A day off. I should be out splitting wood, or hilling the potatoes – maybe later. One thing I’ve learned after all these years is that some days off should be just that. The wood isn’t going anywhere and the potatoes don’t care if I get out there to hill them today or not.
I seems, back then, that Bruce and I had more energy to put into this place than ten men put together. I don’t know exactly what drove us, but there wasn’t a day when we weren’t building, digging, planning….and going to work. The long daylight hours of summer meant that you could work late late into the night, fall down exhausted for a few hours of sleep and get back up and keep going.
The house itself, was going to have to wait – we had nowhere to store wood, implements, all the junk one brings with when you decide to go homesteading. The remaining buildings on the property were all next to useless. One large three sided ‘shed’ leaned so far to the south it had been propped up with a half a dozen planks to keep it from collapsing. The ‘lawn tractor’ shed, though it stood upright, no longer had a floor – actually, the floor was there, but it was a foot under water. Another small building next to the tractor shed had been built out of small pieces of two by four scrap (somebody at one time had hit the motherlode there) all laid flat and leaned in so many different directions that you could get dizzy just standing in it and trying to focus on which part of it might be straight.
We left the lot of them to remain standing or collapse at whim and decided to build a wood shed of our own. Now Bruce – never, ever, does anything half ways. My idea of a woodshed and his idea of a wood shed were night and day. I stand outside one day watching him measure and pace and measure some more and realize that the wood shed will likely be larger than the house. Being as I’m not the one flinging the big chain saw around, I go along with it – he seems to think that if we don’t have a place to store a LOT of wood, we are going to freeze to death.
‘I’ve always wanted to build something with logs.’ he says. ‘By all means – knock yourself out.’ I’m good with the plan really, we have a truck load of logs in our yard and I figure it’ll go up a lot quicker than stick framing.
This is where Bruce and I really click – between the two of us, his odd style of thinking, my odd style of thinking, we have discovered that there is nothing we can’t do. We haul logs over to the site, heave, ho, jack and come-along, nail and saw until we have a twelve by forty something building framed. About twelve feet of it off one end, we decide to enclose completely – Bruce thought it would make a ‘room’ for something, and we needed access to the grey water cistern to pump it out. Getting the logs to the top of the fourteen foot high roof proved another challenge, but after some though we simply wrapped a chain onto one end, come-alonged it into the bed of the truck, up onto the headache rack then using the headache rack as a balance point, one of us climbs up and directs the log while the other operates the come-along and heaves and shoves until the log is in place. One log at a time, the building goes up. We tarp the entire issue until we can afford tin for the roof and move on. So much to do, not enough time to do it.
By now, we had found out where the dump was. Anytime we found a piece of shrapnel, any trash, anything that we had no use for, we loaded the truck and hauled it away. The weather was scorchingly hot and we weren’t interested in starting any more fires – the grass in the field looked ready to ignite by itself. Our neighbor to the south came by one day with an offer to mow the field. They had horses, their fields were green and lush and flat – ours looked as if it hadn’t been touched in twenty years.
‘I don’t know,’ Bruce says, ‘it looks dry, but I’ve walked out there – under all that grass there’s a lot of standing water.’
‘Well my field used to look a lot like yours – all I did was mow it.’
Fair enough. Neighbor heads over, returns with the tractor and the mower deck and makes a pass along the fence. Second pass – all is well. Third pass we watch helplessly as the tractor starts to slow, then bog down and sure enough – he’s stuck and there is no getting the tractor out, the more he tries, the deeper he sinks. We head out to the field. ‘Don’t worry!’ he hollers, ‘the wife can pull me out with the truck!’ The wife heads over with the truck, makes her way out into the field and chains up to the tractor. In no time flat she too is stuck. We all stand there scratching our heads over the issue and we suddenly remember that neighbor to the north happens to have a bulldozer in his yard. He’s willing to help – but as you can’t run the bulldozer down the pavement he proceeded to clear a trail through our bush until he reached the field and pulled the both of them out. Upon inspection of the muck they were stuck in I realize the five acre field I had future hopes for, is also, mostly clay.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know we were on a clay bed – there was no getting away from it around the house. When it rained you knew to stay on the grass and hustle along so as not to sink into the muck – clay does not absorb water, the water simply sits on top. This I found out, when upon a quick visit to the new outhouse, I noticed that the thing seemed rather full – as in the big deep hole Jim and Dean had spent all day digging not a few months before, was actually now not a big deep hole at all. Homesteading lesson number five hundred and thirty seven – you cannot build a functioning outhouse in a bed of clay. The incredible volume of ground water that lives in the clay is of a special sort – it will take up any new space available and then just sit there forever waiting for the next unfortunate person to dig a hole somewhere else and then it will move along and take up all that space too.
