The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

The Ways of our Ancestors: Review of the Mountaincraft and Music Gathering September 11, 2019

Here, in the center of our camp, the sacred fire burns. This fire is tended for the four days we are together, never being allowed to go out. This is an ancestral fire, and all of us at the Mountaincraft gathering have the responsibility of feeding it. This is where we remember that learning primitive and earth skills is the work of our ancestors. This is where we gather for a quiet moment to commune with those ancestors, and will our bodies and hearts to remember. This is where, each morning, we gather as a group to hear about the day’s classes, call to the directions, hear a word of intention, and recieve a water blessing from Nancy Basket, a tribe elder. This is where, at each meal, some of us may find ourselves, talking with each other or engaging in quiet communion with the flame. This is where, each night, we gather to drum, dance, and connect with all in this community. This is where many classes are taught, using fire as a tool for cooking, dye, carving, and more. The ancestor fire at the heart of the Mountaincraft gathering is the heart of the gathering itself–and it represents much of what we’ve come here to do.

Dye pots in the sacred fire

 

As I’ve already begun to do, in this post, I’m reviewing my recent experience at the Mountaincraft gathering. I’ll offer a full review, and also share at the end of the review how you might find a similar earth / primitive skills gathering, and why, if you are interested in nature spiritualiy and druidry, you might really want to do so!  And so, let’s get back to honoring the ancestors.

 

While I had been at the North American School of Bushcraft a few times before, this was my first time at their annual  Mountaincraft and Music Gathering–and in fact, my first earth skills gathering ever. This gathering focuses on the wide variety of earth skills and primitive skills that our ancestors once knew, and that many of us are now trying to re-learn and preserve. Held yearly in early September in Hedgesville, WV at the North American Bushcraft School, this gathering is a wonderful time for people to gather together to learn, teach, share, and grow. I have been looking forward to this gathering for quite some time, and I invited two druid friends to go with me.  And what a time we had.

 

A typical day at Mountaincraft looks like this: breakfast starts at 7am and ends at 8:30. At 9:30, we have morning circle around the fire. Morning circle is as I described above: part annoucements, part community building, and part ceremony.  We hear about the day’s classes from each of the many instructors–they introduce themselves, what they will be teaching and where. We get a word of intention for the day, which helps us focus our energy in a useful direction.  We gain a water blessing (and sometimes a song) from Nancy Basket, who uses cedar to flick each of us with pure water. Then, we go off to one of many classes offered.  Usually about 7-10 classes are being held at any one time. Morning class runs from 10am till 12:30. Lunch is till 1:30 and classes begin again at 2 and run till 5:30. The gathering provides breakfast and lunch, so then everyone goes off to cook or pays for a delicious purchased meal. Signups for classes start at dinner the day before, so around dinner, so everyone visits the board and sees what the next day’s offerings are and sign up. Many find it diffiuclt to choose as so many good options are available. As it gets dark, everyone gathers for drumming and connection. There might be trading activities (trade blanket, or trading/sales of items) or some other activity. The final evening of the gathering, Saturday evening, they had two fantastic Bluegrass bands (I’m not even a fan of Bluegrass but these were quite fun and enjoyable!) Then you go to your tent and enjoy your rest. While it sounds like you stay quite busy, the schedule is quite relaxed and things happen at their own pace. Earth skills are not “fast” skills, rather, they work on slow time. The gathering’s pace reflects this powerful lesson.

Afternoon Classes – so many!

 

Each day at the gathering offered new classes and exciting opportunities to learn. It was often quite hard to pick between the many classes. Here are just some of the many classes that were offered this year: Wilderness survival 101, map and compass, navigation without maps, bow drill firemaking (make your own kit and learn to use it), friction fires of the world, 40 minute forks, spoon carving, blacksmithing 101, make your own atlatl, primitive pottery, zen and the art of woodchopping, tool maintenance, make handles for tools from trees, make a milking stool from a log, flintknapping, tomahawk throwing and course, bow course, cordage, basketry (many, many different types–pine needles, kudzu, vine, etc) combined with storytelling, fingerweaving, natural dyes, bark baskets, parkour, campfire cooking, indigo and shibori dye, leatherwork: moccasins, make your own leather pants or skirt, process a deer and use all parts, cattail reed mat making, herbalism 101, salve making, naturalist classes, nature awareness, weed walks and plant walks, eating bugs and mushrooms, tree identification, drumming, learning guitar and banjo (and other music), nature identification, and so many more I can’t remember and didn’t write down! There was also a full 3.5 day kids program, where kids did many different earth skills along with plenty of play time, swimming, and nature hikes. This allowed the kids autonomy and also allowed parents to go to their own classes knowing that their kids were in good hands. There were also daily sweat lodges that you could sign up for–I did not do a lodge but one of my druid friends did and had an amazing experience.

 

40 Minute Forks

On my first day, I spent the morning learning “40 minute forks” from Fuz, a long-time earth skills instructor from North Carolina. This was a great class to help me build confidence with my knife skills, whittling skills and create some simple forks. Fuz was a strong presence throughout the gathering, not only teaching a wide range of primitive skills (carving, wood chopping, drumming) but he was also very active in the drum circles at night, helping us feel welcome and leading some great beats.

 

The afternoon class was primitive pottery with Keith. We made our way down to the creek bed, dug clay from the bank, and learned how to hand wedge it. Covered in mud, we came back to the primitive pottery area, where we shaped the clay into bowls and other objects. On saturday late afternoon, after drying the pottery by the fire, the kiln was built on top of hot ashes and all of our pots went inside. Then, we built a bonfire on top of it and watched it burn  I remember standing there with our pots, at about 11pm on Saturday night. Bluegrass band playing in the background, heat of the fire before me, and just thinking what an amazing experience this was–to use fire as such a powerful tool. Evening came and my friends and I shared a meal and some downtime at our campsite. We then went down to the ancestral fire, where we participated in the best drum circle jam I have ever been enjoyed!

