Digging in the Driftless has been exploring environmental topics for almost  5 years.  In that time the blog has received over 270,000 views, and I wish each and every one of my visitors Happy Earth Day!

For the benefit of Isthmus readers or others who may be linking in to learn more about Underhill House, I offer an index of posts that cover some of the processes of building listed by topic.


 THE SITEthe-site

8 Tips for Siting your Natural Home

Getting Ready to Build into the Hill  

Excavating for a House on a Hill




Tale of a Timber Frame Tree

Choosing Whole Timbers for Our Home

Your Next Building Material – Unmilled Branching Timbers

The First 100 Trees for our House 

How to Peel Trees

Peeling the Trees for Our House Seeing Inside a Tree

The Tree Felling Begins

Felling Our Front Yard

Turning Trees into Unmilled Timbers

Finishing Unmilled Timbers for our House

My Valentine to the Timbers That Will Make Our House

Milling the Hardwood for our House – At last!

Using Every Particle of Pine

Turning Tree Trunks into Kitchen Shelves




Pouring the Foundation for our Straw Bale House

The Cure for Concrete

Why We Are Not Using a Sand Bed to Store Thermal Heat

Our Fab Slab – How the First Floor of Underhill House Was Poured

 Why We Love Full Spectrum Solar

Clark Kewnt Floor Turns into Superman When It Flexes Its PEX

Patching Punctured PEX

What’s Hot at Underhill House?



Whole Tree Timber Framing Begins at Underhill House

Raising the Unmilled Timber Frame of Underhill House

Up, Up and Away! Raising the Timer Frame Bents

Underhill House Whole Tree Timber Rafters Hit the Sky

Bracing our Rount timber Frame for Big Winds



Building a Rock Wall Using slip-form part 1

Building a Rock Wall Using slip-form part 2

Something Fishy About our 400 million Year Old Foundation



Straw Bales for Underhill House and Where They Came From

Whole Trees Straw Bale Report Card

Mapping the Secrets of our Straw Bale Walls



6 Sod Roof YouTubes

The First ten layers of our Sod Roof 

Planting Our Roof – A Prairie in the Sky

Sod Roof Success at Underhill House

Mowing the Roof at Underhill House



Birds-eye View and a Free Tree

Waiting for Well Water

See Underhill House on the 2013 Solar Tour

Cover Cropping to Create a Soil Community

How We Chose the Wood Stove for Underhill House

Moving Into Underhill House

Green Building? Don’t Bank on It.

Building a House on a Roller Coaster

Underhill House – What’s in a Name?




April 22, 2014 at 7:02 pm Leave a comment



In mid-February, we planted the greens that we expected to transfer to our greenhouse in a few weeks when the cold temperatures subsided, and the weather became a little more mild.  (See my post Planting into the Polar Vortex)

Any signs of spring around here in March?  Nope!

Any signs of spring around here in mid-March? Nope!

As we all now know, warm weather was still many, many weeks away.  We had a couple of salads from the thinnings of our seedlings, and moved them throughout the day to get them the maximum sunshine as they grew with gusto in front of our dining room windows.IMG_3734IMG_3735Meanwhile in our unheated greenhouse built against the south side of our barn, we prepped the growing boxes and deployed max/min thermometers.   In past years it has been warm enough to transplant into the greenhouse by early March.

The soil temperature began to break the 40 degree mark, but the air was still dropping well below freezing at night.

We read about deep winter greenhouses in Minnesota.

That’s when we got the idea to create a greenhouse within the greenhouse.  Many outdoor gardeners make use of row covers.  We brought the concept inside, and hoped the sun’s warmth building daily in the soil of the growing boxes could keep plants out of the killer-frost range — so we fashioned a framework and covered the beds with plastic sheeting.

IMG_3719We plan to put grommets in the plastic and hang it from dowels, so we can put it on and take if off easily.  We expect it will also be of great use extending the season in the fall.

IMG_3742The seedlings were really ready to stretch their toes.

