Crisp morning air
brushes my skin;
dazzle the landscape;
crunch beneath my feet
releasing their smoky scent;
my mouth waters for steaming cider
and campfire-toasted marshmallows.
Crisp morning air
brushes my skin;
dazzle the landscape;
crunch beneath my feet
releasing their smoky scent;
my mouth waters for steaming cider
and campfire-toasted marshmallows.
Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall (written in mid-August)
First day of summer: words that conjure up notions of vacations, suntans, freedom from homework. Thoughts of fun in the sun with summer reads, picnics, hikes, swimming, tennis, softball and baseball, bike rides, day trips. All those traditional outdoor activities mean summer’s here.
In truth, when the first official day of summer rolls around, fall is already lurking in the shadows. The first sign, of course, is day length. Summer means longer days, right? But summer officially begins with the summer solstice—the year’s longest day. The very next day—officially the first full day of summer—will be a little shorter, as will the day after that, and the next, and the next. Every day for the next six months.
It’s about the time of the summer solstice that I inevitably spot a tree with that one red or yellow leaf. I’m a big fan of autumn, but I also prefer to live one day at a time, and that leaf sits there taunting me, reminding me that fall is inching its way into my life. To the astute observer, other signs of autumn’s sure return are all around. Those lime-green spring leaflets that sprouted on trees (wasn’t that just yesterday?) have been growing both larger and darker. Before they put on their showy fall display, they will continue to darken until, in the distance, they’re such a deep green they look almost black.
As spring wildflowers transform into summer ones, so summer’s blooms have now, almost imperceptibly, given way to those of fall. Daisies are replaced by Queen Anne’s lace; black-eyed Susans seem to morph into yellow coneflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and sunflowers. Floral hues become both more muted and more rich. The buttery yellows of summer’s evening primrose make way for the more mellow tones of fall’s goldenrod. There’s the rusty shade of spotted touch-me-nots in lieu of daylilies’ brighter tints. In the wild, pinks virtually disappear as summer subsides, and lavenders transmute into the subtler mauves of milkweed and Joe-pye weed and the rich purple of ironweed. In front yards, gardeners discard summer’s petunia palette in favor of the earth tones of chrysanthemums. Berries appear. Fruits ripen.
Birds’ feathers become a little less brilliant. Grasses develop gracefully drooping seed heads. Little by little, vegetable gardens show signs of wear as growth slows, pumpkins turn from green to orange, and early veggie plants dry up or go to seed.
The sun itself gets in on the action. Ever since summer’s solstice, its arc becomes a little more southerly, a little lower as it moves across the sky.
As I write this piece at the beginning of the third week of August, my calendar tells me we are just past summer’s midpoint. To be precise, sixty percent of our summer days have passed. Sitting outside in the afternoon, I hear a distinctive sound unique to this time of year—the thump of acorns and hickory nuts as they hit the ground in the woods. It’s not a safe time to be standing under a nut tree!
Then comes an evening’s after-supper walk when I unexpectedly sense another change. The days may still be warm and humid, but I feel the barest hint of chill in the night air. Sometimes, I even catch a slight change in nighttime scents—a little less floral, a little more spice. My ears notice the ever-increasing cacophony of crickets and katydids doing their late-summer thing. Their sounds also pierce the otherwise country quiet during the day, but at night the music is almost deafening, yet soothing in its own way and one more sign that fall is closing in.
Fall has always been my favorite season, so I welcome its coming. Still, it’s a little curious that just as we’re getting into the full swing of summer, autumn has already begun its birthing process. I guess that’s the way of things. The peak signals certain ending, but an ending accompanied by new beginnings—caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, seed to tree and back to seed again, adolescence to adulthood, retirement to a new life chapter, the whole of life itself.
(If you’re just tuning in the Early Days on the Diagonal series, you may want to start here and work your way forward.)
Not surprisingly, December just keeps getting colder. As far as temperatures go, life in our shed isn’t much different from sleeping on the ground. Not much construction work gets done—we spend most of our time trying to keep warm. Finally, on December 20th, when at 1:00 pm the thermometer reads 5°, all our water and canned foods are frozen solid, and the temperature keeps dropping, we know we can’t keep this up.
Within two hours we find a furnished one-bedroom apartment in town. Temporarily, we leave behind a lonely-looking but imposing 2 1/2 story structure—shingled and, for the most part, enclosed.
We also face the reality of a drastically low bank account. If we want to finish the house, we have to find paying work. Consequently, we have barely any time to work on the house. Vicious cycle.
Nonetheless, we continue our building efforts on weekends, and by mid-April, after nearly four months in town, we move back to our land, this time directly into the shell of our house. It, too, is only covered with blackboard—for the moment—but we do have doors. No glass in our twenty-three window openings, so we’re still very exposed to the elements.
Once again we turn to plastic, but this time with a protective layer of landscape shade cloth and rows of strapping to protect the plastic from the rain and whipping winds. This combo does nothing to abate either the cold or noise, though. We wince every time the fierce wind blows and beats noisily against the plastic.
Naturally, a cold front moves in the same time day we do and temperatures drop to the twenties. Our little space heater can’t compete. At least we’re warm when we snuggle under the electric blankets the Gnome’s parents have provided.
