The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting With Nature, Part III: Nature Engagement July 22, 2018

Leading you in deeper!

Leading you in deeper!

I’ve heard a lot of conversation in the nature spirituality community, including the druid community, about not touching nature, leaving it alone, to simply “be”.  I remember one influential druid speaking at an event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.”  From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. Because people have a tendency to come in, move things about, pick things, disrupt ecosystems, and generally cause havoc.  Or worse, much, much worse. Further, in a world where most humans can’t identify even five trees or have any idea if the ecosystem they are looking at is healthy or not, it is a good perspective for nature to be on her own.  This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. I do think there are cases, for ecologically sensitive areas, during breeding season, and so on where this is still the best philosophy.  But I think in many more cases, it is not.

 

However, as I began my own journey to understand and connect with nature more deeply, I came to a different understanding.  Through deep study of permaculture, bushcraft, wildcrafting, and so on, and reading the works of many authors, including M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Jon Young, and Wendell Berry, I came to a different understanding. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies that we put nature on a pedestal; that we enshrine her and look at her from afar, that we leave her alone. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.

I see at least three problems with this perspective, as a general principle:

 

  • It fosters separation and disconnection from nature. The minimal interaction with nature maximizes separation.  But we are part of nature, we are not separate from her.
  • It fosters fear about nature or about our own interactions with nature. Particularly, the fear to do harm, the fear to do the wrong thing, makes us fear doing anything. And so then, we do nothing.
  • It fosters ignorance about nature. Last week, I talked about how nature wisdom had two parts: the book learning through nature knowledge and the  experiential interaction through nature understanding. Because we are separate from it, we have no opportunity to learn from experience.

 

An alternative perspective–which I’m advocating today through nature engagement and next week through nature reciprocity–is a very different one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility. Nature engagement is the opposite of “pick up the garbage and get out”–its the idea that we are part of nature, we can learn to use her, to work with her, help her grow, and tend her, and use her responsibly. (And for earlier posts in this series, please see the framework, nature wisdom, and nature engagement).

 

A place to explore...

A place to explore…

One of the concepts that really shaped my thinking on this was how M. Kat Anderson describes the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness”.  While in English, the concept of wilderness is a largely positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild, the concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good (as long as that wild place isn’t someone’s front lawn). But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

What I’m actually talking about is dependency. With the rise of industrialization, factories and mass production replaced home cottage industries; consumer goods and purchasing replaced hand-created, foraged, and grown goods; and humans in western civilization, in a few short generations, lost the ability to learn to live from nature. Today, for many people living in industrialized nations, we have lost nearly everything our ancestors knew about how to live abundantly from the land. This included everything from growing food to foraging, from fishing and hunting to natural crafts, to building things naturally or with wood (a topic I explored in my “way of wood” post some time ago). We need nature, we depend on her, her survival is our survival–even if systems present in consumerism and industrialization have separated many of us from this truth.

 

If we enshrine nature, if we put her on a pedestal and look at her from afar, we will never develop the sacred relationship and co-dependency that leads to deep love and knowledge.  If all we are willing to do is “pick up the garbage and get out” then that’s all we will ever be willing or allow ourselves to do. The connection stops there–with a distance of respect, and reverence, but without interaction or interactivity.  Part of why nature is so powerful to us is that she can–and does–provide all of our needs. You step on a lawn; there is an incredible abundance of healing food and medicine there. Each time you walk into a forest, there is so much there to offer you.  Looking at a beautiful plant is one thing; looking at a beautiful plant that can help heal your pain is quite another. Through interacting with nature, and instead, prefer to interact with nature, to learn how to use her, to learn how to heal her (which all go hand in hand).

