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All Haunted Houses Are Not Old

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

It’s that time again: home construction season. A lot of building news is about green designs and mortage rates. Here’s another consideration: should you worry about building a haunted house? Once upon a time, I did…

The condo sits on a hill in a clearing in the woods, one of those flatlander second homes with glass walls, zigzag angles, and a half dozen roof planes. I spent five months on the crew that built the place and I was lucky to get out alive. The house was bankrolled by a couple from Jersey and the pay was good. Too bad they never got to enjoy it.

It started the day Jack Moody turned his rig into my driveway. Moody owned a small construction company in town. He told me he was putting together a crew to build a condo. I’d worked for him a couple of times, and he needed a hand. He told me who was working and how to find the place. He wanted me to start the next day.

The pay wasn’t great, but it was off the books and jobs were scarce and I needed the money, so I said sure. When Moody drove out he backed over my cat. I should have quit right then and saved a lot of grief.

Next morning I put my tool box in the truck and drove over the mountain to Quechee. I spent an hour searching through the fog for the job site. By the time I found the place, a concrete mixer had pulled in and the crew was helping pour the foundation.

I said hello to Jack and a couple of guys I knew, nodded to the new ones, and helped with the pour. After the truck pulled out we tamped down the glistening concrete slab.

“This is a pretty sorry site for a house,” I said. The front wall faced north, while the southern exposure butted up tight against a hill covered with spruce trees.

“Must be planning to burn a lot of wood,” Jay Barnett said.

Jack laughed. “They’re from New Jersey. It’s all electric.”

There wasn’t much to do until the concrete set, so I headed home early. On the way up Route 14 I slowed down for a police cruiser with flashing blue lights. There’d been an accident. I eased by. It was the concrete truck upside down in the ditch.

The next day we were bolting down the sills when Jack stopped by to check our progress. We took a smoke break, and then Jack left to check on another job. As he was leaving he mentioned that a Redi Mix driver had been killed yesterday.

“Jesus, we must have been the last ones to see him alive,” I said.

It was autumn by now, a bad time to be starting a house in Vermont. The mornings were foggy and cold. We turned back our watches and the days shortened. We had to work fast to button the place up before first snow.

One morning Jack pulled in on an inspection trip, it was the day after Halloween. The wind was blowing hard and toilet paper was flying all around the house. “Damn kids, looks like the place got papered,” Jack said. Nobody said a word, but after he left we all laughed. We’d been shitting in the woods around the place for weeks, and those paper ghosts were our own.

Laying the sub-floor we discovered that the foundation was out of square. Jack chewed out the guys who built the forms. They claimed the foundation was built to the architect’s specs. If it was off, the plans must be too. Jack took a look at the plans and agreed. The next day we were joined by a fifth crew member: the architect. Jack told me he didn’t really need the guy, but he had to make sure he wasn’t going to screw us up with his plans again. The architect was happy. He needed the work.

Bringing the architect on board did not solve our problems. One morning I was getting my tools out when I heard Jack and the architect hollering at each other. Nearby, a truckload of fiberglass insulation lay on the ground.

“The blueprints show the wall studs 16-inch on center,” Jack shouted, waving the plans.

“I know,” the architect said. “But look.” He pointed at a bag of insulation. “I got a great bargain on 24 inch!” We had to rebuild the walls.

A couple of days later Jay cut the end of his index finger off on the bench saw and went to the hospital. When he got home he found his wife in the sack with a neighbor. He had a breakdown and quit.

I began to think the job was jinxed and so did Jack. We tried joking about it. Then the architect arrived and told us we’d better speed it up. The Jersey guy had been given two months to live. Brain tumor.

The Quechee condo was one of the last houses Jack built. His wife died of cancer, and then he did too. Maybe it was all that trash from the job he burned in a garbage barrel at home. The Jersey couple sold the house before they had a chance to move in. The architect decided he’d had enough of Vermont and moved.

I often wonder what kind of spell had befallen that house. Was it an energy hog that deserved to be cursed? Maybe we trampled on some sacred burial ground? Was it the ghost of the overtaxed farmer who’d lost his land to developers? Or just bad luck?

