This Month On The Homestead: Snow, Power, and Celebrations
November is stick season. November is stark trees, bare earth, cold. November is purgatory, a way station between vibrant fall and monochromatic winter. At least, that’s what November is in a normal year. This year, however, November slammed us into deep winter. As we waited for the final leaves to finish their descent and made plans to gird ourselves, impertinent snow took hold.
Heedless of its prematurity, careless in its saturating abundance, snow took over. Snow in November is not an aberration. But foot after foot of snow? A deviation. All of our winter preparations were obliterated by this precocious snow. It fell hard, fast, and often. We were rocketed into February before we’d even finalized our Thanksgiving menu.
If you’re just tuning in, this is a recurring series in which I document each month of our lives out here on our 66-acre Vermont homestead. After leaving urban Cambridge, MA in May 2016 to chart this wholly different life, we’re experiencing a constant learning curve of exploration and plenty of stupid novice moments. Check out last month’s installment here and enjoy the best and worst (ok, mostly the worst) moments of our first year on the homestead here. Wondering if it’s less expensive to live rurally? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
November was the snowiest November in Vermont on record. Ever. Since such records were recorded. Remember how last month I outlined the optimistic list we’d accomplish before winter? I’ll tell you what I have to say about that list: hah!
Thanks to our meagre 2.5 years of experience in this mercurial climate, we prioritized that which would keep us safe and warm and de-prioritized everything else. So there’s a lot of frozen vegetables and un-mowed grass and field action underneath our cocoon of snow. But, we are warm and safe!
Here’s what we didn’t get to prior to snowmageddeon:
- Harvest and process any remaining vegetables from the garden
- Prep the garden for winter
- Do a final mow of the grass
- Do a final brushhogging of the fields
- Buck, split, and stack logs winched from the woods to put up another few cords of firewood
To redeem myself, here’s what we did check off:
- Remove the winch from the tractor and put the snow blower on
- Change and refresh all fluids on the tractor
- Rig up a lighting system on the tractor for wintertime snow blowing
- Put the snow tires on the cars
- Put away summer clothes and excavate winter gear from the basement for all four of us. Bribe Babywoods and Littlewoods to try on various pairs of boots, snowpants, coats, mittens, and hats until we find the combination of hand-me-downs that’ll fit for this winter.
- Decorate the house for Halloween and Thanksgiving!!!! (and now Christmas! you can see where my priorities are… )
- Take all the screens off of the house windows/doors and put on the exterior storm glass
- Remove all patio furniture, toys, baby pool, grill, etc from the back porch and set up the porch wood rack
- Stack wood in the porch wood rack
- Clean the woodstove combustor and clear old ashes from the stove to prepare for burning season
- Order propane and heating oil to be delivered
- Do a final clearing of the hiking trails to prepare them for snowshoeing. Remove downed trees.
Mercifully, the key to do’s were done: firewood stacked on porch, snowblower put onto the tractor, and snow tires put onto the cars. Woe betides ye who does not have this triumvirate in the rear view prior to first snow storm. How do I know? Because that was us two years ago. At least we learn from our mistakes (sometimes).
The major undone item was bucking, splitting, and stacking the final logs Mr. FW felled and winched in from the woods. There’s currently a pile-o-logs chilling underneath the snow, but we hope they won’t rot and will be ready for the splitter in the spring. We have more than enough firewood split and stacked in Mr. FW’s wood palace for this winter (and likely next winter too), so those logs would’ve put us ahead for the following year. Would’ve been nice to finish that project out, but not a crisis situation.
Oh yes, we were powerless in the face of this punishing snow. Temperatures rose in concurrence with a massive snow dump in late November. This warmer air created heavy, sticky snow that latched onto every single tree branch and–you might see where I’m going with this–resulted in lots of tree topples.
Heavy snow pulled trees down all over the place, sometimes on top of power lines. Most inconsiderate. During the last week of November we were without power more often than we were with it. This transported us to, oh, the 1850s because without power, we also have no water since we have a well (which is pumped by an electric pump).
