The Druid's Garden

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

Using an Oracle or Tarot Deck to Establish Sacred Space September 22, 2019

Plant Spirit Oracle

As some of you may know from my posts on Facebook and Instagram, in early 2020, I’ll be releasing the Plant Spirit Oracle as my second self-published divination deck (if you want to support the project, see link in the right sidebar with the Oak image). I described the Plant Spirit Oracle project a bit in an earlier post. For today’s post, I wanted to share a ritual space strategy that I developed as part of the PSO project–how to use a tarot or oracle deck to establish a sacred space.

 

The idea in a nutshell is that rather than calling in th elements or powers in a more static way, you can use an oracle deck to draw upon them in a more dynamic way. Thus, each time you create sacred space, you will be asking the cards to help you select the right energies for the space.  I’ve been using this in my own practices for about a year and it works beautifully. While the Plant Spirit Oracle is used and mentioned below, you can adapt this to be used with any oracle or tarot deck that you enjoy using–I have instructions at the end for how to do so.  Most sacred space openings use one set of energy (e.g. calling air, fire, water, earth, and spirit) and the energy is always the same for any sacred space. This approach allows for the divine/spirit/nature (through the use of the divination deck) to call forth specific energies for a specific need–thus, spirit helps you create the specific sacred space you need. Thus, each sacred space you create using this method is different and unique to your specific circumstances.

 

Tje following segment on how to use the approach is adapted from the fourth chapter of the Plant Spirit Oracle book. While the first three chapters of the book focus on how to use the PSO as a divination tool, the last two chapters offer deeper work.  The fourth chapter focuses on the ritual, magical, and spirit journeying approaches to working with plants in the PSO.  The 5th chapter focuses on herbalism practices–thus, working deeply with the sacred plants both on the outer and inner planes.  And without further delay, here is how to establish sacred space with an oracle deck!

 

Excerpt from the Plant Spirit Oracle Book: Establishing Sacred Space with the Plant Spirit Oracle

To do many of the deeper activities with the PSO as described in this chapter, you will want to establish a sacred space in which to work. You may even find it useful to establish a sacred space when using this oracle for meditation or divination purposes. Creating a sacred space can help you get into a more receptive mindset and clear away (and keep away) negative energies that may interfere in your work.  It also helps you create a mental shift, shifting you from “everyday time” to “sacred time.”

 

Preliminaries: Setting up a physical space is an important part of establishing sacred space. If you are indoors, you might set up a small altar with candles, incense, herbs, and so on. This is also a place to put your PSO deck for use during the ceremony. If you are outdoors, find a quiet space you are drawn to, and, if you feel led, make a small natural altar from stones, sticks, flowers, and such. Lay out a cloth and your PSO deck in the center of the space.

 

The Great Soil Web of Life

Opening a Sacred Space

 

Step 1: Clear yourself and the space. Begin by using a technique to clear yourself and the area around you. For example, you can use a smoke cleansing (smudge) stick of dried herbs. Clear yourself and smudge the space. If you don’t have a smoke clearing stick, you can burn some kitchen herbs (Sage or Rosemary) on a piece of charcoal. Alternatively, make a strong tea of herbs (Sage, Rosemary) and then asperge yourself and the area by flicking drops of the tea around with a branch or your fingers. If you are outside, you can use a branch with leaves or pine needles to asperge the space. You can also use music, like ringing a bell, sounding a drum, or using a singing bowl.

 

Step 2: Declare your intent for the ceremony. Indicate to the spirits why you are establishing this sacred space. Are you working with the oracle for divination? Finding your plant spirit ally? Journeying? Let the spirits know. Here is an example: “Sacred plant spirits, I call to you to assist me in doing a plant spirit journey to learn deeper wisdom from the Reishi.”

 

Step 3: Shuffle your PSO deck. As you shuffle, keep your sacred intent for the ceremony in mind.

 

Step 4: Call forth four plant spirit allies. Now walk to the east with the oracle cards in hand. Hold the deck up to the east and say, “Spirits of the East! Powers of the Air! I call to you to reveal my eastern guardian.” Draw a card from the PSO and speak the plant’s name. Then say, “I thank you [plant] for your protection and wisdom this day.” Set the card down in the east as you move to the south.

 

In the south, repeat the above: “Spirits of the South! Powers of Fire! . . .”

 

Move to the west and repeat the above: “Spirits of the West! Powers of Water! . . .”

 

Move to the north and repeat the above: “Spirits of the North! Powers of the Earth! . . .”

 

Move to the center of your space put your deck on the ground. Say, “Spirits of the land beneath me, spirits of the interconnected web of all life, I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit below. . . .”

 

Stay in the center and raise your deck to the sky above you. Say, “Spirits of the skies above, the celestial turning wheel of the stars. I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit above. . . .”

 

Hold the deck to your chest and say, “Spirits of the spark of life, of the hope of regeneration. I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit within. . . .”

