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Things our house and land have taught us

Posted on September 22, 2012 by ari

We moved to our new place a little over a year ago now. I keep thinking of this thing Ed Begley said, something along the lines of, “A house is like a ship. You have to keep the ship running.” I heard those words back when we were living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, living in a series of rooms laid end-to-end, with sunlight creeping in only at the front and back. It felt like a submarine, and Begley’s words felt very apt. Now, living in our own place, running up and down the stairs and ducking into cupboards to tend to drain pipes and dehumidifiers and water filters, it feels even more appropriate – though this house gets a little more sunshine, so it doesn’t feel like we’re under water. Rather, it feels like our ship is in a forest. I didn’t realize how much I’d have to learn about trees, though you’d think our coming to a total of 169 when we counted them a year ago would have tipped us off. Here’s a list of the most unexpected things we’ve had to learn, since becoming homeowners.

  1. Trees need you. They get old, they lose branches, they die. They overshadow things like gardens and solar panels (coming soon!), and have to be cut down. Trees that are cut down can be turned into mulch or firewood or chunks of wood that can be used for edging or furniture, but that takes work. If you leave felled wood too long, it gets rotten, and then projects like hugelkultur begin to look interesting. If you leave a dead tree’s trunk and lower branches standing, it provides a home for animals, and it looks really cool.
  2. You should taste and learn about a house’s water before buying it. When we found this house, which has a well, the homeowner told us it had hard water but that a system in the basement took care of it. He explained that you pay a company to maintain the system; they would come each month to replenish its supply of salt. It sounded easy. It didn’t work, and it was expensive. We didn’t taste the water until after moving, and it never did taste good, even after several tune-ups to the treatment system. The thing flushed itself out, loudly and at length, each night, wasting 3 gallons of water for every gallon used. And this waste water was salty, which I read can inhibit water absorption in soil. (This is probably why our sump pump went on every time the machine flushed itself out; I hate to think what that means about our septic system and its proximity to our basement.) In any case, we had the thing turned off and removed once our contract was up, and since then, we’ve been drinking water from jugs we refill at stores downtown, and are learning how to live with hard water. It smells like sulfur and it stains our plumbing, we’ve learned a lot about how to clean orange and grey marks from all kinds of surfaces (we now understand why some people have a squeegee hanging in their shower…), and man am I getting a lot of exercise, from all the scrubbing. But, it’s so much cheaper and more self-sufficient and less wasteful, we have fewer machines grinding away in the basement using electricity, and our whole property is drier. We hope to figure out a new filter solution soon, so we can resume drinking water from the tap.
  3. Cast iron tubs are awesome. All other tubs are a waste of money. We have a cast iron tub covered in porcelain enamel. But at some point, probably to cover up hard water staining, a previous owner tried to refinish it, apparently without first etching its surface with acid, which is supposed to help the new surfacing to stick. The new surface is some kind of resin, i.e., something you can’t clean with anything abrasive, meaning that hard water stains are almost impossible to avoid. What looked beautiful when we moved in (we had no idea it had been resurfaced) lost its lustre rapidly, accumulating stains and abrasions, and peeling and bubbling away from the tub. We peeled away the stuff on the floor of the tub easily, but the rest of it has to be scraped off with a razor blade, and the whole thing has to be recaulked. My takeaway, after doing some research on the web, is that a cast iron tub is a priceless thing. All other tubs seem to have problems. If you have a cast iron tub, treat it gently and scrub it rather than resurface it! Recycled glass scrub-stones are your friend.
  4. Don’t invite insects in – caulk everything. We’re pretty clean people, but we’re a two woman, three cat household, so it takes some effort. After we’d been living here for a while, the baseboards started to warp a bit, revealing that they had been new and tightly nailed in, but not caulked. The sinks weren’t caulked either. I couldn’t believe that I’d missed this when we were first looking at the place – I must have been so excited about how pretty and clean it was that I didn’t look closely enough. Then a few months later, we started to encounter silverfish in our bathrooms. Tiny ones, hiding along the baseboards and the bottoms of the sink cupboards. I’ve never lived with them before, and had to look them up. It turns out they like dampness and eat things like paper and cardboard; we’d been propping sponges up in the under-sink cupboards to dry after using them to clean stuff. So we tossed the sponges and installed little hooks (on the wall, not inside a cupboard!), caulked all the baseboards and sinks, and started using microfiber cloths instead, and began religiously sweeping and using our bathroom fans. When that failed to drive away the new residents, and we read online that they can live for a year without food, we resorted to a very non-vegan solution that I feel really bad about: sprinkling borax in the corners. It kills them.
  5. Take a home-repair class and save yourself some money. After you’ve plugged up your drains a few times and had to deal with paying someone to dredge your hair out of the pipes, you, like me, will probably go buy a wrench and break out the flashlight. We took a class at Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services where we learned how to do a lot of basic things. For me, the biggest takeaway was that a house isn’t a mystery. Just like Ed Begley said, it’s like a ship. And like any ship, or other sophisticated machine with many parts, it comes with manuals, and community knowledge, to help you learn how to use and maintain it. If something’s broken, or if we know it needs routine maintenance, we Google it, and we find out if it’s something we can handle ourselves, and if it is, we do it. We’ve replaced a worn-out gasket on a whole-house water filter, as well as the filter itself; we’ve cleaned out sink drains and learned how to use a plumber’s snake; we’ve changed furnace filters; we’ve installed a dehumidifier that drains directly into our sump pump pit with a hose; we’ve replaced caulk and are repairing our bathtub; we’ve bought a ladder and cleaned out our gutters. We’ve even removed poison ivy, cut paths through our wild backyard, hauled out the contents of an old trash-burning pit and turned it into a nice spot for bonfires, transplanted willow cuttings to a wet spot in our lawn, put in four blueberry bushes, and created raised beds and a tomato trellis. This is all really empowering.

All of this work might sound kind of bothersome, but it’s just life – a house is a complicated machine, and land isn’t just a square of grass, it’s an ecosystem. Taking responsibility for a complex system like that isn’t a small thing – it’s a learning experience. And it’s an honor, to be allowed to care for this little corner of the world. I can’t help but feel that if all of us owned the land in common, if we all felt this sense of responsibility, and if we all had to acquire so much knowledge and work so hard to maintain our homes, that we would have a healthier relationship with our environment.

Related posts:

  1. The Ithaca Green Buildings Open House
  2. It’s the little green things
  3. Video: Support Wild Things Sanctuary
  4. Making stuff and doing things
  5. Do I own these trees or do these trees own me?


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