What Can They Live Without?

November 2020.

It’s been a year since we moved into our little house in the woods. For you, I’m sure, as well as for us, this has been an interesting year of many changes. But let’s not think pandemicky thoughts—let’s go into the woods, shall we? We’ll breathe together the exhalations of the trees, feel the crunch of snow beneath our snowshoes, listen to the snowflakes settling into place on twig and moss and stone.

We moved to this beautiful place in nearly the darkest time of the year, before our house was…well, strictly speaking, “done.” But impatience to quit this four year long building project and commence real life in the woods had begun to override our prudence. So, one day last November, we packed up a bag of clothes for each of us, along with our mattresses, the Legos, and something to cook supper with, and hauled the works up the hill. In short, we declared ourselves moved in.

Already feeling homey.

After all, we had four hard-won walls, a roof, some doors, and heat—what else did we need? Let me see…

  • Water. That first winter, we hauled all our water up the hill from town in 5 gallon jugs. Once it snowed, using our children’s sled made this almost easy.
Here’s our plumbing system
  • A kitchen. Boards on sawhorses does NOT a kitchen make.
  • A bathroom. Like all civilized creatures we did our dirty work outside (in the outhouse).
  • Refrigeration. Optimistic efforts to use a cute but under-insulated antique icebox ended in failure. We fell back on the ol’ red and white Coleman, which we left outside most winter days and brought in on the coldest nights to keep it from turning into a freezer. When you live in a giant icebox (aka “Winter”), it makes a lot of sense to keep your food outside. 
Refrigeration, check.
  • Last thing our house lacked that most rational people call essential: Reliable lights. We had some tiny solar panels connected to a few LEDs. After cloudy days these would give up the ghost without a blink of warning, leaving us with a very dark night yawning before us. Some of those nights we slunk to town for a movie; sometimes we just went to bed early.

Still, it was the house of our dreams, in the blissful peace of the winter-slumbering woods, and (besides a blip in the first week when I pondered the very real possibility that this whole dream was a blunder of epic proportions and what we should be doing now was buying a loft in downtown Minneapolis which is where all the sane people are) we took to our new life like four little ducks to water.

The first project J. took on once we had settled in was an indoor bathroom. While I wanted to fully earn our homesteading credit by freezing our buns in the outhouse a little longer, J. had a little more compassion for our [whining] children. 

Our outhouse is a converted deer stand. Admittedly dilapidated.

Building interior walls in our house means, for J., building the 2×4 structure around the beams of the timberframe, and then meticulously scribing the boards of the panelling against the timbers and wavy walls. It took a lot of time but the result was well worth it.

Once he had finished the paneling, I started experimenting with online milk paint recipes. Eventually I concocted one I liked, made from simple, natural materials we had on hand, and one that nicely preserves the character of the wood while keeping the place bright. Because: tiny solar panels.

The laws of triage demand that you move on to the area of greatest need once stabilization has been achieved. So, once we got the walls up for the bathroom, we moved on to other pressing projects (namely, a kitchen). A year later, we have not yet finished the bathroom. This will happen in time, but for now we have what’s needed—a private place to use the compost toilet and to wash those parts of ourselves that most need cleaning.

Because that, after all, is what we’re doing here–stripping life down to its essentials: what’s important? what do we need? what’s best left behind when you step over the threshold of home? You’re welcome to ask those questions with me as we go.

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