Category: Natural & Sustainable Building

This weekend I had the great pleasure of going to the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair. It was a blast! It inspired and energized me, reminding me why I do what I do, and how many other awesome people there are out there doing equally awesome and amazing things. What an amazing an educational event, full of everything from seed saving workshops, to mushroom medicine, to super efficient wood stoves, and yummy organic food.

While down there I got to reconnect with an old friend from the natural building world, Chris, also known as uncle mud, and squish my hands in some mud as we shared a booth. Over the course of the weekend I watched as kids helped him build a little rocket mass heater and a mini cob oven that they then cooked garlic bread in. I witnessed kids and adults light up as they talked about their dreams of building their own hand sculpted house and I remembered the magic that happens as people squish their toes and fingers in mud. A little boy looked up at his parents, all covered in mud, and said “I’m allowed!” and his parents smiled. Indeed, our culture needs more environments where we are allowed to be dirty and messy and happy.

Chris told stories to me and others of how he would teach mud workshops to prisoners and how suddenly these tough criminals would be telling their stories of vulnerability while squishing in the mud. And I watched as a young couple that reminded me of Peter and I when we were just discovering the world of natural building spent almost the whole weekend at our booth, totally entranced by this new world that was opening up to them. “This is the dream I never knew I had!” said the woman.

Although I enjoyed sharing about my tiny house and the work I do at hammerstone, I think what was most inspiring about being at this mother earth news fair was seeing everyone else’s excitement; the excitement of other vendors as they talked about what they were most passionate about, and the excitement of fair goers as they eagerly gobbled up all this new and juicy information.

Indeed, it is weekends and events like this one that make me feel hopeful about the future of our world. So many people doing so many good things!

Here in Ithaca, NY winter feels as though it has definitely arrived. We have snow on the ground and temperatures stayed below freezing sometimes dropping into the single digits for most of last week. With that being the case I have only gone out to check on my tiny house but have not done any work on the windy, exposed site. But my hoop house seems to be working well, sheltering my floor from the snow and keeping things protected until it warms up again.

Last weekend I did start drawing out to scale framing plans for the walls and hope to do a lot more planning through the winter months. Already some things have shifted, like the placement of my fridge, which changes the placement of my sink and my window… And it is making me think it might be worth taking the time to teach myself google sketch-up rather than drawing the plans by hand, where things are much harder to change without starting over.

I also completed my third week working as an employee of Hammerstone School, which is a lot of fun and is definitely keeping me busy! We had a basic carpentry class on November 14th and 15th with ten awesome women and each one built a pair of saw horses to take home with them. It was really cool to step into the role of teacher and share some of what I have learned. And to hear the students enthusiasm and appreciation for all the knowledge!

Beware, women at work

Beware, women at work.

Then this week a timber frame apprentice from Hawk Circle named Emma Appleton joined us and we just about finished cutting the frame for a small barn!

As you can see, we are working in an unheated barn so it is a bit chilly! Best to keep moving to stay warm! But at least we have some shelter from the wind and snow.

As you can see, we are working in an unheated barn so it is a bit chilly! Best to keep moving to stay warm! But at least we have some shelter from the wind and snow.

Emma hard at work. Must have been a bit warmer that day :-)

Emma hard at work. Must have been a bit warmer that day 🙂

Emma was a lot of fun and taught us some brilliant new words (she is from England) my favorite of which was ear defenders!

We are hoping to have an all women’s timber frame raising sometime in the first half of December (date TBD). This could very well be a historical event as Maria, Emma, or myself have never been at a raising of only women! It is not that we are anti men but more that we want to give women the chance to fully participate. We are thinking men will be allowed to come and support by providing food and childcare, as truth be told this is often what the women end up getting sucked into, whether they want to or not!

