What’s Under Your House?

Funny how we can avoid some things for a long time. I can’t see the serious rot in this picture (hiding under the porch as it was) so everything must be fine, right? On October 7, the front porch looked like this.

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The steps are fairly new but the rest of the porch doesn’t look great, I’ll grant. It shows signs of age. It’s not going to win any prizes. But for seven years we could walk on it and use it as people use a porch, as the transition in and out of the house, from earth to indoor space and out again. And for 38 years before that, the previous owners did the same.

Wanting a new thing comes in handy sometimes. I wanted a new front porch. That’s what drives this whole project. I wanted a new one in part, I admit, because the old one looked shabby, but mostly because I knew it was in the way of addressing why we sometimes had water coming into the basement. Water coming into the basement made me nervous. It didn’t happen often, but it happened.

Something was wrong, but what? When you know your foundation is wood, and you’ve got leakage, you suspect the wood has something to do with it. But you can’t get to the problem unless you remove the porch. And once you remove the old porch, you have to build a new porch. See? Wanting a new thing comes in handy sometimes. In the end, I get a new porch!

Reality was unavoidable as deconstruction began.

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The joists that held up the decking boards don’t look terrible from afar. But closer up, their condition is clear.

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Ah, well, those are going away anyway, you say. Nothing even salvageable here. And once the porch was off the house completely, it still didn’t look too terrible.

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Until you got up close.

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There are actually two boards here, one on top of the other, one exterior and one interior. I’ll draw a red line so it’s easier to see what was left of the exterior board after we – easily! – removed the soft, spongy fibers of what used to be solid wood.

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Rot is not as icky as some icky things, but it is nonetheless firmly in that category for me. Rotten wood is soft and dry-spongy and comes apart in shreds and flakes as you scrape at it. When you see rot, you think of the insects and the moisture have been working steadily along for decades (that’s what makes it icky for me), turning a hard, dense, supportive substance into a weak filler. When that weak filler is holding up a portion of your house, you had better do something about it.

It’s not always a pretty world. This rot was under my porch all along. How did it get this way? Time, certainly, will cause wood to rot, but the bigger factor is water.

When you look out of my living room windows, you are facing the Southwest Mountains, foothills of the Blue Ridge, a mountain range that starts in Georgia and ends in Pennsylvania. I love the view but I have to be careful of those windows. When it rains, the rain wants to come in on that side of the house. If I have left windows open in warm seasons and I wake up to the sound of rain in the night, those are the first windows I go check. Guess what else faces those mountains: my front door.

When we first moved into this house, rain came in under the front door so bad that it damaged the oak flooring that the previous owners had installed just before selling the house to me. Bradley had taken up the damaged part. When we saw what was underneath, I remember shuddering and thinking yeah, that’s going to need to be addressed sooner or later. He replaced the damaged boards with new boards, Sandy installed gutters that presumably arrested the further development of the rot under the door and we were able to forget about it for a while. All right, for seven years.

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The day after Sandy took the front porch off, Joe dug out the dirt. Then it looked like this.

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All that weight of all that wet earth for all those years in this part of the foundation made the wall weak. Removing the dirt relieved the pressure, but the blade of the excavator nicked the sheet of plywood in the middle and it was enough to push the soft, compromised wood in just a bit. From the inside it looked like this. You can see that plywood, pushed in, as well as the 2×6 next to it with a large crack.

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We put new plywood over the old on the outside, but had to mend the inside of course. We started with a horizontal bottle jack that forced the upright (cracked) stud to a reasonable vertical again, then added a 2×6 to either side of it (and to the upright to the right) for additional support. We also removed those wires and redid the electrical in that area.

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Upright supports were strong again, so then we could address the horizontal rim joist in such bad shape under the door. That involved jacking up the house, the nerve wracking part of this project that no one wanted to do, but there was no avoiding it. More on that soon.

Old Timbers Well Aged

Don’t get the wrong idea. Don’t read the title of this post and think I’m feeling spry and am going to tell you how a good diet and a consistent and sensible exercise routine have long term health benefits. They do, but “old timbers well aged” does not refer to me!

I’m talking about timbers, the kind that come from trees. In this photo from six years ago when the cottage was being built, you see two tree trunks laying down, about 12 feet long. I’m talking about timbers that come from logs like this.

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In our early days on this property, we had to take down trees. I hated it. Perfectly fine trees they were, but in the wrong place or just plain too many of them. I could hardly watch. After the deed was done though, Bradley used an attachment for his chain saw  called an Alaskan saw mill. With it he milled the logs into usable lumber. In the photo below you see two tents. The one on the right, down the hill a bit, was filled with usable lumber milled right here at Golden Hill. (The one on the left still stands, still houses firewood.)

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Among the stacks of wood were some larger oak timbers, the center sections of felled trees that ended up about 10” x 10” x 12’. Some of these were milled to make the clapboards that sided the original chicken coop that my sons Bradley and Lincoln built.

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The rest sat under the tent, unneeded. Frankly, forgotten. Other things become more important (you know how that goes). But sometimes it’s a good thing to forget something. Sometimes, things need to age. This past spring, when building the new coop, I thought about its siding.


The T-111 all by itself (already skinning some sections of Coop #2 in progress) might have been ok if Coop #2 was not sitting next to Coop #1 with its rustic, oak clapboard look. We planned to use the same red metal roofing material, so that would coordinate, but the siding was in question. Obviously, rough cut oak clapboards would be best, where was I going to get them? (I completely forgot I had those oak timbers!) I rejected the T-111 because no matter how we might stain it, it would still look inferior and incongruent. I looked into cedar shakes, thinking they might complement the oak of Coop #1 nicely, but oh, no – really expensive.

It was one of those bumps in the road that (in part because of your failing memory) you can’t see to the other side of. All this effort — yes, I know, a considerable bit of effort for chickens! — and no idea how to side the coop. Thankfully, there was enough else to do, and I back-burnered this problem. Clearly there is always enough else to do around here!

That tent that houses the firewood, pictured earlier, also houses other things that don’t fit elsewhere but need to stay reasonably dry. (There is no proper barn or storage building here.) The lawn mower, ladders, straw bales, extra garden fencing, stakes and – OH! What’s that wood under that pile?? God bless my boys!

