It Takes a Village to Heat a Village

This morning the temperature in Hartland, VT is 18 degrees below zero … yes -18 on my thermometer right now … mid-morning.

As I sit in the warmth of my home here at Cobb Hill, the sun is beating in the south facing windows as the temperature soars in my little abode.  I think the sweater has to go.

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When I awoke this morning, I could tell that the outside air was crisp.  It was cool in my bedroom and I snuggled under the covers knowing that one of my community members – ah yes,  it was Susie – was on her way to the “garn” to stoke the fires.

What is the garn you are thinking?  Well it is a wood fired boiler system  (the brand name is Garn) that, when fed wood, will heat water that is then pumped into pipes that circulate throughout the homes at Cobb Hill.  We either have radiant floor heating in our homes, or the more typical baseboard heaters.  The heated water circulates throughout the community and then returns to the garn to be re-heated for another round.  We must closely monitor the temperature in the garn throughout the day so that it does not overheat and boil over.  That means sometimes you are filling it with lots of wood, other times you are not.  Depends on the day … the temps outside, the sun, the time of year etc.  It is a science for sure and most at Cobb Hill have come to understand it well.

This heating infrastructure required careful planning in the design phase, the system relies on the wood as its renewable energy source.  Of course electricity is needed to run the pumps.  We are not net zero, but we certainly have made a dent in our carbon footprint.  I am quite amazed that to heat 20 homes and a large Common House we use approximately 45 cords of wood a year.  One New England home that heats with wood can use 5-10 cords of wood a year.  Here at Cobb Hill we get by on two cords a home.

When I was first introduced to the Garn system, I was told that I would be taking my turn in the weekly rotation in stoking the fires.  Walking into the Garn room can be a bit overwhelming.


All those meters, directions, forms to fill out, hints for understanding the system.  I did my walk through with Jesse, one of the maintenance gurus here at Cobb Hill.  I was completely intimidated.  When we finally started the garn fires in late October, I needed a support system to get me going my first few times in the rotation.


Today is Friday.  I am on the Friday team.  We have five to six people on a team and we each sign up according to our schedules and what works for each of us.  My shift today is 9:00 tonight.  Sometimes I do the midnight shift.  One morning last week I forgot I had the first shift – 6:00am.  Fortunately for me, a close neighbor to the garn building realized when his house wasn’t getting warm that someone had forgotten and he made his way over and started the morning fires.  (We have two boilers.)  It happens about once a week that someone forgets … with temperatures as we have had, it doesn’t take long for the village to know.  Another time I was sitting in the movie theater when I realized that I had forgotten my 6:00 pm shift.  Thank goodness for cell phones as a quick text got someone over to the garn to stoke it immediately.  Indeed it takes a village.

Oftentimes people ask, what is the glue that holds your community together?  One of the first answers that pops up is “the garn”.  To heat with wood means we must gather often in the spring and summer months to stack the 45-50 cords of wood.  The good cheer and conversation is always fun.

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This happens often and spontaneously as someone announces that a load of wood has arrived.  The teamwork, the responsibility to keep everyone warm, is a deep connection.  Knowing that this morning Susie got up early, made her way to the garn in the bitter cold so that by the time I arose from my bed, my home was toasty … . I am just appreciating her as I type.  I get to appreciate everyone in turn.   The sun shining in all morning has given the garn a rest … not so much wood is required when we can count on the passive heat from the sun.

Yes it takes a village to heat our village and it is a brilliant system in that it creates the heat we need to enjoy the Vermont winters, but it also creates the camaraderie and community that we moved here to experience.  Depending on each other in this way is having the desired effect – our community is warm in more ways than one.

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No More Hunger Games

You have made me cry. Not only for the very world that is possible as viewed in the Hunger Games, but for the way you bring our small hummingbird work into focus. Your own transformation is so exciting to witness as it unfolds here in the presence of ETL. Thank you for being a fan of the Hunger Games (I am too by the way) and for bringing this review into the realm of ETL. You rocked it.

Into the Pathless Woods

You may have heard talk lately about a movie called Mocking Jay this past week. For those of you who don’t know, Mocking Jay is the third movie in a series based off of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, The Hunger Games. These books focus on a teenage girl, Katniss Everdeen, and her life of poverty and misfortune. The Hunger Games describes a dystopian future where as a result of a rebellion 75 years ago, society has been divided up into twelve districts, all governed by one ruling body housed in the Capitol. The Capitol is populated with the world’s elite, the 1% that watch each year as all 12 districts “volunteer” (are forced) one young boy and one young girl to represent their district in the brutal Hunger Games, where the children fight to the death, until there is only one victor left. Katniss decides to fight against the Capitol and…

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The word harvest is one of my favorites.  When asked in writing exercises to pick out five words that I love, harvest is always one I choose.  I love words with v’s in them.  I love words that are metaphorically useful.  I love words that bring up rich images of my childhood.

