Technology, Ecology, and Intentional Living
My ancestors didn't have any modern technology; we've added some but not too much. We get our electricity from the sun, which powers both the refrigerator and the lights. There is cold running water, and a simple way to heat it up. There's a completely modern cooking range, which doesn't fit the decor but works swell! There's a special toilet (ask for details if you're interested). If you want to use a computer, you can use a laptop and charge your battery but to get internet you'll need to drive to town. If you want to make a call, you can use the land line at our house or take a short walk up the hill to use your cell phone. Here you can experience what life was like before the ever-ringing telephone and ever-filling inbox! In other words, it's simple. That's what you're looking for, right? A chance to get away from the clutter of everyday life, and a chance to step into another time: that's what you'll find at Fern Hollow Cabin. Call it your sanctuary. Call it your playground. Call it your hermitage. It's all of that, plus whatever else you want it to be!
Some Notes About Our New Home
A stone's throw from the cabin is the new home that we began building in 2000 and moved to in 2005. It features many sustainable living technologies, old and new. We also rent rooms in this house, Sophie's Room and Ida's Nest, which you can find on airbnb.
Following are some reflections on that dwelling.
***The notes below were written a few years back and some things have changed! In 2019, in an effort to mitigate some summer humidity issues in the new house, we bought more panels and connected to the community power grid so that we could install a mini-split (a really efficient air conditioner/dehumidifier) . In 2023 we finally drilled a well (actually a huge machine did) but we still collect rain water.
Our new home's cozy living room.
The kitchen in our new home.
(2023 update: See above. Some of the notes below are now historic but not current)
Our house is not hooked up to the power grid, nor do we have a well for water. Because of these choices we made over 20 years ago, we truly have a finite amount of energy and water available to us: saving is more than a good idea for the earth – it’s what keeps us functioning! These limits have probably really helped us, with regard to low-impact living choices, to be more dedicated than we might have otherwise found inspiration to be. As you see, our place is a work in progress. We hope to get the siding on this summer, and maybe finish some of the inside work in the next few years. We’re about to finish installing a rainwater collection system. We also have plans for a greenhouse, turning the upstairs of the garage into a living space, and more – so who knows what’s next! We hope you’ll go down toward the garden and look at the log house as well. We lived there for 15 years, until 2005, with only a few solar panels and cold running water. It was built by Liz’s great-great-great grandparents in 1853, and we moved it here from North of Calmar. Both of our daughters we born in the house, and grew up amazed that at other people’s houses the water that came out of the tap was hot! Though our life here at this place is comfortable and I would even say luxurious, we really try hard to live by the motto that preceded our country’s current “reduce, re-use, recycle” one. The old motto was more radical, and so that much more inspirational: Use it up ☼ Wear it out ☼ Make it do, or ☼ Do without.
Solar Energy Technology in our Home
We have 12, located on the top of the windmill tower that’s between the log house and the “new house” (as we call the unfinished one that we live in). Those panels serve both houses. When we started out we had 2 panels. That’s a neat thing about solar: you can start small and add panels as you need, and possibly even decide to adjust your needs down as you go.
We have 4 batteries, golf cart batteries that are stored in a closet just at the top of the stairs to the bedrooms. They have hydro-caps, which help them to be more efficient and to put out cleaner air. We’ll have to buy new batteries someday, but the better we take care of them (for example, not letting them get too low) the longer they’ll last.
The energy that we get from the sun and that’s stored in the batteries is 24 volt, which is what most of our lights, our refrigerator, and many of our other appliances use. But other things, like the food processor, the turntable, and the battery charger, run on 120volt. To run them we need to turn on the inverter, which changes the 24 v to 120 volt. The inverter is up in the closet with the batteries. (We don’t have to go up there to turn it on; it goes on automatically when we plug in something that demands that kind of electricity.)
These are installed in the porch, on your way in the door as you come into the house. We keep an eye on these to see how much energy we’re using and how full the batteries are.
