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On Paying Off My Mortgage

On Paying Off My Mortgage

Livingsmall Goal # 1 Done! House is paid off!

On Friday, I wired the last payment on my house.

I own my own house. No one can make me move, ever again, if I don’t want to. For someone who went to six grammar schools and moved pretty much every 2 years until I was 35, this is huge.

This has been the primary goal of LivingSmall since day one. I moved to Montana because it’s beautiful of course, but primarily I moved here because I could buy an inexpensive house. A house I could afford to pay off.

I did my masters degree at UC Davis, where I applied in large part to study with Gary Snyder. I’m not a poet, but I figured if Gary was there, something cool must be going on. Gary’s biggest advice to us budding writers was not about poetry, or even about writing. “Find a cheap house,” he said. “Someplace you can pay off. If it’s cheap and you want to live there, there’s probably also other artists there.” That’s what he did all those decades ago on the Yuba Ridge, and what I was looking for in Livingston was something similar.

So that’s what I did. I came up here in 2002, seeking a cheap house, and a found one in a town full of artists, and writers, and musicians, and fishing guides, and electricians and carpenters and schoolteachers.

I built a garden, and fixed things up bit by bit. I paid cash for everything I did on the house and while I’ll need a new roof next year, and I have to repaint some things, and while there are always things I want to do in the garden, I own my house, free and clear.

In the process I built a life. A life that as some of you who have followed me a long time know, was nearly derailed entirely the first year I was here. As I tell people when the story comes up, if you’re going to have a disaster, have it in Livingston. Everyone came. My kitchen filled up with people that first night, and they’re all still here. I’m still here. We are all here together. We’ve seen one another through other disasters. We’ve all brought food to the Elks club for funeral parties, but we’ve celebrated kids birthdays, and book launches, and year after year of rodeo parades.

It was not a mistake, my project of living small. There’s more big news to come, but for now, I’m going to take a moment in my back garden, where the beans are shooting above the trellis, where the sunflowers and hollyhocks are blooming great shoots of color into the sky, where the chickens I just deloused are clucking around in their coop while I wait for Himself to come home for dinner and a Red Sox game on TV. It is not the life I thought I wanted, but it is a better life than I ever could have envisioned.

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Hoop House!

Hoop House!

This is what I found when I opened the hoop house to water this morning — real greens! Greens I can eat! I am beyond thrilled with how well these have worked out this year. The binder clips have kept the plastic from blowing off, even in the worst winds Livingston has to offer (winds that cause them to close the interstate and run all the semi-trailers through town). The plastic has kept it warm in there through a couple of weeks of freezing nights. And I’m sure the fact that we’ve had three or four 70-degree days hasn’t hurt.

But after a couple of months of fighting off low-grade colds and then strep, I’m beyond thrilled to be eating my own greens again. I can’t think of anything that will restore your health faster than your own dark green veggies, some sunshine, backyard eggs, and nice long walks through town in the early evening with the dog.

I can’t wait to see how the hoop houses work for the peppers. They don’t like cool nights, which is what we almost always have. I wish they were prettier, but I’ll settle for effective.

Harmony Still Reigns …

Harmony Still Reigns …

I hesitate to broadcast this to the universe, but we seem to have reached a state of interspecies harmony here at the homestead. Raymond, former chicken-killer, seems to have figured out that he can follow the chickens around the yard, wagging his tail at them, and making small whining sounds without actually having to kill them. It’s clear he wants them, but so far, he’s managed, even unsupervised, not to kill them.

And here’s Owen. If you look closely, you can see chickens taking dust baths in the background behind them. Owie’s never killed a chicken, his current challenge is learning to stay out of the chicken coop when the door is open. He goes in seeking “delicious” chicken poop, which makes me want to hurl.

So, it only took a year, and two dead chickens, but it seems that everyone has pretty much learned to live together. It certainly makes gardening much more entertaining …

Garden Fencing

Garden Fencing

Ever since last fall’s episode of food poisoning, I’ve been meaning to finish enclosing the garden. However, I had to wait for the ground to thaw, and well, the freelance life means that finances have been just tight enough that I didn’t want to go out and buy copper pipe. But this weekend, I finally got it done. I tried to come up with some solution other than more expensive copper, but since I’d done the rest of the trellis/fences that way when I built the garden (this is summer number eight — how did that happen?), well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of two beds edged in pvc when the rest uses copper. So I sucked it up and spent the money.

