Archive for March, 2012

Transitional Jitters

Each time I go outside I feel awakened. My body relaxes, I take a deep breath of air, smell the flowers and earth beneath me, feel the warmth of the sun and the touch of the breeze on my face, and I smile inside. There is no substitute.

And the more I feel the truth of my experience in nature the less I feel able to tolerate the indoors with all it’s still air and sterile surfaces. My senses feel deprived and I feel like I am suffocating.

And yet I feel guilty that this experience, this feeling of aliveness in This Present Moment, outside, seems to be becoming the driving force around around which my life evolves. How can I be outside more? More aware, in tune, and connected to my surroundings? How can I learn from nature, which does not create any trash, which is a fully interconnected web in which no string can be cut without affecting the whole? Why do these not feel like valid, lifelong learning goals?

As I re-enter city life here in Seattle, and commit to returning to Boston for the summer I already feel the validity of such nature connecting experiences being challenged.

I grew up in Boston, one of the most highly educated cities in the world. I went to amazing schools, love, respect and seek people who think critically, challenge the status quo, and apply a global, social justice, feminist,  and progressive lenses to everything.

And I used to think that I can embody all that and live simply and harmoniously with nature as well. But now I am not so sure. It’s a totally different way of living; watching the plants as they transition from season to season, learning to eat and sustain oneself off of the local flora that you have picked yourself from the forest floor, understanding that forest to be in recovery from human logging, and asking permission each time you take something. Each moment is about the Now. What is around you? What attracts you? What makes you curious and calls your attention? The truth of the Now becomes all that really matters.

But what about ambition? What about global perspective? Critical, intellectual thought? Am I living in an idealized, privileged person’s bubble? What about working for equal access? But that means policy, politics, academia… Worlds where nature is not experienced or respected on a day to day basis. Worlds where nature is, at best, objectified as a resource worth using wisely and understanding for human consumption and gain. Worlds full of dysfunction, waste, consumerism, talk, talk and talk…. and action that leads to real change seems slow and hard to come by.

To disappear into the forest and start creating and living an alternative sounds so appealing. But is that not escapism?

I feel conflicted. I see my own contradictions and I don’t know how to reconcile them. If I follow my heart and intuition, and listen to my sensory and bodily experiences I think I would continue to move further and further away from modern, city life, deeper and deeper into the forest. That’s what feels right. And I know I am not the only one. That others, who I admire, love and respect, are doing the same. Others who will validate me and give me the community and support I need.

Until I come back. Then people start asking me what about the rest of us? People I grew up with and also admire, love, and respect will ask me what about the rest of the world? That is a good question. What about the rest of the world?


On Saturday, March 24ths, 2012 I left the wonderful little island of San Juan. I’ve been here over three months!

When I first arrived here there were still leaves on some of the trees, but I couldn’t tell you the names of any of them. The pump house archway wasn’t yet mudded and the windows were also bare. The cob house had only a small section of floor, some straw insulation in the living room ceiling and many more holes to the brisk outdoors. I didn’t know how to change the bit in a drill, or the blade in a saw, let alone scribe a wood to stone line.

Now as I get ready to move on new spring buds are opening around me and I can tell you the common and scientific names of many of them. The pump house is fully mudded and just waiting for some warm spring days to help it dry, and the cob house has a floor you can walk on and a ceiling that is fully insulated! And I have figured out how to change that gosh darn sawzall blade and a few other tricks of the trade. Of course I still have much to learn as I think I recently tried to cut through copper with a wood blade and definitely continue to make other silly mistakes. But Ryan has been a patient and willing teacher and I am incredibly grateful.

These are just some of the more tangible things I have learned. There are countless more subtle ideas and processes I have picked up as well, many of which I may not yet be aware of but I am sure will influence me as I continue on my journey.

While I have been on this island I have also played and listened to more music then I have in a long time. Weekly contra dances with an open band plus a weekly Irish session hosted by Art L. on his wonderful schooner have helped improve my ability to pick up tunes by ear. The jams I have possibly enjoyed the most though have been with Ryan and Ian and Chuck, where 90% of what I am doing is listening because the songs are ones that I do not know, and when I actually play it is often quite technically simple and meant to just support the other musicians. I thank the islanders for letting me be a part of this wonderful music scene for the months I have been here. And a special thanks to Cori who played a big part in making me feel welcome in the contra scene here and was always eager to sit down and help me figure out a tune phrase by phrase. All in all I have been re inspired to find groups to play with regularly back east in order to continue to develop my ear and expand my repertoire of tunes.

As I leave this island I realize that I have created a lovely community for myself here that I am quite sad to leave. A goodbye/equinox party on wednesday night left me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside as we all sat around a fire on the beach roasting marshmallows and telling stories past midnight. And it seems I am leavings just as the season of bonfires begins.