 

As you do all of this, you are physically creating a circle of cards around you (leave them for the duration of the ceremony if you feel so moved).

 

Step 5: Envision a circle of plant protection. Stand in the middle of your space and visualize the energies from the seven cards creating a powerful protective sphere of plant matter around your space. When you have this firmly visualized, say, “I thank the powers of nature and the plant spirits for their protection and healing.” Gather up your cards (or leave them in place, if you are not doing divination or do not need the full deck). The sacred space is now open.

Closing a Sacred Space

Once you have completed whatever work you want to do with the PSO, you should close out your sacred space. Closing out the space helps you return to normal space.

 

Step 1: Make an offering. Make an offering to the plant spirits who have helped you hold your space.  If you do not have a physical offering, you can offer these words or your own:

 

“By bramble and by seed; by star and by thorn; by root and by bud, I honor you, great spirits of nature. Earth mother, plant spirits, thank you for your wisdom and guidance.”

 

Step 2: Thank the four directions and plant spirits. Now, move to the north and thank the plant spirit who protected the space, saying, “Spirits of the North, powers of Earth, and [plant spirit], thank you for your wisdom and protection this day.” Move to the west, south, and east, and repeat, phrasing appropriately.

 

Step 3. Return energy of the plant protection circle to the earth. Return to the center of your space and once again focus on the energy of the plant protection circle that you created. Envision any remaining energy moving out of the sphere and into the earth, for her healing and blessing.

 

Step 4: Close your space. Cross your arms and bow your head, saying, “I thank the plant spirits for their wisdom and blessings.”

 

 

Example Sacred Space Opening

Let’s say that you want to do a harvest ritual at the fall equinox to honor the many gifts you have been given, make offerings to spirit, and focus on the quiet of the winter that is to come.  You decide to open up your space using the PSO (or other divination deck). Before beginning your ritual, you clear your mind and focus on the intent. Then, you do the opening ritual as above and you get the following cards at each of the seven directions:

 

There is a clear energy being brought into this space from drawing these particular cards. In the East, we have Spruce, which focuses on openness, journeys, and travel. In the south, we have Catnip, which focuses on opposites, contrasts, or separation. This energy may be helping us overcome those things (depending on the working), or bringing in that energy.  In the west, we have Burdock, which is all about recovery, rest, and fallow periods. In the north is Comfrey, which is about resources, wealth, and personal action. The three center cards are Above/Oak: masculinity, strength, and wisdom; Below/Sweet flag: clarity, concentration, and insight; and bringing it all together is Within/Apple: abundance, comfort, and harvest. These energies, in their different positions, would lend you their strength–bringing in the openness, wisdom, and separation from the “always-on” mentality to allow you to rest; enjoying the resources that you were given; enjoying the abundance of the season. These cards would not only offer you a ritual space but some commentary on the nature of the ritual work you might want to do. They offer you a message on what to focus on as you proceed with your ritual.

Adapting this Practice for Other Oracle/Divination Decks

You can use this same sacred space opening and close with any other oracle deck.  With that said, I suggest you choose carefully.  An oracle deck with weird or dark energy will bring that same kind of energy into a working–which might be appropriate for your purposes or might not.  Each oracle or divination deck has a mind of its own, and may or may not be open to this kind of work.

 

Conclusion

Regardless of what deck you use, this is a very accessible, and yet, deep way to craft a magical space for whatever purposes you might need.  As I mentioned in the opening, the crowdfunding campaign was released this week to fund our print run.  If you are interested in supporting the PSO, please visit the Indigogo page.  We have original art, readings, and the chance to preorder book and deck sets!  As always, thank you for reading and for your support. I hope you find this helpful–and blessings upon your journey this harvest season!

 

Earthen Nature Spirit Statues with Cob September 15, 2019

An earth spirit statue in my greenhouse, freshly made with sticks and an oak gall

A lifetime ago, myself and a dear friend dug some clay out of a hillside.  We each took half of it.  My half of the clay was used to form an earthen statue, a guardian statue, for that same friend who was struggling with terminal cancer while still in his early 20’s. It had a wooden tree knot head, stones for its belly, a stick staff, and an earthen body.  My friend accepted it reverently, and it went with him everywhere, even till the end. As he struggled with his battle with cancer, it grew nicked and chipped.  The wooden head fell off, just as my friend’s brain cancer grew more serious. When he passed on, the earthen statue passed on with him, returning to the earth. This statue was an impermanent being; fashioned of unfired clay. It was brittle, yet, in its own way, full of strength. It was ephemeral, and yet perfect in its lack of permanence.  It was a spirit statue, channeled from nature, with a bit of spirit within it, there to help my friend on his journey.

