Getting to the Nitty Gritty: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 4

Getting to the Nitty Gritty: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 4

(If you’re just now joining this conversation, you may want to start here and work your way forward.)

It’s now been two weeks since we moved here. Now that we’re settled in the shed, things are happening faster. As I continue to chop trees, sling weeds, and shovel clay and gravel, the Gnome swelters in the shed poring over reference books and drawing house plans. We want every detail to be just so—we’ve read horror stories about inspectors who give newbie builders a hard time, so we expect to be unduly scrutinized. The whole building thing is the Gnome’s forte, but we decide I need to get better versed in this area, too, so we can jointly think through design issues.

In retrospect, 2017: Glad we figured this out back then. The second opinion/sounding board role has been essential through the years. We now laughingly say that my job, whenever the Gnome is tackling a big project, is to say, “Isn’t there a simpler way?”

We want large fixed-glass windows across the south-facing side of the house to provide passive solar heat. A local company will make insulated glass panels to our specifications. Our reference books tell us it will be no problem to mount, cushion, caulk, and trim them ourselves.

In retrospect, 2017: Big mistake. Silicone caulking didn’t do the trick; our windows weren’t water- and airtight. Nor did we accommodate for natural expansion and contraction. Within months, several of our big glass panels cracked. We lived with them—unhappily—for years.

A long week later and our plans are finally ready. We nervously deliver them to the building inspector. He approves our permit on the spot, no questions asked.

We start work right away, first measuring our footprint, then digging trenches for the foundation. Before long, the dirt is flying. Literally—we’re digging with only shovels and muscle power. This is more like it!


Cuddlebug digs digging, but it’s a challenge when the holes become as deep as he is tall.


Building forms for our very carefully dug footings.

It’s pretty smooth sailing till we get to the third corner and find nothing but rock. There’s just enough wiggle that we don’t dare incorporate the rock into the foundation. It takes days and a big dose of creativity to break it up and leverage out the biggest pieces. The Gnome demonstrates Archimedes’ physics lesson: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” We feel like we’ve moved the world by the time we get the trench cleared.


We’ve been here exactly one month when my parents come up for a weekend of help. Cuddlebug and Punkin make miniature dams and ponds in the creek while the men dig out the nearby spring that we hope will provide our water supply.


They’ve determined, none too scientifically, that the spring should easily produce enough water to meet our future plumbing needs. That’s great news—there’s something about the idea of getting our water from a spring that feels natural and pure.

In retrospect, 2017: After 38 years, our spring’s still doing its job. It’s never run dry. On the other hand, we’ve had to repair or replace more pumps than we can remember, some due to lightning, some . . . well, we don’t rightly know. We do know it’s no fun to find yourself soaped up in the shower when suddenly there’s no water. Because we’re hardcore do-it-yourselfers, this often means a week or so without water while we figure out and fix the problem. Having gone much longer without running water and survived it, at least we know we can do it again.

(Stay tuned for next week’s Early Years on the Diagonal adventure.)

Off the Ground: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 3

Off the Ground: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 3

(If you’re just joining this series, you really should read this first and work your way forward.)

July 10, 1979: The day we move to the shed. Small as it is, the shed feels immense compared to the tent. And it’s still standing, so perhaps we really can build a whole house.

In retrospect, 2017: We didn’t know how much ahead of the times we were. We built one of the world’s tiniest tiny houses way before tiny-house-living was a thing.

An army cot across one end with another along one side for the children gives us just enough room to lay a double sleeping bag on the floor for us. Putting it out of the way each morning gives us room to dress, eat, play board games, and draw house plans—as long as we coordinate. The cots do double duty as daytime seating. Improvised single shelves along two walls keep some of our stash off the floor. We have no door, just a three-foot wide doorway.

In retrospect, 2017: I wonder why the possibility of intruders never occurred to us. We felt perfectly safe from the human type, but why weren’t we concerned about wildlife? In the years since, we’ve seen everything from snakes to bears. We must have been crazy!


Our “kitchen” is just outside the shed on left end. The doorway is also on the left end. Suitcase and canned goods are lined up along our front “wall.”

With all outdoors for living, our little enclosure doesn’t feel cramped. Our “bathroom” in the woods boasts incredible scenery with its huge rhododendron walls for privacy—not that we need all that much privacy up here.

The shed’s plastic walls and roof provide plenty of natural light, but we discover the obvious—it’s either a steam room or a sauna, depending on the weather. No place to spend daylight hours, especially when it’s sunny. Yet, it’s the only suitable spot for drafting house plans.