Further adding to our unintentional historical re-enactment, our phone and internet lines were knocked out. So here we sat, with no electricity, no running water, no internet, and no phone. And it was just fine. We were warm thanks to our cranking woodstove, we had plenty of food thanks to our stocked pantry, and we had enough water thanks to our stored water and newfound ability to melt and boil snow.
This was our first longterm power outage and I learned some things. Namely, that I do not like living circa 1850 and am quite accustomed to my luxuries of flushing water closets and magic lanterns. Not to mention cyber space and noise machines and nightlights in my children’s bedrooms. I’ve come up with some handy comparisons to explain my feelings on this power outage.
Power Outages Pre-kids
The height of romance! Light candles and place them on every surface–the floor too, why not! Create a cute meal of peanut butter sandwiches and open a bottle of wine. Lounge on the floor tickling one another’s chins, playing a decadent game of Scrabble. Discover a long-forgotten box of chocolates that was gifted for one’s work anniversary two years ago and drunkenly indulge. Also discover another bottle of wine.
Giggle at how silly humans are to think they need electricity all the time. Relish the absence of internet interruptions while reading Leaves of Grass aloud by candlelight as you stroke your beloved’s flaxen hair and smugly ponder how resilient you are in the face of such inconvenience. Sleep soundly (two bottles of wine, remember), wake up the next day, shrug that there’s still no power, and repeat all of the above.
Power Outages With Children
1 minute in: we can do this. I am certain we have flashlights somewhere. Locate flashlights, give one to toddler who proceeds to shine directly into baby’s eyes. Light a few candles. Extinguish candles as soon as the extended reach of your toddler is discovered. Ear-splitting tears will indicate that it’s dinner time. Conduct a frantic search and realize you were planning to bake bread that day, but haven’t yet, and thus have very few non-perishables to feed to children.
Realize you can’t open refrigerator for fear that everything inside will perish. Locate jar of peanut butter and an orange. Slather orange with peanut butter and try to convince children it’s a thing. Watch in horror as baby vomits orange/peanut butter into toddler’s hair. Realize you’ve already used 2 gallons of water trying to wash children’s hands prior to dinner. Use baby wipes to inexpertly clean vomit off of all family members.
2 minutes in: field 9,846 questions from toddler about: which lights are out (all of them), when the ‘lectricity will return (I have no idea), how ‘lectricity works (it’s an increasing problem that you have no internet right now), what we will eat for breakfast (really not sure we’re going to make it that long), if her noise machine and nightlight will work (decidedly not), and then a list of everyone she knows followed by, “is their ‘lectricity out too?” Squelch desire to scream: “I KNOW NOTHING AND AM NOT A RELIABLE ADULT CAREGIVER AT PRESENT MOMENT. ALSO WHY ARE WE OUT OF WINE? IS THERE NO JUSTICE IN THIS WORLD?!”
5 minutes in: stand holding full (super full) toddler potty and contemplate fact that, due to water not working, you can’t flush the toilet. Calculate number of toilets in home (3) versus number of toilet-using household members (3) versus frequency of eliminations. Despair. Say a prayer of thanks that you didn’t get around to doing Elimination Communication with your baby, so she is still in diapers. Be grateful that procrastination has upsides.
10 minutes in: declare an early bedtime. Curse self that nearly all bedtime rituals are dependent upon electricity: baths, teeth brushing, using the freaking potty (seriously kid, again?!), turning on the nightlight and noise machine. Forgo all. Settle for reading books by candlelight–kidding!–flashlight. Attempt to wipe layers of grime off children via baby wipes. Begin to detest scent of baby wipes. Put children in jammies and futilely hope for best.
15 minutes in: wonder what the parents will eat for dinner since appetite for peanut butter and orange was obliterated.
Other than that, we had a magical time.
Getting a Generator?
Many of you may now be wondering if we’re going to purchase a generator. The answer is that I’m not sure. Rough as it was to be powerless with a three-year-old and a nine-month-old, we survived. The first outage was the worst because we weren’t prepared and I was in the middle of doing the entire household’s laundry (everyone’s sheets and towels were off their beds and, in some instances, physically trapped inside my washing machine… ).