Large, long, aged oak timbers!

It’s one thing to have the right timbers. It’s quite another to have them cut down to the right size. I went to a local mill to see if they could help me. No, they don’t mill other people’s wood. I guess I can see that. What if there was a nail or something worse stuck in the wood? Much as I wished I could have clapboards made from these timbers, I felt discouraged. If this mill wouldn’t do it, what made me think another one would? I was lamenting this to my neighbor Tracy, who immediately and casually said she knew someone who could do it.

I’m from New Jersey where we have this thing: “I know a guy.” You have a problem with your carburetor, your friend says, “I know a guy.” Your septic backs up, your neighbor says, “I know a guy.” You need someone to move the old, no-longer-running camper out of your driveway, your uncle says, “I know a guy.”

Tracy knew a guy. His name is Chris, and he was very happy to turn those timbers into clapboards just like the ones on Coop #1. He came, took them and milled them into rough pieces about 3” x 1/2“ x however-long-they-ended-up – all for a very good price. Chris said that if the timbers had not sat for six years, the wood would have too much moisture in it and would warp more and shrink more, and you don’t want that. See? It’s good I forgot all about them! It’s good I found them again!

The past two weeks, while waiting for the rain to stop so we could proceed with Big Dig Part Two, it seemed like a good idea to get the rest of those clapboards up. One afternoon I put up long pieces along the back of the coop. Their imperfections are so perfect. You see how some are darker than others. Some have knots. As more went up, as if I didn’t like it a lot in the first place, I liked it better and better. You are welcome to disagree, but I do think the clapboards beat the T-111 by a long shot.

At the bottom, where you see those rope handles, a horizontal, red flap of a door will go.


One thing at a time here, working our way around. The side with the egg door is special and needed special framing. This is silly Coco a few months ago. Someone (can’t imagine who) put her inside the coop. Hey, do something. I’m stuck.

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Joe showed me how to use the band saw to cut the pieces to frame it out after I’d enlarged a template I found online.

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It framed out the egg door nicely. Do you think anyone else but me cares about this?

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The weather was good, so I kept going. First the cedar upright along the right, then one along the bottom, then the oak clapboards.

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It was tricky working around the netting that forms a ceiling over the run to keep owls and hawks away from my Bridge Club. But with a lot of help from Sandy doing all the trim pieces, it’s (nearly) finished, and I love it! Chickens never had it so good, it’s true.

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It still needs a ramp so the chickens can get up into the coop, which you may be glad to know they are now sleeping in on a regular basis! They are going in on their own at night! With no help! Okay, most of the time. Okay, with some help sometimes still, but mostly they have the idea. A new ramp would make it easier for the silkies. We want to make it easier for them. Who wouldn’t?

Sandy dressed up the front with a fascia board right — that horizontal piece just below where the roof ends. This is without it, earlier this week.


This is with it. See the difference?

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I’m not a builder. I’ve watched things being built many times, but never — before this chicken coop project — felt comfortable with the chop saw or the few other tools I had to use. There are many mistakes, many places where the cut could be better or the gap between boards a little tighter. And I’m still not comfortable when the piece is too small or the cut anything but straightforward. But it seems to me that a chicken coop is a good way to get your feet wet because when something is not perfect you can say, “It’s a chicken coop!” And not worry about it.

Also remember, next time you think nothing is happening, think again. Something is aging, waiting, getting better with time. The oak timbers needed to sit in a quiet, out of the way place for years. There they were under the tent, truly forgotten, doing their thing, releasing their moisture little by little, waiting for their day. Old timbers well aged turned out to be the icing on the cake!


A Dead Man and a Pipe

When you want to make a barrier, you have to make it strong. Sometimes you have to use a dead man to hold it fast, to make it stronger than it would be otherwise. Before today, I did not know how to do this. Before today, “dead man” had only one meaning for me. But now I am confident I understand when it makes good sense to use another kind of dead man.

I was up late last night listening to the rain falling on the newly graded front yard that was not yet finished. Joe had said a little rain wouldn’t hurt anything and would in fact make that loose soil more compact, but I worried anyway. I’d spent $500 to rent the mini-excavator for the weekend and wanted full use of it. No rain allowed! No daytime rain anyway.

I woke up raring to go, thinking we’d get as far as digging post holes for the front porch today. I made a bacon/spinach/swiss cheese quiche to have for lunch while waiting for the guys to get here. Sandy and I then started with moving some liriope and rocks from around the big oak tree. When you move a big rock, there are often lots of bugs underneath it. A feast for a silkie! I went and got one lucky chicken. Oh, how we amuse ourselves!


This is One-Eye, the hen we thought we lost when she had an eye infection as a very young chick. She did not like the 4x-daily eye dropper with antibiotic, I can tell you. And she looked quite sickly for a while. But she lives and she hunts and she pecks!

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Our entertainment for today also included a native creature, Mr. Toad.

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We got the brilliant idea that Mr. Toad would like to meet Miss Silkie. This did not work out so well. She took one look at him and

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turned the other way. They weren’t the slightest bit interested in one another. You can tell from her dirty face that she has been enjoying bugs in the dirt though!

This photo gives a better idea of today’s work area. The stick laying down on the dirt between the tree and the house is where the new porch will come to, 6 feet out from the house.

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After Joe came, he got on his Tonka Toy and played with dirt for a while, moving it here and there, compacting it, preparing the place where we would put a retaining wall. There is no way we would have accomplished what we did today without Joe, without this machine and without Joe’s skill on this machine.


Because of the slope of the land and the driveway going down along the side of the house, a retaining wall is necessary. Five 12’ 6×6 pressure treated pieces of lumber would do the trick; anyway Lowe’s didn’t have any railroad ties. The first piece we put in, perpendicular to the house from the corner, we had to move. The porch is going to come out from the corner, and you can’t dig a post hole and pour concrete into it if you have a retaining wall there. So we moved it a foot or so inward, closer to where Joe is on the machine.

