It used to be I only dwelled in fields of wildflowers at the peak of summertime, stopping by the garden on the way home with fresh vegetables colorful and crisp. I dipped in pristine waters, cooling hot moist skin after hilly forest rambles, pack full of juicy berries. Seed starting in early spring, mulching garlic beds in fall. A kaleidoscope of summer feelings, hopeful and bright.
Yet this is only one step in the dance.
Winter can often be a barren time, one we associate with darkness, shivering cold, lack of green growth, lack of sun. The life cycle slows here and we hardly notice anything reaching for the sun, for the sun isn’t as potent and all encompassing during winter. High tunnel greens grow at a snail’s pace. Instead, most growth happens within and it burns with the heat of stored sun inside of wood stoves.
Now I not only grasp what is lush and ripe in summer, I dance with the fecundity of winter as well. Interior soul journeys, but also adventures with matter. Winter holds so much more than I ever realized. For it is winter, when the life cycle slows down, that is most conducive for activities on the edge. Transformation of matter slows and in these times, is most easy to work with.
For example, fall comes and deer all over the Ozarks are taken by hunters. Meat is ushered into freezers, into soup pots, grills, dried into jerky and ground with pork fat for delicious easy meals all year long. A nice rack is perhaps saved, but what of the hide, the hocks, the little dancing toes?
A step in the dance of life
Playing with matter
Interrupting death Delaying decomposition Stepping stones toward Rebirth
This year I’ve been teaching myself how to tan hides. Fleshing, bucking, de-graining, neutralizing, softening.
A handsy affair, a timeless process// Can’t not be tactile and making-shoulders-sore the next day. Scratch that – make it definitely going to feel it the next day.
There is a decomposition delay in the edge between the sweet hide fresh off a deer to sour green hair slipping holes of rot smell you cannot believe. Quite a space indeed as matter is transformed into something of extraordinary value and strength. Tanning hides into buckskin is a human-making activity, a self actualizing step forgotten in modern times. A step up from making tools from inert objects, sway a vulnerable flesh coat away from the edge of decomposition.
Connected earth-based living hinges on this sway
Yesterday we did our annual digging out of the compost cave in one of the stone bays of the humanure toilet. Letting it sit for a year, getting eaten by untold microbes, worms & soldier flies, within a year’s time we’ve safely, easily, completely hands-off taken a waste product and turned it into a fertile resource for the farm.
This is far cry from pooping in water, channeling it away from your home in tubes, your poop in a mosh pit with everyone else’s poop as it is “purified” through chemical admixtures, and then sent back via a tube to your sink.
Our poop never leaves our home, but it also doesn’t sit with stank spreading bad vibes around the countryside. Shortly after it drops, it it is sprinkled with another decomposing matter, an off shoot of the milling yard, sawdust. Here with the soldier flies, worms and microbes, poop is transformed in a non-smelly way into a valuable resource reminiscent of the forest floor.
Its highest potential as humanure is realized through symbiotic relationship with those-who-work-at-the-edges. In winter, when growth slows, we cart it around and spread it at the base of fruit trees and understory shrubs of our food forests.
A circle unbroken. We work with a multitude of nearly invisible beings, the angels of Rebirth who live in our composting toilet.
What is gross about death is not these steps, for they are decomposition swayed, they are rebirth envisioned and acted on. Death is usually only gross when it hasn’t been given the proper setting. A rotting carcass is repulsive for maybe a day or two in bad heat, but there are so many decomposers lying in wait to take the matter across the bardo.
Who can say when one thing changes into another? The decomposers make it a swift transition from one form to the next. Soon enough, blood and guts, bone and brain disappear or turn into frass & soil.
When I interrupt the process of deer skin not turning into rot, but into a supple water resistant fabric, I am swaying the next form of the deer. A garment I wear is a stepping stone along the way to soil and then … who knows, a thousand fragrant wildflowers swaying in a summer’s breeze.
Imagine our ancient hominin ancestor, Paranthropus boisei, foraging for food over 1.5 million years ago in East Africa.
With 5-6 hours a day allocated to food acquisition, a sweet and fatty nutrient dense rhizome found at the base of a sedge that provided 80% of the required caloric intake in 2-3 hours would have been a sought after staple.
Fast forward many generations…
Baboons in this same region of Africa are known to seek out this widespread starchy tuber that now grows worldwide.
Chufa prefers a moist habitat but can survive droughty periods as well. Being a pernicious plant (having been burdened with the label of [gasp!] an invasive species), it provides nutritional tubers for humans and wildlife throughout its now greatly expanded range. In fact, it’s currently planted even for wildlife forage.
Due to its opportunistic growth habits, it has become a choice crop for domestic hog, wild turkeys and humans alike.
On an ecological level this means more life giving food with less fuss. This sedge has much to offer those curious or hungry enough to dig up these tubers.
Our hominin ancestors were instinctually drawn to this food for good reason.