 

I had forgotten about this small statue until quite recently.  I’ve been cobbing several times a week, working to get my back greenhouse cobblestone/cob heatsink wall done.  One day, I had just a little cob left over. Not enough to set more stones on the wall, but enough to play with.  I started to shape it and felt the power of the Awen and of spirit flowing through me.  I saw a vision of all of these earthen statues, shaped, with sticks, shells formed and strong. I saw them left, to break down quietly in the elements and return to the earth with her blessing. And then, I remembered that earthen statue that I made all those years ago to try to provide healing and strength for my friend. And so, I’ve been experimenting working with such earth spirit statues. After sharing a few of my photos with friends, several suggested that I write about how I make these and how I use them ceremonially.  So today’s post, part of my cob building series, looks at the process of making earthen nature spirit statues all from simple materials found in your local landscape.  This is something that ANYONE can do, regardless of artistic skill.  So let’s get muddy!

 

Ephemeral Sacred Objects

In earlier posts on this blog, I worked with the idea of building nature shrines and sacred spaces of all kinds.  One of the things I often stressed as part of that work was not bringing things into those spaces that might be harmful or damaging to the land.  So I suggested natural things, things like shells, stones, wood, bones–things that you gather yourself, from the land, and allow to return to the land.  Or I suggested things that would easily return to the land, like wood burned object, hand-dyed natural fibers, etc. These will break down quickly due to the elements, but that’s exactly the point.

 

Many earth spirit statues

As I have talked about over the last few weeks, Cob is a natural building material made of clay, sand, and straw.  When you make something from Cob, it’s not fired.  It will not hold up to water. It will break down in the snow, wind, rain, and ice. Why, then, would you make statues out of cob if you know they will break down? First, because there is a magic in impermanence, magic in the making.  When you know something is only going to be a certain way only for a short period of time, it holds additional value.  For example, when my strawberry patch starts to produce the best-tasting strawberries, I know there is a short window, maybe 2 weeks, where I get to enjoy them fresh from the plant.  The rest of the year, I might enjoy preserves, but never that fresh succulent strawberry right from the vine.  Sacred objects can be like that too–an object you carefully construct, with the full knowledge that it will be broken down, creates a different kind of relationship. A sacred relationship based on the immediate moment. Creating these statues asks you to be in a place for this moment in time, to simply be present, making these, working with the cob between your hands. Letting the natural objects find their own shape and in their own time.  And not rushing it.   For there is much magic in the making.

 

There is magic in the making, and there is magic in the placing. An earthen spirit statue’s goal is to return gracefully to the land.  If you want, you can work slow magic with these, on nature’s time and at nature’s pace, as part of this work.  Almost all of my earthen spirit statues are used for the purposes of land healing.  As I shape them, I speak my healing words into them, I work healing energies through my fingertips. I sing, I chant, I smile, I laugh. I put the energy of life and light into my statues. And maybe when they are done, I put some more into them ritually, adding the powers of the elements and the sacred animals of the druid tradition.  Then, they become like little healing shrines all to themselves.  Carefully wrap one and put it in your backpack while you are on a hike, leaving it in the nook of a tree.  Place one on a stone in a stream, knowing the floods will carry it away.  Bury one in a snowdrift in a logged forest to offer peace to the survivors.  Offer one to your local lady of the lake.  Place one in your garden to nurture your plants to grow, letting it become soil you will plant in.

Gathering Materials and Decorations

There are two parts to an earthen spirit statue.  Natural items, such as feathers, leaves, sticks, stones, nuts, roots, seeds, and more are one of those parts. Take a small basket into the woods, beach, bog, desert or whatever is near you.  Walk intentionally and slowly, letting small bits of nature speak to you.  If they call out, pick them up, and leave an offering in thanks.  Once you have a good selection to work with, its time to make your cob!

 

Making Cob

And so, let us put our feet and hands into the earth and make our cob! For an introduction to our delightful material, you should look at the introduction to cob construction here, and how to make cob here. I will also offer basic instructions here, as they differ slightly from the instructions on my introduction to cob page. In a nutshell, cob is a combination of clay, sand, and straw.  This combination, in the right amount (1 part clay/silt to 2 parts sand) makes a perfect material for building earthen spirit statues.

To make your cob:

  • Dig down to the subsoil (see here for more details).  Fill up part of a wheelbarrow (1/2 or so).  Screen it, removing any rocks, sticks, or other debris.  The goal is to have just clay, sand, and straw.
  • Put your material on a tarp.  Make a well in the center of the soil, and then, add water.  Mix with your feet, putting your prayers, energy, and love into that material.  Dance with the spirits as you dance on your cob.  Take a side of your tarp and flip the cob, adding more water to make a good firm dough consistency.
  • If you want extra strength, you can add a bit of fine straw.  To add straw, take your scissors and carefully cut the straw up into 1/2 in pieces or less.  then sprinkle it through, working it in with your feet.
  • Pick up some of your cob.  It should hold its shape well and you should be able to work it.  Add more soil if its too wet and more water if it’s too dry and crumbly.
  • The goal is a nice firm but doughy texture that will hold its shape and that you can form.