So, not too much progress on the tiny house, other than drawing out some plans and having a fridge buying adventure at home depot (I bought a cute high efficiency 10 cubic foot fridge only to find out it required 5″ of clearance on both sides and in back for ventilation! So we returned it today and a different, slightly larger 14 cubic foot energy star fridge will be being delivered on december 8th), but definitely been keeping busy with other things building related!

“why such philosophical talk about something as worldly as homebuilding? Because what is worldly about homebuilding is that it happens on this earth, it uses natural and man made materials and it requires money. The rest of homebuilding has to do with beliefs, feelings, spirit and passion. Certainly shelters can be made without these, but they probably will not be the kind of structures that speak positively and warmly to future generations of occupants. For most people, homebuilding is full of the most sensitive emotions. It seperates them from their life’s earnings, either to a good or ill end. It can bring families together or it can tear them apart, for homebuilding can be a dark and dangerous sea full of shoals and turbulant currents. I believe a well designed and well constructed timber frame house is worth the voyage, and I offer this book to help chart the course”

This is the last paragraph of the introduction to The Timber-Frame Home: Design, Construction, Finishing written by Tedd Benson. And for me it captures much of why I build. Building, to me, perfectly matches my inclinations as an artist and person who strongly identifies with place and fulfills my desire to walk a “mystical path with practical feet” (a phrase taken from Bill Plotkins, Nature and The Human Soul). Building is a worldly endeavor with tangible, real outcomes. But is also so much more then that. It can build community, make a statement, create a sense of place, give pride, provide an anchor, a home. Who are we without a home?

It has been a little while since I have written about building but that is not because I have stopped exploring it. Quite the contrary, I think I have become even more committed to it. Almost six months ago I was given the honor of acceptance as a Heartwood School Apprentice. I will be one of four apprentices who will stay at the school through this summer taking courses and also being offered many fantastic opportunities outside of the courses to participate in raising’s, go to timber frame guild meetings, and visit historical timber frame structures in the northeast. And to add to this honor I also received the very first Berkshire Woodworkers Guild scholarship to help with the cost of this summer. This was an exciting and unexpected gift that reassured me that I must be doing something right.

Almost a month ago now I went to Heartwood for our first course, Fundamentals of Woodworking. It felt great to be there. I felt at home almost immediately. And although I am sure their will be many times during the apprenticeship where I will be challenged, get frustrated, and perhaps even doubt my abilities, this first week I felt strong and confident, which felt like a good way to start. In this first course I learned a lot about tools in the shop; their function, safety, and maintenance. And we also built a toolbox as well as a beautiful little shaker stool. I was quite pleased with how mine came out and will hopefully get a picture up here of it soon. I also met one of the other apprentices, Jack, who at 17 years old is the youngest apprentice Heartwood has ever had. We got along fantastically and I am excited to meet the other two apprentices, one of whom is coming from Argentina!

When I returned to Ithaca I was almost immediately presented with an opportunity to put my new knowledge to use. It was quite amazing actually. I had just pulled into the parking lot of Ecovillage at Ithaca (where I am renting a room until I fully move into heartwood on June 13th) when I saw Dave, a fellow ecovillage resident, struggling to carry a bunch of wood and tools from the shared shop back to his house. I offered him a hand and by the time we had reached his house he had enlisted my help in his projects. Dave is an amazing man. A professor of neurobiology at Cornell University, he built his own timber frame home in Song, designing everything, including his own ingenious windows and doors and enlisting a local blacksmith to help give his house a unique and beautiful look. He also tinkers with electric bikes in his spare time, using them to commute back  and forth to Cornell when the weather is nice (the hills in Ithaca make doing this commute on a regular bike only for the the most ambitious) and driving his small hybrid car that gets 70 miles to the gallon in poor weather. Now we are almost done building 4 storm windows that will match his interior window design and have a plan for a screen door that we are both pretty excited about and hope we can pull off.