Life giving and sustaining sources of dense nutrition were (and are) highly valued.
It’s not only very connected to eat a plant known to have provided sustenance for our ancestors, but like many ancestral foods the tubers at the base of Cyperus esculentus are considered a superfood.
In the nutritional territory what stands out for chufa is the abundance of resistant starch- its mineral content (high in phosphorus, magnesium and potassium) and the presence of oleic acid (the heart healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olives and avocados.)
Resistant starches (aka fiber) are complex carbohydrates that persist throughout the digestive process and add a crucial element to the diet. In other words, it is food for the microbial community that keeps our systems going and supports our immunity.
These are also referred to as prebiotics as they provide the favorable conditions to promote probiotic colonies of bacteria.
These starches also help reduce blood sugar spikes and add to the feeling of fullness, showing promise for those seeking to lose weight.
Given the nutritional profile of these tubers, there is no doubt to their benefit in our diet.
Combined with their ease of growing and sweet taste, it’s a no-brainer in the perennial landscape.
In a water garden, marshy spot or otherwise moist area, chufa is a perfect crop. Through growing this hardy tuber we are not only connecting with our evolutionary past, we are celebrating the rich abundance of goodness found within the base roots of an unassuming sedge.
Welcome to the time of the woodstove. Stacking wood, cold mornings, copious amounts of tea, of winter dreaming. Welcome to book after book, abundant rest after another busy year, seeds, nuts, deer hunting season, eternal pots of stew.
It is that time of year again and it hit me before I was fully ready for it or expected it to come. As it gets colder, everything slows down, including my pace and thoughts. I welcome the season of reflection.
Some of the books I’ve been reading lately include Jean M Auel’s Earth’s Children series. You may be familiar with the first bestseller of that series, Clan of the Cave Bear.
The story tracks Ayla (Cro-Magno), an orphan who lost her family in an earthquake, as she is taken in by Neanderthals and then is cast out of the clan and has to survive on her own while looking for her own people. The book has quite a cult following and though at times the human drama was a bit much (I just skipped a lot of Jondalar’s waffling), it is also filled with interesting tidbits into how our European ancestors were possibly living 29,950 years ago.
This inspiration coupled with watching all 3 seasons of Live Free or Die (thanks to my friend Joan who sent me a thumb drive of the seasons), a show showcasing homesteading, rewilding, primitive skills, hunter gatherer and tracker/trapper lifestyles, invigorated me to dig in deeper into experimenting with primitive skills.
For example in Auel’s final book in the Earth Children’s series, The Land of Painted Caves, we read this excerpt about a stone cooking pit Ayla makes in order to steam meat. It sounded especially tasty and I was also inspired by seeing Matt in Season 3 of Live Free or Die demonstrate this technique after he successfully hunted a turkey.
Zelandoni had watched Ayla dig a hole in the ground with a small shoulder bone that had been shaped and sharpened at one end and used like a trowel. To remove the loose dirt, she transferred it by small shovelfuls onto an old hide; then gathering the ends together, she hauled the hide away. She lined the hole with stones, leaving a space not much bigger than the meat, then built a fire in it until the rocks were hot. From her medicine bag, she took out a pouch and sprinkled some of the contents on the meat; some plants could be both medicinal and flavorful herbs. Then she added some of the tiny rootlets growing out of the wood avens rhizome, which tasted like cloves, along with hyssop and woodruff.
She wrapped the red deer roast in the burdock leaves. Then she covered the hot coals in the bottom of the hole with a layer of dirt so they wouldn’t burn the meat, and dropped the leaf-wrapped roast in the little oven. She piled wet grasses on top and more leaves, and covered it all with more dirt to make it airtight. She topped it with a large, flat stone that she had also heated over a fire, and let the roast cook slowly in the residual heat and its own steam.
“It wasn’t just cooked meat,” Zelandoni insisted. “It was very tender and had a flavor that I wasn’t familiar with, but it tasted very good.”
The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M Auel pgs 212,213
Stone Cooking Pit
While Ini didn’t dig the hole using a shoulder bone, we did try to follow this description pretty closely. Here is our process.
Ini dug a hole and I lined it with a large stone that covered the entire bottom and then placed stones on the sides.
Next I made a fire and stoked it and added wood for 4 hours. I had a really good coal base and the rocks were really hot. One even popped and broke!
We defrosted the deer shoulder and coated it in salt and cracked pepper. I harvested herbs from the garden and put them on the meat. Herbs include yarrow, mugwort, lavender, and green onions. All of these herbs are surviving after many hard frosts!
Then we flipped it and put some pears and horseradish leaves in the mix.
At this point, the coals were ready! We put some dirt on top of them as to not burn the meat and then put the shoulder in.
We also harvested sweet potatoes today and tucked them around the shoulder that was wrapped in horseradish, comfrey and burdock leaves. A sweet little bundle!