 

Goose blessing of my cob

Make Your Statues

Make your statues however you see fit.  the easiest way is to create a cylinder by rolling the cob in your hands or on a solid surface. Then, find the natural objects you want to include.  Press them into the cob, shaping it as you go.  Stick some sticks coming out of it, shells, or dried turkey tail mushrooms (or similar small polypore mushroom). Let the objects speak to you, and let the clay speak to you. Make no thought if it is “good” or “right”; refrain from any value judgments. Your goal is to channel the spirits of nature, and they are not concerned with the physical vessel you are creating.  Don’t fuss over it.  Let it be complete, and make another.  And another, and another, until you feel you are done.  As you make, laugh. Get muddy. Sing to the statues, drum.  Call for the sacred powers of nature who might aid you.  Put happy, healing, and light energy into your work.  Let go.

 

Bless your statues

If you feel the need, you can do an additional blessing for your statues.  Draw upon the power of earth, air, fire, and water, and give a blessing to them–smudge them with incense, drip some beeswax on them or hold them to the flame.  Give them some water drips, smear them with soil.

 

More earth spirit statues!

Place your statues

Find a home for your statues in the nooks and crannies of the landscape.  They want to travel, go somewhere, send their healing energy out as they begin to break down. Put them in unconventional places.  Put the in places in need of light and healing.  Put them on nature shrines.  Put them in your druid’s anchor spot. Visit them and watch them break down, or leave them never to return. You can put one on your altar for a while, but make an agreement between the two of you how long it will be there so that you can return it at the right time (these energies are meant to move between you and the land freely). There is no right or wrong path, just you, the spirits of nature, and how spirit moves through you.

 

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!

 

Plastic Waste into Resources: Exploring Ecobricks as Building Tools August 25, 2019

As I described in last week’s post, at least here in the US, we have serious challenges befalling us with plastic recycling along with a host of waste plastics that can never be recycled. A recycling infrastructure built almost exclusively on exporting masses of “dirty” recycling to China now has the recycling system here in the US is in shambles when China stopped taking recycling. Further, so many plastics simply can’t be recycled, meaning that even well meaning folks who recycle everything they can still end up throwing away enormous amounts of single-use plastics, packaging, film, and other waste. In permaculture design terms, it is time to turn some of this waste into a resource!  So in today’s post, I’d like to explore the concept of making ecobricks as a way to sink large amounts of un-recyclable waste into a productive resource and share some designs and ideas for using ecobricks for building projects.

 

Ecobricks, also known as Bottle Bricks, are a concept that has been growing in popularity, particularly in developing nations who are awash with plastic.  When we have plastic literally filling up oceans, streams, and communities, communities start looking for ways of dealing with that plastic–and ecobricks are one of the solutions that everyday people are creating. In a nutshell, you take a plastic bottle, fill it with unrecyclable plastic, and use it as a building tool for all kinds of projects.  If combined with other kinds of sustainable building techniques, like Cob, it is buildling tool can be used again and again, in the event that the original thing you built you want to dismantle.

 

Why are Ecobricks a spiritual and sustainable practice?

Ecobricks present multiple kinds of “solutions” and benefits.  Before getting into the specifics of how to make them, I want to share these benefits.

Accessibility and empowerment. The first thing I really like about ecobricks as a sustainable solution is that they are easy enough that anyone can make them.  And everyone has access to the basic materials (which are all free, and all considered waste).  Even if you choose not to use ecobricks in your own project, there is a global network of people who are making them to contribute to community projects (see more at grobrick.com).

 

Raising awareness and raising plastic consciousness. Saving up the plastics for ecobricks (and seeking out additional plastics) helps shift one’s own awareness about the proliferation of plastic.  New studies have recently demonstrated the serious toll that plastic is having in the world, from drinking water to oceans to our own bodies.  By treating it as a resource and changing your relationship to plastic, it helps you raise your own “plastic consciousness” in terms of both how much plastic you consume, but also, how much would get thrown away if you weren’t creating ecobricks.

 

Magic and intention. Making the ecobricks has a deeply spiritual side, a kind of sacred action.  Because it takes a long time to make ecobricks, as you create, it becomes a kind of meditation.  As you push the plastic into the brick, you can meditate on the world you are creating, rather than the world that created that plastic.  You can write on the ecobrick your hopes and dreams for the future, as many people do all over the world–these then become a way of doing both inner and outer alchemy through the transformation of waste plastic into a resource.  The brick making becomes a magical act to help us create a different future.

 

Accountability. When it comes to plastic, people in privileged places often have an “away” mentality.  Thus, our goal is to make the plastic go away as soon as it no longer serves us. Plastic packaging is wanted till the plastic is out of the package–then it needs to go away as fast as possible.  Recycling allows it go away (at least mentally).  But the truth is this: no plastic ever goes truly away.  We are each personally responsible for the plastic we create demand for: from being willing to purchase plastic products to forgetting one’s reusable grocery bags and asking for plastic, that plastic is now yours.  Ecobricks allows us to take a personal responsibility for plastics.   And responsibility changes our relationship not only with the plastic, but with the land, who suffers too often from humanity’s plastic addiction.

