What it's like

Let me tell you what it's like, living out here. I've wanted to tell you that for awhile. People ask, is it like camping? The answer is, it is and it isn't.

I love camping. When I'm camping, I'm my happiest. I'm silly and relaxed and in touch with the place I'm in and the person I am. I like myself when I'm camping.

This is like that, because we are in the outdoors, all the time. Even when we're sleeping, it's just the tent canvas between us and the stars. Throughout June, there were so many fireflies in our clearing, and so many stars in the sky, that they met where the treetops ended, and it was just one sparkling veil from the ground up into the Milky Way. The black was so black, it was bottomless and ever expanding.

The owls talk across the hills to one another, and I hear them when I'm swimming up from dreams at night. They are in the trees when I stumble out the tent flaps in the wee hours to pee in the grass. There is one called the Little Monkey Owl, whose hoots are very silly. There is Cockamamie Raven, who fledged from the nest this year, and never quite seemed to grow up all the way.

There is Mouse, who enters the camp kitchen late at night and finds a good chip bag or brown paper sack to crumple loudly. He jumps from mason jar to mason jar with just enough oomph to make a satisfying sound when the lid depresses and then pops back. When I rise from bed to confront him about his Unacceptably Loud Midnight Trespass, he perches on the edge of the peanut butter jar and questions me with his enormous satellite-dish ears: you wouldn't pick me up and throw me, would you? little old me?

There is a hummingbird that visits each morning while we're having coffee. We have a small garden of potted plants on the tent deck. There are zinnias, nicotiana, nasturtiums and verbena, and hummingbird enjoys them all, then perches on the little cage of branches I made for our tomato plant. One of these days she'll be off to sunnier shores, and we'll miss her as we're warming our fingers on our mugs.

It smells good here, like different kinds of honey (the locust, the milkweed, the goldenrod), or like hot balsam. It never smelled so sweet in Scranton. Today when I called and left a message for a friend, I had one small pang of missing our back porch in Scranton... I thought how nice it would be to sit there with her and share a bottle of wine, like we used to do. I can honestly say that was the only such pang I've had. This is home now, and I am attached.

The part of this that is not like camping is the pressure. We now have a house shaped box, but it isn't the kind of cozy box a person could spend the winter in. There's a long way to go. Will we have time to do it all? Will we have enough money? These are the constant questions, besides all the technical ones like, how the hell are you supposed to fucking do this? I ask myself that many times a day. Then I ask Matt, then I ask my dad, then sometimes he asks our friend Carl, and when all else fails I ask the internet. In the end I either get the right answer or cobble together whatever-it-is in the best fashion I can.

So, that is what it's like. I am sitting here in the house, listening for the first time to the rain on the roof. We got the felt on just before the weather turned. Or rather, I watched Matt swing and scamper back and forth across the roof and roll out reams of felt and tack them down while I clung white-knuckled and for-dear-life to the totally bombproof rope and harness he'd rigged up for me. I am grateful that he is not a'feared of heights, or we'd have a very short house indeed.


Water and some walls!

We've been so busy framing, I've had no time to write! Today we are Both Very Tired. Here's what's been happening.

First, we had a well drilled. 240 feet down, 35 gallons a minute! Now there is a big black pipe sticking out of the ground, and you can hit the lid with a stick and make wonderful echoing noises that go deep into the heart of the earth. We don't have a well pump or a water line to the house site yet, so we continue to haul pails up the hill from the spring for washing, and carboys from the neighbor's tap for drinking.

Second, we have been hammering nails. Big ones, 20d. My arm is tired. My mom and dad have been visiting frequently - they bring tools, manpower, guidance (they've built lots of stuff, including a house of their own almost 40 years ago), and FOOD. While Dad is helping us build, Mom paints the landscape and then cooks a wonderful meal over the campfire which fortifies and revives us.

We've also had a lot of help from friends. Francis spent a day with us sheathing the house, and Pete was here for two days raising rafters and roof boards. Because of this, we now have a house-shaped thing. It feels monumental. Momentous. Amazing. Thank you, our friends - you're the best.

There are so very many things I think of to tell you throughout the day, and I look forward to remembering those things sometime. When I do, maybe it will be snowing, and I'll be sitting by the wood stove. That's a nice idea. If this happens, I will write. Til then, hammer on.

P.S. Today we just simply couldn't hammer one more nail, so we went for ice cream. It's a half hour drive for ice cream, and that feels kind of extravagant, but a person has to live a little, don't they? The best part of ice cream was, we passed so many sheep on the way! They were all belly deep in fresh green forage, and there were all these new little fluffy brown ones, so I nearly deafened myself with squealing.


A terrier in the weeds

Everyone needs a wiry little mischief seeking mud puppy in their life, no? This is Griffin, the subject of my most recent pet portrait. It was challenging to draw a dog who really, truly does have a grin on her face much of the time... It's hard to make a smiling dog face not look human. Some pet portraits roll right off the tongue... or off the pencil lead... and others do not. I struggled with this one, but am happy with it in the end. When you only get to meet a pet in photos, on the computer screen, how do you know if you captured their likeness and their spirit in a way that will ring true with their person? I never know, and gosh darn it does make me nervous.


And... We have a foundation!