Once the first 6×6 was in, level and squared to the house, it was time for the second layer, including (the moment you’ve been waiting for!) the dead man! Why is it called a dead man? Your guess is as good as mine, but that’s the name for a long, buried object used as an anchor in constructing walls. It will keep it from leaning when the weight of earth, especially wet earth, pushes against it. The dead man goes back twice as far as you see; Joe got busy covering it in dirt before I could snap a photo.

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In our case the dead man is part of the second layer of the wall next to a short length of perforated pipe. We put screening across the back end of the pipe; the whole thing will be covered in gravel tomorrow, then landscape fabric, then dirt, and will help carry water away from this area. The pipe was a little taller than the wood, so Sandy used the heat gun to soften the plastic just enough for it to press down under the weight of the third layer.


Each layer was secured to the one beneath it by use of timberlocks, which are long, heavy screws that sink into the wood so the next layer can lay flat on top.

By level four we were moving quickly both because we could robotically drill-timberlock-drill-timberlock all the way down the line and because my cottage guests had returned and were building a fire in their fire pit and I was worried our noise would disturb them. Drills are loud. But they kindly said it was all fine and asked a lot of questions later about the project. That was nice!


We decided that five levels would be enough. It’s way more than was there before, and has a drain, which the old wall didn’t have either.


Next we will fill in the gravel over the pipe, finish grading and dig post holes!! I know (I know!) it’s not normal to get excited about mixing concrete, but in my mind I can see what each step leads to – a beautiful new front porch! – and this makes it very exciting.

I’m not saying I don’t also get a thrill from seeing the incremental changes one by one, from digging shovelfuls of dirt, checking if the board is level, bearing down on timberlocks to get them through the wood (though I wished I was stronger for that task!) and learning about dead men. I do. I love having stared at this area for a long time, wishing there was a nice porch, and now watching it become a reality. I get to not only see the transformation, but also to work alongside and help make it happen. I am so grateful and happy that I am not just watching. For me the same thing happens when a tennis tournament is on TV. I can watch it for about five minutes and then I want to get out and play!

When A Dig Is Big

When you have been waiting seven years to dig a hole, to expose the foundation, to see what’s really there, to assess the problem and to fix as required, and the day finally comes, you want two things: You want to be there and you want the sun to shine. When what you are doing is a dig so big that you can’t call it anything but The Big Dig, you can’t have rain. Our planned dig-date coincided with Hurricane Florence making landfall. Here in Virginia we didn’t get the worst of the storm, but we got plenty of rain. Bother. We had to cancel the plan to dig the weekend after Labor Day.

I didn’t want to miss all the fun, but I was heading out west on Sept 20. It kept raining in Virginia and was too wet to dig the weekend of Sept 22-23, and the weekend of Sept 29-30. Finally, the forecast for October 6-7 looked rain-free. And I flew home on Oct 6. It begins!

Joe had said he could take the old front porch off with the excavator, but I thought there might be salvageable wood. Sandy took it apart board by board on Friday.

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Except for the steps, which were new a few years ago, he found that the rest was rotted beyond further use.

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So it all went in the burn pile.

With no way to get into the front door, this project was officially underway. Now there’s no turning back! A new front porch there will be. But not until we make sure that the front foundation is in no way damaged, in no way compromised, in no way going to cause problems in the future.

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Weeks ago, when I was frustrated at being unable to find a contractor willing to do this work and we had determined to do it ourselves (because it had to be done, and you know, it can’t be rocket science), we had talked to Joe about this project. God bless him. He said, “You don’t want to do this yourself” in regard to the excavating. Graciously, without flat-out saying People who have never operated an excavator should not do this work, he implied that such things were best left to those with experience. I am so glad he said what he said, however he said it to make me understand, and I am so glad I listened! This man is a master on that machine! It might not be rocket science, but it’s a skill he has perfected over the years. You don’t rent a machine and figure this out in a morning.

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Joe removed a lot of dirt. The piles in front of the house looked like this when he was done.

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Coco had to play Queen of the Hill of course!

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Joe dug the hole down to the level of the basement floor, leaving the entire front foundation wall scraped clean, unmarred by that bucket (imagine the damage an amateur could have done!), exposed for inspection and …. drum roll ….. do … we … need … repair?

You tell me. This is from the one side.

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And this is from the other.

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That’s plywood! Been there 45 years! And it is in very good shape! I was thinking that when the house was constructed, some (probably most) of the people on the job site were saying This is stupid. Who puts plywood in the ground? But I bet there was at least one who said It’ll be all right. This’ll work. It worked!

As you may recall, my interior wall begged to differ. It showed bowing, indicating excessive pressure and possibly serious structural damage.

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This is because of what Joe did not find at basement floor level when he dug out the dirt. There was no gravel or drainpipe. When water flowed downhill (as water will do!) – and my land slopes toward the house – and soaked the earth that pressed against that plywood, it was very heavy! It pushed the plywood in, pushed the 2×6’s that stand between the exterior plywood and the interior drywall, and cracked the drywall. But moisture apparently did not penetrate the one sheet of plastic that they had put between the plywood and the dirt (which of course Joe’s machine shredded when he dug out the dirt). As soon as he removed the dirt and the pressure, that wall straightened right out.

Thus the wall is in such good shape! No repair necessary on the outside. Just need to waterproof it and add a way for water to escape in the future. On the inside we’ll add some 2×6’s for extra support and replace the drywall.

I used a wire brush to get as much of the dirt as possible off the exterior surface.

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With a heat gun I did the best I could to dry the surface where, along the bottom especially, it was still damp from the dirt that had been sticking on it overnight. Then Samuel and I got into our paint suits and rolled liquid asphalt on the wall.

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Onto that we pressed a solid sheet of 6ml plastic. Or maybe he pressed and I watched?

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The 6” perforated pipe came next, followed by gravel. There’s a big black snake under my house!

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Samuel drove Tracy’s tractor to bring gravel to where Joe could pick it up and unload it into the hole.

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Sandy raked and shoveled gravel so that it sat where it should on top of the pipe.

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And then got out of the way for Joe to add more gravel.

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On top of the gravel we put a piece of landscape fabric (so that dirt doesn’t seep through the gravel and get into the perforations of the pipe), and then those big piles of dirt in the front yard disappeared.

