The Druid's Garden

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

The Bee and the Machine: Moving Beyond Efficiency and towards Nature-Centeredness November 24, 2019

Animals have spirit!

Over the course of the last four centuries, the Western World has created a set of “unshakable” principles concerning the natural world: that nature is just another machine, that animals don’t feel and do not have souls, that plants and animals aren’t sentient. Descartes, writing in the 1600s during the early rise of mechanization, was one of the first to make this claim. He posited that animals are mechanical automata, that is, they are beings without souls, feelings, or pain. These same ideas were not limited to non-human life; we see the same kind of thinking being applied to justify slavery, genocide, colonialization, and a list of other atrocities. When we combine this kind of thinking with the economic ideas of “growth at all costs” and “efficiency”, we end up in the dystopian fiction we find ourselves living in right now. I want to take some time to explore these concepts today and how we might think through them, and move beyond them, as part of our own nature-centered spiritual practices.

 

Perhaps we think ourselves evolved beyond such ideas in the 21st century, but a look at basic industrialized animal husbandry and farming practices tells a different tale. These same underlying ideas that allowed Descartes and his contemporaries to strip the enchantment from the world and encourage the mechanized reality we live in are still very much pervasive in our society. Efficiency and “savings” allow most people to tolerate factory farms and look the other way over animal testing. Everything moves very fast.  If we can simply say animals have no souls, no pain, and are essentially living automatons, it makes it easier to operate mechanized systems surrounding their raising, slaughter, and/or harvest (meat, eggs, honey, fur, leather etc). Unfortunately, I see this mentality strongly even among my neighbors here in rural Western PA. It is hard to see how “farm animals” are treated and conceived as simply objects that are meant to serve a purpose and be discarded. For example, earlier this year we were planning on getting some fiber goats as pets and companions and to help us clear areas of our land that were full of brush. After hearing that some of the plants on our land might be toxic to goats, I had called and talked with a PA state extension officer to learn more, and he told me that many of the plants on our land (Wild Cherry, bracken fern, pokeberry) were indeed deadly. He suggested that rather than buy “nice goats”,  I go to the local livestock auction and buy “junk goats” which could clear the land for a few months before getting sick and dying of the poisonous plants. I told him that it was abhorrent to think of doing such a thing, and he said people did it here all the time. Needless to say, we opted for geese and ducks as pets over the goats.

 

One of the best examples of this disastrous thinking–and people’s sheer excitement about it–can be found in the 2017 invention of the “flow hive” that touts mechanization and efficiency. I wasn’t even going to write about this, thinking that the craze about it had finally died down. But the darned thing just won’t go away. A video of an advertisement for a “Flow Hive” keeps appearing on my social media feed, shared eagerly by non-beekeeping friends who think that I’ll be so excited about it because they know I keep bees. It just happened again last week and my friend was quite surprised by my response. I am not in love with the flow hive. As a druid and someone practicing sacred beekeeping, the flow hive saddens me and hurts my heart.  I’ve been hesitant to write about it, because good analyses of why the Flow Hive is a bad idea have circulated from various beekeeping sites, and I didn’t think I had a lot to add to this conversation. But upon reflection, I do have something to add from a spiritual and relationship-building perspective, and certainly, from the perspective of this broader conversation about cultivating a relationship to the living earth.

 

A good thing!

A good thing!

The flow hive, and many other things like it, represent the mechanization and industrialization of nature in the name of efficiency and productivity. What do I mean by mechanization? Common definitions of mechanization are simple: the process of converting work done by hand or with animals to doing work using machinery. A textbook definition of the machine is, simply, an apparatus that has several interconnecting parts and that use mechanical power to complete a task. Words surrounding machines often have to do with efficiency; in its entry under mechanization, for example, Wikipedia shares some delightful statistics about the inefficiency of humans (1-5% efficient) compared to internal combustion engines (20%), diesel engines (60%) or other methods (up to 90%). Here, these definitions suggest that the goal of doing work is to get it done as efficiently, that is, as easily and without additional labor, as possible. Efficiency, or getting something done quickly and with minimal effort, is an idea that Wendell Berry also takes to task in his Unsettling of America. The language of efficiency pervades our thinking, clouds or judgment, and ties us even more directly to the machine.

 

The assumption underlying the flow hive is simple: a more efficient beehive is a better one because it requires less effort and doesn’t require as much interaction with the bees. An efficient beehive will save us time and effort. If I can simply flip a switch and get the honey to flow out, that is such a better experience than having to pull frames. Uh, yeah, sure it is. When I argue against the flow hive, I’m attacked on several angles: I’m a Luddite and hate technology and progress; I am resistant to change, or I’m old fashioned.  My response is that I’m a druid.  There is something abhorrent about flipping a switch and turning my bees into a factory.

