I’ve just had an anniversary – well, a couple, come to think of it. On the 13th, I celebrated my 24th anniversary of becoming a mom. Can’t believe our boy is all grown up now… I’m also celebrating my first anniversary of moving to the Harn. It’s been a year since I made the transition and I still think moving to the woods in November 2016 was a fantastic idea. While I initially made the move on my own, it’s been nice for the last seven months to have Dan here with me on this adventure. [Oh, he got me a lovely foot massage unit for the anniversary and we’re now enjoying relaxing with that after a long day of work outside. I think he’s wanting to keep his “frontier woman” happy.]
I’ve told people that we’re giving it 3-5 years to see what we think and so far, it’s good. There were several things I wondered if I could handle in making the transition to the woods but all the things I had concerns about have ended up being either non-issues, aren’t as bad as I’d expected them to be, or are things I’ve really come to enjoy. I still say it’s lovely, even in below zero weather, to sit on the porch and have a poo while a woodpecker sits not 5 feet from me, pecking on the suet. Even if there is no woodpecker, to sit in the middle of the woods is far superior to the sterile porcelain environment that many of us find to be commonplace.
So… what have we learned?
We’ve learned (again) this year that we need to be careful with the water system. The first flush diverter on the East downspout came apart last week in the frigid cold, in part because we didn’t pull the caps to allow all the water to drain… again, and the result was a huge PVC icicle that fell to the ground. The issue this winter was that we got a first snow and thought it would melt off in a day or two but… it didn’t. It just kept snowing and staying frigid cold. So we didn’t get to removing the caps before things got really frozen. But at least we DID drain the garden cistern and rain barrel system on the south side of the house so they should be OK. [If you recall, last year our previous garden cistern cracked down the side mid-winter after becoming too full of ice. Last year it was having such a mild early winter that we kept getting more water accumulation every time we drained the cistern and we should have just emptied it completely every time – like we did this year.]
Gardening and Food
We’ve learned that our forested acreage is REALLY wet. And that slugs LOVE it. We built hugle beds (wood and soil piles where the wood acts like 1) a sponge, keeping the garden bed moist, and 2) a compost pile, breaking down over time to provide nutrition to the soil) but found that we really need to build them about three times bigger. Our beds should be almost like raised beds – 3-4’ high is not too high. So that will be a project this coming spring. We have lots of old wood and should be able to build up on the hugle mounds we’ve already got in place. Though we may have to reconfigure the bee yard a bit for the bigger mounds…
We’ve also worked for friends on their farms and learned a lot about raising veggies and animals. I will say veggies are easier to wrangle than goats. We did have a heck of a time with our goat sitting this year but I can now recognize, and cull from the pack, a horny male goat amidst a herd of females. I also am learning more and more vegetables, though I still struggle with knowing some. I’ve cooked lots of new dishes as I harvested at the farms and we have an abundance of food in the form of potatoes and squash.
We also did some foraging this year and learned a bit about edible (and non-edible) mushrooms and berries. We gathered choke cherries and made jelly, and also crabapples (thanks, Diana!) to make preserves and syrup. The syrup is SO GOOD on pancakes – which we’ve been eating of late with the cold and Dan’s hunting schedule.
Oh, another skill in development! Dan started hunting on Deer Opener (November 4th – it’s like a national holiday up here) with a buddy who can carve up a deer leaving almost nothing in the way of meat on the bones. He’s borrowed a gun and tree stand and is getting a feel for what he thinks. Last year deer hunting time was unseasonably warm – so warm that hunters worried about their meat spoiling before they could get it into a cooler. This year, not so much of a problem. It’s been in the single digits for some of the time he’s spent out there with most days staying under freezing, and often with nasty winds. No worries about the meat getting too warm, more worries about your fingers and toes staying warm enough to avoid frostbite! I’m guessing it’s kind of like having a baby though… once you get the deer, all that misery is forgotten. We’ll see.
I’ve learned a bit more about bees this year too; mostly that they know what they are doing and man should pretty much just leave them alone for best results. I had one colony die after never really getting started and a second die due to a lost queen that was not replaced in time for winter. It was a devastating blow to not be able to winter over a colony, but we had quite a harvest of honey. Nonetheless, I still grieve my bees.