Next we covered the bundle with dirt all the way up to the top edge of the rocks.
We then turned the top rocks onto the dirt- they were quite hot!
We put a large flat stone on top.
And then lit a fire on top of the stone to encourage the heat to stay in and to perhaps send some heat into the pit.
This roast has been cooking for 4 hours and we want to cook it for at least 6 hours. The longer the better, really, especially with a tougher meat like a deer shoulder. We have made cooking pits in the past, but never before have we lined them with stones and used dirt or a top stone! We’re really curious to see how this turns out and will be sure to share updates in the comments after we dig in!
That’s not all..
Also featured extensively in the Earth Children series is the hide tanning process. Over the summer, I practiced on a couple of hides and made my first buckskin!
Luckily our friend Drew had gotten a deer this season and let us know to come pick up the hide. Perhaps I’ll make a full post on the process at some point – although Wild Abundance has an awesome tutorial on their website.
First things first, one must flesh the hide once it’s off the deer. This includes scraping off any residual meat and fat.
After the scraping is finished, you’ll have a hide free of flesh. At this point, you can soak the hide in a lye solution or water in a 5 gallon bucket (agitate daily) to cause the hair side of the hide to slip the hair off and free up the membrane (layer beneath the hair.)
Today was a warm (75 degrees!) day and I felt inspired to work outside, but it will be freezing tomorrow with a low of 18! Not sure how quickly the next step of this process will move along, but happy to be engaging with these skills ancient humans were proficient at.
Many of us are seeking to regain these longstanding skills that have largely been forgotten in this day and age and I have to say it can be a lot of hard work, but it’s sufficiently worth it. I’m thankful for Auel’s books and the examples of so many humans who have blazed the trail before me.
Our connection with earth is such a gift and it is so rich. I give thanks and make it my life’s work as a human to set an example of a healthy relationship with the earth.
Slip straw is a technique that we’ve come to love over the years. It’s a great blend of natural building with conventional stud framing.
Also known as light clay straw, slip straw is as simple as the name suggests: straw mixed with a clay slip (clay slaked in water and blended to very liquid consistency.) At this point, forms are put up on the studs and the slip straw is pounded into the cavity. When the forms are removed, the clay binds the straw together in a matted hair effect which is perfect for the application of earthen plasters. In future posts, I’ll get into the specifics of the technique, but this is the gist.
Less than a month ago we began the sauna. As mentioned in a previous article, we decided to pause on the straw bale house and prioritize a sauna because it became obvious we weren’t going to close in the straw bale before winter and we wanted a place to get hot and wet. Each previous winter we’ve put aside our on-demand propane outdoor shower when freezing temps come and have settled into the world of boiling hot water for showers in the high tunnel on warm days. A sauna was in order.
A sauna holds its place in human culture as a space of rest and holistic rejuvenation. In some cultures they are revered as something for everyone and in others thought of as something for the upper classes. By building a sauna using low cost natural methods and indeed basically using materials directly from the earth, we hope to instill a people’s sauna tradition.
In another article I’ll highlight the steps we’ve undertaken
when building the sauna from start to finish: including site location,
foundation, material selection and acquisition, and the building process, but
in this article I want to focus on a component of our build that greatly
propels our progress, boosts our morale and fills our spirits. I want to focus
on work parties.
In rural dwellings the world round, community members gather to help their neighbors build. Traditionally called a “barn raising” in the United States, communities come together, share food, and get sweaty raising walls, roofing, and putting finishing touches on houses everywhere. Locally and nationwide this tradition has fallen out of favor in an age where other people build our homes, just as others are responsible for growing our food. In this I think we have lost a great deal.
As someone succinctly stated the other day in response to an article that I’d written about a work party- when people help us build they’re doing more than raising walls, they’re putting their energy into the building, literally becoming a part of our house.
Before you write that off as too esoteric, consider the process of us building our earthen sauna. Unlike in modern buildings where materials come from hundreds if not thousands of miles away and are subject to any number of industrial processes (most of which are polluting, exploitive and toxic) these materials are local and each step of the way they are touched, even massaged into place. Take, for example, our process:
Put up locally grown and milled pine conventional stud framing
Take local straw and put a light clay slip on it by tossing it like a salad
Pound the slip straw into forms using a 2×4 piece of wood
After this sufficiently dries, massage a clay slip into the slip straw using your hands
Apply layers of earthen plaster (all local materials) with hands or trowel and smooth to taste
As we have invited community members in and they’ve shown up with gusto, dozens of people have tossed, pounded, massaged and smoothed our building.
Inch by inch and layer by layer these walls have gone up and it’s due to the very literal input of human energy. Local materials and local people make up this sauna and it is our hope that many will also come to enjoy a sweat, let out some deep breaths and find restoration and community in it as well.
