On Cold

It’s slipper sock weather.


The floor is like ice this morning. Quickly throwing on a sweater, I try to forget that this week is scheduled to turn much colder, reminiscent of our first winter off grid. That was more than two years ago, when we began our adventure. And in this time, I have learned to love one particular thing about the cold – outdoor refrigeration.

Well, refrigeration may not be the right word. I can scarely believe it’s been over two years since I have had a working refrigerator. There is a real art to storing food for 8 people in a cooler, and I assure you it is an art I have not yet mastered. Running out of ice, waterlogged cheese, chicken juice leaking into the water…despite of my very best efforts, these are regular occurrences I have learned to accept. But in winter….

During the cruel heat of the Texas summers, the coolers are kept indoors. Not that is much (or any) less sweltering in the house, but at very least the roof keeps the intense sun from slow-cooking the cooler and its delicate contents. In winter, when the cold finally sets in, the cooler is abruptly set on a forced migration to the front porch. I can’t say for sure whether it appreciates being kicked out of the house, but I am so deeply grateful to reduce our ice runs from every single morning to once or twice a week. 

There is one caveat. If, say, you happen to be starving and it happens to be pouring down rain while it is bafflingly also below freezing outside, well, you have a choice to make. Would you rather be full, or warm and dry? When your stomach is the empty vessel in question, the decision is murky, filled with a careful weighing of pros and cons, along with several assessments of local weather radars. When the growling tummy belongs to your doe-eyed 4 year old, well, that’s a different story entirely. 

A Slower Season

Rain drops slide down the window. The comfortable gray light from an overcast sky fills the room with a sleepy glow. 

It’s winter, well, nearly, and the cold is finally arriving. I can’t complain. The fall has been unusually warm, affording us extra time to prepare for inclement weather. Not that we’re prepared. I don’t think you’re ever quite ready for winter when you live off grid. There is always more firewood to collect, animal shelters to mend, something to repair. But not today.

Rainy days in the country mean rest – forced rest for my husband who never lacks for a project to work on. Laundry can’t be hung to dry. Animals are idle, huddling together in their houses or under trees. Everything stands still for a day or two, except perhaps cooking, dishes, and keeping up with the mud brought in on rain boots. And tending the fire, which my husband and the boys see to diligently.

I suppose there’s always paperwork to catch up on, bills to pay, all the distractions of adult life, but today, may they be forgotten. Three giggly little girls are eager to snuggle under blankets and read princess stories, and, like the rain, these moments won’t last forever. 

Canadian Vs. The Sun

We all knew it was coming. I mean, this is Texas after all. In truth, it’s amazing we avoided it for so long. But the heat has finally found us. After an unbelievably cool, record-breaking rainy spring complete with some serious flooding, the Texas summer has finally found us.

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Main road in town during some major flooding.

The cold can be unpleasant, but I can think of a hundred off grid ways to stay warm: bake cookies, extra socks, fuzzy sweaters, a pot of spiced apple cider, snuggly blankets. I should probably disclose, if you didn’t already know, that I spent the first nineteen years of my life in Canada, so cold doesn’t phase me all that much. So long as my feet aren’t so cold that it feels like my toenails are being pulled out (worst newspaper delivery ever), I’m just fine. But put me in anything over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and my fortitude fails, quite pathetically, I might add.

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So how does one keep cool during Texas summer in a poorly insulated house with very limited electricity? The short answer? You don’t. Instead, you attempt to acclimate. The first two weeks are the worst. Your flight or fight response kicks in. You dream about moving to Antarctica. Or at least you would if you could sleep, but the heat keeps you awake all night, only exacerbating your irritation. Battling chronic dehydration due to sweating gallons per day, you also completely lose your appetite. So you’re hot, uncomfortable, dehydrated, and have low blood sugar, which basically makes you a walking storm cloud. But don’t worry…after fourteen days of mental and physical torture, you will more or less accustomed to it.

And so that is where I am now. I still loathe the heat entirely, but I am training my mind to give it little thought. Instead, we focus on drinking copious amounts of water and staying mentally occupied. I have a stack of books to give me mental solace when needed.

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The sleepless nights can be strenuous. The kids bed down in the living room where has the best ventilation. Of course, they love that. They also love kayaking and swimming in the pond.

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Basically, they are living at summer camp, except that they are still required to do schoolwork.

The animals, unaware that air conditioning exists, are surprisingly adaptable. The cows have become very fond of the pond, spending a good portion of their day just standing in it up to their shoulders. I feel for the Angora goats, especially Hattie who was dehorned before I bought her. (Goats circulate blood through their horns to regulate body temperature.) The chickens are turkeys drink considerably more and spend most of their day under trees.