The trellis/fencing is 1/2 inch copper plumbing pipe, and because I don’t know how to weld, I used duct tape for the joints. It was really easy to put together, and with the pipes jammed a foot or two into the ground inside the raised beds, and lashed to one another with zip ties, they withstand the wind nicely. So this weekend I enclosed the last two beds on the end of the garden, and strung them with nylon trellis. Unfortunately the trellis openings are large enough for chickens to get through, so I then stretched bird netting around the outside of the beds. I’ll need some help from the Sweetheart as far as gates go. Right now I’ve got an old piece of screening leaned up against the front opening, and that seems to be working — but once there are delicious greens inside the garden, I think I’m going to need something a little bit more formal to keep those chickens out.

But it looks nice, and I kind of like working inside the enclosed space. When I first built it I didn’t want to demark it from the rest of the yard so much, but now that it’s all enclosed, I’m finding it has a nice “secret garden” kind of vibe. And because the “fences” are just pipe and trellis, you can still see right through it.

Now if only real spring would come. And some rain would be nice. It’s so dry I’m having to water already.

Belgian Town Gives Chickens To Residents

Belgian Town Gives Chickens To Residents


According to the BBC, the town of Mouscron, in Belgium, has 50 pairs of chickens it plans to give to residents as a way to decrease the waste stream.

I have to say, my chickens have both significantly lowered my household and garden waste, and here in the arid west, they’ve exponentially sped up the composting process. Composting is a real problem here, because it’s so dry. Because there was an 8×10 concrete pad in the back part of the yard, that’s where I built the chicken coop. And because the compost heaps were already in that part of the yard (my very fancy setup built from recycled pallets) we decided it would probably be easier just to enclose the compost in with the chickens. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but it worked out beautifully. The chickens scratch around in the compost piles all day, digging holes, excavating for bugs, and aerating the compost in the process. And cleaning out the coop and yard is really easy — I rake out the shavings from inside the coop, then hurl the shavings and straw (that’s what I use to cover the concrete) into the compost heaps. Then the chickens pull it all down, and I toss it back up. I’m getting compost in months that used to take years. Plus, I think it gives the chickens something to do all day.

I’ve been bartering eggs for all sorts of things, and I’ve gotten big compliments on how delicious my eggs are. If I know the person well I tell them the secret is compost. Compost the chickens, compost the garden, it’s all good.

Storm Windows, Already?

Storm Windows, Already?

It’s supposed to go down into the single digits tonight, so this afternoon, despite the fact that it was only 25 degrees out, and snowy, I got the storm windows out of the shed, and put them up.

Every year I forget what a colossal pain in the ass they are. I replaced all the old windows in my house except for those in the living room. They’re really old double-hung windows, so old that the glass is wavy, and I just fell in love with them. So I kept the clunky old wooden storm windows that go with them, and there I was, on a ladder, cursing and banging at them with a hammer to make them fit. Ugh.

But now they’re up, and the storm-door insert is in my screen door, and the house is feeling all cozy and battened down for winter.

It’s supposed to go back up into the 60s next week, so I buried the garden in straw and covered it in plastic. I’m hoping to keep at least the hardy greens alive. I decided this summer that what I really love are the spring and fall crops, I’m not so much for the mid-summer heat crops, and I’d hate to lose all my greens.

We also got the chickens stet up with a (ridiculously expensive!) heated base for their water unit, and a 100 watt light bulb to heat the coop. They sort of hate the light bulb — it goes against their urge to roost someplace dark in the evening, so I ordered a red heat bulb for reptiles. However, tonight they’re going to have to sleep with the lights on — it was 16 degrees outside this morning when I got up, and 28 degrees inside the coop (I’m a little obsessive about remote-control thermometers). So if it goes down to 0 tonight, it’ll only be about 10 degrees in the coop, and that’s too cold. We’ll have to see how they do … I hope I don’t wake up to chicken-sicles tomorrow (or frozen eggs!) …

Food Poisoning!

Food Poisoning!

