Reflections on January, 2018

January 2018

Welcome 2018!

This year is going to be uber-progressive, I can just feel it.  Each day and week are going to bring us that much closer to “done-ness,” that milestone that is right around the corner.  Of course it is sunny and 65 outside right now and that always makes me feel positive and ambitious.  There is February, that impending month that is notorious for gloom.  Well that’s what books are for!  Anne has created some lists of excellent reads for winter months that I’ll be diving into.  But for now, let’s reflect on all the important advancements that have transpired in January!

In the first few days of 2018, we had a deer carcass to deal with.  Julius kicked butt skinning and butchering and dehydrating the deer he shot on Christmas.  He and his father tried several different methods of marinating the meat before dehydrating it.  In the end they decided on the pre-packaged bags of Jack Daniel’s meat marinade.  We now have around 10 gallon-sized bags of deer jerky in the food trunk.  A word to the wise: If everyone in your family is snacking on deer jerky several times a day, you can expect some unpleasant flatulence.  Maybe that was too much information.  Maybe I need some sympathy.

All of this butchering took place at the ‘rents house, during the cold spell in which the daily temps didn’t exceed 35.  As we drove out of the pasture, care had to be taken to miss the cow patties; frozen solid rocks of poop threatening to damage the undercarriage of the car.  The warmth and comfort of my in-laws house is always so inviting when we’ve been huddled around our barrel stove.  It is quite ironic that we leave our spartan abode seeking modern amenities, and then find ourselves boiling water on the stove to fill the bathtub because their pipes are frozen.  Ah, the joys of country living.  I busied myself with picking up after the baby and 3-year old, drawing up kitchen cabinet layouts, and bingeing the latest Orange is the New Black season.

When we returned to our little off-grid house on the plains, we cranked up the music and got one of the closets totally cobbed.  The other only lacks about 4 days of work.  The completed one (the kitchen pantry) will soon have a door.  Instead of attaching the door frame with anchors, we used 10 inch lag bolts, screwwed right into the bags.  I also added some cob to the spice rack shelf.  All this area is now ready for manure plaster.

pantry door january home-farm off grid cob earthbag

Light in the pantry. Door on the pantry. Messy kitchen.

Notice the bright light radiating from the pantry?  It has a classic pull-string light with an LED bulb, wired to our house batteries.  And, electricity flows to outlets now!  We have a breaker box in the utility closet, which sends electric juices to the many outlets and light fixtures now strategically placed throughout our home.  Moving on up, I tell ya.

water tank indoor off-grid

Water Operating Module (WOM)

In that same utility closet, hubby has been working on our water works.  A 55 gallon drum is now secured in the floor.  We have this inside so that when the water-catch totes and lines outside are frozen, we have some backup water.  In the future, this barrel may have a sand-bed filter on top of it, so that this water can be potable.  For now, it is just used for washing dishes.


Bottom of the tube that sucks water up


The other awesome thing that hubby did this month was designing and constructing the pan rack that now hangs above our stove.  He used 1/2 inch black iron, metal unions, a piece of hog panel and some black chains.  I LOVE it!  It definitely fits into the steampunk-bohemian kitchen theme that we’re going for.

steam punk pan rack

Adding hog panel to the pan rack


pan rack steampunk bohemian, kitchen

Constructing the pan rack


pan rack cast iron steam punk bohemian

We only lack a few hooks for all our cast iron pans

And now…

…for a special installment of the homesteading blog.  I did something like this once before in April of 2014, where I told you what happened each day of that month.  This is a little more zoomed in, on one day in particular.  I call it “Our Daily Routine as of Late,” or “Why it has Taken us Over 4 Years to Build a House,” aka “Living in a House Made of Dirt with 3 Children.”

7:30am  Alarm blares.  Julius gets up, makes coffee (for us) and begins his schoolwork.

8:00am  Baby wakes up, Julius brings us cups of coffee in bed. Aaron starts the fire in the barrel stove and brings me the baby to nurse while we sip the coffee in bed and sometimes read a bit of our novels. This is a pretty sweet deal for me.

9:00am  I get up, make eggs and toast, and change the baby. Mason wakes up and begins asking me to read to him. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell him we don’t read storybooks in the morning, he still asks.

10:00am We finish up breakfast and finish talking about the days’ work. Sometimes we get tangential and talk about ideas until 11.  Baby goes down for a nap.  Mason does his “homework;” lately its an old 90’s GeoSafari learning game.

11:00am We begin work; for me this is making cob or slapping it on the wall, for Aaron it is installing electrical outlets in the middle room. Baby wakes up and gets right to work batting loose dirt out of an overflowing bucket.

Noon  While I am smearing cob on the closet wall, Mason explains how we should build an airport outside the front door so we can land the plane he bought me.  He hands the plane to me.  It is invisible.  I take it with my mud covered hand.  He asks when I’ll be done. The baby crawls up, and with a cry that says I’ve had enough of this, he pulls on my pant leg.  I tell Mason that it is break time.  Aaron goes out to move cows.

12:30pm  I wash my hands, feed and change the baby, help Julius with his Works Cited for his hog research paper, and Aaron explains how the electric box works (for the 4th time) and I try to understand (for the second time).

1:30pm  I fry quesadillas for lunch while holding the baby and making play dough plants for Mason.  As part of my supermom power, I am allowed to use my secret 3rd arm during the hours of 1 and 2pm on Wednesdays.  Luckily this is Wednesday.  We all eat lunch and discuss plans for a hidden underground bunker.

