Winter is melting, and this makes me feel panicky. Because where did winter go? I was going to have all my shit together by the end of it. But here we are, and I've haven't. Any of it. At all.
But... I love this cusp - the one where there is all the exquisite expectation of spring, none of it spent yet, only anticipated - and it is stretching long this year. A morning of strong sun rays warming our forest, drawing sap up from under the frost, and then all of it crystallizing and dissolving into dense snow flurries that block out the mountains across the swamp. When this happens, I say thank you kind merciful earth, for I am not yet ready.
Our little sleeping loft is a quiet cocoon. My aunt sent us a quilt made of old sweaters for our bed. It is teal and purple and weighty with sleep and warmth and darkness. I am not prepared to crawl out from up there.
In the past year, we built a house. We sold a house (just two weeks ago, and with much relief). I have never stopped thinking about my illustration career, business, marketing. I have been solely focused on accomplishments of the roof-over-our-heads-and-food-on-our-table variety. Matt has shouldered more than his fair share of those burdensome thoughts as well. I am sick of them. Recently I have felt a shell of a person, and the only time I've been really me was the day I followed a filthy trail in the snow, littered with bits of lichen and studded with perfect little ochre-colored turds, to the den of a porcupine, tucked under a tumble of mossy boulders, deep inside an enchanted bower of red elder canes. I saw the porkie's muddy paw prints and I inquired at the mouth of his cave. I saw where he went up a sugar maple and stripped the fine branches and, presumably, swayed and pooped in the breeze. I tracked his route to a hemlock, neatly crowned, the ground beneath strewn with deep green trimmings. The snow slowly melting and revealing layers of porcupine travel patterns, established over a season.
With taps and buckets borrowed from friends, we've collected sap from seven of our sugar maples, and boiled it down into the first batch of Hungry Raven Hill syrup. The days are longer now, and it is nice to be drawn outside. Yesterday we watched a barred owl and a sharp-shinned hawk fighting over territory. They were like two fragments of the forest - big flakes of gray bark - broken free and bashing each other in the branches. This morning there were little duck-footed waddling paw prints in the fresh snow. Raccoon? He went hither and thither and not much of anywhere at all, then up over the bank and away.
That is the small news. The big news is that Matt, my very own Matt(!), performed a miracle on Easter Sunday, and brought forth clear clean water from deep under the ground. We have running water! You can turn a handle and water comes out of a pipe, into your drinking glass! It doesn't have algae in it, and you don't have to twist your ankle and slide down an icy precipice to get to it. Halle-fucking-lujah! And thank you, Matt. I am eternally grateful.
The Enormous Tiny Art Show is back! Over the holidays, I took a two week break from house construction and the vortex of chaos+debris we have been enjoying here at Hungry Raven Hill over the past many months. While Matt and his sister drove to Duluth to visit family, I spent my (working) vacation at Mom and Dad's house. Besides stuffing my face and cuddling the cat, I drew these six new works for ETA17. This is a really fun, diverse show with work by over 40 artists. If you can't see it in person, here it is online: Enormous Tiny Art Show. The drawings above are available on my page.
And also, there's a sale in my etsy shop! I'm moving my tiny studio into my teeny house, and there isn't room for all this art. Would you like some? zoetilleyposter.etsy.com
I've found it difficult to write here lately, and I think it's because this house is a big hungry gobble-monster, and what it likes to eat best is creative energy. So I just don't have much left over to write with. But I'm going to try.
We finished the drywall, and vacuumed up all the dust. The gobble monster doesn't eat dust, but it does make dust. You see.
That was a happy day, the vacuuming one. An even happier day was when we finished painting, just this past week. I belabored the point of choosing a color, as I am wont to do, but I can make fun of myself now because I picked the perfect one! It is a warm, smoky gray with a little lavender and orchid. Pictures are going to look really good on the walls. Cacti in bloom are going to look really good in the deep window wells. My cat, when I get one, is going to like this color. It's going to run right in the door and curl up in a sun spot because it feels so at home.
We have a loft for sleeping. I am pretty sure it is a bad idea to move into a sleeping loft just when you are becoming an arthritic old person, but oh well. There is also the problem of having to pee, because the ladder in the middle of the night is kind of extra discouraging. But oh well again. I have discovered in recent months that there is a lot a person can get used to, and besides, the loft is very cozy and fort-like.
Our insulation and passive solar are working! We have not yet burned a cord of wood, and if the sun is beaming in the windows, the temperature rises fast and there is no need for a fire. Sometimes there is a need to run outside and stick your head in the snow, but that is an okay problem to have, as problems go.
The tent collapsed under the heavy, wet snow that also knocked out our power for a week in December. We were not in the tent (we'd moved into the house), so it seemed quite funny. Important belongings were salvaged, and the rest will wait til spring.
Matt is spending a lot of time in the utility closet, where he has two tanks, an electric panel and a whole bunch of pipes and wires and conundrums. Sometimes he comes out for snacks.
