Teaching Natural Building in the Ozarks

Ecotrain

Natural building is people’s building.

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!

Stacking Functions: Trusses as Concrete Forms

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As the house progresses steadily, it’s pretty amazing to realize that every step we’re taking is bringing us one step closer to realizing our dreams. It’s all of the little details which add up to become a house.

Yesterday and today we have been working steadily on building the parallel chord trusses, which will double as concrete forms.

Here is an example of the parallel chord truss we are building. This example is actually using pallet wood, but we are using dimensional pine lumber from our nearby sawmill. Image from Mother Earth News.

We’re at the beginning of getting our systems down and work site set up. We’ve chosen a spot with great morning-midday shade, but the afternoon can be brutal. Most days we are getting high humidity and 80-85 degree sunny weather. This means the sweat is dripping and the sawdust is sticking to our legs!

I’ve set up making the cuts for the diagonal pieces (“webs” in the diagram above) and 6 foot lengths and Ini is putting them together. Each truss takes 12 diagonal lengths and so I’ve taken to organizing my cuts into buckets for easy delivery.

Meanwhile, Ini has been hammering the trusses together. (Note my choked up hammer grip due to wrist fatigue, he says…)

This method of truss building is simple, albeit labor intensive and also uses small dimensional lumber (rough cut 1x4s in this case). As noted in the above diagram, this method can make great use of pallet wood, a ubiquitous offshoot of our consumptive culture. Furthermore, the style of truss will allow us to easily span 16 feet and maintain a cathedral ceiling while providing a 12″ deep cavity which will be filled with blown in cellulose for an R value of 36. Add some dead air space and radiant barrier and we should be achieving closer to R 50.

The simple geometry involved in truss building relies on the inherent strength of triangles. By using this simple principle, we can create a unit that is much stronger than the sum of its parts and efficiently utilize wood.

As always we are seeking to maximize outputs and minimize input. This is at the core of Permaculture. In this case we are stacking functions of using these trusses as concrete forms when we pour our stem wall. We’ll add plywood and then oil it so the concrete doesn’t stick. Once the concrete is set, we will remove formwork and install as roof assembly. It might seem weird that we’re building a roof before even starting on the wall, but there is a method to our madness…

Making Home

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It has been quite a journey since we’ve moved onto the 18 acres we have been tending for the past three and half years. Some of the biggest changes are taking place as we’re endeavoring to build ourselves a home. It seems like every lesson, hardship and observation has led us to this point and we’re ready to dive in.

The phrase “building a house” does not begin to describe the extremely large undertaking involved in such a process. A house is not the sum of parts (lumber, stone, insulation etc..), but rather an extension of the humans that inhabit it. Many natural building enthusiasts refer to the house as a thirds skin (the second being our clothing). Making home does entail building a house, but extends beyond the physical details and includes how the building / inhabitant integrate into the landscape.

In line with our ethics, we have yet to take a drastic approach to changing the landscape. Small and slow has been our way.

For years we both envisioned building our own natural own, both independently and then in partnership. The dreaming, hands-on time, designing, scheming, considering, researching, sourcing, planning and sketching phases have brought us to a point where we are calling in BIG changes. With these changes also come tough decisions. In preparation for this we have walked throughout our land countless times at different seasons, observed the patterns of the sun and moon and taken notes on plant communities and soil conditions. Now that we’ve settled on a location, we are ready to break ground.

Inviting large equipment onto our land has been a difficult decision to make. We dig all the excavation for all prior buildings by hand, and value this low impact method. It is accessible, sustainable and free. In considering the scale and scope of this build and the importance of a solid foundation systems and proper drainage we called around and found the best heavy equipment operator in the area.

Neither of us have endeavored such an undertaking and it is a little nerve racking to see it beginning.

We both love to natural building; the materials, the process and of course the final result. Some of the most comfortable human spaces we’ve inhabited have been build in alignment with the Earth from site selection, materials used to the construction process. But what does it look like for us to be guiding a major building process?

This past week we’ve seen what 20 hours of heavy equipment can get done. We said goodbye to a beautiful red oak (while it was in decline, it’s still hard to kill such a large tree). We’re been sick to our stomachs at the destruction we’ve seen as the house site is being prepared. Overwhelmed, stressed, nervous… Yes and also elated and joyful. We are making the biggest changes to the landscape yet, and while we feel it’s warranted to ensure our house stands strong as long as possible (hopefully well over 100 years) it’s still a lot to be responsible for.