Ugh. So Saturday afternoon I thawed out some of last year’s antelope, marinated it, and made some skewers with a few onions out of the garden (for Chuck) and with onions and tomatoes and zucchini for me. Three in the morning and my sweetheart is not well. I’m a little rumbly in the tummy, but he is Not A Well Man. It was very very sad. And a long night.

Morning strikes and he is still Sick Like Dog. He sits in the living room watching football and ignoring a cup of black tea while I go out back and feverishly enclose the vegetable garden in bird netting. Sometime during the Long Night, I decided that it must have been the onions. The chickens have been in that bed a lot, and because I was afraid of overcooking the very lean antelope, the onions weren’t as cooked as I’d have liked. They were crunchy. All night I had visions of germy chicken feet, and contaminated onions and so, despite Chuck’s conviction that it was the antelope, I went out and banished the chickens from the garden.

In the spring, when the ground is soft, I’ll have to continue the copper-pipe trellis I have around the perimeter of the other beds, but for now I have a very loving-hands-at-home bamboo fence covered  in bird netting. And a “gate” made from a couple of old pieces of green epoxy-coated wire fence. It’s not pretty, but it works. Two days and no chickens in the garden. And I kind of like the enclosure — it’s sweet in there. Like the Secret Garden. I did find a sparrow caught in the bird netting this afternoon, but I got him out and tucked away the stray piece in which he’d caught himself.

And by this morning, the tide of unpleasantness seems to have subsided. But I feel terrible. Here I am, so-called food blogger, and I poisoned my beloved! My grandmother gave me food poisoning so many times as a kid that I think I’ve got pretty good antibodies, but really, I’ve never actually given anyone food poisoning before. I feel terrible. I don’t know if it was those germy chickens, but it can’t hurt to fence them out of the food crops. Sheesh. Tonight I think it’s going to be something plain, like pork chops and rice (and ripe tomato salad for me, the one who eats vegetables).

The $21 Chicken Coop

The $21 Chicken Coop

chicken coop enclosureI’ve been meaning to blog about this for ages, but my vacation got in the way. We finally finished the chicken coop. Chuck built the actual coop part ages ago, but after Ray killed the hens, we had to enclose the whole space, which took a little while. And I’m proud to say that the only thing we bought for the coop was a roll of plastic bird fencing. Everything else was recycled. There is chain link fence along the bottom part of the enclosure and then I covered it with old twig fencing that I’d saved when I replaced the chain link with stockade fence — it looks good and keeps the chickens from sticking their heads through the chain link (where Raymond would like to bite them off). I also used recycled twig fencing on the roof of the enclosure for shade (although I have to get out and zip tie it down before the fall winds start). It gets really hot in that back corner of the yard, and not only does the twig fencing provide some shade, but I can hose it down for a little evaporative cooling as well. I used an old window screen up on top of the coop roof — it provides some structural support and keeps the hens from breaking out into the alley.

beer box nesting boxes
beer box nesting boxes
bucket nesting boxes
bucket nesting boxes

I made nesting boxes from stuff that was lying around. We’ve been drinking this cheap beer all summer, and the boxes work really well. I also used five-gallon buckets for nesting boxes under the roosting bar — they protect the eggs from chicken poop. We’ll have to see how this all works in the winter. So far, the chickens like the nesting box closest to the wall, and the two buckets. There are seven chickens, and when it gets cold and we have to start closing the coop door at night, it might get pretty crowded in there. But for now, these are working really nicely.

coop gate
coop gate

The last frontier was the gate. The original gate is the recycled gate from the chain link fence, but since the wily chickens kept coming over the top, Chuck pulled this partial screen door out of his stash of recycled house parts, built a frame for it, and attached it to the original gate. It’s a little goofy looking, but works really well and keeps the chickens safely inside.

So there it is, the $21 chicken coop. I spent money on the hens (about $12 for the first six, then $5 a piece for the replacement hens), and money on the feeder ($15) and waterer ($27). But for the coop itself, it was all recycled. The wood was from Chuck’s stash, the body of the coop itself was a packing crate in which my friend Sabrina had some old family portraits shipped over from England, the twig fencing was orignially on the chain link fence I replaced here at my house, the wire fencing for the roof was left over from the garden. It’s been about a month with the new chickens, and so far, mortality is at zero, and we’re getting half a dozen eggs a day. Go chickens!