Anytime you weren’t on the gravel of the driveway or the grass you really had to hustle, and even then, fifteen or twenty feet into your journey across the yard you’d have so much clay stuck to your boots you could barely take another step. It was exhausting. You’d stop, shake one foot then the other trying to dislodge ten pounds of the stuff to no avail, then ticked off you’d really put some effort into the kicking only to have your boot fly off with the clay and land some ten feet away. There was no winning. Come dry season when there seemed not a drop of rain to be had, the stuff bakes into a miserable hard pan and cracks and fissures start to appear – some large enough you’re sure you could lose a small child in one. Still, as there was grass some six feet high in the field, I had hoped that maybe, because it hadn’t been messed with for so many years, that it would consist of something other than clay. After the mowing fiasco, it seemed it did not.
By now, the place was slowly and surely starting to wear me down. Summer more than half over, nowhere I could see to plant a garden and long past planting season anyway, and though the fly infestation was under control, the mosquitoes that followed were not. I felt as though I were doing little other than simply existing. Couldn’t use the cook stove in the house – not unless you were willing to try and sleep in a six hundred square foot oven – so all of our cooking was done over a campfire. Dishes were done outside after you boiled water on the fire – as we ran off a cistern and had to pay to have our water delivered, we hadn’t allowed ourselves the luxury of having hot running water anywhere other than the shower. We collected rain water and used that for the dishes and the laundry. Road blocks began to appear everywhere I looked. There was no getting rid of the hydro – we were told there wasn’t enough wind in our area to run a turbine. Solar was out of the question – seems that’s for people with lots and lots of money – something we did not have. I tried to be positive, I tried to tell myself that in the months to follow things would get better, we’d find a solution for the field, the garden, the hydro, the outhouse – winter would arrive and I could bake bread, next year we would get some chickens, have some farm eggs and so on. Still, there was a definite sense of frustration chewing at the back of my mind as I considered what I had began to term as ‘lack of progress’ on the homesteading front.
Work did not help. The miserable dingy brick building I worked in had become an oven. I stood in front of my bench rebuilding transmissions, sweating, absorbing all manner of toxins, breaking out into rashes, and truly gagging at the stench that wafted up from below my feet. Seems my bench was situated directly above the shop cesspool – that big vat of noxious stuff that gets washed down off the floors, off the cars – it hadn’t been pumped out in years. Technically it’s called a ‘grease separator’ – in a fit of irritation one day I stopped working and hauled my bench away to a spot that was as far away from the grease separator as I could get it – all of ten feet. There were windows in the shop – but the boss did not want them opened – he figured we’d forget to close them at night and the place would get broken into – I figured if I didn’t get a window open and at least a hint of fresh air, I was going to pass out. Climbing over a huge pile of junk, I managed to jimmy one open – at last. Fresh air. Even a hint of a breeze. All for nothing though – being located at an intersection on a main road, meant that every time the light turned red the never ending train of cattle trucks had to come to a stop and sit idling while I was assaulted with the pungent smell of fifteen hundred miles worth of cattle dung. There seemed no winning at work either. One day, about mid afternoon I stood leaning against my bench, taking a break while I tried to tear a disintegrating piece of fabric off of my ancient shop coat – every time I leaned over a drum to pry in a snap ring the damn thing would get caught underneath the snap ring. In a heat stroke induced stupor I gave it a few tries then decided to grab a lighter an burn it off. Next thing I know I’m standing in a blue ball of flames as the fumes from the solvent that literally poured off of me every day, lit up like a roman candle. It was a short lived fire – what I didn’t manage to snuff out with my hands burned itself out anyway – I stood there for a moment, removed the shop coat, tossed it aside and went back to work. Something had to change.
The month of August finally drawing to a close, I felt ready to snap. ‘Tomatoes.’ I stood in front of Bruce, hands on hips, determined.
‘Tomatoes?’ he looks at me. ‘What about them?’
‘I want to can tomatoes.’
He looks around for a minute. ‘How are you planning to do that?’
‘We have fire, I have canning jars and lids, I have canners. I will buy tomatoes.’
