The art of digression is the intuitive approach to the complexity of reality. Diderot

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The grass over my head IV

Plumbing is one of the least exciting aspects of a house at the best of times. When your house only has an eight square metre bathroom and one sink, it’s hardly worth mentioning.  
So all that remains is the roof.
          A house’s weakest point is usually its roof. Not mine. Once I had the grass established, it would weigh anything up to three tonnes when saturated. Not even a Sumo-wind was going to be able to toss that. But, of course, at the moment my roof weighed ... nothing. Well, almost nothing, consisting as it did of a single sheet of rubber. Until I had the sods up there, I was going to remain worried ... even with insurance.
          But what was the best way of sodding a roof?
          Some people recommended buying soil and planting seeds. Carrying soil would be reasonably straightforward, but it had the decided disadvantage that it would again be at the whim of the weather. One good downpour before the new grass had established itself, and I could have a lovely green moat encircling my house.
          Others recommended buying ready-made turf strips. Although this would make for a quick job, it was an expensive option. There was also the question of whether normal turf would survive the harsh Central weather. Besides, I wanted my roof to blend in, and a rooftop bowling green simply didn’t seem like the right option.
           No other ideas were forthcoming. Though someone did suggest I simply retain an unembellished butynol roof. This idea was immediately rejected on the basis it was not only a strangely kinky concept, but was also no longer feasible since I’d only glued the edges, and the thought of an eternally flapping roof certainly didn’t inspire me.
          The best solution was also the most obvious one. Dig my own sods from somewhere close to the house, and carry them onto the roof. It would be hard physical labour. All-in-all 10 cubic metres of sods would need to be moved from their current location on the ground -where, in a ‘normal’ building-inspector kind of world, they would forever remain - onto a steeply-sloping roof six metres high at its peak. But local sods were not only guaranteed to blend in, but to thrive in the conditions.    
So I found a relatively flat (and apparently rock-free) expanse of grass behind the house (carrying stuff down is always easier than carrying stuff up), marked off 100 square metres, then gave it a crew-cut with, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, a pair of scissors.
Once complete, I stood in the centre of my property’s first, and probably last, clipped lawn and contemplated the task ahead. Ten Cubic Metres of sods. It was enough for a tennis court or three cricket pitches. Ten Cubic Metres of sods raised to my roof. Raising the Titanic would be a cake-walk in comparison. Sodding my roof would be a feat of engineering equalling that of the Pharaohs building the Grass Pyramids of Cheops. They at least had gangs of slaves ...
          Slaves ...
          What I needed was my own chain gang of sod-raising slaves!
          Unfortunately, private slavery had been outlawed, and the purveyors of public slavery were unwilling to assist. The Department of Conservation failed to see the ecological merits of my grass roof, while the Department of Corrections couldn’t fail to see the security de-merits of my property. The Department of Commerce claimed slavery was none of their business. While the Department of Social Welfare claimed slavery no longer existed, though they’d be happy to send me a copy of their Compulsory Unpaid Labour Discussion Paper. The Department of Maori Affairs wanted to know if I was using their land. While the Department of State Owned Enterprises tried to sell me some of their land, along with two power stations, TVNZ, Mount Ruapehu and the National Archives. And, lastly, the Department of the Interior, citing demarcation issues, claimed they could only sod inside my house, otherwise they’d risk upsetting the Department of the Exterior.
          So, no slaves. Abraham Lincoln has a lot to answer for. I’m sure if he’d been a New Zealander, he’d have been a North Islander. But I did have friends. And what good are friends if they can’t occasionally be used for hard manual labour with no other reward than the sheer satisfaction of knowing they’d helped out a friend in desperate need?
It would be just like the “good old days” when everyone clubbed together to build each other’s house. Just like the Amish or the Seventh Day Adventists (whom I’d once witnessed converting a disused section into a church, complete with landscaping, in a single weekend). Though our efforts would more likely resemble the Seven Dwarfs, and our song probably wouldn’t so much be “hi-ho, hi-ho” as “oh-no, oh-no”.
          The call went out. Get out your gumboots, and BYO shovel for the mother of all dirty weekends.  (Don’t you just hate people who say things like that? But instead of raising hell, Cain or even hats, we’d be raising sods ... and a few glasses when it was all over.
          Saturday morning was fine and warm ... hot, in fact, and as the sun sizzled away the morning mist, the first willing workers started arriving, armed with shovels and enthusiasm aplenty. By mid-morning we’d attained our full complement of ten, and after some initial discussion about the optimum approach, we began the excavations. Based on my own complex formula (otherwise known as guesswork), I estimated the roof should be completely grassed over by the end of the day ... all going well.
          Everything did go well. We quickly established co-operative combinations according to personal preferences and strengths, with a natural, efficient routine slowly emerging from the chaos. Ideally, we could have simply divided into rotating teams of diggers, bearers and stackers, maintaining the momentum throughout the day. But there were other considerations. For one, it was my roof, so I was anxious to oversee the most crucial part of the process - placing the sods, packing them together and filling any gaps with loose soil to maintain moisture and allow the sods to eventually knit together to form a single carpet of grass. For another, the distance from the excavation to our starting point along the front gutter required all ten of us in the chain, so the digging had to be alternated with spurts of carrying and stacking.
          We hadn’t reckoned on the toll such heat, combined with the heat-reflective capacities of the black butynol underfoot, would exact. Without frequent, spontaneous breaks for liquid refreshments and Minzion refresh-ment, we simply would have perished. Each hour would find us all sitting naked in the creek like living sponges soaking up the coolness.
Having no neighbours has many advantages, not least of which is we can freely skinny-dip in the creek, or lie on the rocks like fur-less sunbathing seals. Actually, there’s nothing stopping me from being a full-time nudist here except the weather and my personal predilections. But I have no desire to extend the realm of my pagan nakedness, or to invite nudity into my house ... and especially not my kitchen. So, although I don’t believe in restricting such natural pursuits to the confines of naturist retreats, I’m not about to join a Sunseekers Club because I just don’t want to sit where other naked people have sat, or to eat lunch opposite someone drooping chest hairs in his soup.