In May our phone is installed. Now we have access to the outside world. With no stairs yet, our access to the second floor is a ladder. Neither do we yet have running water; we’re still pretty much camping.
By the end of June, all the studs for our few interior walls are in place. We’re also beginning to put up exterior siding. With the height of the house and no scaffolding, this means even more ladder-climbing. It’s a slow process.
The glass for our windows arrives in August. After installing them, we finish most of the exterior siding. We wait for lumber prices to drop before buying the rest. We also install our tub, toilet, and bathroom and kitchen sinks, but it will be a full year after we’ve moved back up here before we complete all the plumbing work and get running water. Since we’re dependent on an electric pump, getting water is also dependent on having electricity. The Gnome’s electrician dad does a walkthrough to assure us we’re doing it right. April 24th, 1981, the day we’ve completed our wiring and water is finally running to all our indoor fixtures, is a red-letter day for sure!
Our home’s far from finished—for instance, we’ve only now finished nailing down the subflooring that’s been sitting on joists for a year—but we finally bring all our belongings home from the storage unit where they’ve been sitting for eighteen months. It gives the place a homey feel.
Punkin and Cuddlebug’s extracurricular activities keep us so busy that work on the house slows to barely a crawl. Living in an unfinished house means working around people, furniture, and stacks of unpacked boxes, slowing things down even more.
It will be another five years before we have a kitchen counter and cabinets, and still another before we get around to painting our interior walls, build a closet, and finish the exterior siding.
In truth, we will never get finished. When we once again have time—and money—to finish the job, the house will be begging for some serious rehab and remodeling. But that’s another story for another time. Meanwhile, stay tuned for a bonus segment of Early Days on the Diagonal.
(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!
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.
(Tune in next week for more adventures in Early Days on the Diagonal.)
(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.
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.
(Stay tuned for the next installment of Early Days on the Diagonal.)
A few weeks ago, I shared some found poetry on this page. That’s when you pull words or phrases out of newspapers or other documents to form their own story in verse. Today’s post is short on words but full of another find—found art. I’ll tell where it was found at the end. Bonus points if you figure it out before you get there. (No peeking!)
The Gnome gets credit for finding all this art and photographing it. Actually, he had two sources. But both come from the same event: what we call Grandparents’ Camp. That’s when we host our grandchildren for a week of pure fun. Every year, the number one item on each of their lists is painting. The Gnome took a closer look at what might pass the rest of us unnoticed. (That’s the way he is. It’s one of the reasons I love him so.) And this is what he found.
The art you see in Group I came from a piece of foam board that supports canvas panels on an easel, usually with binder clips or painter’s tape. What you see above is nothing more than where the artists’ strokes have extended beyond their work of art and onto the foam board.
The art you see in Groups II and III came from a palette that in a former life was a plastic fruit platter from the grocery store. (It’s all about recycling here on the diagonal.) And next summer as more painting takes place, we’ll have a whole new selection of found art. Pretty cool, huh?
This is the time of year when the Gnome and Crone’s fancy turns to thoughts of maple syrup. Yes, we make our own. It’s foraging at its sweetest and just one more door to modern homesteading.
It’s no way to save money, though. There’s a reason real maple syrup costs more than the gooey stuff made with corn. We figured our first cup cost us a hundred dollars in materials alone. If we factored in labor, the real cost would quadruple—or more.
First we had to buy taps (or spiles), blue sap collection bags, and metal bag holders. There are cheaper ways, like making your own spiles with sumac stems and hanging buckets under them to catch the sap. We tried that, but the buckets filled with bugs and bits of bark, and the sap didn’t always make it into the buckets. So we opted for a closed system.
Nor did it take many days of standing in the rain, wind, cold, and snow to decide that there had to be a better, if more expensive, way to monitor the heating and evaporation process.
We bought a turkey fryer and a couple of twenty-pound propane tanks and moved the operation to our covered deck.
With glass doors leading to the deck, we’re able to check on the syrup-making progress from the warmth of indoors, and it also allows us to do a few other chores during the hours and hours of watching the pot boil. It takes a lot of boiling to turn tree water into syrup. Ten gallons of sap will make only one quart or so of syrup.
But you can never take your eyes off the pot for very long, especially as the sap begins to thicken, or you’ll find yourself with burnt caramel seriously stuck to the bottom of your pot. (Ask me how I know.)
Of course, our cost has dropped with each batch since most of those supplies were a one-time expense. Our method will never win any awards for efficiency, though, partly because of the on-going propane expense. Still, we keep at it. At the end of a good season, we find ourselves with twenty or thirty pints of that sweet amber liquid, enough to enjoy a year’s worth of maple syrup over pancakes, on yogurt, with acorn squash, in smoothies, and still have plenty to share with friends and relatives.
The syrup-making season is short and unpredictable, especially where we live. Conditions for collecting sap have to be just right: night temperatures in the 20s and sunny days in the 40s, all before the trees begin to bud. The last couple of years haven’t been good ones.
So, why do we do it? While living frugally is part of our mantra, homesteading—modern or not—isn’t always about frugality. It’s more about being in touch with nature, about discovery, about doing for oneself, as well as the self-confidence, knowledge, and self-awareness that go along with all that. We like knowing that if we have to, we can. Whatever it is.
Besides, there’s nothing quite like the light, sweet taste of warm maple syrup you’ve cooked up yourself.