On snails, stillness, symbiosis and siding

tiny grass dreaming

Definitely a case of gained in translation (hat tip to Lisa for this). I think I will make a plaque to hang on my tiny house door. Credit: Imgur.com

My friend Alison turned me on to this fascinating book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, which I highly recommend. It represents all that I love about natural history and the power of observation and reflection. From her website:

In The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey tells the inspiring and intimate story of her uncommon encounter with a Neohelix albolabris—a common forest snail. While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches as the snail takes up residence on her nightstand. Intrigued by its molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making ability, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing an engaging look into the curious life of this overlooked and underappreciated small animal. She comes to a greater understanding of the interconnections between species and her own human place in the natural world. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a remarkable journey of survival and resilience, showing us how a small part of the natural world illuminates our own human existence.

“Bailey’s unexpected journey with a gastropod is a beautiful meditation on life, nature and time, and a poignant reminder of how the only measure of any of this is what we do with it.” —Tania Aebi, author of Maiden Voyage

“An exquisite meditation on the restorative connection between nature and humans . . . the writing is pristine and clear, with sentences of stunning lyrical beauty . . . Bailey’s slim book is as richly layered as the soil she lays down in the snail’s terrarium: loamy, potent, and regenerative.” —Huffington Post


A September of stillness

While I had nowhere near the same level of illness that Elisabeth had to contend with, I was completely drained after the events of the summer (see June, July and August posts). In early September, my parents left for most of the month, leaving me in charge of their house, the blueberry farm, an old creaky dog, and my uncle and aunt’s young cat that was recovering from a broken leg.

In retrospect, I realized that the last year had been spent coming up to Oregon to do three to four weeks of intense building and then I would return to California and my little apartment for a few months, a built-in balancing mechanism. I had very mixed feelings of living alone. There wasn’t a tight community of neighbors I was bonded with so it could feel isolating in an urban environment, but I loved having the space and relative quiet to recharge, think about my tiny house and what it meant from a bit of a distance, and revive my wellspring of creativity. Now that I had moved to Oregon, I had my community, but felt a constant mantra to keep building, with no time or space for reflection. I realized I’d lost the magic and my tiny house mojo (I suspect most tiny house builders experience this at some point). I had neglected to nourish my inner introvert.


1. to supply what is necessary for life, health and growth

2. to strengthen, build up, promote 

3. to cherish, foster, keep dreams alive 

I needed to recuperate and figure out why I had so little energy, so for a month I took a staycation, my own little personal retreat. I didn’t watch television, listen to the radio, check Facebook or follow any news. I went for long walks and short runs, did extensive sessions of restorative yoga, read, and slept…a lot. My waking hours were defined by when the animals needed to be fed and when the irrigation sprinklers required rotating, as well as the constant mowing: the combination of perpetual sun and dutiful watering resulted in a ridiculously well-nourished and robust grass organism. With a brain that couldn’t seem to turn over, I was quite content to go round and round the lawn on the sit down mower, up and down the rows of blueberries. There never seemed to be big enough blocks of time to work on my house, nor did I have any desire to. I have a backlog of blog posts to catch up on but I couldn’t find the inspiration to write. My creative well had run dry. I existed, but not much beyond that.

My world became quite small. By choice, I hardly talked to anybody the whole month. I cocooned. I rarely even left the property. As I took Lucy on very slow walks around the barn and through the blueberries, there was a lot of time to look at the little things. I discovered which blackberry bushes the quail liked to gather under, rustling dried leaves officiously like papers shuffled as court is called to order. Twice I flushed a stunning copper-colored pheasant.

