Thursday, July 26, 2007

It was a good home

A few words about alternative energy.

Some of us think alternative living maybe comes first.

Greentech is a hot topic, but the unglamorous fact is that using less stuff will generally give you the most returns.

Beloved and I are currently residents of that worst of all worlds, empty-nest suburban two-car commuting. Yes, we're working on that, but, with middle-class outgo, deliberately or otherwise, calibrated by our industrial/consumerist society to stultify downwardly-mobile home innovation, it's been slow. Like the rest of our generation, we've aged, and age seeks the line of least resistance. Economic comfort and personal-environment comfort being closely related.

T'wasn't always so for us. Low-energy low-tech living is practiced by most people on the planet, and it's something Norteamericanos can re-learn if they have to. If you are young, or if you have an extended family, it's not all that difficult.

In the late '70s and early '80s the Bear Family lived on twelve acres in the middle of the Coast Range here in Oregon. We didn't have our extended family with us, as is often the case, but we were young. So we built our homestead for off-grid living.

We had a friend level off a platform on our hillside, with lots of eastern exposure, bought some pier blocks and a lot of 4X4s, 2X10s, 1X12s and the like, and assembled several structures. The largest was a 24'X48' double-loft house with almost 1400 square feet of floor space. Most of the construction was done with an 18" level, a chainsaw, a brace-and-bit, a hammer, and a 9/16" socket wrench. The lumber for this house came to, at 1979 prices, less than eight thousand dollars. Needless to say, the county building code would not have permitted this. But it got through an eighty-mile-an-hour windstorm without a scratch, and kept us warm and dry, and two children were born there, so I'd say it was a good home.

We were several miles off-grid. Sanitation was provided by an outhouse. We piped in water from a springhouse with a pitcher pump at the sink, cooked with a propane stove and a wood cook stove, refrigerated with a propane refrigerator and also in the spring house, and lighting was 12 volt, with propane and Aladdin lamps for backup.

Clothes could be washed in a tub. When the kids came along, we added a washer that ran on a gasoline generator.

We raised much of our food, which we still do, but also canned a lot, which we haven't had the "time" to do for many years.

Our transportation provided the structures with juice by means of a storage battery on site, coupled to golf cart batteries in the car, which were charged whenever we went anywhere by a RV dual-battery switch.

We wired the house with heavy-duty solid core wiring suitable for running DC 50 feet or more, and spot lighting was provided by 1/2 amp car taillight lamps. For lampshades we used carved-up gallon milk jugs and the like. They worked fine.

For ambient lighting we waited for daylight or moonlight. That worked fine, too. Our skylights were insulated horizontal windows, facing east under the clerestory provided by a double shed roof.

Besides the inefficient but rather appreciated washing machine, our one real luxury was a freezer kept at a friends house, for which we paid a small rental to cover the electric bill.

The county did discover us, but was disposed to adjust our tax bill for "agricultural sheds" rather than for a home, which was fine with us. When we sold out and moved away, for what seemed to us good reasons at the time, the new owner changed over the twelve volt system from automotive to solar, but otherwise kept things the same for eighteen years. When she decided to replace the main house to meet code, she was able to recycle all the original materials into the new structure, as we had used lag screws throughout, to enable waste-free dismantling.

I don't know how "green" our footprint was -- I worked in forestry, and had to commute great distances in order to run a chainsaw for a living sometimes. But I do know that life was an adventure that we were able to live to the full, at an annual family income of some ten thousand in 1980s dollars.

At Stony Run we keep hoping to re-learn some of the things we knew then. If anything worthwhile comes of that, you'll be the first to know.

risa b

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


There's a little building out back, made up of recycled fence boards, which I originally built as a playhouse for the children, now all grown. It's now a fine scriptorium, where I write, and where I'm working on Renascence Editions and a HTML re-write of homecomings.doc this summer. Also taking a lot of naps. It's well ventilated and shady, and the quiet is interrupted only by the occasional redwing blackbird, or the footfalls of a visiting doe.