          So, despite our best endeavours, the encroaching evening found us all exhausted and dirty, but with only the front half completed. As we relaxed in the creek, letting sore muscles unwind and the heat dissipate from our naked bodies, the sense of anti-climax was almost palpable. Despite being extremely grateful for their charitable efforts, I couldn’t hide my vague sense of disappointment. Was that all we were capable of - a miserable half a roof? My mood was further undermined by a sudden grim revelation - it had taken 10 people an entire day to do one side, so how long would it take for me to finish the other half - alone.
          Yet, just as I’d under-estimated the amount of work involved, I soon discovered I’d also under-estimated the commitment of my friends to finish the job. Where I had assumed a day’s work was a sufficient price to ask, everyone else had assumed they were there for the duration (or at least the rest of weekend). Tomorrow we would finish the job. Together. Though I was jubilant, half-heartedly trying to prod our lazy companionship into party mode, exhaustion quickly claimed us all and a warm silence descended over my half-grassed crowded house.
          Sunday arrived, fresh and new. We were all weary, tired, but optimistic. Today we were an experienced sodding team. Today we would finish. Because we were now doing the closer side, there was suddenly enough of us to maintain a constant flow of sods throughout the day. With three people digging, five carrying and two stacking, the sod-level progressed perceptibly faster, racing the shadows towards the apex as the sun slipped across the sky.
Despite the continuing heat and extended sodden pauses, the sudden rocky ground and broken shovels, the army of sods marched onwards. Until, finally, the last sod was levered from the ground, lifted, passing through nine grimy pairs of Sherpa hands as it scaled the lawn Everest, reaching the summit as the exhausted sun sank beneath golden poplar sheets. And as we gathered at the apex, it was wedged into place with a final, whooping flourish.
          I would have ended the day there, contentedly exhausted, but the sod-raisers had other plans. The job was, they insisted, still unfinished. There were gutters to complete, gutters which would probably take an entire day alone, but only a few minutes together. It was no use arguing, so we unrolled the coil of Novaflow pipe (ridged plastic pipe with drainage holes), laid it out in the gutters and with a conveyor belt of buckets, covered it with local river gravel.
          I had a grass roof!
          We adjourned to the weir and sat in the water drinking champagne as the day’s heat gently dissipated.
          I had a grass roof!
          I was bubbling with elation and gratitude. And as I looked at the flotilla of beaming faces bobbing in the narrow lakelet, I realised the relationship between us had subtly altered during this weekend. We had undertaken a project together which, in everyday terms, had been a monumentous endeavour, and we had succeeded. We had shared each other’s lives for two days and been drawn closer, enrichened by the experience. The faces looking at me now were the faces of friends.
          As night descended on my grass roof for the first time, I lay in the darkness thinking about my house, my life. When I began this journey a lifetime ago, both were barely-imagined ideas, rough outlines filled with nothing but the potentialities of what each might become. Each step, each nail, each board, each moment, each thought, each adding to the whole, building on the past, building towards the future. Both had withstood the winds of change and the winters of discontent. Both were now much stronger for their passing.
          And I thought about Marion. When she’d left, I’d believed she’d taken all purpose with her. Taken meaning itself. But eventually I’d realised she had only taken her purpose, her meaning, because destinies can’t be coupled together to run on a single rail. The US juggernaut had been derailed, but that wasn’t the end of the line, simply the beginning of two separate, private journeys, on different tracks and travelling under our own steam.
          In the end, the different paths we’d chosen had merely been detours, because here we lay, together again, side-by-side. But now we were individuals with individual aspirations, separate lives. Lives we treasured. Lives of our own making. We were travelling on parallel paths, and could, if we chose, accompany each other on the next stage of the journey. All we had to do was hold out our hands.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The grass over my head III

Before I could consider plumbing, I needed a sufficient, guaranteed water supply. Until now I’d been filling bottles of water from the small tanks at the shed for drinking and cooking, and washing myself and my clothes in the Minzion.
Although my building permit had specified a 100 square metre water catchment area and a 2000 gallon tank, I was seriously considering alternative arrangements. After all, things had changed dramatically since then. For a start, I was now living by myself, thereby reducing my requirements by half ... or should that be a third, considering I still, theoretically, had to allow for that extra imaginary water consumer? I had also rejected the notion of having a flush toilet, thereby further reducing my theoretical requirements by another substantial amount ... though that unwanted invader would probably still find some ingenious way of consuming his/her quota. And above all, I had in the duration become an “existing house”. Or at least that was my interpretation of the circumstances.
          The first issue - living alone - wasn’t such an influential one, because I was hopeful it would only be a temporary state of affairs. I had no intention of becoming a total recluse or to start some hermitic religious order consisting entirely of just me. So I wanted to ensure my water supply was more than adequate for any number of permanent residents or guests.
Several locals I knew existed solely on rainwater, and although they managed to maintain a constant supply for most of the year, during longer dry spells they often needed the fire brigade to supplement their supply. Of course they also had a flush toilet and weren’t unduly concerned with issues of water conservation, so it wasn’t an entirely appropriate comparison, But it did provide a minimum ball-park figure of 1000 gallons. If I wanted to be guaranteed of an all-year consistent supply, allowing for extra occupants and a fire-fighting reserve, a capacity of 2000 gallons would, after all, be ideal.
          The second issue - a non-flush toilet - made a greater impact. In fact, the flushing toilet has had a huge, and largely negative, impact on the entire planet. Divested of responsibility for their own waste, flushers are largely able to ignore the consequences of their actions, allowing vast quantities of valuable nutrients to be washed into the sea instead of being returned to the soil, causing water pollution on the one hand, and forcing farmers into fertiliser dependency on the other.
It’s just another brick in the wall separating civilisation from nature. We have demonised dirt, embarking on an unholy germicidal jihad which renders our homes unfit for human habitation. We live our grand illusion, confusing disguising with destroying, because shitting, even when it’s into foaming blue ponds while surrounded by the scent of wildflowers, remains shitting. And despite our best efforts, germs remain ever-present and everywhere.
          Waitati has no sewerage system, and its proximity to the sea often excludes both septic tanks and longdrops. As a result, the traditional bucket system - urinating in the garden whenever possible (the smell of fermenting urine not being one of life’s sensory pleasures), and shitting in a bucket located in an outhouse - is often the only option. This not only gives you hands-on experience in waste management, but brings you face-to-face with the consequences of your lifestyle.