Bruce knows where I’m at, he’s been watching me unravel for some time and has no idea how to fix it. ‘But honey,’ he finally says. ‘tomatoes come on sale all winter long for 99 cents a can. We can do tomatoes next year.’
‘We will do tomatoes this year.’ I state. I can see he’s thinking somewhat frantically, trying to dissuade me from this foolish ‘extra work’ project.
‘But I usually buy the spiced tomatoes.’ he tries.
‘I can make spiced tomatoes.’ This brings him up short.
‘Really? You know how to do spiced tomatoes?’
‘I know how to do everything.’ I march off and start hunting for the jars.
It probably took twice as long to can tomatoes using nothing but an open fire and a fair amount of back muscle seizing labor, but fifty jars of spiced tomatoes later I stood back with the camera, took a picture of my first real accomplishment (in my head anyway) as a homesteader and felt, for the first time in weeks, a bit of hope.
With winter soon around the corner, one starts watching the sky for the inevitable first snowfall.
We had managed to get most of the firewood cut into lengths that would fit into the wood stove, wondered if the wood stove would actually heat the place proper during the winter and decided we’d best take apart the wall furnace and at least clean it in preparation for maybe having to use it in a pinch. We scrubbed it out, put it back together, turned the thermostat up, gave it a test run and promptly shut it off as the most awful smell began to cloud the room. Mold. Mildew. Old people. There would be no using the furnace at all.
As the temperatures began to truly drop, Bruce began to get more anxious about the wood. ‘It’s gonna snow any day now,’ he says on the way to work one morning as I’m on a day off. ‘if you have time, just throw the wood in the wood shed – I really don’t want it getting snowed on it’ll never burn. Don’t worry about splitting it just get it under cover – I can split and stack my way into the building this weekend.’
I waited until he left for work, tiredly wandered out to the massive woodpile and stared at it. ‘Well,’ I thought. ‘it wouldn’t hurt to at least split some of it.’
I’m no stranger to splitting firewood, did it as a kid, lived in a place or two where having a wood stove made up for the fact that there was only electric baseboard heat, and actually owned a fifteen pound splitting maul that worked for me. Bruce, at six feet, can take any old axe, lift it above his head and split a log in a heartbeat. Myself, at five-six, need to roundhouse my swing and found the big maul was the best way to do the job. Without much thinking about it, I started splitting my way through the pile and not wanting to make extra work, stacking in the woodshed as I went.
Most farm/homesteading chores are made up of grunt and drudgery – but for whatever reason, I began to find some zen in the task. I’d toss a bunch down, split a bunch, stack a bunch, toss a bunch more down. I stopped once for a coffee, then carried on. Some eight hours later I’d managed to split and stack some five cords of firewood – aside from a half dozen huge rounds that I couldn’t bust my way through, there wasn’t a stick of firewood that hadn’t been tossed and split and stacked. I thought to grab my camera and get a picture of my second big homesteading accomplishment, but truth be known, I was done. Finished. I wandered into the house, collapsed onto a chair and decided that Bruce was going to have to dream up dinner – the zen long gone, my body was telling me that I’d be lucky if I could drag my sore muscles out of bed the next day.
Sure enough, the snows came. And the wind. The wind we apparently didn’t have enough of to run a turbine for power. The temperatures dropped, stayed dropped. It became obvious that the cook stove was not enough to keep the place warm. The thing about a cook stove – is it basically runs on kindling size wood. Anything bigger and you’re likely to snuff the fire out. Now, any spare time we had and lots we didn’t was spent splitting all the wood into smaller kindling size pieces. Four loaves of bread needs a wheelbarrow full of kindling. Dinner, a couple of armloads. You come to understand that if you don’t want to wake up frozen in the morning, you have to get up several times during the night to toss more kindling on the fire – it simply becomes a part of the routine. We kept an eye on the paper looking for a wood heater – one that would take bigger wood, stay going for longer. My son came to the rescue – he called me at work one day – had come across a small wood stove – had a buddy heading up our way and did we want him to drop it off on his way through. Oh yeah, I wanted him to drop it off for sure.