Items we put into the foundation: old boots to make the place feel like home immediately and quartz crystals wren dug in arkansas for a crystal grid to amplify intentions.

This is just the first step, and as the equipments operator mentioned as we rolled off site late last Friday evening, “Now the hard work begins”. In some ways I agree as from now on it will be almost exclusively hand labor, but there’s also a joy and connection to the place and materials that heavy equipment does not afford.

Unbelievable Stats on Climate Change

Ecotrain, Homestead

3%. 3% of all earth’s land animals are wild anymore. The remaining 97% are humans and their livestock & pets. We are literally taking over the earth and causing animals our grandparents grew up with to go extinct. 40% of insects have already gone extinct. This is due to conventional farming practices (read pesticides and herbicides), deforestation, habitat destruction and warming air and waters. Our sheer numbers and consumption habits are wreaking havoc (single use plastic was recently found at the deepest trench in the ocean and inside seabird egg yolks at the northern most isolated arctic.) As everything is interconnected and human reach is so vast, our actions intimately and more and more quickly impact all of life on the planet. Now is the time to simplify & drastically scale down consumption, buy used durable goods we can use for a long time, grow your own organic food or know your farmer who does, stop using plastic in favor of wood, glass or metal and simplify simplify simplify. Downscale. Share. Barter. Create. Rampant consumption is not a sign of wealth or progress, it’s actually more quickly devastating our planet and everything on it. Throwaway culture is the death of us all.

Yesterday I shared this soundbite on Instagram with a picture of our little cabin the woods. (We finally got a wee bit of snow!)

I was surprised at some of the “backlash”. Multiple people found the facts I shared unbelievable, one even going so far to call them delusional, and while the gram isn’t link friendly, writing a blog post sure is.

Perhaps you all will find these statistics on climate change and human related impact hard to believe as well. If so, keep reading and I welcome your feedback in the comments.

Breakin’ It Down

3%. 3% of all earth’s land animals are wild anymore. The remaining 97% are humans and their livestock & pets.

This stat came from this article in The Atlantic, Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction.

Our destruction is so familiar—so synonymous with civilization—in fact, that we tend to overlook how strange the world that we’ve made has become. For instance, it stands to reason that, until very recently, all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass. This Frankenstein biosphere is due both to the explosion of industrial agriculture and to a hollowing out of wildlife itself, which has decreased in abundance by as much as 50 percent since 1970. This cull is from both direct hunting and global-scale habitat destruction: almost half of the earth’s land has been converted to farmland.

40% of insects have already gone extinct.

This stat was from this article in The Guardian, Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.


The new analysis selected the 73 best studies done to date to assess the insect decline. Butterflies and moths are among the worst hit. For example, the number of widespread butterfly species fell by 58% on farmed land in England between 2000 and 2009. The UK has suffered the biggest recorded insect falls overall, though that is probably a result of being more intensely studied than most places.

So it seems my statement that 40% have already gone extinct was incorrect. Rather, they’re on the verge of going extinct. Either way you slice it, news like this is not positive and we need to start creating pollinator habitats while we stop destroying the wilds and curb pesticide and herbicide use.

The 2.5% rate of annual loss over the last 25-30 years is “shocking”, Sánchez-Bayo told the Guardian: “It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.”

Our sheer numbers and consumption habits are wreaking havoc (single use plastic was recently found at the deepest trench in the ocean and inside seabird egg yolks at the northern most isolated arctic.)

You all already know about the Mariana trench from an article I did earlier in the week and the egg yolk fact came from this article Plastic chemicals discovered inside bird eggs from remote Arctic.

Chemicals from plastics have been found inside the eggs of seabirds living in remote Arctic colonies, in the latest sign of pollution contaminating the furthest reaches of the planet.

Scientists were concerned by the traces of phthalates, hormone-disrupting chemicals that have been banned from children’s toys due to their potential “gender-bending” effects.

These substances are routinely applied to many plastic products, and probably came from the bottle tops and cigarette butts these seabirds often eat after mistaking them for food.

The eggs were taken from northern fulmars living on an island in Lancaster Sound, more than 100 miles away from the nearest human settlement.