 

Prefiring pots

The second day cordage in the morning with Jeff Gottleib.  I loved everything about Jeff’s teaching style: practical, knowledgable, friendly, and encouraging. Jeff was a professional earth skills instructors and naturalist and it really showed. He walked us through the intracies of creating cordage from various plants and trees, and had tons of examples to look at.  We made dogbane cordage and then some hemp cordage. He even had a book on the topic for more info, which I was lucky enough to purchase for reference.  (He has a site and Youtube channel you can check out here).

 

After a great lunch, I went to my afternoon class, which was dyeing with indigo and traditional shibori techniques with Stephanie Davis. I have been longing to learn these techniques for years!  Stephanie’s workshop was amazing. Stephanie brought out examples, pictures, and had her own indigo dyed clothing and tapestries everywhere for examples.  She offered us a box of clothing and we took what would fit.  I ended up with a great cotton sleeveless shirt and an long runner I will use as an altar cloth. Stephanie’s instruction in indigo was magical. Each of us finished our prepartion (with various stitches, string, rubber bands, and more) and then made our way to the dye vat. Stephanie worked with each of us, slowly and purposefully, to dye our work and remove it quickly so that we did not add oxygen to the vat. Her gentle guidance added *so much* to the learning process–I felt like she taught us how to commune with the dye, how to work with the Indigo plant behind it. My two pieces came out beautifully. Many of us stayed to watch the last of the items get unwrapped like precious gifts. I left that class with my heart so full.

 

Amazing dyed fabrics!

Friday night offered a traditional trade blanket. Each of us who participated brought multiple kinds of trades.  We took turns, going around the blanket and offering trades. Or doing side trades, which are ok. I ended up trading for a bag of spicebush seeds (yay for replanting my land), a small leather bag, beads, dried hen of the woods mushrooms, a self-published coloring book, and a wonderful wool shawl with arm holes. I gave iron oxide pigment, guinea and goose feathers, a handmade leather journal, small gourds, and a small gourd drum. This was a  very fun time and a good way to get to know people at the event. For an overview of what this is, you can see this page.

 

Saturday is the “big day” of the gathering. Lots of new folks rolled in and there were at least 10-15 classes running at all times–and again so many choices! I decided to do a natural dyes and ecoprinting class in the morning. My natural dye class was great–we foraged for materials, learned about dyes and prepartion, and prepared and used three different dyes: a pokeberry dye, a walnut dye, and a goldenrod dye. The best thing about this class is that we did these dyes over our ancetral fire, just like our ancestors would have.  We gathered the plants and stained our fingers and faces with pokeberries.

 

My kit, with a fire I started at home a few days after the gathering.

My saturday afternoon class was my last class of the gathering, since I had to return early on Sunday. But I consider this class my greatest success–it was certainly the most physically demanding and challenging but also rewarding. I had class with Jeff again. This time, he was teaching us how to make bow drill kits for friction fire building. We started with a good chunk of dried basswood he harvested. He showed us how to quarter the log and get boards from them, each student making their own board. He then took the rest and offered us smaller shards to carve down into our round drill. After a good deal of carving, we were ready to make the bow. We harvested our drill wood itself and then added lines or did a 3-ply cordage technique with leather.  By this time, we had been making our kits for several hours. Many of the other classes had finished for the day, but we were determined to start fires with our kits!  It took me about 15 minutes of practice to get the hang of it, but then, I HAD AN EMBER!  And then, a minute or so later, I had made fire.  I felt so alive, so proud, so accomplished. From my own hands, I took pieces of split wood and turned them into a friction fire kit that really worked.  I spent most of the evening riding my bow drill fire high, thankful to have learned this skill and feeling damn accomplished. Since returning home, I’ve made three embers and one successful fire with my bow drill–and it tremendously deepened my relationship to fire!

 

That evening was awesome.  We had the trader setup, where you could sell or trade for items from a wide variety of folks who had stuff at the gathering. There were soaps, jams and jellies, herbal medicine, knives, feathers and bones, old school lanterns, various tools, and so many more interesting things. As that winded down, the party began, and we enjoyed homebrew and two amazing bluegrass bands.  I ended that evening at the primitive fire pit watching my pots turn to molten orange.Sunday at the gathering is a half day, but unfortunately, I had to leave early due to having to go to work later on Sunday. I said goodbye and drove away with my heart so full and my mind active, the awen strongly flowing through me!

 

I want to conclude with a few general thoughts and encourage you to go to Mountaincraft or another Earth Skills gathering:

 

Firing the pots!

First, this community is really, really welcoming. I can’t stress that enough. I live in a rural and very conserative area, and that often translates that there are things women do and things men do, and men don’t always want to teach women “men’s” skills. Woodworking and treework, in particular, have been really hard for me to get any decent lessons in. Here at Mountaincraft, Jason and Sera, who run the North American Bushcraft School, are diligent about their land being an accessible and welcoming place. I felt completely respected and believed in, at all times, during the gathering. I had strong women and respectful men leading awesome classes. But its not just gender diversity that is respected: all people are. The elders are respected in this community and given places of honor. The children are likewise respected, and many of them are teachers themselves. I have never been in such an open and welcoming community that honors the diversity of age, race, gender, and path so much.

