Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Clandestine Forces of the Universe and Peace of Mind

If you pay close enough attention, you can feel the subtle currents of kismet flowing with or against your coarse in life. With practiced openness and enough faith to occasionally throw yourself into the hands of providence, you can relax and let those currents push you down stream in their mysterious directions. Coincidences, in my mind, are a quick way to read those currents; peer through the water and see which way the plants are bending. Have I taken this analogy far enough?

This is how I tend to make big decisions, as Christy seems to as well; with a healthy dose of whim and chance. That's how I got to Seattle, why I've stayed in Seattle and how I met Christy and embarked on this adventure with her. If coincidence is a good sign of following that cosmic current, things are looking great for us.

We spent several months looking for land, a task which became my full-time job for the last few of those months. (If you're curious, I've got a pretty good handle on any piece of property in the state west of the Cascades. Just ask.) We liked the Newellhurst property, now know as Mellish Fields West, right off the bat. Our trusty real estate agent and de facto life coach Brigetta Johnson even wrote up an offer... which never got signed. On our way to meet with her, we went back after having looked at some plat maps to try and better determine the property lines. We found corner stakes which excluded a lot of the more private, wooded land that had initially attracted us and, we decided, the land was not desirable without. It was back to searching and the offer was shredded.

While driving around with my lists of addresses, I kept thinking of the Newellhurst land and cursing whoever cut it into it's useless shape. On a particularly depressing day: three properties I didn't even get out of the truck for, it was that lingering feeling that drove me and my Toyota pickup back down that dirt road in Kingston. I wasn't expecting the corner posts to have gotten up and walked back a few hundred feet, I was really just planning to smoke a cigarette in the field and whisper angry words at Jerkos, the Greek God of Real Estate.

As I pulled up, passing the house which hides the land from the road, someone came running after my truck excitedly. He introduced himself as Dane, the owner and neighbor of the lot. He had seem my truck there before, he said, and was anxious to answer any questions I had. He had just fired his real estate agent and was now representing it himself. "I don't think the shape of it is going to be useful for us" I told him.

(On a side not, there is an epidemic of lazy real estate agents at the moment. When we found Brigetta, whom we gelled with, we didn't let go... like a bull dog. She stuck it out with us and our crazy dreams for months and months, and three different offers!)

The agent who was previously representing Dane's land had made only vague, dismissive references to the land's "strange shape", and sent small scale, low resolution plat maps which read like hieroglyphics, one of the leading causes for Dane's new DIY approach. On hearing my disappointment he ran inside and came back with a thick folder of maps, utility quotes, easement records... the works. We had, in fact, assumed the shape incorrectly. When Dane took me to all the corners, pointing them out on the map, and down the path through the woods to a half of the property we had never even seen, my smoldering affection for the land burst back into flame. It was a pretty short period of time before Christy came back out, papers were signed, hands shaken and Mellish Fields West christened.

None of this would have happened were it not for an inexplicable desire to see a piece of land which had already disappointed us. An absent minded float with the clandestine currents of the universe....

Recently, while searching for local architects with interests in sustainable design, I came across O'Connor Architects, on Bainbridge Island. Their website touched on some of those topics, and portrayed the firm, correctly it turns out, as a small, independent, down-to-earth and friendly group of people. I sent their head architect, Peter O'Connor a message explaining our plans and asking some general questions, making it a point to say that we might not want, need or be able to afford their services, which he responded to very helpfully. Over a couple of back and forth e-mails, he wondered if Christy, working in the theatre world, might know his son, Peter Dylan. Christy had, in fact, just worked on a show outside of her regular house gigs with him! Days before my first e-mail to Peter, Christy, Peter Dylan and I were hanging out on a roof top after opening night, apparently not talking about building.

There go those currents again!

Peter and Brandon Hogg, another architect at the firm, have been working with us to start putting together a site map and floor plan. While we'll be building ourselves, the aid of experienced professionals has already been invaluable, and will make the getting of permits about 10,000x easier. The money we pay them will more than make up for itself in stupid mistakes avoided.

Speaking of money, I want to take a moment to address an elephant in the corner of this website. We're making it a point to be open about how much this project is costing us, in hopes that the information will be helpful to anyone thinking about heading down the same road. (We'll be updating the Costs page of the website soon, by the way.) The natural question, heretofore unaddressed, is where this money came from and how two people like us expect to build a house full time with no income.

