Notes from Windward: #60

Greetings from the Windward crew:

Yesterday morning, there was a thin film of ice on the animal's water barrels. That's our "two minute warning" that serious winter is just around the corner.

Fall is a busy time here in the woods. There's always lots of tasks to tend to as we "rig for cold weather." Each year we think wistfully of how much more fulfilled our plans will be by next winter, but it's always the winter at hand that you have to work with.

Winter's always a gamble. There's no way to really tell what we'll have to deal with in the months ahead, but "you pays your money and you takes your chances."

Some things are easy enough to figure such as the amount of firewood needed. Our winter season lasts about five months. That's about 150 fires, and at an average of six rounds per fire, the math is simple enough. Like most things, it's easier said than done, but when you rely on wood for heat, there's real satisfaction to be gained with every added layer in the wood shed.

One change that we're going to be seeing next year will have to do with our intended use of wood heat in the dining hall. Up to now, the choice to use wood has been a private one, and each person with a woodstove has been responsible for putting up their own wood supply. A person who has to cut, haul, split and stack the wood tends to be circumspect when it comes to burning that wood. When someone else is doing the work, it's much easier to throw another log on the fire.

We're careful about anything that increases the organizational overhead. We ask each person living on site to put in two hours a day to help keep the place running. That covers work such as cooking lunch, hauling trash, shopping for the kitchen, paying the bills, washing dishes, burning brush, and so on. Anything that adds to the "necessary list" is looked at carefully, and with concern.

It's a bit like the pack one might carry on a long hike. A twenty-pound load wouldn't be a problem for an adult in good condition, but add another ten pounds and you're going to notice the burden a lot sooner. A heavy load can wear a blister where a lighter load sits easy.

We all want to be here, and are happy to do our part to make this work, but we're also human and want to pursue our own interests for the most part. Windward works by striking a fair balance between individual desires and group interests, and any task that shifts the balance point gets looks at closely.

The exciting news for this week is that the building permit for the new dining hall has come through, marking a turning point in Windward's history in a number of ways. The loss of our kitchen in June was a real blow. No one got hurt, and nothing vital was lost, but it was a real setback none the less. We lost freezers full of food, racks of preserved food and lots of equipment. We also lost our prime gathering place. As the saying goes, "Change happens, especially when it's most inconvenient."

Through the summer, we've enjoyed sort of an ongoing campout. We have lots of outdoor cooking gear, so this has been sort of a "bar-be-que summer." Now that fall is here and there's a real chill in the air, there's also a heightened need to get the dining hall completed enough that we can shift the cooking and eating area indoors.

Had we built the dining hall five years ago, the permitting process would have been easier, but as time goes on, more regulations get put in place resulting in many more rules to comply with. One key change here in the Pacific Northwest is that we're seeing the end of cheap electrical rates from abundant hydroelectric power. It's not here yet, but we can see it on the near horizon.

The dams are still generating lots of power, but with the deregulation of electricity, folks from far away are starting to bid for the power we use. We're paying five cents a kilowatt/hour; they're paying multiples of that. Down the road, we will too.

Two summers back we saw a remarkable demonstration of just how interconnected the electrical distribution system is these days. One hot July day, a sagging powerline thirty miles south of us contacted a tree and shorted out. That triggered a cascading power failure which left people in cities as far away as El Paso and Tijuana without electricity for most of the day.

Since they're not going to be able to put in more dams, and there's only so much water flowing through each of the dams as it is, the option they've chosen is to "mine the waste." By raising the standards for energy efficiency for new construction and for renovations, they'll be able to have a major impact on the way that energy is used in this region. In the past, power was so cheap that lots of houses had poor insulation and inefficient heating systems. Those days are over. The state codes have been rewritten, and new construction has to adhere more closely to state of the art standards.

Which is fine with us. We want to build that way; the only challenge is that it's a capitally intensive way to go. Usually we rely on investing our time and effort in order to conserve our cash, but with winter breathing down our necks, it's a toss up as to which commodity is in shortest supply.

When they told me that just the permit for the new dining hall was going to cost us $1,200, I felt a bit faint. That's a lot of money for a piece of paper to hang on the wall.

In all fairness, the folks at the building department do make a real contribution to what we'll be doing. They've been very patient with explaining why the code requires various things, and have made positive suggestions that have lowered our costs and will work to notably improve the final result. The building inspectors have been willing, time permitting, to review what we're planning on doing with the result that our inspections have always been quick, simple and, for the most part, successful.