 

Second, this community has a lot to offer people who put in the time. Besides the incredible list of skills I mentioned, there is a lot of personal work you get to do in building skills. Its a meaningful and powerful method of personal empowerment, where each new skill you learn allows you to gain confidence, gain power, and gain wisdom.  One of my druid friends, also a woman, spent the weekend learning blacksmithing, making weapons, and throwing them.  Her body was sore but her heart was full. She took the warrior’s path, much different than my own bardic journey, and yet, both were fulfilling and enriching for us.  Starting my fire with the bow drill changed something within me; it connected me deeply with my ancestors but also seemed to unlock some as of yet unknown potential within me. All I can say is that I left that gathering a different person than I came, and what that means will likely take some time to sort out through more fire building and bow drill practice.

 

Third, this gathering teaches deep nature knowledge and nature awareness. Nature has so many facets to learn: identification, edible/medicinal virtues, and many other uses–each of these offers a different “face” of a plant. There is such a difference between being able to ID a tree and learning how to make something from its fallen trunk, knowing just the right wood and part of the wood to choose. Before this gathering, basswood was simply a nice tree that I could identify and whose flowers made a demulcent tea. By learning how to make a bow drill of basswood, I learned much more about the qualities of this tree–how the wood behaves, how soft it is, how it smells when it burns, how it carves. Thus, I learned a bit of the tree’s magic: what wisdom and resources that it can offer. Nature knowledge comes in many forms, and the path of earth skills is abundant in such knowledge.

 

Finally, I think earth skills gatherings offeres a wonderful “earth path” suppliment to my many readers who are practicing some kind of earth-based spirituality (such as AODA druidry, which we literally call “earth path” skills).  These are the practical skills, folks.  These are the skills that help you stay rooted and present and build nature knowledge.  It is an incredible opportunity.

 

If you want to find a gathering near you, visit the Earth Skills Gatherings website.

 

Building with Cob, Part II: Soil Tests and Mixing Cob September 8, 2019

Happy feet mixing cob!

In a meadow under the summer sun, a group of dancers laugh and fling mud.  Beneath their feet, clay, sand, and water become mixed together, creating a sticky earthen blend that sticks to their feet, their legs, and, after some play, faces and fingers! This is a cob mixing party, one of the best times you can have with good friends. After the cob is mixed, it is added by others to the bench and more soil is added and the dance continues.  In last week’s post we explored some reasons to consider exploring natural building as a potential way to build sustainable structures and be more attuned with the energies of earth.  In this week’s post, we will get into how to test your soil and how to make some cob!

 

One thing I want to share about cob–you don’t have to build big things, like houses or ovens, with cob.  You can also build really small things–candleholders, paperweights, primitive statuary, and so on.  You can do an earth plaster on a wall in your home, or build a small cob bench overlooking the woods. I think the underlying practice with cob is simply to work with the earth in this very earth-honoring and embodied practice.  This post explores how to test your soil and make cob, which you can then use to shape your world!

Preliminaries for Cob: Testing Your Soil and Quality of Cob

Soil Horizons and Your Subsoil

Soil horizonsMaking cob requires you to understand a bit about soil horizons and how soil lays on the earth.  If you dig a hole in the earth straight down, you’ll see that soil show up in layers (horizons).  The first layer, the O layer, is an organic layer–where dead and rotting organic matter can be found.  This is the layer that is created when leaves fall and rot, creating dark, rich, humus.  This is what we want to grow plants in, NOT what we want for natural building.

 

The second layer, the  A Horizon, is the surface layer.  It is usually less dark, but still contains nutrients and organic matter. It usually appears lighter in color. Again, this is for plants, not for cob.

 

The third layer, the B Horizon, represents the sub-soil.  It is here where we find clay, sand, and silt; our basic building blocks for cob construction.  You’ll notice another break in your soil as you go down–in my region, the soil gets quite orange, representing the high iron content that we have here.

 

The fourth layer is the C Horizon, or sub-stratum, where you get quite rocky before hitting the final layer: the R layer, bedrock.  We don’t really want that for cob either.  Depending on where you live, the bedrock may be very close to the surface or dozens of feet down, so you may never see it.  Here in Pennsylvania, however, you can get a good look at the C horizon less than a foot down!

 

The amount of O and A Horizons you have is based on your own soil ecology as well as the long-term land use and land history. Parts of the world were stripped to bedrock by glaciers.  Other parts have a 15 foot A Horizon due to long-term patterns of beneficial animal herd grazing.  The same is true of the B, C, and R layers–the depth of these layers is based on a lot of land history factors spanning back tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

 

The good news is that in many parts of the world, clay and sand are fairly abundant and easy to get to with only a shovel!  You can learn more about soil horizons in your area by looking at recently dug up areas–a fallen tree that has taken the roots with it as it fell offers one such opportunity; new construction into a hillside offers another.  Or, you can simply get out a shovel and start digging–the secrets of the soil horizons will be revealed to you with a bit of sweat equity.

 

The Soil Jar Test

To find out how much sand, clay, and silt you are working with in your subsoil, you can perform a simple soil jar test.  Dig down into the subsoil and get yourself a good cupful of subsoil.  Break it up well if it is compacted as much as you can (this might mean letting it dry out for a few days in the sun and then breaking it up that way). Place this in a quart mason jar and fill with water to the top, leaving about an inch or so to shake it.  If you have animal helpers, this is a good time to enlist their help. Shake it very well.

Soil jar after shaking well.

 

Goose inspection of the jar. All is well.

Now, let your jar sit somewhere undisturbed or 24 hours.

  • The sand (a large grain particle) will immediately sink to the bottom, within a few minutes.  Mark this with tape or a marker if you can, or mentally note where it is.
  • A layer of silt (a medium particle) will settle on top of the sand in about 30 min.  You should .again mentally note where that ends.
  • Over the next 24 hours or so, the clay (a vey fine-grained particle) will settle out of the water.
  • You will also see any organic matter floating at the top of the jar.

