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Building Solariums

The barometric pressure is falling on a Sunday afternoon. I can feel it in my bones as I gaze out the window at the evergreen holly branches dancing in the breeze. The skies darken. I've been studying weather as an armchair meteorologist for decades, and the sequence of high and low pressure is such a predictable ebb and flow like the tides and ocean waves that I doubt the more observant, intelligent farmers of centuries past lacked much for the type of high tech forecasts we enjoy today. Saturday turned out blue sky clear and nearly 60 degrees F with a blast from the south. Now the winds are shifting to the west. Rain will fall tonight, possibly changing to ice or light snow tomorrow when the winds howl from Michigan, Canada, and points beyond, followed by partly sunny days with breezes out of Nebraska that bite your nose.

"I might get out and cut some firewood later, make use of the nice day," said my old buddy over the phone. His family purchased seven acres up the road that they now rent out to me. We may go into business together, you never know. Like several of the younger generation of farmers, he'd like to do something different with the rest of their land than planting GMO corn and soybeans, but the transition is quite a leap of faith. Land must go three years without chemical sprays and fertilizers to be certified organic. When you're talking millions of dollars in annual cash flow for the average "small" farmer these days, that translates to three years of WHAT?

"Grass-fed beef," I say.

But calves are selling for $2.50 or more per pound at the few remaining local auction yards. All the fences have been removed to make way for corn and soybeans. If one of the few remaining genuine farm families already has invested more than a million in the infrastructure to grow corn and soybeans, they're pretty much locked in. Either that or sell off a couple hundred thousand in grain equipment (at a loss) and invest in fences and cows. Nobody's going to do that.

Right now I don't own enough ground for pasturing cows, only enough to put on a music festival and grow specialty crops like carrots and melons for the wealthy, progressive folks up in Bloomington.

"Make use of the nice day," my buddy said.

Peering out through the blinds at the darkening skies, the holly branches wildly waving like fans at an IU basketball game, I think about the solarium I am gradually constructing on the south side of a concrete block shed behind the house. Part of the building served as a summer kitchen back in the day. Solariums abound on the original hippie huts and habitats in the Mendo hills, and I admired many creative uses of second-hand materials by the old-school back-to-landers before building one on the south side of the shed at the old Boont Berry Farm existent roof. I didn't even realize the facility boasted a sloping concrete floor until we were hallway through the job, and got to know the fellow at the AV landfill pretty well.

In 2002 I still raced with youthful optimism, and had a blast cleaning out the shed, dreaming of the possibilities. Even discovered a bag of marijuana shake in an old produce display case that weighed about half a ton. I mean the display case, not the shake. Regina hired a literal giant to help out. He stood like seven feet tall, 300 pounds, had grown up in an orphanage in Washington State. I think she'd run into him previously at Shenoa in Philo. "Only weighed 3 pounds when I was born," he liked to say, as he would hoist a box spring and toss it in the back of Regina's truck. "I was just like a little squirrel."

All we had for machinery then was the 870 John Deere tractor, barely beefy enough to drag the largest old-fashioned, steel refrigerators and engine blocks, etc. through the muck to what became a scrap heap. Anything the Giant could not lift to the bed of that Dodge diesel truck, we had to heap up. Scrap metal wasn't worth much in 2002, and I was broke.

Over the years, we started sorting vegetables in that shed, washing eggs, then milking cows in a lean-to on the west end.

Rob Goodell from up Lambert Lane, remodeling their original passive-solar structures, replacing the original second-hand windows with triple panes, employed me to help install the heavy, fragile improvements on his land. In return, he dropped off truckloads of French doors and windows he'd salvaged from a house in San Diego in the early '70's. That first winter I lived in the shed, staring at the degraded fiberglass wall on rainy winter days, trying to impress a lover who managed a farm in Round Valley, I felt the motivation to transform that side of the barn into a solarium. To the south already existed a make-shift concrete pad about eight feed wide, the length of the building, that consisted of roughly six-inch thick chunks of concrete that had been the sidewalk and patio in front of the General Store prior to the building being purchased around 2005 by that wine gangster from the City. He'd paid Pardinis to cut up the pad into more or less 5' by 8' rectangles, and I'd asked them to dump it all at the farm down Lambert Lane. That really took care of the muck problem, though our little tractors could barely drag the largest slabs.

So using that floor I built a lean-to about eight feet wide with French doors that opened out from the barn. The frames within some of those French-style, century-old windows were arranged in rhombus patterns, so I endeavored to arrange them symmetrically, replacing the old yellow fiberglass. Now there were two walls of windows, so sunlight shone into the barn during the winter, and you would see about a hundred different angles and versions of the fire in the woodstove on a cold night. Along with the hippie theme, I installed a passive solar/electric water heater and a claw foot tub on one end, and built redwood shelves all around with a path between for starting tomatoes and cabbage, etc. Pretty much had the whole thing completed in the spring of 2010, about the time my herds and flocks and dogs and three sons all got the boot from the farm, for butchering the neighbors' cows. About a week after my oldest son and I departed the Boonville farm for Indiana, vandals shattered all the glass. Hippies hauled off the tub and water heater set up. Or so I heard from 2000 miles away, second-hand. Hearing about those events reminded me of losing an entire novel on a stolen laptop, once. But novels are fiction, and I tell stories better than I do construction work, so the vandals no doubt did me an indirect favor by destroying my masterpiece, as the vanished solarium might sound sexier in the verbal retelling than it stood in real life.

And I just blew an afternoon musing about the last solarium I put together with second-hand windows, while stacks of just such commodity await installment here in Indiana before it's time to plant onions and tomatoes. The barometric pressure is falling, though, and the winds picking up. Still another 40 days to spring.

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