Although burying a bucket of smelly, soggy shit is by no means a joy (especially when you discover you’re trying to bury the shit in an already-occupied spot in the garden), it does bestow a certain sense of satisfaction (not to mention superiority) ... though by no means enough satisfaction for me to choose such a system when it wasn’t absolutely necessary.
Luckily, through my involvement with the Environment Centre, I soon discovered there were equally eco-friendly yet far less hands-on systems such as composting toilets. This, I decided, would be the ideal system for my house. No mess, no fuss, and every six months I could remove valuable compost for my garden. Of course, I wasn’t entirely convinced it would be such a hit with the building inspector, but I would face that problem when I came to it.
          The third issue - being an existing house - was also highly relevant to my decision-making. While I’d struggled on to complete my house, new building regulations had been introduced. Rigid building codes and regulations were abandoned in favour of a more flexible approach, an engineer’s certificate now all that was required to validate the structural integrity of any house design, no matter how alternative.
Although this new era of flexibility didn’t affect me directly, indirectly it created a grey area around my little project. Because although more flexible, the new regulations also required each building to be issued with a completion certificate before it was officially considered finished. But my house had been commenced under the old regulations, so I didn’t need a completion certificate. And since my house wasn’t waiting for any final stamp of approval, it must be, in theory at least, an existing house ... which seemed to make anything possible.
          So I consulted the building inspector, requesting a visit to discuss my legal plumbing obligations. The new model inspector was far more affable than the original model. Though he was also seemingly uncomfortable in my presence, spending his entire visit pacing the verandah and gazing across the creek as though longing for the freedom of the open plains. He was quite unperturbed by my plans to dig a semi-permanent long-drop. (My long-term aspirations for a composting toilet temporarily shelved when the mere mention of the word seemed to spark fanatical fires in his disbelieving eyes, like mentioning Salman Rushdie to an ayatollah.) Or my plans to substitute a septic tank for a simple grease-trap. Being so isolated, I could, he finally admitted, do almost anything I wanted.
That was all the encouragement I needed.
          As a new house, I’d been expected to build a water catchment and rely on rainwater. But as an existing house, I now felt free to explore other options ... options which catered to my needs rather than those of some mythical future occupant. The most obvious of these was to tap into my creek’s limitless supply. Simple. Waterpump + pipe = endless supply + no worries. But, of course, nothing’s ever that easy...         
          In the water catchment alternative, gravity was an accomplice, pulling water from the skies, down through the valleys between rolling corrugated hills, dripping, flowing, weeping circles in a dark concrete sea, ever down to splash in gleaming silver fountains, spiralling down, then away. Now it would be a relentless foe, begrudging every droplet dragged upwards, digging in its heels at every turn, wrapping each glistening rebel with heavy chains of friction.
In travelling from the creek up to a tank located high enough above the house to generate enough water pressure, the water would scale a height of approximately fifteen metres and cover a distance of eighty metres - which meant one hefty (ie expensive) pump was required. But it was, at least, possible
          Of far greater concern was the location. Most water-pumps are designed to push water not pull it, which meant it would be necessary to install it close to the creek. This created a power supply issue - requiring either a separate meterbox (hardly warranted by my meagre requirements), or a long extension cord (hardly a soothing proposition for an electro-phobe).
It was further complicated by the fact the Minzion is a deceptively placid companion. Normally it meanders merrily along - a constant, calming flow - it’s minor ebbs and flows providing a familiar, reassuring accompaniment to the cycles of life. Sometimes a little fuller, burying the poplars’ autumnal acne beneath a soft beard of silt. Sometimes a little deeper, dragging sodden, swollen bagpipe sheep down to play with the feasting orchestra of eels. Sometimes a little faster, gurgling and gargling detritus from muddy cavities beneath its stony teeth.
But it often bows to the river’s urgency, it’s level rising up to eight metres in mute acknowledgment of the Clutha’s dominion. And, occasionally, it tosses aside restraint altogether in an unexpectedly passionate outburst, overturning cosy familiarity in a single dramatic gesture and replacing it with renewed respect and a certain wariness.
          So, under normal circumstances, pumping water from the creek seemed like an inconvenient and expensive option, requiring a large pump, lots of pipe, and lots of carrying whenever the creek backed up or flash floods threatened.
But these weren’t normal circumstances, because instead of remaining in Millers Flat, I had moved to Dunedin to establish an Environment Centre.
It was entirely due to my involvement in the Centre, that I had met Roy Martin, a local inventor whose 1978 award-winning invention was, coincidentally, a self-propelled water-turbine. And it was entirely due to Roy’s generosity and enthusiasm (plus the fact he still had one of his original display models available) that I was able to consider installing one of his turbines in my creek. It would require no major installation, no electricity supply, minimal maintenance (and compared to modern pumps, its working components more closely resembled a bicycle than a car), and it would theoretically run forever. The only slight hitch would be to get it to the site.
          Because, despite all its obvious advantages, installing an old model had one minor disadvantage. The turbine consists of a two-metre long fibre-glass tube encasing a long shaft encircled with propeller blades (water races through the tube and spins the propellers to create enough power to operate a pump). The space age had still been in its infancy when this particular model had rolled out of Roy’s garage workshop, so no aluminium or plastic or carbon-fibre or even lightweight stainless steel was used in its construction, resulting in a huge, 240kg, unwieldy monster made of the finest quarter-inch steel.
If the Apollo rockets had been built like this they wouldn’t have made it to Detroit, let alone the moon. So it was guaranteed that the installation would be an adventure rivalling anything NASA had contemplated.
          Ideally, the turbine needed a metre fall over its 2m length, which automatically excluded placing it directly at the foot of my property. The fact the creek often remained backed up to this point for long periods of time, made this site even less desirable. So we’d have to take it around the corner to the first viable waterfall located where the creek narrowed to a few metres width.
The only problem was the path along my bank, slippery and steep at the best of times, wasn’t wide enough to accommodate both us and the turbine, while the opposite bank was impenetrably gorseous. But with the creek fortuitously backed-up, we (me, Marion, Tania and Gerardo - who was currently organising to export the turbines to Argentina, so was keen to not only have some installation experience, but also to make a promotional video) decided to ‘simply’ float the turbine to its final resting place aboard Gerardo’s dilapidated, slow-leaking dinghy.