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The front yard still needs a final grading, and it’s a mess to walk across for now.

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But as the old Alka Seltzer commercials used to say: Oh, what a relief it is! I don’t have to worry about this foundation any more! When it rains, when water gets into the earth, it will seep down (as water will do!). When it gets to the landscape fabric, it will go through it. When it gets to the gravel, it will go through it. When it gets to the perforated pipe, it will go into it through the perforations, and then this water will flow away from the house, out into woods along the side of the house, to where the end of the pipe exits the ground.

Easily, I’d say, there’s more than 45 more years left for this plywood foundation!


Work, Mess and One Terrifying Spider

Expecting the worst sounds so pessimistic, but it has its upside. If and when the thing comes to pass and is not as bad as you expected, you can be pleasantly surprised and a great deal relieved – positive emotions both, and most welcome. The truth of the matter is: Some things are wonderfully and surprisingly simple, uncomplicated, straightforward.

That doesn’t mean they are not work. That doesn’t mean they are not a mess. But work is good because it gives us problems to solve, which in turn makes us stronger in many ways. And messes are good because cleaning them up leaves you feeling like you accomplished so much.

At my house right now is both work and mess. But I expected more work and worse mess. Truly I am grateful. For seven years I have been thinking I had a problem. Here’s why.

In my house is a funky circular staircase that leads to the basement. The wall in that stairwell that faces the front foundation of the house has been, shall we say, compromised. That’s what that crack is, a compromised wall. Clearly something has been pushing at it from the other side.

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You can see that the sheetrock has separated along its seam and is pushing inward. It has been that way for seven years. Part of the reason for this problem, we assumed, is that on the other side of this interior wall is an exterior wall made of plywood. Yes, plywood.

In the late seventies, when this house was constructed, they thought a plywood foundation wall was a good idea. A few years later the company went out of business but that is water over the dam for me. I bought the house with the plywood foundation. Over the years I have had both architects and structural engineers tell me it was sound and solid, and I wanted to believe them, but I see that crack every time I go downstairs. Not good, I tell myself, that cannot be good.

I might have watched it a few more years, hoping it’s not a disgusting mess behind that wall just waiting for the tipping point of enough water pressure + enough rot. The land slopes toward the house, so imagine the pressure of all that earth – especially when it’s soaked with rainwater – against my wood foundation. I envisioned a muddy mess busting through some rainy night when numerous other problems were also on my plate and of course, when this happened, I would be here alone. Can you see the creepy creatures that might accompany the burst? Yick!

The work and the mess that are here now might not be as bad as I expected, and I know there are worse things on earth than giant wolf spiders. But encountering them is still a near-death experience for me. (You do NOT want a picture of these, trust me! You will have to use your own very capable imagination.) I had to deal with one this morning and my heart is still beating too fast. It was on the inside of the screen door of the sliding door, which was inside the house, meaning there was no way to get it outside, and no way to sleep at night without killing it.

The spray that kills hornets was standing nearby. If it kills hornets, it will kill a spider, right? I figured I’d spray through the screen right at it. What part of my brain thought that would kill it immediately, I don’t know, but the thing did not roll over and die. It moved! And they move fast. I kept spraying, making a line of spray on the little red rug that, until this morning, occupied that part of the floor. It got as far as the small wooden cabinet in the corner, and I went to step on it (though you have to know I could hardly look at the thing).

What I saw when I lifted my slippered foot was just a bit of ick. No mashed spider. That’s very bad. Where did it go? If I missed it crawl under the cabinet, I’m in big trouble. I looked. I didn’t want to see it. But I needed to. I didn’t see it. I looked around some more. Oh.

That seems to be a bit of leg sticking out from under the red rug. It took refuge under there, clearly not realizing it was not altogether hidden. Probably it was delirious from the poison, probably would just die, and soon, from all that stuff I sprayed on it. But I couldn’t take the chance. I had to step on it. I had to hear the sound. I did. I had to. When it was done I could know it was done and I would once again be safe.

Didn’t I just write yesterday about your home being a place where you feel safe?!

My heart was beating like mad by this time, but I’m finished. There was no more in me. I sat. I waited for Samuel to wake up. Finally he did. I asked him to please clean up the mashed spider from the underside of the rug. He is a wonderful son who just smiled and got a tissue and did the thing. Then I decided that the rug, with its ribbon of poison spray, is probably trash now because what if Coco’s tongue, the one that doesn’t fit in her mouth, happened to touch the poison? Yup, trash.

See what an exhausting time I had?

One time, when I first moved here, there was one of these creatures on the outside of my bathroom window screen. When I told a colleague that day at work about that near-death experience, she calmly said to me, “You live in the woods. That’s their territory.” She had zero sympathy. Zero. I have never forgotten it.

All right, I confess. It’s not just the image of muddy slime oozing into my basement along with all manner of slitherers and crawlies that forced this repair. (You KNOW there would be an army of those things coming through!) It’s also the money. In the end I care about the money. I want a new front porch. I know this old one doesn’t look that bad.

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But it is. Its rotting boards would probably hold up a little bit yet, but it’s fair to say that wanting a new front porch was turning into needing a new front porch. So if I need to spend money on a new front porch, it makes sense to fix what would be henceforth unreachable under that new porch before building said new porch. Imagine not fixing the problem, ignoring the problem, moving forward in hope that there is no problem, and then finding out that there is in fact a problem after investing a lot of work and money in something that renders that problem unfixable without investing more work and money.

As much as I wish that stairwell wall was flat and perfect, it isn’t. It’s mine. I own it. Buck up. Fix the foundation.

On Saturday the excavator was here. That night at almost 11pm, my plane landed and Samuel picked me up at the airport. We talked till 3am. I woke at 730, went outside, and saw the piles of dirt.

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Like I said, I came home to work and mess. But I love it. Despite the downside.

Tomorrow, when I have truly recovered from my near-death experience, I will explain where the piles went and how we fixed the wall. At the moment I am still exhausted!

Home is Home Because

When you have been away from home for an afternoon, you don’t necessarily think about how wonderful it is to return to your own space. But when it’s been sixteen days, that’s a different story. It’s wonderful! Maybe it’s even more wonderful when you are away much longer than that, but for now I can speak only to the sixteen-day effect.