 

And, with all of the above in mind, we come to the three ways of nature engagement:

To engage with nature we can:
use nature for healing, living, and sustenance
enjoy nature’s beauty and adventure
be creatively inspired by nature

Using Nature

Humans use nature every day–it is how we survive as a species. From the oxygen in the air to the clothes on our back, nature is with us.  Everything that clothes us, feeds us, heals us, and shelters us ultimately comes from the earth in some form.  We in the western world might be very disconnected from the original source of materials used to create the things we wear, sleep on, or eat every day, and see it as wholly human made–but in the end, it has a natural source, and it is important that we learn to reconnect with nature as provider.

 

Elderflower harvest

Elderflower harvest

Because of exploitation, because we have such damage in many ecosystems, we are hesitant to directly take anything from nature; hesitant to do harm, when the very materials we thrive upon and food we eat comes from the land.  But “using nature” in a druidic sense needs to account for more than what we take–for a nature-based spiritual experience, it is less about “what can I take” and more about relationship, both give and take. Previously, I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry’s concepts from the Unsettling of America: approaching the natural world from a perspective that exploits (which is only taking, taking without reservation, and taking in a way that degrades and destroys life) vs. a perspective that nurtures (taking only enough, paying attention to the health of the land and considering long-term issues). If we approach using nature in a place of nurturing, we are already in the place to develop a relationship with nature. To me, I see this issue as one of reciprocation. I know that with each meal, with each moment I spend in a warm and heated home, I am taking from nature.  So my goal, then, is to give back in every way that I can.  If I pick our native black raspberries to eat (like I did this morning–yum), I save some and scatter them into new areas where they will grow and I leave some ripe ones for the wildlife.

 

Here are a few, of many, ways that you can learn to more fully “use nature”:

  • Foraging and Wild Foods: This hobby is a wonderful way to learn how to use nature and enjoy some tasty treats. I always balance foraging activities with ways that I directly give back to the land: scattering rare woodland species seeds, helping the plants I am harvesting (when native) by spreading their seeds, and so on (more on this next week). Sometimes, foraging helps manage species that are too abundant (or what others might call “invasive”); thus helping keep that species in check. You can never harvest too much japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, kudzu or dandelion!  Two posts (here and here) introduce you to foraging activities and give ideas and suggestions.  Lots of websites and books are available–and I often post material on foragable treats (like Hostas and Milkweed, both of which I covered this year).
  • Bushcraft. Another take on the “using nature” is by learning bushcraft skills. These are various wilderness survival skills like shelter building, fire starting, making cordage from natural materials, and more. There are various bushcraft skills scattered throughout the country and they offer a rich variety of classes. One I have attended is the North American Bushcraft School in West Virginia, who offer a wide range of classes on a variety of topics.
  • Herbalism. Learning how to heal the body with plants is another amazing way to “use” nature and learn how to engage with her more fully. I have found the herbalism community in the US to be rich, and delightfully earth-affirming and earth-honoring.  It is a wonderful practice to learn with a lot of good people to learn from. I have a post here detailing some of the ways to get started in this practice. You can learn both how to grow your own herbs and also how to harvest from nature and tend to wild patches of herbs to help them better grow.
  • Natural building. One of my long-time favorite ways of learning to use nature is through building using materials right from the land–through timber framing, cob construction, and more. I’ve written on this topic a bit here and will have some upcoming posts on the topic later in the year!

 

I actually think that part of the great tragedy of the modern consumerist movement is that nature has lost much of her “value” to humans.  I watch people cutting down apple or walnut trees, cutting back big swaths of dandelions or burdock, cutting down whole forests–and there is so much “of value” in those spaces, but the value isn’t known any longer.  When I teach wild food foraging classes in the summer, what strikes me the most is how learning something even small about a plant completely changes a person’s perspective on it–it changes their relationship, changes the “value” the plant has, and ultimately, connects them more deeply not only with that plant but with the ecosystem in which it grows. I’ve had people come back to me several years later after attending a plant walk and saying how they stopped spraying their lawns because they didn’t know that you could make wine from dandelions and salve from plantains, etc.