We're more than willing to do it right the first time; the problem lies in knowing what to do in the first place, and then paying for it. Doing it right is cheaper in the long run, but that's scant comfort when they hand you the bill.

Whereas a commercial construction outfit has an economic incentive to cut every corner they can, it's different with us since our primary goal is to build a safe building that will do the job for many years to come. Given our general lack of experience in this sort of thing, one way to do that is to build to code or better.

So, now that we have the permit, we can get underway with the roof construction safe in the knowledge that our proposed design is up to the job. Once the roof's in place, we can rig temporary walls, floors, etc. and get the cooking and eating area going in one corner of the building while we work on the rest. With any luck, we'll be able to work on the interior right through the winter and have much of the work done come springtime. That's the plan anyway; we'll let you know come the end of year update how well reality is going according to plan.

We're going into winter with a full crew, and probably the best group of people we've ever had. The range of talent and interests embodied by our crew these days is impressive, and I'm really getting a kick out of seeing things coming together so well. Even Heather, in the midst of her ongoing back surgery and therapy, was talking the other day about how she's still accomplished the two primary goals she'd set for herself this year: getting her art work into a second gallery, and having a "featured artist" showing of her works.

Cindy, Gina, Holly and Shawn have all settled into part time jobs that they like, that bring in enough income to pay their dues and give them a degree of financial independence.

Joyce is busily working on her next book project while waiting for her fifth to come out for the Mother's Day market next spring. When she's not writing, she's focusing on tapestry weaving and marketing our wool crop over the internet. Instead of the assembly line shearing that most sheep are put through, ours get individual attention.

The naturally colored wool produced by our Karakuls is a novelty for most folks who spin, and people are always interested in trying something new. By dealing directly with the spinners over the internet, Joyce has been getting excellent prices for our wool crop.

When shearing, Joyce and I do one ewe an evening, and take about three times as long as a "real" shearer would. That's partially because of a lack of skill and stamina on my part; commercial shearing is demanding work , and those guy earn every dollar. How they can bend over a ewe for hours and then ever walk straight again is beyond my understanding.

High-speed shearing can also be quite hazardous to the sheep, if the shearer isn't good at what he does. There are "delicate bits" that can be damaged by power cutters, and in places the skin is thin and easily cut. There's a needle and dental floss in my shearing kit for a reason.

We just lay the ewe down on a couple of sheets of plywood, calm her down, and start shearing at a slow and steady pace. It takes longer, but it's not uncomfortable for either her or me, and the task passes quickly enough. We feed in the morning, and shear in the evening; for a ewe to have to lay on her side with a fully belly would be most uncomfortable.

As I cut away the fleece, Joyce gathers it up and separates out the prime wool cut from the sides, back and shoulders, from the waste wool cut away from the legs, neck and stomach. A professional shearer is focused on getting the wool off of the ewe, whereas we're focused on maximizing the utility of the resultant fleece.

One of the big "bugaboos" in shearing is called "second cuts." That's where the shear passes over a spot for a second time and cuts off short lengths of wool around a 1/4 inch in length. If incorporated into the yarn when it's spun, these second cuts will create unwanted "neps," so it's important to have as few as possible. While it's nice to end up with a smoothly shorn ewe, it's more important to strive to see that each hair is only cut once. Better to end up with a roughly cut ewe than a problematic fleece. Besides, from their perspective, it's a "bad hair day" no matter what.

This is the first year I've worked primarily with an electric, hand-held shear machine (looks like the big brother of the clippers you see in a men's barber shop). It's faster than hand shears, but slower than the shaft driven shears the pros use. Since I still have a lot to learn, and since I only do it now and then, I expect that I'll stay at this level of shearing and not try to master the power shears.

When folks ask what dues at Windward cover, I've added "free haircuts" to the traditional list of benefits, but no one's taken me up on my jest so far.

Cindy is alternating her time between cooking at the Senior Center, teaching lifeskills classes on the weekends, helping Tamara make the transition from high school to community college, and working on turning Finney trailer into a home.

Holly has been busily converting the front of Echo trailer into a quilting center, and is honing her sewing techniques. Her plan is to offer "keepsake quilts" made from personal clothing. Each member of a family or group contributes some article of clothing they've worn, and Holly uses those items to create a small quilt of the sort you might display on the center of a double bed.