It made a difference – it was small but you could actually get a couple of decent sticks in it once it got going. Still didn’t burn all day, still had to come home to a cold house and restart both stoves, but at least one of us didn’t have to get up quite so many times at night to throw another stick on. The temperature continued to drop and drop some more. My truck decided it wouldn’t start unless it was plugged in – and then only when it was in possession of a recirculating coolant heater and a battery warmer and a pan heater. Bruce wired in a separate circuit so we didn’t suffer hydro brown outs every time I plugged it in. Soon enough, it was forty below zero. Then forty two. Then forty four. Even plugged in, my truck complained loudly at being driven, every time I shifted gears and let the clutch out the thirty year old behemoth ground to a near stop as the gear oil tried to make room for the gears. I’d four by four my way through the unplowed roads, get to work, run an extension chord, plug the thing in and spend the day working in what was now a cement block icebox. It seemed I was never warm any more and we weren’t even half ways through winter. Tiredly plodding my way into the house one night after work I set about doing the usual – lighting the cook stove. The house seemed frozen, I felt frozen, I kept my parka on while I stuffed the firebox with paper and kindling. It wouldn’t stay lit. Giving up, I turned my attention to the wood heater. Same result. Overwhelmed, tired and suddenly depressed I sat at the kitchen table, still fully dressed in my winter gear and glared at both the stoves. Didn’t help. The lover of heat knucklehead dog lay under the table shivering, I tried to find it in me to at least get up and make a pot of coffee but couldn’t. Suddenly without warning the wall furnace kicked on – it was colder in the house than the lowest setting on the thermostat – the mold mildew old people smell hit me like a brick – the dog jumped to his feet like he’d been shot and began barking madly at the unit – I ran for the Febreeze, fogged the entire furnace and wondered how the hell to shut the thing off. Tearing the door open on the breaker panel I stared at the unlabeled maze and realized there was no point in trying.
Finally home from work himself, Bruce found me sitting at the table – numb, armed with the last of the Febreeze, staring at nothing in particular. He took immediate stock of the situation, wisely said nothing and got the stoves lit.
Sometime near the end of December Bruce received a phone call from his ex-wife stating that she was sending his eleven year old son to live with us. No warning, wasn’t asking – just had enough grief trying to raise him at the time – she figured her only option was to park him on an airplane and send him to dad. I had no clue where to put him – decided the couch would have to do for now – figured the porch could get closed in come spring and turned into a bedroom. Come the day I was to pick him up from the airport we awoke to another balmy forty four below and frozen plumbing. The heat tape around the water intake had quit working, the pump had been placed to close to an exterior wall and was full of slush, and the grey water cistern under the floor in the room at the end of the wood shed was frozen solid – the ice had started to back up the drain pipe that came from the house. Bruce’s car sat in frozen non-starting defiance in the driveway refusing to so much as turn over.
I seriously, seriously considered getting in my truck, pointing the thing south and not stopping until I was out of gas. Running away actually seemed a viable option. Instead I dropped Bruce at work, picked up his son from the airport, drove back into town and bought a pump, some hose, an electric heater, some tarps, some winter clothes for an ill prepared eleven year old and headed back home to try and sort the mess out. At least I had some help. I pitched the heater under the hood of the car, tarpped it to keep the heat in and thaw the engine. Tossed the pump in the water cistern attached the hose and pumped water into a fifty gallon barrel I had dragged into the house. The grey water cistern I left for Bruce.
We made it through the winter – barely. The upside of the issue, is that you now have all spring and summer and fall to be prepared for the next winter – at least you’re hoping.
Spring finally arrived, and brought with it the expected melting snow, minor flooding as the melt had yet nowhere to run over the frozen ground, along with my daughter, her year and a half old son and the most virulent case of norovirus on the planet. She and her husband had separated and after enough time on her own struggling with life and baby had finally accepted my offer to ‘get your butt up here’.
Brave girl – considering the only place I had to put her and my grandson was in the ‘room’ at the end of the woodshed. A bed, a crib, a dresser, a small wood heater and yet one more campa potti and she was set – at least as set as I could make her at the time. The norovirus knocked us all flat. She was throwing up, the baby was throwing up, the stepson was throwing up. Bruce spent a lot of time avoiding us all and managed to only get slightly sick, I did my best but to no avail. Thankfully, it finally ran it’s course.
So…..here we are, one year almost to the day with our homesteading adventure, five of us now sharing the space. No chickens no eggs no garden nothing growing in the field. No pigs or cows or goats, no buildings to put them in. Bruce and I tried to close ranks and dig in for the long haul, determined to make it work. We began eyeing one of the derelict outbuildings for a chicken shed. Had to start this homesteading thing someplace – there were now five of us to feed – our paychecks were about to take a big hit. This was not what I had envisioned. Not even remotely. Still, I had tomatoes and we weren’t out of firewood. It was a start 🙂
Coming up: part four: Geese, chickens and a dog on the roof.