I have always felt that your own space – the place you call home – should be a place of peace (as much as is in your power to make it so) and a place of sanctuary, where you can be safe and you can be yourself. It should reflect your personality and preferences, and you should be able to move about easily and be (let’s hope) happy there. I want to think that everyone is kind and welcoming to guests.

It’s fun to see other people’s homes. The ones I was in while away have much in common with mine. They have a place for street shoes just inside the door as I do, well-equipped kitchens, comfortable beds and chairs, a large table for eating together, some soft furniture, a good deal of bright lighting, images of family members on the walls or shelves, overlooked smudges and scuffs and selective disorder (or shall we say less-than-optimal order in certain areas? Just like mine!).

Yet they are all different than mine. Most profoundly, my children’s homes all felt like their homes, not mine. This made me think about what it is about your own home that sets it apart from others. Some things are practical, some harder to pin down.

In your own home, you know where things are. We all have our patterns, our routines. We keep certain things front and center and other things in their designated places because our patterns and routines run more smoothly if we know where things are. You know where the outlets are for plugging in your phone charger. You know where extra soap is to replace the empty one that’s perched at the back of the sink. When my children were little, I had a thing about my scissors. If you need scissors, you need scissors, and nothing else serves. If you need to use my scissors, put them back where you found them.

Yesterday I needed a crowbar at one point. (We all need a crowbar sometimes, right??) Naturally I went to the shed to get one. There are a couple of screws for hanging the crowbars in there. See them, under the blue box?

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Do you see crowbars hanging from them? Neither did I. Being deep (sometimes literally) into the Big Dig (my foundation repair project) as we were yesterday, I groaned, thinking I might have to waste time looking. There are only so many hours of daylight in October, so dammit, where’s the crowbar? Thankfully, when I glanced in the other direction, I found one in the five-gallon bucket that holds a dozen or so random tools like the big loppers. It was the second most logical place to put it if you forgot the right place. Whew! I was spared the frustration.

In your own home, your stuff is familiar. You know what to expect. Fewer surprises are more relaxing. In each household I visited they all drink coffee and/or tea and therefore have something for boiling water. I saw two electric kettles, one stovetop kettle and one Keurig. All of them work, though I am not convinced that the water coming from the Keurig is as hot as it should be. That aside, my own kettle is familiar to me. I can be a bit more on auto-pilot with mine. My muscles know when the weight of it indicates enough water for one cup, two cups or a whole pot of tea. My ears know the sound of it as it gets close to the boiling point. My hands remember how hot the handle can get depending on how much water is in it.


It is NOT the end of the world to use different water-boiling equipment. It just doesn’t feel like home.

When it comes to tea (and presumably coffee), there is also something about the water itself. Your own water in your own home, whether it comes from a municipal system or straight out of the earth from your well, has its own taste, and you get used to that. When my friend Fred stayed here, he drank tea more than he usually does, and decided he would drink more once he got home. The day before he left, he bought some of the same loose black tea as I have in my house. It tasted different at his house, and the only explanation for that is that his water is different. To get closer to the tea he wanted, he decided to use bottled water. That made it better, though still not quite the same.

In your own home, it smells right. I don’t mean to suggest that other homes smell bad. They don’t. They just smell different. Houses take on smells of the foods prepared there recently (or frequently), of the cleaning products applied there, of the people themselves and the shampoo or cologne they use, of the animals that share the spaces.

Not everyone bakes (imagine!). Not everyone even cooks! But there’s a reason they tell you to have just made a batch of cookies when you are trying to sell your house and have potential buyers coming soon. When there are onions sautéing in butter or fresh bread becoming golden in the oven, or whenever the smells that seem warm and homey and yummy to you are wafting from the kitchen, it’s a kind of embrace that you are drawn into, one that’s hard to resist, one that feels like home.

In your own home, you know the paces and the peculiarities. You know how to navigate regardless of the lighting, how far it is to the bathroom, what flooring is under your feet at what point, what obstacles you might possibly encounter (dog? toys? edge of table?). You know the flow of traffic, where the choke points are and how to avoid them and what’s the best way from Point A to Point B.

The top step of Bradley’s basement staircase has a wider tread than the others. Don’t forget that when you go up or down; it’s a slight adjustment of your footing. The lights in Marie’s living room get turned on by way of a small remote; the first morning when I got up early (still on east coast time), for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on! Drew’s kitchen sink is the oddest shape I’ve ever seen, like a pac-man in the corner, and it doesn’t fit a large pot, so you find another way to clean that pot.

In my house the screen door gets out of whack sometimes. You have to lift it gently but firmly into place every time you go in and out until a good friend (thank you, Sandy!) fixes it. My kitchen countertop is old and white and gets stained, and it sags just a bit over near the stove. The condensation caused by a thawing container of anything sends a slow, predictable ribbon of water toward one corner. It’s better to put thawing things in my sink (until I get a new countertop!).

In your own home, you remember the way it used to be. You have a history with the property, inside and out. You know what was there before. You see changes incrementally. Marie just got new windows in several rooms. They are very nice, but I don’t remember the old ones. She does and is so happy they are gone. Bradley gutted his house before they moved in, moved all the rooms around, creating a new floor plan. Beth did all the electrical work. If you knew the house before, you wouldn’t know it’s the same house. They have vivid images in their minds of what it looked like when they bought it. I needed photos to show me. Drew has a fabulous new rug, adding warmth to his place in a way that he says is much better than what he had before, which I never saw. I’ll take his word.

If they came to my house right now and saw this mum (yes, that’s my chrysanthemum!),

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they wouldn’t know, unless I told them, how three weeks ago it looked like this:

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And three months ago, you could barely see it in front of the beets.

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I loved seeing my children in their own homes, seeing them comfortable, making their spaces their own. But it is always good to come home. This time, it was good to find a beautiful plant in the garden because there was a big hole in front of my house! More on the Big Dig soon!