2:00pm  Aaron finishes up some electrical stuff and continues work on the soil cement step. Julius brings in buckets of dirt and dumps them on my tarp for the next batch of cob. Then he plays with baby.  I smooth up the doorway I’ve been working on until I’m interrupted by a request for a butt-wiping.  I wash my hands again.

soil cement step granite pieces home farm

Soil cement step from west room up to middle room

4:00pm  Someone finally realizes there’s no music playing so it gets turned on.  Everyone kicks butt at their tasks: Aaron smoothing the step around the granite pieces, me making another batch of cob, Julius and Mason building Lego guys, and baby Kyias pulling all the board books off the shelf.

6:00pm  I wash my hands again, nurse the baby, and start browning some meat for tacos.  Julius has to wash dishes every night as a consequence for doing silly 11-year-old stuff.  Sweet deal for me #2.  Mason is “starving” so I peel an orange for him.  Aaron sees that I’m “not busy” so he begins explaining how the aluminum angles will be cut and placed in a particular way on the solar array.  I nod and pull the baby away from the wet cement.

7:00pm  We all eat supper and discuss how we will design the boys’ room.  I say it should have an electro-space theme with circuitry patterns on the walls.  Aaron wants the same idea, but with a steam-punk feeling.  Julius wants bunk beds and built in rock climbing walls. Mason wants a train track that goes all around the room with tunnels and an airport.  Kyias wants another bite of avacado.

8:00pm  Aaron makes the evening fire and I turn on the audio book Little House in the Big Woods and we all listen.  Julius whittles his deer antler.  Mason uses his little scissors to cut up pieces of paper into the tiniest confetti a 3-year-old can manage and carefully places it into a neat pile before the baby comes along and bats it all over the floor.  Aaron stares at the smart phone to research and order some little electrical contraptions that we need for the breaker box.  I clean up supper, put laundry away, and check math problems.

9:00pm  The Boys snuggle up in their pallet bed on the floor, just like Laura and Mary, while giggling about Daddy going out to shoot our wild hogs just like Pa.  Aaron changes the baby and then I nurse him to sleep.

10:00pm  Everyone is in bed.  This is a pretty sweet deal for me #3 because it is the quietest time of day when I do a bit of homeschool planning, reading, blogging or making lists of all the things I want to do when we’re finished building our house.

11:00pm  I have no trouble sleeping.


Books of the Month

Julius: No books this month, other than school books.  He’s been really into his computer skills studies, working through Get Coding and The Linux Command Line.

Aaron: Flamecaster and Shadowcaster, both by Cinda Williams Chima.

Me: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet can tell us About Who we Really Are by Seth Davidowitz. This is a super interesting read with this basic premise: People lie on surveys, skewing the results.  People don’t lie when they ask Google questions like “How do I make my penis bigger?” and “Flu symptoms.”  These are not surprisingly some of the most common queries.  But the book is filled with surprising truths drawn from Google searches.

Family Read Alouds: Little House in the Big Woods read by Cherry Jones and Buddha at Bedtime.

home farm chicken

Yes, that’s a chicken that sneaked in to eat crumbs





Reflections on December, 2017

Solar power is in the pipeline!

The ground mount frame for the solar array is now secured in the ground.  Each of the 12 posts are stabilized 6 feet underground with concrete.  The lateral frame has been welded to the upright posts.  The end caps are secured to keep wasps from making nests in them.  And the ring-a-ding bell has been hung from one of the lateral pipes.

One simply cannot build a super secure pipe structure and not accessorize with a steel pipe bell.

And then the research began; or continued.  Because he’s designing the whole system from scratch, Aaron has had to price and order all the various components which are greater in number than you might think.  There are batteries, which actually cost more than the modules themselves, the charge controller, inverter, AC and DC disconnects, PV wire, conduit, and materials for mounting the parts inside the power closet.  Currently, the high temperature of the day has been in the 20s so no one is working outside, on the array or otherwise.

Continued Work on the Floors

Without spending too much time on it, we laid out and agreed on a pattern for the granite pieces in the middle room.  They kind of flow from one room to the next and create a comet in the middle.  Of course this awesomeness is only temporary; an earthen floor will cover it eventually.  We decided to embed these granite scraps mainly because they take up space and save on Portland cement.

granite scraps home farm soil cement floor handmade home

Granite scraps take shape!

Our method for filling in this floor is to scoop up the loose dirt from the east room floor, run it through the vibratory separator (a mechanical sifter) then mix it with Portland cement on a piece of plastic tarp.  We use one #10 can of Portland cement for each 5 gallon bucket of sifted dirt.  After the dry ingredients are mixed, water is added until the mixture is soft and workable, but not sloshy, roughly the consistency of peanut butter.  Aaron smooths a spot of pre-leveled and tamped floor and wets it and the granite pieces.

granite scraps soil cement floor home farm

The process of laying pieces

He takes the chosen piece, blobs some soil cement on the back and flops it in place.  Then he lays the 4’ level across the previously done floor section and pushes down the new piece until it is flush with the first.  These pieces are allowed some hardening time before he fills in and smooths the spaces between the granite.

soil cement granite pieces home farm

Troweling in the soil cement

After a few hours and the cement has shrunk a bit, more gets smoothed into the cracks.  Then after a day or so, we use a wet rag to smooth down any rough surfaces.  One could probably find a sealer (polyurethane?) to cover this, as it does dust and crack with minimal use.  However, we are excited about installing and enjoying our future earthen floor, and won’t be sealing this soil cement subfloor.

soil cement floor earthen floor home farm

Soil cement floor with granite pieces in the middle room


cracks in soil cement floor home farm earthbag home floor


Cob Work

I believe the archways in the middle room are done with cob.  That is quite a milestone considering how many times I’ve added and shaped, and then shaved down areas to get them just right.  There are so many angles and surfaces to skew.  The next phase for these arches is manure plaster.

archway cob home farm

Archways are ready for manure plaster

With the cold weather, we’ve been able to further assess our home’s winter functionality.  Essentially, as long as we’re here it maintains a livable temperature.  We were gone to visit family during 2 of the coldest nights of the month.  There was no heat source, but the mass of the walls and all the cob prevented a rapid temperature drop.  Even though it was 30 outside, it didn’t drop below 40 inside.  I know, that’s hardly comfortable to live in, but imagine the conventional home.  The power goes out for a couple of days, there is no heat, the indoor plants freeze and die, and pipes freeze and sometimes crack or burst.  I think the mass of our walls minimizes temperature extremes, allowing us more time than a conventional home, to respond and achieve the desired comfort level.  Of course, we still have many comfort measures to put in place yet.  The rocket mass heater (coming soon!), cooling tubes, appropriate drapes for the windows, papercrete on the ceiling and eventually a closed outer wall under the porch on the north side.  All of these projects will greatly improve our living situation.

