Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont

My son Lincoln is building a house, but not a normal house. Twenty de-barked trees taken from his six-acre riverside property in northern Vermont constitute the vertical supports, and the first-floor walls are stacked straw bales that serve as insulation. Oh, and the pentagonal design means the corners aren’t square.

Presently it looks like this. The smoke coming out of that stovepipe might lead you to think it’s warm in there. Indeed, it’s warmer than outside!

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Last week Samuel and I traveled to Vermont to work alongside Lincoln and better understand his project. I found myself awestruck not only by the hard work, craftsmanship and ingenuity evident everywhere, but also by the fortitude, patience and ease with which every member of the family is walking through this process.

First of all, it’s not warm in Vermont in December. It wasn’t warm in November either. This year, Thanksgiving was the coldest on record (11 degrees Fahrenheit, -11C), and snowfall broke the previous record set in 1900 with 32” (81cm) of snow in November. As Lincoln has been building this unusual, amazing house, he and his wife Julia and their two delightful daughters (Rise and Eppie, 6 and 4) have been living in a 16’ (4.8 meter)-diameter yurt on the same property. It has a wood stove that keeps it toasty, but the privy is detached and the adjacent “greenhouse” that Lincoln and Julia slept in is unheated.

Some nights it got down to –4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20C). Think about that. How many blankets would you need? They would turn their electric blanket on about 40 minutes before going to bed. A couple weeks ago when he was about to get the wood stove in the house set up, Lincoln said, “It’s very exciting for those of us sleeping in unheated greenhouses waking up to -4 degrees on our faces.” When I said I could not even imagine how that feels, he said, “Eh. Our electric blanket is awesome. It’s basically just like getting out of bed into a walk in the freezer.”

You can see the yurt and the greenhouse down the hill from where Samuel is standing with Coco tucked into his jacket. (She was a constantly shivering camper during this week, but that is another story!)

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This is glorified camping. In the winter. In Vermont. As the fire dies down, you can sometimes see your breath inside, but no one seems to notice. None of them complain. They just carry on. Here we are cooking dinner together in the yurt one night early last week. I have an ear warmer on under that hat, and I am wearing four layers on top (including a wool sweater and an alpaca sweater), and two on the bottom (cold weather leggings under snow pants) and the girls are in regular clothes, oblivious.

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There is no running water right now. The pipe that brought water into the yurt froze during the very cold November. No matter. They bring in water in large containers such as the one behind me in the photo above, filling and refilling at their friends’ house (Zach and Nicole live a very short drive away). But there’s electricity and internet. They have a fridge, a stove, a microwave and a toaster oven. You heat up water to do the dishes. You put on another sweater if you feel cold.

Lincoln works on the house day after day, one task at a time. Julia works outside the home, coming and going with gentle, saintly tolerance. Rise goes to kindergarten and Eppie to preschool, and I suspect few of their classmates are as unspoiled or resilient, or as well equipped to handle the various forms of adversity that their own lives will bring. The snow, the cold, the construction zone, the tight quarters, the inconveniences – they all take it in stride. They may not have running water yet, but they will. In the meantime, as they love, support and serve one another with smiles and strength and kindness, they are happy, healthy and secure in a peaceful, incredibly beautiful place. They ask for nothing and have everything they truly need.

I stand in awe.

Lincoln could have built a normal house, and it would have been done by now, or nearly done. A normal house would have square corners, a shingled roof and indoor plumbing as it applies to both kitchen and bathroom. There would not be sawdust and bits of straw everywhere or 6ml plastic for windows.

But he didn’t. He created a unique home design that is enormously ambitious and unconventional. He is living his dream, and Julia, God bless her, is his perfect partner.

Lincoln’s dream is a lot of work (a lot of work!), but it lets girls be prairie dogs,

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includes dizzying heights,

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demands outstanding joinery,

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and creates surreal images.

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I hope these few photos have whet your appetite. I plan to do a more thorough step-by-step of his building journey in future posts. If you have any questions or want me to explore any particular aspect of the project more, let me know.

What To Do With the Roosters!

Chickens fit in my world because they are definitely unboring. For one thing, they are entertaining. They start with being funny looking. This is a young silkie.

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To add to the entertainment, they walk like aliens, sleep standing up, eek out pathetic noises, scratch incessantly to find worms and bugs, and compete hilariously with their coop-mates for every last scrap you throw in there. My carrot peel! No, mine!

Chickens are messy. They poop often and indiscriminately, kick their bedding all around, and redistribute food to all corners of their area. They don’t care if they are wet (yesterday’s ridiculous birds in the rain being a prime example) and they peck you randomly if you hang around in their run, as if your pants leg might have something good to eat on it.

