Thursday, January 29, 2009

the little house

The little house in the ghetto has been an intense project the last few years. We've owned the house on Springfield's integrated and economically blighted east side since 2000. We moved out in November 2003 to seek family and community in my very rural hometown. There were no jobs except the meat packing plant. We could only make it a year there, until I finally found employment in Springfield, and we moved back. We rented for a year in the interesting just west of downtown area, two blocks from good friends at the art house, manifest (your) destiny. We moved back to the little house in December of 2005, when the tenant moved out.

A few months later a tornado went directly over our house (we were in the basement). At that time, our larger neighborhood was a mature forest. You can imagine how different it looks now. We had a lot to clean up--millions of tree fractals in and through and on everything. Fortunately we had a cash infusion from the cat-man (catastrophic claims adjuster) from the insurance company. And we had time. We hauled countless trees to the curb, and thought about getting a woodstove. With the power out all week, our forced-air furnace didn't work, and a friend loaned us a kerosene heater. The cold week (six inches of snow came a week after the tornado) gave us some ideas on comfort and joy.

The lasting impression from the tornado I recall was my disbelief that our city had forgotten us. I didn't see any kind of city presence for many days--where were the cops, the firefighters, the utility guys? I saw a few reporters, but not many, and a helicopter that zoomed slowly overhead a few times. Just a few blocks northeast of us was the hard hit Cedar Street area, among the most severely damaged, in the most economically unprepared area hit. I was amazed that the officials were not going door to door checking to see if folks were all right; no officials seemed to care.

I was also amazed when I reconnected with my neighbors, meeting a lot of them for the first time. I was amazed by the assistance we received from people who just showed up to do what they could. I was amazed when I talked with prisoners helping out about the tornado, commiserating on what we had all experienced that week, and how awful it is to make mistakes in a society bent on punishment. In short, there was a lot of beauty happening. It had nothing to do with city government, and everything to do with us as a community. It is powerful to internalize feelings like that.

That summer we demolished a garage by hand, with the help of friends and pizza, hauled a literal ton of roofing material to a dumpster, and made a million trips to the home improvement store. If we had half a mind of what being in this place was like and would be like, and half a mind paying attention to permaculture and community, we would have made different choices. As it was, we did the best we could, learning about the bureaucratic nature and the focus of yesterday's paradigm of the zoning department, and negotiating all the flow of money through our bank (the mortgage holder and real owner of this house), which had its own paperwork hoops. I drove a lot. It was our last hoohaw with a vehicle. Improvements included a new roof, kitchen and bathroom patched up with tile, doors that actually shut, and double-paned super-insulated windows. We caulked and weather proofed any and all we could. The chain link fence was taken out.

That December (2006), two ice storms came through a week apart. Our tornado-devastated trees dropped parts again all over, including on the back of our house, demolishing our back porch. The service entrance for the electric was again knocked off the house, but we kept power for some reason (probably the talented and dedicated electrician from the tornado). We resolved to get a wood stove at the next opportunity. In the second ice storm, only one limb dropped, but straight down into the kitchen roof. We had really had it with natural disasters.

That spring, we decided to have three mature trees taken down. It was really hard; we like trees, a lot, and they are helpful for living without air conditioning. The huge American elm in the back yard was split down the middle. The sweet gum was broken off in the middle like a matchstick, and the American elm by our porch had no branches left on it. The tree guys came, they sawed, and left us firewood-to-be. We had a small patch of a garden in what came to be a sunny yard. We had mostly tomatoes and a few peppers, amongst a pile of weeds, most of them edible. We mowed the yard (until the lawnmower was stolen), hauled tree parts, did a lot of home repairs, canned tomatoes, took trips to the park to play, and worked, worked, worked. We also attended funerals. By spring, my husband's grandfather and two uncles had passed away. It was a lot to process.

That fall, we took a permaculture design course from Midwest Permaculture. It changed us, and we had a new focus. Until that time, we had been occupied with immediate natural disaster cleanup, and figuring out how to live without substantial employment. The tornado cleanup demanded our time. There wasn't a lot left over to work, or even worse, to look for work. We learned we could live on a lot less money coming in. We've cut our income down by quarters or halves each year for the last several years. Now we seem to live on nothing, and yet we have no debts, all our bills are paid, and we want for nothing. (More info on that in my earlier posts on frugality, and income/outgo.) Somewhere in this adventure, we decided not to maintain a vehicle, instead opting on the much more affordable idea of public transportation, occasional cabs, and indulgent friends and family.

Ah, back to permaculture. Permaculture is a design system, making long-lasting human habitats by design--observing one's place, thinking, and making changes, and again noting feedback, thinking about it, and making changes. Permaculture holds care for earth and care for people as the ideal. Well, that makes sense, doesn't it? It's designing communities for humans that aren't toxic, communities that will not only last but be even better for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. It's paying attention to our community of people, and the community of life surrounding us.

We planted 8 fruit trees in the fall of 2007, 150 flower bulbs, and garlic. There wasn't a lot of time to do much else. We measured our yard, transferred it to graph paper, and started doodling. We have many ideas; no concrete plan. This seems to be the flow that works here. The next spring (which was last spring, 2008), we got out good and early and moved a lot of the stumps that were on our south-facing yard, now our garden. My husband spent a long time sawing on green American elm. With our lawnmower gone, we managed the best we could with a reel push mower, refusing to buy another gas one.