One recent upgrade is the installation of outlets in the west room.  They are the fancy kind, with USB ports!  Dragging the 50’ extension cord around the house will be no more as soon as we get those solar modules up and running.

USB outlets off-grid home-farm

Outlets are a super exciting upgrade

Ever heard of foamcrete?  It is a mixture of Portland cement and foam, from soap.  Mixed together, reacted, and dried, it is hard, lightweight, fire, insect, and mold resistant, and is a great alternative to bricks.  Just check YouTube for lots of videos of people making and using foamcrete in all kinds of creative ways.  We are planning to make some foamcrete for patio pavers and… more on that in a future blog.

My oldest son, Julius (11) has always had an interest in survival skills; DIY weapons, and fire-starting devices like the bow-drill.  Well on Christmas this year, he finished his hunter safety online course and quiz and went out with Grandpa to shoot a deer.  They hung it up in Grandpa’s barn and butchered it themselves.  My first-born isn’t a baby anymore!

December Booklist:

11 year old fiction fanatic home farm

Part of Julius’ stack for the month

When he wasn’t hunting, writing his research paper on wild boars, or whittling the spindle for his bow-drill, Julius read The Midwife’s Apprentice and Alchemy and Meggy Swan, both by Karen Cushman.  He also read the first three books of the The Lost Books series by Ted Dekker.  Because he enjoyed Crispin (assigned reading) so much, he picked up the second book, Crispin: At the Edge of the World by Avi.  And he’s been breezing through A Series of Unfortunate Events.  The Summoner series by Taran Matharu is included in Julius’ December list.

Aaron finished up Ruined by Amy Tinterra and the Summoner series books 1 and 2 by Taran Matharu.

Mason has been enjoying the Eric Carle storybook collection among other books.

The Read Aloud book this month was Robin Hood by Howard Pyle.  This story was such fun!  “Now hark you all!” cried Robin.  “Our dear companion, Will Stutely, hath been taken by the vile Sheriff’s men, therefore doth it behoove us to take bow and brand in hand to bring him off again; for I wot that we ought to risk life and limb for him, as he hath risked life and limb for us.  Is it not so, my merry men all?”  You simply cannot read such verbose language without tipping your nose up and adding an English accent.  Then we watched Mel Brooks’ satire, Robin Hood, Men in Tights, which is totally inappropriate at times, but we all enjoyed it.  We’ll get the Disney animated version next.

robin hood book read aloud

Robin Hood with an accent

This month I had to really force myself to sit down to meet my 2017 Reading Challenge goal.  I made it, just in time.  On New Year’s Eve, 2017 I finished Maeve Binchy’s A Week in Winter, which I adored, once I got the hang of her writing style.  From the point of view of a handful of characters, we get to visit this quaint bed and breakfast called Stonehouse in the west of Ireland.  It made me fantasize about my long-term life goal of having a bed and breakfast here on our land.

I also finished up Project Based Homeschooling and gleaned some useful tips.  It mostly gave me a confidence boost in some ideas I already had, like leaving project spaces set up and available all the time, despite the mess.  This is something that I have to continually remind myself: the mess and clutter are important and necessary for each member of the family to work on and achieve project-related goals.  The kids deal with our project of house-building, so surely I can handle theirs.

And for my 2018 Reading Challenge:

A Book Written the Year I was Born

An Author from Illinois

A Re-read

A Book Recommended by Someone with Completely Different Tastes

A Classic

A Book About Current Events

A Setting in the Southern Hemisphere

A Book About a Musician, Band, Singer, or Songwriter

A Modern Poetry Collection

A Book About Writing

A Book About Food

A Book About Education

I don’t usually do New Year’s resolutions, but this year, I’m going to give it a shot.  Yoga twice a week.  Resolutions must be realistic, yet challenging, so surely I can manage just 2 times a week.  I used to do yoga before my middle son arrived.  And now that we have a couple of flat floors, I can spread out my mat and stretch my body in the comfort of my own handmade home.

Do you have any resolutions?  Perhaps you’re going to take steps towards greater self sufficiency?  Got questions?  We might have answers.  Feel free to ask us in the comments.

Here’s to a peaceful and productive new year!



My Year in Books: 2017

2017 has been an exceptional reading year for me, given the circumstances.  Through childbirth and breastfeeding, continuing work on the earthbag home, and all the usual joys of family life, I was still able to prioritize reading.

2017 reading challenge

This was my first year attempting a reading challenge.  I got the idea from my Facebook book club.  One of the gals posted a reading challenge put together by Popsugar.  A few days later, I heard about Modern Mrs. Darcy’s two different challenges, one for readers who simply want to pile on the narratives, and one for readers seeking growth through books.  I liked the idea of choosing books not just because they were recommended by friends, but because they fit into certain categories.  As a person who likes organization, I appreciate fitting things into categories.  So, I decided to make my own personal reading challenge, not too modest; I figured I could probably handle a book a month, but enough to push me to sit down and commit.  And for external motivation, I posted the challenge to Instagram, #Alireads2017.