Thus far we’ve had 3 work parties for the sauna. The first one included starting on the slip straw and some local people who live at a nearby community called Oran Mor came out. They were really excited to learn about this technique and were amazed at how much lighter and easier it was than using cob! They left excited to perhaps make some interior walls in their earthen home.
Next we had another work party where friends from 30 minutes to even 2 hours away, all living close to the land, came to help continue the slip straw mixing. This was the day after we were able to share slip straw at the 40th annual Ozark Area Community Congress. As always when we have work parties, we share some food and company and that is as important as working on the buildings. We are simultaneously building structures and community bonds.
Over the last week Ini and I have been working tirelessly to build walls and prep for this weekend. We were planning on applying a clay slip and a first base coat of plaster on the dried sections of walls. Many people were writing to say that they would be coming to help and we needed to prepare materials and organize the day.
Over 20 people came out yesterday to help with the sauna!
Our group included music-making friends we’ve met over the years, a group from East Wind (a nearby income sharing community- you may know them for their famous nut butters), friends building a cordwood house, stone’s throw neighbors, local friends with kids, and our Wwoofer from London who arrived a few days ago. It was a challenge to instruct and provide materials as fast as their hands were using them, but the motivation was infectious and we managed to keep up.
The day before we had strained six 5-gallon buckets of slaked clay with chopped straw (so it could ferment for 24 hours which helps break down the straw and increases the stickiness and bonding.) We also prepared buckets of clay slip for the wall, defrosted a large beef bone from nearby Elixir Farm, a biodynamic and grass fed beef operation, soaked beans for the soup, harvested veggies, made seed cheese, charged batteries and got a good night’s rest.
As people joined us the next morning, we got to work applying the clay slip to the slip straw walls. We also had people stapling fiberglass mesh to the studs as the clay will not bond to wood and our goal is to make a contiguous plaster skin over the slip straw walls. This creates a “stressed skin panel” and strengthens the wall system.
We started the morning off explaining the method: massage the clay slip (simply clay slaked in water and mixed well) thoroughly into the walls. The clay binds well to the slip straw and provides ample base for the next coat which is a base or scratch coat of earthen plaster. Without the clay slip, it’s quite difficult to get a plaster to stick to the slip straw. Clay (when wet – always wet before adding a next layer,) however, provides ample suction and traction for the next layers of plaster.
Ini and I mixed batch after batch of plaster and it got a bit overwhelming trying to keep up with demand. Petey from East Wind who has been to work parties galore commended us at how well we had prepared and were able to keep up with the group. Let it be known that it took quite a bit of work to simply keep up with the group and anyone planning a work party should take this into consideration.
At certain points we had a dozen or more people massaging clay slip onto the walls, stapling fiberglass mesh, and applying a base coat of earthen plaster which was 1 part clay, 1 part straw and 1 part sand.
All of these loving hands putting their energy into our building!
Days of work for us done in a couple of hours! It was incredibly heartening to see so many people come out, lend a hand and get jazzed up about slip straw, clay, earthen plasters and natural building. Many left with ample inspiration and folks at East Wind might even endeavor a natural sauna build next year!
To me, this is the bright light of the community-based homesteading life. In our increasingly monetized, expert based and isolated culture, we lack strong community bonds. We lack non-monetized helping hands, potlucks, skinny dips in the creek afterwards and a good riff on the banjo.
Our sauna build is embedded with our community (most are over a half an hour drive away!) showing up amidst full schedules, their own projects and busy lives to learn something new and simply to help. It’s spiritually fulfilling to me and Ini and I remarked at how amazing it was to witness and be a part of as we drifted off to sleep last night. Sharing, teaching and connecting are at the heart of what we aim to do and we both felt incredibly satisfied from yesterday’s efforts.
There is something special about working with earthen materials. Something deep and ancestral seems to awaken in many who get their hands muddy and gather in community to build healthy and locally based buildings. You can see it on people’s faces as the dive in to the process.
We used all of the prepared materials and skilled friends who came later helped us cut all of the metal roofing and get the radiant barrier roof insulation up and nailed in before the night’s storms rolled in.
Building a slip straw sauna with an earthen plaster finish is more than the sum of its parts. Along with the clay and straw walls covered with layers of sand, clay, straw, and manure mixtures at varying degrees, these walls are built by the soul of our community which is the empowerment that happens when we all get together. Thanks to everyone who put themselves in this building – we hope you’ll come by for a sweat this winter.
Just watch this singing Tibetan group building a rammed earth house if you don’t believe me:
If I could pin a catch phrase for our passion for natural building, it would run along these lines. When we look at our modern expert culture we think that someone else will fulfill the basic necessities of our lives for us.
Someone else builds our house, grows our food, purifies our water (that we both drink and poop in), prepares the electricity that fuels our home, fixes our stuff, etc. While DIY culture is growing, I think we can take it a step deeper and start to provide our needs for ourselves. Cut out the middle man so to say and realize that it doesn’t take an expert to fulfill our needs.
