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Surviving a Country Power Outage: Part Two

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dusk comes so quickly in the winter. We don't realize it as we flip lights on at 4 pm, but it rushes up on you. There's nothing to do but try to read a little, talk, tell stories, mess around with the kids. I'm actually nostalgic for it, only a week later, because being without power and its attendant distractions narrows our focus; makes us appreciate each other and the simple things in life.We read the kids their favorite books from early childhood, making them laugh 'til they lost their breath. Bill is really good at reading Nuts to You. He does it in a most politically incorrect way, writing new verse on the fly. Here, I'm reading Big Lil and Little Bill with a similarly ridiculous attack. We also told them stories about their babyhood, always a hit.

We brought Charlie the macaw into the living room as there was no heat in the studio where he lives, and his happy clucks and chortles cheered us all. Chet and Charlie thought it was all grand--everyone together in the kitchen and living room with nothing better to do than play with them.People need more kisses in a power outage. This is something that dogs just know.

Every three hours, I would dip a spaghetti pot full of water out of the planted Amazon fish tank, bring it near boiling on the stove, and pour it back in the tank. Which, of course, was dark as night, everyone in suspended animation for the time being. I've read warnings that changing a tank's temperature by two or three degrees in a short period of time (is five minutes a short period of time?) can kill the fish.

Someone should have told my tetras and gouramis that they were about to die, because they frolicked and swam right into the stream of hot water like kids at a fire hydrant on a summer day, and all 50 plus denizens of the 40-gallon tank made it through three days of having their lil' hambones boiled just fine. Swimmingly. Oh boy, here she comes with the steaming spaghetti pot. Whee! My fish are so cute, up for anything. They beg shamelessly for treats, nibble my arms when I stick them in to weed the plants. And why not? Almost all of them were born and raised right here, so they've known only kindness. They've never been shipped in Styrofoam coolers from a massive farm in the Philippines, dumped into questionable water with sick and dying tankmates, chased and whacked against the side of the tank by a teen-aged boy with a net, put in a Baggie and twirled with a twist tie, and taken home shivering in a brown paper bag like most hapless pet store fish.

We went sledding. This is our driveway. Impassable to all but pedestrians, but surpassingly beautiful.There were things about this power outage that were rare and lovely, as many as there were inconveniences. However...

By the third full day of this, I was tired of boiling aquarium water, tired of worrying that my fish and plants would die, tired of cooking from dawn to dusk, tired of washing the dishes and Tupperware, tired of cleaning out the refrigerator and deciding what to do with everything perishable, tired of the niggly business of surviving, and so was Bill. We both needed to do something else for awhile. He took a saw to the pine branches that were down across the driveway, gathered up the kids and fled to town (and a crushing workload at the office) in my 4WD Explorer. Here's our house (the tiny square tower on the left) in a Zhivagoan forest of icicles, as viewed from the road.
I couldn't leave the house, heated as it was by open flame, but that was OK with me. I went out and plugged my laptop into Bill's car charger so I could work. I had to run the car for an hour and a half to get the laptop charged to 90%. Let me know if that sounds green to you. It seemed pretty ridiculous to me, but by Wednesday I had to do something other than cook and wash dishes. I sat on the couch, running the battery back down, writing a chapter on ospreys for my book, shooting pictures of birds gobbling down Zick dough every time I looked up. Four male bluebirds at one time. Sa-weet!

Chet was curled up next to me, Charles on my shoulder, the fire gibbering and guttering away. It was pretty darned nice. And then the laptop battery died, and I opened the freezer.

Everything had thawed. Not cold, not even cool, but warm to the touch. Oh, feh! I don't know what I expected, with the kitchen at a steamy 70 degrees, the oven cranking away with its door open only a couple of feet away. I guess I hadn't wanted to know, and hoped for the best. I sighed, coming back out of my writerly reverie, realizing that the messy business of life will always and ever intrude upon art. I began throwing things out, dumping them into bowls and pots and pans and stacking the containers in the foyer. I looked at the line of pots full of lima beans and corn and sausage and frozen pizzas, sighed, got a muck bucket, and dumped everything into that. It was spectacular in a sad, wasteful, nauseating kind of way. The thing that bothered me the most was that we probably wouldn't have eaten most of the stuff, anyway. The freezer is where good food goes to die in my house. It lies in state with occasional brief viewings until the next power outage, when it is given last rites by possum, crow and coyote.