And I hadn’t washed my hair in about a week. Not a recipe for bliss. However. The power flickered on and off the entire week and so, the first time it came back on, I was ready with my list of things to do and get done:
- I turned on the washing machine to finish out the laundry
- I ran the dishwasher
- I hustled the entire family into the shower and scrubbed layers of caked-on food off the kids
- I wiped every visible surface with a damp rag (my kingdom for a damp rag)
- I pulled food out of the fridge and freezer
- I inhaled Babywoods’ leftover birthday cake by myself, while hiding behind the kitchen cupboards
- I ground coffee beans
- I filled all of our water jugs
- I flushed every toilet. I forced everyone to sit on the potty. Just try, ok? Try harder.
That completed in 4 minutes, I turned on the Christmas tree and the Christmas music. The next time the power went out, I felt at peace with my lot. Having things clean and prepared made the experience smooth and I also knew where all the candles and flashlights were and my blessed hair was washed.
Mr. FW made a run to the grocery store to stock up on packaged foods to see us through the next outage. Since we usually cook from scratch, all of our food was trapped inside our un-openable fridge and freezer. He bought:
- Pre-made baby food vegetable purees (for both toddler and baby)
- Ground coffee
- Canned soup
- Canned tomato sauce
- Granola bars
A generator would be nice, but it would also be expensive and constitute yet one more machine for Mr. FW to maintain, fix, and fuel. All that to say, the generator decision is still TBD.
The Coffee Situation
Right up their with the lack of water was our sudden, dire, inexorable lack of coffee. This situation qualifies as an oversight of unforgivable proportion and Mr. FW and I were appalled with ourselves. We failed to internalize the crucial fact that we buy whole bean coffee and use an electric grinder to grind said beans every morning. Fail, fail, fail. Undaunted, my MacGyver husband devised a scheme. He loaded coffee beans into a ziplock bag and… crushed them with a hammer on the concrete floor of our basement. By headlamp. It totally worked; the coffee tasted fine. Given the suboptimal nature of this grinding, however, we made the prudent purchase of some ground coffee. Additionally, our good neighbors–upon hearing our tale of coffee grinding malpractice–gifted us a hand grinder that was sitting unused in their cupboard. Thank you, good buddies. We shall use it in good health.
Not All Bad
Ok so yes, I’ll capitulate that being sans power or internet for the better part of a week wasn’t all bad. I mean, it was mostly bad, but there were a few high points:
- Playing at the library. We trekked the whole family over to the library to use their internet, indoor plumbing, and play in their adorable children’s area. A fun outing, punctuated by Babywoods running around the library barefoot (having removed her boots and socks on her own), asking every patron, “and how are you doing?” or alternately, “and how is it going over here?” Public libraries are, and remain, among my favorite institutions.
- Snowshoeing. I went snowshoeing by myself a few times, Mr. FW went on his own, we went out with both kids, and Mr. FW took Babywoods out on her very own mini snowshoes (purchased last summer at a yard sale) for the first time.
- Take-out pizza. On our–oh I don’t know–third night of no power, I instructed Mr. FW to go pick up a pizza for dinner. I could not abide another peanut butter sandwich or can of soup and was exhausted and hungry. You’ll be interested to know that a mere 7 minutes from our home, there’s a gas station/convenience store that serves pizza. I had low expectations. Gutter-level expectations. And they were wildly exceeded! I have to say, it was the best $10 pizza from a gas station that I’ve ever eaten. Seriously, it was pretty good. So good that I kind of want to get it again. May have also been the beer I had with it…
I think I forgot to mention that Babywoods’ preschool had several snow days during this timeframe. So we did a lot of Christmas crafts, often while Babywoods wore her bathing suit (as pictured above). No clue why, but who am I to argue with a snowed-in toddler? No one, is the answer.
In between snowstorms and power outages, November was a remarkably festive month. We hosted Mr. FW’s parents and sister for Thanksgiving week and had a wonderful time. While they were in town we also celebrated Babywoods’ THIRD birthday, which really makes me feel like we need to stop calling her Babywoods. In fact, since I’m master of this universe, let’s stop right now. From here on out, our oldest daughter–previously known as Babywoods–shall be known as Kidwoods. Her baby sister shall continue to be Littlewoods.