In the little spare time I have between these projects and my work at the amazing local food coop, Greenstar, I have been reading some books on Timber framing. The first was Build a Classic Timber Frame House by Jack A. Sobon, a fantastic how to book that walks you through exactly how to build a classic hall and parlor house. And, having just finished that one I am starting in on The Timber Frame Home by Tedd Benson. Already I like his writing style which seems to intertwine the philosophy with the practicalities, because lets be real, yes, I like that building is practical, but if it doesn’t also fit into my belief systems and worldview then I would not be interested. The philosophies, beliefs, and ethics of building are of just as much interest to me as the practicalities of it, and I hope I never lose site of that as I delve deeper into learning all the practical skills to create a delivery system to manifest those more abstract parts of who I am. After I finish this book I hope to read The Company We Keep: Reinventing small business for people, community, and place by John Abrams, a book about a timber frame business on Martha’s Vineyard, and what it takes to run a responsible and ethical business. I like what one of the reviews on the back of the book says; “the company we keep is a soulful and refreshing reminder that businesses are no different from families, communities, or any other human organization– without mission or purpose they can be lifeless, even destructive, but infused with intention, they can sow the seeds for a hopeful future.” -Gary Hirshburg

This post is way overdue, but better late then never, right? So When I moved into my current home here in Ithaca I moved in with a wonderful woman name Marsha. She is an art teacher and artist herself who is particularly talented at clay work. When I started telling her about natural building she got really excited and we decided we had to do some kind of cob project this past fall. We didn’t have much time to plan so we kept it super small and experimental. But it was a lot of fun, and I can proudly say that this is my first natural building project where I was the “expert” on the scene and played the role of teacher rather then student.

So here is what we we decided to do. Marsha works at the Ithaca Youth bureau doing clay work with children and adults. They have some outside space there right next to stewart park so we decided that was the perfect spot for our experiment. Following we our totally experimental approach we decided to try a cob bird bath (yes, we knew that cob doesn’t generally do well in direct constant contact with water.) We came up with a design where the base would be cob on top of a mini stone foundation and then the top, which would hold the water, would be an actual ceramic piece that would be water proof and act as a mini roof over the base. Of course, the plan evolved as we built (and is still evolving) but here are slideshow of pictures from along the way:

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Our goal was to have the children involved as much as possible and to just experiment and have fun. It was a big success! The children loved it. How could they not? Its a child’s dream to play in the mud. And they were fascinated since any of them were working in clay with Marsha but had never seen this application of clay.

The cob we made used clay from six mile creek river bed, straw from a friend of Marsha’s and gravel from a pile we found in a dump yard. For the plaster we used sand from a nearby golf course (because it was such a small project they let me take a 5 gallon bucket of from them, and mixed in some horse manure for fiber and extra stickiness along with the creek slay.

The kids had fun experimenting with pigments too, crushing up berries and seeing what effect that had on the color. I tried remember to take pictures but it seemed I would always be too involved when the action was happening to remember. So most of the pictures are taken at the end of the day once the kids left. But the were involved in a good portion of the work.

It was a lot of fun and cost us nothing to make. And it is still holding up well, even after rain storms, heavy winds, snow, and below freezing temperatures! We hope to continue the tradition in future years and build other cob projects with the youth bureau children. Some ideas we have are a cob dragon that also serves as a bench and perhaps a play house/gazebo.

Here we go! Pictures are worth a thousand words….

Now that the timber frame is up we are starting to attach purlins. We used round poles of 2 to 3 inch diameter. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A little bit of stick framing around the doors and windows. Here are some window buck frames. These are for the loft so they will be hung from the rafter rather than attached to the toe ups. Window details are perhaps some of the most complex and crucial parts of a building as they are weak spots for potential water leaks and air drafts. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Bundles of phragmite reeds being stored until we are ready to put them on the roof! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Bundles of phragmite reeds being stored until we are ready to put them on the roof. Also, you can see slip straw put out on tarps to dry a little before being stuffed into the cracks between bales and gables. This will shorten the overall drying time which can be as slow as an inch a week. This means if you have a 14 inch thick bale wall and are using slip straw to fill in odd shaped gaps it could take 14 weeks for the wall to be dry all the way through in these spots! Letting the slip covered straw dry a bit before putting in the wall will shorten this time period. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Unloading the bales! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Before the bales are put on the toe ups drainage gravel was laid to create a level surface between the wooden ladders and nails were hammered into the toe ups to give the bales something to grab onto and help hold them in place. Photo taken by Ed Trager