July 11, 1979: The water inspector okays our septic tank, our first official approval of any kind. It feels like a huge accomplishment. But with one hurdle out of the way, we stumble onto another: the car won’t start. Fortunately, we find the problem and it’s an easy fix, but this experience magnifies our isolation. With only one car, no social support system, and no phone, our existence here is fragile and hinges on lots of things going right. We’ve already discovered they don’t always.

It’s only our second night in the shed and we have yet another heavy rainfall. The accompanying strong wind, which we’re coming to expect as normal, blows up under our plastic “roof” and tears holes where the plastic is strapped to the rafters. We get soaked. (It won’t be the last time.) A few repairs get us through the night.

July 12, 1979: We add a second layer of plastic, hoping it will be enough to protect us during the next big windstorm. We know there will be one.

While the Gnome works on the house plans we’ll have to submit to the county building inspector so we can actually start building, I chop down the few hundred black locust saplings covering our construction area. Everything’s happening a lot more slowly than we’ve anticipated. But it’s all progress.


The Gnome’s drafting table with stacks of reference books to the right. Too hot for a shirt in here. Note upper left of picture where plastic is raised to let in a tiny bit of air. Sleeping gear in background.

(Tune in next week for more adventures in Early Days on the Diagonal.)

March Madness

March Madness

Oh, cruel fellow!

You blow in with your sunny charms
melting hearts in your wake
they’ve all fallen for your wiles
secure in the warmth of your watchful eye
all they see is hope

Me? I’m cynical
I’ve seen your kind before
you cast your spell and they believe
until you turn tail and run
just like a swindling tent-revival preacher

But this time you stayed so long, seemed so sincere,
you lured even me into your lair
ready, yearning even, for your promises
I packed away my old grievances
like heavy raiments I’d held onto for too long

I should have known better
I know you all too well
sure enough just like always
you made those innocents fall for you
and in a flash you snapped

Late one night when they were
fast asleep you did your deed
just as I always knew you would
broke their slender little necks
every one

So unsuspecting
their bright trusting faces
full of aspirations lifted to the sky
just waiting for the rebirth spring brings
poor trusting daffodils

Oh, March, how could you?

Confessions of a Groupie

Confessions of a Groupie

I admit it—I’m a groupie. But maybe not the kind you’re thinking of. My fanaticism lies with the Mother Earth News Fair. I first learned about this terrific event back in 2013, a couple of years after I’d hit the retirement button on a public service career that had taken all of my energy. The Gnome and I thought going to the fair would be a great way to get our modern homesteading grooves back.

No ferris wheels or cotton candy at this fair. It’s all about sustainability and self-reliance. A perfect fit for two old, would-be hippies who wanted to get back to basics. Not that the fair’s attendees are hippies. It’s a broad spectrum of folks who fill the workshops and exhibit halls: young, old, rich, poor, hip, not so hip. They come for different reasons. I’m betting they all leave with new purpose and enthusiasm.

We took off to the fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, for what turned out to be the beginning of a great new passion for gardening, food preservation, and more. I had gardened years ago back in 4-H, and the Gnome and I had tried our hands at before we moved here, but it had been a really long time. We needed some remedial education.

I can’t begin to tell you how excited we were to discover that they planned one for the next year in nearby Asheville, NC. We’ve been every year.

Here’s just a sampling of what I’ve learned at these events. From great garlic guru Ira Wallace, I learned all about growing garlic. Haven’t had  store bought since. Sherri Brooks Vinton put pizzaz in canning. When the holidays came, we bought a box of grapefruit from the Rotary Club just so I could whip up some jars of her grapefruit in lavender syrup. Yum!

Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko shared their passion for community and reinforced what I already knew about the importance of prioritizing values when you’re striving to achieve an important goal. Deborah Niemann let me in on the secret that quiche is not just elegant, but a simple way to wow guests (and other ecothrifty ideas). Philip Akerman-Leist honestly laid out the good, the bad, and the ugly about homesteading in modern America. North Carolinian Linda Watson, who set out to teach people how to eat well on a food stamp budget, wowed me with inexpensive, delicious, and nutritious recipes. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.

Niki Jabbour introduced me to all kinds of new vegetables and extolled the virtues of year-round gardening. If she could do it in Nova Scotia, surely I could in North Carolina. Craig LeHoullier, another Tar Heel, taught how to grow heirloom tomatoes successfully, always a tricky business up here in the mountains.