Three years ago my father died. It was unexpected and untimely and more than a little disorienting. He had made a life for himself as the singer in the band Boston, at least a couple songs from which you would certainly know even if you can't place them immediately. Look it up. Buy CD while you're at it.... While traveling on the road, he would check into hotels under the pseudonym Fielding Mellish (extra points if you can name the reference!), a joke which made it onto the brass door knocker of his house. After his passing, his fiance Pamela named the house Mellish Fields. Mellish Fields East is now implied...

Despite his success, he made a point, in his own quiet way, of living a simpler, humble life in a modest home in rural New Hampshire, an esthetic which certainly has made an impression on me. The money used to buy our land outright came from his estate. We have no mortgage, and with the money we each have saved up separately, and some VERY careful budgeting and creative building, we hope to build this house without debt. That's a luxury that can't be overstated, but will always be bittersweet, having come from an exchange that I wish could be undone. The most I can do now is use it in a way I think he would have approved of, and keep his memory in mind.

There is still some money left after the purchase of the land, and if people keep buying Rock Band video games, I'll still have a bit of income while I'm not cooking. So... we have the benefit of a reasonable budget and no mortgage, which should be factored in the cost of the project. No mortgage means cheap labor, as we'll be working for ourselves instead of "the man". Something to keep in mind if you plan on heading down this particular road. In the meantime, you can start making bets as to whether we'll actually get a roof over our heads while they're still above water!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Showering blackberries

Lining the dirt road to our property is roughly 300 ft of blackberries. They are poised to take over the entire acreage, if not the world, and this weekend they started to ripen. Now, I have very strong feelings about blackberries. They run amok, they take over trees, and people around here generally feel like the first thing we should do is hire a team of goats to eat them back. However, growing up in Tennessee, my great grandfather Wade had trained rows of the most delicious blackberries I have ever known. They were a thorn less variety and they produced mass quantities of silver dollar sized fruits. My fondest memories are at that farm, standing in one spot and filling a gallon milk jug with the ripe fruit, and Versie, my great grandmother, making a cobbler. Wade and Versie left us quite a few years ago, but blackberries have always served to take me back to that time.
I realize that this may all sound like sentimental jargon, but something flipped in me this weekend.

We went out to the land to clear away all the hay that had been mowed by our neighbor, and possibly bring it to the horses that live near us. We also wanted to get the wood-shed up so we can begin to cure wood for the winter, and install the water main pipe so the water company can hook us up. Literally. We picked up a volunteer, Fae, from, and headed out to spend some time sweating. We had to rake the entire field that had been mowed and haul it off to the side, making a massive hay mountain in the corner of our parcel. The hope was that we would be able to get a clear idea of the condition of our soil for the garden. We hoped that we would find loamy, pliable, soft soil about consistency of chocolate cake. Ah, but the glaciers moved across the land first, and left behind thousands of pebbles. The tall grass has formed a web of roots above the rocky soil making it near impossible to dig. To work this amount of this land we would certainly need to excavate it.

The three of us made dinner and talked about ways to make this earth into a garden that could feed us. Digging it out by hand is out of the question, unless we would like to spend the next three years doing it. We pondered putting cardboard, newspaper and mulch over the whole
thing and letting it sit for a year, killing the roots and softening the soil. In the end, we decided that a combination of raised beds and a few select dug out plots would be best. I think I will save the details of this conversation for its own post. There is alot to talk about concerning the garden and how to feed ourselves. Let it be enough to say that
we were very discouraged but seem to have found a way that suits us perfectly.
I wanted to talk about blackberries, but I think I should update the water story as well. John got all the pieces we need to hook up a spigot with a hand pump ( think Helen Keller) and we attempted to put it together and make it strong enough to be our main water pipe, like, forever. It has
more couplings and elbows and extenders than is reasonable ( quote from hardware store guy " do i want to know what this goes to?") and we solvent welded all of our crazy parts together. It only took 4 trips to the hardware store. We got it installed eventually. The entire periscope had to be buried below the frost line, attached to the main water pipe, and a bucket of gravel set on top to allow water room to leak and not freeze. Hopefully we will have water next week!
The next order of business was to clean ourselves, as hole digging and hay tossing are extremely dirty chores. We brought along our solar powered camp shower and set it up. John will be returning to make it more permanent , but systems are in place! The key is going to be to take a shower before the sun starts to set, because it does cool off quickly.