This is a special refrigerator that is very well insulated and runs on 24 volt. It uses very little electricity. We have chosen not to have a freezer, because it would require us getting more panels and we haven’t decided we needed a freezer enough yet to invest in one. We’ve lived without one for 23 years, and it hasn’t been a big problem. It means if we bring home ice cream we have to eat it all!
We use energy-efficient compact fluorescents. They are also placed more regularly than in an average house: this is so that they can have low wattage, but shine directly on what we want to see. This way we can just light up the place where we are working or relaxing, instead of lighting up an entire room.
This is one of our favorite things. It is a clear dome on the roof that has a tube that brings the light, magnified by mirrors, down into our bathroom. Even on a cloudy day or a moonlit night there is light coming into our bathroom. It’s amazing, and only cost about $150.
Solar Food Dryer
This sits out in the front (south side) of our house. It can dry some spinach or kale in half a day, beans or apples in a few days – all with no electricity! Drying in this way retains most of the nutrients, and we love having these fresh-dried foods to eat during the winter. They work well in soups and casseroles.
We collect rainwater from both sides of our house. The water from the south side goes into a 1000 gallon tank that is used to water the garden. The water from the north side will soon be used in the house, for washing and flushing. We will use a membrane filter to clean the water.
We purchased a Newton cordless electric lawnmower, and charge it up from our batteries that get their energy from the sun. So, the sun makes our lawn grow, and the sun helps us to cut it!
We use some plants from the woods. Some we eat fresh, like mint, mushrooms, violets, day lilies, chickweed, purslane, and others. Others, like nettles, we harvest in large amounts and dry for winter use.
Other Energy-Efficient or Greener Ideas We Thought About in the Construction of Our House
We installed in-floor heating in the concrete that’s under the wood floors. In-floor heating is a more even way of heating that uses less energy. However, we use it little, because we tend to heat with only our woodstove. So, the in-floor heating is for when we’re gone over a holiday, or for when we get old and don’t want to chop firewood anymore.
Much of the wood that built the house is reclaimed (it had already been used in a house before) like the floors on the main floor and the trim. Other wood is taken directly from the place where the house now stands, such as many of the timberframe beams. Still other wood is chosen because it comes from our region, rather than from some far away land where it may have been unfairly or unsustainably harvested.
Passive Solar design: There are many windows on the South side of the house - but not too many, such as were often installed in the 70s and caused people to bake in their houses. There is an overhang on the roof that helps shield us from the sun in the summertime but allows it to enter and warm us during the winter.
Well-Insulated walls: The whole house is thick-walled and well-insulated. On the walls we avoided using polystyrene insulation (the pink stuff you often see on houses as they’re being constructed), opting instead for “Buffalo Board” which is not made from fossil fuels but rather recycled wood pulp, and is heat-compressed without toxic adhesives. It’s the brown stuff that’s all over the outside of the house now as it waits for siding. Lovely.
The siding that we have purchased is concrete board, which is currently considered the most earth friendly option. Concrete board will last a very long time, and forests weren’t cut down to make it. If you want to see the siding, it’s in the front yard (south side) in a pile.
We used earth-friendly, non toxic waxes and finishes on any wood that we chose to finish.
We made very small basement, to try to avoid some of the problems with humidity that can cause one to need dehumidifiers. In it are tubes that will be used to finish our root cellar someday. (There is a root cellar in the basement of the log house).
For the last 27 years, we have not had a well. Instead we have two large concrete tanks buried on the top of the hill – one for each house. A few times a year we have water delivered to them. Though we would love to have a well someday, it’s not something we’ve chosen to afford, and we get by with relatively little water. Now we are adding the rainwater collection system, which may mean we never dig a well. Meanwhile, we are skillful water conservers. Which brings us to:
Green Living Choices We Make
Before we had a composting toilet in the new house, we saved our shower water, dipped it out, and kept it in buckets to use to flush the toilet. The toilet (which a low-water use toilet) can flush in the regular way too. We’re not totally over the edge: we allow guests to do it the normal way! But we love re-using that bathing water. We rarely use the bathtub, because it uses so much more water than a shower.
