Keeping Warm, 10/29/12

Ted here at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage on day three of our first run of solidly freezing nights. After intermittently wet days of shorts and sweaty outdoor work earlier in the week, the cold front blew in seemingly over the course of half an hour or so Thursday. We all went scrambling for more layers, and I didn’t stop rummaging for a couple days until I’d dug all my woolens out of a barrel. Layering on woolen warmth for the first time each year is every time a delicious pleasure, surely drawing on our instinctual desire for sheltering warmth when the seasons turn.

As regular readers of our column know, we mention the weather a lot. There is something infrastructural involved– there were no dwellings on the land when Dancing Rabbit started here, and we’ve had to build all 20 or so that we have so far. In doing so, many of us have been learning as we go. Small and simple (as in no or minimal plumbing and sometimes no electricity) has often resulted, and means lots of us leave our homes to use shared facilities like kitchens and showers elsewhere, as well as to participate in the rich culture of events and gatherings in the village. So we experience the weather over and over each day we’re alive, whether it be rain, blizzard, searing sun, or mild perfection. In short, it matters to us.

The village population continues to swell at a brisk rate as well, and beyond the number of heated spaces available; so the most recent arrivals to Dancing Rabbit are often living in tents or other rustic structures and can set their spaces up to be more-or-less dry, but not heatable. We recently formalized a norm that new residents without winter housing lined up should depart the village by Thanksgiving and can return in March, both for their comfort and to minimize the impact on already-crowded common space in the village. It is a hard request to make, but experience has validated its importance.

When I met Toon in the kitchen this morning, he reported that on arising, his tent home had been entirely coated inside and out with thick frost, the result of his warmth and respiration condensing on the tent surfaces on the third night in a row of freezing temperatures. Despite having lived in a tent with Sara for a year in 2003-2004 when we first moved here and started building, and remembering surviving nights down to six degrees in late December with hot water bottles under down sleeping bags, I can’t help but feel guilty when I throw more wood on my fire on these cold evenings and wake up in a more-or-less warm house. Thank goodness we’ve had sunny days with the cold, to thaw campers out each morning.

Weather impacts our building efforts as well. We have been waiting through most of a cooler, wetter month now for the 2-3″ finish earthen floors to dry in our house. They’ve stayed moist long enough to allow inky caps (a common mushroom that loves to grow in straw) to sprout right out of the earthen material and leave their black spore sprints behind as the last moisture leaves the mass. The same thickness of subfloor Sequoia and I installed back in July took about ten days to harden up, without the benefit of ceiling fans we now have working, and without any mushrooms sprouting. I look forward to the final step of applying several coats of linseed oil to turn the surface leathery hard and scuff—and water-resistant—and to calling it finished.

At long last, the floors are dry enough to get out on and finish building our rocket stove this coming week. While we still have the small brick-and-earth wood heater built into a corner of the original part of our house, it is poorly placed and inadequate to heat the now-three-times-larger house. The new rocket stove is more central, built into the wall between Aurelia’s room and our living room and offering higher heating capacity and greater radiance.

Rocket stoves are designed to burn wood with high efficiency, making use in this case of an insulated, 3′ brick heat riser contained within an upturned 55 gallon drum. The powerful draw created by the heat riser allows extended runs of horizontal flue beyond the stove, offering the ability to heat an earthen bench containing the flue pipe, and more surface area with which to scrub as much heat as possible out of the flue gasses. Warm bottoms in winter on the heated bench are a distinct plus. Pioneered for use in parts of Africa and elsewhere where firewood is scarce and its acquisition consumes many hours every day, the rocket stove is also a good choice for ecovillagers (or anybody else!) trying to minimize our impact by getting the most heat out of the least amount of firewood. A definitive reference is Ianto Evans’ slim volume “Rocket Mass Heaters”.

I’m pleased to report that the earth berm over the north side of our house and root cellar is now well established, with an ever-growing stone retaining wall describing its perimeter. We constructed a long earthen ramp to the roof of the cellar from the uphill side, and have been able to dump barrow loads atop it and over the edges, so that the water proofing membrane is now almost entirely hidden under earth. The west side remains bare so that we can install the 175 gallon rain water tank we’ve ordered under the downspout there, also buried in earth to hopefully keep its water liquid through winter. We’ve generally been supplying the earth from the mountain of topsoil accumulated in the spring when Crooked Route was excavated in preparation for road building. I’m layering in composted manure in expectations of the regular use these garden beds will have. We’re also awaiting a 1700 gallon rainwater cistern for Ironweed kitchen, the installation of which will finally render that building fully water independent. The excavation for the cistern will provide a little more topsoil, but will also mean a brand-new clay pile… time to start thinking about the next building project, and how to use lots of clay in it. More work before we rest!

With the colder weather, my glimpses of other villagers at work on and in their homes are fewer, but I did see more straw-and-earth coverage in process on Sharon and Dennis’s roof, with the Brown family all helping out. Hassan reportedly laid the thin finish coat of the Hermitage’s floor yesterday—a sensible 3/4″ that will dry much faster than mine has. Ziggy and April are cooking in StrawTron even as they finish a few exterior details like plaster under the eves. I hear some hammering out toward the Timberframe but haven’t managed to investigate yet. We got all our garlic planted and mulched before the cold descended. Both Dan and community friend Gigi had produce for sale in a small farmers market after our Sunday meeting. Tasty local produce available at our doorstep makes me happy.

Our annual Hollerween traveling party approaches this week under the sure direction of Sam and Morgan, who are working on a new format to account for the fact that all the partygoers can no longer fit in many of our tiny homes all at once. Thanks to Sara and Aurelia, I have reasonable hopes of having my costume worked out more than an hour prior to the party this year. Alyssa is setting up the Day of the Dead altar in the common house to celebrate the memory of those we’ve said goodbye to, and plans a potluck dinner Friday night that is expected to include accompanying poetry.

Bob reported that the final public tour of the year Saturday was the best-attended of 2012, with 31 people here to see the village. In total, nearly 150 people came for one of our Saturday tours this year. Cheers to Bob for all those tours, and thanks to all of you who visited!

Our public tours will return next April. Meanwhile, to learn more about Dancing Rabbit, see our website at www.dancingrabbit.org, read our blog at blog.dancingrabbit.org, or give us a call at (660) 883-5511.

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