In a preliminary study, Dr Jennifer Provencher of the Canadian Wildlife Service tested the eggs of five fulmars and found phthalates in one, but warned the problem is likely to be far more pervasive.

“These are some of the birds who have the lowest levels of accumulated plastic,” explained Dr Provencher.

Conclusion

While I misrepresented the statistic on the insects, the rest of them stand affirmed. I find these stats unbelievable as well and it’s shocking to have people who read these demanding that I prove the veracity of my writing simply because the stats themselves are so controversial.

Yet on the other hand it’s not shocking at all. A large group of humans remain “climate change deniers” and they make it a political issue obfuscating the very realities that we need to heed in order to act accordingly.

It’s always so odd to me that people deny that this stuff is going on or get lost in the minutiae. One could go on and on sharing alarming and disheartening studies revealing the state of things facing our world and all of its inhabitants.

Most of us ignore finding the details out about this information because it’s too difficult to take in.

It really is as bad as the scientists confirming it are now saying. Ask people on the coasts or the people facing increased rates of floods, wildfires, hurricanes, island dwellers with raising sea waters, fishermen with less and less to fish, the list goes on…

We can waste our time arguing about the details or focus all of our energies on the solutions. I do think it’s worth hashing out the details so we can really know where we stand and realize how bad it is (or not if that’s what the facts say)! Yet at a certain point, we just have to start acting.

I found this article, The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they also hold the key to a better future, a very worthwhile read proving that no matter where you live you can make key changes toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

After all, we are all just reaching toward sustainability. It’s literally impossible in this day in age to be divorced from the system that is killing our earth. With that said, it is very possible to take the necessary steps toward living more lightly and aligned with the earth. If the movement toward a gentler way continues, we can truly make lasting change and turn this ship around.

150 Years | 7 Generations Thinking: Inheriting Things From Strangers

Ecotrain, Homestead, inspiration

The other day I read that the 7 Generations thinking (originated by the Haudeneshone ie Iroquois Nation) is about a span of 150 years.

That’s really not that long, if you think about it. Those of us who are fortunate to have family records (or some freak down the line who pieced it all together -and I can say that because I’m likely taking on this role for my family), possibly even know the name, profession, or even the face in a rare still black and white photograph.

Were these people thinking about you?

In our day in age, we are very much geared toward the Individual- the rise, the fall, the accumulation and somewhat the passing on. What strikes me so much about the perspective of 7 generations thinking is that it requires a long term view of our actions. What are the ripples into our environments from my actions?

In a world with so many people, too, I think this Individualist thinking is also spurred on because we inherently believe our actions don’t really have that much of an effect.

We wait for others to do things because of this. Certainly I couldn’t be the one to … start a business on the Steem blockchain… make a sustainable invention… solve a puzzling world mystery, etc. These things are reserved for other people, people smarter, more attractive, wealthier, younger, etc. Yet when we start to think about how our actions ripple throughout the next 150 years, we realize that we do have a say about the shape of things.

Is an ancestor thinking about you right now?

I want to broaden the scope of an ancestor through writing this article. This subject has been on my mind a lot lately because Ini and I are talking with a local man about the possibility of taking on a position in carrying on his life’s work which involves a certain forest in our area. This person has been working tirelessly to create a sustainable livelihood in relation with this forest. The forest is too small to employ anyone to sustainably manage it (usually over 30,000 acres are needed unto that effect) and so this man had to get his creative thinking cap on.

On Balancing Wrong Action

Many people know that Corporations make Wrong Actions, especially regarding our ecosystems. Notoriously, driven by capitalistic bottom lines, extract, exploit and devastate more, while adding overwhelming amounts of pollution to the environment. They cut corners, dump toxic waste, and have leaky pipes in the Gulf and through the veined corridors through which they run in this country, which pollutes bodies of water all over the place.

The EPA and governmental organizations make a farce of stomping down this type of action, usually their pockets are lined with bucks, too. One such idea to balance this is the Cap & Trade System. The idea is totally new to me so I can’t write much on it, but essentially it allows those who produce a ton of Carbon into the atmosphere to pay people, essentially trading with them, who are sinking carbon back into the earth from the atmosphere.

What a Forest Does

Forests, of course, through the incredible respiration of trees, naturally act as carbon sinks. This is now scientifically documented at what rate this process happens and a large corporation, that has scientifically deduced the rate at which they are releasing carbon, can invest in a long term trade with a forest to balance out their negative effect.