 

To understand why this whole idea is so abhorrent to me as a druid, we have to get to the goals and purposes for beekeeping, or any other practice that we do as human beings. What is the point of beekeeping, or doing any other work? Is it just to have an end product (honey) or is it also about the journey? The incredible smell of the hive as you open it, the observation of the bees in their work, the relationship that you can create with the bees, seeing bees in all stages of life, seeing the queen laying her eggs, watching the workers take care of larvae and pupae, seeing the wax exuding from the backs of the workers–these are all experiences that I treasure. Interaction and connection are two of the main reasons I keep bees–these things that have no price tag and they require only my time, expertise, and effort to experience. None of these experiences have to do with efficiency, productivity, or getting honey. These experiences have to do with the sacred relationship that a beekeeper develops with her beehive and the joy at studying and learning from the bees, who are true alchemists.

 

The flow hive, by its very mechanistic nature, not only disrupts the sacred interaction between the beekeeper and the bee, it does so at the name of efficiency. I see it no different from the other kinds of disruptions that humans often face when using machines to tame nature: you can’t really appreciate the beautiful spring day outside if 30 of your neighbors are running gas-guzzling machines all across their lawns. Its simply not the same to take a drive through the woods as opposed to a walk–the machine limits that interaction. Machines may be more efficient, but that’s the only thing they offer us, and efficiency is over-rated.

 

Another aspect of mechanization, which John Michael Greer writes about is the myth of power. In his “Myth of the Machine” post on the former Archdruid Report, he explores the relationship between machines and power, and suggests that part of the allure of machines in modern industrialized society is the allure of power. There is something, for modern humans, inherently appealing about the modern gizmos and gadgets that “do so much.” New products are sold on this basis: the new iPhone does more than the old iPhone, so of course, you want one so that you can do more with it.  Perhaps a more accurate advertisement would be that the new iPhone allows you as a human being to do less; that with each new device, the quest for efficiency becomes more complete.

 

Doing things the old way….at the North American Bushcraft School

By turning a simple switch of this flow hive, the beekeeper gains an immense amount of power over the bees. While honey harvesting used to be a careful dance between bee and beekeeper, allowing the beekeeper not only to check on the health of the hive and its honey reserves, honey harvesting is now a simplified mechanistic process. The dance of the honey harvest, the careful interactions, and care, are replaced by the machine. Who knows what is happening in the hive? The flow hive way tells you all that matters is what comes out–the honey itself.

 

But also by turning a simple switch, the beekeeper doesn’t need to have the skill to engage in that careful dance. The machine itself does the work, and the knowledge necessary to successfully harvest honey from a hive is rendered obsolete. By flipping the honey switch, we’ve traded our skilled labor, which involves paying attention to the hive’s disposition, engaging in multiple kinds of hand-eye coordination, and using wisdom just to gain a product that flows out of the hive and into your jar.  All of the sense of craft, skill, and knowledge is lost. Yes, doing it the old way takes more time–but the trade to efficiency doesn’t seem worth it. This is especially true because mechanization and efficiency, ultimately, means a loss of care and a loss of connection. When we stop opening up the beehive, we fail to see the magic and beauty and sacredness of the work of the bees. When we just turn a switch and pour out honey, an essential quality–care and interaction–has been stripped from the process. We have traded ease-of-use for care.

 

We can use this same kind of argument in all sorts of ways: when we stop producing our own food, we lose the magic of it, but also the connection to the earth by producing it.  The more that machines do for us, the more efficient our lives become, the less whole they really are.  We trade our ability to engage fully as people with the world and instead, become dependent on the machine–in the same way a new beekeeper is dependent on the switch in the flow hive for their honey.  In “Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine” Louis Mumford writes of the end result of this process, “the beleaguered– even ‘obsolete’–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, trivial accessory to the machine.” Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  Isn’t this what is happening in today’s society? If we let machines and technology do everything for us, we are left with nothing but the ability to consume. No sets of core skills, and no connection to the living earth, all is done for us in the name of efficiency.

 

Its actually pretty entertaining to see news article after news article claiming things that anyone who spends time meditating in nature already knows: that all living beings have soul, methods of communication, and spirit. It doesn’t take science to tell me as a druid that trees communicate when they communicate with me daily.  It doesn’t take science to tell me that my chickens and guineas have their own unique communication styles and are deeply aware of their surroundings.  The myth that Decorate and so many others have propagated–that nature is a machine–is simply a smokescreen to take advantage of nature in the most abhorrent ways possible.

 

Beauty and mystery of nature

I write all of this because I think that these are some of the underlying ideas that we have to tackle–as druids–to really begin a paradigm shift.  Some technologies are really helpful to humanity (like say, basic refrigeration and washing machines.  I really appreciate the work that both do).  But many technologies and mechanizations take us further and further away from our ability to connect deeply with nature both by disconnecting us from the source of life (food, shelter, etc) and deskilling us. And at some point, we have to face the fact that we are likely better without a lot of these things and find ways of balancing our lives with useful technologies vs. those that actively harm us and our planet.

