A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Friday, August 30, 2013

The hottest day

     Today was officially the hottest day of summer so far. Over 100 degrees, capping off a week of sweltering high-ninety weather. It hasn't rained in a month and it would be fair to say that we have been feeling a bit wilted during our first week back in Missouri. Has this fact, or Mike's neck injury, set us back on our homesteading plans at all? It would any sensible person, but not us, since apparently we are unreasonably hardy and determined. Usually we would not have pushed as hard as we have this past week, but a rare opportunity presented itself... we were offered the help of a work party of volunteers on Friday, which meant that we had five days to finish the timber-framing section we were working on before we left if we wanted their help moving it and setting up the next section. "Yes!" I foolishly thought, "let's go for it!" Our amazing, fearless, slightly-crazy-like-us, homesteader/builder neighbor Beth volunteered to help us build this week and offered up her strategy for beating the heat... get up and start work at 6 am, go until noon, quit until 4, and then finish when you can't see anymore, around 8. So that is what we did, all this week, hammered and chiseled and sawed our butts off, heat be darned! (In case you are reading this and having alarm bells sounding in your head regarding Mike's mending neck, be not alarmed, he sensibly did not push himself as hard as Beth and I and resigned himself to cook duty and what you might call "timberframing-lite," the detail work minus the heavy lifting).

Proof, thanks to our neighbor Beth
      The 6:00 AM strategy worked well, giving us two sweet hours of cool work weather before the sun reared its blistering head over the tree canopy to start its daily frying. Beth had another great strategy for this stage of the day, which is to jump in the pond with your clothes fully on and then let yourself air dry. Strangely, this works wonders, producing literal air-conditioned cooling as the water evaporates in the breeze. Repeat every hour as needed, and we got ourselves through the day. Last night, the night before the crew was to arrive, Mike and I succumbed to power-tool temptation and finished trimming the legs of the section with a chain-saw and power grinder, a much more expedient version of what we had been doing with hand saws, but we were finally done. Whew! I don't think we will be choosing to work under such pressure again. But as you can see in the photos below, the work party came and moved section #2 (first picture above, laid out on pallets) and set up section #3. We celebrated afterward with watermelon in the shade, which always tastes so much more sweet when it comes after a hot day of work. We are taking the afternoon and weekend off to let our blisters heal, though I can hardly imagine picking up a chisel again come Monday. Still, we are getting much better and quicker as we go. Within a month the frame will be standing (God willing!)

    Some folks from the work party also helped me go around the do triage on our little tree saplings who are badly in need of water. We hauled buckets of water from the pond and got a good section of them watered, but we could really use some rain soon. The ground seemed to suck up the water, sometimes with an actual gurgling sound as it ran into cracks. It is hard to see their little leaves drying up or turning fall colors prematurely. Part of our planting strategy was to plant twice as much as we hoped would make it, knowing many wouldn't, but of course I have been hoping they all will anyhow.

     Our pond has also been losing water to evaporation, evident in rings around the shoreline. It has stayed cool enough however to be a refreshing part of our days, and not just ours... We noticed that the number of animal tracks around its perimeter has greatly increased since the creek on our land has dried up, revealing wild turkeys, racoons, possums, deer and others have been also making use of our little oasis. It is sort of fascinating to consider how other life here endures the heat. I think the deer have also been employing the 6 AM strategy as I have heard them snorting at that early hour. We have watched hornets come and rest on the pond surface and then fly away after thirty seconds. Are they cooling themselves? Drinking? I don't know but there are always a dozen or more of them. I also wonder why only hornets? Why not bees? These are the sorts of mysteries that are beginning to present themselves to us as we get to know the land and its inhabitants better...

