So we're talking about a tight budget here, folks, but for $4000 I managed to get a 2001 Chevy Blazer in good condition and a 32-foot converted schoolbus.

Now that's more like it!
Our local organic grocery store, Cid's, has a huge community bulletin board, so I went there as soon as I had the tax refund, and found both vehicles at the same time.  It all went swimmingly, even better than I had hoped, in that I got a newer vehicle and a bigger living space than I had anticipated.  The bus is old (a 1968 - the year I was born) and in need of cleaning, but is really well-designed for livability, and actually feels spacious inside.  It has a kitchen area, a good sleeping section, a bathroom, and even a woodstove.  And, it's already out on the Mesa, so moving it once I have land will be relatively easy.  I'll take pictures of the bus to post next time I'm out there.

I haven't had time to deal with getting  the van ready to sell (i.e, gotten all of my crap out of it), because being so preoccupied with this project and spending hours researching various aspects of it, I've gotten really behind with work.  I've been making myself focus and get caught up this week, so no money for land yet, although I've looked at a couple of pieces.  More about that next time.

Incidentally, you may have noticed that I've used the word "serendipity" (or some derivative thereof) for two posts in a row now.  Because of how things have been happening, it's a word I've been contemplating a lot lately, and have now decided that this is what I will name my place, once I have it:  "Serendipity."  You know, kinda like "Tara," except without the slaves or the melodrama.  Or the trees, for that matter.
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