 

Ecobricks as a Transitioning Technology. Obviously, plastic is not sustainable–the very opposite. We know that plastic, out in the ecosystem, causes serious concernes environmntally and for the health of all beings.  A lot of people are moving away from plastic, into zero waste lifestyles, and really evaluating the plastic in their lives.  Ecobricks are a transition tool–the more plastic you are able to lock up in ecobricks, the more you don’t allow back into the environment.  This page explains this concept more in depth.

 

I hope that the above is enough to convince you that this is a great possibility for your own plastic!  Now let’s take a look at how to make the bricks and what projects you can build with them.

 

Making an Ecobrick: Step by Step Instructions

The process of making an ecobrick simple, and I’ll walk through it step by step.  First you gather up your materials.  Since I’m working on a “big project” that will probably require several hundred bricks, I’m being really methodical about it.  I keep every bit of non-recyclable plastic in plastic bags and keep these near the recycling, compost, vermicompst, and trash in my home.  Thus, there are now five options: vermicompost for coffee grounds and food scraps, compost for any other organic material, recycling for regular materials that can be recycled, and the ecobrick station for everything else.  This means very little goes in the trash! I also am prepared to gather up any excess plastic in other locations that I frequent–my workplace, places I hike, etc.  I’m also in the process of recruiting friends and family to help me create more ecobricks or, at the least, save me their plastic for me to create more.

 

In this first image, this is a collection of a about a month of saving plastic from the sources listed above.  Into my wheelbarrow goes everything from: unavoidable one use plastic (such as straws, plastic silverware), twist ties, bread bags, styrofoam, plastic baggies, plastic packaging, films, wraps, and so forth.  I gathered a lot of this from my workplace and also as trash along the side of the road or in the woods. Once you start collecting, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to collect and how quickly you can gather enough for one brick.  For example, a local picnic used 15 plastic tablecloths, which I gathered up and stuffed into a brick, making almost one full brick from that single picnic!

Here are two more photos of some of the selection from my most recent ecobrick making time: some food packaging that isn’t recyclable from bread, quinoa, and avocado, just to give you an idea:

Unrecyclable plastic avocado bag with preening goose in background

The world is full of this stuff!  You can find it at your house, at your work, littered in parking lots, in the woods, at the beach…you get the idea!

Once you’ve gathered your supplies, you will also need some 1 or 2 liter soda bottles.  If you don’t produce them yourself, a walk down the street of any urban or suburban area on recycling day is sure to produce many for you!  Or just ask people you know who drink soda. I usually store these in the same box I am gathering up my materials.

Goose inspection of my bottles

I usually gather stuff up for a while, and then make a few ecobricks at the same time.  Once you hvae your material, you can begin stuffing your bottles. You might want to include some nice colored plastic on the bottom of your bottle. The reason you might want something nice colored is that when you build with them, if you choose to let the bottoms be seen, you can have different colors! Certainly, you want something soft so you can stuff it into the cracks, so don’t use any hard plastic for this purpose.

Bottom of bottle

The technique is very simple, however, there are a few tricks to make really good bricks. First, you want a stick or dowel rod so as you get almost full, you can shove it down and keep stuffing further.  Ecobricks need to be carefully compacted without much give or when used as a building material, a poor brick can compromise the structure. Stuffing the bricks as full as possible and using some muscle to push down the brick is necessary. Sometimes, larger materials can be twisted into the bricks. Other times, I’ve found I have to cut them into smaller pieces to have them fit (especially true for thicker plastics).

Stuffing an ecobrick with Widdershins’ supervision

 

Twist method for a plastic bag

Fill up your ecobrick with plastic, stuffing down with the stick several times as it gets full. When you can’t add any more and the brick is firm, you can finish it by adding a cap. Your brick is done!  If you want, you can register it at GoBrik.com and it will keep track for you of how much plastic you stored and how much C02 you saved.  You’ll also get a brick number label and you can contribute your ecobrick to any number of ecobrick projects (or start one of your own).

Three recent ecobricks!

I have found that each ecobrick takes maybe 20 minutes to make, once you sit down and do it.  I usually only make 2 at a time because it takes a lot of muscle to make them!   They also take a lot more plastic than you would think–the last few I made, I counted and they took between 35-50 distinct pieces of plastic, depending on the size.  You can also invite others to gather up their plastics and come over and have an ecobrick party!

 

 

Travel Ecobricks

What is fun about this process is that it has been deeply empowering.  Rather than lamenting each piece of plastic I threw away that wasn’t recyable, I’m now seeking out waste plastic for my bricks.  For example, during a recent trip to Lake Erie with friends we had a few opportunities to do some beachcombing.  I was picking up plastic all over the beach and stuffing it in a found 2 liter bottle, which I brought home.  While I used to pick up trash only to recycle what I can and throw the rest away, I now can lock up that plastic in a brick that will be a resource.  Just this past week, I had a picnic lunch for work as part of our opening year activities and I gathered up everyone’s waste straws, plastic bags, and chip bags for my brick.