When I was building the playhouse, I wrote this:

Whenever we worked at the creekside shed
there was always something else to do
such times as we were stumped, or nails ran short,

or the sun reached round the fir and baked us down
from raftering, roofing, or the like. We leaned,
gossip-like, against the fresh framing

of the walls, sipping solar tea,
watching the edge of a cloud's long skirt
chase the neighbors' horses leisurely

across their pasture, down the camas swale
and up the other side, against the black contrast
of maple-shrouded hills. The horses liked

to amble up to our corner, stand and watch.
We couldn't cure them of the shies,
though we might try with handfuls

of our green grass, or a few choice
coaxing words. They'd check us out:
first one black blink from behind

the forehead blaze, and then another,
cocking their long heads round to see
our self-assured, predatory faces, eyes front,

gazing on them, horse-flesh accountants
by their reckoning. Their flanks
would shiver, and their forefeet stamp,

scoring the earth in a language built of weight.
Some movement would always spook them off:
a silvery chisel hefted, or water bottle sloshed,

spattering sun. They'd hammer up the swale;
Lovingly we'd watch them go, coveting
our neighbors' lands and all that lived thereon,

as country folk in August always do.

risa b

Sunday, July 08, 2007

A press run

Gate for new deer fence

We have settled into our summer routine, carrying greywater to fruit trees, packing grass clippings around the trees and into the compost tumbler, watching to see how the ducks and chickens will fare with the imperious and quite territorial geese, and having at least some of our meals outside.

The gate for the deer fence is made with a frame of old cedar fence boards about seven feet square, filled in with the same fencing -- two rows of two by three inch mesh utility fence -- that went into the fence itself. The hinges are just baling wire wrapped around the framing and a fence post. The gate handle is a steel utility door handle that I originally bought to use on the house in Deadwood -- that would be 27 years ago now!

Daughter and her Young Man brought over a rental truck today, and, with Last Son's help, we loaded her few worldly possessions into it --they only filled about half the truck -- gathered for a last meal of mostly pineapple and watermelon, and we reluctantly saw them off. Daughter now lives 100 miles away.

I only cried a little.


Now that there is a little more space in the garage, it occurred to me to clean it up a bit, oil the press, and do a little volunteer work. I have thousands of small paper bags, left over from a project, and am imprinting them with "Safe Schools Are Everyone's Bag."

The press, a 10X15 Chandler&Price, was built in 1886. I got it with a high-torque low-speed electric motor that looks like it is from the 1930s -- the motor more or less died on me a decade ago, so to run the press, which I don't do very often, I have built a simple treadle, using a two-by-four hinged to the floor, which I am just strong enough to operate.

Tonight's run was 500 impressions. Watching the windsock rippling in the sunset as I worked, I remembered some lines I wrote , after working at this same press in the same spot, more than a decade ago:

She'll choose two cans of color, exploring them
for the soft caramel of good set, putting aside
flakes of air-dried dross with her inking knife.

One, a can of orange stuff, she's been given
for imprinting brew-pub six-packs; the knife
scoops up a dollop and ferries it to the disk.

The other is your standard black; the smallest
bubble of this she'll add to the orange, and stir,
in hope of a decent brown. A heave of the flywheel

begins the inking-up: the disk turns a bit
with each revolution of the wheel, and the ink,
smashed paper-thin by rollers, spreads evenly

across its face, painting it, painting the rollers,
as her foot pumps the treadle, and her face
admires, as it always does, the view from here,

of garden dressed in straw, of mountain air
training the rainbow windsock northward,
of Jasper Mountain becoming a hill of gold

in the sunset. Gathering the furniture, reglets,
quoins, quoin key, and the new magnesium cut,
she locks the chase, fastens it to the bed, turns

the press, this time with impression lever on,
and lets the cut kiss the clean tympan paper
with an image. Around this image she places quads,

tympan bales, and bits of makeready, and prepares
the stacked sheets to be fed from the feed board
into the maw of the Chandler & Price, known

to pressmen for a hundred fifty years as the
Hand Snapper. She reaches for the radio's knob.
Rachmaninoff? Damn. Oh, well, turn

wheel, pump treadle, lean forward, lean back,
click-click, click CLACK, work-and-turn,
deliver the finished sheets to the delivery board,

admire mountain, lean forward, lean back.
Rachmaninoff gives way to Mozart's glorious
forty-first symphony, and Jasper Mountain

gives way to night, and in the black window
a woman in her fifties, leaning forward,
leaning back, critically appraising the music,

the printing, and herself, click-click, click CLACK,
sour bones and a game leg but a job well done
and the Mozart's Mozart. Four hundred sheets

later, and well into Bruch, the wheel stops,
the chase is unclamped, the disk and rollers
washed up, and rags canned. The reflected

window-crone lifts a sheet of work
to the light, examines impression and matter.
Reaching to silence Bruch, she sees the stilling

silhouette of the rainbow windsock:
it waits for dawn and a fair and lofting wind.