And the first bales go in! Sarah shows us how it is best to start from the corners and work in, tying, staking and pinning your bales together as you go. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A bale stake about to be put in. These wooden (not metal!) bale stakes pin one row to the next. The stakes used to pin the second row to the first are particularly long (~24 inches) but the stakes used for the the rows above the 2nd row are generally just a little longer than the bale is tall, so about 18 or 20 inches. Stakes are only really necessary in the corners but can be used along the whole length of the wall. Sarah told us to think about the stakes and other bale fasteners as temporary bracing until the plaster goes on. Once the plaser is on the bales this is what will really be doing the structural work of keeping the bale wall in place. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A bale pin, which acts like a toe nail, pinning the bale to the adjacent post, or in this case a window buck. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Notice the air fins attached to the posts, beams, and braces before bales goes up. The material used for these is called screened hardboard. The use of these air fins are particularly crucial around the windows. They will keep air from being able to enter where the bales meet the wood and will also allow for a smooth plaster transition and prevent any cracking in the plaster that could occur as the wood shrinks and expands. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Baling needles are about 19 inches long and are used for retying bales to custom sizes, which is particularly handy around windows and doors. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A shave horse came in handy for making bale stakes as well as for pins and needles for thatching. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A beautiful diagram of thatching drawn by Deanne Bednar. Photo taken by Ed Trager

And Deanne helps up put the first bundle of reeds on the roof! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Tying down the reed bundles with a wire threaded under the purlin and around the sway. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Me! feeling good, hanging out on the roof, and happy to be a part of this fantastic project. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Deanne inspecting the drip edge of the thatch roof. Photo taken by Ed Trager

The gable “hat” in the kids cottage gave us some ideas for the retreat cabin. Photo taken by Ed Trager

The cob garden wall is coming along great! Notice the wooden form in the archway that will later be removed and the anchors along the wall that the mini living roof will attach to. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Some details on the cob wall. Cob is great because of its sculptural nature; you can carve niches out and sculpt just about any design you can imagine! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Heather working inside in the loft, passing thatch needles back to those on the outside. Soon the whole structure will be enclosed! Photo taken by Ed Trager

The second coat of plaster is beginning to go up! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Here is the house, with the north side just about completed. There is still work to be done but not bad for a two week workshop! Deanne will continue to work on the structure with whomever is able to stick around. Photo taken by Ed Trager

I can’t wait to see a picture of the cottage completely finished!

The last three weeks I have had the honor of being a work trader for the Natural Cottage Project that took place at the Straw Bale Studio in Oxford, Michigan. Being a work trader meant that I got a discount for the workshop by coming a week before the course began to help with setup. And it meant that I got to more intimately see what it takes to put on a natural building workshop as well as getting to know the instructors and my fellow work traders quite well.

Personally, these last three weeks have been life changing and have cemented (with cob, of course) my own desire and passion to do everything I can to keep my hands in this stuff and continue to pursue natural building as a career. You might ask, what will that look like? And the truth is I don’t yet know, and there are a lot of possibilities in this still emerging field. But I know I want to do it.

The day that really made it all come together for me was the day that the timber frame literally came together and my hands were in it from the first bent that went up to the very last rafter. The whole experience put me on a natural high and I just knew inside that I had to keep doing this. It was around this point in the workshop that I started getting people saying things to me like, “So are you going to keep building? Because you’re good at it and you should,” and “I want to build with you again,” and “How long have you been doing this?”