Our friend has engaged the aforementioned forest in such a Cap & Trade deal, which will last for about 125 years. It is this role which we are talking with him about managing.

 

Could someone you don’t know right now be an ancestor to you?

The fact that this person, who we’ve only known for about 3 years, has worked for the past 25 years setting this up and devising a way to make a sustainable business in our local area – for someone who will come after him! Is incredible. He has essentially worked with the next 7 generations in mind not knowing who would take the work on for him!

Ini and I aren’t sure if we’ll have kids and while we have 1 niece and 1 nephew at this point in time, there’s no telling if a blood relative will want to pick up and carry on what we’ve created here. Fruit and nut trees will be abundant by the time they’re entering college, but who can say what their dreams will lead them to. We’ve often wondered who will carry on our dreams. Could we, like our friend, be preparing something for someone not even born yet who we’ll meet many years down the road?

 

If you can complete your dream in your lifetime, you’re not dreaming big enough.

Winona LaDuke recently crowdfunded a hemp farm that will empower Native American youth and in one of her emails she wrote the quote above. It has sat with me ever since. Am I dreaming big enough? Including a vision which propels and energizes the next 7 generations? Am I dreaming something which is viable or healthy for the next 150 years (and not only of humans, but the entire biosphere)?

Am I thinking of water, soil, income streams, food, shelter, and more? Though it may sound like a lot, I really don’t think it is. It is living in alignment with our true nature which is connected to everything. To be out of balance with this nature creates disharmony and though we may reap short term gains and excuse ourselves for trying to survive, how are we influencing the lives of our great great great grandchildren or even the children of a stranger who will show up one day and fit magically into the puzzle we have created.

I think our friend I mentioned above is the first person I have met who has dedicated so much of his life and toiled to create a sustainable job for someone he’s not even sure will come. He does it because it was his promise to the woman who donated the land into a land trust, which is happening more and more nationwide. How do we not only “preserve” these places, but also allow them to bring in salaries based on good livelihood as we talked about yesterday in our “Putting the Eco back Economics” post? Balancing the negative effects of greedy corporations is one such way.

Are We Listening? Are You Paying Attention?

Ecotrain

This morning I woke up to yet more news of fires ravaging the landscape in Northern California. Northen California and indeed the Pacific Coast itself is a place I love dearly. There is a feeling of freedom and lightness in the air, perhaps because of the ocean. I grew up going to Southern California to visit family, but when I got older I was attracted to Northern California. I worked on Pot Farms, marveled at the grandeur of the old redwoods and sequoias and I met kindhearted, earth-loving people (and plenty of crazy ones too).

 

It is devastating in so many ways that the force of fire increasingly ravages the landscapes of California. The fire burns homes to a crisp and displaces entire communities of both humans, wildlife, and trees. We are seeing a full scale cleansing.

 

[Photo Source]

 

I woke up and checked my Instagram feed. It is a cold morning on the homestead- the coldest night yet and after I read the post about the fire, I settled in to make a fire in the cabin to warm up the place. As the poem I am about to share so brilliantly conveys, fire is a friend and, in excess, one of the deadliest foes. Yet instead of pitting fire as the “bad guy,” what if we dig a bit deeper and look at the message fire is bringing.

 

Great Fire,

We see you.

We bow before your power

Your majestic roar of life transforming

Everything we thought so solid & sure

Into dust.

Great Fire,

We honor you.

Master agent of Transformation

You teach us

True Radical Release.

Not the wishy washy letting go of some comforts &

conveniences, no.

Us humans.

With all our habits.

Raw coconut water in plastic bottles,

<< Oh but I recycle! >>

No.

Not enough.

True

Radical

Release.

Great Fire, great modeling of this.

When we evacuate

We realize how little needs to come with

How no thing really matters.

When our houses burn

We are left with no thing

We are left so… Alive.

We let go.

All that has been lost.

It is quiet.

We realize.

Being together is all our hearts want.

And all our business burns away.

Us humans, so important is our doing

Until there’s nothing to do but

Be in it.

Great Fire,

You’ll come teach us

Until we learn. “We can’t solve the problems

With the same kind of thinking we used

When we created them.” (Einstein)

So wipe our minds clean

To dust.

Let the Ash inside of us feed

Dormant seeds from long ago.

Let us remember.

