Strangely enough, it begins with knocking down our house and rebuilding.
At first glance, this does not seem the most environmentally friendly thing to do, especially as our place was close to 100 years old. We moved in shortly after we were married, and our babies grew up here. (My youngest in now in her last year of high school.) The house was one of the first in the valley, and consequently on one of the best blocks of land. But we had several compelling reasons:
i) Most importantly, the house was full of asbestos. Renovating would not rid the place of this health threat, and ran the risk of on-going exposure to asbestos.
ii) The foundations of the house were sunk into the ground with no drainage. Once or twice a year we’re cut off from the main road by flooding rains coinciding with a high tide, usually for a few hours but occasionally for a few days. In times of heavy rains a stream ran under our house and into the creek which cuts through our backyard, which by this time has become a torrent. Once we ended up with someone else’s bathtub washed into our backyard. (One day I’ll fill it with flowers – on the to do list.)
Part of the problem is that our land slopes down from the road to a creek, before climbing on the far side. With no elevation, our house sat below road level, and run-off from the hillside pooled around our front steps. I needed gumboots to get out the front door and to my car, and a spade to dig channels for the water to run away.
iii) The electricity set-up was as old as the house. It blew whenever the washing machine and kettle were on at the same time. When it rained, the whole house frequently short-circuited. It didn’t take long for the novelty to fade.
iv) The place lacked insulation – of a winter, as the frost settled outside, I would lie in bed and watch my breath turn onto clouds. My greenhouse was warmer – the perfect place to rise my bread and leave my butter and yoghurt to mature.
Conversely, in summer we baked, and the place was designed with no concept of catching a passing breeze.
v) Cute as our old house was (and she served us well for many years) the design was poor. The house began life as one room, then another and another were added as more space was needed and families came and went. Consequently, we inherited a conglomeration of small rooms poorly designed with respect to light, sun, breezes or function. Although only a small house it had two dark corridors of wasted space, and a closed in back verandah perfect for gathering storage and dust.
So, after living here for more nearly two decade, the old house came down and a new one rose rapidly in its place. Building and design is always a gamble, but even as she rose I could tell the windows were in the right place, framing the perfect views, letting in light without actually looking onto neighbouring houses. (Being on acreage always helps. Most windows look onto a sea of green.) The one room we were worried about – will it be too small, too dark, what use to make of it? – might well become the best room of the house: a quiet room filled with books and a soft light, offering fantastic views over the yard.
We have recycled what we could from the old house, and paid homage to her in the design. Many a neighbour helped themselves to what ended up in the dumpster. Our bay tree, over two stories high, was left standing and we have managed to build a verandah around it, so it has become part of the house. A few stumps left behind by the demolition men (a world unto themselves, and the only problem we encountered with the whole building process) will also become features, whether as seats, or covered with jasmine and other flowers.
Already I am planning the veggie garden – it has been ignored for over a year now, and I’ll start from scratch, rebuilding the beds. Then there’ll be the herb garden by the house, and chooks. (How I miss my fresh eggs! I can’t buy them from the shops, they just don’t taste the same. They don’t taste of anything.) Maybe even some quail. I love quail eggs.
So, now we are moved in but still unpacking. What took forever to plan took only some four months to build (finishing ahead of schedule – something unheard of with builders). It’s taken almost as long to get the phone reconnected, and the internet longer; for someone who grew up before computers became ubiquitous, it’s been an interesting experience living without instant access to telecommunications and realising how dependent I have grown to using them. It’s virtually impossible to keep a blog going with only sporadic Internet access, not to mention on-line banking.
I know I’ll never be 100% self-sufficient, for the effort required is beyond me at this point in my life. Strawberries alone, for a family of four, require about 100 plants. I never want to reach the stage where I worry about what the birds and possums eat, not to mention the bandicoot forever digging holes in our backyard. (I lie in bed of a night and listen to him squeak, much like a child’s squeaky toy.)Yet every bit must help lessen my environmental footprint, not to mention the simple satisfaction of cooking something I have grown myself.
Driving through Spain where the land has been tilled for centuries, I was amazed at the veggie plots growing in the parched land. With my lush soil, and enough tanks to give more than enough water, I have no excuse not to grown things. When spring comes I hope to serve something I have grown at every meal, even it is only a salad or a scattering of herbs; eventually I may even make 50% self-sufficiency. Is that too ambitious a dream?