It’s not only empowering to embody this line of thought, it also is exactly what the earth needs in a time when the bottom line of capitalism has made many of our industries downright harmful for the earth and all of us beings.
Natural building by definition is made from materials which can return to the earth. These are radically simple and accessible place-based methods which are good for our health and the health of the earth! There is abundant magic in this direct connection.
Over the weekend we had the opportunity to teach about natural building and do a demo showcasing slip straw (light clay slip) and earthen plasters at the Ozark Area Community Congress (OACC.) It was the 40th annual OACC and we got many insights into just how long bioregional culture has been thriving in the Ozarks. We sure have some committed elders who have been holding it down! So much gratitude.
We facilitated a brief introduction to natural building followed by a slide show showcasing a variety of buildings and unique finishes.
Touching on some of the basic principles of natural building, we outlined concepts such as buildings acting as a 3rd skin (2nd skin is our clothing) and building with a good set of boots and hat (proper foundation and roofing details.)
The slideshow featured inspiring examples of the variety of materials and finishes that can be used. It was just a taste of what is possible when working with local materials in response to unique climatic conditions. After that we went outside to practice slip straw and plastering techniques on our demonstration wall.
The day before Ini had created a demonstration wall. We also brought buckets full of the components for making a base (or leveling coat) of earthen plaster.
Upon gathering around the demo wall, we began tossing the straw in the clay slip.
Once mixed, we demonstrated stuffing the slip straw into the form and packing it in.
We touched on the basics of plaster and had a chance to explain the concepts behind earthen plasters.
There was plenty of interest and some time for questions.
Part of our goal at Mountain Jewel is to teach and empower local folks to make use of natural resources and common sense to build site and climate appropriate buildings. While not everyone in attendance has the opportunity to build their own natural home, we did offer suggestions for adding an interior earthen plaster to an existing structure.
The slip straw technique is exceptional at filling in conventionally stud framed walls inside of a building. One can then apply a beautiful earthen plaster finish.
This was just a taste for folks and we’re very excited to be offering more opportunities for hands-on learning coming up.
Watching participants react in amazement to this technique was rewarding as we showed them how simple and accessible slip straw is. Nearly everyone has this reaction. It’s pretty amazing to be able to build with earthen materials that feel good, are good for the earth and us and have such beautiful finishes.
In coming weeks we’ll continue building our sauna, practicing earthen plaster with our community as we gather to build from the Earth. Come join us if you like!
In Finnish tradition, when one first moves to the land they build a sauna that they can use and live in the first year while getting their feet on the ground. It serves the dual purpose of providing a restorative haven and also a tiny home of sorts while they establish other infrastructure.
When we moved to the land at Mountain Jewel we had basically no building skills. We were gardeners and needed a home on our raw piece of land as a necessity, but it wasn’t what excited us about homesteading. To house us that first year we bought a used yurt on Craigslist.
Fast forward nearly 4 years
We are building a straw bale home and tending gardens & food forests. It becomes clear, however, that we will not get the straw bale house, begun in April (though dreamed of for much longer), closed in for winter. One of the reasons is that lime plaster requires above freezing temps to cure and we are about a month from our first freeze. As this reality settles in, that we will be spending another winter in our tiny cabin built during the Discovery Channel Homestead Rescue episode on our land, I realize that I cannot do another winter in that tiny space with Ini — without running water or a place to wash off easily. We decide to build a sauna.
As the temps have cooled in the past few days, the decision to take a pause on the straw bale house and build a sauna seems a good one. It’s hard to take clothes off and bathe outdoors when it’s really cold out! (Though we have a well with a pump and electricity, our cabin is hundreds of feet away from that and there are no insulated indoor spaces capable of housing a shower.)
Earthen Plaster Practice
This season as I gear up for plastering an entire straw bale home (lime on most of the outside and a combination of lime and earthen plasters inside with an earthen floor), I have been honing my skill at earthen plasters. Thus far on the homestead we have created a composting toilet (the Fert Lab, pictured below) that is slip straw with a clay plaster and the facade of the solar shed is also slip straw with earthen plaster finish. A few spots on the exterior of the composting toilet were very eroded from direct water damage and the conventional studs were showing through in a few places due to the sand/wheat paste not being a good binder- we have since started to use fiberglass mesh to better connect wood and earthen plasters. I decided to start there.
Mixing earthen plasters is an art unto itself. Yes, you can basically take any clay rich soil and put it on the side of the wall and it will do some type of job at resisting the elements and closing in your building. However, without good ratios, you will get cracking, peeling away from the surface below, dusting, and a finish that leaves a lot to be desired.
Being the stubborn creature that I can be, I had not followed all of the advice to do test patches and to sift the clay when making earthen plaster. This led to some cracking and unsuitable trials on my part that I went ahead and plastered the whole wall with (I did mention that I can be stubborn.) This time, however, I was really interested in honing my craft and not just getting the job done. It’s my intention to get really good at this so I can live in a house that exemplifies how truly stunning earthen plasters can be.
