We are sitting down to dinner, and the frogs are singing a chorus outside the yurt: “spring is coming! Spring is coming!” The light still fades early in February, so we light the candles. We’ve been here in our 30′ yurt for over three months now, and love it a little more every day. Neither of us has ever felt more at home in a place before.
We finally got it raised in early November, with the threat of winter moving in. It took my husband and two other guys two days to put up the frame and roof insulation/canvas, and me and him another day to hang the walls.
It still gives me a thrill every time I walk back from the lake and see the white dome through the trees. So many months of envisioning our home, of drawing out designs on graph paper, of looking at photo after photo of yurts online…it’s almost like a dream to see it in reality!
The frogs exemplify my favorite part of yurt living: the sounds. A canvas yurt is, after all, somewhat like an extravagant tent. You know those mornings when you’re camping and you wake up and hear all the noises of the forest through the walls? With not much of a sound barrier, it feels like you’re privy to the secret life of the forest.
As we’re eating our dinner, we hear the ethereal hoot of an owl signal that dusk is falling. Then silence as it swoops from treetop to treetop, and another hoot from the other side of the Hollow. I hear the owl almost every night, and still it sends a thrill through my blood. Like listening to a choir of monks chant in unison. Spiritual.
And the ravens! I love the ravens. They cock their black heads and watch you with their black eyes, and you feel that you are being appraised by a being of equal intelligence. They have so many different calls. We’re starting to understand some of them. Especially the one that means “A human! A human!”
At first it was an adjustment, living all in one round room. Though 700 sq ft felt spacious compared to the Tiny House where we’d spent the fall, the lack of square angles threw me for a loop. I’ll be honest, for awhile I mourned for the “normalcy” of our farmhouse. It’s one thing to dream, but actually taking the leap away from what society considers normal can be frightening. However, the more we’ve gotten used to it, the more we adore life in the round. There hasn’t been one moment yet where we felt it was too small, even though we are five people, and it’s forced us to find many creative space-saving solutions (which I will share with you here in future posts!).
Dinner is done and the kids have wandered off to continue construction on their train track, which currently stretches from one end of the yurt to the other.
We linger by the fire with our tea, discussing what needs to be done the next day. Soon we will be doing the second round of excavation in preparation for starting our gardens and orchard.
This is almost a bigger deal to us than getting the yurt up! Our second main goal, after squeezing ourselves out from under the banks and the weight of a mortgage, is to feed ourselves. Entirely. If not 100%, then as close to that as we can get. This is the main reason we chose this piece of property: the dirt. The beautiful, rich soil here. That, and the amazing system of rainwater catchment ponds. Not only is the cost of feeding a family a weighty load, but for years we’ve been pulling on the thread of what is moral and healthy to eat. In past years most of our efforts have gone towards raising animals. Producing our own milk, meat, and eggs, so that we didn’t have to buy into the mass torture that is factory farming.
But we’ve found we don’t really enjoy that part of farming. It weighs heavy on the soul, raising other beings only to slaughter them. Even more than that, we’ve found that we just don’t like the chores of animal farming, for the most part. It’s not our niche. A milk goat is hard to leave when you want to travel, and so one’s freedom is limited in a way that we both find claustrophobic. In reaction, I’ve been attracted to Veganism as a viable option, but the truth is that you find pain and unsunstainability at the end of almost every thread in the industrial food chain that you pull. Whether the pain is that of a pig raised in confinement, or that of human women burning their hands shelling acidic cashews for less than $1 a day, there is no way to shop at the grocery store that does not somehow involve buying into a flawed system.
And so our ethical search has led us back in time, back to when this peninsula was populated by small tribes of hunter-gatherers. In the end, the only ethical way to eat is from your own foodshed, whatever and wherever that is. It’s food at it’s most simple and basic. Eat what grows around you. Eat what nature offers in your own locale, whether you raise it yourself or support others who do. Here, where the forest is rich with life and the weather is mild enough that you can garden nearly year-round, the diet can be mostly plant-based, with some supplementation of seafood and lake fish. In, preparation, we’ve purchased a used aluminum fishing boat for use on the Puget Sound, and a wooden canoe to fish on our own lake. I also still have a few hens that came with us from the farm, and in turn for eating the bugs off of our lettuce, we use their eggs.
We spread our lists and color-coded maps of what and where to plant over the table. My husband is the real horticulturist in the family. He’s been meticulously tracking the sunlight’s daily path across the Hollow and planning out our crop rotations and the amounts of each thing we need to grow. We want to include as much of a variety of native plant species as we can, starting with our basic outdoor crops and hopefully moving on to constructing a greenhouse next year to house the exotic foods we love, like avocados, coffee beans, and bananas, as well as our winter fresh crop. It’s a long-haul plan for sure, one that our children will probably benefit from more than us. Right now we are trying to design a system for pumping the water up from our rain-catchment ponds and into the irrigation canals.