We didn’t want to host a massive toddler birthday party, but Kidwoods (I like it already) requested to have a birthday with “friends, party hats, and a rectangular chocolate cake.” Ok, kid, that we can do. We had my in-laws, our good neighbors (Kidwoods’ adopted local grandparents, the very same who gifted us the coffee grinder) and our close friends in town who happen to also have a three-year-old and a baby. It was the perfect middle ground between giant blow-out party and tiny family party (which is what we’ve done in past years).
I made gin-and-tonics for the adults and Mr. FW cooked up two batches of homemade macaroni and cheese, which was the PERFECT party food. He reports they were easy to assemble in advance and then cook the morning of (this being a lunchtime soiree) and everyone loved them. One batch was the “adult” version with gruyere and smoked gouda cheeses along with a béchamel sauce. The topping included bacon crumbles toasted with panko bread crumbs and butter spread on top of the mac-n-cheese before baking.
The other batch was the “kid” version with plain sharp cheddar cheese. In future years, we’ll just do two batches of “adult” because everyone–kids included–liked the fancy stuff better.
In honor of Kidwoods’ specific “rectangular, chocolate cake” request, I baked this cake (I doubled it to fit in a 9×13 pan) and made frosting. I used to make homemade frosting, but now I buy a tub of pre-made frosting and blend it up with 8oz of cream cheese. I swear to you this tastes better than the from scratch version. My mother-in-law halved fresh strawberries and created a lovely design on top of the frosting. She even put the candles into hollowed-out strawberries! Kidwoods was delighted, despite refusing to blow out her candles (thankfully her little friend was able to assist). All in all, a glorious little third birthday.
I field a lot of questions about how we handle holidays, birthdays, and gifts with our kids and the pillars of our approach are as follows:
- Ground everything in your family’s value system and philosophies on life. For example, we don’t emphasize the gift-getting aspect of any holiday nor do we promote the idea that the birthday kid is the “queen for the day” and gets whatever she wants. Nope. If I get questions from Kidwoods, I respond with “this is how we celebrate in our family.”
- Give kids second-hand gifts and not too many of them. I buy books and toys at yard sales and collect hand-me-downs throughout the year and store them in a box in the basement to be used as presents. As I’ve written in the past, I believe this approach should adapt as a child ages. I doubt I’ll be giving my teenagers used gifts and I didn’t give my one-year-old any gifts at all.
- Tailor each occasion to fit the age and stage of your child. What’s relevant and appropriate for a one-year-old is very different from what’s relevant and appropriate for a five-year-old. Customize the holiday to fit your budget and what you feel your child will truly enjoy. Don’t give into peer parent pressure to celebrate in a “certain” way. Do what works for you.
You can read more about our approach here:
- Our Thrifty And Simple Baby’s First Birthday Party
- Reader Suggestions: Holiday Gifts That’ll Spread The Love But Not Break The Bank
- No Turkey, No Problem! How We Celebrate Thanksgiving Our Way
Now that I’ve FINALLY (it only took me a year… ) written up the background information on our solar panels, I’ll include a solar update every month in this series. That’s probably the best way for me to actually remember to update you…
As you can see in the photo at right, our solar panels (which are mounted on our barn roof) were snow-covered for much of the month. We produced a paltry 136 kWh in November. For comparison, in July we produced 853 kWh. This is why it’s crucial that we’re able to bank credits during the summer.
Want More Fotos?!
While I only document homestead life once a month here on the blog, I post photos to Instagram (almost every day!) and updates to Facebook with much greater regularity! Join me there if you want more of our frugal woods. Some folks have asked about this and yes, I do try to post a picture to Instagram every day and have a pretty good track record, so if you’re craving more homestead pics, Instagram is your best bet.
And if you want to make sure you don’t miss a post here, sign-up for our handy dandy email list in the box below. You’ll get a message from me if you do…
Onward to December, frugal comrades!
How was November on your own personal homestead?
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