We planted a much bigger garden last spring--tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, potatoes, green beans and dry beans, asparagus, onions from seed (failed), carrots, cilantro, greens, fennel, bee balm, nasturtiums, squash (failed volunteers), basil, dill, peas, scarlet runner beans, and sunflowers. This was in addition to the many other species of edible weeds and planted-on-purpose perennials we had already. We also planted 10-12 plum trees along the parkway, along with several grapevines, strawberries, blackberries, elderberries (failed), black raspberries, and red currants. I had spent part of the previous year transplanting free pretty flowers. It was a lot of hard work, and a learning process when I realized what an idiot I was for not planting perennials. So now I focus on food-bearing perennials and scattering seeds for self-seeding annuals; it seems to make sense.

This is a list of species that must do well in Illinois, for only a few of these were planted by us. This is a list of edible or medicinal plants that already existed, planted by me in the early years here, or by the creator: mulberry trees, lambs quarters (my favorite vegetable), dandelions, garlic mustard, lemon balm, raspberries (huge patch), mint, bush cherries, violets, shepherd's purse, burdock, redbud, turkey tail mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, wood sorrel, chicory, yarrow, catmint, rosemary, oregano, daylillies, plantain, wild mustard, wild lettuce, amaranth, clover, echinacea. We forage a lot in early spring in our semi-wild yard.

Last April, we helped to organize a local Food Not Lawns. It's a collection of grassroots organic gardeners, and we hold monthly educational meetings, as well as occasional social events and an annual seed and plant swap. Gardening is our common tie, but I find many of us have a lot more in common than our love of tasty local food. I've met some wonderful people, and made a lot of good friends. I've learned a whole lot, and hope I have encouraged new gardeners.

Around here, we take on projects as the ideas, helping hands, and wastestream-plucked resources make themselves available. In between projects, we cook our own food, wash our own dishes, provide our own heat, raise up our daughter (giving her a useful education, while allowing plenty of time and space for her massive physical and creative energy)--all the things that lots of time and not much money can afford. It's heavenly. I realized a few months ago that if I lived the same life until the day I die, I will die happy and feel blessed. I think I've made it.

In the next year, we hope to transform the rest of our quarter acre yard into a permaculture education center, or more informally, a relaxing place to hang out and eat good food with good friends. Here's a list of projects we have on our plate, ranging from food to home to other. Like I said, lots of ideas, no firm plan, just living life as time, help, and resources make themselves available:

Install rainwater collection--rain barrels and swales (ditches to hold and soak in water--the soil, not the storm sewer, needs the water). Swales for the outside part of the yard as well, to collect rainwater that runs off the street, and the berms planted heavily in plants that are known for their bioremediation properties, as well as fruit and nut trees and pollinator-attracting flowers.
Graywater--figure out some formal or informal but manageable way to redirect used household water (not toilet water) to the soil.
Investigate potential use of cistern under the kitchen.
Install irrigation or soaker hoses from rainbarrels to garden.

Erect trellising over south and west windows and grow fruiting (edible/medicinal) vines to shade windows in summer, and also on porch to provide much-needed shade and cooling for late afternoon sun.
Analyze site for windbreak protection (our extremely battered shed demands this!).
Plant at least one large nut tree on the northwest side (to shade house from late afternoon summer sun), and many hazel trees.
Plant 1-2 standard-sized heritage variety fruit trees.
Plant a large kitchen garden, getting as close to providing a year's worth of food, herbs, and medicine as possible. We'd like to do this in an attractive way, like a mandala garden. But we'll see how swales planted with fruit trees, veggies, herbs, and flowers makes itself look--most likely beautiful. We will can, dry, and ferment as much of this as possible, as well as share with people who help out.
Make a new compost pile.

We're also in the process of changing from natural gas to electric service, which has everything to do with saving money. We spend more now on the charge for the privilege to have access to natural gas than we do for our consumption. When we switch to all electric service, we will get an additional 15% reduction in our rate. We got rid of our clothes dryer and don't use our forced-air furnace. All that's left is our hot water heater (the city gives you a $200 rebate to switch), and our kitchen stove. I don't like to use electric stoves, but it's a small personal price to pay--it will probably encourage me to get more familiar with cooking on the wood stove or in the solar cooker, building a rocket stove and an outdoor oven. (So, we're now on the lookout for a usable electric water heater and kitchen stove, if you know anyone who has one!)

The porch floor needs to be scraped and painted (which is no fun!), some gutters need repaired (this can be managed along with the design for rainwater harvesting), there is wood to be cut and stacked, another kid play house to plant up, concrete to be sledgehammered, a wood shed to be built, fruit to be pruned. Then there's the personal stuff like hanging out with our child, our friends, and our families. That time shared is just as important as planting up the yard, but often neglected by a lot of people because regular employment takes up so much of people's time.

We're going to hold some more food not lawns meetings--coming up, a talk on "advanced" gardening, meaning different methods of gardening plus an intro to permaculture design. We're going to hold some foraging walks this spring, have an urban homesteading workshop, see and talk about some good movies, and I'm in contact with speakers now to talk about graywater and water conservation, heirloom varieties in the kitchen garden, and bioremediation (using plants and fungi to detoxify soil), among other things. And there's the seed and plant swap in May, plenty of produce to talk over, and plenty of friends to share this experience with.

Everyone has their own answers. It is important to ask the unuttered questions of our rapidly disappearing consumer lifestyle. What are we doing in this world? Does this make any sense to anyone? If it doesn't make sense to you either, think about exchanging the corporate rituals in your life for those that make sense. Think about what's really valuable; for me, it was the experience of deep human relationships. I can't imagine anything more valuable than that.

Permaculture and community. Designing sustainable human communities that function for people and planet. These are some keys, some new answers for new questions that are rapidly becoming clearer. This can give us some kind of working model for crises yet to come, some kind of coping methods for a society that no longer functions as it was sold to us. We're envisioning a future that makes some sort of sense to us; we're enacting a story that allows us not only health and sanity, but allows us to thrive as the humans with big brains, adaptive abilities, and creative imaginations we've been thinking ourselves to be.


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