So I practiced. And practiced. Made test patches and trials with our local clay, sand and straw mixes and I learned a lot. One mix I did was very heavy with clay (I had read from Athena Steen of the Canelo Project that a heavy clay mix with a lot of straw and little sand can actually be beneficial in areas where finishes are exposed to direct rainfall- sand comes to the surface when exposed to rain and often erodes quite quickly, whereas the heavy clay & fiber can provide more of a mat resistance.) Though I did have some slight cracking (imagine small broken blood vessels) on this finish, with a wrung-out sponge I was able to burnish the exterior and wet the clay enough that it filled its own cracks.
After realizing how a heavy clay finish performs, I was interested in experimenting with more sand. A basic ratio for earthen plasters is 1 part clay and 3 parts sand with a generous portion of chopped straw. This is a rough guideline because the “clay dirt” in each area of the world contains different levels of sand, silt and clay. You can do a test to figure out how much clay, slit and sand your soil contains and whether it is suitable for plaster. Sigi Koko has a good video:
When I made a ratio with 1 part of our clay with 3 parts sand and some finely chopped straw, the plaster felt nearly too sandy, too coarse and dense. It didn’t feel right in my hand, but boy did it dry to a beautiful, crack-free finish! I’m learning by touch and I have a ways to go!
This is why it is so cool to practice with your own local clay – it’s incredibly empowering. I am not simply following someone’s recipe, but I’m learning about what the different ratios look and feel like myself. If you’re interested in learning about earthen plaster, I encourage you to do the same. Because all of these are earthen ingredients, if the plaster doesn’t turn out right I can wet it and use it again!
After honing my craft on the Fert Lab, I was truly itching to plaster more walls. I was having dreams about plastering each night and woke up wanting to sift clay and mix up creamy gorgeous plasters. After Ini and I decided we were going to pause on the straw bale and build a sauna, we decided on a conventional stud framed building with slip straw (light straw clay) infill with an earthen plaster finish. Soon I would have more surfaces to play on! (Basically we built the sauna so I could plaster more!)
We started the sauna in early September and we’ve been working hard nearly every day on it. I’ll make another post detailing our progress, but thus far we have built the foundation, framed all but one wall, finished the roof on the back of the building and completed nearly half of the slip straw infill. No doubt we are tired and building our muscles, but we are fueled by passion and our imaginings of baking in our sauna this winter!
In coming posts, I’ll detail our progress on the sauna, share some photos and details of my plaster process on the Fert Lab, provide some tutorials on the methods and practice of Slip Straw and Earthen Plasters. Stay tuned!
The fact that so many of us are postponing our satisfaction, happiness, contentment or joy is heartbreaking. We are waiting for the right conditions to arise before we can settle into the moment and know that we’ve made it. For me on the homestead it’s : “When we have hot running water, when the house is done, then we’re eating the yields from all the fruit and nut trees we’ve planted…”
There is no later, and I can’t sacrifice the present for some idealized future. Is it really worth forgoing the present for future gains?
In seeking balance during this seemingly ever busy summer I took a step back from the massive of undertaking of building a house, tending food forests, keeping up with annual gardens, building infrastructure etc. to look at where we’re at, where we’re going and what the roadmap looks like.
I know we’re not alone in this, although for others the conditions may be different, but the sacrifice is the same. Big tasks, life goals, and even sheer survival can be daunting and the drive to accomplish and progress can push us into unhealthy spaces.
I’m writing from a little break from it all that we’re taking. I can say I’ve gotten into unhealthy spaces all too often, driven by the impetus to secure our base needs or to push for progress on a variety of projects. The work never ends, and the itch for expansion is real. Inspiration and vision motivate action, but there’s a point when the push to accomplish overshadows the ability to appreciate the process.
For us the pressure we often feel is 100% self imposed, and yet we still push ourselves to a point where we fall out of balance.
I’ve heard this story from many folks seeking to live a life of integrity, connected to the natural world. In seeking the simple life there’s often an overwhelming amount of planning, labor, input and time involved in manifesting such a vision. People get burned out, finances suffer, relationships break…
Why is this story all too common?
There are many layers to this, but it seems in our society (be it conventional or alternative), we succumb to the struggle where we are waiting for things to change until we sink deeply into the moment and truly inhabit the space we’re in. Just waiting for the next things before happiness arrives. So what are we really waiting for?
I have been pushing progress on our house build, wanting to meet a goal of winter inhabitation. There’s so much between here and there I feel as if I need to be working 100% of my waking life. I have cedar posts to notch out for a timber frame, framing to figure out for the second storey, roofing considerations, water lines, electrical and more. Wren is on a similar page too and is tending much of the gardens, but a lot of this feels like it falls on my shoulders.