 

Since this has been mostly an opinion piece, I’ll end with a few takeaways that are useful practices to start these shifts:

  • Take one aspect of your life that you depend on industrialization or consumerism to fulfill and learn how to produce it yourself. As a few examples, I declared tomato independence many years ago, and make it a point to grow and preserve the tomato needs of my family for the year.  I also have recently been taking up fire-starting technologies using material from my land and also learning how to make my own paints.  While these may seem like small steps, they are highly fulfilling and empowering.
  • Look for industries that have the most egregious issues (like clothing, food) and try to make better choices, informed choices, choices that are rooted in care rather than efficiency and cost. You can’t often make every good choice due to the costs, but you can choose one or two areas to focus on.
  • Attend an earth skills gathering, like Mountaincraft or find a local Bushcraft school.  You can find a list here.  I attended my first gathering (Mountaincraft) earlier this year and was amazed by the number of skills and friendship offered at these places.  Since then, I’ve returned to the North American Bushcraft School for other classes (I was just there yesterday making leather bags!)  The Earth Skills community is teaching and modeling a more healthy paradigm and relationship with the living earth–and this kind of thing is a great deal of fun.
  • Examine your own assumptions and start checking those assumptions in your interaction with regards to things like growth, efficiency, etc.  As I shared before on this blog, mindset shifts are the keys to everything else: if we shift our mindsets, we can change the world.  These are insidious things that are rooted deeply in our subconscious.  Bringing them to a conscious place, examining them, and ridding oneself of them takes effort–but it is so worth it.  Surrounding yourself with people who are doing this same work really helps.
  • Have technology-free days where you embrace the darkness, spend time in nature, learn to make things slowly and by hand, and generally disconnect and allow yourself to simply be, un-impeded, with nature.  You’ll be glad you did!

This planet is being eradicated by the kinds of thinking and actions I’ve examined in this post.  I’m growing tired of inaction and tired of watching the thing that I hold sacred, and that I love, be under such threat.  If we change mindsets, we change the world.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Black Locust’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings November 10, 2019

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

 

A Journey through the Senses: Breathe Deeply October 21, 2019

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

Over the summer, I spent the weekend at a beautiful farm with my family for a family reunion. That land had gifted me, and all of us, much that weekend. I had found some stunning new stones for pigments, I had spent tranquil time on the lake, and I had talked with many of the trees there. So, as I was preparing to leave, I walked up to a giant oak on my way out. I gave it a big hug. It had rained the night before and the trunk was covered in lichen. I took a breath and the smell was that sweet and earthy smell of lichen. I remember the smell the first time I smelled such a lichen. It was down in Louisiana, and I had visited an ancient live oak with some druid friends. A branch had fallen on the ground. My friend picked it up and she handed it to me and she said, you really should smell it. And I did. It had this sweetness. The smell isn’t something that you can put into words. It’s simply smells amazing. Slightly sweet, slightly earthy, very serene.  It smells like nothing else in the world.  To this day, I feel like that lichen smell connects me to the wisdom of the ancient druids.

 

I am also reminded of this powerful connection right now, as the maple leaves are turning to fire and falling gently to the earth. Those leaves carry the scent of memories past, so many moments over time. Moments of jumping and burying myself in leaves, of chestnuts roasting, of raking leaves and preparing garden beds. The smell of the last of summer leaving as winter creeps ever closer.  The smell of the Fall Equinox making way to Samhain. It’s just a smell that is magic, connecting me deeply with one of my favorite times–and trees–upon the landscape.

 

When we’re thinking about connecting with nature with the senses, usually, our sight dominates. We’re looking for things. We’re observing. We are experiencing the world through its beauty and vision. I wrote about nature observation in a few ways earlier on this blog.  But, most of my previous posts have been focused on sight-based observation, and thus, perhaps the other senses are neglected. We spend a lot of time in our heads, almost in a disembodied state where our eyes put input directly to our brains (often from screens, etc).  When we breathe, we fill our lungs, which brings oxygen to our entire body.  We breathe into our heart spaces, allowing ourselves to be embodied and have more embodied experiences.  This allows us to experience the magic of nature, the enchantment of it, in a multitude of ways. Thus, the lichen and leaf experiences are powerful reminders about nature and the senses–and the importance of attending to our many senses if we want to fully connect and commune with nature.

 

Smell and the Gateway to Memory

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaf jumping!

Smell is a gateway to memory. One of my earliest memories of any smell was spending time covered in leaves with my dad. My Dad and I would go out, we would rake up the beautiful sugar maple leaves, and after amassing a large pile, we would jump in them. Once we had finished jumping, we’d cover ourselves up in them, just laying there, laughing, and letting the smell of them permeate us.  Sugar maple leaves have a beautiful smell in the fall.  Again, I cannot put it into words, yet it is one of my favorite smells in the world. In the fall, each year I not only walk in the woods, but I rake up the leaves and jump in them because I want to experience that smell and that smell carries me back to an earlier time–a trigger for memory.

 

 

Three Deep Breaths

Smell is powerful; it is connected to our in-breath, into things coming into us, filling our lungs, engaging with our senses. Why does a forest smell so much better than a factory?  Its the smell of life, of earth, of nature.  When you go into the natural place, far from pollution and industrialization, you might begin by taking three deep breaths. We do this at the beginning of all OBOD rituals. Take three deep breaths together with the earth beneath us; together with the sky above us; together with the waters, lakes, and rivers around us. And as we take those three deep breaths, we are rooted in our sense of smell in that place.

