Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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Useful Off-Grid Skills: Tending Fire

You might be wondering: So, Denise is planning on having this grand off-grid adventure somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina. Does she have the requisite skills to survive out there?

I’m wondering that, too. (I know, I know: Not comforting.)

I accidentally got the opportunity to test one of those skill sets back in November when the furnace in the cabin where I was staying crapped out, leaving me with only a wood stove for heat.

The Setting: 200 Acres of Woodland in Southern Indiana

Shortly after my Bodhi died, dear friends of mine extended the generous offer of their cabin for a couple of weeks so I could process my grief in solitude. Situated by a small lake and wrapped in 200 acres of forest, the cabin provided both comfort and healing hours of walking in nature.

The cabin itself, built in the late 70s, has several bedrooms, a full bath, and a roomy, albeit simple, kitchen. A lovely loft overlooks the spacious living room, where a large wood stove stands on a raised hearth of local stone. I used the stove more for the enjoyment of a crackling fire than for heating the cabin, which task falls to the furnace and heat pump.

And then, just a few nights before my soul-soothing stay ended, the furnace gave out.

Wood Stove Fires vs. Campfires

The temperatures had dropped to levels appropriate to a proper autumn, so I definitely needed heat. I glanced out the front window to the load of wood a neighbor had gone to the trouble of stacking before I’d arrived. Ironically, I’d only built a couple of fires in the stove, and then only because I felt like an ingrate. The logs were hefty — not split — but I had plenty of tinder and kindling, so using the large chunks of wood hadn’t been an issue, and their size meant not having to feed the fire as often. There was plenty of wood. I’d notified my friends, and they’d scheduled furnace repairs for the next day, so I really only needed to keep the fire going for the rest of the afternoon and through the night.

Let me emphasize the challenge here: I really only needed to keep the fire going for the rest of the afternoon and through the night.

Now, I’ve done a fair amount of camping over the decades, and I’ve successfully built a good number of fires, even in wet, rainy weather. Before that week, however, I’d never fired up a wood stove, but even with the large logs I’d done well and soaked up the comfort of the crackling flames with a big cup of hot chocolate as I relaxed in the evening. From my YouTube research (Yep. Did that.), I learned that although laying a stove fire is a little different from laying a campfire, the basic mechanics are pretty similar.

But laying and lighting a fire is only part of the experience. Keeping it going is a whole other story. The rules change when you’re relying on a fire for heat — and, therefore, survival.

When I’m out camping, the specter of potentially starting a forest fire hangs heavily over me. (Anywhere from 60-90% of forest fires are caused by careless humans.) A gust of wind, a fallen branch, or wildlife visitors can stir even a single coal into sparks that will take out thousands of acres of forest, as well as any homes and businesses within range. So any campfire I build is carefully extinguished before I turn in for the night.

In other words, the exact opposite of what I needed to do with the stove.

What I Learned

As it turned out, the overall experience wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be. Yes, I had to get up two nights in a row at about 3:30 a.m. to stoke the fire. (The furnace repair guy was delayed by a day.) But I managed to keep the coals alive, which allowed me to light the next morning’s fire quickly and easily a Good Thing, since two days of rain meant all the branches I needed for kindling were soaked. But I did learn a few important things:

  • I’m completely convinced that the stove I buy will have soapstone inserts. They radiate heat after the fire goes out, which means I won’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to tend the fire.
  • Hot coals are critical if I run out of tinder and kindling, and
  • I need NEVER to run out of tinder and kindling.
  • Dryer lint makes a freakishly effective tinder material. Seriously. (You want a sobering experience? Light some dryer lint in a fire-safe place sometime. You’ll never let lint build up in your lint catcher or dryer vent again.)
  • I really need to practice with wood-chopping tools. Really. REALLY. Because I’ve never had to do it before, except with a small hatchet on small logs. Very. Different. Experience.

And, pursuant to that last bullet point (and for your amusement)…the video.

 

 


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To Yurt or Not to Yurt

(Didn’t think that would be the question.)

Almost all of my concentration was focused on not rolling my eyes.

“OK,” I challenged him, “tell me why you permaculture guys are so against yurts.”

When we’d first spoken, Zev, the permaculture designer I’d engaged as a consultant, had similarly challenged me, asking me why I was so insistent on living in a yurt. “Is it just the cool factor?” he’d asked.

Well, sure, that’s part of it. Although there are plenty of other, equally cool alternative housing options out there, ranging from tiny houses to earthships to tree houses. One is limited only by one’s imagination. And building codes. And covenants and restrictions. And…

Whatever.

Why a Yurt?

