Updated: Oct 23, 2021

In all our previous visits to the island, I never got behind the wheel of a car here. It was partly the driving-on-the-left thing, but mostly the terrifying roads, which made me insist Isaac drive. There's not a single stoplight on the entire island, nor are there lines on the barely-two-cars-wide roads. They hairpin around impossible bends up and down the rugged hills, and if you don't hug your side of the road closely enough when an oncoming car barrels down on you, you'll be toast.

After several weeks of winding around the island in our minivan, I'm getting confident as an island driver. Any near misses with other cars have been mostly because passing drivers all tend to give a quick wave as they pass, and it took me a while to master how to lift a hand from the steering wheel to return the gesture while avoiding a head-on collision. I finally figured out how to lift a few fingers off the wheel in an effortfully casual manner and still maintain control of the car. But I wasn't prepared when we came around a blind bend and there was a cow in the middle of the road.

I slammed on the brakes in shock and she trotted out of the way just in time. The land rose steeply on one side of the road and dropped away on the other. It was thickly forested on both sides, so there was really nowhere she could go to get away from us but straight down the road. And that's exactly what she did. I tried gingerly to sneak around her and she trotted forward. We ended up driving behind her for longer than I wanted to before she finally stood aside long enough for me to pass. Up ahead was another cow with whom we played the game all over again. My toddler thought it was hilarious. We finally managed our way around the second cow and drifted down to the bakery for a treat. We ate our sausage rolls and cookies, the kids splashed in mud puddles until they were soaked, and I marvelled at how different our life is now. I'm sure we'll bump into dozens of cows in the road as we continue to live here and it won't even be noteworthy soon enough. But for now these rural occurrences are odd enough for the city girl in me to marvel at and laugh about.

The marvel of the week for our kids was the digger we hired to come over and get our house site ready for building. We heard it rattling up the steep gravel driveway and ran out in our gumboots to greet it. Our toddler was beside himself, explaining to us what each part of the machine was called. "Mama, this is called the arm! And these are hydraulics!" It was perhaps the best day of his life.

In just a few hours the road up to our site was cleared, and after two days our house site was nearly done. We hammered in some batter boards to lay out a string line for the house and deck, which will be used to measure out where we need to dig holes for our foundation posts.

I've never built a house and at times feel like we are way over our head. But after watching YouTube for 20 minutes and figuring out my father-in-law's levelling machine, I was able to go up on my own and get half our batter boards up. It gives me confidence that we'll be able to do this (thanks YouTube!).

The kids hammered and dug in the piles of dirt yesterday evening as Isaac and I put up our last batter boards before dinner. We stood where the future deck of our house will be and looked out. It felt real and good. And overwhelming. There's so much to do before we can actually stand on that deck together, living our dream.

But I want to remember that the process of building the life we imagined for ourselves actually is the dream, in many ways. There's no end point, really. The moving and the adjusting and the building and the learning to drive, each step is part of it. And so far each step has felt right, even if it's hard, and reminds me we're on the right path. Even if there are cows in the way sometimes.

This week was about putting down roots, quite literally. Isaac's parents generously gave us two beds in their garden to plant whatever we wanted. The kids were thrilled, mostly because the first phase of gardening involved pulling up the weeds and, of course, digging. Our boys could dig for hours, and even after we'd prepared the soil they kept scooping it up to make piles and holes, squishing mud between their toes and collecting it under their fingernails.

Toddlers aren't known for being gentle on sprouting seeds, so we got seedlings from a local farm – a mix of things we like to cook and others that would be fun for the kids to pick and eat right there. Spinach, arugula, bush beans, pole beans, herbs, and a ton of snap peas.

When I realised we would need a few trellises for the beans and peas, my typical American instinct was to buy or order some. But then it dawned on us that there is plenty around we could build with. We fired up the chainsaw and aimed it at the beefy bamboo grove nearby. We slashed those lengthwise into poles and bound them with twine into teepees. The kids wanted to play in them, and I had to eventually shoo them from the garden to get the plants in the ground.

Awkwardly chainsawing bamboo

In the end, I ordered way too many seedlings. We packed the lettuces in tightly and planted the herbs in random corners wherever we could find space. When every seedling had found its little spot along the trellises and rows, I looked out on our little patch and imagined these tiny plants growing to feed us through the summer and providing a space for our kids to explore (and nibble). I also couldn't help but think that these exact garden beds grew food that nourished Isaac when he was a little kid. Now it'll nourish the next generation.

Putting plants in the ground and imagining their growth gave me some hope for the days ahead. It has been increasingly lonely here as we continue into a third month of lockdown. Shops just opened for takeout after two months of closures (getting a latte was a big treat this past weekend), but social events are absent and all the playgrounds and schools are closed. This means we've met shockingly few people in our time so far on the island and are starved for community. As if on cue with my own annoyance at lockdown, our toddler starting acting up yesterday. He'd been an angel since we settled in here, and suddenly was talking back and throwing things. He hasn't talked much about our life or friends back in San Francisco, but as I pushed him on the swing in our yard he told me he missed his best friend back in San Francisco. We laughed and reflected happily on some of the things they used to do, like playing on bikes or chasing each other with flashlights on a camping trip. "Can we go see him?" he asked. I didn't know what to say except, "No, not for a while." It broke my heart a little to know our kid doesn't have any friends here to fill that hole. I know someday he will. And so will we, when this pandemic wanes and people come out again. There's no telling when that will happen, but likely not soon (knowing New Zealand). We'll have to be patient and wait and hope. A bit like waiting for a garden to grow.