      Last, and best, one of the surprises of coming back this past week was discovering a whole new round of wild flowers on our land that we had never before seen. This was most likely because last year we had such a serious drought that not many wildflowers got to the flowering stage at all, but the abundance of spring rain this year primed a flush of blooms. Purple rough blazing stars are especially abundant, even on hills we thought almost nothing grew on, as well as stiff sunflowers, which grow in thick masses up against the burgundy staghorn sumac. I have used some of these to make natural fiber dyes, like purple ironweed and various sunflowers, as well as the sumac berries. Elderberries are my favorite range of colors, from teal to periwinkles, and Mike has some ideas about making elderberry wine and jelly, we shall see. What the conservation department has told us is that these and other native prairie grasses and flowers all thrive in the hot season, as opposed to cool season grasses like fescue that have been introduced as feed grasses for livestock. So somebody is out there in enjoying the weather! Well, keep fingers crossed for rain and send cool thoughts our way!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

One down and three to go

     Now that an embarrassing length of time has lapsed since my last posting, I have positive progress to report on the house construction! We have completed one whole section of four sections (in the timber-framing world they are called "bents") of our main house frame. This first section was a huge hurdle for me personally, since I really had no experience cutting this kind of joinery, only having ever worked with squared-off timbers before, AND there was the seemingly insurmountable problem of actually lifting and maneuvering the massively heavy timbers on and off the framing bed! But once we started in, we slowly and awkwardly figured out how to cut each special joint (the notch made where two timbers come together) and we found friends who liked us enough to come help us lift the aforementioned massively heavy timbers each time we needed to add a new piece (6-8 able-bodied men/women on average!) When we finally finished one whole section, we had a big lifting party to get it off the framing bed and onto the ground so that we could set up the next section, which is already underway, about half finished. So below is a picture of the relocated first section, ready to be adjusted and ratchet-strapped in place for our future raising day when all four will go up together.... or so we pray.

     We have been doing all this work on the "framing bed" that we constructed especially for the task, a perfectly level and purposefully-spaced grid upon which to lay out the timbers. It helps us determine at what positions to line up the beams in order to get consistent heights for the first and second floors, to know where the cruck timbers should cross to support the ridge poll, and where the feet of the building will stick out and sit on the padstones we set last summer. It has been surprisingly solid, though it looks like it should collapse under the weight of several tons of timber. See picture below... We roll around logs, pivot and push them into and out of place to cut the notches, and it has not budged! When we are done this phase of construction, we will dismantle it and reuse the wood we built it with to construct our first floor joists. 

     We have been doing all of the construction at this phase with only a few key tools: mainly chisels, mallets, saws, levels, a string, and the tool that I am using in the below left picture, a scribing compass. This was one of our big investments for this project, but it is a very cool tool and well worth it. Once set level, it can be used to transfer the curve of one timber onto the one below it and vice versa. Knowing this allows us to remove wood from both the bottom and top timbers so that they will fit perfectly together, despite the irregularities in the contours of their curves. We end up with each joint being somewhat like the one shown bellow, with several flat parallel planes being cut so that they connect flush with the ones in the connecting timber. The dove-tail shape helps transfer any sideways pressure from the cruck into locking the joint more securely together (and prevents them from slipping out), PLUS the peg hole you see drilled here will eventually be filled with an oak peg, which further secures it together. For the raising and this phase we have been using removable metal pins which our very talented blacksmith neighbor Brian custom made especially for this project. Thank goodness for all of our hands-on friends!

The mallet is one my grandfather used to make wooden sculptures

     One of the other projects we have been working on this summer has been building a dock into our pond. One day a few months ago as were watching the spring rain rapidly filling the level of the pond, Mike got a certain look in his eye and determined it was time to get the dock in before it was too late! Within a day or two, he had located rot-resistant white oak from our land and had set it into the ground to form the moorings of our soon-to-be dock. We then ordered some planking from one of our local mills and had it nailed in, just in time for the summer heat wave to hit. Almost as soon as it was done, our friends from Philly came out on a camping adventure with their two boys, Nino and Niki, who were in the water almost non-stop. Our neighbor's daughter Ella and another few community kids, Etta and Oliver, plus Nino have all been learning to swim this summer and our pond has turned out to be the perfect spot for it since we have a bit of a "shallow end" where they can practice. This was an unanticipated additional benefit to add to the list of why having a pond is amazing. We also have been using the water to keep our new little trees alive during dry spells, plus hosting a healthy frog population who saw the "vacancy" signs and moved right in. 

