A Roof at Last

September, 2018

You thought we’d given up on this project. As for us, well, we wanted to, but we didn’t. We, like you, never thought this roof would ever be finished, but here we are: it’s fall, the snow is starting to fly, and the roof is buttoned down tight. Hallelujah, praise be. Thinking back to the spring, we also never imagined it would take the entire summer to finish the roof, but let’s not look back. If we had known, maybe we’d have tossed in the towel.

Well, OK, for the purposes of this blog let’s look back to August, when the roof looked like this:

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Here’s J. installing our attic, all two inches of it. The spaces between those two-by-fours are a passive ventilation space between the insulation and the steel roof, sucking in cool air down low and spitting out warmer air up high. After those epic 14″ screws went in, a second layer of plywood made the “roof” of the attic, followed by another layer of underlayment. And finally…what we had all been waiting for…the metal roof.

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Here’s the fascia going up first–the two layers conceal a screened gap through which cool air enters our “attic.”

Put like that, with all the weight of “what we’d all been waiting for,” it was…remarkably disappointing. We watched our beautiful, wonky house get eaten up by a giant, cold rectangle. It was like a pink plastic 3D-printed mushroom growing out of a mossy log, or like someone compelling Willem de Kooning to paint like Mondrian. To be creating for three years with natural materials and then to cap it all off with plywood, synthetic underlayment, and sheets of steel the color of a dead shark…well, it was a little soul-crushing.

If we were another family, we would have harvested local grasses to thatch the place, or used round-wood rafters, plank roofing, and hand-split shakes to ride the undulations of the roof. But we feel we’ve learned enough natural building techniques for one project–at this point, we just want to keep our heads dry, and we’re itching to get this house completed so we can move the heck in. So bring on the rubber-gasket screws, the drip-edge, and the shark-grey Pro-Snap.

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The north face: walls thoroughly baled, roof thoroughly steeled, boots drying on the step. Tar paper clads any exposed wood in preparation for plastering next spring.

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It rained often this summer, and the roof was slick, the upper part steep; nevertheless J. persisted. Spending the summer on the roof did wonders for his tan. He roofed through spring black fly season, through the summer mosquitoes, and continued through fall wasp season. I puttered along on the bale walls in the cool shade of an insulated roof while he hammered away above me in the hot sun.

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There it is: the season in an image.

Finally the ridge-cap went up and the last screw went in.

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We thought we’d go ahead and add some windows.

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And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s starting to look like a house!

It seems like the craziest thing in the world to spend the summer on the roof, to carry twelve (12!) layers of materials up a ladder and pound/screw/staple them in, one on top of the other. But, you know, the world is crazy. It only takes turning on the news to hear of all the conflict in the world, the insanity that happens in Washington D.C., the cruelty that one person can inflict on another.

Sometimes the best response to all this scariness is to do what you can to make something beautiful in the world. To braid rags into a rug. To plant a tree and spend the evenings watching it grow. To whittle a spoon and use it to stir homemade soup. It seems like the sanest thing in the world to put hammer to nail and build something, to create with one’s own hands out of wood, straw, and Pro-Snap a place of peace in the world. If that’s the one thing we’ve done this summer, I’d say that’s one well-spent summer.

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Straw Bale Walls!

August, 2018

Even though “WE ARE STILL NOT DONE WITH OUR ROOF” (but I can assure you progress is still being made on that front), for the sake of our mental health we’ve decided to hop ahead to building the walls beneath the roof. Here’s where a lifetime of building with Legos will finally begin to pay off–because isn’t a straw bale just a very large, prickly Lego?

We started by building the foundation for each straw bale wall, called a “toe-up,” a four inch high barrier between the wall and the floor, meant to protect the bales from some unspecified future disaster involving plumbing.

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The toe-ups are angled at the doorway to initiate curved doorway openings.

Once the toe-ups were installed, we needed to pound in nails partway to act as Velcro hooks holding the bales in place. This was an ideal kid-job.

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Just one more picture because those kids are just so cute.

Next we poured perlite between the runners to insulate the toe-ups and support the bale walls.

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Now for some bales! The first were laid with much pomp and ceremony.

Since then, it’s been just sweat, guesswork, straw-slivers, and itchy arms. Similar to laying bricks (or Legos!) we aim to keep a running bond pattern. The work is complicated, however, by the support posts, which we didn’t build with the size of straw bales in mind. So when we come to a post we need to notch the bales to fit: I measure the bales and spray-paint notches that need to be cut, and J. uses the chainsaw to cut along the dotted lines.

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Not blood. Spray-paint.

