Thursday, February 18, 2010

Home alone



My Cuban relatives in Miami informed me several weeks ago that the weather had been so cold there--an overnight low of 37! the orange trees froze!--that some people didn't go to work. It just wasn't safe.

We're retired and have nowhere special to go, least of all to work, so Stew and I stayed home and watched our new house do battle with record winds, cold and rain. I confess it was scary at times, most particularly at night, with windows and skylights rattling nervously, the cold air whistling through every crack it could find and water sneaking in places sometimes seemingly in defiance of the laws of gravity.

Stew and I realized that for all our fantasizing about living in the country and off-grid, we'd never experienced it first-hand. In our neighborhood in Chicago, near Wrigley Field, three flats stand so close to one another you can practically hear the neighbors cooing or throwing the china at each other. Our electricity came from a pole outside the garage with a huge transformer that buzzed all day long. It blew up once but the utility truck was there within a few hours with a new unit. Indeed, all manner of city services came to our door either underground, overhead or on wheels. No problema, except perhaps for the $13,000-a-year property tax bill from the city and the monthly bundle of utility bills.

Now our closest neighbor is about a mile away, reachable only by dirt roads that under the constant rainfall turned into soupy, slippery mud. In the middle of the weeklong rains, a friend came to check on land for sale nearby (huh?) and her Jeep Liberty got hopelessly stuck the mud where it stayed for several days, the swirling water from a flooded arroyo rushing past the front bumper. A tow truck driver looked at the Jeep from a distance, muttered a "No way José" and went away. Constant rain also undermined the pavement in parts of the main road a mile away and left it with so many potholes it looks as if it was hit by a carpet bombing raid.

If something breaks, sputters, floods or short circuits there isn't any electric or phone company, or streets and sanitation department, to call for assistance. After the third day of impenetrable gloominess the solar electric system said "hasta la vista" and we developed a close relationship with the gas generator. No surprise there. Solar energy requires sun.

We felt lonely and vulnerable. So this is living "off the grid"? Is that something like "off your rocker"?

Before we're written off as nervous nellies, let me clarify that the weather for the past six weeks was borderline bizarre and tested every component of the new house, from rain collectors to window weatherseals. From what we've read, we've been at the southern fringe of huge weather disturbances that have affected most of North America. It was too cold to blame it on global warming, so some blame it on climate change.

Typically this time of the year San Miguel gets only a fraction of an inch of rain, if anything at all, and though occasionally overnight temperatures can drop to freezing, the weather report is sunny and dry, with noontime temperatures in the 70s. Day after day. The most bothersome factor may be winds that create small dust devils that hop two or three times past the prickly pear cacti before vanishing. Dust somehow sneaks inside the houses no matter how well sealed they are.

Total annual rainfall averages about 22 inches, usually from June through August. As of mid-February we had received about 10 inches not so much in angry downpours but drizzling that went on for days, accompanied by winds and temperatures never getting above the 40s or low 50s.

Our prized landscape views, especially the distant mountains, shrunk to 30 feet around the house, as clouds descended to ground level. At night the infinite views of starry skies--the billions and billions of stars that astronomer Carl Sagan supposedly used to talk about--vanished behind an impenetrable inky cover that seemed to hover just above the roof.

Confronted with such inclemency, our five animals opted for the most sensible solution: comatose naps except to eat and go to the bathroom. Ziggy and Paco, our two Chicago cats, spent most of the time on the bed nervously huddled with their heads together, sometimes with their front paws wrapped around each other's necks for added reassurance. The other three animals, a 60-lb. Labrador-ish mutt named Lucy, a smaller mutt named Gladys and a Mexican cat named Fifo, arranged themselves in a circle, nose-to-tail, on a pillow normally just big enough for Lucy. Ah yes, the pillow was in front of one of the heaters.

You do what you gotta do. For Stew and I, it was constant fussing about what might be happening to the house. In fact, except of the lack of solar hot water and electricity, nothing much did except for new-construction glitches that will take time to track down.

The space heaters in the house barely kept up with the breezes coming in under the doors, despite our recently installed rubber door sweeps and other weather stripping. Stew climbed on the roof to seal the openings intentionally left on the skylights, supposedly to facilitate ventilation during the summer. The ceramic tile floors didn't help either with keeping the place warm.

Windows leaked in the most unexpected places, depending on which way the wind was blowing. During brief sunny respites we had some windows caulked again, but the drips just moved somewhere else. Leaks seem to be a built-in feature of San Miguel houses. Two friends tried to comfort us by saying it took them three years to fix all the leaks at their place. "It takes a while," Ron counseled. A mysterious leak developed in the cellar storage under the kitchen, coming in along the bottom of one of the walls, probably 12 feet below ground level.

Outside, most of our flood- and erosion-prevention measures (the house sits atop of a small hill) seemed to work. A winding swale put in by the architect turned into a small creek shooing the water away from the house. The low stone terraces built around the planters seemed to keep the water and mud in place. On the other side, where I have yet to put up the terraces, dirt and gravel washed downhill.

The 130,000-liter rainwater cistern filled up to the brim, several months ahead of schedule.

Unable to wait until the ground had properly dried (huh?) I rented a backhoe and driver to haul some of the remaining rocks and construction debris. The machine promptly got stuck in the mud and the driver issued his own "No way José!" and went away. Most of the debris is still here but now is criss-crossed by a pattern of backhoe ruts in the ground.

Our distant farming neighbors downhill had a tougher time. The normally dry arroyos flooded and fed a reservoir that threatened to swallow the farmhouse. Most of the fields, slowly cultivated with horse-drawn plows last fall, were swamped. I don't know if that's good or bad news for the next harvest.

Yet during the first dry day we noticed the reservoir had receded along with most of the flooding. A closer look gave the answer. Part of a small dam on the far side had given way and presumably dumped part of its load water downstream to God-knows-where. If anyone lived in that direction, they must have been in serious trouble.

But for all these problems good omens came soon enough after the rains stopped. Our land has developed a faint green fuzz. Tall roadside weeds called jarrillas are covered with bright yellow flowers. Thistles and other insolent weeds are popping up right next to the stolid prickly pears and barrel cacti. Our new orange tree is covered with flowers.

Most noticeably, near the reservoir there's a neat plot of vivid green, probably alfalfa, amid all the brown land. That landscape now looks like a painting-by-the-numbers canvas, with only one square filled in.

A shipment of seeds is on its way from Burpee back in the States. Felix the gardener and his brother Juan are building two raised beds out of field stones to receive the seeds.

A three-compartment compost pile, also built out of stone, has received the first shipment of kitchen scraps. Lucy sniffed it and liked it so much she rolled around in it deliriously we'd like to think in celebration of the imminent spring and warmer weather.

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