April, 2017. Before the building season begins, it’s time for a little reminiscing…
It was March, 2010, a month before our second child was due, and J. and I were determined to spend a romantic weekend on our brand new (to us) woodland in Wisconsin. We had a tent set up, which we imagined as our base camp from which we would explore our woods and raise our children to be at one with nature.
It took exactly that night to change our plans. We spent a (not very romantic) night listening to the creeping nocturnal things creep around just on the other side of the tarp- tent walls, listening to the coyotes howl, and to the open bottom of our tent as it sighed in and out against the crumpled leaves on the ground–as if it or the woods itself were alive and breathing.
We roused ourselves in the morning and began to make other plans. Solid walls. A floor. A roof. Perhaps a place to leave our stuff, to minimize the schlep of camping. A place big enough to eat breakfast in, but small enough to encourage us to hang out outside. Somewhere to be that still feels as if we’re outside, while not getting bit by bugs. Somewhere to play board games in the rain. The idea of the Screen House was born.
It’s a screened porch, with no house attached, and a sleeping loft above. It measures 12 feet by 8 feet, but the view, as they say, is grand, with a 360 degree view of the woods around us.
J. built it with no electricity. He discovered the joy of hauling four by eight sheets of plywood up the hill with his hands and back, since I was, by then, home with our newborn and toddler. I believe he wore out a few handsaw blades cutting that plywood. A few years later he did have a little help on some improvements:
Besides this expertly-built front stoop, the improvements included fabric walls which I sewed to be roll-up walls for the screens. We installed a tiny wood stove with a water jacket, so what we have now is a screen porch for summer and a wall tent for winter. Upstairs, futon mattresses cushion our sleep, downstairs is a table with chairs and benches along the walls, with storage below. Outside, a rain barrel with a countertop and dry sink beside it make up our kitchen. In the winter we cook on the woodstove; in summer we cook outside on a little stick-fed stove.
The Screen House has been an exercise in peeling back the accoutrements of living to their essentials. What exactly IS necessary in a kitchen besides a place to chop and cook the food, and a vessel to wash the dishes in? What do we expect from our shelter besides exactly that? What labor are we willing to embrace for our life-sustaining necessities, and what technology do we hope to finagle in order to make our lives easier? In short, what can we live without, and what, after all, can we not?
The Screen house has been an incubator in which we have experimented with and finagled those alternative systems for dealing with the stuff of life: sawdust toilets, solar power, rainwater collection, solar hot water, food preparation, bathing, keeping warm, greywater redemption. We hope to make use of what we’ve learned in the design of our bigger, but not quite big, house in the woods.
Our little screen house has quietly overseen the falling-in-love that has happened over the years between us and this little woods. At its tiny table we’ve dreamed our dreams and began rebuilding our life with our minds. What a place, that 8 x 12 spot on the earth!