Another highlight of my time on the island has been the friendship I have developed with Alan Boyne. He is like another grandparent to me or like that professor who takes a lucky student or two under their wing that I always wished I had at Cornell. We have enjoyed weekly contra dances together, frequent dinners at the Cask and Schooner, and shared some music as well. Our time is always filled with insightful conversations often having to do with right versus left brain thinking and trying to better figure out why things don’t always turn out quite as well as they should.

More recently I befriended another older man, Michael J Cohen, who is the caller at the Monday night contra dances and a folk musician himself. But when I found myself sharing a dinner with him at Cask and Schooner one evening before the Irish Session, I realized, of course, that he was much more than just the caller. I found out that he founded the Audubon Expedition Institute, which no longer exists in the form it used to, but is a program that I had heard of and have been intrigued by every time it came across my path for the last couple years. The individuals I have run into who were part of this program (that ran out of Lesley University in Massachusetts) were all now working in fields deeply connected with the outdoors and seemed to be dynamic, engaged individuals with values and backgrounds that resonated with me. So I got quite excited when I realized I had unknowingly stumbled into dinner with the founder of this program.

I learned  from Mike that the Audubon Expedition Institute no longer exists but that he had streamlined the institute, which is based in teachings of eco psychology, and had created a much more financially accesible program that people can do on their own, in their own backyard, with guidance from a few books and an online support group. And so I walked out of dinner that night with all the needed “text books” and decided why not enroll in the $100 intro course that I could complete in about 11 weeks from anywhere in the world. It seems that all I have to do is be willing to do a few activities each week out in some small patch of nature and write about them. I have just started the course and don’t yet have to much to say about it but it seemed like the universe was putting this opportunity right under my nose and making it pretty hard to refuse, so I will let you know how it goes!

All in all, my time here on the island has been great. I feel I have finally, truly embarked on my journey as a natural builder and have found an important mentor for me in this field. But perhaps more importantly, I found a community here on the island of truly good people. This place has a small town feel that took a little while to get comfortable in but three months here has been just enough time to give me a taste of the good stuff that keeps people coming back here. People here take care of and show up for each other in a way that you don’t see so much in a city. It is quite beautiful to experience and can’t quite be explained in words. As I sat around another spring equinox bonfire my last night here I felt my eyes tear up. I will definitely have to return one day to this wonderful little island.

I am sad to leave and am also excited to go home in a month and have an opportunity to start applying what I have learned on my own small projects. But before I go home I return to Seattle for a few days to say goodbye to Penny, and then will take a 2 week detour into Canada to Lasqueti Island where I will learn from another natural builder, Mark Young. In my mind, the more teachers I have the better as I develop my own skills and style. And so my journey continues…. Wish me luck!

It’s been a little while since I’ve written, but not for lack of  topics to write about. I have plenty of topics, like the great documentary I watched, Garbage Warrior, and some fantastic TEDTalks on how education kills creativity, and how it doesn’t matter what you do so much as why you do something. Or the wonderful blog I found on a family living the pioneer life in Sweden. They decided to jump in to a totally off grid life for a year with four kids and wrote a book about it. And, what I find even more inspiring and telling is that after a year they didn’t want to leave, so they are still doing it. I could also write about how I may have picked a few too many stinging nettles with my bare hands. But boy are they delicious, nutritious, and abundant. I had no butter so I sautéed some with coconut solids, salt, pepper, onions and olive oil and they were delicious. Also made some delicious nettle pesto to put on gluten free gnocchi (potatoes, butternut squash, nutmeg, salt buckwheat flour, and a little water. Knead it into a dough, cut pieces, roll them with a fork to give them that gnocchi shape, and then bake, fry, or steam).   And the house is looking better than ever; With a few big aesthetic improvements it is staring to feel like a real, cozy home!

A friend came by and suggested that we put pictures up on the wall to show our progress. We thought it was great idea! It makes the place feel more lived in and does give some extra talking points for when we have visitors.

We got sick of holes in the floor and decided we needed to figure out the kitchen layout before continuing. So here is our temporary plywood floor!

WOW, it feels big! We tore out the temporary counter and are looking at the space with fresh eyes. It's time to play with kitchen layout!

In the meantime, lets plug some more holes, like these ones above the kitchen windows.

And do a lime plaster test. Will out method of lathe over rigid foam insulation on the ceiling work? So far so good....

One mockup of a possible kitchen layout. So Exciting! I can start to picture someone actually living here 🙂

So there is my brief photo log of the progress we have made on the house. Hope you enjoyed it! I think my brain still needs time to digest and synthesize before I can write more.

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