Sometimes I run into Jay in town, and we usually get onto the story of the old condo curse. And we always end up with the same question. Who lives in that house today? Someday we’ll have to take a drive over and see. Someday.

Ponds for Viking Funerals!

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Boston Globe columnist Mark Feeney declares his affection for “ridiculously tame” urban ponds in a wry “G” section essay, “Fond of the Pond.” Bypassing the grandeur of more distant monumental landscapes, he’s quite happy with the human scale of Boston’s Fresh Pond as a strolling destination and calming object of contemplation. In fact he likes this pond so much he contemplates the rewards of a Viking style funeral on its waters. (Let’s hope he’ll choose a flaming wooden rowboat over a plastic kyack, for ecological reward points in the great hereafter.) Now as an avowed pond lover, I was predestined to enjoy his ode to the joys of simple pond pleasures, but how many Earthponds visitors know that I wrote an entire book about the glorious (and not-so-glorious) options available in the underworld of funeral choices, Round Trip to Deadsville. Oddly enough, of all the choices available today to the creative funeral planner, it never occurred to me to put ponds and Viking funerals together. (Apologies to my Irish-Norwegian ancestors!) The only excuse I can summon is the one that faces me as I look out the window this January morning. The ice on my pond is three feet thick. Weren’t those Vikings clever with all that salt water anti-freeze!

Zombie Jamboree

Monday, December 7th, 2009

We were on the set of a movie being shot in Newbury, Vermont in 1986. It was about a small town full of zombies, and it was called Return to Salem’s Lot. It was a sequel to the film made from Stephen King’s second book Salem’s Lot. Sort of like Carrie visits Newbury. Newbury had a nice ring to it, horror wise. Anyway, it was directed by Larry Cohen, who was a kind of schlock auteur, which might explain how guys like Sam Fuller, the legendary Shock Corridor director, got in the cast. Shock meets schlock. Plus Tara Reid.

I was covering the shoot for a local paper, or trying for an extra part, or both. The usual hinterland hustle. It was exciting to make a zombie picture in Vermont that summer because the back to the land movement had stalled out and hippies were looking for the future. Zombies! Zombies could give a shit about wars and politics. Like Jim Thompson’s cops and robbers used to say, “I was already dead!”

A friend of mine was one of the producers. That’s him driving the movie cop car around and shooting the bird. I think he got a kick out of acting the badass cop because normally he didn’t have a whole lot of love for the police. He was a rebel with a cause kind of guy who was always sneaking off to communist countries and making documentaries about lefties fighting the system. This was his chance to try on the other shoe.

Remember it’s Morning in America, Reagan is President, the U.S. is involved in all sorts of counter revolutions and coups in Central America, invading Grenada, and backpackers are coming home saying we’re next, banana republic USA. A zombie cop flipping us the bird, how’s that for a glimpse of the future.

Sure enough it’s all true now with Border Patrol checkpoints 100 miles south of the Canadian border, arrests for “internal possession,” tasers, “reasonable search,” infrared license plate scanners, teenager harassment, cops shooting dogs, failure to respond to calls for help. Try to get on the force if you’re not a Iraqistan vet with PTSD on a psychotropic iv drip. It’s a zombieland jamboree.

So there you have it, the past looking at the future. See it now 23 years ago in Newbury, Vermont.

Reflections on the 2009 Pond Season

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

With the pond season winding down, it’s our traditional time to look back, take stock of the season, and suss out trends in pond construction and use.

Here in the northeast it was a sopping wet spring and summer, with colder than normal temperatures. Swimming activities on my farm were way down, as I gather they were all around the region. Nevertheless, despite the weather and the economy (it was bad, right? – or good, if you had stocks or gold? Go figure…) new pond building and fix-ups of older ponds were quite active.

Judging by the ponds and pond sites I visited, there are several solid continuing trends, as well as a few new directions in pond use.

First, the majority of work focused on existing ponds that needed cleanouts or repairs, often both.

These were usually ponds that had been in the family for many years (sometimes decades), or part of a new purchase of country property.

In the case of old family ponds, they’d often been neglected until the invasive vegetation or water quality got so bad something had to be done – or lose the pond. Often these ponds are on vacation places that the owners may visit only occasionally, and they can be easy to ignore.