But now we have a composting toilet ("Humanure Toilet", some call it, and there's a book by that name that explains how it works.) We mostly use that, and turn the regular toilet on when guests come so that they have a choice of two toilets!
We don’t have a dishwasher, and we even have some cool techniques for saving water in hand washing.
We have a big garden, from which many things are eaten and stored. Eating locally reduces transportation fuels used, and also we know there are no harmful chemicals being sprayed and poisoning land, water, air, humans, and everything else.
We carpool as much as we can. Many times a week we carpool with some neighbor. This takes commitment: sometimes it’s really tiresome to call YET AGAIN to try to arrange a rideshare, no matter how kind and committed to saving carbon emissions we know our neighbors are. It would be so much easier to just GO DRIVE.
We never leave lights on in a space unless we’re in it. Not even for 5 minutes. This was hard for me (Liz) to get used to at first, but it soon became second nature.
Sometimes in the winter when energy is low, we put gallon jugs of frozen water (ok, ice) in the refrigerator to help it do its work.
When we use the oven, we try to use it for a bunch of stuff. Baking bread? We throw in a squash too so it’s ready to use tomorrow.
We buy pretty much all of our clothes used. Our kids were raised on used clothes and now that they are teens they are glad to know how to find used clothes.
We keep hot water on the wood stove, to use for tea, etc. In the log house we didn’t have a hot water heater so that wood stove water was what we used for everything.
For home use, we have never purchased new plastic bags for kitchen or garbage use, or paper for writing on. We wash and reuse all bags, and use the back sides of paper. We use dog and cat food bags for garbage. We use cloth bags for groceries. These are small things, and we don’t mean to imply that there aren’t other places where we use more than our share of something; but we try to find the places where we can make commitments and stick to them. Usually it’s not even inconvenient.
Someday We Hope to Pull off Some of these Projects:
Buy solar water heating panels and install them on the roof. DONE! 2022
Install a pipe system that can allow us to heat hot water with the woodstove and have it flow through the faucet.
By a bus with our extended neighborhood, and run a regular bus route so there aren’t so many cars running to Decorah all the time.
Buy or build an electric car.
In the meantime, develop a web-based carpooling system, so we can easily check in with each other the night before and see who’s going in when.
Sew window quilts to pull down over the windows at nighttime in the winter, to keep the heat in better.
Use the tons of stone we have to build stone terraces on the slope on the south side of the house, for a kitchen garden and herbs.
Oh yeah, and finish putting the siding on the outside of the house. DONE! 2021
Some Things We Wish We'd Done Differently
We wish we’d used a metal roof instead of asphalt shingles. So, 12 years after the asphalt, we changed to metal. It will last forever and the rainwater we collect from it comes off cleaner.
We wish we’d had the wherewithal to find more eco-friendly choice for the kitchen cabinets. What you see is mostly beautiful maple hardwood, but behind that there is plywood and plastic laminate countertops, with average toxic finish on the wood. We wish we’d figured out a way to not use plywood (toxic glues), laminate, etc. We know some people who have used stone countertops, but we haven’t yet seen kitchen cabinets that don’t use plywood for stability.
We wish we’d had a plan from the beginning for how to re-use bathwater without having to dip it out of the tub. We don’t mind doing it so much, but if there were a pump and a holding tank already installed, it would be sure to happen all the time and even when we’re gone.
One thing we know for sure: however each of us is living at this moment, there’s a lot we can learn about walking more lightly on the earth. There’s no reason to feel bad about what we’re doing; that just wastes more energy. Instead, it’s good to try to learn anywhere we can about the next idea we can try to employ. The possibilities are endless, so anything we choose is a good step forward!