          Balancing the turbine on the beached boat was accomplished with a minimum of fuss, and with two extra buoys (the empty butynol glue cans) tied to its side, just to be safe, the entire barge-like structure (looking like Free Willy’s worst nightmare) slid majestically down the muddy bank, wobbling once as it plunged into the creek. Then, when it seemed it would continue slipping beneath the dark water to be lost forever (or at least until the river receded), the buoys pulled on their reins, stalling its dive and slowly dragging its bow back to the placid surface. It was floating! But no sooner had it discovered its unexpected buoyancy than it also discovered an inconsolable imbalance, rolling onto its side as Gerardo and I leapt into the icy chest-deep water to try and prevent it from sinking.
          Fortunately it didn’t sink, and we eventually succeeded in floating it across to its final resting place. After building a minor dam, with sandbags and stones, to raise the level another few feet and funnel most of the water through the turbine, we gently lowered it into place ... and WHOOSHhhhhh the propellers began spinning madly!
But spinning propellers is one thing, pumping water up to the desired height was another. So we attached the end of the pipe, and though the propellers slowed considerably as it battled gravity to climb the pipe, the pump continued its relentless throb, sounding like a paddle-steamer convention.
When we followed the water’s progress upwards, finally arriving at the end of the pipe at the watertank, water was gushing out. Instead of the anticipated trickle, it was a torrent - 18,000 litres of water a day with enough pressure at the end of the hose to water my entire garden from a single point. My water ‘problem’ not only solved, but roundly thrashed, leaving me contemplating a future of meandering streams, fountains and waterfalls dotting my property, bringing lush, green life to every corner.
          Of course this is only the expurgated version of the great turbine saga. This is no place to detail the amount of pipe kinked in the process, or the number of holes created when Gerardo tried to ‘fix’ the kinked pipe. The effects of two months silty submergence on a water pump will also remain unspoken, and the ramifications of a Roy Martin turbine being dragged forty metres across rocks during a floody rage will be my secret. And it’s certainly not the place to contemplate lessons learnt, re-learnt or even unlearnt in the process, like “don’t stick anything into rotating objects”, especially not large wrenches in steel propellers. I’d believed, until that moment, that this was a universal rule, passed on by mothers everywhere ... but apparently it’s not a big hit in Argentina.
          I had water. A seemingly endless supply. It was about time I started using it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The grass over my head II

New electrical regulations meant it was now possible for me to consider doing much of the electrical wiring work myself. Originally I’d thought I could do all the wiring myself, but when I sought some guidance from the Power Board concerning my confusion about wiring the fuse box, they politely ‘clarified’ the new regulations for me - which, when relieved of its electrifying incoherence, basically meant I could now do some of the basic work myself, but still only ‘under the direct supervision of a registered electrician’.
So, far from being rendered obsolete by the new regulations (and the new system of colour-coded components), an electrician’s input was still an essential requirement of the wiring process before you could receive any output. Which was fine by me. Because having come so far mostly alone, I somehow felt almost obliged to do the wiring by myself as well, despite the fact the fuse-box wiring diagram was a frighteningly incomprehensible tangle, and I’m rather wary of electricity anyway.
The thought of those millions of hostile, dangerous volts stampeding along complex paths of my creation, their deadly power harnessed by my hands and only my hands, filled me with unease. After all, I couldn’t even contain a lamb’s awesome strength, nor halt the destructive force of a marauding possum! So I was quite relieved to have someone else, someone professional, someone legally-liable, taking responsibility for all the tricky, and potentially dangerous, bits.
          The first step in wiring a house is to decide where to locate all the lights and sockets, plus the range and hot water cylinder. Most houses simply mount each light in the centre of the ceiling of each room, with all the wiring hidden in the roof-space. But I didn’t have any real rooms (apart from the bathroom), I definitely didn’t have any roof-space, and I also didn’t want any wiring visible. The only place I could mount any light was on the single wall enclosing my house.
The fact I had so few options meant perfect placement was essential. It was really a question of imagining where the most light was required and where light was most required, and placing each light to maximise coverage. Of course, to ensure adequate lighting in every corner of the house would have required a wall-mounted light every few metres, making my house look more like a circus tent than a cosy retreat.
Fortunately I’ve always liked the concept of a two-tiered lighting hierarchy - a curtain of ambient lighting for normal circumstances, and a network of lamps and spotlights to suit specific situations as required. So there only needed to be enough permanently mounted lights to alleviate the darkness rather than dispelling shadows from every corner.
One light in each ‘living’ area, two each in the kitchen and bathroom, and one on each porch. The height of the switches was determined by practising turning on the imagined switches under normal circumstances and marking wherever my hand touched the wall. Making them all, as with the rest of the house, custom-designed for my  convenience. And the location of the switches was largely determined by the absence of interior walls.
          As for the sockets, the electrician recommended installing too many rather than too few, since adding wiring to a system afterwards is always a major undertaking. So I walked around the house imagining myself living a ‘normal’ life, and marking any place where an electrical appliance might be involved. I also had to make allowances for potential futures as well, deciding what appliances/electrical devices I might need, as well as allowing for the eventual installation of a central ceiling fan.         
           Once the sites had been selected, the next stage was to drill a network of holes through the framing or beneath the floor to allow the wiring to be threaded back to the fuse box, and another holey path directly from the fuse box to the point where the main supply cable entered the house. The array of lights and sockets are attached by copper umbilical cords to the main circulatory system.
Most wiring is straightforward now that most components are colour-coded. It’s simply a matter of inserting the red wires into the red holes, and so on. The only complications were in wiring the two-way switch I’d decided to install for the connecting platform light, making it possible to turn it off/on both from downstairs and upstairs. I struggled with it for three days, but each wiring variation I tried simply created an alternative, but still wrong, on/off switch combination.
Marion, who was visiting at the time, made the commonly fatal error of suggesting I give up and leave it to the electrician. Of course, that thought had entered my mind as well, but at that moment I just didn’t want to hear it. I needed solace and encouragement, not an implication that I was incompetent. After all, I knew it a ‘simple’ question of finding the right combination from a limited range of possibilities. It was just a matter of time...
Eventually trial and error, accompanied by lots of swearing and yelling, did prevail.