And chickens give you eggs! I know some people don’t like eggs, but most people do, and there are a thousand ways to make them and make otherwise unmakeable dishes with them. For example, macaroni pie – a great thing to do with leftover pasta. Sometimes I make a little extra pasta just to have leftovers, just so I can make macaroni pie. Isn’t language a funny thing? Pasta and macaroni are the same thing. But I make pasta for dinner and macaroni pie with the leftovers of the same thing!

How easy for me to get distracted today by subject of food. I had every intention of continuing the coop construction tale. Instead, I’d rather to go on and on about the virtues of eggs in cooking – not because I don’t want to talk about the coop construction but because I am in avoidance/distraction mode altogether, still struggling with the “relocation” of three roosters yesterday.

Okay, allow me to be more precise: Hens give you eggs! And all I wanted in the first place was fresh eggs. So what do you do with the roosters? They don’t give eggs, they make a lot of obnoxious noise, they boss around all the other birds. Ultimately they make more chicks, which I surely don’t need. If my chickens were truly free range, I could maybe see having a rooster as a kind of protector. But I didn’t want them, don’t want them. The problem is that few people can tell male from female when they are a day old, unless the coloring is different, as with the cinnamon queens. Only the females have the chipmunk-like markings.

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With most chicks, you take your chances and it can be months before you can tell. Sure enough, sooner or later, roosters get bigger than the hens and sprout the comb on top of their heads. This is the biggest brahma rooster.

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Hens don’t have that funny red thing, which is funny, but not AS funny as what turkeys have. What is all that hanging stuff for?!

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This pic is from a recent visit to Yoder’s in Madison, Va. Their petting zoo, by the way, is a favorite spot for me to take visitors. They have goats and llamas and peacocks and turkeys! And you can get an ice cream cone in numerous great flavors (mine is always chocolate, but that is another story) packed full, not a cheap portion, for such a good price.  Their Rueben sandwich is also worth the trip.

See, there I go with food again because I don’t want to face the roosters.

I thought I was lucky because up till a few weeks ago, when the chicks were three months old, I had not heard any crowing or noticed any considerable size difference. I admit I probably overlooked the slow emergence of the red combs on the tops of their heads. What do I know about brahmas anyway? Maybe they are different from other breeds and brahma females have this sometimes?

Once they crow, there’s no denying it. That’s a rooster. Oh no, that’s three roosters! Three out of six. Oh, no! Two of the d’uccles are roosters too! Should I be surprised? How likely is it that out of 32 chicks, none should be male? I had been in dreamland thinking I got that lucky.

Why can’t I be like Renee Zellweger in the movie Cold Mountain? She is the strong, afraid-of-nothing Civil War mountain girl “Ruby Thewes” who comes upon Nicole Kidman, proper young lady of greatly reduced circumstances crouching in terror of a “devil rooster.” Ruby picks up the rooster, snaps his neck and says (perfectly!) “Let’s put ‘im in a pot.”

I can’t do it. I was working my way up to finding a YouTube video on how to kill a chicken (knowing I couldn’t do it Ruby’s way), working up the nerve to even watch the video! I posted an ad on craigslist – I would happily give them away, and that would be way cleaner. I asked every person I knew who might possibly want them if they might possibly want them or knew someone who might possibly want them. Those in the know were clear with me that there are three legitimate purposes for roosters: dinner, lawn ornament and fertilizer of eggs. I want none of those. And no one else wanted them. Every day they were still here, I was aware of the passing of time and my own inability to manage this conundrum.

So yesterday morning, after exhausting other options, I decided to let nature take its course, in a manner of speaking. Chickens are historically jungle birds, I was told, and it’s not a great leap from jungle to forest. I have a perfectly good forest all around my house. We have wild turkeys in this forest – surely these he-man roosters can’t have terribly different defenses. (Note the steps of justification.) So confession time: Before I lost my nerve, yes, the three brahma roosters were successfully relocated about a ten minute walk down my nice trail into the forest to the bottom of the hill.

The forest is full of bugs and other delectables (as well as, I know, predators of all kinds) so these guys would have a good life and a truly free range and a better menu than inside their protected run until… until nature took its course (and a lucky predator came along).

You’d think you could do a thing like this and get away with it. Who would find out? I had no thought of sharing this decision with the world, but I simply do not have luck with such things. In the early afternoon, my cottage guests Hillary and Malcolm said they wanted to take a walk. I went into an autopilot description of the nice trail that encircles my property, then remembered the roosters, then said “Oh, but you know it’s probably pretty mucky down there. You might do better to stick to the road.”

Did they stick to the road? No, they did not. Later they said, “Nice trail! But there were these chickens down there, three of them…” and showed me a picture they took!

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Can I say, “Huh! How about that!” and leave it alone? No, I cannot. I have to admit my part in that scene, feeling guiltier than ever.

“Oh, they looked just fine,” they said. “Very happy.”

Happy until…