On the other hand, an aging pond might be part of a recently purchased property, and one of the first things the new owners want to do is restore the pond to its former glory. Which is why I always want to find out as much prior history as possible. If there was any old glory, great, the pond should be able to be restored. If the pond was always a problem, well, there may be more involved.

Rejuvenation work often involves drawdowns, dredging, disposal of material, and perhaps improvements of design features and water supply. If the pond has a water retention problem or water supply deficit, consideration of a liner may be involved.

In addition to invasive aquatic plants getting out of control, I saw quite a few ponds where trees had been allowed to grow on the dam. This can turn into a problem if tree roots compromise the integrity of the embankment. And after a certain point, cutting down the trees may not be much of a solution because of the leak potential of rotting roots.

I also saw several native spillways that had been allowed to clog up with aquatic vegetation and debris. With the heavy rains, these jammed up spillways raised pond water levels to heights near flood level. The dams and shore areas were saturated. In one case water was pouring through a leak started in an animal burrow.

After some spillway maintenance, the water levels were dropped, and these ponds restored to safe levels. Moral of the story: mind your spillways, especially in monsoon weather.

Seeing a lot of these aging ponds got me to thinking about the big wave of pond building in northern New England in the late 60s and 70s. These ponds are now over thirty years old, and it’s natural that they need work, especially if they’ve been ignored.

I also like to remind their owners that many of these ponds were built in the pre-wetland law days, and building them today might not be permitted. That makes them even more valuable and worthy of care.

So we’ve got a bunch of vintage ponds that need maintenance and repair, and if it’s not done the ponds will be swallowed up by invasive plants and sediment, or the dams will fail, etc. True, there’s nothing radically new about that. Work used to be done by bulldozers and draglines, today you’re more likely to see excavators and backhoes. What is new is an increasing interest in follow-up water maintenance. In other words, if you’re going to go to all the bother and expense of cleaning out your pond, how about taking care of it afterwards so you don’t have the same problem a few years down the road.

That’s where aeration comes in. Lots of folks are recognizing the potential of aeration to help decompose nutrients and circulate the water and generally improve water quality. It might be with an electric powered diffuser system or a windmill compressor. Owners might even combine aeration with crawfish or grass carp (where permitted) to graze down unwanted aquatic vegetation. Sometimes a new supply of water might be added to a rejuvenated pond to improve fresh water exchange. It might come from a well or springs, field drainage, or even water catchments from a roof or foundation drain. Sediment and erosion control is also important.

OK, those are the older ponds getting a recharge. What about new ponds?

Wetland laws can throw up some expensive and time consuming permitting hurdles, putting a land owner or possible land buyer in pond limboland. So here’s some good news: in one northern New England town several pond projects were able to detour around wetland permitting because the builder agreed to install a fire hydrant. Simple as that. So if permitting’s got you down, check with your fire department to see if they’re interested in a hydrant connected to your pond. Along with fire hydrants, ponds used for agricultural purposes can sometimes overcome wetland permitting hurdles.

Another permitting solution: plastic liners. Move the pond out of the wetland (and, alas, your natural water source) and use a liner to hold runoff or well water or spring water. This is a growing trend that I will discuss in a later Pondology, but for now just keep in mind that with liners it’s possible to build reliable ponds just about anywhere.

Alas, I saw a few new ponds this season that just didn’t work: they needed rebuilding or major repairs. This brings up a few points, but the main one is, hire an experienced contractor and be clear about following all best practice construction steps. It might cost more at the outset, but it could save a lot in the long run. Remember too that there’s always a gambling factor, a luck factor, in bringing in a successful earthen pond. The more you do your homework and make clear your contractor’s obligation to Make It Right, the better your chances.

Here’s to better swimming in 2010!

Tap Your Pond for Fire Protection

Monday, April 6th, 2009

There’s a saying in the countryside that the fire department is great at saving cellar holes, and insurance premiums covering backwoods homes reflect that pessimism. The combination of woodstoves, snow-covered roads, and widely scattered volunteer fire fighters make insurance underwriters edgy. And winter is not the only dangerous season. A few summers back, a squad of local firefighters raced out to a blazing house, hooked the hose to the tank truck, and… nothing. Someone had forgotten to fill the truck with water. Luckily there was a pond nearby.