 

And use of nature absolutely builds nature connection. What I’ve found as I’ve delved more deeply into the above practices (some moreso than others) is that the more that I learn to use nature, the more connected I am, and frankly, the more value something has.  As a druid, I approach every aspect of nature with reverence and respect. But, its amazing to come across a patch of wild dogbane in the summer and be so excited because in the early winter, I know I can come back and harvest the dried stalks for cordage.  That really adds something to my interaction with this incredible plant and the ecosystem in which she grows.

 

Nature Activity

Being on the water!

Being on the water!

Our second category under “nature engagement” is nature activity. This refers to the many nature-based activities that we can engage in and be out with and part of nature.  Hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, backpacking, camping, and much more are an assortment of things that can be done in nature. My general rule, as someone who is focusing on cultivating a nurturing relationship with nature, is to focus on activities that have minimal impact or no impact and use minimal to no fossil fuel.  So I am happy to kayak down a river paddling using my own human power and navigating the river’s current, but don’t want to take a big speedboat. There are so many ways we can engage in activity, exercise, and healing through “doing” nature. I also think that activity can be paired with wild food foraging and herbalism, which really enhances your experience with being part of nature and connected to nature!

 

Another thing I like to do is combine sacred activities in nature (nature reverence, which we will explore in more depth in two weeks) with getting out in nature.  So planning a kayaking trip that also has a ritual component; bringing along a healing blend of herbs to make offerings to the land and a bag of American Ginseng and Ramp seeds to scatter, and so on.

 

Creating With/Through Nature

In addition to providing all of our needs and offering us incredible experiences through exploration, nature offers us inspiration.  Many poets, artists, musicians, dancers, fine crafts people and other creative artists throughout the ages have found their inspiration in the living earth, in the flow of the waters, in the spark of first light in the heavens, in the bloom of a flower or the soaring of a hawk.  In the druid tradition, we cultivate and work with the Awen, the force of divine inspiration, that flows from nature and through a person seeking to create.  Here are some ways that we might create with/through nature:

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

  • Nature as a muse: nature can be an incredible muse for all different kinds of creative practice.  I am a visual artist, and I am often sketching and photographing what I see to bring into my paintings; a dancer might choose to interpret the pattern of the clouds through motion, where a musician might play the song he hears in the waterfall.  Being present with nature, being in nature, being observant in nature, learning to meditate in nature–all of these can bring you inspiration.  I also find that when I travel somewhere new, outside of my usual places and outside of my own bioregion, inspiration of new natural places often floods within me.
  • Nature and Artistic Media: Using nature as part of your creative process is another way to bring nature centrally into creative practice.  This might be doing woodcarving and using wood, creating berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, and more.
  • Wildcrafting: There are many kinds of artistic materials and craft projects that you can do. I love finding ways of working with nature directly in my artistic and bardic practices. Berry inks, handmade papers, homemade decorations, smudge sticks, herbal offering blends, and so much more can come right from the living earth. For these, I only take what is in abundance, what I grow myself, or what needs to be managed.

I’ve also seen artists who work with whatever is abundant–a wonderful basket artist who works with bittersweet vines; harvesting the vines helps keep them under control and produces lovely works.  Or a woodworker who collects deadfall from the side of the road and turns it into masterpieces.  Or a mosaic artist who works with stones and shells from the ocean. Part of this, I think, is finding the parts of nature that speak and resonate with you and that bring you inspiration.

 

Conclusion

This post has covered a lot of ground–so we’ll end for here, and next week, we’ll pick up and explore the other side of the coin to  “nature engagement” which is “nature reciprocation.”  Blessings as always!