The remaining blueberries, hanging like little shrunken heads, were picked clean practically overnight by waves of incoming flocks of goldfinches, starlings, sparrows, and chickadees (fortunately, their greedy fondness for cherries keeps them at bay during the growing season; they only turn to blueberries when that is all that is left in the cupboard, like sad boxes of All-Bran). A variety of strange and delicate mushrooms sprouted up between the irrigated rows. (Interestingly, mushrooms are a favorite of wild snails. Elisabeth’s would consume a portobello fifty times it’s own size, a slice a week, one tiny bite at a time using its 2,640 teeth, arrayed in rows like a woodworker’s rasp.)

mushroom 1

mystery mushroom 1  (I’m sure some of you smarties out there can tell me what these are!)

mushroom 2

mystery mushroom 2

The old pasture behind the barn, which was not irrigated, was parched and dry in the heat, though some leaves had started to fall, a sign that the seasons were chomping at the bit to change, if the weather would just cooperate. I watched ground squirrels rooting for acorns, stuffing cheeks full to bursting, dive bombed by little juncos (what had the squirrels done to them?). Flickers and jays swooped through the trees, squawking and heckling. Everyone was a little irritable waiting for the rain.

autumn lucy



An acorn after a rare sprinkle, a false hope of more to come.


Two or three times I would hear a loud pounding on the back door and see this bold Douglas squirrel (who knew a squirrel could pound loudly?). When I’d open the door, it would scamper off a short distance and stand on its back legs watching me unperturbed. Looking for a handout? While they mostly eat seeds from the Douglas fir tree and acorns, they will also eat berries and mushrooms, and sometimes eggs. Native Americans called them Pillillooeet, after their alarm call.

bird on roof

And once when I had the barn door open, a house finch flew in and sat on my roof, which made me very happy. (Here you can also see the window sill that broke the camel’s back – the ornery thing that tipped me over the edge the month before…see last post)

vermeer cat

“Vermeer cat.” Scout, the cat recovering from a broken leg but in no way hampered by such details.

It was wonderful having a cat around again, if only temporarily. Scout, Lucy and I lived in a state of symbiosis. They were dependent on me for food and waste removal, and I depended on them for companionship (which they needed too, both from me and from each other, though they wouldn’t admit it). A mutually beneficial arrangement.

And related to interdependencies, I did a lot of research into food and the complex balance of stress hormones (for more information, see It Starts With Food and The Paleo Approach). I went on a strict paleo diet (no dairy, grains, sugar, legumes, or alcohol, but lots of vegetables, moderate protein and healthy fats, and some fruit). I learned how to make ghee and bone broth, how to increase my nutrient and mineral absorption. There is a lot of evidence that this kind of low carb, whole food eating can revert the effects of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, among many, many others. It took awhile but I do feel better (though I’ve backed off being quite so strict since I found it hard to adhere to while I’m in the throes of building). I dropped 15 pounds without even trying.


Flourishing in the fall (fungus among us)

By October, both my parents and the rains returned. Just in time; I was starting to bounce off the walls from my self-imposed isolation and the seemingly endless heat. Within a couple days, the dry, sunburnt grass in the back pasture was replaced with a carpet of tender green shoots.

One day Dad went out and came back with permits for us to hunt mushrooms in the national forest. I’ve never gone mushroom hunting before but it sounded fun. He scared up a French folding knife, a brush, and an old compass for me, and explained how chanterelles came up after the first rains and disappeared with the first frost. We poured over the weather reports to find a good day within this window of opportunity and together we set out, driving to a remote logging road.

secret spot

The highly secret location, passed on only if you are deemed worthy (and maybe not even then).


Mushroom foraging is like Easter egg hunting for adults. It takes awhile to get your chanterelle eyes on. We wore red jackets, hoping hunters wouldn’t shoot us.

mushroom 3

mystery mushroom 3

mushroom 4

mystery mushroom 4

mushroom 5

mystery mushroom 5

mushroom 6

mystery mushroom 6

blurry salamander

Blurry salamander.


And at last, with yelps of glee, the first chanterelle was spotted.

A chanterelle is also the highest string of a violin or lute on which the melody, or chant, is usually played. I love the idea of these little forest nymphs singing to each other just after we lumber away. In Germany, they go by the delightful name of Pfifferling. 

