Archives for posts with tag: irony

Bunker Mentality–

A.V. Walters–

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We’re building. It’s a small footprint, our cabin at the edge of the woods. We picked the site for its view across the valley, and so that we’d get sheltering shade in the summer. We are months behind schedule. If I were the type, I’d be getting close to panicky. On our walks, I note that we’re seeing the occasional flash of early color in the trees

Initially, we had weather delays—frost well into May, administrative delays—title and permitting problems and then, a comedy of errors on the foundation.

This county requires that building plans be prepared by an architect or a licensed “building designer.” Since we’d already drawn up our plans, we went with the building designer method—to check for technical and structural details, and to make the plans look professional. We informed the designer that there was a slope to the property—but he wasn’t concerned—I guess he figured it wasn’t his department.

When the approvals were finally complete, we hired a local mason to build the foundation. Though Rick is a builder, there are very good reasons to hire out parts of the job to those with greater experience. Most of our building proficiency is from California, where foundations are usually poured concrete (with lots of rebar reinforcement.) California has earthquakes, and they take their foundations seriously. Michigan foundations are often built with concrete block—especially for smaller buildings like our little cabin. It’s heavy work and we are not young.

The plans called for a crawlspace—just enough of a foundation to meet the frost requirements for local code. It’s a cabin, nestled into the gently sloping hillside, with a cozy, low profile. We knew we might have some adjustments because of the slope. We consulted with the mason. He didn’t see a problem, maybe a couple of extra courses of block. He instructed Rick on exactly how he wanted the excavation to be done. Rick did the digging, per instructions, with the Kubota. As he did so, it started to look like the back-side of the hole was a lot deeper than the mason had described.

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On the mason’s return, he too, was surprised by the depth of the hole. He accused Rick of not digging level and true. Measurement proved that it was almost perfect, (a little less than a half inch off, across a forty-foot run.) The mason shrugged. He’d have to go at least an extra two courses of block—and he submitted a revised bid. We nodded. The price seemed fair. After all, what do we know from masonry?

A day or so later, he advised that the wall sill wasn’t high enough, to address issues of drainage and slope, he’d have to go yet higher. This crawlspace was exceeding crawl (except in timing.) We’d gone past duck walk to homo-erectus—though still not a legal height basement. I ran down to the County permits department to advise of the change. The clerk asked me why we didn’t just go all the way, for a full basement. Oh no, it’s just a little cabin. That would be thousands of dollars more and we didn’t really need a basement. It’s a cabin—and with the extra height, we’d be giving up on that snuggled-into-the-hillside look.

It was a Friday night. I went into town for milk and beer. I ran into our buddy, Linus, from up the road. He was picking up a pizza. Linus works at one of the cherry farms, but used to be in heavy-equipment and construction. During cherry harvest he works long days—and pizza-to-go is part of the equation.

“How’s it going with the foundation?”

“Well, it’s a lot deeper than we thought. We’re up to ten courses.”

He nodded. “So you’ll be pouring a floor, then?”

I shook my head. “No, we’ll still keep it to a crawl space—now, it’s just a tall one.”

“No, you’ll be pouring a floor… a four-inch slab.” It wasn’t a question.

I looked up at him. “We really weren’t planning on a full basement, it’s too high.”

“I doesn’t matter. At ten courses, you pour a floor for stability.” He was nodding his head with certainty. He doesn’t talk much, and, for him, this was pushy.

“Yeah? You think so?”

“Four inches—no less.” His pizza was up. He nodded at me, “Tell Rick I said so.”

The weekend was a running debate. We had to have a serious discussion with the mason. Could this be true? Why hadn’t he said anything? Rick reconfigured the plans for a full basement, just in case. If you have to pour a floor, you might just as well go the full twelve courses for a legal basement. And, if you’re putting in a full basement on a slope, you should put in a door on the downslope for a walkout, and, yeah, maybe a window, for light. We tried to imagine our little cabin, perched up on an eight-foot high, block foundation. A bunker. An eyesore! “Don’t worry,” Rick assured me, “If we have to go this route, we’ll bury as much as we can. We’ll landscape it.”