 

 

Living the Wheel of the Year: Spiritual and Sustainable Practices for the Winter Solstice December 21, 2014

As the Wheel of the Year continues to turn, we find ourselves once more in the time of darkness and cold; the time of the brown and the gray; the time of the Winter Solstice.  The Winter Solstice, happening around the 21st of December, represents the longest night and shortest day for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.  It marks the real start of winter, which continues until the Spring Equinox.  And while this is a time of challenge and struggle for many, I like to think of this time, like all times, represents an opportunity to turn inward, to examine our inner worlds and our inner home lives, and to again seek methods of sustainable practice and action.  So here are some spiritual and sustainable practices that you can practice around the Winter Solstice:

Frozen Lake Walking

Frozen Lake Walking

 

Winter walking.  I think that one of the challenges we face as a culture in terms of sustainable action is a disconnection with the natural world–especially the natural world in all her forms and in all of her seasons. One of the best ways of reconnecting is to see the beauty and mystery in each day, regardless of the weather.  Because of this, I have worked hard to spend a little time outside each day and an extended period of time at least once a week outdoors, regardless of the weather.  I make it a point to go on “winter walks” in different types of weather.  If you plan on engaging in this practice, invest in some good cold-weather gear.  Good wool socks, sweaters, and long-johns, good hats and gloves, and multiple layers of warm clothing will make walks outside enjoyable for you and any others who choose to join you.  The key, especially when exposing others who are maybe not used to the winter cold, is to encourage them to dress warm.

I find the time around the Winter Solstice strikingly beautiful–the grasses have died back but are still gorgeous in shades of brown, the landscape shows things hidden with summer foliage.  Usually here, its usually too early for snow before the solstice, so the browns and deep reds and grays dominate the landscape.  The conifers hold the promise of spring in their greenery.   If there is snow, the patterns of animals, usually invisible in the summer, are now revealed.  Once the deeper cold of January sets in and our lakes freeze over, I also very much enjoy lake walking (see photo above).  You get to commune with the water in a different way.

Regardless of how you choose to winter walk, experiencing this beauty, and sharing it with others, can help us build a deeper awareness and connection to the world (and I think that gives us the underlying impetus for sacred and sustainable action).

 

Candlemaking - another great skill!

Candlemaking – another great skill!

Make some winter crafts, medicine, and ritual objects. The Winter Solstice and the dark times provide us excellent time to practice various bardic arts, especially those of a physical nature.  The Winter Solstice is my favorite for finishing up my tinctures created earlier in the season and making medicinal salves for use for the upcoming year. I also like to make big batches of laundry soap and candles.  I’m making time also to make my own bars of regular soap after having some fantastic lessons this past year. This is also the time when I make smudges and incense.  The idea here is that the more you can make and provide yourself, the more energetically connected you are, the more fulfilled you are (because you are providing some of your own needs), and the less drain you are creating on the system as a whole.  This is especially true if you mindfully source anything you don’t have to make your various home goods and crafts.

 

Alternative gift giving. I wrote about thinking for meaningful alternatives to typical consumerist holiday practices before; it is presented in more detail here.  But I again want to encourage readers to think carefully about what needs to be bought, and what can be repurposed; to see the holidays not as a time of excess and spending, as so many now do, but one where we can use creative thinking for meaningful change. For my friends and extended family, I’ve taken to giving people things from my garden–a small bag of sundried tomatoes or a wonderful rhubarb-orange summer solstice jam really is a gift from the heart.  One of the things my family has been conscious of doing for some time now is engaging in a “secret santa” gift exchange.  Each person gets one other person’s name and a list of things they would like; only $50 can be spend total on the gifts, but any handmade/repurposed gifts are welcome in addition.  We also use either re-usable wrapping paper or junk mail/papers to wrap all gifts. This alternative gift giving does a few things–it allows everyone to buy and gain less stuff, and the stuff that is purchased is purchased to fill a need.  The gifts are meaningful because they are heartfelt and useful because they are some of what was requested.

