Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hauling Wood & Chopping Water

I've been spending the three months of winter (mid-Dec through mid-March) at Dancing Rabbit, living with Ma'ikwe. In addition to the preciousness of exploring day-to-day rhythms with my wife, I've enjoyed adapting to the diurnal rituals of living in her house.

Ma'ikwe started construction of her home (dubbed Moon Lodge) in 2009, and bravely moved in that Halloween—which, unfortunately, foreshadowed some horrific nights wintering over in a structure with unfinished and highly leaky walls. When the wind blew out of the north, it tended to congeal the marrow in your bones.

Two years further along, the walls are much tighter (more plaster over the strawbale walls) and cold weather outside no longer presages an arctic experience inside. Still, Ma'ikwe has been going through a second bout of low energy and achy joints associated with chronic Lyme disease, and it's handy that I've been around so much to help with the routine of homestead domesticity while she concentrates on healing. While she still helps out when she can, she can't easily do as much.

Here are the recurring elements of my winter days:

o Each morning I roll up the quilted shades in front of the windows if the sun is shining, and roll them down again at dusk.

o I practice energy conservation (think Little House on the Prairie; not Leave It to Beaver). As Moon Lodge is off the grid, electricity depends on what's generated by a 1440-watt solar panel array. The extra juice is stored in eight deep cell marine batteries. Mostly this is sufficient to do whatever we need, including refrigeration—so long as we're prudent (no hair dryers or electric can openers) and so long as we don't get three cloudy days in succession. There have been a few evenings when the system was shut down and we were reading by candlelight. It's romantic, but doesn't help manage one's email In Box.

o I wash the dishes, usually every other day. While this may seem a plebeian task, there's no plumbing in the house yet, resulting in a complex dishwashing choreography. It begins by hauling a five-gallon bucket of water in from one of two rain barrels strategically parked under the eaves. This protocol works so long as the nighttime temperature doesn't dip too far below freezing, and bounces above it during the day—otherwise the water doesn't tend to flow so well (hence the phrase, "chopping water"), necessitating a a 100-yard schlep to fill buckets at the community's frostproof hydrant.

Regardless of how it's procured, once the water is inside, it gets transferred into a granite ware stock pot that's a constant fixture sitting atop the wood stove. After several hours you have hot water sufficient to wash and rinse the dishes. The waste stream drops into another five-gallon bucket, from which it is conveyed outside.

o I keep the wood fire burning. Beyond the obvious task of adding another chunk when we're down to embers (which chore I share with Ma'ikwe, and is greatly aided by a glass panel in the door to the firebox), this means hauling wood in from the not-yet-finished attached greenhouse just south of the living room, where we stockpile split wood until its needed inside. When the greenhouse supply runs low, this means some personal time with the splitting maul, segmenting drums into pieces that are digestible by the stove. On a bright sunny day, we'll have enough power that I can occasionally run the electric chain saw, allowing me to reduce logs into stove length drums and to splay open the pieces that are too large for the stove and too knotty for the splitting maul. The real monsters make great overnighters once I get them small enough to be eased into the fire box.

In addition to keeping the wood box filled, I also have to maintain a proper distribution of size: we need the right mix of thin pieces suitable for start-up in the morning, medium pieces for maintaining throughout the day, and lunkers (that barely fit) for burning through the night.

o I serve as the back-up hauler of potable water. While this is a primary household chore for Ma'ikwe's 14-year-old son, Jibran, when he can't answer the bell (which happened twice last week when he was stricken with pink eye) I'm the next monkey in the barrel. While we get most of our wash water from the rain barrels, we always go to the hydrant for our drinking and cooking water.

o Jibran & I share the task of taking out the recycling and emptying the household trash, which happen about once a week.

o Ma'ikwe and I share the cooking. If we plan far enough ahead, a fair amount of it can be done on the wood stove, substituting renewable wood for the propane consumed by the kitchen range.

o About every five days or so I sweep the floor, cleaning up the mud and wood scraps that we invariably track into the house.

In short, living at Ma'ikwe's provides all the baseline ingredients needed for Buddhist enlightenment. The relevant zen aphorism goes like this: Before enlightenment, chop wood, haul water. After enlightenment, chop wood, haul water.

I figure the Moon Lodge adaptation goes like this: Before the house is finished, chop wood, haul water. Afterward, haul wood, chop water. It's a subtle thing, enlightenment. Luckily, we don't have to wait for the house to get finished before we can turn the lights on.

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