Growing up participating in a family farm, I experienced the coming and going of seasons with prepping, planting, weeding, watering, and finally harvesting.  Harvest time celebrates the fruit that comes from all the labor.  And in itself, is labor.  The work of a farmer is sacred, holy work.  It is an improv performance as it is never known what each day will bring – weather that inhibits, break down of equipment, sickness, animal health problems, or other issues to attend to.  A farmer is a multi-tasker – always juggling multiple agendas and deciding from moment to moment which one to follow.  And when the harvest is brought in, the beauty of the efforts put forth is an essential blessing.

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I came to Cobb Hill in August, just as the fall harvest season was beginning.  The fields were so lush and green with plants, I witnessed the abundance that came from all the work of preceding months.  The Farm Stand was overflowing with vegetables.  I began to nourish myself with the fruits of these labors.

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Three months later I have mostly eaten of this soil, of this place.  I have nourished myself through the work of human and animal, the nutrients put into the soil via compost, the bacteria and critters that are continually doing their part in the food cycle, and rain that washes the landscape making this abundance possible.  I shouldn’t forget the Sun with it’s photosynthesizing permission.

I have worked in the fields helping with the harvest.

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I have cooked some of the meals bringing the bounty to our community.

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I have participated as local school children learned important lessons about agriculture.

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But more than food,  I am also harvesting the lessons that have been learned in this 13 year experiment in farm/community living.  Once again, I was not part of the prepping, building, growing of this community, and so I come to this moment later in the process.  And like the seasons, we are now harvesting among ourselves, lessons learned and not learned from the past 13 years of community living.

Thank goodness all is a cycle.  There is no end point in nature … all is consumed or composted to be used again.  Energy continues through the cycles.  Here at Cobb Hill, we are harvesting what has been learned, planning for tomorrow, making adjustments from the feedback the systems have given us.  Both the human/animal community and the plant communities have their cycles.  I have only to be present for this improv experience of living in communion with life.  I personally am harvesting all that I can for my own nourishment.   And I am having fun in the process.


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Chicken Chatter

Of my six decades on this planet, probably a sum total of one of those decades I have been without chickens in my daily life.  As a child, my grandmother raised two hundred laying hens and my task through-out the day was to visit the hen house and collect eggs.  I can still feel the weight of a five gallon bucket filled with 50 or 60 eggs as I struggled to the egg washing and packing room in the basement of her house.  Candling the eggs (holding them to a candle to see if they were fertilized) I sorted, cleaned and packed the eggs for the ‘egg man’ to collect on his rounds.  It wasn’t my favorite job but a penny a dozen was a good day’s work back in the late 1950’s when I was 7 or 8 years old. If I could earn 10 or 15 cents each day, I felt rich.1_0766 copy

Throughout my adult life I have been a collaborative caretaker to 5-15 chickens at a time.  My privilege of fresh eggs from chickens that spend their days outdoors pecking and eating bugs, getting exercise, cleaning their feathers in the rain is not lost on me.  I have loathed the times I have had to resort to buying industry raised eggs from chickens stuck in barns with no sunlight, packed tightly, only eating grain from a conveyor belt.  Eggs are an important part of my diet and I desire them to be the most nutritious that they can be not to mention that I value chickens being treated humanely.

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Fast forward to the present.  I recently joined the community chicken club at Cobb Hill.  What this means is that I have a day of the week that I am responsible for letting the chickens out of their house in the morning, feeding and watering them, and collecting eggs throughout the day.  I must take them to the Common House where they are washed and recorded in the egg log.  Again at night the chickens are watered and enclosed in their house.   Our internet exchange among the chicken caretakers has been named “Chicken Chatter”.

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At Cobb Hill we have 40 Highliner hens, which is a cross between a Rhode Island Red and a Leghorn.  Both are bred for their egg laying capacity.   They are kept in a chicken tractor house that was designed years ago by the visionary founder of Cobb Hill, Dana Meadows.  All these years later the chicken tractor, with improvements, continues to house the chickens.  It can be moved by a tractor across the field, with temporary fencing set up to enclose them.  In this way the chickens get real grass for their pecking and grazing proclivities and the field gets worked and fertilized.  In the winter they are brought in closer to the barn so we have easier access and electricity for keeping their water from freezing.