Well, you get the idea. At the Mother Earth News Fair there are workshops on things like foraging, wind and other alternative energies, animal workshops (raising, butchering, processing—not my thing), herbalism, composting, mushrooms, marketing your small farm or home-based business, edible landscaping, permaculture, cheesemaking, vermiculture, fermentation, ecology. There’s even a series of workshops for kids. There are exhibits and demonstrations and books. Oh, the books! We always bring home an armload.

Every year for the last five years, the fair has added a new location to its offerings. This year there are fairs in Vermont, Oregon, Texas, and Kansas as well as the ones in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And the best part is it’s just about the most reasonably priced event you could hope to attend. A two-day ticket only costs $20 in advance ($30 at the gate). The same money gets you three days at the premier Pennsylvania fair—it’s HUGE!

This year’s Asheville fair is May 6th and 7th at the Western North Carolina Fairgrounds. I highly recommend it.

Our First Week: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 2

Our First Week: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 2

(If you’re just joining this series, may I suggest you start here.)

July 2, 1979: We arrive at what will be our forever home around mid-afternoon. We’ve not seen it since things turned green. What a surprise to be greeted by acres of my favorite flower, wild daisies.

We hop out of the car and sit on the ground to take in the beauty that surrounds us. And what do we discover? Scrumptious little wild strawberries—so much sweeter than the hybrids you find in the grocery store or even in a well-tended garden. We’re in heaven!


Wild strawberries!

It’s almost impossible to comprehend that we’re able to sit among these flowers and berries in a giant meadow against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains able to say, “It’s ours!” Butterflies dance through the air from one wildflower to another, fluttering around us as if we’re not here.

We set up our 8×8′ canvas tent. Punkin and Cuddlebug thrive in the adventure of it: being outdoors in pajamas, cooking over an open fire, teasing each other when the wind changes direction about whether smoke follows beauty or weirdness.


Punkin (red) and Cuddlebug (blue) investigate smoke in front of our first home on the diagonal

We get the lay of the land, set up outdoor toilet facilities, check out our creek and spring, and generally adjust to living in the wild.


Our creek in the woods is too far away to hear its burbling but it will become a crucial part of our new lifestyle.

It rains almost every day. We’re soaked, the tent’s soaked, our sleeping bags are soaked. It takes a trip to the laundromat half an hour away to dry them—over and over again.


Soppy kid; soppy tent (upper right), soppy soil

There’s lightning, too. When that happens, the only safe place for us is inside the steamy car.

We’ve been here barely a week, and already we have to reprioritize. We need more protection from the weather, and fast. Instead of clearing land for the house, we have to do it for our temporary living quarters, which we dub “the shed.” But boy, oh boy, does it have to be simple: just 8×12′, plywood floor, studs, and rafters—all to be covered in nothing more than plastic. Barely a shelter at all, but cheap, quick, and off the ground.


Cuddlebug tries his hand at digging post holes.


“Hold that post steady, Punkin.”


With posts and joists in place, it’s time for the floor.

All this work is with human-powered tools; we have no electricity. And we’ve just discovered that the site for our septic tank must be approved before we can get a temporary power pole installed. We schedule the inspector for next week.


Ready to move in.

In Retrospect, 2017: In general, we’re not big risk-takers, but this risk turned out to be a life lesson about what’s possible—not just for us, but also to our children. They got to see creativity in action, how to make do, and how to forge ahead, unafraid, in the face of the unknown. 

(Stay tuned to see what happens next in Early Days on the Diagonal.)

These Beds Are Not for Sleeping

These Beds Are Not for Sleeping

With the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having lately, folks are getting a head start on the gardening season. I’ve seen quite a few newly tilled garden plots in the last several weeks.

It makes me cringe. Not only is tilling bad for the soil (something for another post), but it has to be done year in and year out. Even worse, weeds will pop up as soon as you turn your back, and weeding will become your full-time job and your worst enemy.

Now that I’ve experienced raised beds, I couldn’t bear going back to in-ground gardening. I hardly ever have weeds. When I do, they slip out with ease. To be sure, building raised beds can take time and can be expensive, but neither has to be the case. (And even if you go the time-consuming and/or expensive route, it’s a one-time—or at least an occasional—thing.)

Making your own raised bed can be as easy as laying several layers of newsprint or some heavy-duty cardboard right on top of the grass; edging with field stones, twigs and branches, concrete blocks, or whatever else you have on hand; then filling the interior with gardening soil (not potting mix). With this method, the soil is your biggest only expense.

If you’re going small (always a good idea if you’re a rookie), simple pots or flower boxes are the easiest possible way to build your garden. And you need no more space than a patio or deck. You may already be doing this without even realizing it makes you a raised-bed gardener.

