Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Chip from the Old Block

Sandhill Farm is a rural homestead. Naturally enough, over the course of living here 37 years, I've gradually picked up an eclectic set of self-sufficiency skills. In addition to the basic C's: cooking, cleaning, and childcare—which all members take turns at—I do some specialty C's here: canning, currant wine, and cutting up carcasses (when it's butchering time).

Stretching the alliteration for all its worth, it turns out that I have developed some expertise at a handful of exotic C's also: canoeing, contract bridge, and consensus training—though none are particularly called for when it comes to chasing chickens, cultivating carrots, corralling cows, churning cream, cutting corner posts, chopping clover, curing cucumbers, crushing cane, or caring for compost.

We learned early on in our country tenure that homestead husbandry means figuring out how to do for ourselves as much as possible, and hiring out as little as we can get away with. Thus, after more than three decades, I've learned how to be proficient at house wiring, I know my way around most woodworking tools, and I'm one of the heavy hitters when it comes to either filling mason jars or filling the need for a mason.

It's this last skill I want to comment on today. Since laying the concrete block foundation for a 16'x30' house extension our first summer, I've come to enjoy all manner of cementitious construction
(perhaps because it starts with the right letters). Everything from pouring concrete slabs to laying brick hearths; from assembling refractory ovens to decorative tile work.If there's cement involved, I dabble in it.

Last week I spent three days over at Dancing Rabbit, working on Ma'ikwe's cistern (which, auspiciously, begins with C). This project was started in a rush 15 months ago, but got stalled out abruptly when rain precipitated cave-ins after only three days on the job, and before we could get the walls completed. It wasn't just dead in the water—as recently as a month ago it was dead under the water, by virtue of a wet spring. Finally, last week that we had enough dry weather, a stout enough sump pump, and a suitable forecast to go back.

It was time to chip in again and help with the old block work. After having a local backhoe operator re-excavate the hole (I can only shudder at how many hours it would have taken to remove all that clay by hand), we started hauling out all the blocks (about 100) that had not been grouted in place before the collapse, in order to clean off the mud. With a scoop shovel and buckets we removed most of the dirty water that was pooled on the cistern floor. As if packing blocks uphill wasn't challenge enough, you had to be very careful where you stepped because the clay residue made the cistern floor as slicker than bog scum (they don't call clay and water mixtures "slip" for nothing).

Twenty hours later
(spread out over three days), we'd finished laying up the walls (12 courses of 44 blocks each) to within one course of the top and had grouted everything half way. Whew! That was the good news. Unfortunately, it's also July—April of last year is not only a distant memory for its temperamental rain forecasts, it's also a distant memory for its temperate thermometer readings. I mean it's hot in that pit, and my 61-year-old body has been feeling it!

While I arrived at Sandhill as a 24-year-old, I was more of a Young Buck—eager to try anything and with sufficient stamina to handle heavy labor all day long and still joke about it over a beer at the end of the day. Now however, I'm the Old Block that chips have steadily been taken from, and I can't do as much as I used to. Saturday we placed nearly 300 blocks, and at 35 lb a lift, they added up. By 4 pm I was plum tuckered out. After walking home, I was dismayed to discover a heat rash on my ankles from wearing the same socks three days running (the throbbing itch of my ankles was masked by the sunburn on my neck). I was so tired that I couldn't eat solid food at dinner, and settled for several glasses of milk and a bed time slightly ahead of the chickens—after a soothing cold shower and the therapeutic topical application of aloe vera lotion on my neck and ankles. Ahh!

After a couple days off (for Sandhill's regular Sunday meeting, my weekly child care shift, and a cooking day Monday) our cistern crew is back at it today. If all goes well we'll complete the surface bonding of the walls by Thursday, after which it'll be safe to backfill. We'll still have the roof to build (a tricky barrel vault that will be poured in place), but we'll be beyond any danger from cave-ins.

As I type, this Old Block is happy. I can still chip in on construction projects (though my accumulated knowledge is now surely more valuable than my stamina); I still enjoy working with blocks (maybe this goes all the way back to childhood, not just to that first block wall in 1974); and it's gratifying that my body has bounced back from the exhaustion of Saturday afternoon. After two days of yoga, steady hydration, and unfettered air flow on the stressed skin of my ankles and neck, and I'm ready for three more days in the pit. Yeehah!

With any luck, Ma'ikwe will have cold running water this winter—one more of those good things that begin with C.

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