Let us pause.

Let us not be so hasty to “rebuild!” If we build it this way

It will burn again.

What does it mean

To start

A

New?

Regenerate.

 

 

Poem by the Gaia School of Healing in California. You can check out there website here.

 

 

What most touched me about this poem is the deep reaching respect the author has toward fire. The admission that the way things had been carrying on would no longer work. The truth that the fire is a message, a wake up call.

 

It is beyond devastating to see destruction on this level. It is even more devastating to think that the clinging of humans (to not let forest fires burn naturally, for example, as is there regenerative cycle, which actually prevents the fuel accumulated which creates large scale fires of this sort) led to this. Their insistency to not pay attention or realize something needed to change.

 

“We can’t solve the problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Einstein

 

When Ini and I looked around for a place to call home to create our land-based, long term dreams, of course we wanted to move to cool and hip places like California, replete with likeminded people to form community with. Yet the proximity to huge population centers, lack of water, prevalence of fires, and inflated land and living expenses, ultimately kept us searching.

 

When my parents said they were going to move to Naples, Florida I had a similar reaction. Why move to a place that is notorious for getting hit with natural disasters? Why move to a place that could be under water within our lifetimes with rising sea levels? The year they moved there Hurricane Irma hit and they evacuated from their home. It was a crazy situation, but surely we all saw it coming. Even now the Atlantic coast of Florida just underwent another crazy natural disaster and many lost everything.

 

Are We Listening?

 

These types of things aren’t going to slow down. Weather patterns are erratic, it’s getting colder when it’s cold and hotter when it’s hot and sometimes cold when it should be hot and vice versa. Are we paying attention?

 

When I asked my dad how they could live in a place that may not be there when his grandkids reach maturity he laughed and said that he would be gone so it wouldn’t matter. I don’t mean to throw my dad under the bus – he takes everything with a good dose of humor – but the truth is that many humans are still perceiving things this way.

 

It doesn’t matter because it won’t matter for me.

 

This isn’t 7 Generations Thinking.

 

Deep in my heart I feel a surge to think 7 generations into the future and align my actions with the wellbeing of those who will come after me. Are my actions creating a better world or simply going along with the destructive flow?

 

We need to start thinking differently and choosing actions that have different results. I’m not saying no one can have any fun (and why is it that that’s how people immediately react, like to align our actions with the health of future generations is a kill-joy?), but that we need to take a good look at the course we’re on and change directions.

 

A mentor and guide for me in this time is consistently Joanna Macy. I’ve mentioned her books before. In this passage below she is questioning on of her teachers, Choegyal, about the Shambhala warriors in the prophecy.

 

 

“So in this time, the Shambhala warriors go into training. When Choegyal said this, Joanna asked, “How do they train?” They train, he said, in the use of two weapons. “What weapons?” And he held up his hands in the way the lamas hold the ritual objects of dorje and bell in the lama dance.

 

The weapons are compassion and insight. Both are necessary, he said. You have to have compassion because it gives you the juice, the power, the passion to move. It means not to be afraid of the pain of the world. Then you can open to it, step forward, act. But that weapon by itself is not enough. It can burn you out, so you need the other- you need insight into the radical interdependence of all phenomena. With that wisdom you know that it is not a battle between “good guys” and “bad guys,” because the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart. With insight into our profound interrelatedness- our deep ecology- you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have repercussions throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern. By itself, that insight may appear too cool, too conceptual, to sustain you and keep you moving, so you need the heart of compassion. Together these two can sustain us as agents of wholesome change. They are gifts for us to claim now in the healing of our world.” (pg 61 Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy)

 

Eyes of Wisdom

 

During these trying times, we must pay attention to what is before us. We are being given signs from every angle and truly life cannot go on as normal, as it has been going on for so so long. We must make a shift. Maybe, as my dad says, it doesn’t matter – Ice Ages and other full scale, sweeping clean catastrophes have happened many times over and this is just another catastrophic epoch. Yet, that urging deep in my heart, that compassion, combined with the insight of interrelatedness, even with those generations who are not born yet, who will come after me, tells me differently. It does matter and it’s for this reason that we’ve come into these times.

 

I feel like I share it all the time, but here are some key lines from the Hopi Elder’s prophecy, fitting for a closing statement.

 

Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?

Know your garden.
It is time to speak your truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for your leader.