Gina has been working on remodeling her quarters, and is especially pleased with her new, larger woodstove. The one she had been using was designed to work with coal, and standard 16" logs didn't fit in it very well. They fit the new stove just fine, and she's looking forward to many a comfy fire this winter.

There's a saying that "hunger makes the meal." If you're hungry, most any serving of good food is going to be a pleasure, but if you're not hungry, then there's little that's going to tempt you to eat.

Domestic heating is sort of like that. Most folks today have some sort of thermostatically controlled centralized heating, with the result that their living space is pretty much the same temperature all the time. When you rely on wood heat, it's not like that.

When you get up in the morning, the place is chilly and brisk. You build your fire, put the kettle on to heat, and in short order, the warmth of the hearth spreads out and gets the day off to a grand start. While wood heat does take more effort than just throwing a switch, it also gives a lot more satisfaction.

The fall weather has been so nice that the ducks and hens have kept our supply of eggs going strong. One of the favorite uses for those fresh eggs is "deviled eggs," one of Fern's specialties. They're a common addition to our meals, and a nifty nutritious "snack food."

"Q" has been demonstrating a real talent for baking, and given the awkward setup she has to work with in the "interim kitchen" she's doing a remarkable, and most appreciated, job of keeping the kitchen stocked with homemade apple pie and fresh baked cookies.

Bob1 is back settling into the surveillance shack at the Riverside to work the winter before returning in the spring. After many years in the Nevada desert, he's working up to the challenge of wintering here by staying later each fall and returning earlier each spring. Whereas some of our folk work a few days each week, he's set things up so that he works a few months each year - the cold months to be precise :-)

Bob1 is our lead person with renewable energy, and this summer he made good progress on the electrical system he's putting together for his quarters. The heart of an off-grid electrical storage system is the battery, and this year Bob1 focused his attention on the installation of his six-pack of L-15s. Those are massive 6 volt batteries, each the size and weight of three standard automobile batteries.

One of the challenges inherent in such as system involves working out a way to contain the batteries so that the fumes they give off while being charged won't corrode the sensitive electronic equipment which converts 12 volt DC into 120 VAC wall current. Everyone has seen crud growing around the terminals on their car battery; imagine that sort of corrosion attacking a thousand dollar modified sine wave inverter and you'll get the picture of why this is a serious issue.

Bob1 came up with a nifty solution involving gutting a refrigerator, laying it on its side and making it into a battery vault. A tiny fan vents air through the battery compartment and then on to the outside, so there's won't be any build up of corrosive gases. He even installed nifty platinum plated battery caps that automatically convert any escaping hydrogen gas back into water. We're getting a kick out of seeing this technology finally come on line.

Shawn is in the midst of his training with the Veteran's Hospital, and looks to be getting his Certified Nurse's Assistant ticket later this month. He's passed the written tests with flying colors, and will be taking his state boards later this month. In his spare time, he's tracked down a cab-over camper for his pickup, so he'll be able to work a schedule similar to Gina's during the winter.

What Gina does is work the weekends, a good way to gain job security since they're always short handed on the weekends, and sleep over in her camper. It's almost an hour's commute each way, so by taking her home away from home along with her, she can be fully rested by the time her next shift rolls around, and saves the cost of gas to boot. That's not a trivial cost these days.

More importantly, she's often able to work an extra half shifts, which earns her a bonus and over-time pay rates. She's a night owl by nature, and thinks of the graveyard shift as the "easy money shift."

Bob2 is making good progress at turning the west end of "Northumbria" (the 5 acre strip we purchased along the north end of Windward) into a grand goat refuge, and doing the cutting of planking for the deck of the dining hall roof. It takes a lot of 1x6 lumber to cover a 3,000 square foot roof.

In addition, he's learned how to replace the clutch assembly on his one ton truck, and is currently exploring the joys of carburetion. We buy our work trucks at auction, and then start the process of remanufacturing them. That way we end up with reliable equipment that's up to the heavy hauling tasks we use them for. None of us are natural mechanics, but it's one of the necessary skills we have to master in order to make this place work.

Fern is merrily coming and going most days as a driver for the county transportation system. She's brought in enough income to pay off her car and is squirreling away a nest egg to cover future repairs. Last month she was especially busy, and she and the girls took some of the extra money down to a sale at Bi-Mart to buy nifty gagets for the kitchen. Being a tool-addict myself, I understand completely :-)

As this year's work season draws to a close, we've got a lot of physical progress to celebrate. The loss of the kitchen wasn't so much a setback as it was a spur to get on with the completion of the long awaited dining hall. The kitchen crew has had to deal with the challenge of preparing good meals using make-shift arrangements in cramped space, but they've risen to the task admirably.