There are inexpensive but sturdy lightweight fabric beds like this one  (no assembly required) or this one. If you have a drill, you can even use galvanized steel tubs, anything from a washtub to a cattle trough. There are lots of possibilities out there.

If you’re in a position to spring for it, there are some terrific-looking, easy-to-assemble boxes that should last for years, like this cedar one  or this composite one. You can also find elevated raised beds  and vertical ones. With either of these, you can garden without bending a single vertebra, an especially good option for older or disabled gardeners. Raised bed kits come in many shapes and sizes. To be clear, I’ve used none of these, because . . . we build our own. (Of course!)


You can, too, if you have the tools and the inclination. Cedar, redwood, and hemlock all stand up well to the weather, but will cost you, and they still need to be replaced after a few years. We chose, instead, to use treated lumber. Lots of gardening gurus say this is a very bad idea. Their concern is usually about leaching from the chromium and arsenic that used to be used to treat lumber.

That hasn’t been true for almost fifteen years, though. Reliable sources say today’s chemicals and the process used to inject them into lumber make them safe around food, animals, and humans. We made an informed decision that was right for us. If you don’t want to take that chance but still like the idea of treated lumber’s longevity, you could line your beds with heavy duty black plastic.

With so many raised bed choices, it’s hard to know where to start. Try it; you’ll like it.

Happy gardening!


Gardening on the diagonal (terracing) even eliminates the need to completely box in our raised beds. In some cases, we built simplified “retaining walls” on the downhill side using driven stakes to support horizontal boards. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Early Days on the Diagonal: Part One

Early Days on the Diagonal: Part One

(The first of an eight-part series on our first steps toward modern homesteading.)

It had been building for years, this desire to make a bold move. The mountains had long ago wrangled a home in my heart, and they weren’t moving out. I yearned to make my physical home in the mountains, too. The Gnome’s long-term fascination with architecture was just itching for some creative expression.

We both imagined a bucolic life in the country, away from little houses all in a row where bedrooms were so close to the neighbors’ living rooms that they could hear every snore. We were two introverts leaning hard into recluse territory. The Gnome wanted to give our children an outdoor life, and he wanted to play in the dirt and build things. Me? I’m my mother’s daughter: I needed some elbow room, a place where no one was likely to drop in to borrow sugar or gossip over coffee. I dreamed of the freedom to roam the land, to run around outdoors naked if I wanted to (which makes me my father’s daughter, too).

So it was really no big surprise that in early 1979 we decided to make all our dreams come true at once. The only surprise was how long it took. But we’re not innately risk-takers. It was a slow, labored journey to convince ourselves we could make such a big change in our lives.

Once we got ourselves on the change bandwagon, the big question was where. Ultimately, we settled on western North Carolina, much closer to family than our current twelve and sixteen hour drives from our home in Louisville, KY, but still far enough to maintain our independence. The Gnome recalled a summer science camp he attended at a mountain college. That sounded like a good beginning point.

In April, we took a week’s vacation to look for land. Our good friends marveled at our daring—to leave secure jobs with no prospects, to take on a major designing and building effort with only books for guides, to move where we knew no one and had no support system. Yet, more than one of them admitted some envy and a secret wish to do something similar.

The local realtor who specialized in rural land took us all over the place, but nothing satisfied. Too steep, too near the highway, too close to neighbors. We were feeling pretty let down. It had never occurred to us that we might be unable to find anything suitable during our one-week window of opportunity.

We were ecstatic when Realtor John remembered one more piece of property. It met all our needs. At almost ten acres, half woods and half open meadow, we could count on privacy. The place was about a third of a mile from the graveled state-maintained road.


Portion of the meadow. In April, Spring’s still waiting in the wings.

Not a house to be seen. Exactly as we’d imagined. We had just enough time to sign on the dotted line before heading back home to prepare for the biggest move of our lives.


All manner of mosses, mushrooms, and lichens awaited us in our woods-to-be.


The locust rail fence along our eastern boundary captivated us.


We were delighted to find this creek on our property.

(Stay tuned for the next installment of Early Days on the Diagonal.)

Dear Friends,

You asked for it—well, some of you did, you’ve got it. Beginning tomorrow, March 3rd,  I’ll have a series of weekly posts about our early attempts at modern homesteading back when we first moved to the diagonal and began self-building our home.  If that’s not your thing, not to worry. I’ll intersperse the house building posts with a hodgepodge (as is my style) of other topics. Hope you’ll take this little trip down memory lane with me.