The owl hoots again and the conversation turns to sump pumps, and the inevitable conclusion: we should probably just give in and go on the grid. Neither of us wants to.
We’ve lived off grid now ever since September, first in our “Tiny House” and now in the yurt. We never intended to be off-grid when we started this project, but if there’s one rule of construction it’s that everything takes much longer than anticipated. At first this bothered me. I wanted everything DONE. RIGHT. NOW. Patience is not my forte. But I’ve sure gained some this winter! I’ve learned the beauty and necessity of letting things unfold naturally. One comes up with much better solutions when you actually live in a space for a time. And starting from scratch has given us a very honest look at what resources we use, and what we really “need” and don’t need.
And boy have we started from scratch! For months now we’ve been carrying all the water we use for dish washing and bathing in five gallon buckets up from our rainwater-catchment pond and heating it up on the woodstove. When you carry every drop of water you use, you see experientially what amount it takes to function. Our well is finally up and running, so we don’t have to buy drinking water. That was a big moment, the first time we drank a glass of our own water. It felt like a huge milestone. Afer all, water makes life sustainable. And my, is it beautiful, clear water! Not like the rotten-egg smelling wellwater at our farmhouse, which stained all of our appliances yellow.
Soon we will excavate a trench from the well down the hill to the yurt, and lay a pipe to run water to the pressure tank. From there it will be heated by two small tankless water heaters for our shower and sink. Oh! To have running hot water! The first thing I’m going to do is fill the tub to the brim and have a good soak. We’ve been bathing for months in a small tin tub by the woodstove. Even so, I already feel nostalgia for the simple way of life we’ve managed this winter.
And electricity: don’t get me started! We’ve gone back and forth a hundred times on whether to go on-grid. We’d like to do solar, but in reality, we don’t get enough daytime sun hours in this little wooded Hollow, and we’d end up spending a pretty penny on a solar system that would likely function poorly. We’ve also considered just sticking with the method we’re already using: a small inverter generator that we turn on for a couple of hours a day. Just like carrying water, using power in this way really narrows down your actual needs. For months now, all through the dark days of winter, we’ve been only using the generator to charge up the batteries on our cell phones and laptops, or sometimes to watch a movie during the long dark evenings. For heat, we have the woodstove (another huge learning curve!), which is also our always-on surface for cooking. For light we have candles. We’ve quite enjoyed the daily routine that lack of electric light forces one into. Every day, when dusk starts to fall, we all help clean up the yurt, to avoid stepping on legos in the dim light. Once it’s “candle time”, our world shrinks to the size of the warm glow around the table and woodstove.
Giving in and going on-grid will mostly be so that we can install a geo-thermal heat pump to keep temperatures even. It’s amazing how the body can adjust physiologically to varying temperatures. In the first weeks of moving in here, we were dying at waking up to 50 degrees. Now, as long as it’s above 40 in the mornings nobody feels bothered. We just don a warm sweater and some slippers and hang out by the fire for awhile. However, during the occasional cold snaps, where temperatures dip into freezing, it can get a bit unbearable to let the fire go out. At one point over the holidays, when we’d been away for the night, we came home to find our boots frozen to the floor. Waking up to 30 degrees is not much fun, though it does wonders for expanding one’s sense of humor!
We’re also resigned to the fact that a heat pump may also be the only reasonable method of keeping a stable temperature in our greenhouse. We could have a second woodstove in there, but that would require doubling the already-intense amount of wood we use, not to mention that tending a fire is a rather constant chore, even with so many helpers.
Tropical plants would also never adjust to the temperature variations of the fire going out at night, like we have.
So many decisions to make. We are not just building a home, but a dream. A dream of what a life of no compromise can look like. A dream of how a human family can live without causing harm to other beings and the earth we live on. A dream of a life without waste, where we give back to our surroundings more than we take. It’s easy to talk and speculate, but as our species tumbles in gleeful headlong abandon towards it’s own oil-guzzling, water-polluting destruction, what can we actually DO to live differently? The shackles of “convenience” are insidious. Some of you beautiful humans might join the sciences to study the melting arctic ice, or head off to save the white rhino. We are trying to prove, if only to ourselves, that it is possible to live with less. Less money. Less energy. Less water. Less space. Less harm. Which equals more time. More peace. More freedom. More health. More honesty.
I am sharing our journey in order to inspire and inform anyone who wishes to begin their own journey towards simplification. It’s a way to pay it forward, as we were inspired by so many other bloggers.
They are lofty goals. Right now they start with the minutia of pH testing our soil and trying to figure out how to wash cloth diapers by hand. Every great adventure is traversed by a thousand tiny steps.
The frogs go silent and in the distance a coyote howls. It starts to rain. I love the sound of the rain on the yurt roof. It’s like a lullaby.