Now that we've got the official go-ahead on the dining hall, we're working earnestly in order to have at least a small portion of it available for use before the snow starts to fall. Construction has already started on the eastern-most part known as "the mud room." That's where folks will take off their muddy boots and change over to slippers before entering the actual dinning/cooking areas. It's a 10x14 space that will allow us to set up a temporary kitchen to use while work goes on in the rest of the dining hall. Once we've got the roof up, we'll be able to work the winter through, a novel thing for us construction-wise.

"Q" is doing a great job working on getting the place spruced up, and I'm very pleased to have her help. We're harvesting certain trees in order to cut wood for the dining hall, and she's been a real assistance in cleaning up after the felling. We've been "saving" certain trees for this purpose, such a mature fir tree that was killed by lighting some years back. So long as a tree is left standing, it takes a long time for rot to work its way into the trunk; once its laying on its side, rot will ruin it in just a few years, so we generally leave them standing until we're ready to saw them up into lumber.

Now that the time has come for Bob2 to crank out lumber for the dining hall, out comes the big chainsaw and it's time for everyone stand back, way back. After the felling there's lots of limbs and brush to be cleaned up and burned; "Q" has taken over that project, and has gotten pretty handy with a chainsaw herself.

Visitors have no idea how much work goes into cleaning up the forest so that it's not excessively vulnerable to forest fires. While we can't stop a forest fire from happening, there's a lot we can do to insure that the risk is reduced substantially, and clearing out the undergrowth and tangles of dead limbs is the first step in that process. We enjoy the open and friendly look of the forest after it's thinned out and cleaned up, but the core reason for doing the work is safety, not aesthetics.

Another major milestone this year involves the installation of more waterlines. All told, this year we installed more than a half mile of new 1" and 1 1/4" lines. The main work involved a north-south line running from the main water tank down to a well located in the middle of Windward, more than a 1/4 mile all told.

When funds allow, we'll be installing a solar pump in that well, and that will provide an additional gallon of water per minute to our operations. That may not sound like a lot, but there are a whole lot of sunny minutes in a summer day, and with our growing population and expanding gardens, that water will be put to good use.

And while the water line was going in, we added an permanent line to the summer showers, and a line to main garden, and lots of switching valves. The control system we've installed is such that we can operate Windward using either well. So, if one well needs maintenance or repair, all we have to do is work a few valves, and operations go on as before.

Another major milestone passed this year has been getting Finney trailer ready to use. Cindy and Tamara were able to move in this summer, and while there still are lots of finishing details to attend to, the major project of building a mudroom/roof cover for part of Finney is complete.

Given the elevation we're at, the county code requires permanent structures to be built to an 80 pound snow load capacity. While that might sound bizarre, in that it would take an incredibly high layer of snow to add up to 80 pounds per square foot, it's actually quite appropriate. The real villain isn't the snow, it's the combination of snow and rain.

Once you've got a couple feet of snow on the roof, you're at real risk if a spring rain then comes along. The snow will soak up the rain like a sponge, and get very heavy very fast. While the rain will eventually wash away the snow, you've got to hope that your roof is strong enough to hold the weight in the meantime.

Finney trailer's main roof is strong enough, but there's a 12' wide by 9' deep "push-out" extension to the living room, and we were concerned that the "push-out" roof wasn't up to the task. And so this year we built a mini-pole barn over that part of the building. While we were at it, we extended the structure another twelve feet to add on a mud room/entrance foyer, an effort that will quickly pay for itself through reduced energy costs.

In October, we hosted a four day campout for a class of twenty developmentally disabled high schoolers from Portland, Or. The weather was fine (always dicey this time of year), the burn ban had been lifted, and the kids seemed to have a fun time of it. Cindy taught her ever-popular cheese making class, "Q" and Shawn did a fun hands-on papermaking class, Joyce did a fiber demonstration with her spinning wheel and I showed them how rope was made.

They especially enjoyed meeting the sheep and goats, since city kids don't usually get a chance to meet and get to know animals other than the usual sorts of pets. Happily, the sheep and goats are just as pleased to meet visitors and check them out in return.

Well, that pretty much brings us up to date on Windward's continuing adventure. For the most part, it's full speed ahead on the dining hall in the hope that we'll be able to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner under it's newly installed roof.

with best wishes,