IMG_3744We have lettuce in the foreground, spinach and kale in the background, and plan to fill the foreground open area with herbs soon.

Popeye never had it so good.

Popeye never had it so good.

The little darlings have been out in the greenhouse for four days now, and they are thriving.  We no longer need the plastic interior cover.

Salad days are just around the corner.


How are your early starts coming?


March 31, 2014 at 4:36 pm 1 comment


Doug and I try to eat as locally as possible, and with a year-round farmers’ market in Madison,  we are still getting apples, and root vegetables grown last year – even cabbages, which are so much sweeter and more flavorful than anything that has been drenched in petroleum while being hauled from who-knows-where.

I had one of these wonderful farmers' market apples today.

I had one of these wonderful farmers’ market apples today.

Normally we can keep eating local hoop-house spinach all winter long, but this winter defeated the heated hoop houses, and spinach disappeared from the farmers’ market early.

Of course, the most local food comes from your own garden, and we have just had our first home-grown greens of 2014.

I'm still sweeping snow off the greenhouse every few days so it can start warming up.

I’m sweeping snow off the greenhouse every few days so it can start warming up.

We have an  unheated, lean-to  greenhouse on our barn, and this year the polar vortex is keeping it cold a little longer than usual, but February 8 we planted the last of our spinach and lettuce seeds from the previous season in pots.

February 9 (after a trip to town) we added Italian Heirloom Kale, Parsley, Spearmint, Oregano and Sweet Marjoram to our little table-top garden.

New born lettuce

New born lettuce

Watching them grow, monitoring their moisture and moving them around the room to keep them in the best possible light has been an entertaining project.  Starting seedlings in your kitchen is almost like having a very quiet, fuzzy green pet.

Don't these little spinach have an adorable Dr. Seuss quality?

Don’t these little spinach have an adorable Dr. Seuss quality?

We put about 4 seeds in each pot.  A few pots never burst forth, but after 2 weeks, Doug transplanted extras from the successful pots into the empty ones.  They are still a little smaller, but coming along.transplant

At first we were misting the surface of each pot every day (more sometimes on sunny days), but once their first leaves unfurled, we started tapering off the water to avoid creating a fungus farm around their delicate and vulnerable stems.  Growing them with only available light makes them a wee bit spindly, but everything is a trade-off, and we chose to skip grow lights this year and see what happens.

An interesting contrast between the concrete outside and inside the glass.  And all that wonderful warmth inside is solar - no propane or wood needed when the sun is shining, and for quite a while after.

An interesting contrast between the concrete outside  and inside the glass. All that wonderful warmth inside is solar – no propane or wood needed when the sun is shining, and for hours after even in the coldest nights of the polar vortex.

We had to leave them unwatered for three days while we went to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse.  When we came back they were bigger and better than ever.lettuce

March 2, we thinned each pot to 2 plants and had our first salad, dressed with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar and cranberry mustard.  Magnifique!

Our first home-grown salad of 2014!

Our first home-grown salad of 2014!

Doug has placed 4 hi-lo thermometers in the greenhouse, two inserted into the soil and 2 just above.  Yesterday was sunny, and the air got up to 63 F.  The soil temp is only 30, and the nights still go below freezing, so we are waiting for the nights to get a little less intense out there before we replant our little darlings to the greenhouse.

Next up — my best friend and gardening consultant, Susan, tells me it’s time to start onion seedlings for transplanting directly outside.

Do you have a greenhouse or cold frame that you are using to get a jump on spring?

 How far along are your greens?

