Thursday, February 28, 2008

I have a very strong fantasy of the life I want to live when I move back to Pennsylvania. Every now and then this fantasy gets particularly strong and I spend a lot of time lost in daydreams about it—like now.

The fantasy is to own some land—a mix of woods and open meadow and to build a small house that’s completely off-the-grid and self-sufficient. I’d like to raise all of my own food—a mixture of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, eggs, chickens, rabbits, bees and goats. I see all of this vividly. I see the lay of the land, the house, the small barn and chicken coop, the orchard, the woods, all of it as if it were real. The house especially I see a minute detail. What bothers me is that while the house is small, it’s not as small as it could be. I have the house designed in a way that’s very pleasing to me, and yet somewhat wasteful of space. I’ve been trying to see if I can design something smaller that would still feel as much like “home” as this one does in my mind. I could certainly live in a one room cabin—I don’t require a lot of space—but it has to feel right.

The other thing that bothers me is—why do I feel the need to build something? Shouldn’t I find an existing structure and just upgrade it to be super-insulated and off-the-grid? Why disturb a relatively pristine environment to put in something new? Part of the original plan included a partial basement to use as a root cellar, but I think I’ve finally convinced myself that it’s excessive and unnecessary. I do have a pantry planned on the north side of the house—windowless and with exterior walls either of thick stone or straw bales. It should stay cool enough for storing most things, I would think.

I want it to be a place I could live out the rest of my life, so while I could strictly heat it with wood I think it should have some backup system for when I’m older and not able to chop wood and tend fires so well. I’m not sure what that would be. Maybe a radiant floor system that uses solar hot water. Or some geothermal heat pump system (I don’t know too much about that one yet). And a backup electric stove (or propane, or animal-generated methane, or….) and a small fridge. So I’ll need an active solar system in addition to my passive solar design, but it won’t have to be a big system, especially with no washer or dryer, computer, microwave, TV, VCR, DVD player, phone, answering machine, clocks, etc. Just heat, hot water, fridge, stove, and maybe some lights.

As far as I’ve come in my quest for simplicity, why is there still this need to have? Renting this house in Snyder has been such a godsend to me because it has helped to break the acquisitive pattern that homeownership created. My landlord once told me if I ever wanted to buy the house he would be willing to sell it to me. Almost immediately I began to fantasize about all the things I would do to the house if I owned it. Tile in the kitchen and bathroom, a new front door, new kitchen cabinets, bumping out the bedroom closets, a tool shed against the side of the house, a white picket fence, a big herb and flower garden out front…! Meanwhile, the house is perfectly adequate just the way it is. I don’t need any of those things I dreamed of.

Why couldn’t I live (once Collin’s grown) in a simple hermit’s hut, spending most of my time outdoors? Why need such an elaborate shelter (even if only 500 or 800 square feet) for just one person? A bed, a seat, a table, a stove, a place to store food and dishes, a toilet, sink and tub—that’s all I would need.

I struggle with the “do no harm” philosophy. In these times it’s more critical than ever, yet it’s so ridiculously hard to even approach that. I justify the idea of this house in numerous ways to myself. I would harvest dead or dying trees from the property and mill them myself to build the timber frame and then use straw bales (which are renewable) as infill. I would build a masonry fireplace that would require less wood than regular fireplaces and wood stoves and that puts, I believe, fewer particulates into the atmosphere. I would buy property that is wooded enough for me to harvest only dead wood for firewood (and still leave enough dead wood behind to decay naturally). I have so many ideas for how I would minimize my impact.

But what about staying right where I am as an option (assuming I could and the landlord wouldn’t want to sell it before I could buy it)? I could turn most of the yard into a garden and raise the majority of my food (a vegetarian diet of course would be the most feasible, but I could probably manage some chickens and/or bunnies. I long to return to Pennsylvania and would prefer not to live in a town (even a redneck town like Snyder), but from a responsibility standpoint staying put probably makes a whole lot of sense.

But then I argue, part of my desire to own land back east is the stewardship factor—snatch up some land and use it more wisely than some other sap might (but how wisely, really). I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know a lot of things.

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