24 hour later, all has settled.

You can look at these ratios as a way to determine if you will need to source some off-site materials to make an effective cob blend (2 parts sand, 1 part silt/clay).  As you can see from above, I am blessed in that I have an excellent ration of sand to clay/silt, and the cob from my land is almost perfect without any additions.

Any organic matter will settle on top (or float) but if you are using subsoil and you dug below the A horizon, you shouldn’t have much of that. (As an aside, you can use this same test for garden soil on the surface and it will tell you how much organic matter is in your soil, which is a very good thing!)

 

Clay Ribbon Test

Another good thing to do to test your clay in your subsoil is to do a ribbon test.  This gives you a simple test that lets you know how pure your clay is and how it will hold up over time.  A good example of how to do this is here. You mix up your cob as usual and work to create one of those clay snakes (like you may have done as a kid). When you have it mixed, you see how well it can be worked (bending) without breaking.  The higher the clay content, the more bendy it is.

 

Making cob at my PDC in 2015!

Soft and Sharp Sand

Not all sand is created equal and it is very good to know what kind of sand you have in your subsoil. Some sand has very soft edges; you can think of beach sand here. The waves and water over a long period of time have softened the sand to the point where it is smooth. It is possible that the sand in your subsoil is like this–it is very soft because at one time, it was on a beach somewhere! Sharper sand contributes to a stronger cob. If you are doing major load-bearing building projects, you might consider adding some “builders sand” (which is a sharp, coarse sand) to your mix.

How to Make Cob!

Without further delay, let’s mix up some cob!

To make your own cob, you will need the following tools:

  • A shovel to dig out subsoil, wheelbarrow
  • Subsoil
  • Straw (chopped up), aged manure, or other grassy things (this adds strength)
  • A mixing tarp (any tarp will do, at least 6′ across  so you can move the cob around on it
  • A water source (hose, bucket, etc.)
  • Some happy feet for cob dancing (you know you want to!)
  • A large wooden screen sizes (use 1/2 or 1/4″ screen; see “tools” below)
  • A rock or small board to help sift subsoil

 

Tools

Probably the only tool you will need to make is your screen sifter. For general cob applications, you will want a 1/2″ screen for coarse/building cob. For finer cob applications (finish plasters, earthen candleholders or statuary, etc) you will want a 1/4″ screen. I made my screen by making a simple wooden frame out of scrap 2×4″ board. Then, I used a good amount of staples to staple my hardware cloth (1/2″) to the frame. The process took about 30 minutes, which mostly involved cutting and stapling the hardware cloth.

Screen with soil

It is necessary that you screen your cob in most locations–you don’t want those happy dancing feet to step on sharp rocks, sticks, or other stuff.  If you are taking your cob down to the 1/4″ level and have really rocky and uneven subsoil, I suggest starting to screen it at 1/2″ and then rescreen it down to 1/4″.

Making Cob

Dig your soil. The first thing to do is to dig out a good amount of subsoil.  I usually mix two medium wheelbarrows full at a time.  If you mix too much at once, it becomes unwieldy, particularly if you are mixing it yourself.  You can see how rocky our subsoil is!

Wheelbarrow full of subsoil

Screen your cob. Now, screen your cob. To do this, break up the hard chunks as much as you can with a shovel.  Wet soil will not screen.  Really dry soil (as in, you haven’t had rain for quite a while) may get hard to screen as well, so there really is a sweet spot for soil moisture (experiment, you will see what I mean). Put a few shovel fulls of cob in your screen and then start moving it around. After you break up the big stuff, you can use a rock or small piece of board to really push the soil through the screen. Once you’ve screened all of the cob, place the stones and other debris in a bucket, and continue with more subsoil.

Using a stone to work out the last bits of subsoil/clay chunks from stone

Make your cob. Once your subsoil is all screened, you can dump it into the mixing tarp. Make a well in the center of the subsoil, and just like you’d do making a dough, place water in the well in the center.  Don’t overdo it, just fill up that well.

The well with water

Now, start mixing the cob together with your feet. As you mix, grab an edge of the tarp and pull part of the soil over on itself. Add more water. Mix with your feet again, and continue the process–flipping over the cob, adding water, etc, until all the cob is firm yet pliable. How wet you want your cob depends on the application. If you are using cob as a mortar for a stone wall or brick rocket stove, you will want it much wetter. If you want to make bricks and build with it (like an earth oven), you will want it more firm.

Work it!  Mixing in the straw.  Sprinkle lightly to prevent clumps.

Optional: Add straw. At this stage, if you want your cob to have extra strength, you can mix in some straw or other grassy matter. This addition is excellent for building cob ovens, walls, and so on. The straw will suck up some of the moisture in your mix, so you may have to add a bit more water till you get a perfect consistency!  For fine applications, a lot of cobbers actually use dried out horse or cow manure–the cellulose stays in the plant matter as it moves through the animal, giving a really nice soft strengthener.

 

In my photo here, I am using this cob as a mortar for my greenhouse back wall, so I have added straw to help strengthen it.

A good mix!

Create anything with your cob! Now, you have a wonderful building material that you can do anything with!  If you don’t have anything to build yet, consider not adding the straw and instead, making some primitive statuary, cob candleholders, paperweights, and so on.  I love the way that some cob statuary and candleholders look on an altar!

Ready to use!

Cob and cobblestone wall ongoing in the greenhouse!