 

Spirit of Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow, Plant Spirit Oracle

As I was working on this post, I stuck my nose deep in a yarrow plant, blooming for the last time this season before the final frost kills it till next year. I know what Yarrow looks like. I know what Yarrow tastes like fresh, in tincture, and in tea. I know what her crushed leaves, often used for medicine, smell like. I know even what burning Yarrow smells like in a smudge stick.  But yesterday, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply into the last yarrow bloom of the season. I was actually quite surprised: her flower is a bit dank and skunky.  I learned something new about yarrow and deepened my connection with her in a powerful way through that experience.

 

Smell and Nature Connection

All forests smell different in each season.  Breathe deeply. Spend time in silent communion with them as you breathe out the building blocks of their life–carbon dioxide–and you breathe in their gift of oxygen and sweetness.  Animals, too, have their own smells–and this is part of how we connect with them.

 

But so many other things can also benefit from this expanded sensory experience. What does the stone smell like? What does the water smell like? What does the dew in the grass smell like? These things are important, that they’re meaningful, they’re powerful. They give us a sense of rootedness and connectedness that comes through our very breath. The only thing I suggest you don’t sniff while out and about are white umbuled flowers, particularly, the poison or water hemlock. My herbalism teacher, Jim McDonald, used to have people engage fully with the poison hemlock: touching it, smelling it (not tasting it).  Its important to learn plants through the senses.  But he told us he no longer does that because even smelling such a poisonous plant made one of his students sick and very woozy. The other thing you might want to refrain from smelling is mushrooms, particularly if they are in the spore-producing stage.

 

Nature connection doesn’t have to just be outdoors–you can cultivate this within your indoor spaces as well. One of my favorite indoor potted plants is my lemon-scented geranium. She lives in my art studio, now taking up about 2/3 of the available window space, crawling up along the windowsills and up each window, expanding outward.  I saved her from a dumpster about 7 years ago, when I found her at the bottom of a bag of leaves.  I potted her and we’ve been friends since. Her permanent residence in my art studio.  She has her own smell that is entirely unique: sweet, lemony, relaxing.  I often take a leaf of hers with me when I go to campus, pulling it out of my pocket to breathe deeply for a moment. Sometimes, when I’m making little cakes, I put some of her leaves on the bottom and the smell infuses into every bite. Ours is a relationship built entirely on her incredible smell!

 

A Journey of the Senses

If you want to go on this journey of the senses, you might start by attending to your breath. Go to a wild and fragrant place.  Sit, close your eyes, and simply breathe. Our eyes dominate our senses when they are open, so its best to close them. Then, focus on your breath–what you smell, how the air feels as it enters your lungs, how it feels as it exits. Spend some time with this experience. I suggest going into mature wild spaces where you live (for me, those would be Oak-Hickory or Eastern Hemlock forests–all with their own smell). See if you can identify places not only by their look but by their smell.  The oak-hickory forest has a very different smell than a Hemlock forest.  Hemlock forest smells different in each season.

 

Fragrant blooms of summer

Another approach is to work with specific plants and take them in as a kind of aromatherapy. As a second smell exercise, when it was still high summer, I went to the blooming elder and I bent towards one of the stalks and I breathed in.  I did a four-fold breath pattern (where you breath in for four counts, hold lightly for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and pause for four counts).  I did this for a while.  Now, the energy of the elder is with me, she is my medicine, coming through my very lungs and into my being. And that that’s powerful and meaningful–something I have carried with me even into the dark half of the year.

 

I think that all of these kinds of things can really help us better experience the living earth. As we work to embed ourselves in the landscape, to connect and reconnect with nature, there is a wisdom that can only come from experience. It’s not the wisdom of, if not the wisdom of book knowledge, it’s not the wisdom of other people telling you things. Most of the most important profound wisdom is the wisdom that you yourself have and you gathered through your own senses.  It is the wisdom that comes from realizing the world is an enchanted place, a place for all of our senses.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Chestnut’s Magic, Medicine, Mythology and Meaning (Castanea dentata) October 13, 2019

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

Just a few weeks ago, I went and checked the local chestnut trees that are in a field near where I live.  Ever since I moved to the new homestead, I have been eagerly visiting these trees.  Last year, they dropped plenty of husks but with only shriveled nuts inside. This year, I was extraordinarily pleased to find that both trees had produced a bumper crop of the delicious nuts–some almost 2″ across, but most smaller, almost all worm-free, and delicious. I eagerly filled my basket with the nuts, stepping carefully around the extremely prickly husks.  I sat with each of the trees and we conversed as I harvested the nuts. I took home 25 lbs of nuts that day, and these nuts will sustain myself, my geese (who love them), and my friends and family for many a Samhain, Thanksgiving, and Yule feast!  Chestnut trees have many lessons to teach us.  Even after the way they have been treated here in the US over the last few centuries, they are still kind, abundant, and wise.  So today, let’s explore the magic of the chestnut tree, trees who certainly come into their power this time of year (here, in the mid-to-late fall) as their protective husks suddenly open and their abundance comes forth.

