Dear Folks, Well, never a dull moment! Some exciting moments we might wish had never happened.
Stephen and Kerry were out training the horses last Friday — it was a cold, slippery day gearing up for a messy sleetstorm. The horses are young, just learning to pull. For some time now Stephen and Kerry have been hitching them up and dragging around old tires and big logs for practice. Mari and Cassima know all the commands and they’re quite obedient, but they’re still kids, as Stephen says every time they stop nicely to a “whoa” and then use the respite to nuzzle each other and horse around. (Now I know where that phrase comes from.)
Down in our basement shop Stephen built a big stoneboat — a heavy sled used to pull loads of rocks or firewood across frozen ground — and he was eager to try it with the horses. On Friday he hitched them to it for the first time, and (I didn’t see the following events, I’m reconstructing them from the descriptions of my farm-mates) they pulled it OK up the slope of Ruth’s horse pasture. Then, when he turned them around and started down, all hell broke loose.
I guess it’s not always possible to know what makes horses start. Maybe it was the stoneboat sliding down behind them. Nobody around here is willing to guess. Anyway, Mari and Cassima suddenly panicked and went flying down the hill, heavy stoneboat bumping behind them. When they got near the fence at the bottom, they wheeled, swinging the stoneboat into the fence, taking out a good section of rail.
Stephen had been left behind in the snow. Kerry was just ahead, right up against the fence, with the horses careening toward her. She tried to climb, but they thundered by and slammed the stoneboat into her.
A lot of heroics followed. A young neighbor, Mindy Longacre, was driving by — she jammed on the brakes, ran to our house and called 911 before she even knew for sure what had happened to Kerry. (At that point everyone was assuming Kerry was dead.) Stephen and Mary (more about Mary in a minute) went dashing over to Kerry. The horses made one more turn, leaving pieces of the stoneboat up in the pasture, roared back downhill and crashed into the gate. It was smashed to smithereens, but it stopped them. An ambulance came and whisked Kerry away She was conscious and in pain. Stephen, pretty bruised himself, managed to get the horses untangled from the harness and back in the barn. Amazingly, they weren’t hurt, except for a few small cuts. Then Stephen drove off to be with Kerry, and Mary went in to tend a flurry of phone calls to and from the hospital, various relatives, Kerry’s co-workers at the coop. I walked in after a long series of meetings (more on that in a minute) and between the phone calls I got the story.
The damage, it turns out, was two broken tibia (the front long bone between the knee and the ankle). We brought Kerry home yesterday with casts on both legs from ankles to hips. I now realize how un-wheelchair-friendly this old farmhouse is. The doorways are narrow and have raised threshholds. Doors open in the wrong directions. Tables and chairs are in the way. Telephones are not within reach of beds. Three large bumptious dogs are constantly underfoot. And Kerry and Stephen’s room is upstairs. So today we’re redoing things in major ways. I’ve switched my downstairs bedroom with them. We’ve taken off the inner bathroom door. This is a perfect opportunity to take up all the rugs and get them cleaned. Slowly we’re figuring out what’s needed.
The doctors say she’ll be in a wheelchair for six weeks, and she shouldn’t stomp hard on those legs for a year. For active Kerry, this is going to be a trial. But the nurses say she’s young and strong and will heal surprisingly fast. She’s still hurting now, but I’m afraid her longer term problem is going to be boredom. And economics. She and Stephen need to work, and Kerry was fast becoming indispensable to the produce section of the local coop. Both the coop and she will suffer while she’s down. (Kerry, true to form, is plotting how she can be a cashier in a wheelchair.)
So, whew! Deep breath! One day at a time! Ain’t life interesting? And challenging?
Let’s see, back there I promised to tell you about Mary and meetings.
Mary Williams is an ex-potter from Richmond, Virginia, part of what I have come to think of as the Virginia Mafia. They’re a bunch of friends (and subscribers to this newsletter) whom I met when several of them came up to a Dartmouth summer course on the environment. We all fell more or less in love with one another and have kept in touch, and they’ve spread the word (and the newsletter) to a large, gentle, committed, artistic, activist circle of their friends. Among them Mary. Who got fascinated with my rantings about new farms and new communities. And decided to come up and see if she could survive a New Hampshire January. And what a gift that has turned out to be for us!
Mary is one of those people who fit right in and immediately become helpful in a community. She loves the animals and has become one of the morning barn-chore-doers. She helps out with cooking and cleaning and fire-stoking and wood-hauling and snow shoveling — the main winter work. She’s an observant companion as we go out on the land and try to figure out what to do about floods from beaver dams or about the construction of the new community. She actively rejoices in winter weather. (I think she’s rooting for 20 below zero and major blizzards, so she can go back and impress her friends in Virginia.) The other night with a brilliant full moon and the thermometer just hitting zero on the way down, she was outside blowing bubbles to see if they would freeze and shatter into ice crystals. (They didn’t, but they were pretty bubbles.) Best of all, from the point of view of the dogs, she likes to go out and explore the woods in the company of dogs.
Mary couldn’t have picked a better month to be here and experience the growing community. A few days after she arrived, she drove over to the Hartland farms with me in the middle of a snowstorm to meet the engineers and talk about soils and drainage and possibilities for conventional or unconventional (composting toilets, constructed wetlands) sewage treatment. Then we had one of our monthly meetings, with quite a few newcomers, during which we went out and walked the Hartland land on a gorgeous day — bright sunshine, new snow. Right after that the engineers came in with backhoes to dig test pits around the Hunt farm, to confirm their hunches about drainage.