 

Exploring alternative lighting and have “candlelight evenings.” It is possible for nearly everyone to explore alternatives to electric lighting during this dark time.  I like to have what I call “electricity free” days where I live more naturally and in rhythm with the earth (and use a lot less resources).  I do keep the power on for running my refrigerator, flushing the toilet, and making sure my pipes don’t freeze.  But other that, I switch to oil lamps and candles and explore activities that can be done without computers, phones, televisions, and electric lighting. I like to have candlelit evenings when spending time with my family members around the holidays if at all possible–doing this as a group makes a candlelit evening all the more special. We can play games, tell stories, entertain each other. We might even do some woodstove cooking rather than turn on the range.  This is a nice addition to the “meaningful gifts” idea above for family time while engaging in more meaningful and mindful living.

Oil lamps can be found fairly cheaply at antiques sales and the like, they are easy to use, and they make wonderful lighting (you can even read by them); you do want to be careful what kind of oil you purchase for them (mine were kerosine when I bought them, but now I switched out the wicks and have most of mine burning vegetable oil.  Kerosine is very smelly and is a fossil fuel). A single oil lamp is worth about three good candles in terms of light and they are extremely efficient. You can also make your own oil lamps (see instructions on the web here).  Beeswax candles are much longer-lasting and sustainable than paraffin ones, although any candle will put out light.

 

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Garden planning and seed starting. One of the other wonderful activities you can do this time of year is to take stock in your seeds, to order or trade for new seeds that are needed, and to plan the garden for the next season. Even if this is your first year, now is a great time to think about what you might do when you can break ground in the spring, or put in a few pots of herbs, or plan your dream growing space. If you want to start all of your own seeds, this also requires some planning and foresight…in my bioregion, I usually start the first of my seeds as early as January.  I have a few good posts to help you get started: Seed Starting and Garden Planning: Reasons to Start Seed, Seed Research, and Seed Starting Setups; Sowing the Seeds of the Future: Spiritual Insights on Seed Starting and Growth; Seed Saving, Heirloom Seeds, and Sustainability.

 

Finished worm castings from vermicompost--awesome!

Finished worm castings from vermicompost–awesome!

Indoor composting (vermicomposting).  Another thing you can do to build more sustainable practices is start an indoor composting bin and start creating some great soil and getting to know earthworms and their activity in the process.  I have instructions on how to start such a bin and some spiritual insights from the vermicomposting process.

 

Home energy audits and actions to seal up the home. Because the cold is blowing in, you might take this time to do an energy audit of your house/apartment and find ways to make your home more airtight and more efficient.  The EPA suggests that anywhere from 5-30% of energy can be saved with a home energy audit and taking action.  This is a perfect thing to do in the dark months, and the colder it gets out, the easier it is to figure out where the cold spots are.  There are lots of instructions online about how to seal up your home better–here’s one that I used to do my own energy audit.  But you don’t need anything fancy to do such an audit.

I am working on my own home energy audit this winter–I have several rooms that I don’t heat in winter because they currently aren’t in use, and I’ve been working to seal them up, insulate uninsulated lightswitches, and prevent heat loss from under/near doors and windows.  I’m also working to add throw carpets to my cold floors that sit on the slab foundation in my house to help with my cold feet.  I can already see a difference in the warmth of my home from these small changes.

 

Introspection and meditation. A final suggestion for winter solstice activities–take the opportunity to spend some time in introspection and meditation.  Daily meditation on various themes can lead to amazing insights–I do discursive meditation daily as part of my AODA practice, and often find myself meditating on phrases or concepts from herbalism, nature-based writers like Wendell Berry, or permauclture designers.  Spending time with yourself during the winter months can lead to a blossoming of light and life within.

 

Tar Sands Oil Pipelines Update – Restoration Planning at Strawbale Studio May 22, 2014

Site of decomissioned earlier pipeline

Site of decommissioned earlier pipeline; next to where the new pipeline is being dug.

The question of how to respond to events beyond our control, the broader events and decisions that continue shape the world, is an important one. So much destructive and exploitative human activity is taking place (fracking, mountain top mining, tar sands oil) and its hard to respond when we feel so powerless. Its even harder to respond when we know that we are complicit in these events’ creation–by driving cars, heating our homes with gas, and so on, we are shaping the events that take place.