 

There’s lots of ways to easily collect plastic. Take an empty 2-liter bottle and a dowel rod with you when you go anywhere or anywhere you might spend time that generates plastic. A small one can fit in a purse or bag, even.  Thus,  I now have an ecobrick in my car, I have one at my workplace, I have one in my purse.  I recently went camping and took one with me (and finished it in one weekend by collecting plastic out of the woods!) I am now handing out sticks and bottles to friends and family, and asking them to make them for me (yes, I need a lot for the project).  For Lughnasadh recently, we had a grove event and the grove helped make part of a brick.

 

What I love about this is that everywhere I go, I am leaving the world a bit better by collecting that plastic and putting it to a productive use.

 

Building Projects

There are great resources online that share different kinds of things you can do with the eocbricks.  People make walls from them, benches, raised beds, furnature, even whole structures!   Pintrest has a number of excellent boards where people are sharing ideas for using ecobricks, such as this one!   

My long-term plan is to create an outdoor kitchen using ecobricks, which I am estimating will take at least 100 ecobricks in total. The ecobricks will help me create the basic surfaces on which I will build a cob oven and will also help build counter spaces and benches.  Ecobricks, combined with cob (a natural building material of clay, sand, and straw) and with a good roof, will create a long-term structure that will offer us many years of use–for druid grove events and simple family meals! Ecobricks will be part of the entire kitchen, and I estimate that I will need at least 100 to complete the project!  Here are some of my initial plans.  Some of these things I’ve had the opportunity to build before, but others are new!

Outdoor kitchen plans

Cob oven plans

 

In terms of how to build walls, seats, and more, two such videos that offer a good introduction:

 

 

If you plan on making some ecobricks, please share your ideas and plans here!  I would love to hear of anyone else who has a project in mind.  Blessings!

 

When Recycling Fails: Home-Scale Solutions for turning Paper and Plastic Waste into Resources August 18, 2019

For decades here in the USA, recycling was touted as one of the more easy environmental things you could do. I, like many others, assumed that local recycling facilities processed materials, they were sent to factories, and then later, re-integrated into various products.  Boy was I wrong!  Turns out that recycling is an industrialized business like any other, and part of the reason is that it was so promoted is that there was profit in waste.  In fact, from 1992 – late 2018, most recycling produced in the US shipped to China, who paid top dollar for recycled resources that were used to build their own economy. China had very lax environmental laws, and the more “dirty” recycling the US produced was sent to China for cheap sorting and processing.  While some of those materials were recycled, many of the recycled materials ended up unusable and were discarded, moving down rivers and contributing eventually to one of the many garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean (Sierra Club has an overview of this situation here). This dark secret of recycling wasn’t well known–you simply put your materials in a bin, and felt good about not sending them to the landfill, and off they went–out of sight, out of mind. In late 2018, China tightened its own environmental laws, and has become extremely strict on what recycling it would take. Contaminated recycling (which is often the result of “single stream” recycle systems) is no longer accepted.  And most recycling in the US is quite contaminated. Other countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, started buying up recycling for a while, but they have since decided they can also no longer take recyclables due to the volume and environmental impact. 

 

Recycled handmade paper in progress

Recycled handmade paper in progress

Long story short, this developing situation has resulted in a recycling crisis in the USA and in other developed nations. While some see this as an opportunity, many municipalities are resorting to simply filling landfills with recycling or worse–incinerating it.  Locally, many communities in my region are experiencing these shifts: we’ve seen changes to what can be accepted in recycling or the eradication of programs entirely. For example, most of Pittsburgh is no longer accepting glass and is cracking down on plastics it accepts; here on my campus, no shredded paper is allowed to be recycled). We are also seeing higher costs for recycling, or simply programs ending entirely.  But more broadly, what seems to be taking place is the lack of a good recycling infrastructure to actually support recycling processing here in the US.

 

But the truth is this: even when it was being shipped to China, recycling isn’t the solution to plastic problems.  Some new research illustrated that microplastics are so pervasive that they are literally in our rain, drinking water, and everywhere else–plastics are lethal to many inhabits on this planet.

 

Given these challenges, I’d like to take some time today to reflect on this problem and talk about some possible ways forward centered on two possibilities: reducing one-use plastic and paper consumption and turning waste into resources. I also want to note that not all “waste” is the same with regards to this recycling crisis. The real problem materials at present are paper and plastic recycling. Aluminum cans and other recyclables don’t seem to have changed much, and they still seem to be being recycled at high rates, at least according to this article. Given this situation, I’m going to focus my discussion primarily on paper and plastic for the remainder of this post and discuss some “at home” solutions that I’ve been exploring in response.