After our late showers, the sun set on a very busy and productive day and I sat and looked out over our bit of earth. The insistent presence of the blackberries kept reminding me of the farm in Dunlap, Tennessee and a feeling that this was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the right thing to be doing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Upcoming Work Party... & Cider: The Hard Way

The next installment of our ongoing free seminar series, "Hands-On Headsteading 101", will be taking place this Saturday, the 21st ! To enroll, simply show up at 23949 Newellhurst Pl NE and grab a shovel!

For real, though. Work party. The area of our future subsistence garden will be mowed by saturday. We'll be raking away the dead grass (possibly bringing it to the neighbor's horses), staking out it's boundaries and tilling the soil! In addition, we'll be building a covered wood rack near the yome, and a roof over our new sink!

Christy and I spent some long overdue quality time, last week, with the machete and the particularly unruly patch of milkweed and blackberry which has been making a last attempt to lay claim to what will inevitably become our woodshop. I think we ended up coming to an agreement.

Meanwhile, we've been spending our time in the city preparing for a life of sweaty, back breaking manual pleasures. This week's long-lost rural tradition brought kicking and screaming back into relevance: Cider making.

Our apple tree, as previously mentioned, has really been showing off this year. Over a short period of time, Christy, our roommate Kevin and I coaxed over 200 pounds of apples from it's branches (and our roof), with the help of a ladder, a rake and a canoe oar.

Joseph Sheedy, MFW's resident scientist, saxophone master, yome deck construction sub
contractor, bicycle aficionado and all around partner in crime
added at least 150 more lbs to the pomaceous plethora from his own overachieving tree. We rented a crusher and a press from a local brew supply outlet and went to town. Local culinary and mixological theatre whizz Erin Brindley came by to put in some muscle and levity.

There was picking, washing, chopping, crushing, drinking, laughing, pressing, chopping, crushing, pressing, laughing and just a little more pressing going on at such an incessant level that even the neighbors who never talk to us poked their heads over the fence. Granted, they were laughing at us, but I think it was out of admiration...

All that pressing is done now and our new pets (several thousands little yeasties) are very content in their 13 gallons of fresh pressed cider, and are starting to pay off their mortgage by turning those natural sugars into delicious, homegrown booze. You know, because it keeps longer.

Seriously, though... Saturday. Sweat a little, eat a little, laugh a little and sleep under the stars. Let me know if you're interested, we've got some carpool action and extra tents.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Urban Bounty

It's intermission time at Mellish Fields West. I'm currently reading a magazine and occasionally glancing at my watch in the cosmic waiting room known as bureaucratic purgatory until Puget Sound Energy and the Kitsap County Department of Community Development meet each other and decide if we will be granted the privilege of paying $115 for a street address. When they come to an agreement over the mountains of paper work they've each received from us, we'll be able to move forward to digging a 2' wide, 3' deep and 425' long trench, through which PSE will sell us real, live electricity.
I know what you're thinking. Sustainable, eco-friendly homestead.... what's with the municipal power? We'll be trenching in power for a few reasons:
1) We'll be needing power tools to build, before we have anything we could hook up an alternative energy source to.

2)Generators are inefficient, run on fossil fuels and smell horrible

3) When we do get our PV Solar system set up, we will be tied to the grid, so we can sell our excess energy back to PSE, and use the balance to supplement our system when it's too cloudy, erasing the need for batteries which are usually the least environmentally-friendly component of any set up, both to make and dispose of.

SO, instead of paying $200 for a temporary solar panel for our toilet, we've decided to wait until we trench in our power. For which, we'll need an address. For which we must wait.

"What about these pictures?"

Well, in the meantime, I'd like to take this
opportunity to squelch any doubts you might
have about our ability to grow our own food. Our backyard here in Georgetown is working
overtime, slinging apples and plums at us while we sit in our hammock, reaching for the sky through scarlet runner beans, spewing potatoes and heaving forth...... erupting..... literally overflowing with tomatoes.
Hundreds of tomatoes. Taller than Christy tomatoes. Prepare to accept our jarred goods.