Work has become an addiction and like other addictions it takes me out of balance and away from the present moment. To the point of exhaustion, frustration, emotional breakdown, neglect. It’s not worth it, yet I’ve found myself succumbing to the voice of “not enough”.
Enough in my mind is an unattainable goal. It’s a bar that moves further as I approach it. There’s always more work that lies ahead. This is a fact of subsistence farming, homesteading and building a house; the work never ends. It’s not the amount of work that is the issue, rather my approach and view of work. I’ve been going about it all wrong, and listening to the out of reach feedback loop.
Taking a breather from it all to perceive from a bird’s eye view reminds me of the bigger picture of life and how little all the issues are in my life compared to the great wide world. I’m safe, have access to plenty of clean water, am well fed, and have a roof over my head. It’s not a life or death situation, but I’ve been acting like it is.
I’m in need of a reboot and that’s just what I’m going to give myself.
As we transition into late summer, I can feel fall in the air. Through the cooler mornings and evenings, the slower growth of the grass and plants and by so many things going to seed. We are in the seed collecting times and it’s a great activity in the evenings to go to my flower plants and save their brown odd seeds.
Along with harvests, we’re putting away some foods this year. As we are so busy, we aren’t pushing ourselves too hard on this front, but I have made a few batches of pasta sauce that I’ve frozen in baggies. These Opalka tomatoes pictured sliced in half below are amazing paste tomatoes that I’ll definitely grow again for these purposes!
We are also getting a lot of growth on the Okra plants. This is “burgundy okra” and I like it – but then again, I’ve liked every Okra variety I’ve ever grown. It’s such an easy plant to grow and I am a huge fan of okra sautéed in oil with salt and cooked low for a while. Mmm mm!
The high tunnel waned a bit in the heat, but we put on a good deal of mulch and gave some deep waterings and it’s coming back. The tomatoes, peppers and figs are rocking! The cucumbers are out and we’re going to do a cover crop of ripper beans in their place. We’ll start some fall/winter crop seeds like kale and other fav greens to put in after the ripper beans.
Today Ini planted Okinawa, a perpetual spinach variety from Japan. Though frost sensitive (we usually bring it in), it grows quite large for as long as you let it! It’s a tasty cooked green. We set it here in between two figs, which are doing quite well in the high tunnel.
Tending the plant nursery
Ini up-potted and heavily watered all of the plants in our plant nursery. Some of these will be planted out in permaculture guilds around our house once much of the land-works are complete and others will be for sale as our nursery gains more steam over time. It was so fun this morning to play in the garden together – it’s both of our true passions and with all of the other work on the homestead (read: building a house!), it can be easy to get caught up in what HAS to happen and forget how much we love gardening and working with plants!
Aronia berries (Aronia melanocarpa) are starting to ripen! I have eaten a few and don’t really mind the strong chalky flavor knowing how high they are in nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants! Haha! I’m having to hold myself back from harvesting because I’ve read that though they look ripe in late July/early August, they’ll be most ripe come mid-August. I’m looking forward to making low sugar syrups, freezing some and maybe vinegaring a batch.
Also my first harvest of elder berries from the land this morning! I will freeze these (taken off the stems) and wait til I get a larger harvest before I start processing them into syrups, vinegars and other such things. Exciting!
We’ve waited a few years for our plants to start fruiting and this is an exciting summer because so much is doing so well!
This morning some good friends came over at 7am to help put frames up! We are so blessed with some good community!
Ini and I have been working hard in the background building frames, but we can’t put them up alone. It’s a true testament to the power of “many hands make light work” that early in the morning on a Sunday friends come over to help us and get shit done!!
We’ve been largely working on prepping everything for these major communal pushes. The wood is simply too heavy to lift on our own… we gotta save our backs!
We love that it’s local wood and we’re trying to use eco-friendly materials as much as possible, but we need materials that will boost the longevity of the building like that tar paper shown above that goes under the pressure-treated sill plate. Not ideal, but we won’t have to fix it in 10 years!
Mindy, Billy & Brian, all local neighbors, came over and we got the first 3 walls up in a hurry as they were already assembled – we just needed the people power. As the nut and washer screwed firmly onto the anchor bolt, I felt something click into place. All of our hard work is paying off and the house is taking shape. So much goes into an endeavor like this and seeing these steps materialize into something increasingly house-shaped is amazing to my eyes.
We worked from 7am to 11am. It’s simply been way to hot to work into the midday sun.
As our wise old friend Gene told us recently, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out into the noonday sun….
We completed a few more frames (Ini had all of the wood cut and lined up already) and then called it a day and feasted on some cucumbers, tomatoes, cinnamon basil with crackers and potatoes with hot sauce – all from the garden. We feel extremely grateful to be surrounded by such good people.
We’re already hankering to get the rest of the ground level frames set up. Hoping to have another work party this week and rock it out.