My category choices were fairly simple and straightforward.  You may notice that I took some ideas from MMD, such as a book in translation and a Pulitzer prize winner.  I wanted to expand my repertoire for genre, so that’s why I chose a young adult novel, a graphic novel, and a hip and modern romance.  I’m so pleased with myself for setting and achieving my reading goals and for finding these great titles, in no particular order:

A Graphic Novel:

March book

I don’t believe I’ve ever even picked up a graphic novel, let alone attempted to read one.  I saw a post from NPR on the exceptional literary value of modern comic books, so I chose one they recommended.  I tried.  I really did.  I tried March because it was supposed to be historically accurate.  Maybe I can learn something from this, I thought.  The images were distracting.  The font was irritating.  The binding held the paperback pages too tightly so it was a struggle to read it while nursing the baby one-handed.  Everything about this novel just didn’t work for me.  I tried.


A Hip and Modern Romance:

Eleanor and Park reading challenge 2017

A hip and modern romance was fairly easy to find.  I was skimming the R’s in the young adult section alongside my son who was looking for more Rick Riordan, when I saw Eleanor and Park.  I was immediately drawn to the cover with the headphones.  I love books that reference music I know.  Rainbow Rowell has a real knack for well-developed characters, especially through their vulnerable teen years.  So much of this book reminded me of my first love, my high school, and the overpowering emotion evoked from particular music.  After reading that one, I had to get Fangirl, which I loved a teeny bit more than Eleanor and Park.


A Classic:

to kill a mockingbird reading challenge 2017

To Kill a Mockingbird has been on my TBR for a long time.  In fact I began it last summer but couldn’t finish because I got distracted with life.  This time I stuck with it and really enjoyed little Scout Finch’s perspective on the unjust world she lived in.  I also really liked Atticus’ personality and his demeanor with his children.  A book club friend told me that if I liked his character, I should not read Harper Lee’s second novel, which I had just gotten from the library.  I promptly returned it.


A Book About Homeschooling:

This one fits into the continuing education category, About Homeschooling, because I am always open to new ideas about teaching my kiddos.  This wasn’t my favorite homeschooling book; a lot of things I new already.  It did open my eyes to the concept of making the kids’ projects visible at all times so that they can easily be reminded of and continue working on them.  I will keep this one around and look at it again for inspiration from time to time.


A Book by an African American Author:

underground railroad reading challenge 2017

I chose more than one book by an African American Author, and this one could have fit into two categories because shortly after reading it, it won the Pulitzer.  Anne Bogel raved about this one but I did not love it.  I was often confused by the jumps back and forth through time, and irritated by the constant sentence fragments.  There were some beautiful sentences though, and excellent imagery.  I wrote this quote in my reading journal: “Here was the Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor – if you can keep it, it is yours.  Your property, slave or continent.  The American Imperative.”


A Book with a Setting in Another Country:

cutting for stone reading challenge 2017

I could fill pages with quotes from this book with a Setting in another Country.  And I did, in my reading journal.  Verghese is a superior storyteller that taught me much about the recent history of Ethiopia, coffee, fistula surgeries, and a slew of new vocabulary.  I recommended this one to many people because it is such a good story with just the right amount of history, humor, sadness, and triumph.  Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “Malgudi was populated by characters that resembled people we knew, imprisoned by habit, by profession, and by a most foolish and unreasonable belief that enslaved them; only they couldn’t see it.”  Such powerful prose!  I could reread this one for sure.


A Book About Oklahoma:

dreamland burning reading challenge 2017

I loved this novel About Oklahoma, set in Tulsa in the early 20’s because of its historical accuracy and well-developed characters.  Race riots in Tulsa?  Who ever heard of such a thing?  Not many people because they were swept under the rug and excluded from history textbooks.  The whole skeleton in the back house and just enough, but not too much CSI surrounding it was a pleasant refresher from my Anthropology 101 days in college.  I found it enthralling how the author overlapped the race issues of the 20’s and the unfortunate race issues still happening today.  Note to self: assign this as school work for the boys when we get to Oklahoma study (and re-read it also).


Something Mom Loved:

a week in winter reading challenge 2017It is bittersweet that I fell in love with reading again in 2017.  Sweet because books can catalyze relationships between people and bitter because my mother (a voracious reader) died just 2 years before my reading spark occurred.  How I would have loved to make her a reading journal so that we could share our feelings about great books!  As far as I remember, she didn’t have a Goodreads account or any paper journal to track her reading.  I do recall seeing several books by this author on her bookshelves.  In reading one of her favorite authors, I get a sense of connection with her in the smallest way.  I can see why she liked Maeve Binchy, and maybe this cozy novel set in Ireland, and I’ll be reading more of her books.


A Pulitzer Prize Winner:

the known world reading challenge 2017

“Isn’t this a pretty cover?  Oh, it’s a Pulitzer Prize Winner too.  I’ll take it!”  I said to myself at the library.  Reminder to self: Don’t judge a book by its cover, Alison.  I really slogged through this one with its never-ending introduction to characters, jumps through time and place, and occasional references to licking sweat?!  I can’t see why it won the Pulitzer, other than its exploration of a seriously disturbing and rare occurrence: black people owning slaves.  This quote sums it up, “Of all the human beins on God’s earth I never once thought the first slaveowner I would tell to leave my place would be my own child.”  I was glad to finally finish it.


A Book About a Famous Person:

bossypants reading challenge 2017

For a Book About a Famous Person, I thought I’d choose something a little on the lighter side after all the disturbing historical novels.  This was exactly what I needed.  Many of the pop culture references were over my head because I don’t have cable television, live in a city, or dress to the cultural norm.  However, I did get her feminist theories, advice on parenting, and liberal jokes.  Actually, I really enjoyed the last 2/3 of this book.  I guess I wasn’t invested for the first few chapters because of all the references to acting and pop culture.  But the Rules of Improvisation and tips on motherhood were hilarious!