 

The kinds of responses we generate in the face of such events is an issue well worth pursuing.  Each area has its own local challenges, my area being no exception. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the area in South-East Michigan where I live (less than 3 miles north of my house) has a tar sands oil pipeline being put in (this line is an alternative to Keystone XL, which has generated substantial attention in the media).  While there is nothing that the citizens can do here to prevent the pipeline from being completed due to the history of this particular pipeline and previous permission being granted, we can certainly decide how we respond, how we work with the land, and what we do after the pipeline crews leave.  How we choose to respond can shape conversations about these activities for decades to come, and can demonstrate that there are many ways to work with the land and address change.

 

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Last fall, I discussed the Enbridge Oil Pipeline digging project that was going through my good friend Deanne’s land at Strawbale Studio. In the fall, I went and worked with the trees and documented what was happening on her land.  At this point, the land has been cleared for the crews, and the pipeline will be dug within the next few weeks.  Those of us involved with Strawbale Studio been thinking about what to do when the crews leave, how we might encourage sustainable thinking and practices.

 

Last night, 35 members of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup spent time looking at the site in its current form and brainstorming ideas for restoration once the pipeline project is done. I wanted to post an update about some of our ideas and suggestions to A) document the progress of this project and our response and B) share the ideas if others are facing a similar challenge in their communities.

Exploring Strawbale Studio

Exploring Strawbale Studio

 

We began with a tour of the Strawbale Studio property, ending at the pipeline.  Using principles of permaculture design (observe and interact) we examined the site, explored the margins, noted the existing flows of energy (like a wetland area on the western part of the pipeline and a rising slope on the eastern part of the pipeline).  Deanne also pointed out the existing resources, including a huge pile of mulched wood chips from the trees that were cut (which will likely become a compost water heater in the fall) and numerous logs and stone piles which could be used for various natural building projects. After reviewing the site, we went back to the house for discussion about possibilities. We also noted the distance from the house (about a 3-5 min walk) and noted the severity of last winter would mean that the site might not be accessible year round.  We also noted which areas needed to remain clear of large trees (where the pipeline is) and which areas could be “anything goes” areas (the staging areas where they cleared to have their equipment move in and out around the area where the pipeline is being dug).

 

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Its incredible what happens when you get 35 people in a room who want to make change.  We came up with a number of good and worthy suggestions–short term and long term. I’m not sure yet which ones we’ll decide to move forward with, but I think a number of these are worthy of consideration.

 

Short term suggestions:

Our short term suggestions focused on the immediate needs to restore the land and how to make use of any resources the pipeline company might be willing to provide:

  • Seeing if the construction crews would create swales for water trapping and the like, be willing to shape the landscape so we could more effectively catch and store energy (this would be a first response)
  • Seeing what kinds of resources for restoration the company offers (they are required to offer some, based on Michigan Department of Natural Resources and EPA guidelines).
  • Once the crews leave, we need to immediately get something immediately planted in the bare soil to help restore the land and rebuild the soil ecology.  Ideas ranged from  a cover crop of rye, clover, alfalfa to something with a tap root.  This suggestion is particularly important because the soil ecology has been largely destroyed and now the soil will have substantial amounts of compaction due to the heavy machinery going over the site.  A tap rooted crop will help break up compaction and add nitrogen and other minerals back into the soil.

These three areas are the first we will address in the action plan.  Once we see what resources we have, what, if anything, we can do to shape the land, and how to get something in the soil to restore it, the longer-term projects can get underway.

 

Group discussion indoors about site

Group discussion indoors about site

Long-Term Potential Projects:

The long-term projects ranged substantially, and many have a lot of merit!  Which projects end up taking place depends on the community, the resources, and Deanne’s vision for the site.