 

This is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern seaboard of the US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  Today we are talking about the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

 

History and Hope

Chestnut is a tree with a complex history in North America. One of the better sources–and delightful reading–about the history of chestnut comes from Eric Sloane’s On Reference of Wood. Prior to white colonization, chestnut was one of the most abundant trees (making up about 25% of the total tree cover, which is an enormous amount of tree cover for one species).  These abundant and giving trees reached up to the tops of the tree canopy, and I’m sure, were incredibly majestic to behold.  Native American peoples depending on them, and cultivated them, as a serious food crop.  Unlike acorns, which take a lot of processing (especially those we have here on the US east coast) chestnuts require practically no processing and are a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates.

At the time of colonization, chestnut wood was put to use as a sturdy and rot-resistant building material; in fact, many of the old barns here that date before the 1900s have rafters and beams made of solid, strong chestnut. Like many other trees, with colonization came the cutting down of the largest of the chestnuts for wood purposes.  But the tragic history of Chestnut doesn’t end there.  In 1904, the Chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) swept across North America.  Grimm described the decline of chestnuts as “the gaunt skeletons of great trees in our forests.”  Eric Sloane talks about this in a similar way–chestnuts were once a very dominant tree among our landscapes, with massive trunks and tall branches and crowns, reaching into the heavens.  After they died back, they left skeletons everywhere.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, something even worse happened. Here in PA, as a political move being claimed in the name of stopping the blight, the PA Forestry division ordered every last chestnut cut down.  So to stop the blight…you eradicate the species?  That’s right.  Rather than see if some trees could develop disease resistance, instead, they cut down to the very last tree.  If you look at this map, you will see how impactful that decision was on the number of chestnut trees. My own interpretation of this, giving when it happened, is that by this time, about 90% of the forest cover was lost in Pennsylvania already.  This was an easy excuse for even more logging to fuel growing industrialization and demands for wood.  By the 1940s, the American chestnut was all but extinct.  Thus, within less than forty years, between four and six billion American Chestnuts were gone.

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

Fortunately, this is not where history ends.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, Chestnut is seeing a resurgence.  First, we have organations like the American Chestnut Foundation who conduct research and help people plant new American chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation  Second, Chestnut is becoming an important staple of Permaculture designs, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry.  Many chestnuts grown in this way are Chinese Chestnuts or, in some cases, hybridized chestnuts with much of the original American chestnut DNA. This work is certainly ongoing, but all is not lost.  Chestnut is currently listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered” but the USDA has declared them “functionally extinct.”

 

Original American chestnuts do still survive; the blight does not kill back their roots.  They usually send up shoots, up to 15 or 20 feet high, and then, after a time, the blight kills them back. Sloane talks about this with his book, where he describes the chestnut stump “still trying to grow” (pg. 101).  Some disease-resistant chestnuts have been found, and other selective breeding programs are also taking place, as these great hybrid chestnuts from Oikos tree crops. Other patches of American chestnuts have survived outside of their typical range, such as small patches in Canada and Michigan.

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

The American Chestnut can grow to 4-8 feet in diameter and a height of 100 feet or more high, although such trees are an extremely rare sight today!  The Chestnut wood is light, soft, and moderately strong, but very rot-resistant; it was used for posts and poles.  The bark was rich in tannic acid, being used for tanners.  Unlike oaks, hickory, walnut, or beech, Chestnuts produce quite a dependable crop of nuts each year.  For one, Chestnut blooms later in June or even here, in early July, which is well beyond the danger of frost (which can take out other nut trees).   Chestnuts themselves develop in extremely spiky burr balls; the nuts are impossible to get until the tree is ready to release them.  When the nuts are ready, the tree opens its burr ball and the burr and nuts fall to the ground, literally raining chestnuts all over the ground.  You still have to be careful to avoid the chestnut burr husks when picking (no bare feet under chestnut trees) but you can quickly gather boatloads of chestnuts in a short period of time.

 

Because of the richness of Chestnuts, they were traditionally used to fatten up animals for fall butchering (this is one of the old terms, “mast year” where “mast” is Old English for food on the ground.  I experienced this firsthand–after bringing home my incredibly 25 lb chestnut harvest, I started cracking the nuts and peeling them to get to the nutmeats to make flour (see below). But each nutmeat I cracked, a goose beak was there faster than you could imagine to scarf up those nuts.  The geese know that winter is coming!  They will be fat and happy indeed.

 

Today, Chestnut offers exciting possibilities for agroforestry and regenerative agriculture.  One book that really explores this is Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, where he took abused and battered farmlands and planted rows of chestnuts, berries, and much more.  I highly recommend his book, or this video, which explores his approach in mroe detail.  You will see a lot of examples of the use of Chestnut as part of larger regenerative systems–chestnut is a tree that is planted once and can literally produce for 100’s of years.  That is a good investment from a permaculture perspective!