After that we’ll set up the cedar logs we felled and peeled last week and get them onto their pier resting places. Then we can secure the ground story and get started on the second story! Then roof!
It’s an extremely satisfying project to build ones own house. Plenty of patience is needed for such an endeavor and we’re reminded by many good souls to enjoy the process and not try to rush it along. As goal-oriented individuals who work quickly, we’re learning to pace ourselves and take it easier than our minds tell us to. Not everyone gets to build their own house, a good neighbor told us, and he reminded us to enjoy the process. We’re doing our best in that regard while also being absolutely stoked to keep moving forward.
Of course the heat slows us down as it’s 95 (in the shade) most days so we’re limited to the mornings and evenings — but let me tell ya, Ini does still get out during that midday heat and I’m not quite sure how… mad dog Englishman….
This summer has been a great year in the gardens at Mountain Jewel. We’re seen the effects of a wetter year and ever increasing fertility; our gardens are bursting with life. Our first season of growing in our high tunnel has yielded hundred of pounds of cucumbers and tomatoes already. While our main focus is on perennial agriculture we no doubt grow plenty of annual crops. Some crops are of course hardier and more willing to thrive under neglect than others, and as such we’re always open to feedback from the natural world to guide our gardening habits.
Before moving here, folks told us we couldn’t grow food in the rocky soil of the Ozarks. While the fertility and tilth of the soil didn’t draw us here, claiming our food sovereignty is a major impetus for our lifestyle choices. We are keenly aware that with enough observation, experimentation and effort, food can be raised anywhere. Those who garden know there is always some element of uncertainty or struggle to deal with in the gardens, but what can we do to ensure high quality nutrient dense produce to feed our families and communities without being overtaxed?
We focus on feeding the soil food web and considering the life in the soil in our practices. I’d like to share some insights and observations from the short time that Wren and I have made while raising food on our homestead.
In years past we’ve seen hornworms defoliate dozens of tomato plants, cringed as squash began setting luscious fruit only to be killed by the toxic injections of squash bugs. Brassicas reduced to skeletons and so many plants struggling to get their needs met in dry low fertility soil.
We could baby some of the plants along, but we prefer to practice what Mark Shepard (a prominent force in restoration agriculture) dubbed S.T.U.N (Strategic Total Utter Neglect).
The point is is finding out what can survive and even thrive while being exposed to S.T.U.N. The next step is taking this feedback and putting it into action.
This approach does not mean completely forgetting about plants, but rather creating conditions and choosing the right plants. This approach often means loss and while this can be hard after babying seedlings for weeks and seeing the succumb to this or that, but it also illustrates what works and how to shift efforts in the future. We’re lost plenty of trees and countless veggies to this practice, but we’re better off for it.
In past years the only winter squash that yielded any fruits were the ones that volunteered in the compost pile. This year we’ve planted many squash family friends from a variety of species; moschata, maxima and pepo. Some of each have already succumbed to an early death due to squash bugs. What we did notice is that the plants that are least affected have the highest moisture and fertility and are notably more vigorous. By far the healthiest of all squash received the grey water from our outdoor kitchen.
What this tells me is that rather than laboring to exclude the bugs, applying natural pesticides or hand picking them, I can create better conditions for them, practice S.T.U.N. and hope to still gather a harvest without too much work. We are also experimenting with ranging chickens to see if they can knock populations down.
We all know potatoes are a great way to grow a lot of calories with little effort. While we love our spuds, we diversify our staples by growing sunchokes and skirret that also provide delicious tubers. These plants not only thrive with little to no inputs, they also multiply year after year and provide beneficial insect forage and habitat. In fact they grow so well that you’ll be up to your eyes in them before you know it. So choose the place to plant them wisely.
While we’re waiting for the hundreds of trees and shrubs we’ve planted on our land to start yielding, we have some time to dial in what works for our diet, our landscape and our labor budget.
Many of of brassicas got devoured this year, but the abundant wild greens offer nutrient dense fare with nearly zero effort. Plants like purslane, lambs quarter and chickweed have kept us in greens at times when our domestic crops failed or were between successions. Practicing S.T.U.N. is a lesson in letting go, but it is not a truly passive approach. Each time we lose a plant, we have a chance to learn more about its needs. It also allows us to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to meet our needs as in the wild green example above. We are evolving with our gardens.
I’m not afraid of hard work, although it’s great when you realize that hard work isn’t needed.
Lay a heavy layer of mulch and you’ll soon forget about troubles with weeds (well mostly). Prioritize wild greens and encourage their spread and attending to finicky leafy crops may seem less important. Plant hardy and well adaptad tree species and in time you’ll be glad you did. Plant more of everything than you think you’ll need and be more OK with loss. Cultivating a thriving garden takes patience and hard place-based earned wisdom. It is a co-evolution- of soils, saved seeds, letting go of some endeavors and leaning more heavily into others. It’s a wild journey that I’m glad we’re on!