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Many bales need to be retied before the notches can be cut, or they simply need to be made shorter, and that’s when I use a homemade “bale needle” to resew the bales. Here’s a picture of the bale needle, along with the kit of tools you need at your sewing station.

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Also a tape measure and spray paint, which I always leave somewhere besides my sewing station.

And here are the steps to resewing a bale:

I have an inkling that all this sewing and notching makes this process maybe just a touch slow. But, hey, one of the bonuses of never having straw-baled a house before is that we have no idea how long it’s supposed to take!

We’re stacking bales nearly against the sides of window and door openings, leaving a small gap that we’ll stuff with straw in order to create a curved leading into each opening. More on how we do that in the next post. Because I’m trying to keep you in suspense, not at all because we don’t actually know how to do it and will figure out how as we go. That would be a very unwise way to build a house. Who would be so ignorant?

[crickets chirping…]

Once we build the wall nearly to the top, we compress the bales, which will leave the wall in tension and (hopefully) stronger when we stuff the topmost row in. To compress the bales we send ratcheting straps over the top of the wall with a piece of plywood protecting the bales, then use a car jack against the 2×8 sill to squeeze the wall down. With the straps ratcheted down tight enough to keep the wall compressed, we swipe out the jack and ram in the last bale, then pull out the straps. And on to the neighboring bale.

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All around the house the bales will end at the top of that 2×8. The triangular peaks of the gable end walls won’t be baled–we’ll use our extra sheets of reclaimed insulation up there.

It’s been amazing to watch this structure with a roof quickly become a house–all it needed were walls with window-holes and door-holes. One morning while working I was stopped in my tracks by polygons of light on the (someday) kitchen floor, formed by light puddling beneath the two kitchen window-holes. So. Hello.

I had to greet it, this light my eyes will track across the floor as I sit with my coffee, and over a lifetime of mornings it will become as familiar as the mug in my hand. These diamonds of light, now alighting on bits of straw on the floor and tools in disarray, will someday illuminate a worn rug at the kitchen sink and perhaps stray sheets of homework.

To see them will be to know that I am home.

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P.S. We’re stockpiling all the loose straw for jumping in.

 

 

A Homestead Orchard

July, 2018

In the midst of building frenzy, sometimes we forget that besides building a house, we’re establishing a home. Part of that home, for me, means growing food.

We didn’t go into this venture with preconceived notions of a particular life. Instead, the land in which we find ourselves has dictated some of our decisions and the character of our life. Our house is a good example of this: built from the trees that grew on that spot, it takes on the character of the land around it.

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If we had bought land on a prairie or seaside bluff, we would have built a very different house.

Likewise the garden. We will not be planting row crops in our woodland home. Since our land wants to be woodland, we decided to grow a forest garden: aka an orchard.

We had heard the proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is today.” Which we took literally and hacked out places in the woods for fruit trees and bushes, really before we were ready or had prepared the land for them. Consequently, last fall the orchard looked like this:

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Can you see any fruit trees? That’s because the woods was coming back to eat them up. We hadn’t lost any trees yet, but I knew before long the forest predecessors would march in and choke them out. Time for drastic measures.

So last winter I began reclaiming my orchard. When it wasn’t too cold, I would come out and cut brush with a loppers and saw. It was truly a delightful job–working hard enough to peel off my winter coat and feel the gentle warmth of winter sun, watching the swath of brush give way to the tidal wave of my mittened aggression. And besides making room for our orchard, I was piling all that brush into a gigantic windrow that would fuel our springtime maple syrup operation.

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When spring arrived and maple syrup season was past, my hands got the itch to dig in the dirt, and my palate yearned for home-grown greens. I cleared a little spot on the south side of the orchard for a hot bed. I know what you’re thinking–but a hot bed is simply a garden bed that’s heated from below by a bank of composting manure. Usually it has a cold frame above it to capture the heat, like a miniature greenhouse.

I rolled together a frame of rotting logs from the orchard and filled it with fresh horse manure, then spread atop that a little soil, in which I planted a passel of hardy greens. It wasn’t long before they burst through their window-lid and started growing out into the fresh air of the orchard.

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A hot bed. If you were to Google that term, this would not be the picture you’d find on your screen.

Back to the orchard. Now that it was spring, all the little lopped trees from my winter onslaught began to send out new shoots, and it was clear I needed a little help reclaiming my orchard. Enter this little beast, a “walking tractor”–pretty much a motor on two wheels to which you can attach tools, like this brush-mower, or a snowplow.

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It made quick work of the regrowing brush.

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Somehow a mown path makes chaos easier to handle.