 

Waste and the Sacred

The thing I ask myself is: from where do these things arise?  All of these “waste” products ultimately come from one place: the living earth.  It is the living earth that provides the raw materials that humans use.  It is the lifeblood of the earth, the oil, that creates most plastics.  It is the creation of these materials that is problematic–synthetic materials that are so altered from their natural state that they cannot break down.  It is also the gross misuse, abuse, and disposal of these materials that have polluted our world, such that some of these issues, like microplastics, may *never* be solved–at least not in the next 500 or more years.

 

I believe that this calls for a shift–not only to some of the practices that I am going to share next, but in our own relationship with these waste products.  We need to start seeing *all* resources as not only “non-disposable” but sacred.  These are things that are ultimately derived from the earth, and their proliferation on the earth is seriously harming all life.

 

Reducing Consumption of Paper and Plastic

The most obvious solution to the plastic and paper recycling challenge is to work to eliminate paper and plastic waste. This is a very noble endeavor, and there are many ways that you can greatly reduce the amount of paper and plastic you consume–but it seems nearly impossible to eliminate entirely.  There are a lot of good ideas floating around out there at present, so I’ll share a few here:

  • Avoid any single-use plastics. These include things like straws, plastic silverware, styrofoam take-out containers, plastic bags, plastic plates, plastic cups, etc.  You can almost always pre-plan or simply decline.
  • Even single-use paper cups can largely be avoided by bringing your own reusable cup.
  • Eliminate plastic packaging whenever possible; opt for things that aren’t packaged (such as bulk food purchases) or packaged in paper over plastic. Being selective here can make a huge impact.
  • Eliminate plastic toothbrushes and toothpaste containers by purchasing alternatives (like bamboo) and toothpaste tablets from small online startup companies
  • Eliminate plastic bags or paper bags by bringing your own or opting not for a bag (or shopping at stores that don’t provide them, in the USA primarily this is Aldi)
  • Ask to be removed from all mailing list and reduce junk mail
  • Be contentious about paper use; print on both sides of paper and use scrap paper
  • Shop locally at farmer’s markets and so forth to eliminate plastic packaging (food packaging is a source of much waste)
  • If you enjoy soda or fizzy water, invest in a Soda Stream or something similar to eliminate drink plastic
  • Obviously, stop drinking bottled water and fill your water bottle up from the tap
  • Eliminate one-use paper products as much as possible – use rags and cloths and wash them rather than paper towels, etc.
  • When purchasing online, ask before buying about the plastic packaging.
  • Write to companies about their packaging and encourage change.
  • When purchasing clothing, purchase clothing that is of natural materials rather than synthetics (a big contributor to microplastics)
  • Try to purchase items that are made of materials close to the earth: natural fibers, woods, etc, rather than those synthetically derived and that will take much longer to break down
Many non-biodegradable plastics I discovered in my vermicompost bin!

Many non-biodegradable plastics I discovered in my vermicompost bin! I didn’t even know they were in there!  The worms couldn’t break them down and ignored them. What to do?

 

There are many opportunities out there to reduce plastic and paper consumption. By reducing demand and seeking alternatives we can help stop these plastic and paper waste streams before they start. And to me, that’s a really important piece of this larger systemic issue: eliminating the problem as close to the source as possible.

 

At the same time, even with extremely conscientious purchasing and attention, it is almost impossible to get paper and plastic consumption down to zero. Unintended plastic, in particular, always seems to make it into your life. It might not even be stuff you buy, but stuff other people bring in: for example, a family dinner, a gift someone gives you, unexpected layers of plastic packaging, garbage you pick up in the woods or along the beach, stuff that literally blows into your yard during a storm, and so on.  These plastics are present, and I believe, once they are in our lives, we are responsible for their cycle and making sure they don’t become pollution. So, let’s now move on to some home-scale solutions for turning both paper and plastic waste into resources!

Paper Waste into Resources: Handmade Paper, Sheet mulch, and Mushroom Cultivation Opportunities

For years I’ve been trying to eliminate as much paper use as I can. I love trees, and paper comes from trees.  Thus, I don’t like to see wasted paper because each bit of wasted paper is literally from something I hold so sacred.  So let’s explore a few uses for paper that would otherwise go to waste.

 

One of the ways I’ve worked with waste papers for over two decades is to create handmade recycled papers. I save up clean papers (usually colored or simple computer paper, often from my classes and university work) and when I have enough, I spend a day making delightful papers. These papers can be turned into handmade journals, gifts, cards, and many such resources. While this can handle some of the paper in my life, it certainly can’t handle it all, and not all papers are good for papermaking. Cardboards and newspaper, for example, do not make good handmade papers due to higher acid content and poor fiber content.

 

Sheet mulch in progress

Of particular concern to me is the cardboard and newspaper that seems to pile up.  Despite repeatedly removing myself from every mailing ad campaign and magazine, each week I still seem to get more junk mail than the week before. This, combined with various boxes and other packaging seem to add up quickly. Thus, one of the other things I’ve been using these materials for many years on my homestead is for sheet mulching; newspaper and cardboard are both excellent resources for making paths, weed suppression for garden beds, and so on.  For this to be successful, you need a lot of cardboard and newspaper!  A 20 foot path may require at least 20-30 cardboard boxes or a huge stack of newspaper.  Using these in this way transforms waste into resources!