March 4, 2014 at 6:18 pm 2 comments


I’d like to share my second article that appeared recently in The Dodgeville Chronicle.  I’m  covering a 4-part series of evening presentations called “Floods, Droughts, Land and Energy: What Is Wisconsin’s Future.”  (Check out the first installment How Will Global Warming Affect Wisconsin.” ln0gxszb

“We all have a role to play in how Wisconsin creates and uses energy,” Sherrie Gruder, UW-Extension Sustainable Design Specialist, told an audience who braved another intensely cold night to attend the second of a four-part series on Wisconsin’s future weather and its implications. “How we use energy will play a crucial role in Wisconsin’s economy, environment and public health.”
“We are moving toward a low-carbon economy based on new energy,” she said. “It may not always feel like it, but it is steadily happening all around us. New energy will create jobs and decrease the negative impact that coal-generated power has on our land, water and our health. Burning coal produces a lot of sulfur dioxide, which causes respiratory diseases like asthma. In addition, every lake in Wisconsin has mercury pollution from these coal plants. That’s why we have health advisories that limit the number of fish we should eat – especially pregnant women.”
Wisconsin spends about $19 billion each year on energy, and almost $13 billion of that total leaves the state because we have to buy our power elsewhere.

According to Gruder, what’s needed is a new energy economy in which many people and communities become “prosumers” – not just consuming energy, but producing energy using the sun, wind and biomass.  Read More here.  

February 19, 2014 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment


Thanks to the polar vortex,

this winter has had some real teeth here in the Midwest.DSC_0022

I have listened to many complaints about below zero temperatures

and our thick blanket of snow. flower

I’m looking on this winter the way I might have gazed at the buffalo if I could travel back in time and view them from the first railway to cross the U.S.

I feel like I’m looking at something valuable and beautiful that I may not see the likes of again.DSC_0005

Winters like this are a vanishing treasure.ulsw251s-copy

But today I’m trying not to think about the global warming havoc occurring everywhere we look.

Today I am appreciating this winter gift from the good old days

and simply reveling in its stark beauty –

especially the flowers of winter.DSC_0014

Plants can’t migrate.

They can’t warm themselves with a fire. DSC_0010

They have to stand there

and take what the weather throws at them.

The way prairie flowers do this fills me with awe.goldenrod

I’ve taken my camera while snow shoeing the last two days. DSC_0035

Yesterday was brilliantly sunny. DSC_0001

Today the sky is filled with falling snow. DSC_0023

Both are great days to admire the flowers of winter.DSC_0037

What are your favorite flowers of winter?             

February 12, 2014 at 12:21 pm 2 comments


Anyone who lives in or has traveled through the Driftless Area (where Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa meet) can see at a glance that this is dramatically different from the land encircling it.  Because this region was untouched by the last three glaciers, it is defined by rugged ridges and deep valleys that preserve the world here must have all looked like before mile-thick ice sheets flattened the surrounding terrain.winter-river

Eric Carson, geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey does geologic mapping in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin, and his work in the past year is going to rewrite the natural history of the Wisconsin River.  According to Carson, at one time, the Wisconsin River flowed from west to east – the opposite direction of the current current.

A geologic feature, the Military Ridge, runs high and proud, just south of the Wisconsin River bisecting the Driftless region.   These days most people know it as a rails-to-trails bike path but it has a long history as a pre-settlement passageway.

In geologic terms, the Ridge is a cuesta, created from cracked and tilted substrata that shoved  up a barrier that today creates a regional watershed divide–  from which streams north to the Wisconsin and south to the Pecatonica, the Sugar and the Rock.8x3ybske-copy

Up to about a million years ago, the Ridge was enough to turn the flow of the upper Mississippi River to the east at what is now Prairie du Chien along the present-day Wisconsin River bed – it’s waters mixing with Lake Michigan along Door County and eventually disgorging into the Atlantic through the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

Today the Wisconsin River bed gradually drops from east to west.  But buried by 50 meters of silt lies the bedrock of the original river that Carson has named the Wyalusing River, and that ancient bed slopes the opposite direction.  It’s a case of what is known as “river piracy,”and  it’s geology protocol to rename a river whose bed has been stolen.

This information has all been discovered in just the last 8 months!

Carson’s excitement filled the room as he shared his data in a presentation last week at Wednesday Nite at the Lab, “When the Ancient Wisconsin River Flowed East.”2bktb5st-copy

What turned the Wyalusing River around?