A Young Adult Novel:

book thief

This Young Adult Novel recommended by my book club was dark, really dark, told by death himself.  And set in Nazi Germany, and long.  Maybe the longest and darkest book of my 2017 reading life.  But it was so good.  I could relate to little Liesel Meminger and her love for words and books and her loveable foster father.  Two metaphors in one sentence on several pages was a bit much.  Overall, I really enjoyed this read.


A Book in Translation:

backman 2017

I had a hard time finding a novel In Translation that appealed to me.  I tried The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, but I couldn’t stick with it.  This novella, also with a lengthy title, and translated from Swedish, was much shorter and definitely sweeter.  It paints a picture with vivid imagery of the effects of Alzheimer’s and of the strong bonds of family that often skip generations.   It tugged on my heart strings enough for several reading challenges, thank you very much.

Other books I enjoyed this year that weren’t included in my reading challenge:

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan

Raising Freethinkers by Dale McGowan

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard

In all, it has been an excellent reading year for personal growth, historical education, and general word-nourishment.  If you haven’t tried a reading challenge yourself, I recommend you start with a manageable amount of imaginative categories and go for it!  It also helps to keep your list visible as a reminder.  Head to Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2018 Reading Challenge for inspiration and fun printables.


“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” -Haruki Murakami


Reflections on November, 2017

We’re now moving into the 5th year of building our home.  At the beginning, I assumed it would take 2-3 years.  However, my mother’s death, the birth of 2 baby boys, finances, and weather set us back months at a time.  I know now more than ever what kind of dedication, attention, and especially time it takes to build a home from the ground up.  When I worry that we’ve spent 4 whole years rearranging dirt in the middle of nowhere, I like to ponder what we’d be doing otherwise.  I can imagine we would be working some kind of 9-5 living in a house that sucked up most of our paycheck each month.  We may have had more time to focus on our careers, but the yearning for a home we built ourselves would eat away at our bored, underworked souls.  To be honest, I think we were destined to do this.

The years go by fast, but the days can go slow, so what’s important is how we spend our days.  It is ultimately gratifying to know that my days have been spent with my best friend and my children on a project that we’ve literally built with our bare hands.  A project that we have all contributed to and will enjoy and appreciate for years and years.

So Aaron got to work on designing the solar array including its placement, angles, and projected costs for materials.  We secured some discarded oil-field pipes to use for the frame and borrowed some tools from ol’ gramps, like the welder, cutting torch, and post-hole diggers.  We agreed to disagree on the placement of the array.  Aaron wanted to put it to the west of the house.  I thought it would obstruct our only nice view of the landscape, but Aaron assured me that it would be tall enough to see the view underneath.  Aaron also said that the array was The View and if it didn’t have to face south it would be turned around and pointed directly at the front of the house so we could see it from the front door.  But, with a little prodding from some trusted sources, Aaron finally agreed that east of the house would be a proper placement for optimal sun exposure without hurting my view.

solar array placement earthbag home

Aaron wanted it here, to the west of the house


solar array placement earthbag home oklahoma

Why not here? East of the house


solar array placement earthbag home

We agreed with the east placement


Working on the array has been slow but steady.  As usual, we are mixing on plastic tarps and not a wheelbarrow.  We mix in a bucket of chipped up granite scrap for each bag of concrete.  (This saves money on concrete).  Each 6 foot hole holds around 4 bags of Ready mix concrete, 4 buckets of scrap, and of course, the pole.  Genius hubby decided to set up the scaffolding to hold the larger poles in place while I mix and add the concrete and tamp it in.  Mason, the little builder, loves to help wet the concrete and even shovel it in.  We manage two pole-placements a day and Aaron welds the cross beams up there in what seems to me like record time.  Our only hold up is that we are running out of small granite scraps. So, we break up the bigger chunks down to gravel size with a hammer.  We might need to visit our granite dealer soon.

solar array placement

Marking the solar territory and digging holes


solar array pipe oilfield concrete

The first two posts for the solar array

After we set the outer posts in a row, Aaron used the car jack to hold up the cross-beam so the middle post would be level with the ends, while we concreted it in.  We thought it looked pretty comical way up there.

pipes solar array home farm

Mason climbing the scaffolding to weld the pipe.


car jack solar array oil field pipes home farm off grid

See the car jack up there?

As per November, it is chilly most nights.  Our first freeze was actually the last week of October.  It killed off the remaining basil that I forgot to harvest.  But then it was warm for a couple of weeks.  We moved the barrel stove back into the house; this time in the west room.  It has the tallest ceiling so we had to locate more stove pipe.  We thought long and hard about where we’d be constructing our permanent rocket mass heater and cut a hole in the roof in anticipation of that.  It puts the giant hot barrel in a ideal spot to create convective flow throughout the house.  Really hot stoves aren’t compatible with free range infants so we have to keep him out of that room unless he’s being held.  He’s only crawling at this point, but walking is in the very near future.

We got the Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide from the library and the boys have been studying it.  We first heard about rocket mass heaters through Paul Wheaton and his permaculture podcast.  He has several discussions with Erica and Ernie Wisner, the rocket mass heater gurus and authors of the book.  It contains all the basics, the theories, the what-ifs and a plethora of diagrams to get you well on your way to efficient home heating.  We highly recommend it.

book rocket mass heater erica wisner earthbag home

Super efficient radiant heater!