  • A camping area (perhaps combined with a yearly gathering) where interns or visitors can camp.
  • A pollinator sanctuary with native wild grasses, plants, flowers, etc., as well as beehives for honey and a cob beehive for wild bees (like mason bees).  We like this idea a lot because it doesn’t require a lot of daily maintenance (like animals would, see below), and it contributes back to the land.
  • The use of the land for natural building materials for other strawbale projects–establishing trees for coppicing (hazels, willows), perhaps other materials
  • Some kind of co-op: wine/grapes, orchard/fruit; goat/sheep; chicken/egg; or herbs.  The idea is that the community would contribute to the work of the co-op and reap some of the rewards.
  • An education area for children/school groups to come and learn about energy and restoration–it would have signs about oil pipelines, what was done and how the oil is used, encouraging reduction of fossil fuel use and teaching about sustainability (this could be done with any number of our ideas)
  • Orchards of fruit and nut trees (Hazels and Apples were specifically discussed)
  • A grazing area for chickens, goats, horses, or the like (we decided that if this were to be, someone would need to be down there in a little cob building as a caretaker!)
  • Alfalfa as a cash crop that can be baled and sold to nearby farmers (to bring in steady income for other projects)

These are just some of the ideas the community came up with.  This was a wonderful meeting, to see so many people invested in planning for the future, in reclaiming the land and in working to put something in that encourages a different worldview.

 

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Final Thoughts

Throughout our country and world, there are a lot of bad things being done to the land in pursuit of cheap fossil fuel energy.  Any of us who participates in modern consumerist society (myself included) is contributing to the problem of the exploitation of our lands for oil.  And most of us live near some kind of activity–from mountaintop removal to fracking to oil pipelines (and many of us live in areas were multiple kinds of activity are taking place).

 

While we can reduce our fossil fuel use and look for alternatives (as many of us are doing), how we respond to these kinds of issues, especially when we are directly confronted with them can empower us and bring about broader change in the world.  That we will turn the oil pipeline site into a sustainable, model site for other kind of restorative work is empowering–and its something we *have* the power to do, while stopping the oil pipeline is something that we really don’t have the power to do (this one was leased in the 1960’s, so its a done deal as far as any of us can tell).  I’d be interested in hearing of any other communities’ responses to these kinds of issues.

 

Barn Raisings: Building Sustainable Structures and Communities of the Future July 23, 2013

I’ve been blogging a lot about sustainability and community–and this is for good reason. I’ve come to understand, as I worked my way through the AODA’s 3rd degree (where I investigated the relationship of druidry as a spiritual practice and sustainability, much of which I talked about on this blog), that community is a critical part of sustainability and that efforts in community building are critical to the success of such efforts.  I talked about this a bit with regards to our Oakland County Permaculture Meetup; but I also wanted to talk about it in relationship to natural building and creating the sustainable structures of the future today.

 

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  In those books, I was struck by her descriptions of things like “barn raising” and “community roofing” but never quite had a sense of what it would be like (as very few children growing up in the latter part of the 20th century would know).  When our own family home was built at the age of seven, we hired contractors out to do the work, and came in nearly every day to check in on their progress.  But after being exposed to natural building through the Strawbale Studio, I started understanding more about what these old processes used to be like–and how transformative and powerful they can be.

 

Let’s start with the first natural building project I was able to take part in, a rocket stove, built at Strawbale Studio through the rocket stove workshop. Each time I visit there now, I see that stove and think about the 4 of us who had the pleasure of designing and building it. I feel like I’ve contributed to something important, something that my friend Deanne and her many interns and visitors now get use out of.

 

The same is true of my garden fence.  When I called in two friends to help me put up the fence, and later dig a trench around it and sink in chicken wire to keep out the woodchucks, the fence takes on new meaning because it was done with the help of friends.  That fence continues to protect my veggies each day, and now, it also contains my two new chickens who are too young to be in my main flock.

 

A friend of mine recently hosted a timber framing workshop.  They didn’t get as far as they wanted to get during the workshop, so the timber frames didn’t get raised during that weekend.  In the last few weeks, he called a bunch of us (about 12 in all for the 1st frame, and 6 for the second frame) in to raise the first timber for his outdoor kitchen project.  I’ll walk a bit through our process of raising the timber.