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Monday morning was telling. Rick put it direct to the mason. “A friend said we should be pouring a four-inch, slab floor—for structural reasons—any truth to that?”

The mason didn’t meet his eyes. He scuffed his boot in the sand. After a long silence, he offered, “Well, it is a good idea.” Why hadn’t he said anything before? That made the decision. I zipped up to the county offices with Rick’s revised plans. The clerk nodded.

“You won’t regret it, a basement is really handy.” She smiled, a little smug. But, she’d been right.

For the next couple of days we watched as the courses of concrete block grew, towering above us. We looked for the bright side. You can always use extra storage… right? Rick could have a shop downstairs. We could move the laundry down there, too. And, we told ourselves, the added height gave us a hell of a view from the front porch. The foundation price was now double the original bid. We sighed and wrote progress payments.

During the foundation work the mason’s little daughter took ill. Really ill. She was hospitalized for over a week. Though we only lost one “official” day of work, the family’s trials cost in “attention” time. Who could blame him? If I had a little one at risk, I’d be glued to her. These are the important things in life. We were happy to accommodate.

We did have a little tiff over the details of the floor. We wanted a vapor barrier under the slab. The mason didn’t want to deal with it. We insisted. It wasn’t the norm, he said. He got more than a little grumpy about it. In the end, we’re the owners—we insisted and prevailed.

With the block work and floor complete, the only remaining thing was to insert the rebar and pour concrete into the wall cores. We were anxious for completion—because then the project would be ours again. With us at the helm, we could make up for some lost time. Rick asked the mason about the rebar placement. Given his California roots, Rick was concerned about what looked to be sparse reinforcement. After all, we’d doubled the wall height, so for structural reasons, now was not the time to go light on strength.

The mason threw a fit. Was Rick questioning his professional integrity? He was almost yelling now. The mason went to his truck and took out his copy of the Michigan Code Book. He shook it in Rick’s face. “It’s all in here. I don’t go by California code. I go by Michigan rules. We don’t have earthquakes here!” He threw the book back into the cab of his truck and left for the day.

Tired of being at a disadvantage, Rick came home, went online, and purchased his own copy of the Michigan Code book. But, in the meantime, we had little choice but to trust the mason. He came the next day for the “final pour.” It was a relief. After our inspection, scheduled for the following Monday, we’d finally be able to start our building process. I paid the mason.

Well, “we” failed the inspection. California, Michigan, it doesn’t matter. The code is pretty much the same, no matter, and the amount of rebar in our foundation didn’t meet code. (So much for “professional integrity.”)

I emailed the mason. He called, livid, like it was our fault—accused us of pissing-off the building inspector. We told him to speak to the Inspector, himself. Apparently, that conversation set him straight. We didn’t even have to say that he should read his own Code Book, instead of shaking it in our faces. He was whipped and compliant.

It took another week to get it finished. The inspector told him exactly what he expected in reinforcement—even more than what code would have required, but by this time, the mason was cowed and obedient. We helped with the final pour. Now we have the strongest foundation in the county, a literal bunker. If there’s ever a tornado or a hurricane, we know where to go. Oh yeah, and turns out the vapor barrier, we fought over, is Code, too!

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The foundation took a little over a month. Not too bad, considering all the changes and hiccoughs. It’ll be nice to have a basement, and there’ll be that incredible view from the front porch.

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Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.

 

 

Okay, Work With Me Here…

A.V. Walters–

 

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

It kicked on at 10:20 in the morning, and it got me thinking. It’s a beautiful day. Clear and clean, post-storm. It’s not hot out, though it likely will be later today. Upstairs, the landlady’s central air conditioner has kicked on, already.

I’m sorry to burden you with my rant, but more people need to think, to plan a little, in their trajectory on this planet. This is only partly about landscaping but it starts there.