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

From a processing standpoint, I think chestnuts are some of the very easiest nuts to process.  After the tree is ready to give up its nuts, they all come down within a few day windows.  Like all other wild foods, timing is everything! One good visit to a Chestnut tree the right time a year results in massive quantities of the delightful nuts. I picked nuts for about an hour and a half and returned with a brimming basket and 25 lbs of high-quality nuts.

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

To process your nuts, there are a few options. The easiest is to score an “X” in them, stick them on a baking tray, and bake them for about 30 min in an oven at 425 degrees. They will be done when the X peels back.  They will need to cool a bit, and then you can eat them fresh.

 

If you want to get fancier, you can make a nut flour.  I’m going to post a separate post about how to this in more detail (with photos in a few weeks).  In a nutshell, you shell your chestnuts, then chop them finely (a food processor works well for this).  Lay them out to dry for a few days till they get hard.  Then you run them through a small hand mill or some kind of electric mill (for milling flour).  Store it in the freezer for up to six months and enjoy it!

 

There are other chestnut recipes as well–they are tasty and really satisfying. Chestnut butters, chestnut milk, even chestnut crepes!  I find chestnuts to be a very grounding and healing food, rooting you in place and in time.

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

Chestnut is largely absent from the magical and herbalism literature, to me, somewhat surprisingly.  I found a few entries out there, which are as follows.

 

Chestnut and horse chestnut (buckeye) are interchangeable in the hoodoo tradition, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic.  One old word for horse chestnut is “conker.” They are used for the enhancement of “male nature”, to protect from rheumatism, for gambling success and work-related issues in Hoodoo.  The interchangeability is probably because buckeyes look a lot like chestnuts.  Even so, I think they have their own magic.

 

One Iroquois legend explores the bringing of the abundance of the Chestnuts to all tribes.  In this legend, a young boy, Hoadenon, watches his uncle grow a pot with a small chestnut inside.  He enjoys the food, then shrinks his pot with the chestnut inside, saving more for another day.  This way his uncle can eat for years with just the one nut.  Hoadenon, wanting to please his uncle, makes too much food from the chestnut, using it up.  Hoadenon then goes on a quest to bring back more chestnuts, having to defeat many awful beings who protect them.  Eventually, he is able to do so, and chestnuts are now abundant and available to all.  In other related myths, mostly chestnut is associated with a source of sustenance.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

Agrippa’s Philosophy of Natural magic discusses that horse chestnut is tied to Jupiter, and so, we might assume that chestnuts of others kinds are also under the dominion of Jupiter.

 

As you can see from these scarce entires, though, there is practically no magical or folklore tradition associated with Chestnut–so let’s make one.

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

I see Chestnut a lot like I see Ash – a tree with great potential and full of hope, but on the brink of collapse.

Chestnut, through the serious conservation efforts, is beginning to make a comeback.  The message of Chestnut is, perhaps, the message of our world.  Humans brought the blight to the chestnut trees, and then, helped in eradicating them by cutting them all down.  But now, thanks to humans with more wisdom, the chestnuts are returning, and with them, hope and abundance.

Chestnut is one of the most perfect of trees from the standpoint of providing human needs.  It produces good, sturdy, rot-resistant wood.  It produces yearly amazing crops of edible nuts that will sustain many (human and animal alike) through tough winters.  It grows beautifully and offers a stunning energy and presence on our landscape.  And most of all, it offers us the power of what we can do, as humans together.  We must remember our destructive past–the scorched earth policies that literally destroyed ecosystems, forests, and more.  We should remember that many of those policies and thinkings are still with us, here today.  But not everyone buys into the “use it up till its no more” policies concerning the earth.  We can look at the present, and the future, where reparations and regeneration are possible. We can work with the energy of chestnut, not cutting it down, but rejuvenating it.  Working with it as a friend and ally.  We can bring that kind of action in the world.  Chestnut is a symbol of all of this–and more.

 

The American chestnut is still a critically endangered tree.  But our whole world is in that same place–critically endangered.  And Chestnut, chestnut brings us hope.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

The Tears of the Earth: A Hike on Sólheimajökull Glacier July 21, 2019

Sólheimajökull

Sólheimajökull

It was our final day in Iceland before returning back to the US. We so many great experiences visiting this country of beautiful extremes, but more than anything, what we wanted to see on our last day was a glacier. We talked about it, and decided that we should see a glacier, as we might never be able to see one again. We booked a beginner glacier hike on Sólheimajökull glacier, a hike that took you way up into the glacier.

 

Where the glacier used to be, 2010. Where I am standing and taking the photograph is where it was in mid 2009.

It was a misty and cool day; small droplets of rain pressed against us at the parking lot at the base of the glacier. Before us, the Sólheimajökull glacier loomed, white and black and gray. After getting fitted with safety harnesses, helmets, crampons, and pick axes, our group of twelve set off to the glacier hike. Our guide, who was originally from the Alps and who had been hiking glaciers his whole life, first took us to a sign as we walked along the edge of an enormous lake. He stopped and said, “In 2010, this is where the glacier was. Each year, it gets smaller. In the winter, it stops melting but never regrows. But we’ve still got quite a hike to get to the glacier as you can see.” The sign he showed us had many different numbers with years. Last year, in 2018, the glacier receded more than any other year: 118 meters. And so, we continued our hike, which took about 15 minutes, walking along the edge glacier’s melt pool.  This link offers a video that shows the melting of the Sólheimajökull glacier from the years 2007- 2015.