That's just about everything! We have rounded the corner from feral beasts living in the midst of an itchy debris heap to domesticated children sleeping in a pile of sticks with a clean warm blanket. That feels like a milestone.
Well friends, I am pleased to tell you that WE MADE IT!
There was a long faltering moment, or maybe it was more like a couple of weeks, when we felt just on the verge of throwing in the towel on this whole crazed notion and retreating to our house in Scranton (which has not yet sold), where the gas appliances hum and there is heat, running water, and Mexican takeout.
It was cold here, so very cold. The tent was no longer homey and inviting.
Waking up to temps in the low teens is a motivating situation. It makes you want to get the house insulated so you can move in. It is also dispiriting, which is interesting, isn't it? On the one hand you think, we're fucked. And on the other hand your last ember of optimism flares weakly with hope.
I have often thought to myself in recent weeks, you are like a cat on a rug in the sun. You are like a squirrel on a branch in a swaying breeze. You are like a sloth with a martini in your paw. When it is warm, you only want to curl up in the heat of the beautiful kind glowing world, and when it is cold you are like what the hell is wrong with me?! why didn't i store any nuts?
So many standards of civility and hygiene go by the wayside when all the buckets of water are frozen, the dish soap is frozen, your fingers are numb, and the path to the spring is icy and treacherous and sharp. Outdoor baths, dippered from a dutch oven brimming with hot water, are romantic and lovely in the summer landscape. In the winter those baths hurt and make me cry, even when taken in the washtub in the tent in front of the electric heater.
Which is why I took to relieving this tragedy by telling Matt my funny story called We Are Two Dirty Trappers. (I just finished reading a historical novel with a trapper in it, and this trapper was a filthy, foul, wretched individual.) When Matt says, do we need to wash a dish?, I say, no! we are two dirty trappers! Because a trapper would only have one frying pan, and he would eat breakfast, lunch and dinner from it, with no cleanings in between, if he were lucky enough to have such a round assortment of meals. He would drink his dram of rum and be content with a sputtering campfire before him and the weather and the wolves at his back.
But all that - the wishing we'd built this house faster, the living as two dirty trappers - that's in the past! I am typing to you from inside our toasty new home, where the fire flickers sweetly. The house is insulated! It has no sheet rock or running water yet, but that will come in time, and we will heat water on the stove for washing ourselves and our dishes until that day. I am just very glad to be warm and dry.
Besides the actual insulation project, which took some time (we covered the interior stud wall with special fabric and rented a machine to blow dense-pack cellulose behind that), there was a long and fraught ditch-digging saga. I will not go into detail regarding the tractor breakages that occurred, I'll just give you the happy news that our well pump is in, our water, power and phone lines are run underground to the house, and all trenches have been refilled. Shit's not all hooked up yet, but we're close.
We have a house! 'Tis the season for feeling thankful, and I am so very thankful for this new wooden box. Our most excellent family and friends helped greatly with this project, and I'm very thankful to them, too. I will try to stay on task with Matt and complete the drywall, so that we can all celebrate together soon. I will not heap up my wool blankets on the hearth in front of the wood stove, and I will not hollow out a small nest for me in the center, and I will not arrange my coffee and my pencils and my tower of books and paper so all can be reached from within. Not just yet.
Labels: building a homestead in vermont
There was one day when I said to Matt, The End Is Nigh, and I can not toil another hour without losing my faith in this godforsaken fools' dream and plummeting deep, deep into the bourbon bottle, not to reemerge til the new moon.
And Matt said to me, well why don't we go for a hike instead? And so we climbed Mount Moosilauke, and it was beautiful, and might I say: if you choose only to bag your peaks on clear days with long views, you will miss out on the sad dark heartbreak of the high, cold fog, where the boreal chickadees are.
We had our first hard frost in the middle of September, and I was like, what the hell!? no one said this was going to happen. That's a joke, because everyone said that was going to happen. Vermonters have a tradition of welcoming newcomers by asking how many cords of firewood you have put up, and then after some quick addition, they say you need two more than that to survive.
So that's how I knew it was going to get cold, and boy howdy, has it. But tonight I am warm, enjoying the second fire in our newly-chimneyed wood stove, in the house. I will soon retreat to the icy black depths of the wall tent, which still shelters our bed and kitchen, but for now my toes are toasty.
In the weeks since I last wrote, here is what has happened: We tar papered the roof and walls, and a roofing company installed standing seam. It was the only house-construction project we've had the pleasure of hiring out, and it was fun to watch a small crew of professionals bang out our roof in two hours. Nothing, oh nothing, has taken us two hours. Everything has taken so many more. But for the most part, we are having fun and satisfaction.
We installed eight windows. With much help from family, we stained the shiplap siding, and installed half of it. With the roof on, the rafter tails and eaves stained, and some of the siding up, we can see what this place is going to look like, and I am pleased.
Also, the Season Spectacular has been and gone. The maples put on such a fiery riot that it was like being inside the pumpkin. The ash trees are not as notorious, but they are my favorite - each one a smoky, smudgy bruised-bronze lantern on the mountainside.
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.