 

The photos in this blog post show two different locations–at my permaculture design certificate program, where the soil was more brown/gray and then here in PA, where we have beautiful yellow-orange iron-rich soil.  One of the other delightful things about cob is that it reflects the land where it comes from–we can truly see the colors of the land through this practice.

I hope this post was inspirational to you and you consider experimenting with this amazing building source!

 

Building with Cob, Part I: Project ideas and Honoring Earth September 1, 2019

Making some cob!

Connecting with the earth can mean a lot of things–and today, I want to talk through how to create a simple building material that can be used for a wide variety of purposes: cob.  Cob is an ancient building material that is a combination of sand, clay, and straw (or other strengthening materials) mixed with water. Cob, the synthesis of water and earth, becomes the passive forms through which we shape anything from a small earth oven to a whole living space.  In this post, I’ll introduce cob and offer some different kinds of projects that you can do with it. This post compliments last week’s post, where I shared how to make ecobricks from waste plastic materials.  Cob is certainly one of the more sustainable and local construction materials to use in conjunction with ecobricks, so I thought it would be a nice time to introduce this as well.  I’m also going to be doing a variety of cob projects on the homestead in the next few years that I will share about, and thus, it is useful to have this introduction first!

 

For many years, when I was studying natural building and various kinds of sustainable living at Strawbale Studio in Michigan, I offered a series of posts on natural building topics and rocket stoves. This post continues that series, and I am delighted to revisit some of these construction techniques. This post will serve as a basic introduction to natural building with cob–for more resources, there are books and classes (I’d highly suggest one of the internships at Strawbale Studio for a hands on experience!) Today’s post covers the preliminaries for cob building – what cob is, the kinds of projects you can make with cob, and the spiritual implications of learning to work with this amazing material. Next week’s post will show you how to test your soil and make cob.  Once I finish it in a month or so, I will also show the cob/cobblestone build a simple passive solar greenhouse heatsink wall.

 

Connecting to the Earth

Cob is the combination of sand, clay, and straw that has been used as a building material throughout the ages.  It is a most ancient building material, an ancestral building material.  It is always a local resource that reflects the different qualities of the earth in that location. It has been created by humans for thousands of years (if not longer), and is used in a number of building techniques, including adobe construction, waddle and daub construction, strawbale construction, and much more. In fact, nearly every temperate or tropical non-industrial culture has created their own version of cob in some capacity. This is a building material that is right from the land, created with our bodies in perfect harmony with the living earth.

 

In modern industrialized cultures, we often live in and build structures in opposition to the land. These structures almost always ignore basic things like sunlight, wind, or other weather patterns that would make heating and cooling them more effective and instead, rely on unsustainable fossil fuel burning to make them comfortable.  We live in houses full of toxic substances: the materials were toxic to the land and her peoples (human or otherwise) during extraction, toxic during their production, and they will be toxic when they are destroyed and put in a landfill. Our homes, structures, and building materials are thus in a constant state of disconnection from the living earth.  I think its hard to live that way, even subconsciously, and not experience some disconnection as well.

 

Cob offers us one path, of many, back to more nature connection.  Learning some cobbing and other natural building skills can help us connect with the earth, honor the earth, and learn some of the deeper mysteries of the land.  We can reconnect with the wisdom of our ancestors, who built shelters and homes right from the land aroudn them.  Learning to make cob, even through small things like making cob candleholders, allows for that deep, ancestral connection.  There is nothing as satisfying as communing with the earth, digging up some of her subsoil, sifting it, and stomping it with your bare feet to mix it into something that you can use to create virtually anything!   The mud between your toes, the weight of the earth, the shape of it in your hands–it is empowering, it is connective, and it is soul-filled.

 

Making cob and building with cob (also known as “cobbing”) also offers powerfully to the druid elements (which are explained here): particularly, the synthesis of gwyar and calas. You can also think of cob through the classical elements: the passive elements of water and earth are combined to build structures which heat, shelter, and allow us to cook meals, and so on.  It is an incredible and beautiful way to learn to live more in harmony with nature.

 

In the 21st century and the age of the Anthropocene, I think we need multiple pathways to find our way back to the cradle of the earth.  To a place of connection, or re-connection. Of learning that the earth, right under our feet, and the living things around us can truly provide all of our basic necessities for life.  This is a lesson that humanity has forgotten in the century+ past industrialization, but it is time that we begin to learn this lesson anew.  And for some of us, this lesson comes in the form of learning to build as our ancestors did–of using materials right from our land.

 

What are the benefits of working with Cob?

The Strawbale Studio - Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

The Strawbale Studio – Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

Local and sustainable sourcing, ethical building material. Because cob is locally sourced, it is an extremely sustainable building material. If you have the right kind of sub-soil, you can literally dig it out of your land and make it right there. Some sub-soil may require off-site amendments, depending on the nature of your soil (see soil tests, next week’s post). Cob comes right from the earth, and can return right to the earth, with minimal to no ecological impact. For example, in digging my hugelkultur beds, I replaced hard packed clay with large amounts of wood, plant matter, and compost–and the clay that was removed from those beds was piled up nearby, ready to be turned into cob.  Now I have a giant pile of subsoil that I am slowly using for new cob projects.

 

By comparison, modern construction materials are just awful from an environmental perspective. For example, the production of concrete is the *third largest* producer of C02 in the world! The link in the last sentence shows at how many different stages the production of concrete is linked to C02. Yes, concrete is more permanent than cob, but it comes with serious disadvantages.