I identify a particular brainless “yard pattern” with Michigan, though I expect it’s all over. You see it driving down any street or road, though it’s particularly noticeable in the country. Michigan is a fertile state. If it’s not planted or maintained, its natural tendency is to revert back to forest. So it’s a bit of a shock that folks will buy a place in the country, cut down all the trees, and put in a lawn. They plunk their house in the middle of it—kings of their environment. Landscaping? Well, it’s a border mentality. They plant along the lot-line. Daffodils, trees, whatever, regardless of aesthetics, they celebrate ownership with a string of ill-advised plantings whose only assignment is to state, “This is mine!”

A century ago, farmers were not so self-absorbed. Clearing land took a lot of energy, which they reserved for their fields. They oriented their homes to take advantage of the sun’s rays in the winter. They had adequate roof overhangs to protect them from the rain or heat of the summer, and—they strategically planted deciduous trees to shade them from the heat and still let the sun’s warming rays help them in the dead of winter. I lived in such a home in Two Rock, a turn of the (last) century farmhouse that never got too hot, because trees were planted to provide shade. In the winter, the sun’s low rays streamed in through the living room window to provide welcome warmth and light. In really hot summer weather, we’d close the curtains and windows to the sun and the daytime heat. When the evening cooled, we’d open everything up again to the refreshing breeze. No air-conditioning, just good, old common sense. In the seven years I lived there, and despite some really blistering heat waves, that house never went above 81˚F. Where did that wisdom go?

This house we’re in now has been here for some thirty or forty years, yet nobody has ever planted a shade tree to provide summer cooling. (Instead, there’s a line of spruces on the lot line, whose long winter shadows screen the sun’s warmth when it could be useful.) The house is surrounded by lawn, which, to look good, requires regular watering—with the electrical expense of pumping that water. There are plenty of windows, but no one ever pulls a curtain against the summer heat. Instead, before the dew is even off the grass, the air-conditioner fires up its relentless drone. In an era of global warming triggered by energy use, somehow the air-conditioning solution seems to miss the point. I can almost hear the planet sigh, “Work with me here!”

You can always retrofit with well-placed trees. Drapes closed in the daytime, especially in a home that’s empty while you’re off at work—that’s not too much to ask, is it? We have a regular steady breeze—so you can open the windows in the evening, smell the fresh country air and cool your home. We can work with nature, instead of against it.

Rick and I have selected our building site based on existing tree placement. We’ll have the summer shade even before we have the home. Those trees will lose their leaves and we’ll get some winter warming and light on the south side during sunny winter days. Window placement is designed to maximize light and sun, when it’s needed and to avoid unnecessary heat loss. In that way, it’s an old-fashioned placement. Sure, there’ll be a view—but not at the expense of energy. We can all do a little more, to use a little less.

That’s my rant. (Live with it – we all can!)

 

Somewhere to Put It–

A.V. Walters–

“No, you have to start a lot wider than that. Over by the trailer is your line.”

I looked at him like he was crazy. “Dad, it’s a driveway, not a runway.”

“Just do it. In February, you’ll thank me.”

It’s still snowing here, and that brings back my father’s voice. When I was a teenager, we moved north to snow country. For my dad, the move took him home to the routines of his youth. We had a steep learning curve to adapt to the Keweenaw snows. He was doing the teaching, and we were doing the shoveling. There are two basic frameworks for how to approach snow control—pick a line of demarcation and stick to it, or clear wide in preparation for a winter of snow. My dad adhered to the old ways, taking a seasonal perspective on snow removal.

We felt silly; at our house we started the season clearing the snow five to ten times the width of the actual driveway. The neighbors scooped their driveway only 10-feet wide. Ours looked like a parking lot. We used the traditional Yooper snow scoop, pushing the day’s snow far from the driveway, into the woods. We thought our Dad was nuts. We scooped and shoveled anytime there were 2, or more, inches of snow. Needless to say, we shoveled—a lot.

