Tonight I want to try to answer a number of your questions about material life in Innermost House. Julie, you sound so near to beginning that I want to address you in particular. We had a such a long time and so many opportunities to answer these questions that the thought of doing it once and for all the first time is quite terrifying. But exhilarating!
To begin with you ask about moisture. It is a serious concern, and a timely one for me since we have just passed through our first eastern summer in ten years. I was happy to find how much I enjoyed it, but I was surprised to have to contend with mold at home. California is mostly so dry that it is not a concern except by the ocean.
We first built Innermost House with the expectation of showering there. So we built the little compartment for the shower and toilet using waterproof cement boards for the walls, which were then plastered over and painted with a slow-drying, moisture and mold resistant paint. We finished with a tile floor which I put in myself. Three times. But it came out all right at last, so be encouraged! We never had a moisture problem inside the bathroom.
But we did have a problem outside. Without electric exhaust fans we just could not evacuate enough of the steam from the shower. We found that the windows in the house would fog up when we showered even though the bathroom window was open and the door was closed. It seems astonishing, but just the use of hot water at the sink produced too much steam. After all, the interior of the whole house is smaller than many people's bathrooms in this country.
This gets a little complicated. When we built the house we fitted it with a small, on-demand water heater powered with propane. I didn't like it. First I didn't like having the propane tanks, and I didn't like having a machine. And then it took us a little while to succeed in excluding the mice from the heater. But most of all, the heater only engaged when we used a much higher water pressure than we would otherwise, in the shower or the sink. I didn't like using all that water.
Then we were concerned about the effect of the steam overall, and to the books in particular. Within a few weeks of moving in we decided to stop using hot water entirely. The cold-water-only life suited us, but when we someday rebuild, a detached bathhouse would be a welcome addition.
The only mold problem we ever encountered was in the loft. Fortunately it never got further than just beginning. At that time we slept on a cotton futon directly on the loft floor, and I caught the scent of mold early. We immediately disposed of the futon, scrubbed the floor, and started over. We made simple slats to elevate the new futon just an inch off the floor so air could circulate, and we never had another mold problem. Innermost House was the cleanest, freshest-scented house we have ever occupied, and much the easiest to keep clean.
You and Pam also asked about our trivet. We bought that for a few dollars at a garden shop. It is meant to hold a potted plant. It stands about six inches tall and is a little smaller than that in diameter, making it perfect to hold a handful of charcoal together underneath and our cast iron teakettle above.
Pam, you ask about the hearth and candles. It sounds like Julie will not have to contend with building regulations where she is, but Innermost House is built to code. Most such regulations—though of course not all—are meant for our safety, and probably it is good idea to build as soundly as possible wherever you are.
Our hearth extension is built of firebricks (which we successfully laid ourselves—by candlelight—and despite running out of mortar—more cause for encouragement!) and is a little more than a foot and a half deep. The firebox depth is about a foot and a half more. We built the entire hearth to be as small as possible. It was always perfectly serviceable and a joy to use.
I have always found firescreens an intrusion. I like to look directly into the fire. But of course if you have a larger house than one room, or if you cannot stay settled while the fire is burning, then you must have a screen for safety. We have burned thousands of open fires and never used a screen while we were in the room. We live with fire, and are accustomed to it. But as Pam says, an open flame is something to be taken very seriously.
The pewter pitcher that is often on the little table to the left of the hearth is for tea water—part of our nightly ritual. Fortunately we never had to try to douse a fire with its contents. We always keep a few proper fire extinguishers handy just in case.
By the way Pam, I think you asked about who sits where? The trivet and the pitcher are on the far side of the hearth because that is where Michael sits. He makes our tea, and the ritual revolves around his chair. He sits to the north and I to the south.
Our candles are made of beeswax because they are the cleanest. They also have a wonderful, honeyed scent. And the cotton wicks make them burn long and bright. In the winter we burn perhaps twelve or fifteen tapers a week, and a pillar every few weeks. Beeswax candles are expensive even when purchased in bulk as we do. But to me, that distinctive light in the darkness is one of the dearest possessions of civilization.
Showers and mold and sponge bathing. Houses and fires and firescreens. Candles and darkness. It is all a question of balance. I suppose it is possible to have everything, or to appear to have. But somehow having everything seems to reduce what you have to little more than appearances. We have always been willing to do without, and to work for having the whole of the things we have.