In addition to the “coolness” of living in a yurt, I’m also attracted to the idea of living in a dwelling that blurs the line between inside and out. Yurts, with their fabric walls and central, domed skylights through which to view the stars at night, fill the order. My property is tucked just far enough away from the freeway that I should easily be able to hear the songs of birds and the movements of wildlife through the yurt’s sides. I look forward to hearing the sighing of breezes in the pines and the soft footsteps of deer passing through the woods.

Also, circles are sacred in many cultures, representing the cyclical nature of all life, the journey from birth to death and back to birth. My own experiences with round structures have always made me feel as though I’m being held in a soothing embrace. For that reason, I’d long ago decided to forgo erecting a large yurt and subdividing it into rooms. I mean, if I was going to live in a round structure, why in the world would I individuate living spaces within it using linear walls? So, my current thinking was that I’d start with a single, mid-sized yurt of no more than 24 feet and connect it to a smaller one at a later date to make my sleeping quarters and meditation space more private. I was even toying with the idea of eventually adding a third yurt to double as a dining area for when family and friends visit and a craft room where I could lay projects out with plenty of space to work. The three yurts could surround a small courtyard, where I’d have a tiny kitchen garden.

Ambitious yurtage, no?

But the bottom line for me is…well, the bottom line. Yurts are relatively inexpensive and easy to erect. Kits vary wildly in cost, materials, and degrees of completeness. Some are made of synthetic laminates, others of canvas, and still others of wool or wood. Some come with a base and a floor; some without. Some have window and door options, and some are more tent-like, with zippers and screens and acrylic window inserts for the winter. Some have insulating liners; others don’t.

I had two favorite yurt-makers, each with their own drawbacks. The one in Canada would require shipping the kit over long distances, making its carbon footprint a lot larger than I liked. However, their yurts are ecologically responsible and well-insulated, with a built-in floor and the option to buy a kind of foundation kit. The other was a local guy, which was more in keeping with my desire to keep my housing choices as low-impact as possible — not to mention the much-lower price tag. However, his yurts aren’t much more than framed-in tents. And their skylight domes are tiny, which meant star-viewing would be limited at best.

I’d already ruled out the yurt makers whose products are made from petroleum-based fabrics that not only out-gas but also have zero flame resistance. Their yurts also tend to be more permanent installations than the two styles I was considering, which would immediately increase the number of regulations I’d have to follow and permits I’d have to get.

So, back to my question to Zev…

Round Furniture and Other Concerns

Oddly (to me), furnishing the yurt was the first concern Zev — and Andrew, the original designer for the previous owner — raised. Don’t misunderstand me, I know I’ll face challenges trying to fit square couches into a round hole, but I’ve seen a lot of clever solutions to the problem. Modular furniture, several small satellite groupings, even custom islands and cabinets, if need be, could be fun to find or design.

He also raised several, more valid points. For instance, both designers also cited the fact that rectangular buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than round ones. A yurt provides less surface area for the sun exposure in the winter because the curve of the wall bows away to the east and west. I’d be less able to take advantage of passive solar energy, equating to using more wood to heat the structure. Yurts’ poor insulation also means they heat up more slowly and retain less warmth. The cost of wood — either buying it or spending the time to chop and haul it — would likely be higher, as would the environmental impact of burning more wood.

Rain-water collection — another important component of my plan for off-grid living — is also a challenge because it would require either custom gutters or some other less-effective work-around. Now, I’ve read there are folks living in yurts who rely on rain-water catchment to offset their well-water use, but I’m not sure if they’re collecting from the yurt roof, or if they have a barn, garage, or other building supplying non-potable water for showering, toilet flushing, and gardening use. It’s an important question, requiring further research.

Zev provided various and sundry other perspectives — some reflecting his knowledge of sustainable living; others clearly stemming from personal bias — but then he uttered the one word that gave me serious pause:

Mold.

The Realities of a Temperate Rain Forest

“I lived in a yurt near here for a year,” Zev told me. “Mold was a big problem. And not just the yurt,” he continued. “My stuff grew mold in there, too. Yurts don’t have great ventilation.”

Zev went on to explain that, because they’re made of fabric, there are plenty of tiny crevices where mold can take root and grow. Unless I wanted to do some serious cleaning and maintenance — quarterly, at least — I should consider another housing option. My neighbors, with whom I chatted later in the day, confirmed Zev’s prediction: I’d be battling mold, as everyone in the area did. (I later learned from the woman from whom I bought the property that she’d torn down the farm house on the parcel across the street because of an out-of-control mold infestation.)

Dang it.

While I found the idea of more frequent cleaning distasteful, it wasn’t a show-stopper. But my serious mold allergy was another matter. I was already stacking the deck against my health and comfort by living on a wooded plot of land. The idea that I’d have no haven from the threat of mold created doubt.

Is a yurt really right for me?

2017-12-04 12.51.16

Waiting for a yurt. Or…something.