          Once the wiring was laid, I had to wait for the electrician to be available at the same time as the electrical inspector was available to inspect our work at the same time as the power board was available to turn off the power in the morning so the electrician could complete the final connections, then turn it back on in the afternoon so I wasn’t left powerless overnight. Since such a configuration of eventualities was less common than a vegetarian farmer, I decided to begin lining the interior walls. Because all wiring had to be left exposed for the inspector, I could only complete small patches in the meantime, so I had to proceed with some caution to ensure once the patches finally met, both ends wouldn’t have their tongues protruding.
          Miraculously, despite the fact it often felt like I was trying to organise a G7 Summit, all the necessary players in my little power game were soon available, and at the same time, too. The Power Board arrived promptly in the morning and disconnected the supply cable. The electrician arrived promptly to connect the fuse box and the main supply cable. The inspector arrived promptly to chat with the electrician and seal the meters on the meterbox. The inspector then left. The electrician checked his work, took some readings, then left. The Power Board returned promptly to re-connect the power, then they also left. And I still had power!
          Theoretically, it wasn’t possible. Theoretically, the power was supposed to remain disconnected until all the wiring was covered. But, theories be damned, everyone had left and my power remained on!
How astonishing, how exhilarating it is when your life evolves to a new, advanced level of comfort and simplicity. This must be what it was like for the first swamp creature that crawled onto dry land when it suddenly realised the importance of the moment and yelled “DRY LAND!!” Suddenly I could switch on a light, turn on the range, have the CD player and TV plugged in at their proper place instead of clumped insolently together around a single socket, simply plug in any appliance, anywhere, and have it come miraculously alive in my hands. What a joyful, triumphant moment. For those few moments (sometimes stretching to days), conscience is transcended by simple awe. For those few moments electricity reigns supreme and progress smiles benevolently upon us all.
          With limitless power at the tip of my outstretched arm, finishing the house again seemed within reach, with nothing but time standing in the way of completion. I’d already cut a forest of trees. I’d already hammered a mountain of nails, and each stage had become easier as my knowledge and strength and confidence had increased. The interior lining would surely present no further problems.
          The specifications required the lining to be attached in three different directions in order to provide the structure with additional strength. The end walls were horizontal, the lengthways walls were vertical, and the interior walls were diagonal. Horizontal was the easiest, because both ends were straight, while vertical upstairs and downstairs always involved rafters or windows, and the diagonals required angles.
This time I did secret-nail the T&G to the frame, mainly because, unlike the floor, a nail-dotted wall wouldn’t become less apparent with the passing of time.
          Once I’d finished lining most of the main house area, I realised I’d slightly underestimated the amount of waste, because there was no longer enough T&G remaining to complete one interior wall, or the entire bathroom. When I received quotes for the 250 metres I needed to complete the job with larch (or any comparable T&G), I discovered it would cost as much as it had cost me to line the rest of the house.
Apparently, I’d been rather fortuitous when I’d made my original order. At the time there had been sufficient logs available to meet the country’s ever-growing demand for timber. But soon after, the great log export began, with the owners of the country’s largest forests opting to send entire forests at wholesale prices to fuel the ‘Asian miracle’. Of course, the only real miracle was that any local sawmills survived such economic treachery.
          So I could no longer consider finishing the house as I’d planned. I needed cheaper options. I decided to line the internal walls with untreated 9mm plywood, while I disastrously ordered a veneered press-board sheeting, sight unseen, on the basis it was not only on special, but the salesman claimed it looked exactly like T&G. When it arrived, it looked as much like T&G as plastic Christmas trees look like the real thing, but I was stuck with it (since ‘special’ also means ‘non-returnable’).
Although it was an uncompromising, splitting, shattering, cracking, and overall ugly solution, I managed to complete the bathroom walls. Later, in desperation, I painted over the sheer artificiality of the stuff, and though the paint barely adheres to its glossy horridness and large strips peel off at the merest caress, it was an adequate-though-temporary-and-earmarked-for-replacement-at-the-first-opportunity solution.
          The house was now ready for some plumbing.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The grass over my head I

A house, like a person, is held together by its belief in itself. As the gales rip through from the south, rolling over trees and uprooting sheep on its way to pound against my door, I can feel my house tremble. As the first shivers crawl along its spine, I begin to count the nails embedded shallowly in the timber. It would be so easy to prise each nail out, to yank first one way, then the next, and send the boards clattering into the stream. But the mysteries of building, the belief in ourselves, sends the ignorant wind bounding furiously away where it vents its anger on a hay-shed down the road, flinging the roof across the field like a crumpled lolly wrapper at a rugby game.
Building your own home is a scary business. Animal liberationists claim you’ll never eat meat again once you’ve visited an abattoir. Factory workers often claim you’ll never eat their factory’s products again once you’ve witnessed the manufacturing process. That’s why I never visit abattoirs or factories - I just don’t want to know what happens there. Ignorance may not be bliss, but at least it doesn’t put you off your dinner.
But my house was different. I had seen inside. I knew how few nails were holding it together. I’d seen the inherent weaknesses in the techniques. I’d experienced how easily timber splits and concrete cracks. Yet I was now expected to dwell inside the structure I’d constructed, this tentative tower of trembling timber.
It wasn’t that I was consciously expecting disaster, or that I had any reason to doubt my home’s capacity to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. If anything, I should have been the most confident home-owner in Millers Flat, because I had exceeded the requirements - using extra nails, extra nail-plates, extra z-nails, extra bolts, extra everything - at every stage.
I had no problem living in other people’s houses, no matter how feeble they seemed in comparison to my sturdy castle. Marion’s bach wasn’t the world’s most solid house, with sunken piles, woodwormed weatherboards, a few rotting studs, and only rust keeping the iron roof attached, but the wind didn’t keep me awake at night with its boastful threats at her place.
But as soon as the towels began flapping on the clothesline on my verandah, my mind was tormented by visions resembling scenes from those cheap ’70’s disaster films. And that wasn’t opportunity knocking on my roof either.
For the first time in my life, I considered insurance. Until now, I had never had anything worth stealing, or anything which couldn’t be replaced for less than the cost of any insurance policy. All those exceptions, exemptions, excesses and smallprint always made me nervous.