 

Endless possibilities for construction. The possibilities of building with cob are endless! You can build earth ovens, chicken coops, candleholders, and even whole living structures. About 10 years ago, strawbale/cob construction was listed in the International Building Code, which makes it easier to secure the necessary permits in places that require them. Most of the “finished” photos in this post are from the Strawbale Studio, built by my natural building mentor, Deanne Bednar.  In addition, unlike many conventional building materials that require squares and rectangles, cob also allows for amazing amounts of versatility and creativity.  Unlike regular structures built with straight lines, cob allows for flowing curves, circles, spirals, and many unique features. Thus, many natural building projects are flowing, curvy, and fun.

 

Accessible to everyone. If you didn’t grow up “handy” or had someone to teach you, traditional construction may be inaccessible–both because it requires a lot of specialized knowledge and also because it requires multiple kinds of expensive tools and supplies. By comparison, cob construction can be taught to anyone, including children. In fact, cob allows us to build things right from the land, on the land, with minimal hand tools and no fossil fuel demands. It is perfect for group settings, schools, and other places where people want to join together to do something fun.

 

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful features

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful feature

Building with cob is “slow” and “meditative.”  Taking fossil fuels out of the equation requires a different kind of time commitment. Fossil fuels allow us to radically increase the speed at which things are done, but not the quality by which they are done.  Cobbing allows us to slow down, to re-attune with earth’s rhythms, and to have fun making something magical with our own hands and feet!  This is “earth time” and requires us to simply embrace the experience. Creating and working with cob is not done on “fast time” but represents a very slow and meditative process.  I list this as a benefit because I truly believe it to be so–by attuning with the earth and her building materials, we are forced to slow down, breathe, and be a participant in the process.

 

Can be combined with other sustainable practices. Cob is but one of many different techniques that can be used to build material. Timber framing, ecobricks, thatching, passive solar, rocket stoves/energy efficient heating, and shingle making from wood are just some of the strategies that align with these approaches. A rich universe of knowledge awaits you down this path!

 

Example Cob Projects: Rocket Stoves, Ovens, and Structures

One of the first considerations when thinking about a cob building project is matching the cob project to your climate. In arid climates where there is little rain, cob can be out in the sun and elements unprotected with minimal damage. In temperate climate with lots of rain, sleet, hail, and snow, special considerations are needed to protect the cob from the elements. In particular, cob designs need to have a “good hat” and “good feet.” That is cob projects are required to have some kind of protective structure that prevents the cob from getting wet–even with a finish plaster, it cannot stand up to the regular elements for extended periods.  A good footer,  usually made of stone, is what you rest cob on (so that it can’t wash away). This is one of the big differences between concrete and cob. Concrete is designed to stand up to the elements for years–but it also means that it will not return easily to the earth. Cob requires more TLC with regards to the elements, but is perfectly fine when designed correctly. As you see some of the examples of cob projects, you will see the use of the good hat/good foot design!  With this in mind, let’s explore some of the wonderful projects you can do with Cob!

 

Cob Ovens for Pizza and Baking. A staple in the cob world and a project that can be complete over several weekends is a cob baking oven for pizzas.  This is a good beginner project for cob, and there are lots of designs and resources online and in print.  I’ve built a few of these and have also had the pleasure in cooking in them!  The pizza that comes forth from them is amazing.

A cov oven at Sirius Ecovillage

This first photo is of the cob oven at Sirius Ecovillage (where I was blessed enough to do my permaculture design certificate in 2015!).  I love this oven because it has a well-designed structure that lets light in, it has beautiful artistry of the oven outside, and it produces quite tasty food!

 

Cob oven with fresh mushroom pizza

Earth Oven at Strawbale

This second oven is located at Strawbale studio.  While this oven was built before my time there, I was able to help repair cracks in this oven and bake in it on several occasions.  This oven did not have the optional stove pipe (like the first one did) but it still worked great.  In this case, the venting of the heat and smoke just come out the front. Notice the “hat” and ‘feet” of this design. The first photo shows some handmade pizzas with fresh foraged mushrooms we made and enjoyed as part of a workshop!

 

A Cob Rocket Stove or Rocket Mass Heater: Cob is excellent at transmitting heat (or cold) and because of that, it makes an excellent material for a rocket stove or rocket mass heater. There are lots of different designs for these; some years ago I detailed one rocket stove using a cob mortar here that I built with a group of others at Strawbale Studio. Other designs include indoor ones that are designed to heat larger spaces, like this other indoor heater at Strawbale.  This cob bench works on the principle of heating bodies, not spaces, so it radiates heat out.  It takes a long time to heat up (about 4 hours, as the cob is 4″ thick in most places) but even after the fire dies out, it will stay warm for many hours.

Indoor rocket mass heater

Indoor rocket mass heater at Strawbale Studio

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Larger Structures: Buildings, Walls, and More: Cob projects can become any size you are willing to work on–up to full size houses, saunas, chicken coops, and more. Strawbale Studio has a lot of such examples of these kinds of structures. One of the keys to thinking about larger structures is that cob transmits heat or cold really well–this means that a stove will move heat outward. However, uninsulated cob walls will quickly turn into a freezer in winter–this is why cob is often combined wtih strawbale construction for strawbale’s insulation properties in temperate climates.  Cob on its own has no insulation and will move heat or cold through it.

Hobbit Sauna

Hobbit Sauna tree (this is a tree I designed and created for the sauna with help from my friends!  Here, the tree is drying after working on it for two days. This was done during my last visit to Strawbale Studio in 2017!)

 

In Greenhouses and as Heat Sinks.  My current in-progress cob project (which I should finish by the end of Fall 2019) is a cob/stone wall for the back of my greenhouse.  I am doing this project in my small repurposed carport greenhouse. All greenhouses have three sides that allow for light and heat to enter (east, south, and west).  The other side of the greenhouse, north, never has direct light or heat coming through it, and thus, it is better to insulate it than to treat it like the other three walls. Because cob is an excellent conductor of heat, I am using the wall as a heatsink. This will be useful for any sunny day in fall, winter, or spring where the sun heats the greenhouse up considerably but the temperature drops a lot in the night (in summer, sinking heat isn’t a problem!).  I’ll share this design in a future post.