 

One of the tours they now advertise in Iceland the “kayak the glacier” experience. There is a kind of horseshoe shaped lake that is made when a glacier reaches its largest size and then begins to melt. You’ve seen this shape before on a map: its reflected in the bowl-shaped bottom of Lake Michigan. That bowl shape is created by the melting of a glacier. As a glacier advances, it  moves earth itself, pushing up stone, soil, and bedrock; the powerful edge of it creating a wall of stone. As the glacier recedes, it leaves that wall of stone behind, and as it melts, that stone creates a natural dam, and the bowl-shaped area behind the dam fills with water. Water that tourists can kayak in. Water that is created, in part, by the 2600 miles it took me to fly to Iceland. Water that is, for all intents and purposes, the tears that the earth cries.

 

Icebergs and the melt pool at Sólheimajökull

Icebergs and the melt pool at Sólheimajökull

As I stood at the bottom of the glacier, I realized how small I was in comparison to the massive block of ice. The Sólheimajökull glacier took up all the space, moving into our field of vision, white, black, and sometimes blue, daunting in its appearance. As we got close, you could see the shimmering of the melt water coming off of it, moving into the lake below.  Icebergs, also, floated in the lake–our guide explained that those icebergs crack off the glacier frequently and will likely be gone by the end of the summer.  So much ice.  So much to melt.

 

We carefully put our crampons on our feet and, single file, began our ascent into the glacier.  As soon as we stepped foot on the glacier, my heart grew heavy with sorrow. The most striking feature of the glacier wasn’t the beauty. It wasn’t the black ash from various volcanic activity, or the white and blue ice. The most striking feature was how fast it was melting. Everywhere the glacier was melting. The day we were there, it was around 50 degrees, now a fairly common temperature for Iceland this time of year. And everywhere you looked, the glacier was glistening. Little drips became streams, streams became bigger streams, and eventually, they flowed into quite large rivers, running down the glacier. Standing anywhere on the glacier, you could observe this and watch the ice melt and take milennia of black and gray ash along with it.

 

At one point, our guide stopped and pointed to a mountain quite far off from where we stood. Less than a decade ago, he told us, the glacier reached up to that nearby mountain. Now, that mountain isn’t reachable, the glacier is much lower, and there is a glacial river between us. I stood there and thought about it: that must have been millions of gallons of water in that short time, all melted away into the lake and eventually, ocean nearby.

 

Mountain where Sólheimajökull used to reach

Mountain where Sólheimajökull used to reach

The amount of melting made the Sólheimajökull a bit difficult to traverse. The tour company maintained a trail on the glacier, but it was an ever-moving target. As we hiked, we two people working on the trail on the glacier. They would cut a set of stairs, and then, within an hour or two, the stairs would melt and become dangerous and they’d have to cut new ones. This ever-evolving trail was now just part of the experience of walking on a glacier, as our guide explained.

 

The walk was a walk of extremes. The solid white and blue ice. The black and gray of the volcanic ash becoming unlocked as the glacier melted. One of the folks on our walk asked, “can we tell what volcanic eruption this ash came from?” Our guide said, “No, it all just melts together.” You could be standing on ash and melt from 10,000 years ago or even 100,000. Scientists with specialized equipment drilling core samples could tell, but we could not.  Here is an image of the entire glacier, Myrdalsjokull, from 1986 to September 2014.  The glacier we walked was one “arm” of this larger glacier.  You can see how massive it is, and you can glimpse the volcano that sits beneath.

 

Throughout our week in Iceland, I didn’t get a strong sense that the spirits of the land were welcoming or open to outsiders. Icelanders certainly capitalize on their island’s natural beauty as part of their tourist industry. And while you might enter a lava cave and be told of rooms called “the banquet hall of the elves” or “the troll’s den”,  or, you might see the stone stacks throughout the land that are there to appease the little people, the Icelandic people are not willing to talk about those aspects of their land.  They don’t speak of their relationship to the land spirits with outsiders. And neither do those spirits of the land seem interested in saying hello.  So I spent the week in Iceland not engaged heavily with the spirits of the land; things were just quiet.  Thus, I was certainly surprised when even before I walked up to it, the glacier immediately reached out to me and wanted to convey a message.

 

Meltwater on the Sólheimajökull glacier

Meltwater on the Sólheimajökull glacier

As we climbed Sólheimajökull, I connected deeply with the spirit of place. The glacier itself, and the spirit of the mountain—between two active volcanoes, Katla and Eyjafjallajökull. Sólheimajökull first shared with me its anger, so angry that it was melting away. So angry at humans. I could feel the stress and strain as it spoke to me: to tell people what you have seen here. Tell of how the melting will flood their cities. Speak of the truth you have witnessed. I felt the anger in its voice, the anger radiating out of it, as it knew it was dying.