The Rodbusters

Do you ever wonder how parking garages can hold all the weight of the cars? For me it’s one of those things – like open heart surgery or jet engine maintenance – that has science and skill behind it but is in that large set of things I will never understand. I know I just have to trust that the people who do this work do it right.  As you carefully drive from one end to the other of a parking deck, making tight turns at the ends to get to the next level to eventually find your spot, do you wonder how those concrete columns are connected to entire floors of concrete, and how the floors of concrete hold up vehicle after vehicle in neat rows?

I don’t wonder about parking garages every day, but today I watched the ongoing construction of one in Kirkland, Washington, just outside Seattle and I am less foggy about them. I watched with great interest not only because I saw various stages of the process, but also because my son Bradley, who built the cottage on my property six years ago, is managing this project. Here he is with his family at the job site. Beth is holding two-week-old Zoe and Brad has two-year-old Piper, who was not as fascinated with the rodbusting as I was.


Eventually this site will become a six-story, mixed use building, meaning in this case retail on the ground level and apartments above. Its architectural rendering is posted behind the fence.

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Right now it’s a hardhat area at the beginning stage of construction.


This was my first view of the job site.


The white concrete columns – see them? – are standing on the lower level of what will be the underground parking deck of the new building. (The people who will live in the apartments above will need a place to park their cars below.) If you look a little closer at the columns (next photo), you see rods sticking up from them. The rods stick up much taller than the concrete of the column because…

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…once you put the floor of the second level in, the rods from the first level need to stick up through the floor, like this. You’ll see why shortly.


Those rods are strong steel called rebar that’s caged in by more strong steel. Before the concrete encases it and forms the strong concrete column, the assembled steel looks like this …

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The guys in the photo below, who cage the rebar, assembling the strong innards of each concrete column, are the “rodbusters.” They are using a kind of cable tie to connect the rebar to the steel caging pieces around it.

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When they finish one, the crane comes along, picks it up and brings it to its mate, i.e. to the rebar that’s sticking up from the level below. The workers in the next photo are helping the crane operator to guide the caged rebar to the exact spot, and…

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…Ah, there it goes.

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Each assembled steel column is then surrounded by a wooden concrete form. See the rows of wooden forms below? The height of the form will be the height of the concrete column.

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A gigantic cement truck comes along next with its very long arm and pours concrete into each form. When the concrete is dry, the workers remove the forms and set them aside for the next use. The steel inside adds a lot of strength to the column. Notice again how the rods stick up much taller than the concrete of the column. The part that’s sticking up becomes the base for the next level.

Now for the floor. You know what a concrete floor looks like. But under the concrete are cables, very strong steel cables. They are red in the picture below. Just as the steel rebar in the columns makes the columns much stronger, the steel of the cable makes the floor much stronger – in fact strong enough to support all the weight of the cars.


After the concrete is poured onto the wooden platform, making the floor, the cables are pulled from all sides and secured (sealed) at a specific tightness. This provides the support so the floor doesn’t collapse. After the concrete dries, the no-longer-necessary wooden platform (now underneath) is removed.

Rebar is great for adding strength to the columns, but cables are preferable to rebar for the floors. To gain the same strength/support using rebar, you would have to make the floors much thicker, which uses more concrete and makes the building overall taller. The curve of the cables plus the tension gained from the pulling means the floor can be thinner (less concrete is used and the building is not as tall overall), which is a more efficient use of materials and space. You have to know your math and your science to make this all work of course, and you have to have the right machinery and good materials and the project manager and the inspectors and all the workers, including the rodbusters. Without the rodbusters, forget it.

If you didn’t know all this before, as I didn’t, don’t you feel better now about parking garages? I do!

I also feel very proud of my son.


Mess… Mess… Neat!

Do you remember playing Duck Duck Goose as a child? A random number of children formed a sitting circle. One got up and walked slowly around the circle, tapping the head of each sitting child as she (or he) walked, saying “Duck” with each tap. Then – and this was entirely the choice of the walking/tapping child – the tapper said “Goose!” with a tap on one chosen head. Both tapper and goose sprung into action in that moment – the goose jumped up and the tapper then ran like mad around the circle, trying to get back to the goose’s now-empty spot and into a sit before getting tagged by the chasing goose. If you made it to that spot, you were safe and the goose became the tapper. If you got caught, you were the tapper again. And Duck Duck Goose (!) started all over again.

Eppie’s shirt made me think of this game, only in her case it’s Duck Duck Moose. (How cute is this t-shirt!? They live in Vermont where you very well might see a moose stroll through your yard. How cute is this sweet country girl?!)

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Funny how one Instagram photo can spark a parallel thought. Yesterday I saw that picture and realized that Duck Duck Goose or Duck Duck Moose is the way it is around my house – only it’s Mess, Mess, Neat!

I am very nonchalant about most of the messes around here – I can ignore them for years! – until I get into my head that one of them has to be addressed. Then I spring into action.

There are lots of messes. Generally I don’t take pictures of them, but here’s one.

A big tree fell over in the forest while Rise and Eppie were here in early August. See those very large clusters of leaves on and near the ground? Those had been high up in the sky the day before. Or maybe a few days before. I don’t know when it fell. But some of the leaves were still green.

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A little closer in, you can see the vertical remains of the trunk. It just snapped. The girls and Coco are completely unconcerned. Nor should they be. The tree’s not going anywhere.

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We’re not going to get to this mess any time soon, especially if the last fallen tree is any example.

The one you see below fell at least five years ago, i.e. it occupied that bit of the hillside for at least five years. Its core was rotten when it fell (which is why it fell). See it lying there, practically buried by years of fallen leaves?

In March I had compost delivered. You see it spread on the ground to the left. Compost was the promise of real grass in that area, not just whatever could survive, but a real yard maybe. That eyesore (Mess) of a rotten log had to go.

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First clear the uphill side. The advantage of living on a hillside with only forest down below is that you can rake those leaves and then deposit them as far down the hill as you can. Out of sight. The earth will take care of them.

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Then more raking to expose the downhill side. It was a lot of raking. I remember being tired at the end of the day(s).

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But the guys with their chain saws (bless them!), and some more raking, made all the difference. That tree in front of the log had to come down too. Quite a difference for that hillside.

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Not bad, eh?