A glacier advancing from the northeast blocked the river’s flow, backing up its headwaters and creating a great lake (and that 50 meters of silt).  Eventually all that water pouring in burst through, forming a gap in the Military Ridge near Wyalusing State Park.  Picture the homes washed away when Lake Delton overflowed in the 2008 flooding see video  then multiply it on an inconceivably massive scale.

I am awe struck when I try to visualize geologic events of these proportions!

How Do We Know?

This glimpse of our present world being sculpted by ice and water has been revealed thanks to two new technologies that Carson has been using.

One is a new coring method using Geoprobe coring technology.  It’s cheap and fast, compared to previous coring methods.  A two-inch barrel is pounded into the ground to establish the top of the bedrock.  “It allows multiple holes to be drilled per day, rather than many days per hole,” Carson said.  Combining the data from his own boring and the public records from deep-well drilling done for commercial purposes in the state, he was able to clearly chart that the ancient river bed drops to the East.


Roll on, Wisconsin river!

The second new technology is improvements in LiDAR imagery.  LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging.  It’s an airborne sensing method that uses a pulsed laser to measure the distance to the earth from a plane.   It allows scientists to study the surface of the earth, with a resolution that recently improved from about 1.5 meters to about 5 centimeters. It is giving scientists an amazingly detailed look at the contours of the earth, and allowed Carson to see places where the ancient river bed cut terraces into bedrock near Prairie du Chien, Wauzeka and Muscoda.

Research has also established that the Ohio and other rivers out East had their flows pirated away from Saint Lawrence to toward the Mississippi as well in ancient times.  Altogether, Carson estimated these piracies cut the flow of the St. Lawrence into the Atlantic by about a third.

Carson undertook this study as part of a multi-county mapping project that will be used in county planning, but it also may help geologists and climatologists identify the causes of shifts in the prehistoric climate that will help us understand our ongoing global warming in greater detail.

February 4, 2014 at 10:42 pm Leave a comment


3zrzxlnkThink globally – act locally!

I got a chance to do just that recently when I read in the local newspaper, The Dodgeville Chronicle, about an upcoming  4-part series of evening presentations called “Floods, Droughts, Land and Energy: What Is Wisconsin’s Future.”

avdn0zqgWe now live about 11 miles from Dodgeville, our county seat, with a population of about 5,000.  We subscribe to The Chronicle, but I never thought to write for it before – having spent many years working for big city papers  and lately writing mostly for magazines and working on books and my blog.

Doug and I were both excited to see global warming becoming an official  topic of conversation in Dodgeville, and he suggested I ask The Chronicle if I could cover the series for them.

So now I’m also a  correspondent for The Dodgeville Chronicle!

What is Wisconsin’s Future?

by Denise ThorntonIowa County needs to be better prepared for natural disasters, cautioned Iowa County Emergency Government Coordinator Keith Hurlbert last Thursday at the first of a four-part educational series, Floods, Droughts, Land and Energy – What is Wisconsin’s Future?
“Think about the storms you’ve seen in the media in the past two years: the tornadoes that hit Joplin Missouri and Alabama, the perfect storm that hit the East Coast and the record-setting storm in Oklahoma City,” Hurlbert said. “These storms are increasing in frequency and growing in size. That’s why climate change is important to me and to all of us. We emergency managers get concerned about how well people in our area are prepared for disaster.”
Hulbert advised that checking the website is a great way to learn how to be prepared.
In the event of a disaster, help may take days to reach you, or you might have to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The website offers suggestions of how to create a basic survival kit as well as an evacuation kit of essential belongings and provides a step-by-step Online Family Emergency Planner.
“Climate change is raising the odds of disasters,” Hurlbert said. “How would you handle closed roads and downed power lines? It’s my job to help people think about how to be prepared for disaster.”
“There are both risks and opportunities in climate change,” said David S. Liebl, University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Statewide Outreach Educator Specialist. Liebl’s part of the presentation focused on how climate change is going to affect our county.

Read more

January 31, 2014 at 12:26 pm 2 comments

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