And we have a bounty of other stored food in the form of canned green beans, tomatoes, tomato soup, and applesauce. I’ve got some marinara from Sylvia, some grape jelly from Char, some beet pickles from Jill, and some squash from Connie. Lots to keep me busy cooking this winter. I think canning may be one of the best things I’ve learned and I only wish I’d been able to do more. We have invested in a propane burner and massive pressure canner/cooker for outdoor canning on the porch next year. And we have a few canning jars ready to fill.
Heating: aka Adding Cob to the Rocket Mass Heater
Having the proper mass on your stove is crucial for creating a “mass” heater that radiates to warm the home. We still have much mass to add to our stove and continue to lose heat through the chimney. But we added several buckets of cob to the stove this fall and we’re getting closer to enclosing the final run of exhaust tubing. Once that is complete, it should allow us to pull more of the heat from the exhaust before it leaves the building. The goal is to have an exit temperature on our chimney of about 100°F. This would mean the heat is flowing into our mass where it is stored to radiate out later. The Rocket Stove is typically burned for just a couple hours a day meaning much of your heating is a result of the mass releasing its heat into your house while you are not burning.
We also realized that having the windows all the way closed and locked down is pretty important too. Yes, we found the kitchen window was slightly cracked letting in loads of cold air the last few weeks. Gzeesh! House is staying much warmer since we remedied that!
With attendance at the Rocket Mass Heater Innovator Jamboree last month (Yes, I’m going to blog about it soon…) I learned much about making cob and earthen plasters from Erica Wisner and Chris “Uncle Mud” McClellan. I confirmed that cob making is an art, and a pretty forgiving one at that… thus much of what I’ve done to date has been okay. But I did find that I’m using lots more clay in my mix than needed. Since clay is the hardest component to secure, the buckets I’ve mixed will be extended with additions of more sand and straw. I also found that I can add as many rocks as I like to take up space. We added 4 buckets of cob earlier this fall and, with the new tricks, I’ve added almost as much mass in the last week or two with about one bucket of cob as I did with those four buckets. That’s a big savings!
Speaking of Savings… Money and Stuff
It’s kind of strange to live without an income – well, I make a bit here and there with Hostel work or writing for the Farmers Independent (the local paper). This was the aspect I feared most in the whole “retire early, live simply, and be sustainable” plan. But to not have a steady income and still be able to get groceries, buy gifts for people, eat out occasionally with friends – it’s kind of surreal. The Dogma in this country is all about making money, as much as you can, or you’ll be homeless, destitute, impoverished. I guess we did a lot of that making as much money as you can for some time but we didn’t buy into the second part of the capitalistic method – spend what you get. Saving all those years means we have some funds to live on now.
And we make the funds we have go far. I shop at thrift stores but you wouldn’t believe the deals you can find. I spent $8 a couple weeks back and got a like-new Hippie top (adorbs), a Columbia fleece jacket (super warm) in great condition, and a new (tag still on them) pair of yoga pants. My friend Angie got a pair of winter boots (Sorels no less!), two shirts and a pair of pants for her $8. Can’t beat that. Plus I have way too many clothes anyway. I have t-shirts to last me until I die and probably some jeans that need to be donated as they are too big now.
I find up here in the North Woods I pretty much can wear the same clothes all the time. I mean, there are weeks when I wear the same clothes for days in a row. Or I’ll wear an outfit and then hang it on my wall rack – that place where clothes go when they aren’t dirty enough for the hamper yet – and wear it again a few days later. And another key is having lounging clothes and work clothes – that way the work stuff keeps getting dirtier while your indoor stuff stays clean longer. I do SO MUCH LESS laundry these days – another savings and sustainability factor. I figure as long as the clothes are not muddy or stinky, they can take another wearing. [I do change the underwear and socks a bit more frequently than the other clothes…] Oh, and I’ve discovered the joy of bralessness. What a freedom. And I don’t think anyone has even noticed! [Oh, Danny says he has…]
And we’re finding that you use things to completion as best you can. As such, I’m tanning the deer hide from the deer shot by our friend Jeff. I’m also going to tan the smaller hide from the road kill deer we salvaged from the ditch this past weekend for his wife since I find I like the process of de-fleshing so much. And we’re taking the deer carcasses and using them to feed birds in the yard – have two this year, up from the one last year, and way ahead of last year, getting this one in place a good month before the one I put up last year. Here’s a video of the process.