What, after all, is an “Act of God”? If you believe in God, then He/She is everywhere - all-seeing and all-knowing - so everything is necessarily an Act of God, good and bad. Which, in theory, would mean we’d be insured against positive Acts of God as well, like winning the Lotto or having a meteor fall on our father’s girlfriend. But nobody wants to be insured against good events, and it’s hard to comprehend why God would want to rip the roof off anyone’s house. If anything, surely it should be called an “Act of Devil”? But aren’t such insurance escape clauses as “Act of God” discriminatory towards those of us who don’t believe in God? How can a non-entity wipe out your house? Do insurance companies also have an escape clause for Santa’s reindeer destroying my chimney, or the Tooth Fairy stealing more than teeth? Something called “Myth-adventure”? I’m not even going to mention “excesses” which seem to work on the winning principle that the more you need insurance, the less they’re willing to give you and the more it’s going to cost.
Although I weakened and considered insurance, I soon learnt that insurance wouldn’t consider me ... at least not until my house was wired and plumbed. (Which seems a rather odd condition to impose, considering most house damage is actually caused by either wiring or plumbing faults.) I suppose I didn’t have to tell the entire truth, after all, it was unlikely any assessor would trouble to come all the way to Millers Flat just to verify my claims.
But there’s something about insurance salespeople which makes me nervous. Maybe it’s because they always seem like professional cardsharps in the poker game of life.
You know they’re bluffing. Surely if Halley’s Comet does strike the Earth, it won’t necessarily hit my house.
You know the odds are on your side. If Halley’s Comet does strike the Earth, and it does hit my house, what are the chances of it happening in my lifetime ... and while I’m not on the toilet?
You also know you’re never going to win. After all, the policy stipulates quite clearly - under magnification - that any damage caused by a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with Halley’s Comet will be assessed at 1656 values, minus depreciation, of course.
But once you’re in the game, with the grim spectre of disaster leering over your shoulder, you can never fold, and you’ll stay until the end, signing those I.O.U.’s for the rest of your life.
Insurance salespeople also tend to make me feel insecure. Their job, after all, is putting values on people’s lives. Maybe I’m afraid they’ll tell me I’m not worth as much as I thought I was. Maybe they’ll laugh when I confess my materialistic impotence. Is that all your house is worth? Is that all you own? No car? No antiques? Nothing? What have you been doing with your life? Insecurity leads to exaggeration. And by the time I leave their office, I’ve usually got a tailor-made insurance policy ... one tailor-made for Howard Hughes!
So, feeling nervous and insecure, I couldn’t lie. And, unable to lie, I was rejected. Of course, if it hadn’t been so personal, or had simply been a matter of ‘accidentally’ filling out an empty box on a form wrongly, it would have been an entirely different matter. After all, I’ve blithely written ‘Lumberjack’ as my stated occupation in every census and immigration form I’ve filled out in the last ten years. But what would have been the point of lying anyway? Dishonesty would invalidate any policy. It’s no use claiming the thief also stole your door or the storm dissolved your windows when the assessor comes to call.
So no insurance security blanket for me. Not yet, anyway.
But I’d been infected. Suddenly, after an uninsured lifetime, I craved the comfort of a comprehensive policy. Even though I still didn’t own much of value. Even though Millers Flat is a relatively crime-free area. Even though my house had already withstood the worst the weather was likely to throw at it. Having a house somehow changed everything. There was too much time invested, too much money, too many tears for me to risk losing it in one single, unexpected, freak event. It wasn’t so much damage that I feared, as destruction. Total loss.
I’d seen a solid, sturdy relationship collapse without any warning, its foundations undermined by years of neglect and bland assumption. Although no insurance policy could have compensated for my loss, perhaps, if I’d broadened my investments, invested more of myself in strengthening other relationships, friendships outside of marriage, invested more in my life, perhaps I could have salvaged something, and perhaps I wouldn’t have been left emotionally bereft and spiritually impoverished.
I didn’t want the same to happen to my house. Not my house. Because if the truth was faced, I had, to my ignorant shame, committed more of myself to building my house than strengthening my marriage. Committed myself to actions rather than emotions, foolishly believing they spoke the same language. Now that I’d finally realised the value of what I had, of who I was, of what I’d lost, only now did I feel the need to insure against its loss.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Land Escaping VI

There’s more than just a low, scrub-spotted hill separating Waitati from Dunedin. It often feels like there should be a border-post on top of the ridge, at the point where the city’s energetic thrusting finally loses its momentum, restrained by the weight of its own demands, and ahead lies only fields pouring into the sea. Yet it’s not just the city itself which you are leaving behind. It's alos the urban frame-of-mind.
It’s not the smell of the country which encourages you forward, but the scent of community. Because although Waitati could be a suburb, drawn into the commuter-belt by the ever-tightening girdle of highway, it retains its semi-rural aloofness, a personality moulded by the sunshine dripping into the bay and the silky mists rolling in from the sea. Although it could be a country village, turning its rigid back on a stranger’s world, it retains its cosmopolitan vigour, inviting life inside for conversation and a cup of tea. It’s inhabitants living independent inter-dependent lives, individuals existing apart yet also as part of a community.
           It was the first place I felt at home. The first place where it was the people, not the location which inspired me. (Or maybe it was just that the hitching was so good.) But it was me who had to make the initial effort. It’s a basic fact of life that most people just don’t like leaving their homes, preferring visitors to visiting. This, combined with the fact I was a newcomer, meant it was particularly unlikely anyone would visit me.
A few people I’d met earlier at a local dance had invited me to ‘pop in sometime’, so I decided to take them up on their offer. Yet although I hadn’t pulled random names out of the phonebook, those first unexpected, uninvited visits were emotionally harrowing affairs. Does ‘pop in’ imply a quick hello at the front door, a cup of tea and a biscuit, an hour or an evening? Can it be spontaneous, or are bookings required?
When is ‘sometime’? And was it all sincere or a polite social formality?  So I not only had to overcome my initial fear of interrupting, but the fear of intruding, of rejection, of not being considered interesting enough, of not being liked, not to mention my fear of being bored, of being trapped in a complex social web, of setting off a tiresome chain reaction of unwanted visitations. Though my visits were greeted with unanimous enthusiasm, my social antennae were always alert to the merest flicker of discomfort. After all, it’s so easy to cross that line of dropping in too much or staying too long.
          I was comfortable living there, in Marion’s little house, by myself. I had a job which was both challenging and fulfilling - though the frustrations continued mounting and the fact it remained a 60 hour per week unpaid position began to take its toll.