A pond can be a rural homeowners’ best fire insurance policy. A general purpose pond as small as one tenth of an acre, nine feet deep at the dam, holds approximately 100,000 gallons. That’s more than enough to save most homes — if the truck gets there in time. But to make a homestead even safer, consider an on-site delivery system.

If the pond is sited above your buildings, gravity and a good piping system can deliver the water you need. Many an old farm was served by an upslope pond and gravity-feed water line that supplied irrigation and livestock water as well as fire protection. Water picks up pressure at roughly half a pound per vertical foot, so a decent fire stream of 70 pounds pressure requires at least 140 feet of “head.” Of course, it’s possible to do with less.

If your pond is not sited high enough for gravity-feed, or you simply want a more reliable system, you can use an electric or gas powered pump. Centrifugal or pressure pumps can deliver more than 100 gallons a minute through 1.5 inch hose. Before you invest in a pond fire fighting system, contact your local fire department or equipment suppliers for help in choosing the right equipment and design for your situation. Be sure to take into consideration where and how the pump should be housed and maintained. Keep in mind that when there’s a fire the household electricity may shut down, which may argue for a gas powered pump, or a separate electric line.

As an alternative to your own pumping system, or as a backup, consider a “dry” hydrant. This is the most popular pond owner’s fire fighting setup. A dry hydrant is a freeze-proof tap into the pond. Basically it looks like a street hydrant, but without pressurized water. It needs a fire fighting pump truck to arrive, hook up, and start pumping.

The dry hydrant is piped into a deep area in the pond basin, and sited for convenient access for the fire truck.

In the north, that means keeping the truck access route plowed in winter. Pond hydrants are often installed during construction of a new pond, or they can be added later. Sometimes your local fire department can help with installation and parts; some states offer funding for hydrant installation. Making the pond available for fighting neighborhood fires may be a requirement for getting town or state installation help.

A pond equipped with a hydrant provides potential fire protection, and may also qualify you for lower household insurance rates; and if the hydrant is available for community use, your town taxes may be reduced.

Adapted from the Earth Ponds Sourcebook: The Pond Owner’s Manual and Resource Guide, by Tim Matson

Bubble Trouble in Your Pond: Winter Windmill Aeration and the Pitfalls

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

For many pond owners a time will come to improve water quality. A growing number of people meet this challenge with aeration. Aeration can be especially useful when you're raising fish, particularly in the wintertime north where oxygen levels under the ice can be fatally low without that extra dose of air bubbles, otherwise known as dissolved oxygen. But there's a downside to winter aeration you don't hear about much: animals falling through the ice.

Not long ago I heard a CBC story about a moose falling through the ice, and a dramatic rescue. But what really caught my attention was the reason for the near drowning. An Alberta pond owner had been running an aeration system, which created a hole in the ice above the diffuser, and that's where the moose fell in.

I see a lot of ponds every year, and hear about even more, but it's my impression that this sort of mishap is a rarity. Or is it?

Here's what happened. Buck Olsen raises rainbow trout in a small pond outside of Edmunton, Alberta. For a decade or so he's been using a windmill powered compressor to aerate his pond. Air is first delivered into the pond depths, where the water would otherwise be low in dissolved oxygen. In winter the rising bubbles open the ice and create another oxygen rich area. Result, healthy fish.

Enter the moose. Around the hole the ice is thick enough to support the animal until it gets near the opening, then down it crashes. Now this is not the first moose that ever fell through the ice, even without an aerator, but in my experience most animals have an uncanny sense about when the ice is safe enough to tread. But you'd have to admit that a man-made hole in the ice would constitute an unnatural surprise to a wild creature. Was the moose just an unlucky passerby? Maybe the open water looked like a rare unfrozen water fountain, which would make it even more treacherous.

Luckily one of Olsen's neighbors saw the thrashing moose and called the pond owner. Using a sheet of plywood and a chain saw, they were able to get out on the ice and cut a channel for the moose to get to shore and escape.