 

We continued to climb the glacier, witnessing its tragic beauty among the melting ice. Then a second voice emerged from Sólheimajökull, this one of sadness. I am losing myself, the glacier said. I am crying tears for the world. How many people who climb me today will speak of what they have seen? How many will change because of it?  How many have made me cry further just to walk upon me? I cry for us, the glacier said, and I cry for the world.

 

We had to climb over a large crevasse with water rushing through it. Our guide explained that this kind of crevasse was very dangerous and could easily drown you if you fell in.  Eventually this crevasse would literally crack a large chunk of the glacier off into the melt pool. As I navigated the crevice, I heard the glacier speak once again, this time, in despair. What is happening is happening. There is nothing to be done.  Our melting will reshape the world. I have been here for so long, and someday, I will be here again. But in the meantime, my waters will travel far and wide.

 

Upon meditation on this experience after returning home, I realized that I was hearing the many voices of this glacier working through the many stages of grief.  I was experiencing the grief that this sacred place was experiencing, conveying to me, perhaps so I could convey it to you.

 

Crevasse in melting glacier

Crevasse in melting glacier

We got to a high point on the glacier where you could see it continue to rise up for many miles into the mist.  Here the glacier flattened out quite a bit. It was here that our guide swung two pickaxes in the ice to create handholds and let us kneel down on them to drink the fresh glacial melt-water. Pure, cold, refreshing. As I drank the water, thirsty from our climb, I could feel the energy of the glacier. As I drank, the emotions that the glacier was conveying to me welled up within me, overflowing. Anger, fear, sadness, despair, acceptance. All at once, those feelings spread throughout me. As we made our way back down, I simply allowed myself to experience the myriad of complex feelings of this place.

 

The next day, on our flight home, we flew over Greenland and the lower part of the Arctic before landing back in the US. I looked down, out of the window of the plane, and saw so many small chunks of ice participating in their own complex patterns of melting, this time, with nobody to hear or witness up close.

 

Melting ice from the plane

Melting ice from the plane

How much damage did this trip to Iceland cost the earth? That’s the part that has been perhaps the hardest for me to process, as I’ve been thinking about and meditating on this experience. I went on this trip for pleasure. I’ve had little chance to travel, and I wanted to experience new things and visit somewhere completely different. But my very engagement with this glacier, my presence there, was part of why it was melting. Sure, you can say, but Dana, you can always offset your carbon for this. And yes, I always do offset my carbon from travel at the end of the year (most of it work related). But does that  offset matter? In the end, I chose to engage in an activity that speeded the melting of this sacred place.helped this glacier melt. One article, I read recently suggested that each trans-Atlantic flight, like the one I took, melts about 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice.  So for myself, my round trip contributed to 60 square feet of ice melted in the Arctic.

 

Just like the glacier, I’m full of a myriad of complex emotions. I’m glad to have this experience. I’m saddened by it. I recognize my own part in this.  I feel sorrow and anger and acceptance. We are all on the front lines of climate change, the 6th extinction happening, the age of the Anthropocene.  Every one of us is living in a time where we are aware of the problem, many of us trying to do something about it. At the same time, by participating in modern life, we can’t help but contributing to it.  This is the great Catch-22 of our age.  To see the glacier is to destroy the glacier.  To use fossil fuels necessary for modern life is to burn them.  How can I afford solar panels for my home without commuting to work each day in a fossil fuel powered vehicle?  The glacier weeps as I write.

 

But the other thing that this lesson has powerfully taught me is the power of experience. How many people, in seeing that melting glacier could really deny the truth of climate change? How could it be denied that these things are happening, powerfully and directly, before our very eyes?  This experience has changed me. I “knew” about the glaciers melting before.  Knew as in I intellectually engaged in an understanding about the fact that glaciers worldwide were melting. But it was not till I stood upon one, till I connected with the spirit of that place, and until I confronted my own contribution to that melting, could I really have wisdom surrounding it.

 

The glacier

The glacier

As I write these words, I’m attempting to convey some of that wisdom, that direct experience, but my words cannot have the impact of that weeping glacier. Book knowledge is what we engage with intellectually and logically, what we read or hear in order to better understand something. Book knowledge is mitigated by human language, words on paper or spoken aloud. These words, as I write them, are read by your eyes and processed by your brain. But they are a pale representation for the experience of standing there, of seeing the glacier weep, drinking its meltwater, and feeling its pain. But I’ve done my best, dear reader, and I hope it gives you a small piece into this experience and into that of one melting glacier. Can we find these same kinds of changes in our own ecosystems, and use them as local teaching tools? Perhaps we can, and perhaps that’s a message I can leave you with today.

 

PS:  I’m excited to announce that I just signed my first book contract a few weeks ago!  Because of this, I will be taking a few weeks off of blogging so that I can prepare my manuscript to submit to the publisher (which is quite a bit of work).  I’ll keep you updated on the progress, release date, etc.  Thanks for your understanding!