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Our first fall

Fall is here and it's time for wetties (wetsuits)

I had forgotten what fall is like. When you move hemispheres, you get two of one season and miss out entirely on another in that first year. And so last year we got one San Francisco spring, and a second spring on the island shortly after arriving. Autumn was a distant memory until this week, when it arrived here with increasingly chilly nights and a week of rain that flooded the valley and filled our water tanks.

We pulled our sweaters out of storage and ordered the kids some more merino clothing, which is surprisingly cheap in New Zealand, perhaps because so much wool is produced here (there's an old joke that there are more sheep in New Zealand than people). I remembered the smell of leaves gathering on the ground and the welcome warmth of a lowered midday sun that won’t give you a wicked sunburn. It’s perfect weather for building, which is fortunate because there’s nothing like the sense of approaching winter to make one want to get the roof on a house.

The kids paying a visit to the work site one afternoon.

We picked up the pace on our building in the past few weeks, striking up a rhythm: Isaac would spend his kid-free hours at the computer drafting up a drawing of the next wall we needed to build, then hand it over to me to cut and assemble. It’s a good system for us because Isaac misses the desk-side engineering work he did professionally, and I am the one whose dream it was to pick up a hammer and build a house. We each get to do what we love. And I’ve nearly framed the entire house all on my own.

My work has hardly been perfect. Last week Isaac came running into our kitchen holding two strips of nail gun nails, a panicked look on his face. “Which of these nails have you been using?” he blurted, explaining that one set had been in a box at the back of our tool rack, the other in a box in front. I’d been grabbing whatever nails I could find when I needed to reload the gun, unaware there was a difference. “I don’t know, I think both kinds” I said honestly, “why?” Isaac put his hand over his forehead and swore, explaining that the darker coloured nails weren’t galvanised steel. They would rust, and eventually break apart. He had seen the box of them half empty on the tool shelf and deduced that I’d likely used several packets in my framing. Crap.

Galvanized versus ungalvanized nails

I shielded our son’s ears while Isaac went outside and swore some more, then came back in and calmly explained, “We’ll have to re-do whatever framing you used these ungalvanized nails on, it’s my fault, I should have marked them more clearly.” Surely, I reasoned, it can’t be that bad. Isaac headed back up to the worksite to take a look at my frames and determine how much needed to be redone, and I put our son down for a nap.

Up to that point, I’d been proud of my work. My first few frames were hardly perfect, with nails poking out from odd corners at places where the nail gun had been hard to yield. But now that I’m onto my 12th frame, my arms are strong enough that I move the eight-pound nail gun around with one arm easily, and I’ve developed a whole system for how I lay out and assemble the frames to get everything as square and perfect as possible. But I had no idea there was a box of the wrong kind of nails among our tools. Turns out I had used them for about a third of my work so far.

Putting bearers in for the back deck.

In the end, we decided it wasn’t as bad as we’d thought. Isaac shot a few galvanised nails into the spots where I’d used the wrong kind, many of which had already started to rust, making them easy to spot. When we consulted Isaac’s dad about it, he shrugged and said “that’s fine, they’ll be covered up as soon as you get the cladding (siding) on.” As the famous Kiwi saying goes, “she’ll be right.” (Which means, basically, “it’ll all be fine.”)

Once these last few frames are done and raised, I’ll miss this part of the project. But as Isaac jokes, “when we’re done with this one, we’ll just have to start another.” And who knows, maybe we will. We designed this tiny house as a vacation home we’d live in for a year here and then use for future visits to the island. At 30 square meters (323 square feet), it’s not a long-term home for a family of four. But neither of us can imagine leaving a year from now, or even two years from now. There is absolutely nowhere we would rather be.

So much progress!

This island has a way of wrapping its arms around you and of pulling you into its wild embrace. Many of the people we have befriended here came for a month or two and just stayed, racking up years here and buying land to build something more permanent. I even found myself talking with a friend whose daughter is the same age as our son about primary schools, of which there are three on the island. The school to the north of us is Maori immersion, being closest to the local Maori community. I imagined our kids learning this obscure but important second language, taught by loving teachers who’ve been with the school for 30 years in some cases. But there is no secondary school here for older kids, which makes many families move off-island when their children reach age 12 or so.

Thankfully all of these decisions are too far off for us to negotiate now. We live best with a six month plan in our pockets, letting life reveal next steps as they come. It’s not for everyone, this lack of certainty about the future, but it works for us. And for now our six month plan is all about building. We want the walls and roof on by the end of June, when bad weather and short days settle in. That all feels just around the corner, and we’re moving as quickly as we can.

I’m also just enjoying each fall day as it comes, getting in the rhythm of stockpiling dry brush under the deck so we can get the wood stove going easily on wet days, and bustling through loads of laundry when it’s sunny. Easter felt a bit like Thanksgiving, being a big holiday here with schools out for two weeks. Isaac’s brother’s family visited and we roasted a big leg of ham to have alongside sweet potatoes and buttery biscuits. The next morning, we pulled the remaining ham and veggies out of the fridge to fry up for breakfast, just as one does with the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the flip-floppiness of holidays in this hemisphere, but I feel at home here now in almost every other way.

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