Part 2: Renovation
The renovation of our house began in spring of 2007, and a year later most of it was complete. First came the heavy-duty infrastructure work, including installing an off-grid integrated energy system consisting of solar tracker and wind turbine.
The alternative energy crew met us on the island at the beginning of May. On that first trip, they poured the concrete pads for the solar tracker and the wind turbine.
Their equipment, like everything else, had to be loaded onto a boat and hauled across the harbour, then unloaded at a dock about a mile down the road from our place, then loaded onto some form of island transport, then brought up to our place via what’s called the lower road, then unloaded again.
There was no access road from the lower road to our house. That had to be carved out of a spruce forest before anything could be moved from the lower road to the yard.
In the meantime, a well was dug, pipes were laid, and a septic tank was in-
stalled. The whole island — so quiet for so many years — was now in an uproar, and the sheep and the birds went and hid somewhere.
We lived in the construction. At first we slept on the floor in the back shed, its broken door open to the yard. We couldn’t inflate our air mattress for want of a small part in the pump, so we slept on the floor with a few blankets beneath us.
Our food was piled on the table in a small bedroom off the kitchen, mostly cans of stuff we could heat on the old Coleman propane camp stove that came with the house. We set up a huge tent in the yard and filled it with the contents of the house: old framed pictures, china, sixteen wooden chairs, tables, commodes, wash stands, copper and tin ware, a shepherd’s crook.
Our new IKEA couch still shrink-wrapped, dozens of kerosene lamps and chimneys, old hooked rugs, boxes of mason jars, and more. The alternative energy people were back
again several weeks later, and in the meantime our two intrepid local carpenters and lifesavers finished building a new breezeway and framed and gyprocked the back room with its new window and closet, and the bathroom and hallway.
In doing all this they carved a newly practical space out of the old shed, which had been attached to the house long ago and used as a wood and dairy shed.
The alternative energy crew wired the house and set everything up. But we couldn’t run the wind turbine until we had a back-up generator installed, and we couldn’t yet pay for the generator and its bank of propane tanks.
So for a few months we had solar power but not wind, a partial system that sometimes shut down.in the meantime there was plenty to keep us busy. We tore down the two old chimneys (noting scorched rafters in the roof) and dismantled the wood stoves and carted them away. We demolished the interior walls of the main original house. We turned the long narrow parlour with its two small back bedrooms into one airy room. Now it had windows on three sides, and looked over the harbour to the west and the back orchard to the east.
All day, now, sunlight spilled across the room. by early August we had a bathroom and a kitchen with real running water, a new gas stove, and a refrigerator. We had gotten our satellite set up sometime in June, so we had internet, powered in the early days by the borrowed portable generator we needed for all the power tools in use. We would pour gasoline into the generator and turn it on, then turn on our computers, briefly.
In the late summer and fall we got ready for winter. We insulated the attic
and crawl spaces, caulked the floors and the exterior clapboard, replaced rotten trim pieces, insulated the foundation stones, made a few new storm windows, replaced broken window panes and reglazed all of them.
Greg scraped and primed the exterior. We bought a wonderful new wood stove, our sole source of heat. Over the winter Greg gyprocked the kitchen and main room, extended the molding in the old parlour throughout the newly expanded living room, and painted the floors and all the rest of the interior.
By spring we were pretty much finished. There was a time in that first summer when we had only the well water and the outhouse, and no electricity. Then we lived like people have always lived in our house.
We drew water from the well for washing dishes and doing laundry under the apple tree in front of the house, with water heated on the Coleman stove. We sometimes heated water and poured it into a galvanized pail that we hung from a branch of the
oak tree for the most glorious outdoor showers.
Neither we nor our clothes were clean very often. Visits at night to the outhouse drew me into the wide world at a time I don’t usually observe it. The stars were an incredible display, and I could hear the eerie sounds of the deer moving through the bayberry bushes nearby.
Without electricity we became attuned to the dawn and the sunset and the fading light of evening. After dark we went to bed on our mattress on the floor, usually covered in plaster dust or dirt, tired from our day’s work. Without electricity the house was more permeable and permeated by the world around it.
It was a particularly precious time, the last moments of the old ways, though it was a time that we were working to bring to an end. Now the night is more distant, especially when we are watching a movie or on our computers. The island reality recedes, held at bay. We can’t see outside the windows when the house is filled with light. There is little need to step outside or walk across the yard in the darkness, and so we less frequently stand gazing in wonder at the starry night.
I do not sit in the peace and calm of a wooden outhouse, door open, contemplating the water sparkling in the harbour, or the moon’s reflection there. I do not glory in a hot shower under the oak tree. I do not drop a pail into the old stone lined well and draw up water, since now our water comes to us from the new well, at the turn of a faucet. But also, I do not watch food spoil, and Greg doesn’t have to cart water from a better well half way across the island for drinking purposes, and we can read or write at night, and there is something nice about an indoor bathroom, especially in the dead of winter.
The house is, I think, both beautiful and functional. I hope our renovations have honoured its past even as we have adapted it for our modern ways.
*Anne Yarbrough and her husband Greg Brown lived and wrote on McNutt’s Island in Shelburne Harbour. Greg’s book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (Pottersfield Press, 2010) tells the story of their first year on the island, and Anne’s blog (www.novascotiaisland.blogspot.com) explores all aspects of island life.
*NOTE: Anne Yarbrough and her husband Greg now reside in Delaware near Wilmington. This article was originally presented in the September 2010 edition of The Griffin, A Quarterly Publication of Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia
It has been reproduced in The Cooper’s Inn’, Where History meets Hospitality Blog with Anne’s permission.