By February, it was clear that there was a method to his madness. It snowed and snowed and snowed. And, we shoveled and shoveled and shoveled. Our neighbors were still maintaining their 10-foot driveway, but the accumulated piles on either side were so high that they had to throw the snow up, and over the banks they’d created. Then, they actually had to climb up on top to re-shovel the piles back even further. And, they had no visibility entering or leaving their driveway. Having pushed our early snow way to the sides, we were still shoveling, but we had plenty of space to put the accumulated snow. Our banks were manageable, and our driveway clear. My dad didn’t even say, “I told you so.” He just crossed his arms and nodded.

This week, in the local paper, the headline read, “We’re Number Two, Thankfully.” Snowfall to date, here in Leelanau County, is second in the state only to my old haunts up in Keweenaw County. Nobody with a shovel wants to be Number One. (Ask my mum and my sister, back home.) Many, these days, avoid the whole issue by using snow-blowers (or by scurrying, tail-between-the-legs, to Florida.) We still shovel. Rick does almost all of the heavy lifting here, and he started early season snow removal with a wide open swath of driveway. (How did a California boy know such a thing?) Though we didn’t expect this year’s record snows (and, admittedly, our banks are higher than my Dad would’ve liked) we still have a wide, clear area in our driveway.

It’ll be interesting how our two counties fare over the rest of the winter. Keweenaw’s lake, Superior, is 93 % frozen, considered “frozen over” for all practical purposes. That means that back home they won’t be seeing any more “Lake Effect” snow. Our lake, Michigan, is only just over half frozen, so, we should still be seeing Lake Effect snow, for some time. Who knows, we may yet be Number One!

I help some with the shoveling, and I like it. Nothing brings back my father’s voice like a smug and heavy snowfall in February.

The Other Side of Winter II

A.V. Walters

Too windy even to bury the car!

Too windy even to bury the car!

It’s blowing and cold out there. It is snowing, but the wind is so strong, that it’s tough to tell what’s new snow, and what’s just being whipped around and redistributed. The usual storm pattern swoops across from the west or northwest. We look out and the snow is horizontal. We’ve noted from the national weather maps that in the center of the county, near where we’ll be living come spring, there’s a pocket of particularly heavy snow accumulation. One look at the winds today tells the story. All the snow from here ends up there. I see a Kubota in our future.

Without appreciable new snowfall (indeed some areas now have less than before) the driveway has drifted over and needs another shoveling. Rick has taken the laboring oar on snow removal. He maintains a beautiful driveway and paths through the yard. He’s learning to sculpt them so that the wind helps keep them clear, though in some places, drift, it will. I’d love to brag about his efforts, but since much of my family lives far north of here (and with really heavy snow) they’d just scoff. My niece reported on her facebook page the other day that she and her children are tobogganing off their roof. We just can’t compete with that.

Still, some things are universal. No matter where you are, everyone complains that, shovel as they may, they just hate it when the plow comes and negates their hours of work, filling in their driveways with road accumulations. Rick bemoans that it isn’t just more snow, plow snow is heavier and crustier. If you let it sit it will turn to a driveway-blocking wall of lumpy ice. It’s not an observation; it’s a conviction.

This past week our local weekly paper did a feature article on ‘the snow plow drivers of Leelanau County.’ It’s appropriate. Those guys (and they seem to be all guys) are doing a hell of a job keeping the roads clear in this record-breaking year. Now, in mid-January, our to-date snow-fall total is 152 inches, which exceeds the usual seasonal total. Only two weeks ago the paper quoted a local meteorologist as saying that we’d hit our 150 and then it would stop. Think again. Anyway, I had to laugh when the veteran snow plow driver stated that his pet peeve was when homeowners would push their snow into his road. (Apparently it makes for a rough ride.)

The War of the Worlds–

 A.V. Walters–

We’ve had a couple of gorgeous days, low to mid-thirties (F), warm by winter standards, some sun and wind. It’s given us some lovely hikes, before the nippy temps return tomorrow. Some predict a return of the Polar Vortex, others, just a resumption of seasonally, cooler temperatures.