The results were good. The building site we like best, with a southeast exposure on a small rise above the present barnyard, leaving all the good ag land alone, clustering all the houses near the village, can definitely support 20 or so houses.
Armed with that report, we started a series of meetings with our lawyer, with architects and energy-efficiency engineers and developers, to try to run out a complete budget for this project. (I was coming back from one of those meetings when I walked in to discover the household in shock and Kerry in the hospital.)
This is a steep learning curve for me. I feel like I’m up to my neck in sewage engineering and energy-efficient construction tips. The good news is that New England contains a lot of expertise and experience. Vermont has just issued its first permit for a constructed wetland sewage treatment system. (That’s where you run the leachfield not under the ground where all those nutrients get lost and pollute groundwater, but out into an artificial swamp where bacteria and algae and cattails and such reclaim the nutrients and recycle them back into life.) Energy efficient passive solar construction is widespread in this cold climate. Last Monday Mary and I visited an active solar house in Hanover, where the only back-up energy source is an electric coil in the hot water tank. The energy consumption for both space and water heating is equivalent to about 100 gallons of oil a year. (For those of you in other climes, a more normal number for a New England house would be 1000 gallons.)
Yesterday, as Stephen and Kerry were learning from the physical therapists how to shift from bed to wheelchair and how to take wheelchairs over bumps, we had a marathon meeting of the “hotheads and warmheads” to walk through all the numbers for our project, from buying the land to doing the design to getting the permits to paying the lawyers to building. Wow, what an educational process! We brought in Bill MaClay, who has designed and built many large developments in Vermont, to help us estimate the dollar amounts and timing. I thought it was going to be a downer day, the day when we finally decided that the whole thing would be impossible. But it came out just the opposite — enlightening, encouraging, and, amazingly in the midst of all those numbers, heartwarming.
We made a 3-year calendar on long sheets of paper and put stickies on for the payments we expect to make and when we expect to make them. Up-front option payments to secure the property. Engineering design fees. Building inspections and title searches and surveys. Legal fees. Architectural design. Permit fees. Whew! $200,000 up front the first year and all we have to show for it is paper — plans and permits. Then in the second year we start the really big payments (but the ones we might get mortgages for). Land closings. Roads and electric lines and water and sewage systems. Finally the structures themselves.
The bottom line, very, very rough draft, is that we can probably buy those two expensive farms in Hartland, build a big community house (common kitchen and dining room, library, children’s playroom, laundry room, dance and music room, greenhouse, walk-in food storage, full basement, meditation room) with ten one-bedroom apartments plus ten 2-3 bedroom clustered but self-standing houses, plus owning the two existing farmhouses, two barns, many outbuildings, 20 acres of prime ag soil, maybe 50 acres of upland pasture and 180 acres of forest, for about $2.2 million. That’s an amount of money that makes us reel, but divided by 20 families it’s an average of $110,00 each — more for the 2-3 bedroom units, less for the 1-bedroom. Suddenly this begins to look doable!
Bill MaClay astounded me by saying that the Hunt farm, which I’ve considered overpriced by about $100,000, will probably save us $100,000 in development costs, because it’s so close to the village and its soils are so well drained. (It was soils and proximity to the village that attracted us to it, but not because we were thinking about development costs.) And maybe, just maybe, we’ve softened the Hunts enough so they will accept our next offer. So it looks like we will push ahead to a final offer and, if the gods and the Hunts are willing, options to secure these farms.
We still have a million unanswered questions, including where that initial $200,000 for paper and planning will come from, not to mention the other $2 million. Many new questions came up at this meeting. But I feel more solid about this whole endeavor now, and not only because the preliminary numbers look viable. (I know how very rough they are, how often they will change as we move forward, and especially how much will have to be added for interest charges on the amount we will have to borrow.) What cheered me most during yesterday’s discussion was the intelligence and good will, seriousness yet lightness, common sense but heartfeltness of the discussion. This is a good group, getting better all the time!
The best part was at the end, when we pulled back from the numbers on the table and looked at each other, and Phil said as far as he was concerned these are important numbers, and they have to work out right, but they aren’t the community. Money and buildings aren’t the point of the exercise. And Don said, we’ll have to write and sign some documents to guarantee our commitment to the money and buildings, but we also need some sort of ceremony or process, not, probably, involving paper, to guarantee our commitment to each other, our pledge to ride together through the roller coaster ahead. (And many other roller coasters, I was thinking, with a full heart, thinking of broken legs.) It isn’t a marriage we’re arranging here, but it surely is a covenant, and only a part of that covenant is to be responsible for our share of the financing.
We talked, quietly and gently, about the real community, which isn’t as visible or concrete as a building or a condominium agreement. It was a wonderful conclusion to the discussion. It makes me think that the tender hearts as well as the practical minds of this group are fully involved in this community.
Gosh, this is exciting!
Well, tonight Kerry is cuddled under a down cover on the living room sofa, along with two cats. She says the pain is subsiding. I’ve just made sunflower-millet bread and cream-of-green-bean soup with pesto. Chrissie, having finished evening chores, is over having dinner with next-door neighbor Ruth. Maybe later we’ll all watch a good video with Kerry and I’ll get farther on the socks I’m knitting for Scot.
Woops, Stephen and Mary have just come down for dinner. Gotta run. I included with this letter an introduction (or re-introduction) of the household, since several of you have been asking. From now on I’ll send it out with new memberships.