 

Cob benches and smaller structures. Cob is also used for a variety of smaller structures, such as cob benches. These can be done indoors or out. I haven’t yet worked on one of these projects, but you can see nice examples here.

 

That’s it for today–in my next post, we’ll look how to test your soil for an appropriate mix of clay and sand, mixing cob, and doing some basic construction (in this case, my cob greenhouse wall). May your hands ever be in the earth, may your heart ever be full, and may your spirit ever be inspired!

 

Embracing Ancestral Fires and Fire-starting at Beltane April 28, 2019

An awen-shaped sacred fire, created from my flint and steel

An awen-shaped sacred fire, created from my flint and steel

The tiny sparks from my flint and steel shower down on my char cloth.  This flint and steel set was a gift from a fellow druid from almost a decade ago, a gift that has long offered me a connection with my ancestors.  It takes me a few moments to remember the technique he taught me, striking the steel against the flint in a particular way with a particulary angle to my body.  Starting a fire in an ancestral way isn’t just a mental act; its an emboded one.  I breathe deeply and remember, and the tiny sparks fly from my tools to the char cloth. After a few more attempts, a single spark lands on the cloth and starts to glow orange. I carefully pick up the char cloth and blow on it to increase the ember size, then place it in a specially prepared “nest” of bark, pine pitch, and soft cattail and milkweed fibers.  I blow some more on the nest.  At first, nothing happens, and I fear the spark is lost.  But then it starts smoking, more and more, and suddenly, the whole nest is aflame.  I lay this nest carefully down and begin layering thin plant stalks and dried materials that I had prepared in advance, slowly building the fire from that tiny ember.  In 30 minutes, the fire is blazing and warm, and I feel intimately connected with it because I was able to start it on my own with basic tools.

 

We call Beltane a “fire festival” in the neopagan traditions because fire plays a central role. Modern Beltane festivities are derived from the ancient tradition in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man where people lit fires and drove cattle through them as a blessing as they went out to pasture for the summer months. People seeking blessings also lept over the fires.  For a nice description of the history of this practice, see this site.  Fire was such an important part of Beltane because fire represents the sun, and by May 1st, people are eager to welcome back the sun, to enjoy the sun of the long summer months, and to have sunlight to kiss our crops that they may be fertile and abundant for the long winter ahead.  Today, in honor of the fires of Beltane, I want to talk about fire as an ancestral practice and encourage exploration and experimentation with fire and fire starting in more traditional–and ancestral–ways.

 

Fire and the Ancestors

Fire is one of humanity’s oldest friends, tools, and teachers.  New research from the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa suggests that homo erectus–our pre-human ancestors–had been cultivating and working with fire at least one million years ago, possibly 1.5 million or more years ago.  It is likely that when we evolved from homo erectus into homo sapien, fire was with us.  That is, when we birthed from the ancestral womb into the species we are today, fire was with us.  When our ancestors transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies and developed agriculure at the start of the Holocene 8000 years ago, fire was with us.  When our ancestors needed to stay warm in harsh winter weather, fire was with us. When our ancestors needed to keep back the predators in the dark, fire was with us. Fire is with us even now, as we heat our homes, move our vehicles, cook our food, and journey far and wide.

 

Perhaps the most interesting facts about fire is that it is one of the two things that distinguish us from other species (the other being language, although that fact is currently under debate).  Fire scares and drives away animals and insects, while it invites humans in closer.  If you are camping in the woods, its instinctive to want to have a fire, get close to it, and burn it brightly.  Some of my most frightening times in nature have been when I was alone in the dark woods without the warmth and comfort a fire offers. This, too, was ancestral.  Because my ancestors have been enjoying the warmth, light, and protection of fire for literally millions of years–it is no wonder that the primal part of my brain felt it lacking, especially when I heard critters afoot in the cold and dark night.

 

Today, people gather around fires, indoor or out, just as our ancient ancestors did. At any outdoor event or camping trip, there is a fire to be found. And where there is fire, there are people gathered, laughing, cooking food, telling stories, drumming, sharing songs, or more. Indoors, the fire has much of the same function. The hearth in traditional times was the center of the home. The fire burning, food cooking, the sharing of skills and traditions across generations. The hearth offers us a place to join with each other, teach each other, and nourish our own spirits.

 

 

Fires burn

Fires burn

Fire also has also contributed significantly to human evolution; Charles Darwin said that humans were distinguished evolutionarly by two things: langauge and fire. We can see this is true from both the evolution of the human brain and the evolution of human societies. First, fire has the unique ability to render food more digestable: we see that the application of fire to meats, vegetables, and fungus creates it more nutrient rich and dense. Some scientsts suggest that this has had a strong evolutionary function, in that more nutrient rich foods, honed by fire, allowed for a larger brain to develop (as typically, about 1/5 of our total calore intake goes towards our brains). Fire also was a driving force in moving humans further up the technological ladder: fire is what allowed us to create and refine copper, bronze, iron, steel and today, many, many advanced technologies still rely on basic principles of fire. Thus, each successive civilization has learned new and powerful ways to harness fire–and sometimes, to destroy with it.