At this point, we’re thinking of building the mass heater into the bathroom wall.  As in, the wall will be made of cob, because that is mass.  The authors stress that location of the barrel and bench should be in an oft-used room, while allowing plenty of walking space around the people sitting on the bench.  If we build it into the bathroom wall, the mass can help heat the bathroom and bathtub, as well as create a sitting area on the bedroom side.  I must have a bookshelf with rolling ladder.  I must.  So, we are thinking the cob wall will only reach up around 5 feet, and a stick-frame 2×12 wall will become the bookcase with ladder.

It is funny how much our ideas change about the home.  We start out with one idea and then after designing some other area, the first plan is completely blown out of the water.  If you’re planning a build, keep in mind your plans, but be flexible!  Ideas, concepts, and opinions change frequently.  The earth is malleable and so can be the realization of your dream home.

My poor hands!  I feel like the before picture on a commercial for hand cream.  Between working with concrete for the pillars, portland cement for the soil-cement floors, and the cobbing and earthen plasters, my hands are so rough and scratchy.  I can’t even stand to touch sweaters because my hands feel like Velcro, catching on the fuzz.

I applied another big batch of earthen plaster to the middle room’s south side.  It is extremely difficult to shape the front door pillars with cob and equally hard to get good photos of them.  They bell out and the bottom because the bags there stuck out further than the upper ones.  The surfaces extending out from the windows taper, and there are rounded archways above each pillar and the door.  This means there are lots of angles to skew.  And I have.  I have added cob, scraped it down, and added more cob.  I’m trying not to be perfectionist about it, but dammit, I’m going to have to look at these symmetrical pillars for a long time!  And smoothing all the edges with the trowel is really tricky too.  Every little peck is progress, I keep telling myself.

pillars earthbag front door earthen plaster cob

Front door pillars

Little pushes of progress have happened on the middle room’s floor too.  The area where the refrigerator will reside is completed!  Aaron is creating a radial pattern with the granite scraps.  This photo shows the scraps after leveling and before the soil-cement fill in.

soil cement granite scraps earthen floor home farm

Granite scraps are leveled and anchored in place with soil cement


Other areas of our floor are totally cured and cleaned up.  We are totally happy with our soil-cement floor!  And it gets less dusty and dirty each month!  Baby prefers crawling on the finished floor as opposed to the dirt.  I don’t blame him.

granite scraps soil-cement floor

Touching up the granite scraps in the floor


A lot less dust and dirt can also be attributed to the finished walls.  We are totally pleased with the earth paint we’ve got on our earthen plastered walls.  We’ve added sifted granite dust to our paint to lighten it up.  I call it sandstone color for lack of a crayola crayon box.  Here’s some of the color variation.  The red on the left is with one coat of typical earth paint and scraping to remove the rough spots.  The middle brown color has no paint, just manure plaster and scraping.  The right light color has 1 coat of earth paint with granite dust.

clay paint earthen paint cob earthbag home oklahoma

Earth paint and plaster colors scraped to level the surface


walls earthen plaster alis paint

The same wall as the above picture, taken a little further to the right.  It looks like a real wall!

clay paint

The sandstone color really brightens up the room

Let’s zoom in on that photo real quick so you can see one of the fabulous attributes of cob.  We installed the fancy high-tech super duper futuristic light switch into the wall.  Then, after cobbing out that beautiful archway, we decided that the light switch should reside inside the archway cubby.  So, we chiseled it out, rewired it, and stuck it in the archway.  Then we cobbed back over the spot.  Ah, the beauty of cob.

chiseling cob to remove lightswitch

Removing the super duper futuristic light switch

lightswitch cob chisel

Moving the super duper futuristic light switch

I’ll show you the finished archway… when it’s finished.

Now, something that is driving me crazy these days.  Mason is 3.  At this age he has a stupendous vocabulary and he’s extroverted, so he talks.  A lot.  His latest thing goes like this, while I’m busy with the baby, or cobbing the wall and only halfway paying attention to him.

Mason: “Mommy, Darth Vader is strong enough to hold this granite.  Mommy he is.  He is mommy.  Mommy he is.  He is!!”

Me: “Okay, I hear you.”

Mason: “Mommy, I can use this bubble gun to give you powers.  I can Mommy.  Mommy, I can.”

Me: “Okay. Cool!”

Mason: “What kind of powers do you want Mommy?”

Me: “Oh, probably patience.”

Mason: “Okay. Pew Pew! Pew!!  Mommy, I gave you patience.  I did, Mommy.  Mommy, I did!”

“Okay! I have patience!”

And this happens around 5 or 8 times a day, every day.  Whew.  Fortunately, I found these.  They are called Playaways and they have pre-loaded audiobooks on them.  You get them from the library, insert a triple A battery and Bam! instant storytime.  He loves the stories and figured out how to operate the little devices really fast.  1) No screen-time worries.  2) Building vocabulary by hearing quality language.  3) An activity that keeps him quiet and gives me a sanity break.  Check check check.

playaway pre-loaded audiobooks

Playaways for preschool

Julius (11) has been reading ravenously again.  Here’s what he knocked out this November:

An Assassin’s Creed series: The Last Descendants by Matthew J Kirby (Aaron is reading this one too.)

Gary Paulsen’s The Voyage of the Frog

The Boxcar Children #3

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for school.  We used Bravewriter’s free Boomerang along with it.

Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer

Diary of a Minecraft Zombie book 2 by Zack Zombie

The Young Elites by Marie Lu

And he and Aaron are reading the Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide as mentioned above.

As for myself, I am still having a heck of a time getting through any books with all these kiddos in the dirt.  However I did finish Wonder by R. J. Palacio and loved it.  I think anyone could find enjoyment and compassion through this book.  We’ll be seeing the movie soon.  I am trying to get caught up on my 2017 Reading Challenge, so I’m working on Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Dreamland Burning.  Wish me some free time to get through those because I am enjoying them.