I’m not looking for true order in my orchard, for the traditional landscape of apple trees in rows over grass. I’m trying to imitate Eden, where every plant in a jungle grows in harmony with the others, each contributing out of its nature: nitrogen-fixers feeding the soil, deeply-rooted plants mining nutrients, flowers attracting pollinators, and, of course, herbs, veggies, and fruit to feed us.

Since I’m a very lazy person, I’d like all these plants to do this work with as little of my labor as possible, so I look for cold-hardy plants that stay healthy without irrigation, compete with weeds but don’t become weedy themselves, and preferably are useful for more than one function. In fact, I’m so lazy that I’m a certified practitioner of Mark Shephard’s S.T.U.N. gardening method: Sheer, Total, and Utter Neglect. In other words, if the plants can’t survive without my input, they’re welcome to shrivel up and die.

Since I’m trying to imitate nature, the more variety the better. Nature is no cornfield. Every year I’ve been adding more diversity, but since I’m only beginning on my journey with this bit of land, here’s a list of what I have growing so far:

FRUIT/NUT:

  • Several varieties of apple, selected for cold-hardiness and disease resistance as well as variety of uses (cooking, drying, cider, storage…and eating)
  • Pear and Asian pear
  • Sour cherries (sweet ones aren’t hardy here)
  • Apricot
  • Chestnut
  • Hazelnut
  • Various berries, including seaberry, raspberry, honeyberry, elderberry, highbush cranberry, strawberry, aronia, juneberry, currant, and buffaloberry.

PERENNIAL VEGETABLES:

  • Walking onion
  • Asparagus
  • Rhubarb
  • Sorrel

CULINARY HERBS:

  • Oregano
  • Hyssop
  • Rose (hips for tea)
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Mint
  • Lovage

OTHER:

  • Black cherry coppice (for wood)
  • Willow (for fiber)
  • Comfrey and horsetail (both for the nutrition of the orchard)
  • Wild indigo (nitrogen fixer)
  • Black locust (wood and nitrogen fixer)

WEEDS:

  • Various
  • Poison ivy

This last one has caused some consternation/itching. I’m not, generally, horrified by the existence of weeds, especially when they offer some purpose in the garden, such as covering the soil, fixing nitrogen, or attracting pollinators. But I draw the line when one’s sole purpose is to keep humans away by causing an exquisite, nauseating itch. This spring, after recovering (via steroids) from blisters all over my ankles, I chucked my morals and sprayed Roundup at the ivy throughout the orchard. That done, I plan to relying on regular mowing to keep the vile stuff in check.

*

Between our baby trees, we have wide, sunny aisles that, although one day will be shaded by the canopies of mature fruit trees, for now need to be occupied to keep the poison ivy from taking that job upon itself. I decided to put in strips of hugelkultur beds between the rows of trees to capture a little more of that lost sunshine.

Hugelkultur uses chunks of wood piled beneath garden beds, which as they rot feed plants and keep their roots moist. And since I have, after all, wrested the place from a woodland, I had a lot of rotten wood.

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First I piled the wood in long rows, trying to pack it in as tightly as possible.

After I had piled/raked/stuffed in as much wood as I could, I covered it with wheel-barrow loads of rotted horse manure and dirt from an unsightly pile we’ve been working to decrease for years. I planted a row of beans up the center and potatoes on either side, then mulched the plantings with straw.

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Voila! “Instant” raised bed!

In a second hugelkultur bed (not pictured), I planted squash seeds–mostly a pumpkin variety with edible seeds.

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And here’s a hugelkultur I built last year, at the edge of the orchard and planted in garlic. I left the ends of the logs showing. If you had all your ducks in a row, you could inoculate these ends with mushroom spawn and get a double crop from your hugelkultur bed. Needless to say, my ducks have not been in a row lately.

Someday when these beds are shaded by our mature fruit trees and not as useful for annual vegetables, they’ll still act as swales to capture rainwater and snowmelt, since they’ve been planted across the contours of our slightly sloping orchard.

So far, the only mammals to get much of a meal from this orchard have been the deer. They’ve taken it upon themselves to prune my baby trees, and in my opinion it’s a little early to start pruning. Beautiful as those deer are, my orchard is too young to be resilient to their browsing.

I’d been putting off installing a giant, ugly deer fence around our orchard mostly because it sounds like a lot of work, expense, and, well, it’s ugly. So I decided to try a minimal approach first. I pounded in stakes and strung fishing line between them.

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The theory here is that the deer walk into the line without seeing it and it confounds them. So far, it hasn’t been a 100% success, but it has taken a bite out of the browsing (pun intended).