After two months in Boston feeling like a fish out of water I finally felt back in my element; I was learning, I was teaching, I was creating and inventing, and I was sleeping under the stars. This is the way I am meant to live my life.

And I was so immersed in it and reluctant to pull myself away from the action that I neglected to write any blog posts while there! Not to mention that my camera broke so I will be using the pictures of other very generous people to retroactively try and share my experience with you all.

For now, here are some pictures from the first week as a teaser. I will do my best to give you more details on the project and my experience in the next couple of weeks!

Photo taken by Eva Wimmer. The beginning of the Foundation.

Foundation trenches go to frost depth which is almost 4 feet in Michigan. They are filled with gravel, then perforated drainage pipe, which can be padded and given extra filtration by wrapping in straw. Then more drainage gravel is put on top of the pipe and then larger rocks and rumble fill the trench to almost grade. The last few inches on the trench should again be filled with gravel to give the first course of the stemwall a level surface in which stones can be embedded. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Timbers have arrived! Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

And now Sarah has arrived! Here we are putting up batter boards which serve the same purpose as dayton stakes- marking a level plane that we can use for reference to make the foundation and the building level. These boards were set up using a water level. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer,

Visually checking that the batter boards are level. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

Foundation wall beginning to be built and cement piers poured in Sonotubes which will be used as footers underneath timber frame posts. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

Our four wonderful instructors. From left to right: Deanne Bednar of Strawbale Studio
Sarah Highland of Highland Artisan
Christina Ott of Barefoot Builder
Chris Mcclellan of IndustrialRustic. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

Covering up a mornings worth of cob that will be put on the wall tomorrow. A layer of wet straw and then a tarp covering that will keep our cob from drying out in the summer heat. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Timber framing 101: Tool care and maintenance. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

After an exhilarating cob toss our cob bond beam in in place! Yup, that is right, we are using cob rather than cement as our bond beam on top of our stem wall. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

On top of the cob bond beam we places our toe ups, which the straw bales will rest on. Also notice the oak footer that has been bolted to our asana tubes. The timber frame posts will sit on top of these. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

Our superhero cooks, Emily and Noah, kept all 70 of us well fed during this two week workshop. We couldn’t have done it without them. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Working through the rain, some of us get to see just a little bit of what it means to do round wood timber framing as we prep our two round floor joists for the loft. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

The layers of the subfloor are going in. First there is 6 or so inches of drain gravel. Then 4 inches of the red pimice stone pictures above will serve as an insulative layer. Pumice is a very porous rock that, if available locally, is a great natural insulator for earthen floors. On top of this pumice with be another 4 inches of pressures fines (crushed rock) that are highly compact-able. Each layer is well tamped and leveled  Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Here is the final layer of the subloor, the crusher fines or crushed rock, being spread evenly across the floor surface. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

And now it is time for the timber frame raising! A process that will require all hands on deck. Here is the first Bent put together and just about ready to be raised. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

One of our youngest workshop participants helps hammer in a wood peg. These pegs are octagon shaped and put into round holes. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

The first Bent being lifted into place. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Lowering a rafter plate into place. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Checking to see if the last peg is fully hammered in. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

The completed timber frame. Photo taken by Laura Luttrell.

I will leave you with that for now, but promise to post more pictures soon!

Today 82 chicks arrived, each about the size of my thumb. Mark will raise these chicks into meat chickens, eventually slaughtering all of them before next winter. Each chick costs only a few dollars but by July they will be fat, organically raised, free range chickens, each worth probably thirty or so dollars. But Mark doesn’t raise them to sell. They will all be consumed by people on this property such as himself, other dancers, and interns like myself. In the fall he will start to slaughter three at a time, eating one and canning or freezing the other two so he will have meat to last him till next July, when the next batch of chicks will be grown.