I talked to Buck Olsen about his adventure, and found out that a similar incident happened about eight years ago, but that time no one saw the moose, and it wasn't so lucky. I didn't ask him what happened to the moose carcass.

I asked Buck what he would do to prevent more moose mishaps. "The moose got caught up in the air line and the line's out of the water now, so it's not going to happen again this winter." As for the future? He said he was giving it some thought, but he did have one suggestion for the windmill company. "Maybe the windmill could have a noisemaker attached to scare off animals." But windmills depend on the vagaries of the weather, and there will be times when the blades stop turning, a noisemaker goes silent, and better precautions are needed. Buck did say that he always has the option to shut the windmill down and eliminate the hole completely. How the trout would then fare is uncertain.

Perhaps most ominous of all is the situation when the wind stops and the hole refreezes with just a shell of ice. How easy it would be for an animal, or human, to misread it as being as thick as the ice around it — especially with a light coat of snow to disguise it – and fall through.

I suppose it might be possible to stand a temporary fence around the aerator hole, but getting it up and removing it in spring would require some caution, or you'd find yourself in the same predicament as the moose. Besides, at least in this part of Vermont, moose don't often let a fence stop them. For people, a sign would warn those old enough to read.

Depite the potential pitfalls, I'm a big fan of windmill powered aeration. After all, the energy is clean, renewable and free. And they're great for the many ponds that aren't near an electric line. You'll just have to adjust to the shortcomings on windless days.

Pond owners with electricity near the pond will have an easier time. They could run a motorized aerator to keep the hole from stop-and-go freezing. They could also use a plug-in noisemaker.

But if you depend on the wind, one safety option might mean moving the diffuser to a location closer to shore in winter. If an animal fell in, the water would be shallow enough to climb out. Of course the ultimate solution would be to turn off the aerator during the winter, and hope to avoid downturns in water quality and fish survival.

There's no doubt that aerators are becoming increasingly popular as more people build ponds, encounter water quality problems, and raise fish. I'd like to hear from any pond keepers with thoughts on the aerator ice problem.

Photo: Actual moose from story. Credit Garth Helland.

Frost Free: Keeping Cool and Saving BTUs

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

The extended forecast for winter: fear and shivering. The Governor of Maine worries that a "dangerous" winter is shaping up. Across the north country, the media echoes official predictions that it’s going to be a killer season because of high fuel costs and a crumbling economy. Fearful of cash strapped citizens forced to choose between starving or freezing, high latitude states are setting up emergency fuel funds and food banks. (Throw on some lobster shells with the fire wood, Jenny!)

Steady now, folks. I know a lot of you weren’t paying attention in the Seventies, especially if you weren't born yet. So here’s a chance to make up for lost btu’s and then celebrate by making your own energy free ice cream, as soon as it snows anyway.

This is how my energy conserving, money saving plan works. When it starts to get cold outside, about the time  you begin worrying about slipping on those icy steps, give your refrigerator plug a yank. The quiet may take a little getting used to, but if you have trouble going cold turkey, crank up “The Sounds of Silence” for the first few days and  get used to it. Don’t worry, the Indians did it and if you’ve been to a casino lately you’ll see it didn’t hurt them a bit.

You’re probably wondering, what about my Nature’s Spread? The free range eggs?

Find yourself a nice big pot that fits on the bottom shelf. Fill it with water and put it outside overnight. In the morning you’ll have a big block of ice in a convenient container to bring inside and slide into your steampunk ice box. You’ve changed your electric powered freon dependent energy hog into a planet friendly nature powered cooler. A cool cooler.

I suggest using a couple of pots so you can exchange them when the cooler needs a recharge. I find that one ice pot will usually last all day, and in the morning you’ll have a tub of slush to switch with your new ice. Forget the iceman cometh, the iceman is you!

Now it is a fact that this system will not run a freezer, so don’t think twice about smoking that Thanksgiving gobbler. But I promise you that once winter really kicks in, an outdoor box on the north side of the house should keep frozen food frozen. Lock it if you’ve got bears. After a while you’ll wonder why you spent so many years running a refrigerator in a warm house all winter long, when the whole world’s an ice box.

As for that ice cream, if you can crank an emergency radio, you can crank an ice cream making bucket.
And by now you know where to get the ice.