But “Mess… Mess… Neat!” (per se) didn’t come into my head until Eppie’s shirt came up on my phone yesterday AND I was deep into it with the liriope.

In March I had made up my mind that once and for all, the front garden was going to be nice (Goose! Neat!). I cleared it out, put stone along the foundation, planted hellaboris, gave the liriope room to grow. You can see them if you look carefully – the green stuff that looks like bunches of grass among the mulch. At the far corner is an azalea bush.

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It was a bad idea. All that work, and then Hank Browne made me a drawing of what a new front porch could look like, and it was all over. I’ll come back to Hank’s drawing another day, but the bottom line was that if the old porch was going to be replaced in any way, that front foundation wall – a Duck I have been nonchalantly walking past, a Mess I have successfully ignored for years – must be fixed first. Thus the upcoming Big Dig. As in Big Digging Machine Coming Soon.

Liriope multiply rapidly, like rabbits. A month or so ago I moved a bunch of them, along with the hellaboris, to the curve of the driveway. No point not saving them.

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But there were more. Lots more. On Friday, because of Hurricane Florence’s very slow track, it was not raining here yet, but still we had postponed the Big Dig. Over the weekend it rained only intermittently, so I decided to take the opportunity to relocate the remaining liriope that would be in the way of (and possibly not survive) the excavator when it finally gets going.

Having neglected this garden for months now (because why bother?), that corner looked like this. Mess. Embarrassing. Really quite unacceptable. You can’t even see the remaining liriope, there are so many weeds.

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But I wanted to move them, save as many as I could. The tapper tapped me on the head and I got going! I chose to move them along the front of the garden, which looked like this pre-liriope.


The deer fencing makes it impossible to weed-whack along the edge, so it tends to start looking, you guessed it, Messy!

But time + no rain + a shovel resulted in first a trench.

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Then a trench with manure by the end of Friday. The distance between posts is 8′, FYI. You can do the math as to how long the trench is. And that’s clay I’m digging into, Play-Doh-like clay, mixed with rocks.

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The liriope were in by the end of Saturday,

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which means a dug out front garden bed, much more ready for the excavator (who will move the azalea with the machine, thank God!). I didn’t save all of them, but we can’t save them all, can we? (I’ll let you think of parallels for that truth.)

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And finally mulch on either side of these happy plants, mulch which covers the buried plastic weed barrier that went in yesterday, Sunday, with Sandy’s help. Thank you, Sandy.

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Mess, Mess, Neat!

It’s entirely the choice of the tapper in the game as to which child to gets designated the Goose. It’s entirely my choice around the house as to which area next becomes Neat (acts of God and nature excepted, and time and means considered, of course). In the meantime all the other children (the Ducks) sit and wait. In the meantime all the other areas in need (the Messes) sit and wait. But sooner or later, I’ll get a bug in my bonnet as they used to say, and there will be action!

The Certainty of Uncertainty

At the moment it’s very quiet here. The trees are not swaying, thrashing, bending. Not a leaf moves, even flutters. The ticking of one of my clocks I can hear. Coco’s sleepy breathing I can hear.


That’s soon to change. If you couldn’t smell it in the air, you’d hear it on the news. We are in the danger zone of Hurricane Florence, though not as dangerous a zone as some are in. Will the pelting rain and fierce wind come? Yes. This much is certain. What’s uncertain is the storm’s exact path and intensity.

Will we flood out? Probably not, as my property sits up on a hill.

Will we lose electricity? Most likely.

Will one of my giant trees fall? Let’s hope not.

“The most precious thing about life is its uncertainty.”

Thanks to Paul Sunstone, I have been introduced to Kenko, a 14th century Japanese writer who produced, in his retirement, 243 essays collected into the classic “Leisure Hour Notes,” including the line above. Paul added, “I think that was what kept him from boredom.” He’s right. Uncertainty is as certain as death and taxes! And it does keep you on your toes!

Last night a young woman who lives along the Virginia coastline booked my cottage because she has to evacuate her area. She was not planning to come here this week, but wants to keep herself and her two dogs safe. The coast will get lots of rain and wind, so will we. Will she be safe here? One thing is certain: I will do everything I can to make sure she is. Starting tomorrow and until Saturday, Miranda will be next door. She – who was unknown to me 12 hours ago – will be my neighbor.

I love thinking of my neighbor as der Nächste, German for “the one next to me.” This doesn’t have to mean a literal “next to” – you can think of co-workers as neighbors, or friends you have contact with through email or texting or blogging, or the people you rub shoulders with in your community. But in the case of Miranda it’s literal, and neighbors look out for each other. Forgive my tangent, but if all of us would truly abide the “love your neighbor as yourself” command, imagine what the world would be like.

So while the storm looms and Miranda is here, much will be – hour to hour – uncertain. Knowing that you don’t know everything is the beginning of wisdom. True, true. But…if you know that you don’t know everything, but you also know that you know some things, you stand a better chance of getting through with less trouble. While storms do sometimes change course and turn out to sea, they sometimes don’t. We will do what we can to prepare. Then ride it out.

My little house in the big woods is as solid as a house on a wooden foundation can be, the wooden part being questionable, but we are getting to that.

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The storm is still out to sea, but supposed to hit us at the end of the week. Ironically, this coming weekend had been set aside to begin “the big dig” at my house – a long-awaited project to investigate why my foundation seems to be bowing inward in one area (not a good sign) and then to do necessary repairs. I ordered the materials last week, a lot of materials because after the big dig we will replace the very old front porch. (I’m glad I ordered last week — what do you think will happen to the price of lumber after the storm?)

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The uncertainty of the storm puts us in a kind of holding pattern. Hold off on big dig projects and hold onto your hat! At the very least, cover your lumber.

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Will the bricks hold the plastic down in a strong wind? I hope so! How strong will the wind be? I am uncertain! With no wind blowing right now, that many bricks seems reasonable. Possibly I will find myself incredulous that I didn’t double this number or use cinder blocks as Sandy suggested. Maybe cinder blocks are a good idea after all….

Today, in the calm, various interpretations of battening down the hatches seem important, including making sure we have enough batteries for the flashlights and enough jugs of water in the event that my electricity goes out (in which case my water also goes out because electricity runs the pump). I have a gas cookstove in both the house and the cottage, so we will eat. And it’s a nice temperature outside so not having AC or heat will not be an issue. What am I forgetting?!