I should have a freezer the size of a bar fridge to keep me honest.

I was halfway through the freezer purge when the refrigerator gave a loud harrummph and the aquarium filter began to clatter. It was 6 pm, and I'd already lit the oil lamps for the long evening, already steeled myself to getting in bed at 8 PM and waking up at 2 AM, not knowing where I was or why my nose was so cold. I turned on the lights in the kitchen and continued with the grim task I'd started, knowing that I didn't want any of this stuff to refreeze and lie in state until next winter. Bill came in the door with a couple of nice bottles of wine and we poured a glass and drank it with all the lights burning.

In the morning, he hauled the muck bucket of food out to the meadow for the crows and coyotes, and set up the game camera to record the orgy.


Glad to see you have the power back! Ijust stumbled into your website and its been a treat! I love your paintings and photographs and the descriptions. will be visiting often.

Kind of puts life in "the good ole days" into perspective, doesn't it. Of course, "they" wouldn't have had a freezer full of foods to spoil. At least, the food went to the critters, so in that sense it wasn't all lost.
Interesting your boiling aquarium tank water--my husband (a bio major in college) did a paper on the effect of hot water effluence on fish--so we bought various fish and gradually raised the water temp on them to see the effects. Since at that time, power plants were dumping cooling water into streams with re-cooling it, the project was timely. It was strange to see the fish happily swimming away until they didn't anymore--at which time they floated to the top!

Julie, I can't even imagine!! I am very happy you are writing a new book and can't wait to read it.

Glad to see you have your power back.

I am THOROUGHLY tuckered out to the point of exhaustion just reading this account... and somehow I have to get up and go to work tomorrow!

How warm is it outside? Can't you store the food outside as a natural fridge?

Still, good to see the power back on. And I can't wait for the pictures from the game camera.

Well, yes, you can, up to a point. A freezer hovers around zero degrees. So when it's 28 outside, everything gradually thaws. You can't keep ice cream, popsicles or meat at 28, at least for very long. To be sure, we had a front stoop jammed with food (and were thankful the coons weren't out), but frankly, just the refrigerator contents were daunting enough for me to deal with. I just did not want to start unloading the three freezers.

I've done the freezer full of thawing food cookathon, and agree that it's no fun. Especially repeat performances.

On the other hand, you have that view of the house in the distance, which beats the heck out of rush-hour traffic.

Your kids are getting such a great upbringing. How wonderful.

I know it was trying, but I really enjoyed this saga of survival sans electricity.
Our Freezer has an archival unit in it too ... full of long dead frost covered things.

I once raised tilapia in a Rube Goldbergian recirculating system I built. It was outdoors and exposed to the elements, which meant certain North Florida nights were going to be a challenge for such tropical fish.
Normally I would flush their 700gallon tank with 72 degree well water. Once I forgot .. fell asleep, I think, on a freezing night. The next morning I dashed out to find all my tilapia lying on their sides on the bottom. Dead I thought.
Then I saw an operculum move ever so slightly. I drained the 40 degree water quickly and flushed in 72 degree well water.
They all recovered just fine and were eating lustily an hour later.
Fish are a lot tougher than we think.

Having had frig and/or freezer failures, can understand that part of your dilemma. But at the time of the outage had wondered about the collection of orchids you've written of, and fish & bird and such.
Your kids will certainly have great memories of the time spent together as a family during those three days.
However isn't a battery-operated radio wonderful during a power outage?
Eagerly await a new book. And perhaps an audiobook ?

Peg, the orchids live in the back upstairs bedroom, and our fireplace and stove heat the upstairs enough to keep them fairly happy. The greenhouse is heated with our free gas (we have a well on our property!) so it's all set. The fish are pretty electricity dependent, but they're in the living room where the fireplace is, which we keep at about 70, so the challenge becomes keeping the tank just above 70 by boiling water every three hours.

Our gas well froze up for two days about two weeks before the power outage, and that means I have to immediately empty the greenhouse, bring everything into the house, and pray that the well unfreezes before the downstairs freezes. We're stuck with a couple of space heaters and some small baseboard registers. Not so good when the gas goes out. If the power ever went off when the gas well was frozen up, we'd be SOL!