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The garden is faring less impressively. While the tomatoes and peppers are enjoying the heat, most of the other plants and trees are wallowing in self-pity.

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Water is in short supply, as is customary for summer here, only this year I cannot artificially create rain with unlimited water from a garden hose. Usually, to water the garden involves hauling five gallon buckets of water a few acres. And repeat several times as necessary. The same holds true for watering the animals.

Another major challenge is storing food. With the ever rising ambient room temperatures, ice in the cooler lasts less than 24 hours, making it quite a chore to keep up with draining water and refilling with ice…after of course obtaining the ice.

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Our daily pilgrimage.

Storing raw meat is particularly difficult. Cheese and yogurt will give you a little bit of wiggle room, but not uncooked ground beef. Before these last few months, I never fully grasped what a glorious invention the refrigerator is.

But summer will only last another two (possibly three) months. Time always goes faster than I think it will. And with some luck, next year will be much easier as we should be better established. Meanwhile, I have spent a lot of time gaining a new perspective of the first settlers in this area who didn’t have vending machine ice and air conditioned stores and Dairy Queen blizzards when necessary. How they managed, I can barely fathom. It would seem that we humans are much more resilient than we look.

Slow Cooking Without Electricity

When we first went off grid, one of the things I really missed was my electric slow cooker. I had used that thing for cooking carnitas, beans, chicken stock, making yogurt, you name it. I mentioned my yearning to use it again to my husband, but unless we ran the generator for 8 hours (which would be a very expensive way to cook), it just wasn’t possible now. And in the future, when we finally get a solar power system in place, it wouldn’t be very practical. As my husband pointed out, contrary to what the marketers of slow cookers would have you believe, it does actually take a considerable amount of energy to run them.

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My old slow cooker...before it was well used. From what I've read, apparently Hamilton Beach is the only slow cooker manufacturer that guarantees their liners don't contain lead which, umm...is pretty important to me.

Hmm….but I still really needed a way to slow cook. We are very blessed to have a Sun Oven. It is surprisingly effective. But I like to slow cook my chicken stock for at least a good 24 hours to get all of the minerally goodness out of it, and a Sun Oven is only as good as your available sunlight. And so, like any rational person with a Smartphone, I Googled off grid slow cooking. That’s when I found this.

God bless those people. That YouTube tutorial was such a godsent.

A hay box is surprisingly effective. All you do is throw whatever you’re wanting to cook into a large pot,
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bring it to a boil, and then simply place it inside a cooler
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lined and stuffed with towels, bedsheets, a winter jacket with a zipper that your son managed to completely destroy…whatever you’ve got lying around really.
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You can even use hay if you want to be really authentic. If you’re going to cook for a long time, as in the aforementioned chicken stock, after about 8-12 hours (depending on your cooler and the ambient room temperature), reboil the pot and return it to the cooler. That’s it.

I check the temperature of whatever I’m cooking every time I pull it out of the cooler, partly to be sure of food safety but mostly because I find it so impressive. The coolest temperature I’ve ever had was 146F after leaving chicken stock for 12 hours.

Legitimate slow cooking without electricity. Yup. I’m amazed every time. In fact, I am so consistently impressed that I kind of feel like a sucker for having ever believed that I needed a special appliance for slow cooking.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you run into your kitchen and dramatically throw your slow cooker out the window. I’m just saying you could. 😉

So Where Was I…?

The last time I posted was…February?!? Oops! Sorry about that.

Too much has transpired since I was here last to list it all, but I’ll give you the highlights. I’ll try to keep it short, I promise. Let’s see…

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Spring arrived in Texas.

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We got some more ducks…

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…and few cows…

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…guineas…

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…five Angora goats…

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…bunnies…

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…and some Black Copper Marans, Silver Laced Wyandottes, and Lavender Ameracauna chicks.

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My incredible and very adventurous mother came to visit. We’re already trying to talk her into returning.

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The process of planting raspberries, peach trees, apple trees, figs and pomegranates has begun. 

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Peas, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers have been started in garden boxes which are actually repurposed shipping crates. With some luck, we will get a fence up to plant a big garden very, very soon. (Last fall, we tried a garden without a fence. It didn’t take the feral hogs long to find it.)

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Thanks to my brilliant husband, using an IBC tote and a water pump, we now have running water whenever the generator runs. Which means I can use the washing machine. Which basically gives me 16 hour per week back. Have I mentioned how amazing my husband is?

We are going on six months of living off grid. Six months. Whoa…that’s weird to think about. It has gone from being impossible to manageable to euphoric. I’ve learned how to function without endless electricity and water. It’s hard to explain just how freeing it is to know that we are slowly becoming a little more self sufficient every day.