Sitting on the dock of the bay...

Nino and Niki, our resident frogs

     Our land continues to amaze me, week after week, as it unfurls new beauties to behold. This summer, it seems, has been entirely different than last when we had a bad drought, as the wetter weather has brought out terrific wildflowers that I had not seen before, coneflowers, oxeye daisies, bright orange milkweed, black-eye susans, blazing stars, etc. It also brought on a surge of mulberries, the biggest, juiciest, sweetest ones I have yet tasted. All the while Mike and I were planting our hundreds of little trees, including 25 native mulberries, it turns out we actually have four mature mulberry trees already on our land, full of low-hanging branches and ripe berries! This discovery felt like a little surprise gift from our land, and for about a month and a half, we were harvesting bowls of delicious purple-staining berries. Yum. Between that and the bountiful wood nettles on our land, we were bringing in daily edible harvests. Our little tree seedlings are for the most part doing well, by the way, with about a 5% die-off rate so far (about half that were non-native eastern white pines and fussy flowering dogwoods). In particular, our 25 paw-paws all took to the places we planted them which feels like an exciting victory (they are notoriously bad at being transplanted, and we were forewarned that they would likely not make it). But visions of delectable paw paw fruit (somewhat tropical and custardy, almost like a less-tart mango) propelled us onward. I hope they continue to survive the heat and the deer, who may also have an appetite for paw paw! 

     Another fun experiment in edible planting has been our wheat crop, which we planted as a dam-wall stabilizer while the native grasses and wildflowers get established. We sowed a bag last fall and didn't think much of it until we realized this July that we were surrounded by mature grain-heads full of wheat berries ready to be harvested! We didn't have much intention of actually doing it, until our friend Selma, visiting from Philly, decided she wanted to try it out. So we harvested a couple of bowls worth and went through the process of rubbing out the berries and winnowing the sheaths away in the wind by pouring the berries back and forth between bowls. Amazing how it all works using no fancy machinery, just these ancient techniques! We then tried grinding it in a hand-cranked grain mill, mixing a dough from it and using a sour-dough culture to leaven the dough. Finally, post-baking it became little buns which were quite good, though not terribly efficient in the making.

     Another practice we have started which is relatively inefficient, but still, a satisfying step toward self-sufficiency, has been hand washing and line drying our own clothes. We picked up this double-basin washer at auction, and combined with a washboard, soap and water, makes for a rather meditative ritual. These kinds of additional labor-making practices can quickly fill up a day and when one has a sense of scarcity about time (as I often do), that can be quite frustrating. I can see how my fast-paced, efficiency-seeking, east-coast upbringing has conditioned me to avoid or expedite such labor. I often have to consciously slow myself down and remind myself that I have no deadlines or anywhere to be except the present moment, because I can easily slip into being a multi-tasking stressed-out maniac if I am not careful. So taking care, relishing these little rituals--"chopping wood, carrying water" as it were--is more and more a part of my days as I transition into this liefestyle. Selma and Niki also tried out the old-fangled clothes washer while they visited, and, I think, enjoyed it!  

    So, where are we now? As many people reading this will have heard, while on a family-visit in Ohio, Mike recently broke his neck, an unexpected and serious new development. He is super fortunate to be making a full and relatively quick recovery right now, and we are still figuring out what this means for the rest of our building season (and how soon we can return!) The especially unfortunate bit is that his injury will mean no "heavy lifting" for him for awhile and, ironically, we have pretty much nothing but heavy-lifting ahead of us on the house for the rest of the summer. But I am hopeful I will find help to keep going with it while Mike keeps the hammock warm and the hearth-fire (or cook-fire) burning. For now, gratitude to our bodies that enable us to do this work and keep going, day after day...