For the first four weeks or so the chicks must be kept in a carefully temperature regulated area, kept not too cold and not too hot. For Mark, this means a little room above his cabin that is heated by the same fire that heats his cabin. What he looks for is that the chicks are not all huddled together trying to get warm but also not all at the edges of the room trying to cool down. Ideally some are huddled and some are spread out, indicating that it is neither too cold nor too hot. To keep the temperature where he wants it he will stoke the fire every two hours, 24 hours a day for the next week at least. Then as the chicks get bigger they will start generating more of their own heat and not quite as much wood will be needed.

After we got the chicks settled in we decide to visit Mark’s neighbors up the road who live in an earthship. Michael Reynolds himself and a crew of about 20 professional builders and 30 or so interns built this earthship last summer in five weeks.

Earthships are ingenious in there design features—A totally self contained unit, they can heat and cool themselves, catch, store, and treat their own water, collect solar energy, and even grow their own food. It is essentially a self sufficient organism, once built. They are made largely of tires and bottles and cans, materials that would otherwise be going to the dump, or at best recycled. These are all great features, but like anything, it can sound good on paper and even look and feel impressive but be carried out in a way that undermines most if not all the sustainability goals.

Take this Earthship on Lasqueti. The owners are a wealthy family seeking to do good. Not knowing much better they hired Michael Reynolds crew to build them a prepackaged, pre designed earthship. This is what the Mike Reynold’s crew does, and they have gotten so good at it that they can do it in five weeks. But the tires and bottles all come from New Mexico, as did the lumber and concrete. There was no time for thoughtful site selection before the excavator was brought in, and the crew left mounds of trash when they packed up and left. The daily work schedule seemed to be based around the crew’s drinking schedule and many of the interns left a bit jaded about the whole process, feeling as if they had been somewhat mislead and used as free labor. Perhaps that will be the end of their foray into alternative building techniques, which would be a shame.

So, yes, an earthship is a wonderful concept but does the end justify the means? I want to be careful here and say that I think Michael Reynolds and earthships have done a lot for many people and the alternative building movement. They have helped rebuild areas ruined by natural disasters and Michael Reynolds worked hard to make some impressive headway when it comes to building codes and permits for alternative buildings.

And, there is still much room for improvement. I hope those interested in alternative building will continue to look critically at themselves and realize that there is probably not any one single solution for all climates and all locations. This movement gains strength from innovative and critical minds, such as the one looking to build the first earthship that does not use concrete. This modified earthship, being built in Argentina, will attempt to replace all concrete typically used in these structures with cob. That is the kind of innovation we need.

Mark left today for a short overnight trip to Vancouver to pick up some tongue and groove wood to complete the dance floor, so it is just me holding down the fort until tomorrow evening. I start my day by reading a bit more of Celestine Prophecy.

The Third Insight describes a new understanding of the physical world. It says we humans will learn to perceive what was formerly an invisible type of energy. In other words, the basic stuff of the universe, at its core, is a kind of pure energy that is malleable to human intention and expectation in a way that defies old mechanistic models of the universe. It’s as though our expectation itself causes our energy to flow out into the world and affect other energy systems.

I flash back to the healing work my grandmother does and the little bit about auras and energy work that I was reading and learning while staying with her six or so months ago.

So yes, much of this stuff isn’t new, but the idea that enough of us might be having these insights at the same time to actually cause a global shift now, in the early part of the 21st century… That is exciting.

The sun is starting to feel warm and I am ready to leave this wind sheltered structure. I decide to take a walk down the road and try to find Dave’s place. He is a cob builder on the island. I am not quite sure how to get there, especially since the directions I received from Dave, who I met briefly yesterday, and those I received from Mark seem to be a bit different. But I decide I will try my luck, as I want to go for a walk anyway.