Back on Track

Back on Track

From: American Poultry Culture, R.B. Sando, 1909
From: American Poultry Culture, R.B. Sando, 1909 (gift from Chuck)

It’s been interesting, this “self-employment” thing. I must admit, I’ve taken a very big break — amazing how many things one can get behind on after working a real day job for ten years. I realize that most people work “real day jobs” for their entire career, so I’m not trying to be disengenuous, but before the Big Corporate Job That Vanished, I was a grad student and a ski bum and a raft guide and worked a lot of odd jobs and retail. I’ve worked since I was fourteen, and for most of that time I had more than one job, but it was only this last ten years where I had a real, everyday job where you worked on weekdays, and got official vacations and all that.

And so it feels a lot more like “normal” life to be back out here on the “outside” — a little freaky at times, that was a big security net I just lost, but on the other hand, I’ve had a lovely long break. I got things done in the yard. Chuck and I went camping a couple of times. My beloved stepmother came to visit and we went mushroom hunting (photos to come). I read books. I did laundry. I got the snow tires off my car. I spent time with my pretend children.

And now I’m more than ready to get back to work. There’s some freelance work on the horizon and a novel to write and a whole new schedule and budget and way of life to figure out.  So we’ll see how it plays out. Like I said, I’m a little freaked out, but there’s a bushel of apples stored in the basement, six eggs a day coming in from the chickens, and Chuck’s off to Big Timber this afternoon to pick up the pig we bought (butchered, wrapped, hams and bacon and sausage) so at least I know I won’t starve this winter.

The beginning of a new adventure ….

Unemployment, Week One

Unemployment, Week One

So far, so good on the unemployment thing. While it’s never ideal to be the one voted off the island, I find I don’t miss the job at all — I miss the people I worked with, but I don’t miss being chained to my desk from eight in the morning until six at night; I don’t miss the anxiety of thinking someone might send you an instant message while you were getting a cup of tea and then decide you’re slacking; I don’t miss being treated as an incompetent by my manager, and I’m beginning to get over the numbness that has been plagueing my right arm and shoulder for the past couple of months.

This week, frankly, I’ve been sleeping a lot. This feels a lot like the summer after I finished my Phd exams, when I slept, read plotty, unchallenging books (that summer it was the Raj Quartet, this summer it’s the Inspector Montalbano mysteries by Andrea Camelleri), and just went into recovery mode.

The first thing I did last week was to re-organize my office. Out went the big desk that was too high, and which I think was a major contributing factor to the arm numbness. Up from the basement came the ugly-but-comfy armchair and the tilty table from Levengers (really great when I have to type in quotes from books for the new freelance gig). Also up from the basement came my wee desk from Target — when I took the finials off the bottom of the legs, it’s exactly the right midget height for me to sit in a chair with my feet on the floor and type. I pulled out my old corkboard and tacked a few note cards with article ideas up, and purged all the stuff from my office bookshelves that I’m not going to need anymore. A vase of flowers from the garden, and I’m set. A new office for a new era.

I also managed to get a lot of things done that I’ve been working too much to address. I got the snow tires off my car (well, it did snow in June, but not that much). I washed my kitchen floor. I weeded the vegetable garden, picked the peas and the favas and planted some endives for fall. I rebuilt the chicken coop (a proper post on that later) so the chickens can’t get out.  Chuck and I went for a 10 mile hike. I went up to my Milk Lady’s farm and relocated the rooster (he’s cock of the walk in the hen house apparently — very much the new guy in town and loving it) and bought some hens from her. I went big-grocery shopping and went to Costco and got some acupuncture for the bad shoulder. I took the dogs swimming in the Yellowstone and then for a short hike (Owen’s robo-leg held up great). I got my hair cut.

And yesterday I finally got back to my new office, finished up one freelance project, got started on another, and figured out how to re-write the opening section of the novel I now have no excuse for not finishing. A week off was delightful, but now I can hear the clock ticking. I have six months to figure out this next part. Six months to finish my novel, and drum up enough freelance projects to keep the little ark afloat. Six months minus one week, and counting …