This has definitely been a winter you won't forget! I'm sorry to hear about your frozen food losses, but look forward to seeing the visitors your trail camera records at the un-frozen food buffet.
I loved the pictures of Phoebe and Chet and also those 4 bluebirds.

Someday your kids will talk about the great ice storm and all the fun you had and sigh longingly. And you'll agree.

Sometimes hard to deal with, but you'll never forget it and neither will Bill, Phoebe, and Liam.

The kiss between Chet Baker and Phoebe made me melt. You need to frame that photo, at least.

Thank goodness you were home! Your kids will have this memory for the rest of their lives and the critters won't have to dig so deep in the snow. After reading this, my 36 hour flight seems like a breeze. This has given me a major attitude adjustment.

Hey, you've got our bluebirds - we want them back, now! Or at least by spring.

Sorry about the thawathon - that's gotta hurt. As a kid we had a huge blackout/icestorm resulting in no heat for two weeks. I keep a kerosene heater around these days but only use it when wooddorking.

Nice planted aquarium, I keep a 75 and a 30 although they were reefs before I ended up in GA. You should see the reactions as I put stump killer, no-salt, epson salts and liquid enema into the tank water. Do the names Craig Bingham and Chuck Gadd sound familiar - or do you buy ferts?

And to think of the time I've wasted carefully matching replacement water to tank temperature +-.5 degrees. Boiling water? Ack!

Word Verification: NoPalins ;-)

Boy, TR has a point... what if you all had been away for the week when it happened... shudder. Love the photo of your bluebirds gratefully enjoying your suet!

Oh the fish tank!!! And the orchids and the greenhouse! It's exhausting, this work of surviving. I think I could do with a much smaller freezer myself; at the very least power outages force me to give it a good purge and confront my bad habits.

Thanks for sharing the joys and trials of your power outage. Great photos as usual!

Maybe not green, but necessary for mental health...

When our huge freezer (which came with the house) thawed in the summer of 2003 we had a very large and varied barbeque for friends, and then offered the freezer to anyone who would come and take it. Though this fall I wished I had a tiny freezer to fill up with things like pesto and roasted peppers.

Dr. Know,

The overpopulation of Emperor tetras in the tank must poop out the perfect fertilizer for my plants, because I don't add nuthin', no CO2, no fertilizer, just the poo from too many fish. I vacuum lightly once a month, well aware that the stuff just below the gravel is what the plants need. The trick, I think, is not to be too clean, and let the plants take care of the natural fertilizer. I also limit light to 8 hours a day, using a timer. I never have any algae, so it must be in good balance.

I was worried about the fish, knew that everything else was in good hands but couldn't figure how you would keep the fishies warm without electricity.

Heating up their water every 3 hours for 3 days? Whew! I am exhausted just thinking about it.

Aside: Mr. & Mrs. Bluebird were house-hunting yesterday, and I heard him singing her a love song. Soon, the spring cometh. All hail cavity-nesting season!


The freezer is where good food goes to die in my house. It lies in state with occasional brief viewings until the next power outage, when it is given last rites by possum, crow and coyote.

This is hilarous! It made me laugh out loud. Too good.

You know I feel your pain, since I was in pretty much the same predicament, only with not nearly as much food to deal with (our freezer-ables that we stuck outside actually managed to stay frozen until we were able to get them back in the energized freezer).
One thing that I loved about having the power out was the quiet. No hum of the fridge, no computer fans running, etc. And the complete absence of artificial light at night was also wonderful. It's always good to be reminded that the night is not as pitch black as we think it is. Don't get me wrong, I don't want any more power outages any time soon. I'm just sayin'..

Ah, balance. Now that's something we could use more of, yet a difficult thing to attain. Looks like you hit it. Fish loads are problematic here because of the poor quality of stock in the Big Box Pet Stores. You stand as much chance of importing pathogens as you do healthy fish. One old wormy loach is over seven years old - he keeps the snails in check.

Not that you care, pesterin' indeed, but here are two of my tanks:

PPlanted Tank - circa 2006

Reef Tank - circa 1997

Wow, Julie, what a wonderful post. What a magician you are with words. I've never seen aquarium fish given such vivid personalities before, and that's just one aspect of several that made this essay unforgettable. I do hope that some of your blog entries will ultimately find their way into book form, because this rare level of writing deserves a permanence beyond what the blog format usually represents.

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