Going with the Flow
I think one of the most fun things about being at the Harn is that we own our time much more than when we were in the rat race. When committed to a job, it’s hard to stay up until midnight finishing a movie you decided to start at 10 PM. It’s not an option to sleep in when you have to be at work by a certain time. It’s hard to join a neighbor on an adventure if you have to factor it into a workday. Take last Sunday, for instance. I was working on the blog and writing some letters, taking a call from Mom, when a neighbor texted and asked if we could help him move a wood stove to his basement. Sure. We headed over and then came back to get ready to go to the Symphony (using a neighbor’s ticket that otherwise would have gone unused) to see another neighbor play violin. I know, everyone is free on Sunday, right? Well, what about the Friday before that when I was able to just head out to visit the neighbors on a whim. I chatted with Connie and Bill, stopped by to see Ada and chat with her (the 89 year old “Queen of Alida” who lives with her cat Molly in our closest “town”), introduced myself again – it’s been years since we first met – to another neighbor Sandy and met her dog Molly, and then headed down to Char’s for some eggs and a quick visit. It was a fun couple hours just sharing and laughing with friends.
This past week we were able to take a day to hang with our friends at Split Oak Farms tanning my deer hide, watching a deer get processed for pig feed, cooking a couple meals to share, roasting peppers for a Thanksgiving dish, and watching a movie. The cat didn’t even seem too peeved that we were gone all day.
And when I get going, like I did on a little sewing project the other day, I can work until I finish it or find something else to distract me and then go back to it later. I love this going with the flow and enjoying the opportunities as they arise. Of course, it’s not always like this – sometimes we have to pick between sleeping in and going hunting… And sometimes we commit to one thing and then can’t do another. And sometimes we have to wash the dishes! But it is nice not having to give a bunch of hours, drive-time, and energy to a J-O-B. We’re working for us now. It may be harder work physically than we ever did in the Rat Race but WE are getting the benefits of all our efforts whether it’s harvesting food, making something for a friend, or chopping wood. Speaking of which, I better get on that! And that reminds me of a great Dillon Bustin song about cutting more wood…
Realizing our Genius
Sometimes we see the brilliance of our decisions (mostly the result of happenstance or dumb luck).
For example, this spring we pulled the deadwood that had fallen in the area around the Harn. We cleared small and large trees and branches in the 50’ area surrounding the Harn and piled them in the east end of the clearing south of the Harn, hoping to process them into firewood during the summer/fall. [We would rob this pile when burning summer bonfires in our outdoor fire pit – benefit #1.] Well, with everything else we did, we didn’t get that wood processed. However, it’s been a nice benefit this winter to be able to go to the pile and gather as much kindling as we need to supplement the larger wood we have prepped in the garage.
We’ve also been happy to find that the pile of trees we made back in 2009 is still usable! It’s worn wood but very seasoned and good for burning hot fires – and very easy to process compared with the more green / larger stuff we have. And also full of kindling since it’s all sizes of trees.
In the sequence of events that is our life, we’ve been lucky to meet people who could use our services on their farms. As such, we’ve been able to secure access to good, wholesome food in exchange for our help. Good and healthy farms always have an abundance of food to what can be used or sold and lucky for us, we get part of the harvest when we’re willing to be part of the labor in making it happen.
And sometimes it’s little things. When we run water for washing dishes – it takes a minute for the hot water tank water to get across the Harn to our kitchen sink – rather than letting the water go down the drain, we fill a gallon jug with this water. This also helps lessen the emptying of the bucket under the kitchen sink drain… We then use that water to fill the Berkey system we use to filter our drinking water. No Waste!
I guess the good news is that we are learning. We are discovering new ways to live here at the Harn that hopefully result in less waste and a more sustainable life. Since we are a long way from true sustainability and zero waste, we will keep on with the experiment! At least for a couple more years…