 

 

Fire has had spiritual connotations throughout human history, and across human cultures. The worship or deification of fire, known as pyrodulia, pyrolatry, or pryolatria, was common, particularly in pre-industrial societies. The ancient alchemists and hermeticists, too, understood the importance and power of fire.  Alchemists divided fire into four types including the “secret fire” upon which all inner alchemy (spiritual alchemy) was based.  Likewise, in the Golden Dawn tradition, fire is considered the first element, and everything descends from fire.  Ancient societies, including Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese, venerated fire and worked with it elementally and ceremonially.

 

In every way, fire reconnects us to our roots, to those ancient ancestors who gave us such an important gift.  When I look at the fire from this perspective, I realize that fire is my most important ancestral gift, and thus, one of the best ways to honor my ancestors is to learn and understand fire, to work with fire as they might have, to learn to start and build fires, and to honor them through this practice.

 

Beltane Fire Traditions, the Ancestral Way

So perhaps this Beltane, considerworking deeply with fire in a new way.   I offer three suchs suggestions for how to honor the ancestors and work deeply with fire at beltane: traditional fire starting, tending, and honoring the fire.  These are three of many, many you can consider!

 

Fire Starting and Honoring the Ancestors

For most of us, fire starting requires a match or lighter, something that makes a quick flame.  We often build a big stack, put wads of paper in it, light it with some fossil-fuel derived source, and hope for the best.  However,  learning to make fire in other ways, slower ways, ancestral ways, creates what I can only describe as a different quality fire.  For one, you have a different investment in the fire, both from a physical and mental perspective. On the mental side, we use ancestral knowledge, knowing what materials to use, knowing the techniques, learning and failing and growing from the experience.  On the physical side, as I mentioned in my opening, fire starting is an emboded practice.  These practices take a lot more physical effort, particularly when you are learning.  But that physical and mental effort leads us to amazing outcomes:  fire we have truely kindled and lit with our ancestors beside us. But also, by starting a fire in a more traditional way, you invite your ancient ancestors to your side, and thus, the fire seems to have a different quality.  Finally, the fire has more meaning becuase you have done it the slow, old way, and that has power.

 

Another naturally created sacred fire

Another naturally created sacred fire in a special firepit

The “Fire Triangle” I learned at the North American Bushcraft School offers some practical suggestions for ancestral fire starting. This triangle suggests that we need Fuel (something that will easily burn); Oxygen; and Ignition (a heat source, a spark).  Traditional firestarting methods are focused on all three, with a specific emphasis on generating the spark, ember, or heat and transfering that into a fuel source that will allow you to produce a flame and using your breath to help bring oxygen into the fold.

 

The traditional method that I know best, using flint, steel, and char cloth, was detailed above in the opening and requires a minimal investment (a good kit is usually less than $20, you can also make your own charcloth from scrap cotton fiber).  There are other primitive fire starting methods that you might try.  Here are a few with detailed videos. I prefer videos for this, so I’m going to link you to some good ones)

  • Flint and Steel demonstration and method.
  • Hand Drill: method overview and instructions (probably the hardest to learn at first, but also potentially the most satsifying).  Local materials for me to use include mullein, yucca, or goldenrod stalks and soft pine or cedar boards).
  • Bow and Drill methods.

Starting a fire with one of these methods takes practice!  I’ve had some basic instruction in the hand drill, and one of my goals for this Beltane is to learning it in more detail this Beltane. After Beltane, I will continue to develop my knowledge of local woods and materials for this beautiful firemaking technique.

 

I believe that fire building and fire starting can be treated as a sacred practice, a ritual in and of itself.  With each step, we can set our intentions from preparing to start the fire in a sacred manner, lighting the fire, and honoring the fire.

 

Honoring the Fires

Honoring the fire begins with creating it in a sacred manner, and continues with how we tend it and what we do with it.  I think that each of us can create our own unique fire traditions, but here area  few that I particularly like:

 

A fire offering.  As we make offerings to the land, spirits, or other divine entities, we might also honor our fires.

–Creative offerings. I like to paint things or create things that are specifically for the fire.  This may be a woodburned piece, a small painting, other natural creations.  In particular, for these, I like to gather things from the land itself and use only natural materials (such as my natural inks or dyes, watercolors, etc) so that anything I offer to the fire is not going to have chemicals or other byproducts.  So my fire offering this Beltane is a woodburned piece honoring the fire, created for the fire with intent.

–Fire blend of Herbs.  You could also create a fire blend of herbs that you can offer; I especially like to include resins or other pine substances in these so that they burn brightly.  Cedar or pine boughs are also great choices for this, as they crackle and pop when they burn. A ball of beeswax mixed with herbs is truely a sight to behold in the fire!  I might do a whole post on fire offerings in the future.

–Music or Drumming.  Play a drum, flute, sing, or make some other kind of music for the fire.  Anyone can pick up a drum and offer a heartbeat rhythm and connect with the fire.

–Dance.  Dance around your fire, letting your body flow and move (if this isn’t usual to you, just do this when nobody else is around!  Even for someone who is not a dancer, you can connect with the fire in this way).

 

Treating the fire respectfully. Another thing I recently learned at the North American School of Bushcraft that some native traditions say that you should never throw anything on a fire, but rather, place it gently.  This is becuase Fire is seen as an elder, worthy of respect.  As druids, we might develop our own respectful fire traditions, so for you personally, you might think about what treating a fire with respect means.  If you have a regular fire pit or a ceremonial pit, you can develop a layered set of expectations and actions that guide your fire interaction.  Remember that the fire is a place for us to gather with our ancestors, and thus, it is always a sacred place.

 

 

I hope that this post has been inspirational to you and that you have a blessed Beltane!  May the fires burn brightly and may spring once again return.

 

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to the fire teachings of Jason Drevenak at the North American School of Bushcraft as inspiration for this post.