Our essential compost enclosure

We've settled into the routine of our life here, finally. Things like stocking the wood pile for our stove or deciding to do laundry because it happens to be a windy day (perfect for drying on the line!) are second nature. The adjustment happened so fast. I came in from the outhouse the other day and said to Isaac, "It's amazing how quickly you can get used to doing things a new way." We laughed, fully aware that the outhouse is perhaps the most striking difference between our old life and our new one.

Waste in general is on our minds a lot here. That’s partly because chores often revolve around dealing with our various household wastes, but also because living out here makes me realise how separated I was back in the US from the waste cycles of my daily existence. In San Francisco our grey water, human waste, food waste, and recycling was removed immediately and fairly invisibly from our lives. I rarely thought about where it went or how it got there. That’s not the case out here.

Everything we produce – from dirty diapers to food scraps – has to be managed by us. Our goal is always that as little as possible to make it into the small trash bin that gets picked up weekly. Since trash collection is limited on the island, there is a huge culture around creative composting, re-use, and freecycling. The first thing we did when we landed here was pick up some unwanted wood pallets from the local sports club and nail them together to form a nice big enclosed compost area. I couldn’t wait to start composting. There are many ways of living, and this is just one (and definitely not one for everybody). But since I find it so fascinating, I thought I’d share how we deal with all of the things that are so effortlessly whisked out of sight for most modern households. First up is probably the most wondered about.


We don’t have a flushing toilet. This is the most unusual and fascinating difference between modern city life and off-the-grid life. Though I know some homes on the island have septic systems (expensive and hard to maintain IMO), we use an outhouse with the “bucket composting” method. Everything collects in a 5-gallon bucket below you, and you scoop a layer of organic material (like ash from our wood stove, sawdust, coffee grounds) on top after each use. When it needs to be emptied, we either layer the contents into the centre of our enclosed compost outside or bury it deeply in a part of the garden that is resting and needs rejuvenation.

If you think this is a backward way of living, think about this: we live in a world with a massive clean water crisis, yet most of us fill a bowl with fresh drinking water, do our business in it, and then throw the whole thing away multiple times a day. In that context I am proud to compost my crap and lessen my footprint.

Diapers and wipes

We composted diapers back in San Francisco through a cool company called Earth Baby who picked the dirties up from us weekly. I wanted to do the same here, and was thrilled to find 100% bamboo diapers and wipes in NZ. So, our diaper pail gets emptied into our outside compost bin. We layer organic matter like grass clippings or leaves on top. I think it will take about a year for these to break down completely into soil, we’ll see!

Food scraps

Composting food scraps is so second nature to Kiwis that even most urban families in New Zealand take their food bits to a garden bin to rot down in the yard. We collect ours in the kitchen and take them out to our big compost heap or bury them in the garden.

Paper of all sorts

Tags from new clothing, junk mail, receipts, paper food wrappers, you name it. If it burns easily we put it in the kindling box below our wood stove. It gets the fire going quickly and reduces what ends up in our trash bin.


Glass bottles and jars are incredibly reusable since they can easily be sterilised with boiling water. I have a stash of screw-top wine bottles and olive oil containers that I use to bottle my homemade kombucha when it’s ready (I got the ideas, and the kombucha SCOBY, from my mother-in-law!). We recycle the rest.

Aluminium, cardboard, plastics of all kinds (even soft plastic)

The island recycles all of this, even soft plastics like bread bags and things. We wash and sort everything – an effort I’m happy to make given how many items they accept. (Quite often little canisters and things find their way into our bath toys bin for the kids, or into the sandbox. They actually play with plastic recycling more often than our store-bought bath or sand toys.)

Grey water

Whether it flows out of our kitchen sink, the washing machine, or the shower, all of our used water drains out into the environment around us. Obviously we read labels and buy biodegradable wherever possible. The hillside around our house drains to a creek that serves as a backup water supply for us all. So quite literally, our waste ends up in our water. I’m aware that the rags we use for cleaning eventually get washed and anything on them is flushed out into the landscape. So, I clean a lot of our windows and surfaces with diluted vinegar since cleaning products are usually filled with chemicals. I’d love to be able to re-use our waste water more effectively, maybe someday!


Last but not least is the ash from our wood stove. We use the wood stove to heat our water in the winter when the sun isn’t strong enough to do so. Every three days we have about a gallon of ash to dispose of. We use it in our outhouse to layer on top of human waste, or as a layer on top of deposits to our compost pile. I can’t imagine throwing ash away, it’s simply so useful.

There you have it, the tidy little cycle of waste. I couldn’t talk about all this without calling out my inspiring in-laws, who have built most of these systems and have taught us all about it. They’ve been living in this environmentally-friendly way for 40 years. I’ve always been impressed with how simple it is. <3

Meanwhile, we continue to wait for New Zealand's lockdown to end so we can move forward on our tiny house. Since there's not much to build right now, I have mastered two delicious bread recipes, cleared a trail to the top of the ridge on the property, and learned how to make tadpole food for the kids' new homemade pond. The days flow by and all the while our roots here deepen. This place has a way of grabbing hold of you, outhouse and all.

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