 

Another option that is useful is to use vermicompost to handle some of your paper waste.  Worms will break down not only vegetable scraps and coffee grounds, but they also will make short work of damp paper and shredded cardboard. Their process takes time, but it certainly can be a good supplement to other methods.

 

A final way I’ve been exploring with home paper recycling is through mushroom cultivation; oysters can be grown on cardboard and paper (see a good discussion of this at Permies.com)! So far, I’ve been successful in growing mushrooms in fresh coffee grounds layered with pizza boxes. The key, I’ve found, is not to compact anything too tightly (I will post about this process once I have it perfected enough to share something that is consistent and works).

 

A combination of these options at the homestead means that we very rarely end up needing to take any paper or cardboard to the recycle center–instead, these materials are treated as the resources that they are: wanted, honored, and used.

 

Plastic Waste as a Resource

Paper is perhaps the more easy thing to recycle; you can do a lot with it and even if you can’t, it breaks down readily in the environment in a year or two. In my mind, plastic, which can literally last thousands of years in the ecosystem, is the more serious of my concerns. And in truth, plastic is literally destroying our world, getting into the bodies of animals and fish, trashing ecosystems, and it will persist for centuries and millennia. In early 2019, after seeing the crisis that was looming with recyclables, I began to explore options in earnest to reduce plastic consumption. Even with my many reductions, however, plastic was just flowing into my life all the time! A lot of this wasn’t even recyclable to begin with, so even with avid recycling, I was still ending up throwing a lot of plastic away. Each time I did, I thought about the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch and  hung my head in shame.

 

Plastic film, cellophane, styrofoam, packing peanuts, plastic wrap, plastic bags–these are the kinds of things that are almost never recycled, and do not often have even a number to recycle.  These are also the kinds of waste plastics that are filling our world. This video does a great job in explaining how “single use” plastic is really the worst, and that’s the stuff we see most often showing up in marine ecosystems. So what’s a druid to do?

 

Because I have an interest in building things and making things, I focused my energy and research on that route, and came up with two viable solutions for turning waste plastic into a resource on a personal / home scale. Before I present my two options, I will also note that there seem to be some options at a community level for more industrial scale models for plastic recycling, like this cool machine that turns plastic recycling into bricks that can be used in homes. But these kinds of things aren’t home scale, and therefore, out of reach of a single person.

 

The first thing I looked into is a great open source community called “Precious Plastics.” This community offers open source plans, resources, and video guides to produce a number of different machines that actively convert different types of plastics into cool stuff. There is a global community doing work with these machines and maker spaces, and it is really a wonderful idea! Precious plastics does require that you pay attention to certain kinds of plastic and does seem to have some limitations.  At the same time, it is a worthy, open source endeavor and might be of use for many people!  I ultimately decided a different route due primarily to scale: I don’t have the fabrication skills needed to build many of the machines, I don’t know how much use I’d get from them for the investment, and my needs and uses ended up being different.

 

What I decided to pursue was a building block method called “ecobricks” or “bottle bricks.” This video gives a great short introduction to the concept (complete with the spiritual and meditative aspects of ecobrick making, which I adore). Ecobricks are very simply made: you take a 2 liter soda bottle (readily available in any recycling bin along any street, or simply ask people who drink soda) and fill it with as much plastic as you possibly can. You mash it down with a stick or dowel rod as you fill it, and keep filling it till it is completely full of plastic. This, you use as a building material. In next week’s post, I’m going to go into more depth about how to make ecobricks and how you might build with them (and my own plans for them over the next 2 years.) I’ve been excitedly making ecobricks for about a month now, and I’m surprised at how much waste plastic can go into a single brick.  So stay tuned for more on this next week.

 

Spiritual Dimensions of Waste

 

There is no such thing as away!

There is no such thing as away!

It’ss easy to live fully immersed in industrialized culture, where waste streams are part of daily life.  Where we throw things away without a thought; where generating waste is literally an automatic behavior.  However, I think that shifting away from these practices, and putting in the effort to do something different, is not only an environmentally conscious act, it is a spiritual one. Thus, I want to conclude by talking a bit about the spiritual dimensions of waste.

 

I’m an animist druid. I see the world, all of nature, as sacred. I also understand that all natural things on this planet have spirit. Knowing now, that even my recycling (while well intentioned) caused the land suffering, has really had me reflect on my current and future actions.  The animals, oceans, rivers, fish, amphibians–all are my sacred brothers and sisters. Throwing away even a single bottle brings my waste into their world. Thus, I see reducing plastic waste and doing all that I can to repurpose it as an absolutely critical part of a nature-centered and earth-honoring spiritual practice. There is no such thing as away–all stays here on this beautiful planet. Let us treat our mother with all the respect and love we can.