Last week, NPR did a piece on the up-side of the recent Polar Vortex. It turns out that the Emerald Ash Borer—the imported critter that is devastating our Ash forests—cannot survive in the super-frigid temperatures spun off by that Northern phenomenon. Indeed, a number of the pests on the move, may be stopped (or slowed in their tracks) by a return to the type of winters we knew as kids. And, the models for climate change (essentially more weather extremes) may well mean repeated episodes of the Polar Vortex. We can complain about the cold, but if it means hope for the ash trees, fewer ticks, or other invasive critters, I’m all for it.

The science is out of Minnesota, where they found that temperatures in the -30F range, kills the larvae of the Emerald Ash Borer. Because of Lake effect, we don’t get those uber-low temperatures, but I can only hope that repeated cold episodes will weaken the larvae and that fewer of them will survive the winter. What can I say, I’m an optimist.

The Ash Borers were introduced by humans. The ticks are moving north with climate change. And, interestingly, the incidence of the super-cold Polar Vortex appears to be the result of (or at least related to) the destabilization of the jet stream, caused by, you guessed it, human-induced climate change! It reminds me of the Orson Welles radio play—where the invading monsters were ultimately undone by the rich, bacterial biodiversity of the Earth. We have become invaders of our own planet—and at least in this small regard, maybe the general disease of climate change is acting as the cure for some of the specific symptoms. Lucky? I guess that’s a debatable question. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Musings from the Polar Vortex–

A.V. Walters–

Just enough snow.

Just enough snow.

Now there’s a new phrase for you, eh? The only vortex part of it is the rushing-in from the void of all the misinformation about weather, generally, and climate change, specifically. Oh, how the reality-based wonks among us rue the day that somebody started calling it “global warming.” It so distorts the opportunity to study the facts, and create meaningful policy, (or dialogue) in an atmosphere of an anti-science witch-hunt.

Now, the cold snap has subsided, leaving us in the more normal seasonal range of temperatures in the 20s. This weekend they’re predicting a warming trend—one that will bring us sunshine and above-freezing, nighttime temperatures. You’d think we’d be happy about that. In fact, it creates just another set of problems.

First, there’s the leaking roof. In winter’s cold, it’s not a problem. But when things warm up, the leaking roof, in combination with ice dams (damns?) makes this little rental an interesting place. (Buckets and mopping up.) The landlord knows, but it was a bad roofing job and now there’s nothing he can do until spring. At the same time, he plans on putting in new windows—which will be a big improvement, though we’ll be long gone, by then.

That kind of freeze/thaw cycle also creates treacherous roads. The thaw provides the fodder, in the freeze period, for black ice and other hazards of navigation—both pedestrian and vehicular. It means we’ll be strapping on yet another layer of winter gear (spikes) onto our boots. I used to think that these were for old folks. However, my mom swears by them and she insisted that they become part of our new, winter wardrobe. I’m a regular Yeti fashion-plate. At least it’s safe.

And, finally, I don’t want our snow to melt. I’m just about to get cross-country skis. I like look of winter. I love roads with a nice, thick, white, base. (I’m not a fancier of salt or the dirty slush it brings.) So my fingers are crossed that the snow stays through the warming spell.

There are northern things that will take some adjustment. The winter tap water is frigid. My California roots say, “Don’t waste water—use it cold and straight from the tap.” My fingers say, “Skip the frostbite, run it ‘til warm.” The water is so cold that it hurts your teeth to drink it. Northern living takes longer to get anything done, whether it’s the time suiting-up, or shoveling-out, life has to be a little more… intentional. And, the butter is too damn hard to spread on toast. (I can hear my sisters, “Turn up the heat, goofball. Good Lord,” shaking their heads, “They live like a couple of Eskimos.”) This might be solved when we have our own place, and it has insulation. For now, unless I’m baking, the kitchen is chilly. Otherwise, our winter redoubt suits me fine, for now. If only someone could convince the cats.