As I walk briskly, I realize that all of Lasqueti’s roads seem to be dirt roads. I don’t think I have seen a single paved one yet. I recall yesterday, backing down one particularly bumpy dirt road with Mark to pick up some logs and him saying jokingly, “I think you would have to go to Northern Pakistan to find a lifestyle like this.” His comment may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but a lot about this island feels more like places I have been in rural Bolivia then anywhere in the industrialized world. And the amazing thing is most of the people living here left an urban, more modern lifestyle and chose this one. Mark has made very clear that it is, indeed, a lifestyle choice, and that it takes work to live here, but for him and the others on this island the rewards are well worth it.

With no watch and no cell service on this island I am not sure how long I have been walking, but it has been a pleasant, quiet walk on these dirt roads. I have come across piles of sand and clay, which must mean cob is nearby. Indeed, there is a little footpath, which I follow to a cluster of cob structures.

Dave is at work in a cob greenhouse, hanging some laundry out to dry. But he welcomes me and says he was about to take a break for lunch and asks if I will join him. Over a simple, but yummy meal of soup and crackers we begin to talk. Dave is a gentle man of probably mid forties who is in the process of moving from Vancouver to the island with his 7 year old daughter.

Soon we are talking about Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, and Taker and Leaver Societies. I share a bit about Celestine Prophecy, which alludes to a similar need for a shift in worldview but attacks it from a more spiritual angle. Dave shares of another book called the Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff that looks at two tribes basically living untouched by modern civilization. He tells me how the author, after living a few years with these tribes, concluded that there was something different about these people. It took her a while to put her finger on it but eventually she realized it was that they were happy. And so she spent the rest of her life figuring out and synthesizing what allowed them to be happy in a way that she rarely saw in modern society. The book explains her conclusions.

These books and other experiences have led Dave to make a conscious, political decision to try and not feed or support the current system, which he has judged as dysfunctional, and instead look to an alternative. This island and cob building seem to be part of his solution.

I ask him if he ever lived in any intentional communities and how he finds living on the island similar or different to living in these communities. He thinks for a bit. Then responds that that he appreciates the question and that yes, he has lived in a few intentional communities and in his experience they didn’t work because there was still a power structure and those in power would end up wanting to keep that power. After a pause, he added, “It’s ironic, the people on this island seem to come seeking independence, but they end up inadvertently creating community.” Perhaps it is that once their own needs for independence, self-sufficiency, and happiness are met, they have more to give others?

The Fourth Insight exposes a human tendency to steal energy from other humans by controlling them because we so often feel depleted of energy due to being disconnected from the larger source of energy. We are stuck in a kind of competition for each other’s energy, which we gain by controlling and manipulating each other.

The next morning I awaken to the sunlight and wander into the bowels of the beast. At about 8am Mark shows up and we sit for an hour of Vipassana Meditation. A morning and early evening sit will be our routine here.

Before we get started with work that day I have an opportunity to walk around a bit and find some of the other structures lurking in these woods. As I wander through the forest my eyes, recently well trained by Ryan, see that this is a young, transitioning forest that was probably heavily logged in the last hundred years. The trees are dense and mostly about the same age, and the undergrowth is also dense. There seems to be a lot of blow down in this forest as well, typical for a young forest where many of these trees won’t make it past the hundred year mark. The pines are often the first to go, a pioneer species, they have just about served their purpose. Then probably the grand firs, leaving a forest of mostly Douglas firs and some Madrona. Even the Douglass firs here are way denser then one would see in an old growth forest. Mark tells me later that this island was indeed heavily logged a few times, and that the last logging boom was in the 1950’s. Apparently some of the actual first settlers to come to the west coast found forests where huge, nearly thousand year old trees grew on average 60 or so feet from each other.  How different this is from what most of us know as a forest today!