Besides being so tasty, chanterelles are relatively high in vitamin C, very high in potassium, and one of the richest known sources of vitamin D. They grow in a symbiotic relationship with living trees, Douglas fir and Western hemlock in the Pacific Northwest. The chanterelles gather moisture and minerals to feed the trees and, in return, the trees offer photosynthesized carbohydrates to the chanterelles (no low carb diet for them!).

touching the base

If you carefully cut the chanterelle off at soil level, it will grow again in the same spot the following year.

foraged chanterelles

Foraged bounty. After what I wrote above, I’m feeling a little guilty, but I do love the idea of foraging for food.

After two decades in central California, which doesn’t really have much of an autumn and hardly any rain of late, I soaked up the drizzle like moss. Inhaling the scents of fir and loam, and something like ripe pear, I began to feel replenished.

woman in the woods
touching mushrooms
touching the base

~ Jane Reichhold


Other nourishment

While most of nature began to go dormant and hibernate, I, out of season, continued to emerge from my cocoon. Freed from farm and animal duties, I made trips into Portland for a taste of city life.

portland colors

Fall foliage in Portland.

I had a lovely dinner with several friends, five dogs, and fire in the fireplace. Chicken soup soothed our souls (although one of the dogs had nabbed the chicken off the counter before it made into the pot). In an odd coincidence, Katy had just collected chanterelles the day after I did in nearly the same spot. She sauteed up panful after panful. It was a feast.

Sal has a staghorn fern growing on a board. It’s an epiphyte, not needing to be rooted in soil. In nature, it grows suspended on rocks and trees, it’s lower fronds bending around and securing it in place as the fronds die off. It’s non-parasitic on its host, getting minerals and nutrients from the air and water captured in the upper fronds. It also collects leaf litter and detritus falling from the canopy above to make a loamy soil in its hollow. This becomes another source of nutrients, not only for itself but for other organisms living high in the air within its suspended embrace, including animals, fungi, bacteria, and myxomycetes (a more heroic name for slime moulds). Since this one is living indoors, Sal throws a banana peel into it every once in awhile so that it will get enough potassium.

sals elkhorn

I love that the staghorn’s Latin name is Platycerium superbum.

Speaking of trees and boards, I discovered a new passion. After my long months of rough carpentry, I decided I needed to learn something about the finer aspects of woodworking in preparation for my interior cabinetry. So I started taking classes and found a whole new world of incredible hand tools and beautiful grain and design. It’s so tactile and, while there is a lot of repetitive work chiseling and planing, I find it very meditative.

nw woodworking cabinet

Something to aspire to – a cabinet and handmade tools at the Northwest Woodworking Studio.

carved tool in progress

A work in progress. No, this is not a deformed spoon. It is highly technical and carefully sculpted to fit perfectly in the contours of my mini French press. One end stirs the coffee grounds to boost the flavor and the other end scoops them out at the end. Less utensils needed in the tiny house. I’m sure this will make me a fortune.

box building

My first simple box in progress, kind of a rite of passage in the woodworking world.

finished box

Complete, though it still needs a finish and maybe a lid.

handmade tools

My uncle showed me the handmade tools he has from my great-great-grandfather who came out West along the Oregon Trail as a boy and became a carpenter in the mid-1800s. Depending on whether you believe family legend, he may or may not have built a cabin in eastern Oregon for Joaquin Miller, the infamous poet, frontiersman, newspaper writer, Pony Express rider, lawyer, judge, horse thief, and mining camp cook (who came down with scurvy from only eating what he cooked).


Back in the side saddle

With one neighbor coming up with inventive pulley systems to hoist siding up on a shed, another neighbor painting his house in record time, and ribbing from my friends ringing in my ears, I knew I had to get back to work. And now I felt ready.