I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving.  This year I expressed my gratitude for my family and friends, and for the dirt.  I appreciate the dirt that gets under my nails, in my laundry, and even in my dreams, because we have done so much with it to make our home.


Reflections on September and October, 2017

Ah, the power of music!  I’m going to let you in on a little October secret: if you are facing a tumultuous task, turn on some music.  You won’t be disappointed.  I  have been nudging Aaron to get us a subscription to a music service for a long time.  “It will motivate us to get work done,” I said.  “We need some music variety to get us moving around here,” I nagged.  Well, I got a little birthday gift a while back and we finally decided to put it to a pleasing and practical use.

After a bit of research for a music service that really serves those of us with limited internet, we signed up for Spotify.  I don’t know that we’ll ever go back.  Spotify allows us to download 3,333 songs for offline listening.  And get this: no ads!  None.  Similar artist recommendations, yes.  Notifications about artists we like playing live in our area, yes.  Podcasts and talk radio, yes.  Thousands of artists, yes!

And we have been motivated more than ever before!  Lots of plastering, cobbing, artistic detail work, clean-up of messy cluttered areas, organization and proper placement of tools are the items we’ve been continually crossing off the list.  And man it feels great.  At times, we just look around and talk about what a great job we’ve done.

So here’s what we’ve been listening to:

Kaleidoscope Jukebox, The Human Experience, STS9, SoDown, Pretty Lights, and Bassnectar mostly for those stay-up-late-and-get-the-batch-done nights.

Nahko and Medicine for the People for the cobbing detail work and stomping in the muddy cob itself.

Arkansauce, Leftover Salmon, and Grateful Dead for pretty much any task.

Oh and the playlists Brain Food, Chill as Folk, and Mellow Beats are where its at for motivating music around our house.  What Spotify playlists get you going and keep you motivated for creativity?

And here’s what this music has inspired us to do:

We’ve changed our method of soil-cement floor installation.  Previously, we mixed the soil and Portland cement on a tarp dry and poured it into the space and then wetted it with the hose.  We did this mostly in the west room where we now have a good amount of cracking.  We can feel the actual plates of stabilized earth wiggle on top of the packed earth underneath.  So Aaron tried something new.  He mixed the soil and cement on a tarp, wetted it, and then troweled it on, much like you would do an earthen floor.  After experimenting with that method, he then had the idea to set some of our granite scrap pieces in the floor first and then use those for leveling “islands” which could then have soil-cement troweled around them.  This method has proven to create a very hard and quite pretty floor.

soil cement october 2017 music

Soil-cement and granite scrap flooring

He has discovered The Most Efficient Way to mix the soil-cement and water on a tarp.  It’s called the Volcano and Mason (3) is an expert at pushing in the sides slowly so that the water sinks in and doesn’t spill over the edge.  He even told me once to back up and let him show me the right way.  Like father, like son.

october 2017 music

The volcano wetting method

Another great discovery is that keeping the floor covered with tarp for a month (optimally) really reduces cracking.  And of course then we got excited all over again about the multitude of granite pieces we have lying around.  Now, these floors may ultimately be covered by an earthen floor, but this makes a functional and pretty subfloor in the meantime.

We have also completed much of our step work for our multi-level home.  I can remember being a kid and thinking that my friend’s “split-level” home was so cool.  And now we have one.

Our window sills have come a long way and utilized the granite scraps as well.  Sheesh, I hope the guy who supplies the granite reads this blog!  We had trouble deciding whether the sill should stick out further than the wall, so one window doesn’t and the others do at differing amounts, but hey.  Character, right?  I just love the look of them.

window sills earthbag home october 2017 music

Loving the window sills

I got giddy thinking about accent pillows to put in them for little nook spaces.  I love the idea of sitting in a window sill like a cat, warming up in the sun’s glorious rays.  And then hubby rained on my parade by completely filling the window sill spaces with plants that needed to come in before the frost.  We compromised and I get one free window.  The other 6 are for plants.  That’s fair right?

earthen home october 2017 music

Gorgeous window sill progress

Our super cool sun/sunflower hasn’t had as much attention as I would have liked to give it, but it has improved some.  Our friends came and helped out with it some.  We added some granite chunks there, too.

granite scraps embedded cob sculpture october 2017 music

Granite scrap accents to the sun flower cob design

Plastering happened again!  I really enjoy it… once a month.  We make pretty big batches so that we use exactly one bucket of cow manure for good measure.  It’s amazing how different it feels squishing between my toes.  The manure gives the mud a frothy texture.  Maybe that helps the smoothing quality on the wall.  My arm gets tired too, but it’s nothing compared to the cramping that happens in my hand.  With good electronic music, a couple of Sierra Nevadas, and some dedicated family baby-sitters, I was able to complete the underside of the archway and go from the far west side (let’s say 0 degrees) to just shy of 180 degrees.  And it looks great!  It really makes the spice rack pop.  I’m going to make you wait on pictures of the spice rack by the way.

The borders of the archways have been growing as well.  It takes a massive amount of cob to build out our massive archways!  We’ve decided on a blocky pattern for the middle room.  The little blocks can hold pictures or little kick-knacks, or maybe even tea-light candles.  I listened to some Indian-themed electronic music while I sculpted the top of this archway.  We had to use all the words that came to mind to describe the archways so that we could get them to match.  One of them looked Indian, Aztec, and Indo-European, while the other, taller one looked like southwest Texas, Roman Catholic meets Taco Bell.  Needless to say, the latter one had to be revised.  It now looks more Indian.

