In this blogpost of the Retrofit Series, I introduce to you the home-owner, Carolyn North, who serializes many of her adventures in an e-mail dispatch every two weeks or so to her friends and subscribers. They are published in two Editions and available here. A Third Edition "'zine style" is coming this fall. Carolyn's poetry and insight will weave through my more factual notes about the project and help round out a story of a real-life fixer-upper. [photo by Susan Wilson]
for the Radishes and Christina
The old house next to the Wild and Radish farm has been boarded up for decades, and sat sad by the side of the main road until we bought it up this year. Right now it is down to rubble and the old wood framing as we demolish the house layer by layer to make a start on its next incarnation. Our idea is to demonstrate how an old worn-out building can be retrofitted with inventive technologies that support renewable systems and natural materials—and to make it beautiful. The whole process is being documented to demonstrate how this can be done, and the design plans will be made available to the public for the asking.
Bang! Bang! Out go rotting floorboards and crumbling plasters. Single-pane windows and gas wall heaters get tossed onto scrap heaps out in front, along with rusted pipes and filthy insulation. Our faces are masked against great clouds of ancient dust as we tear away at structures that no longer make sense, to replace them with new/older technologies that take into consideration what the environment gives us freely. At this point the house is nothing but a big mess, but it is very exciting to see light pouring through gaping window frames and the space opening up from small, dark cubbies into several gracious rooms.
We are a merry and innovative crew, rather pleased with ourselves as we hatch plans to insulate the house with an outside wrap of mud-plastered straw bales, and plumb pipes to take graywater out into the garden, while capturing the energy of sunlight on the roof and turning our food scraps into compost.
Taking on a green urban retrofit is something I’ve dreamed of doing for years, ever since riding the train from Vermont to New Jersey one summer and rumbling through one abandoned inner-city after another, seeing boarded-up tenements covered in graffiti and homeless people in makeshift tents on the refuse-strewn streets.
The memory still gives me a stomach ache and I feel relief that I can finally, with the amazing folks at Wild and Radish, start demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be that way.
It reminds me of a conversation I had long ago with an older woman friend when I was young and pregnant, about the pains of childbirth. I couldn’t quite imagine how a baby could emerge from such a small opening! Ruth smiled her warm, knowing smile, touched my arm lightly and told me it would hurt like hell, but would be worth it in the end.
“The minute you hold him in your arms, you’ll forget all about the pain,” she told me. “Anyhow, the best things in life are always making some kind of a mess, right? Like sex or eating lobster—same with childbirth. But we’re built for it.”
Years later when she lay dying from cancer and I went over to say good-bye, she gave me her wan, knowing smile. “It’s OK to be dying,” she whispered. “Life’s over, but what a chance to see what comes next…”
She held my hand while I cried.
I thought of her at the farm the other day, showing the sheep and goats to two little girls and their Mom. The small herd came to greet us beh.. beh beh.. and we followed them, finding the old Grandmother sheep lying on her side by the fence, dead. We must have gotten there shortly after her death because the younger sheep still surrounded her, nudging and staring, slowly going back to browsing on the hillside with our arrival and gazing over at us periodically. Meanwhile, just across the way the demolition crew were banging and sawing away on the house unawares, tossing out the old to make way for the new.
Grandma-sheep Cocoa, in her life, had given us three daughters, milk for cheese and masses of springy dark wool for spinning, but now her time had come and we had to say goodbye.
It’s the law of the world.
It seems everything is designed to do that: to cycle back into the elements after our allotted time on earth. There is birth, there is life, there is dissolution and there is death. This happens not only to plants and animals and humans, but also to houses, to cities, to civilizations, to planets…It could happen to us on Earth and probably will, sooner or later.
I’ve been contemplating this possibility as I age, and have been slowing down into my own dissolution phase, spending more time alone and in quiet. My thoughts want to deepen, my wonderments to open up, spanning longer tracts of our history and possible worlds beyond our star system. I read mythologies of the Maya, the Egyptians, the Hopi, comparing their parallel stories of great floods – more than just one!—and of their people’s original homelands before the floods, places long since sunk out of sight and mind.
We may have been around on this planet way longer than we thought!
I read about earth changes that wiped out whole advanced civilizations in eras long before this one, of human skeletons unearthed with elongated heads and giant limbs—like us, but not like us; of lost technologies and ancient life-forms fossilized in oceanic mud; of seashell fossils high in the Himalayas and of unheard-of cities buried in the mid-ocean deeps.
Impossible! we might say, but who knows what impossible possibilities might actually exist?
I’ve experienced my share of these—though often unwilling to even mention them or be thought a fool - like the time Herb and I were in Chaco Canyon in mid-winter, and went invisible to one another in the ruins of Mesa Alta for two totally terrifying hours; or like arriving in Wiltshire to visit a friend when a crop circle pictogram, the length of several football fields, appeared overnight at a neighboring farm; or like the time I got messages from megalithic stones one day on the Brittany coast of France.
The stones ‘spoke’ to me that day on the hill above Carnac where I sat atop the Kercado dolmen in quiet contemplation. I had been on the Morbihan coast amongst the giant megaliths for some weeks and was saying farewell to my favorite places before taking off for home.
“I’ll be back,” I whispered—and then a voice in my head said,
“No! Your work is not here! Go back to America—why else do you think you were born there?” The “voice” was adamant and certainly sounded a bit fed up with me. I sat up straighter.
“Here is what your job is: to write very short stories that pack a punch, using your ordinary life as metaphors for the hard realities of life in the world. Tell your stories lightly and with humor, and keep them brief enough to read over a cup of coffee. Make people laugh, assure them that together you can all make it through. Then send your pieces out to the world, and do it frequently. Now, go home and do your job!”
Weird? Well, for sure.
But I took the stones seriously and went on home to start writing these miniature pieces.
I hope that they help…
—Carolyn North, Berkeley, CA June 8, 2019