I had an extensive social network which was both supportive and inspiring. I have, traditionally, been someone who cultivates many acquaintances yet harvests few friends, simply because so many relationships fail to fully mature or ripen, and so many wilt on the vine or shrivel beneath the harsh sun of truth. But Waitati is fertile social soil, and the bountiful harvest I reaped there will sustain me through many long winters.
But soon, too soon, I also had to leave.
          Marion returned from another tumultuous season. For a while, we tried to live together again, but though we often basked in the familiar warmth of our companionship, too often it flared into a fiery inferno of unresolved pain and guilt. So I moved out. First into a spare room in the Environment Centre, then into another flat - both unsatisfactory, both unsuccessful. The city was no substitute for friends.
So when a house became available in Waitati, I gratefully moved back out there. Back to the place which had, in the meantime, become my second home. If only I could move my house, my property, my creek, somewhere into the valley there, perhaps I would finally discover the perfect balance between people and place. Perhaps I could finally settle one of my life’s greatest conflicts.    
          But the Minzion again began calling my name. No longer a siren’s song enticing me onto the rocks, it was now the lilting refrain of freedom. There was where I wanted to be. There was where I could finally build the kind of life I wanted. The isolation was no longer frightening, because I was no longer cast adrift, alone. Now I had a life-line, a social umbilical cord nurturing me, sustaining me, no matter how far I drifted. Being by myself was no longer painful, no longer a punishment. I was not my jailer, but a friend. Though I may live alone, I’d never again be lonely because my self was now the best company I could keep.
          I suddenly realised I was happy. Happy, again, with my life. Happy, finally, with myself.
          Now was the time to continue the journey.
          Now was the time to finish building my house and begin building a life. A self-sufficient life. My life.
          Now was the time to return to Millers Flat.
          Now was the time to go home.
          And perhaps I could one day entice Waitati to join me at my place.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Land Escaping V

Before I started designing my house, I’d never really paid much attention to windows. Our family home in Banyo had been a simple, many-windowed box on stilts, looking like a martian invader from War of the Worlds, or an incongruous stick-insect.
Of course, that was before the entire ‘basement’ was closed-in to create the euphemistic ‘poolroom’, with its mini pool table dodging the elephant-leg piles like a green-felted mouse, and the collection of truncated cues to compensate for the intrusive walls.
The house, squarely aligned with the road, had consisted of rooms down each side of a long hallway (bedrooms on the left, conveniences on the right), and the windows, placed at the centre of every external wall in each room, served no other purpose than to let things in - light, rare summer breezes and flies. Otherwise, they were more things to look through than at. So I never really considered any of their other functions, or contemplated their construction.
          Now that I had to design my windows myself, I was completely in the dark. The specifications had indicated awning-hung windows (opening from the bottom) but these seemed somehow inappropriate to the character of my home, so I returned to the stone cottage. The windows there were in three parts - a panel of coloured glass above two sashes, each divided into three panes, opening outwards in the centre. That seemed not only more suitable (particularly if I substituted the coloured glass panel for a stained-glass window), but within the realm of my capabilities.
          Light wasn’t an issue when considering the window design, because the front of the house contained five large and four small windows, and faced north-ish, while the east and west sides contained two large windows apiece (plus an extra east window in the bathroom), and the south only one.
In summer, this arrangement combined with the protective verandah overhang would allow ample light inside while keeping out any direct sunlight, while in winter, the sun would drop below the line of the eaves and verandah roof to pour its warmth into the house. A bigger consideration was keeping the warmth in during the winter by making the glass surface as small as possible. The three-panel design seemed to fit every criteria, as well as being aesthetically pleasing and matching the style of the house.
           But a window is not only expected to look good, it’s also supposed to be rain-and-wind-proof. Many people would also add clean to this list.
          For me, draughts aren’t such an issue, because I don’t want to live in a vacuum, and I’m not German. Germans have a culturally-ingrained fear of draughts. What we call a gentle, cooling breeze, they call the breath of death. What we call letting in some air, they call inviting in disease. No matter how hot the day, nor how cramped the bus/tram/train/car, air movement inside a confined space is to be vehemently discouraged.
So, while they’ll heroically battle blizzards outside, once they step inside and that door is closed, they’ll pale at the mere flutter of a teatowel. One draught they particularly fear is the one which creeps up and tickles the back of any foolishly exposed neck. Such draughts are not only harbingers of colds, flus, bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, smallpox, AIDS and mad-cow disease, but are largely responsible for the plight of the Third World. A draught-free environment is the key to economic success - just compare those healthy, prosperous Asians living in their hermetically sealed high-rises to all those poor, starving Africans living in draughty mud huts. If we really want to help, we shouldn’t be sending food or money, we should be sending windows!
German tourists aren’t so much holiday-makers as cultural missionaries bringing wondrous tales of ‘good’ coffee, ‘proper’ beer and ‘real’ bread to impoverished backwaters such as New Zealand. And they’re very forthright when it comes to exporting such modern, post-industrial, health practices as draught-prevention to under-privileged lands, boldly depriving the local citizens of ventilation on stuffy public transport in the name of progress.
          It was fortunate I wasn’t obsessed by draughts really, because creating draught-proof windows was not only beyond my capabilities, but also beyond the material’s range. Wood is a joyously flexible material capable of accomplishing many wondrous things, but keeping out draughts just isn’t one of them. No matter how precise the workpersonship, there’s always going to be a hairline gap wherever two pieces of timber come together. And the wind, like men, are highly attuned to hairlines, and capable of exploiting them to devastating effect.
Of course there are modern, hi-tech draught solutions no matter whether the window is wood or aluminium, but it’s usually necessary to plan ahead if you want to use them because they require space, and such spaces have to be incorporated into the window design itself.
          Naturally enough, I didn’t know all this before I built my windows, so I didn’t plan for such solutions. Nor did I realise that where the wind can go, the rain can follow. Instead, I simply cut the pieces for each sash and nailed them together (they would be painted anyway, so any gaps could easily be filled and hidden beneath layers of paint) to form a stack of roughly-equal rectangular frames.
A dating agency in Bosnia would have less trouble finding compatible couples than I had attempting to match sashes to frames. All those ‘slight’ variations in size and vague differences in the relative ‘rightness’ of angles suddenly escalated into a major conflict requiring a great deal of adjustive intervention, mediation, swapping and trimming before complete matching sets were finally found which could peacefully cohabit.