Chickens need water to lay eggs.  The ‘chicken chatter’ during the late summer and early fall days was about making sure the chickens had fresh and full water buckets each day, all day long.   As winter approaches we will now add vitamins to the water and a lamp will turn on in their house during the night so they have the 14 hours of light they need to keep producing eggs during the winter months.

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Our chicken care group is a varied lot with an age range from 5-80 years old.  Recently in a ‘chicken chatter’ face to face meeting (rare), we reviewed the protocols to be followed for chicken care.  Things change for winter so we need to all be on board.  Our chicken boss is a 17 year old who has grown up in the community and is becoming an accomplished farmer.  She keeps tally of our egg laying capacity, keeps the community supplied with eggs in our mail room, and takes the retired, no-longer-laying chickens to the local Science Center as a food offering to the injured eagles and hawks that are in safe captivity there.

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Alan, our 80 year old, really wants to paint the chicken tractor red like the barn.  He has aesthetic priorities and I agree that it will be great to have a sweet freshened up house for the chickens.  I volunteer to help do the painting… though it seems it won’t happen until spring.  Charlie, the 8 year old, wants us all to know how much his dad loves and cares for those chickens.  He tells our group “If I were a chicken, I would be really happy to have my dad taking care of me.”    I think all our chickens are happy that we have such a great group of people taking care of them.  Being so grateful for the continued local food it is time for me to go make an omelet.

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Never Say Never

Never Say Never

When I sold my farmhouse in Maine four years ago, I said good-bye to stacking wood in the cellar each summer, getting up on cold mornings to re-start a fire in the furnace, and to cleaning up all the residue that comes with heating with wood.  I had a wood cook stove in the kitchen, a wood furnace in the basement, and a wood stove in the living room… all needing maintenance and feeding.  The excitement for a passive energy home with no wood stove was high on my list of priorities.  Well, never say never.  Here I am at Cobb Hill where my home is again heated with wood.

So I find myself stacking wood and preparing for the upcoming winter once more.wood stacking 007

What is different this time around?

First of all, none of this wood comes into my house.  I have no residue to clean up, no smoke that escapes when I open the furnace or wood stove, no summer days alone in my cellar stacking wood. Here at Cobb Hill I have to feed the boiler that heats our homes only once a week!  Yes to community sharing of responsibility.

Cobb Hill burns 45-50 cords of wood a year (depends on the weather) in two large wood boilers housed in their own special shed.  The Garn, the trademark name of the boiler, heats water that circulates underground to each of our homes.

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Each home is equipped with hot water baseboard heaters.  When you turn up the thermostat in your house, you can increase the flow of boiling water through the baseboard heaters and your home heats up.  It helps that the houses are super insulated and thus, at most, each home uses no more than two cords of wood to heat each year.  That is quite different from the four or five cords I used in my house during the winters when I exclusively used wood.  Some Maine homes, and I am sure Vermont homes, use 7-10 cords a winter.

A portion of the wood that we burn at Cobb Hill comes from our own land – we have approximately 125 acres of hardwood forest.  Bill, a Cobb Hill resident and neighbor, is a state forester and manages our woodlot for sustainable harvesting.  Our community work days involve crews in the woods splitting and stacking wood for future heating.  Yes wood heats two or three times – once when you cut and stack it, once when you move it, and once when you burn it.

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Most of our wood comes from a local neighbor who cuts and delivers wood for a living.  In this way we contribute to the local economy while heating ourselves with a local renewable source.

There is debate about the carbon footprint of heating with wood.


Some will argue that wood is carbon neutral because it gives off the same amount of carbon whether it is burned up or decays naturally.  Unlike fossil fuels where once it is burned it is gone forever, wood is a renewable resource.  Given that the trees, while growing, are absorbing carbon dioxide, they are considered a carbon sink while alive.  Once they are cut down, the burning of them gives off CO2 which hopefully will gets absorbed  again by the trees that are being sustainably grown so that the cycle becomes self- reinforcing.  Much of the value of heating with wood depends on the efficiency of your wood stove or furnace, the insulation in your house, the quality of your windows, and the temp at which you keep your thermostat as well as the sustainable harvest of the forest you are cutting.  Cobb Hill has paid attention and designed for all of these factors.

The most important realization in my coming to peace with heating with wood again is that I am not in this alone.  Stacking wood with a community of people, being out in the woods for a morning, laughing and telling stories while we work, warming ourselves in the joy of this shared endeavor, is what makes this recycling-back-into wood-heat-thing doable for me.