I must say, the strangest development around here has been the evening noise. You know how you’d expect to hear crickets and a few birds out in the country at night? Well, we do hear them, but imagine my surprise and disbelief when my husband and I stopped putting up the animals to hear the sound of (are you ready for this?) lions. Real ones. In Texas. I’m serious. See, we discovered that there is a facility about a mile from here as the crow flies that rescues large cats. Really large cats. Zoo cats have nothing on these tigers which, judging by their size, eat an entire cow each and every day. Rumor has it that a few years back, a bad storm damaged their fences and a family of mountain lions presumed to have escaped started picking off cows and entire herds of goats until the local farmers rounded up most of them. Of course, mountain lions are also native to Texas, so who knows? From a quick driveby, it looks like a fascinating place. The kids and I plan on going on ones of their tours soon. But still, as I tuck the kids into bed to the sound of a lion’s roar, I do find myself often pondering, ‘From what exactly do lions and tigers need to be rescued?’ I am just thankful that there are fields and fields of cattle (or tiger decoys, as I now affectionately call them) between us and them.

Ever Changing

It’s cold again in our little house. Winter keeps coming and going as it does every year in Texas. Spring makes so many false starts that by the time it actually arrives you are very skeptical that it will stay. By the time you finally believe it, it’s already hot. For now, it’s snowy. Really snowy for Texas.

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We’ve been off grid for three months now. Three. Whole. Months. Though in reality we had no idea how long this would last, I never anticipated going without power for so long. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset about it. I’m just shocked. Never in my life did I think I would be able to go a week without a conventional hot shower. The thing is us humans are often a lot tougher than we allow ourselves to believe.

Despite the ups and downs, we are getting past the initial shock and learning curve of living like this, and I love it now. I love not hearing the hum of electricity. I love becoming much more mindful of our resources. I love that our children watch little to no television (only the occasional movie), but scream with excitement when they spot a cardinal or a Black Capped Chickadee out the window. Every day throughout this experience, I notice “I can’ts” being replaced with family brainstorming around whiteboard drawings.

The important change that has occurred is accepting that things are different now. Like the ever-wise, rum-guzzling Captain Jack Sparrow once slurred, the problem was not the problem. The problem was my attitude about the problem. At the beginning of this adventure, I spent a lot of time trying to live like how I had been living. What I really needed was to let go of how it was and accept how it is. The best part of that has been how grateful it has made me and how much less entitled I believe I am. Very frequently, I laugh and shake my head at all the times in the past that I complained about switching over laundry or unloading the dishwasher.  Today, I am just glad if the water lines aren’t frozen and the ground is firm enough that the wheels on the generator actually turn instead of just dragging and collecting mud while I pull it down to the well.

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We knew, going into this, that the process would refine us. I just failed to appreciate how much I needed that refinement. I still have a very long way to go, but I am so relieved that my attitude is improving on a daily basis. Would I live like this again? Absolutely…which is a good thing because it would seem that this adventure may continue for some time yet…

Too Many Seeds, Not Enough Pots

It’s not just me, right? You completely lost control and bought several thousand seed varieties to plant this season, too, didn’t you? Phew. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

With approximately 62 different species of vegetable and herb seeds to start, I ran into a predicament. I needed to get them going in the greenhouse, but I don’t have 1000+ pots to start them in. I’ve saved every pot from every plant I’ve purchased from the last two years, but my collection still is not nearly what I need. I really didn’t want to order any because I really didn’t want to wait for them to arrive and I’m trying to keep garden costs down.

But then I remembered a handy little device I had purchased years ago, at a time when I honestly had little need of it. Those days, we didn’t own our land and we didn’t have anywhere indoors to start more than five plants at best. But the ease and simplicity of a paper pot maker caught my attention all the same.

I’m certainly getting my money’s worth out of it now.  To make biodegradable pots, all you do is get a newspaper and cut it into strips about 3 inches wide.
Wrap the paper around the pot maker,

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…fold in the bottom…

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…and press it onto the base.

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Now pull it off and you’re done!

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It’s so easy, I often hire the work out to my little ones. The indentation on the bottom keeps the pot from unravelling.

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From one local $1 newspaper, I was able to make about 100 pots which is a whole lot cheaper than a sixteen pot starter tray from the dollar store. If you already get the paper or know someone who wouldn’t mind saving their old ones for you, even better.

These pots can go straight into the ground when it’s time to plant. I have noticed that these pots dry out a little faster than plants in plastic pots, probably because paper doesn’t hold in moisture like plastic does. So keep an eye on that. And to keep them from falling everywhere in the greenhouse, I used cardboard boxes that were cut short into trays. With some luck, the cardboard will also help retain some moisture to buy me a little more time between waterings.

All that remains to be done now is planting!