Uncertainty is part of the unboring path we walk. We can watch the news all day (you can, I won’t), we can change out the bricks for cinder blocks or go all out and just add them, we can stockpile supplies, we can put some milk in the freezer now so it’s maybe cold later if we lose power, but we can’t be certain what this coming weekend will bring.

We’re pretty smart though. We can have an idea. And we do. According to our best projections, we can fairly well know what won’t happen, what might happen and what will happen:

In my case the weekend will not include a large and loud excavating machine. Canceled that. Sadly, it will not include Joe, who will operate said machine (unless he comes around anyway, which is fine by me). We will not be

  • digging large quantities of dirt from along the front of the house
  • discovering just exactly what is the problem with the foundation and how extensive the fix needs to be
  • relocating liriope and azalea
  • mixing cement
  • setting footings
  • bracing posts.

We might be (this is the uncertain part)

  • hunkering down
  • watching the trees dance wildly (hoping that if they fall, they do so far from any structure or power line)
  • putting less-than-sensible chickens in their coop (because they are too dumb to go in by themselves!)
  • using matches to light the stove because the electric ignitor is nonfunctional
  • playing board games by lamplight as we wait out the storm. I have a couple of wonderful oil lamps that come out at times like this. Their glow, the swirly patterned shadow they make on the ceiling, their faint scent of burning lamp oil – all combine to create a scene that makes you appreciate what it was like for pioneers. We should do this on purpose now and then just to induce an extra prayer for those in the bucket trucks who keep our lights on, and this weekend in particular for those who will be out in this nasty storm getting fallen limbs off high wires as we sit inside checking our phones for notification that the power is back on.

We will be

  • taking care of one another
  • comforting the dogs who get unsettled in howling wind and torrential rain
  • keeping a close eye on trees, chickens and other outdoor things for signs of trouble
  • praying for safety for all those affected by the storm
  • staying in touch with other neighbors in case we can help in any way
  • enjoying good eggs! More on lobster yolks tomorrow! Oh, how tempted I am to give you a sneak preview, but: YOU are uncertain about lobster yolks (MY lobster yolks, at any rate) and if, to paraphrase Paul, uncertainty keeps us from boredom, I had best wait. Come what may, I aim to keep things unboring!

Great Neighbors and The Power of a Tractor

“Have you got a square shovel?” Joe asked.

“I have a snow shovel,” I said.

“As long as it’s not plastic,” he said.

I went to the shed and got the metal snow shovel and brought it to where we were moving the smooth river rock into the bucket of the tractor. The river rock was sitting within an open wooden framework flanking the brick pathway leading to the front porch steps. A square shovel makes it easier to shovel from the inner edge of the frame…

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…while a pointed tip is not so wide and would leave a lot behind.

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We wanted to move the river rock in order to save it for use some other time. The excavation work soon to happen in this area will erase all traces of river rock, so if you want the rock, move it while you can.

As I walked back to the work site I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her own “Little House in the Big Woods” was vastly different from mine. Her setting, Wisconsin in the 1870s, was largely unpopulated. Families needed enormous measures of gumption, skill, courage and strength, a portion of luck and at least a few good tools.

I wondered: Did they have a square shovel? I am sure, between building a house in the woods, making their own butter and cheese, harvesting crops, raising, hunting and butchering animals, and fending off a variety of threats to their admirable homestead, they did not have need to move decorative river rock out of preexisting wooden frameworks. But I’ll bet a square shovel would have been handy for some aspect of their operation. More than that, think how different their experience would have been with a good tractor.

Having the right tools helps so much. It sure helped yesterday. And I don’t mean the snow shovel for the river rock. I mean this Kuboda LA525.


Tracy, my very generous neighbor, gave me two hours of her time along with the use of this beast of hers. Joe, her very capable dad, masterfully orchestrated the relocation of my two planter boxes, each of which has to weigh at least 500 pounds.


Together with the help of the beast, these great neighbors did in two hours what would have taken us the whole weekend.

I did the prelim work last week, putting the cinder blocks in place. That’s when it looked like this.

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But after that my hands were tied. Earth weighs approximately 100 pounds per cubic foot. These planter boxes are five feet long by about two feet wide and about 18″ high. Granted, the lower half is filled with some empty cans and Styrofoam peanuts just to take up space (coleus, even gigantic ones like mine, don’t need that much dirt). Still, the 100 pounds per cubic foot is just the dirt. The total weight of the boxes also includes the rainwater that soaked that dirt two days ago, the wood itself that the planter box is made of and even the relatively minor weight of the plants themselves.

I don’t own a tractor and had spent a good bit of time considering how we were going to solve the problem of moving these huge and heavy boxes. We might dig the plants and most of the dirt out of them, then drag each box or walk it one angled step at a time, a few inches at a time, to the concrete blocks. Or use a furniture dolly. Sooner or later we would have moved them. But oh, the joy of a machine with this kind of power!

Watch what it can do. With just that strap around the middle, Joe at the wheel, and Samuel and Sandy to keep it from tipping one way or the other, the box went off the ground. They pivoted it,


Joe backed up,

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they kept her steady,

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they moved toward the landing pad,

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and he lowered her into position.


The second box was just as simple except for my landing pad not being as level as I thought it was. (Least said about that, the better!)

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It’s an amazing machine, but more important to me, it was a great team effort, the kind of thing you wonder about sometimes: Is it real? Do neighbors help each other like that?

They did yesterday! They do!

This is community, people coming together to make a hard thing easier. This is the way it’s supposed to be – not to say it always is, but it should be. In the 1870s in the big woods of Wisconsin, pioneers pooled their strengths and resources as well. Wilder’s book includes heartwarming examples of her father trading labor with their neighbors. Yesterday my own heart was warmed as I witnessed amazing labor on Labor Day.

Everyone can do their bit – any day of the year – to perpetuate good, to lend a hand, to make their own corner of the world a better place than it might otherwise be. The best vitamin for making friends is B1, right? Same applies to having good neighbors, I’m sure.