          Of course, such an enforced peace only remained as long as a horizontal aspect was maintained ... which also sounds very much like dating. Once I’d manoeuvred the frames into their final, permanent, vertical positions, the sashes seemed suddenly reticent, and further coercion, adjusting and trimming was necessary before my windows willingly performed their chosen function - ie they opened and closed. 
I’m still unsure whether this friction was due to the few millimetre thickness of paint I’d since added. (I opted to paint the sashes and frames before I attached them.) Or a mix-up in my matchings. (I admit this is possible because I’d painted over my scribbled references and I can’t be entirely sure they were kept in the correct order.) Or the natural variations between hung and un-hung windows. (Plus the distinctions between badly-hung and well-hung examples.) Or even some strange swelling caused by the glazing putty. (I could have used beads, but with my uneven cutting, I was concerned about rattling glass.) Whichever it was, I eventually had all my windows installed and functioning, though it remained to be seen whether they fulfilled that other somewhat important function of keeping out the rain ...
          I ended up faking the stained-glass because finding appropriate-sized panes was unlikely, and I have no abilities whatsoever in the stained-glass arena - or any other artistic endeavour, actually. So Marion designed a simple pattern, and using ‘leadless lead’ - basically coloured glue - and glass paints, duplicated the effect.
          As for the issue of weather-proofing, most of the large windows were sheltered beneath the verandah, and the smaller ones tucked under the roof overhang. Though weather-shields were installed, on the two windows exposed to those southerly storms when it often seems to be raining more up than down, they proved entirely inadequate to prevent water entry.
No amount of water-proofing seemed to have any effect (though the degree of success only became obvious during each subsequent storm), and my frustration continued to mount until I finally realised that it wasn’t absolutely essential that these windows actually opened. After that, their Fate, along with their sashes, was sealed - the worst culprit being entirely, permanently closed with silicon, while the less recalcitrant of them had only its wayward half sealed.
So now I had at least two windows (well, one-and-a-half) which were not only water-proof, but draught-proof as well. Suddenly my house was sealed from the worst of the weather and unwanted intruders. Though most intruders would have little trouble breaking in. Living in such an isolated location means you only lock your doors for the insurance company’s benefit, because any thief isn’t going to be deterred by a locked door when nobody can hear a window smashing.
Well, perhaps that’s not entirely correct, because a locked door might have discouraged the inexperienced thief who did violate my house. I assume he - and statistics support the assumption it was a he - was inexperienced, not to mention stupid, because he’d come at night without bringing any light.
Maybe he’d assumed he could just flick on a switch, but of course I not only had no locks, but no electricity. At some point he’d found a candle, and the wax trails he’d left behind revealed his grubby intrusion into every corner, every cupboard and every box, until he’d eventually found my torch. Fortunately he didn’t value many of my possessions, and his musical preferences had probably never evolved beyond the heavy metal swamp, so my CD collection also remained.
Unfortunately, some compensation was obviously necessary to reward him for his courageous ignorance, so he rewarded himself with a bag of chips and half a packet of cookies before taking my camera and leaving, his way now brightly lit by his newly acquired torch. I often wonder whether his vile arrogance would have faltered at the first locked door, or would it have simply unleashed his destructive zeal?
          In the meantime, after months of fundraising and disappointment, the Environment Centre had opened. It was a registered non-profit Charitable Trust, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t expected to be profitable. No government money was available unless the operation was deemed to be financially viable. This meant the Centre’s focus was forced to shift from environmental awareness to environmental retailing.
Retailing requires a viable location, and viable retail locations are expensive. So, instead of a cheap, low-key, central city space, we ended up in an expensive, high-profile, central city space in one of the few historic buildings remaining in Dunedin. Instead of slowly establishing a resource and drop-in centre, we suddenly found ourselves, out of sheer necessity, operating a struggling shop.
          Soon most of my time was devoted not so much to development or projects as merely keeping the place afloat. Retailing was a vast treadmill powered by ‘turnover’, and our efforts to generate sales and enthusiasm in our under-stocked, under-funded, unprofessional, unadvertised, unwanted shop failed to even maintain our financial footing, let alone power us forward. Crisis meeting followed crisis meeting with no positive resolutions, no solutions. Funding sources were non-existent.
A peculiar aspect of fundraising is the funders’ bewildering addiction to ‘projects’ and aversion to ‘running costs’, as though one is not entirely reliant on the other. Potential benefactors had fled to their Pacific Island tax havens and weren’t accepting our calls. I should have known we were in trouble after the opening ceremony, when all the invited dignitaries, their chins plastered with croissant crumbs (looking like escapees from a pastry world where they shaved with baguettes and used croissants for toilet paper), detoured around the large, prominently-displayed donation bucket like weight-watchers around scales.
If squeezing a few dollars from the city’s wealthy was such a task (even after an entire clan of virgin pastries had been sacrificed on the fundraising altar), our days were surely numbered. No amount of ‘good lucks’ was going to pay the bills. No amount of negotiating was going to relieve our crippling rental burden. It wasn’t until we abandoned retailing and fled our street-front location for the relative calm and prosperity of an upper-floor ghetto that the financial stranglehold loosened enough for us to breathe a single sigh of relief.
          By now I had also abandoned my flat for the social oasis of Waitati. Marion had again returned to Ettrick for yet another apple-picking season, and I had taken up residence in her house. It was an arrangement which suited us all - Marion, me, and most importantly, Momo and Dudley. Perhaps it’s a result of their isolated, rural, sparsely-humaned ‘kittenhood’. Perhaps it’s an instinctual response to humanity itself or the complexities of urban life. Or perhaps it’s simply a basic personality quirk.
            Whichever of these it may or may not be, the simple fact is that Momo and Dudley were two anti-social (if not completely paranoid) cats. The only people they liked were Marion and I. The only people they trusted were Marion and I (and even then Dudley’s trust levels were never entirely constant). So, taking them to live in the picker’s accommodation surrounded by strangers, psychotics and sadists was simply out of the question, as was moving them in with friends or moving friends in with them. My flat had not only proven unsuitable for them, but was also slowly becoming inconvenient for me. House-sitting was the perfect temporary solution.