Albie is completing a brick cookstove and see-through masonry heater on North Haven Island, twelve miles off of Rockland, Maine, just before he leaves for New Zealand to build a heater there. The job site is on the Turner Farm which overlooks the “thoroughfare” between North Haven and Vinalhaven Islands.
The “thoroughfare” is only a few hundred yards wide. Famous archeological digs at the Turner Farm site indicate, that like the ancient village of Norridgewock, the site seems to have been continuously inhabited for nearly five thousand years.
In the shell middens on Indian Point on the Turner Farm in North Haven, eighteen tons of swordfish bones were recovered. How did the First People hunt these great fish from canoes? Also present in the middens were a large supply of beaver bones indicating a steady trade with trappers and possibly corn growers inland such as in Norridgewock. Just around the corner from Indian Point is a very large and protected shallow clam flat which provided food to residents of the area for millennia. On a Sunday off from work, we watched two films shot thirty years or so ago about the islands. The father of the two brothers who are the general contractors on our job, Shawn and Roman Cooper of Cooper Construction, is featured in one of the films, standing and talking and bent over digging clams with a very wide clam rake on the Island clam flats. European settlers and fishermen displaced the original native people who had called North Haven home for over four thousand years. Today descendants of the first settlers work to maintain a year round community on the island, whose population swells dramatically in the summer.
Out the south facing windows of the home we are working in, we have the same view as the peoples who lived at Indian Point. They were the first to see wind/sail powered boats enter these waters in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. In the second film that we saw, from the historic photos of the granite quarries of Vinalhaven there were countless working sail powered schooners lined up along the shore. The schooners had long rows of perfectly cut and fitted eight to twelve foot long and two foot diameter granite snow rollers ready for hoisting on board and being moved inland to towns needing a way to flatten their snow covered roads for sleigh travel a century or more ago before the automobile. A retired mason talking about the old quarry days noted that Vinalhaven did not have a single paved road, but they quarried and handmade there on the island, hundreds of thousands of paving stone for city streets along the Atlantic seaboard. The older mason then proceeds to quickly trace around a block a single line and once around places a little chip of granite on the line, and strikes it once on the chip. With the chip pulverized, he strikes the stone a second time and the cobble stone block breaks into two perfect paving blocks. With typical Maine understatement, he talks about how “clever” the early Vinalhaven stone workers were by taking us out to some of the local fabricated elaborate gravestone pieces still in the cemetery.
The quarries are closed and much of the shipbuilding has ceased, but the hand skills and the values are all still intact in an amazing way on the islands and it is an honor to work with people from this rich tradition of craftsmanship. One of the young carpenters we are working with has a pilot’s license and a lobster boat. He has mastered many skills to stay alive and at home on the island.
The Norridgewock and the North Haven first peoples picked good protected South facing sites with readily available food supplies. The North Haven people had the clam flats and rich fisheries. The Norridgewock people also had migrational fisheries and lots of game and at some point added their flint corn with squash and beans as staples of their economy and diet. Today when you look out to the South from Indian Point a new demonstration of Wind Power gracefully dominates the view. Three huge windmills with blinking red lights at night on top, turn slowly all day and all night long and are producing enough power to carry the load of both islands with plenty to spare. Here twelve miles out, is the hope of energy independence, sustainable energy and off shore (although on an island) wind that everyone has been talking about recently.
Travel around the island today is primarily by truck or car. There are no buses and in the winter no bicycles. The cottage and grocery store where we are staying is heated by a large outdoor boiler that burns mostly spruce from the island that has died standing and has been taken down and recycled into use as a valuable dry fuel. The owners or their employees get up once or twice at night to fuel the boiler and the boiler carries several buildings on the property. The savings in imported fuel is great but the cost in pollution is also genuine because the boilers installed on the island in the past few years were the first generation unregulated boilers that did not begin to meet the new tough EPA standards on outdoor boilers. In the past two generations we have finally become aware that the water cannot be used as an open sewer and now strict regulations on over board discharge and septic systems and the like, keep our human waste controlled and out of other fragile parts of the ecosystem. We have still not learned this lesson about the air and because the sky is so great and because we cannot see and really feel our connection to it or understand our dependence on its cleanliness, we are continuing to treat the air as a free open sewer with increasingly dire results.
The young generous electrician on the job, who offered me the use of one of his clam rakes, admits that he uses one of the early dirty burning boilers which he is very happy with even though he knows it is very polluting. When this first generation of wood boilers is retired, the next generation that replaces it will be a lot cleaner for everyone’s benefit. When we bought oysters from a local man, Adam Campbell, who has an oyster farm on a brackish lagoon behind a dike that floods from the ocean twice a day, he pointed out that his aquaculture operation, at first feared as a polluter, turned out to be the engine for cleaning up the fresh water pond or lagoon when it was determined that eight households around the pond were dumping raw sewage or leaking sewage into it. Now the oysters are happy and safe and children who swim there are safe as well. Adam Campbell’s oysters are so good, that a mainland carpenter friend of mine took the ferry out with another friend and drove out to Adam’s farm to buy 300 of his oysters for a big party they were hosting back on the mainland that night. Although the lobster season is mostly over, Adam willingly ventured out to his lobster boat where he had a crate of lobsters in the water, and he brought us back two of the sweetest lobsters I have ever tasted.
Most people heating with alternative fuel on the island are using wood stoves. One man was at the general store loading up his station wagon with a hundred or more pressed dried wooden large burnable brick, much denser and less messy than standard split cordwood. But even this fuel must be processed somewhere and shipped over by ferry. I do not think that anyone on the island has ever built a wood burning masonry heater. The majority of the larger homes on the island are used primarily in the summer and do not require a source of winter wood heat. The Turner Farm home, however, is being rebuilt as a year round sustainable home using local resources of wind and wood as sustainable fuels. Eventually, it is hoped that the revitalized Turner Farm will produce significant quantities of organic produce and livestock for local consumption.
One of the masons on the job from Vermont brought with him an issue of the New Yorker from Dec. 2l/28, 2009 with an article in it called Hearth Surgery. In the article the work of many many people from around the world to develop very low cost heating and cooking devices for the majority of the world’s very poor populations, is beautifully documented. Making these devices clean and affordable would accomplish a great deal in improving world health and the health of the atmosphere. Please read this article online or at your library if you can find it.
In Maine while we still have heated homes, it is important that we try to find ways to make masonry heating more affordable with designs that use readily available materials and less complicated skills to build. We are hoping to continue our work with simpler low cost masonry heaters in an ongoing way in the future as we have in the past with metal skinned prototypes and our flue tile heaters.
The big challenge is doing this low cost work in our spare time which we have so little of. One of our new clients has his sights set on a grant proposal for us to work with a Maine manufacturer to develop some lower cost modular heater prototypes. We will keep you posted on our progress. Meanwhile, we will continue our work on the gorgeous brick see-through heater and cooker we have started on North Haven. In a major power outage when nothing electrical is working, our masonry heater and cooker will easily carry the heating and cooking needs of the home.