We spent much of last winter planning the house we would build this summer, and then trashed those plans entirely. The new plans evolved as we've been living on the land, and they are more humble: we are building a 16 x 22 house on concrete piers, with an open floor plan and a loft for sleeping. We settled on this because it is inexpensive and we can build it ourselves (with plenty of hands-on help from family and friends), and it will hopefully go up quick enough that we'll be cozy when the snow flies.

And so, it's been a busy couple of weeks around here. With the tractor and his very strong back, Matt dug us some footings. Eleven holes, each 3 feet wide and 4 feet deep. I was beginning to fear I would lose him to the earth forever, but he did eventually emerge from the last hole, a few pounds lighter and a few shades darker.

I scooped a few shovelfuls of dirt myself, but mostly, while Matt was digging, I was scratching out some house plans. I am trying to stay one step ahead of construction with these plans and cutlists and orders. It's just the way we do things, all last minute, when we can see the project laid out in front of us. It comes of not having any idea what the hell we're doing, but really wanting to do it anyway. It might be foolish, or it might just be the way we work best together. It is definitely one of the things that makes us kindred spirits.

Our first load of rough-cut hemlock and spruce was delivered the day after the concrete truck came. A few days later, with the help of Matt's dad and step-mom (who are here from Minnesota) and the direction of my dad (who has plenty of past construction experience), we got the girders on the piers and the joists on the girders. This is the fun part, I think (though I've never done it before): the framing. I like to cut wood and nail it and watch it become something.

There have been many compromises made in these house plans. I never thought of this place as our dream house - that sounds so big and extravagant - but I did have ideas about the way I wanted things, so they would be nice. Matt did too. But ultimately, we only have so much money, and so many months, and when both of those are all run out, we damn well better have a house to live in. So this house won't allow us to try out some of the more interesting and innovative building techniques we were excited about, but I think it will still be pretty sweet. We are using a lot of local framing lumber - stuff that was grown and milled here in Vermont - and we feel good about that. We will be warm and comfortable and have a nice (tiny) kitchen, and we will be here, in this amazing place, where the outside is so much bigger than the inside, and there is land to explore. And that's what we were really going for all along.


The toilet!

I promised I'd show you the composting toilet I built, and I never did! That's it up there. I wanted you to see it in a nice setting, and now that it lives in the tool shed, all cozied up amongst the splittin' irons, well... The bucket there on the side is full of wood shavings, and there is another bucket inside the box. This toilet is based on the Loveable Loo plans as described in the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins. I recommend this book if you're interested in a simple DIY composting toilet system, but you know what? I didn't read it! Because when it comes to Important Stuff You Should Read before you go ahead and do something, I leave that to Matt. He reads the whole whatever-it-is cover to cover, and then if I want to know something, I just ask him! Anyway, two pages in the book are the toilet plan, and it's very easy to build, and so far the toilet is working out quite well.

I have so much to tell you, and so little time. So I won't say much right now. I am squeezing in a half day here and there to work on my art, and the rest of the days are dedicated to house construction preparation and the daily workings of life here on the land: hauling buckets of water up from the spring, cooking, scything paths through the wildflowers (my scythe! remind me to tell you about my scythe!), driving into town for supplies. We have phone, internet and power now! And we're getting a driveway as I speak. This involves mayhem and destruction with bulldozers and backhoes, and I haven't even burst into tears yet! I sure have toughened up.


Hungry raven hill

This is our new home. We are living in a wall tent. It is sixteen by twenty, set on a platform, with room inside for our camp kitchen, bed, tools, my desk, and even an occasional guest. It is bigger than our house will be. It has a deck, where we cook and eat and drink and watch the weather.

The weather! I have seen nothing like it. Matt lived in Flagstaff once, and this reminds him of that - mountain weather. Always the clouds passing over - the high clouds are slow and drifty, the low clouds are bent hell-to-the-wind and racing. We are inside the tent looking out, watching thunderstorms extinguish our whole meadow full of fireflies, or outside, grabbing power tools and diving for cover.

We have a spring that bubbles out of the ground. Matt rigged up a special refrigerator of sorts. It's a cooler with a copper coil inside, and it siphons cold spring water through to keep the cream and butter and eggs fresh.

We have baby ravens, who talk all the time. For a while they just jostled one another in a line on a long drooping branch, but now they fly high, high up in the sky and do their jostling aloft.

We have owlets. At night they do hooting lessons with their parents, who so patiently recite who cooks for you. The babies say it back, but all panicked and backward.

We have morels. They came cascading down the hillsides and into our baskets. We dropped our baskets, fell to our knees, and opened our mouths. The morels tumbled in.

What else can I say? At first, I was so happy. I love camping. This is camping all the time. But then again it's life, and pesky useless worries come creeping round. I try to remember this is the most special summer ever, and do not let anything ruin that, even for a moment. I already love this home with a deepness I never felt in Scranton.

Matt is in his element, and it makes me happy to see him here. He fells trees and splits firewood and digs trenches with his tractor, and goes in search of rock to climb and wild greens to forage, and finds cliff side nests and bear cubs. He's in the midst of a tapestry of forest so broad it's like an ocean, and I think that's right where he's meant to be.

I hope to document the summer here, as best I can. No internet yet, and no phone. We have power, though, and a half-built shed. A well and a house will be next.