This year, despite my S.T.U.N. gardening method and deer pressure early in the season, we hope to start enjoying a few fruits of our labor. Pictured here are our first hazelnuts, some highbush cranberries ripening, aronia berries, and our first apple tree to fruit, a Haralson. We’ll see if the other creatures in our woodland will allow us to share this bounty with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why You Should Not Build Your Own House

July, 2018

In case you’re checking this post for news that we’re done building our house, here’s what I have to say to that: WE ARE STILL NOT DONE WITH OUR ROOF! Those all-caps are a true out-pouring of the depths of our hearts, not some Internet-stoked reality-TV hyperbole. Every night when we meet around the supper table, sweaty, filthy, and exhausted from working on the roof and/or parenting our children, we look at each other over the half-cooked dinner on our plates and we say, “WE ARE STILL NOT DONE WITH OUR ROOF!”

For better or worse, here’s an update on the continuing saga of us and our roof. It is, I’ll warn you, not for the faint of heart.

It begins innocently enough, with a truck and 116 pieces of salvaged insulation. By misunderstanding, a semi-truck full of our insulation arrived from Louisiana at the local lumber mill, needing to be unloaded by hand. Our (now) good friends at the lumber mill gave J. a call and started unloading it themselves, stacking the insulation onto the lumberyard truck. They drove it over to our place and left the truck for us to unload over the weekend. Rushing against the forecast rain (I know, this story reads like a broken record), J. and I now had to wrestle the stuff off the truck and onto our pickup to drive up the hill and stow under our roof.

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These sheets of foam insulation are 4′ x 8′ and 4″ thick, sandwiched between two layers of scratchy fiberglass, and they are filthy from their previous life on the roof of an industrial building. They smell like my grandma’s house. My grandma was pretty tidy; I guess it could be worse.

It took most of the day just to move the stuff: ten trips up the hill, each with a swaying stack of foam on the back of the pickup, to be unloaded and stacked sheet by sheet under the roof.

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There it is: all that perfect ugliness in our perfectly beautiful house.

When we finished packing them away, we rushed to wash our filthy, itchy skins, sparkly with fiberglass, and then, oddly, both of us took a nap. The foam must have been laced with sleeping potion.

Now that the insulation was safely stowed in a dry place, we checked the weather forecast. After rain overnight, it was a decent weather day ahead, the kind J. needed to work of the roof and I needed to fire the kiln. J. graciously gave up his day of work to help me fire. The next day, already tired from the labor of firing, we checked the weather forecast again: 90 degrees and humid, with a 20% chance of rain. Perfect weather for roofing.

We dropped the kids off with the OTHER set of grandparents and got to work.

Here’s the clumsily-drawn recipe for the structure of our insulated roof sandwich:

Roof diagram

J. attached plywood fascia to the ends of the rafters to keep the sandwich from sliding off the roof. Next we had to bring some of those sheets of insulation onto the roof. J. built a giant easel:

Actually not an easel but a materials ladder. You can heft sheets of plywood or insulation up onto the ledge, to be lifted onto the roof by the person above. Much easier than carrying stuff up a ladder.

J. worked on the roof and I worked below, handing him stuff and cutting sheets of insulation to his shouted measurements.

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Here’s the beginning of the sandwich, with fascia holding up the end.

At the end of a full day of work, we had not come close to finishing both layers of insulation on even half the roof. When we were done for the day, J. finally mentioned to me that he had hurt his shoulder and had been working through pain all day. Sort of made me feel a bit whiney for complaining about my skin itching from the fiberglass.

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And the forecast still called for rain that night. All the bits of tarp and plastic we had used to shield the house over the winter were shredded and holey by now–useless to protect layers of foam insulation from rain. We couldn’t stomach the risk of losing our day’s work to rain, so as much as we hate plastic, J. hightailed it to the nearest bigbox for a ginormous tarp.

When we went back to the woods after supper to cover the roof with the tarp, the mosquitoes were out. Try standing on a ladder and hoisting onto a roof an 80 pound tarp that just wants to lie on the ground, while mosquitoes are humming around your ears and biting through your clothes, and you can’t complain about it because your husband is doing everything you’re doing but with a hurt shoulder. Not my idea of after-dinner-cocktails.

After I helped sling the 60 x 40 foot tarp over the roof, J. and his bum shoulder stayed until dark to tie it down.

And do you know, it didn’t rain that night.

But the tarp was worth the peace of mind it brought, since we had to take a few days off to do other stuff, in the meantime resting J.’s shoulder. And when during that time one storm bestowed 3.5 inches of rain on us (or more…it began to splash out the top of our rain gauge), we didn’t worry about the roof. So maybe plastic is good for something.