[Most of what follows is focused on the technical aspects of siding. If that doesn’t interest you, skip down to the next section.]

chop saw cobweb

Cobwebs on your chop saw are a pretty good indication it is time to get back to work.

staining trim

The warped trim continued to be the bane of my existence.

tongue trim

Finally got the upper window and gable eave trim installed which had a lot of tricky mitered angles.

tongue siding

Siding going up. Once you reach the windows, you need to do a lot of careful measuring to cut out around them and still fit snugly on the ends. This is where you find out just how plumb you were with your framing, sheathing and window installation.

siding tools

Two of the key tools for installing siding – a handmade jig to keep the spacing correct and a level (often I used a 4-foot one for greater accuracy). The siding gets tacked up with a nail gun on the furring strips. Later I will need to go back through and screw in each board so that it will withstand the rigors of the road.

ear template

Think hard when deciding the shape of your trim. The easiest are right angles (especially if they are exactly 90 degrees and perfectly plumb). Since I never seem to do easy, I had to get really cozy with my sliding T-bevel gauge. The first one I got was terrible but I’m quite fond of this inexpensive one from Stanley.

siding around ear

Here you can see how the siding had to fit around the top of the trim. Steffen taught me how to make the top cut on the table saw by carefully measuring and setting the distance between the blade and the fence, lowering the blade beneath the table, putting the piece of siding in position, turning on the saw and winding up the blade until it broke through the surface at the right spot. From there you push the board past the saw and stop on your mark at the opposite end. You then use a jig saw or chop saw to make the side cuts.

laying out wheel well trim

Using the template that Dee made (see last post), I translated it to the cedar for the trim around the wheel wells.

laser level

Steffen’s laser level has been immensely handy for both leveling the trailer and for determining where the bottom ends of the trim should be cut off.

leveling trim

You can just see the laser beam at the bottom. This allowed me to make sure that the wheel well trim was in line with the bottom of the corner trim, and that the first row of siding would be level.

wheel well trim installed

Wheel well trim installed. This isn’t necessary if your framing/sheathing doesn’t come out to the edge of the wheel well because then your siding would butt up against the wheel well and the cut edges would be protected. Since I had extended my walls all the way out to the edge, I had to come up with an alternative.

siding helper

Mom (and Dad) helped hold the boards in the lower reaches.


After we measured a board, there was a little bit of down time while I made the cuts and stained the ends. Mom used this opportunity to warp her inkle loom (a portable side project; most of her other looms are huge).

siding jig 1

For the upper reaches, I was on my own and so I made some funky modifications to the spacing jig and nailed it in place (after I got over my queasiness of putting extra holes in my siding).

siding jig 2

It worked well!

installing door trim

The door trim presented some challenges since I don’t have my final door yet. It’s critical to make sure it’s exactly plumb so I used both the horizontal and vertical laser lines (just visible on the right jamb). I didn’t screw them down in case I have to make minor adjustments when the door goes in.

avoiding the sill

After my two disasters with the window sill (see last post), I had developed a complex about tackling it again, to the point that I put if off to the last possible moment (and yes, I know I should take down the birthday banner but it’s so festive!)

sill installed

I approached the sill installation on a fresh day, got all zen, and was able to get the third attempt up (it’s tricky since it’s hard to secure it in place flat against the wall. All was fine except for one screw hit a screw in the sheathing. I should have just left one out but I had to try something tricky and ended up ruining the whole thing. After recovering from being less than zen, I was finally able to get the fourth attempt secured. It was a huge mental hurdle to get over.

front siding going up

After this point, the rest of the siding went up easily. The house gods must have taken pity on me since the way the spacing ended up, I didn’t have to cut around the top trim. The Fold and Roll in the foreground is another cool thing Steffen lent me. The two platforms can be placed on any of the four levels and it’s on wheels. I looked like a five year old standing on a skateboard, but you can pull yourself along without having to climb down. This worked great until I was standing on the next to top level and tried to push myself away from the house. It shot out more quickly than I expected and there was one of those slow motion moments of panic where, arms awheeling, I somehow managed to reverse my head-first body trajectory to leap straight up in the air and land on my feet (and some siding) without breaking anything. Needless to say, I was more like a two year old *sitting* on a skateboard after that.


The four faces of Naj Haus

I still have to get the top row on each side installed (need Steffen’s help with that since it’s a little tricky), screw everything down, and plug the sill holes, but I can’t tell you what a relief it is to finally be about done with the exterior!