The middle room’s food pantry floor is complete with soil-cement and granite scraps!  And the middle room’s lower floor is now totally level and has a tiny portion stabilized.  We’re going to need to purchase more Portland cement.  Small sections at a time are the most feasible with the baby, and curing times, and the middle room being the highest traffic area in the house.  We’ll probably get that floor complete during November if all goes well.  An earthen floor is in the pipeline for that final floor, but for now, it’ll be granite scraps and good old soil-cement.

earthen floors october 2017 music

Studying up

Alis, or aliz, is a clay paint that has been used for centuries as a sealer and paint for earthen and adobe walls.  We’ve been absolutely astounded at how gorgeous this stuff looks.  It is practically free, being made up of subsoil, wheat paste, and water.  And it paints on so smooth.  It gives that southwest look that is matte, warm, sturdy, and somehow comforting.  We love the color of our subsoil, but are ready to experiment with pigments and colors.  We plan to try some sifted granite dust for a very light or almost white color.

alis paint over earthbag walls october 2017 music

Alis (clay paint) gives the most beautiful finish

Our recipe for alis (clay paint):

1.75 buckets dry and sifted subsoil

6 cups wheat paste (2 cups flour, 6 cups water)

The subsoil is first mixed with water, much like cob without fiber, on a tarp.  Thoroughly stir 2 cups wheat floor into 2 cups water.  Then add mixture to 4 cups boiling water.  Continue mixing and heating until paste becomes translucent.  The wheat paste is then poured in (hot) into the wet subsoil and mixed with the paint mixer attachment on the drill, add water to achieve a sour cream consistency.

It was recommended to wet the wall first for proper sticking, but we’ve painted plenty and it goes on just fine dry.  We used to have issues with little bumps and crumbles, but found that sifting the dirt first creates a stunning, smoothish finish.

Food on the farm:

Our chickens are laying eggs!  They are the classic brown farm eggs and they taste great.  And we did harvest some food this year, thanks to all that wonderful rain we got.  Plenty of green beans, okra, and a few tomatoes.  Having finally grown some of our own food is music to our ears and nourishment to our bellies!

okra baker creek

Okra! Baker Creek’s burgundy variety

okra burgundy october 2017 music

Burgundy okra tastes just like green

A tiny piece of big news:

We now have more solar modules!  We took a leap and purchased 18 280 watt modules.  This is 5 kilowatts of power.  Go ahead, check your electric bill.  Yeah, we’re going to have a lot of power.  They are huge and will span a large area.  I am not totally happy about the placement because I feel like the array will stand in the way of our only pretty view of the landscape.  But Aaron assures me that the array is quite tall off the ground and the view will still be visible from our back patio, underneath the array.  Now, arrays are typically built with pre-made and ordered kits and are built by a team of professional installers.  That being said, Aaron is going to build our array as a ground mount frame from 3″ oilfield pipe and install the modules himself.  I can’t wait to show you pictures.


Our 6th grade homeschool year begins!

I was super busy last month coming up with all the curriculum, focus, and book lists for this year’s plan of action.  In following with The Well-Trained Mind’s chronological approach to history, we’re moving up through the Middle Ages and Medieval Times.  As I was going through the events and important people and places that we’ll cover, it became clear that all the exciting stuff happens toward the end of the year, closer to the Renaissance.  So, we’re focusing more on reading great literature and preparing for the research paper that he’ll write.  I’m way more excited about it than he is.  Often, my enthusiasm rubs off on him, so hopefully that will be the case with this project.  Beyond the usual math, Latin, and history, I have come up with this list for assigned reading:

6th Grade Assigned Reading List

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

And Then There Were None: Agatha Christie

Crispin by Avi

The Midwife’s Apprentice: Karen Cushman

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Shakespeare’s Scribe by Gary Blackwood

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield

book pile boy 6th grade homeschool eclectic october 2017 music

Our first day of 6th grade

A note about last month’s blog:

You may have noticed there was no blog for September.  Well, actually there were 2 blogs, they just weren’t the usual Reflections entries.  They were about the part-time job that I signed up for homeschooling our son.  I had been saving files of pictures and keeping little notes about all the assignments we completed and books we read and places we went.  I called it the H.O.M.E.School Journal: 5th Grade Review and you can certainly check it!  The other blog was a list of 9 Secular Podcasts for the Homeschooling Mama for those of us who need some inspiration and direction.  Feel free to check that one out too and add to the list in the comments if you know about more.

Books of the month:

Aaron: Tiger’s Destiny by Colleen Houck, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and Avenged by Amy Tintera

Myself: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham started out as such an excellent book, until it was stolen right out of my Kindle!  And now the waitlist is more than 10 people and neither of my libraries have it.  Ugh.  I tried to read Lord of the Flies with Julius, but it was difficult to concentrate on in my tiny window of reading time in bed at night.  I also began reading Wonder by R. J. Palacio and I can say with confidence that I will finish it.  What a heartwarming story!

dreamland burning kindle tusla music

An awesome read about Tulsa’s history

Julius (11): Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Tiger’s Curse and Tiger’s Destiny by Colleen Houck, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and he began reading Wonder, and loves it as much as I do.

Mason (3): Both bigger boys have been enjoying the nights when I have the energy to read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle aloud.  I had never heard of her until my mother-in-law mentioned one of her “methods” once.  I had to make sure she wasn’t a real person.  The stories are pretty easy to read aloud with funny character voices and each one has a bit of a moral that we talk about.  Mason has also been getting into audiobooks.  Our library has Playaways, which are pre-loaded mp3 players.  You just insert a battery and earbuds and you’ve got a read-aloud.  Great for busy cob-sculpting moms who feel guilty about not reading to their sons.

What’s in store for next month:

I’m hoping we’ll get the middle room’s stabilized subfloor done.  I’d really like to get lots of cobbing out of the way because the soil we’re bringing in and the water from outside is getting really cold!  I mix it with my bare feet remember.  And, I’m hoping that hubby can get some parts ordered and begin the giant erector set that will hold our solar modules.  Happy Halloween folks and Happy Homesteading!

october 2017 music