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.