I feel like I’m just meeting my house for the first time, so without further ado, let me introduce you as well:

front siding

The front. There will be a full-length covered porch extending eight feet out to create a protected outdoor living space.

back siding

Back and tail end.

tongue siding installed

Tongue end.


Nourish the dreams of tiny grass

All of life is about interdependencies and balance. Sun can grow grass in the presence of water or parch it out of existence during a drought. The staghorn fern supports a fungus high in a forest canopy, a tiny chanterelle nourishes a giant fir tree down at its base. Acorns become oak trees, producing leaves that become loamy life-supporting soil and new acorns that feed the squirrels, who then give us delight when they knock on the door. Cortisol, insulin, leptin, glucagon and other metabolic hormones perform an intricate dance in our bodies so that we can turn the food we eat into energy we can use. Tiny houses tethered to larger houses involve complex negotiations of community and independence. There is a delicate balance, particularly among introverts, of expending energy and the need to recharge. All of these symbiotic and interwoven relationships can represent great health and strength or be disrupted, knocked out of balance, ease becoming disease.

May you find the time to be still and observe, to have some humility around our place in the natural world, and to nourish the dreams of tiny grass. You will find that, in return, these reflections will feed your body and your soul.

chair and house

A dream becoming a reality.

Spring turned to summer, summer turned to fall, and the snow came, and the snail and its offspring were still much in my thoughts. The original snail had been the best of companions; it never asked me questions I couldn’t answer, nor did it have expectations I couldn’t fulfill. I had watched it adapt to changed circumstances and persevere. Naturally solitary and slow paced, it had entertained and taught me, and was beautiful to watch as it glided silently along, leading me through a dark time into a world beyond that of my own species. The snail had been a true mentor; its tiny existence had sustained me.

~ Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

Categories: construction, thoughts on tiny | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “On snails, stillness, symbiosis and siding

  1. Pia de Souza

    Kate – awesome as always! Steffi grew up picking Pfifferlings with her mom and she’s always talking about it! She’s going to get a kick out of this. The cedar siding looks amazing, good job on all the crazy angles! It always seems simple…until it’ not. Ha! Glad to see you’re doing some woodworking with hand tools. I love working with them because it’s so zen, but they definitely require practice. Check out Tom Fidgen at the unplugged woodshop – good stuff!

    • Thanks, Pia! I’ve been thinking of you a lot as I get into the woodworking. May be contacting you in the next few weeks to pick your brain. And thanks for the Fidgen tip – will check it out. Regards to you and Steffi!

  2. Diane

    What beautiful photos! Sounds as if you have had a very special month or so. I love the dark color of the siding. And thank you so much for bringing snails back to my mind. When my girls were young, we weren’t allowed to have pets in our apartment. They found that the very small side yard next to our driveway was full of snails and they used to go out and spend hours looking at them, building “houses” for the snails from sticks and leaves, and generally fascinated with them. We found a great children’s book at our library with full color photos blown-up of all aspects of snail life and reproduction. They are amazing and beautiful animals. I will forward the link to the video and book to my girls, who are now all grown up.

  3. Marilyn

    Go Kate!! I just happened upon your blog again and it’s such a joy to read. You inspire me greatly with your writings and building and honesty about the process. I’m recovering from revision surgery on my foot, laid up at my parents house in the Berkeley hills. I feel kinship with your parent connection and the blessings that come from completely slowing down to recharge. It’s been rough but the crickets are chirping outside and mrs hall the kitty is sitting on my head. All is good in the world, and these times make me ground in to what is really important. Thank you for sharing your life and musings Kate, and we all miss you at the Conservancy 🙂

    • Hey Marilyn – good to hear from you (though sorry to hear about your foot)! Thanks for all the kind comments and glad some of my musings resonate. I miss all of you, too, though it’s been a great experience so far (even the challenges). It definitely feels like the right decision to move north to the country and to be working more with my hands. Hope you have a speedy recovery and give my best to everyone!

  4. Brian Austin

    Insightful and practical at the same time. I love how you tie in metaphysical thoughts and feelings into your project progress. Thank you for another wonderful update!

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