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I am looking forward to a very warm winter in Vermont.

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Staying Home

Staying Home

Recently as I was dining with friends on their patio, they were sharing about a recent trip to Newfoundland, and I asked them where they were headed next.  The man of the couple shook his head and said “ I am done.  Not going travel anymore … just going to stay home.  When are we going to see that this kind of privilege of travel is not what the planet actually needs of us now?  Those days are over.  It is time to stay home.”

As I work to establish myself in a new home in Vermont, I am asking myself if it is time to stay home too.   I have been 12 days in North Carolina, and as much as it has been so rich in visits with old and new friends, I have found an empty place in myself as I long to be back at Cobb Hill stacking wood with new friends, or helping to move a new neighbor into her home.

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I have missed the sounds of the cows being milked in the early morning hours, and I long to be deepening my friendships with the people who are Cobb Hillians.  I am reminded by a quote from Wendell Berry:

No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.” 

I do love the world as a whole, and I have traveled to many of its beautiful and unique places.  The travel bug is in me …staying put is a new concept for me.  Can I find fulfilment in the tasks of a daily life lived well in one place?   Can the terms of my relationship to the world and humanity be focused on a small rural community?  Can I be responsible in doing my part in building a healthy community?   Can my own health be reflected in the larger health of the community surrounding me?

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These are the questions as I board the plane to fly home.  I am indebted to future generations for the carbon that I have burned as I have explored the world.   I can rationalize all the reasons why leaving home is good for me (I surely have left many, many times), but I need to begin to have rationalizations for why staying home is equally good.  I will continue to draw from Wendell Berry’s words as I make my way into a new reality.

”And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” 
― Wendell BerryThe Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

I must learn how to stay home.

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The View from the Deck

On August 1, 2014 I took a leap of faith and moved my home from Belfast, Maine, where I had resided for 24 years, to Hartland, VT.  Having worked the past six years on developing the Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage community, and then buying a home and living there for 14 months, I was sold on cohousing but not able to align my values with what was actually happening in the Belfast community.   My yearning to live in an ecologically-minded community took me to Vermont where the Cobb Hill Ecovillage  was in its 13th year of experimentation.

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Downsizing from a 900 sq. ft. house to a 400 sq ft apartment in the Common House at Cobb Hill was a personal experiment as well.  How would I feel sharing bathroom and kitchen with other folks?  How would it feel to have my home be so public?  How would it feel to live in the midst of a working farm?  The deck off my apartment looks down on the cow and horse barns, hence the name of my blog… The View from the Deck.

Six weeks into this experiment here is what is working for me:

I am loving watching the cows go in and out of the barn and up the path to the grazing fields twice a day.  I hear the sounds of the farmers coaxing them along, sometimes singing to them, calling them by name.  In the early morning daylight hour of 5:00 am I am beginning to fit these sounds into my waking dreams.  It soothes me to know that the cheese I eat and the delectable frozen yogurt I am consuming comes directly from these lovely Jerseys.

As I eat my breakfasts on the deck, the Norwegian Fjord work horses come out of their barn and peer up at me.  They are keen to any new noises in their environment and my arrival on the deck has sparked a curiosity in them.  At some point, I will become just ho-hum so I am enjoying their interest while it lasts.   As small work ponies, they are delightfully beautiful beings.

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I love watching Stephen, one of the farmers, work with the horses in the field.  He has four Fjords but uses only two of them at a time.   Knowing that the vegetables I am eating are prepared and managed via work horses is also a soothing reality, and that the manure from the Jerseys and the Fjords go into fertilizing the soil.  It is a fascinating thing to stand on my deck and watch Stephen gliding through the vegetable beds with the horses.

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I am savoring (in more ways than one) the community meals with my landmates.  Twice a week, Thursday  and Sunday evenings, those who can,  gather in the Common House dining room to eat together.  On Thursdays  the meal is prepared by volunteers and on Sunday night it is potluck.   The discussions that ensue during the meals are the glue that build community and create the openings for us to share who we are with each other.  I am enjoying getting to know the various characters that comprise my new home.

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Walking 50 feet to the barn to shop for my food in the Farmstead store has been the most revealing.  I have been to the grocery store twice in six weeks.  Wow.  Who knew?  August in its abundance has given us most of what we need.  Cobb Hill Summer 004


And so it has begun.  How will I change as a result of this community living?  How will my views on the world evolve?  Will I find my way into the heart of things or will I stay on the deck and just observe the life of this place?  I hope it is not the latter.

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