Now it is time to build. Mark’s style of building is somewhat on the opposite end of the spectrum to Ryan’s. He is a utilitarian, it seems, and he keeps things simple. Walls are left un-plastered and floors are rarely level. He builds quick, barely even stopping to measure. Posts are placed on top of rock so the bottoms won’t rot, but there is no real foundation to most of these structures. A spike is put at each intersection where two pieces of wood meet and each right angle is stabilized with a diagonal to make a triangle, and its as simple as that. Or at least that is how it seems. But given the huge structure he created for the dance floor and his attempts to explain how it stands I know that he is obviously quite skilled to a level beyond my comprehension. By the end of the day the structure for an entrance gate to his property is up. Tomorrow we will put up the walls as he wants to have a little enclosed area where groceries and other items can be left. It’s simple, rustic, and functional.

It’s funny how often when someone is doing something right they make it look easy and effortless and its only if you see someone attempt the same feat without the same know how that you realize how skilled they were. I am sure as I begin to build my own structures I will appreciate the skills of my teachers even more as I will flounder at times where they made things look simple.

Now it is time for meditation, dinner, and bed. Mark likes to retire to his cabin for the evening just as dusk begins and he is up long before the sun in the morning.

I decide to take an evening walk before returning to my cabin. Tonight my cabin is so warm that I am tempted to sleep naked, even though it is only March and the outside air is chilly.


I am not sure how much time has passed when I awaken, but the boat is rocking quite a bit and I am thankful I was able to sleep away at least some of the ride. Soon we are approaching shore and I do my best to shake off the sleep and get ready to meet Mark.

Mark spots me right away as he knows pretty much everyone else on the ferry and introduces himself to me with a warm hug. He helps another lady with some of her boxes and then we get into his little car, every inch of which is painted with bright colors and images that I assume represent snapshots of island life.

After a short uphill ride on bumpy dirt roads we arrive. He tells me to keep my pack on, as we will take my things right to my little cabin, that he has preheated for me.

My cabin, a small ten by ten room with two large windows, is indeed toasty. The walls are simple; unfinished wood scraps from the mill with cob in between them. He explains to me that between the inner and outer walls are hundreds of plastic bags, which have amazing insulation value. The sub floor is also bags of bags compressed before and earthen cob floor was applied on top. And the roof too is about 2 feet thick and apparently filled with bags under a top sod layer in which plants are growing. This little structure will easily stay warm overnight from one good fire lit in the firebox that is fed from the outside. He explains that by having the entrance to the firebox fed from the outside it keeps the fire from pulling warm air out of the structure and creating a cold draft.

As we go back into the main structure on Mark’s land he says somewhat apologetically that he forgets to tell people that he lives basically outside. I already feel at home.

This structure is hard to put to words. Composed of many, huge wooden arches, crisscrossing one another, it feels like I am in the bowels of a many-legged spider. Mark has created spans of close to one hundred feet that encase a beautiful, open, hard wood dance floor. The space is sheltered from the wind and rain but exposed bedrock on all sides and spaces between the boards and windows give it a feeling of being part of the natural world. It feels somewhat like a cave but sunlight shines in, with only parts of the roof covered in sod, and so the space is quite bright. My mind is trying to figure out the engineering of this place and doesn’t even know where to begin. Indeed, an ancient bridge called the rainbow bridge that still baffles modern day engineers was the inspiration for this structure.

Food here seems to either come in bulk from off island or directly from the land. After a hot meal of rice and chicken, with a health y dose of Turmeric on it (good for the joints and inflammation) and a Cesar salad of cabbage from the garden with lots and lots of garlic in the dressing, Mark makes sure I know how to find the bathroom (a simple wooden outhouse) and how to get myself water and excuses himself for the night.

Creative by Nature

Glimpses of a Creative Universe, by Christopher Chase...


Creating "new" from old has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time, but turned into a full-time adventure in building and living in a tiny "reclaimed" house. Beginning in 2012, I will live in this 120 square foot space for the length of my PhD studies in Literature and the Environment, and perhaps beyond. In this way, I hope to live a little smaller, leave a little lighter, and learn in what ways formal study can be acted in the every day.

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