Am I whining too much? Let me put that aside for a moment and give you a pictorial representation of our progress so far.

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Here’s a view of the top layer of insulation. All the seams need to be taped to prevent drafts.
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And any gaps are filled with spray foam. We bought it by the case. Lovely stuff.
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The first layer of plywood (covering the insulation) is mostly in place on this side.
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Those are 14 inch screws. They have to drill through the pictured 2 x 4, a layer of plywood, 8 inches of insulation, tongue-and-groove ceiling, and into the joist below.
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Up goes the fascia onto the gable end, covering that roof sandwich.
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It’s not as if J. has been working all on his own. He’s had help from at least a couple generations of family.

All this progress notwithstanding, we didn’t imagine we’d still be working on the roof in late July. We’ve gotten bogged down in the tarry quagmire that is our roof–the work still ahead seems to stretch into eternity. Every night when J. goes to bed with sore feet from the work of staying upright on the roof, we look at each other and say, “WE ARE STILL NOT DONE WITH OUR ROOF!”

We’ve begun to suspect that those looks people give us when they hear we’re building our house by hand, the looks we used to interpret as admiration and envy, were all along closer to pity and dismay.

“Who builds their own house these days?” they say. No one. Because everyone is smarter than us.

All Those Tiny Details

June,  2018

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a roof! A complete one that overhangs the exterior walls!

I know. This is not very sexy. You’ve been waiting all this year for an update on our building process and this is all I have to offer you. A building that looks veeeery much like the one I left you with in December.

And I will not be offering you excuses, except to say we have not been twiddling our thumbs. Let me be the one to inform you: the homesteading life is not made of giant, spectacular house-raising days and move-in days, but tiny work like mulching potatoes and nailing bits of wood together; and this is what has consumed us lately. Lots of unexciting details.

But I wanted to catch you up on where we are in the building process, because soon we will be moving on to the walls, and that (at least to me) turns the dial to Exciting.

The house survived the winter, a few leaks here and there but nothing terrible (fingers still crossed). The first job awaiting J. in the spring was extending the roof past the timber frame, to overhang the exterior walls by about three feet. A very not-sexy job, but important, since our walls will be made of straw bales, and those want to stay dry.

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The children modelling behavior befitting a proper hand-built natural home.

I won’t detail for you how J. built the overhangs, mostly because every time he would try to explain it to me, my eyes would glaze over just a teeny bit. Since I never got up onto the roof to look or take pictures, you’ll have to glean what you can (if you want to) from these photos taken way down below.

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I’m happy to say that the one time J fell, he caught himself and ended up hanging by his hands from the end of a rafter. Like the manly man he is, he pulled himself up, but since then he’s been wearing his harness religiously.

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And there it is, the gable end of the roof. All those little bits of wood nailed together.

On a fun note, J. got to build a couple door frames, and now we have a doorway to walk through. No stairs yet, to get up to the door. All things in their seasons…

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J. is also building a little awning to overhang the gable ends of the house. Its main purpose, again, is to protect the lower straw bale walls from rain.

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Here’s one of the gable end awnings completed, minus its eventual metal roof.

As we approach the time where we stack all our straw bales for our walls, I’m realizing the end is nearing of those beautiful photos with the woods framed in the negative space of our house. So I’ll put a few here for posterity.

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Also you can see a bit of the roof extension structure. Through the blurriness.

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While we’re waiting for the roof insulation to arrive so he can finish the roof, J.’s been building bucks for the windows, which will float on the straw bales; I’ve been boning up on straw bale building details. And taking the kids on bike rides. And getting ready for a firing. And feeding the family. And cleaning the bathroom.

All these little jobs are what makes up a life, not just a homesteading life–any life. I’ve noticed that I’ve been spending an awful lot of time looking forward to the days when we’re living in our little house in the woods, where my dreams will come true and all will be well. But really, what I should be doing right now is sweeping the floor.

And because I have more important things to do (like making my dreams come true) I put off sweeping the floor until chickens would gladly scratch in the detritus on my kitchen floor. Picking up the broom to finally storm the floors in anger and impatience, I invariably miss out on the joy of today: the motion of my body as I work the broom, the warmth of the breeze coming in the window, the footprints of the children in the dust. I forgo the stuff of my life in favor of a diaphanous future.

So. All of you out there, sweep the floor with me. Sweep it with gratitude. Sweep it out of love for your family. This is today; this is the stuff your life is made of. I’ll be sweeping my floor as well.

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