 

Prior to this, few of us knew anything about how to raise a timber.  This isn’t a common skill these days.  But we brought our heads together, took some guidance from the one person who had done it before, and set to work.

Here we are getting ready to pull the ropes! (I am in blue)

Here we are getting ready to pull the ropes! (I am in blue in the window!)

The timbers are prepped and ready to go.  What we need is a bunch of muscle to lift it to attach to the side of the house (see the board below the window?).  Four of us, myself included, went into the house and had thick ropes to help pull it.

Everyone is lifting the timber frame; we pull with the ropes into the house.

Everyone is lifting the timber frame; we pull with the ropes into the house.

We thought it was going to be difficult to get the timber frame up–we were kind of intimidated with the whole thing, since not a single one of us had ever done it before.  We psyched ourselves out, thinking about how heavy it would be, how hard to lift, etc.

Securing the posts!

Securing the posts!

The timber frame went up much easier than we expected–we didn’t even break a sweat!  Here we are holding it in place while my friend Mark drills it into the wall.  Just this past weekend, we raised the second of three frames–I’ll report back when the outdoor kitchen project is a bit further along.

This idea of barn raising was again illuminated for me this past evening.  I went out to Strawbale Studio for a Full Moon Potluck (I should blog about this sometime too!) and it was time to raise the frames on the Hobbit Sauna Project. This is an intensive natural building project….if I didn’t have to work, I’d be there!  They realized they needed some additional hands to get the heavy timbers on top of the sauna. Again, you can see the value in this teamwork as a group of guys lifted the frame.

Moving the frame

Moving the frame

Lifting the frame onto the Hobbit Sauna

Lifting the frame onto the Hobbit Sauna

 

The value of teamwork, of community, and of directing human efforts collaboratively towards goals can be clearly seen in these photos. These are also quite sustainable projects–both are using local materials and human power (rather than fossil fuels) to get the job done.  These are the kinds of projects that I think we will be seeing more of as fossil fuels become more expensive and scarce.  Building knowledge now about the kinds of building that doesn’t depend upon heavy machinery and the kinds of communities one needs to build them is an important step in terms of sustainability.

 

There are other lessons in these kinds of “barn raising” projects.  These projects would not get completed without the help of many hands.  Through this work, those of us who work on them are transformed. I’m finding that when you participate in the building of a structure with others, doing the work with your own hands  you really have a different relationship with the space.  Each time you visit the structure, the object, you think about those who helped you create it, to bring it into being.  You see its value as more than a structure, but as a site of collaboration and community.  You realize how much we really do depend on each other for survival; how our relationships matter and should not be treated lightly.

 

I also think that this concept of “barn raising” can apply more broadly than just to physical structures. These demonstrate the force that community can bring to any project–be it transforming our communities, building a garden, or sustaining ourselves and our lands into the future.  It is through this work of community that real transformation can happen.

 

 

 

 

Sustainable Ritual Items: Earthen / Cob Candle Holders February 19, 2013

In my quest for sustainable items for ritual and mundane purposes, I want to share something that I learned at the Strawbale Studio‘s recent workshop on natural, earth-friendly gifts: cob / earthen candle holders, paperweights, and other useful cob objects.  The best thing about this project is that, other than some manual labor (and maybe a sifter, if you don’t have one) these materials can come 100% from your backyard.

Candle-holders after burning (with beeswax candles)

Candle-holders after burning (with beeswax candles)

Here’s how you go about making yourself some earthen candle holders.

Test your soil and get some sand and clay. Cob is an ancient building material made of the substrate of soil–specifically, a mix of sand and clay.  A good cob mix has about 10-25% clay and the remaining parts sand, with only a little silt (not more than 5-10%). You can tell if you have a good cob mix by digging down till you get below the top soil (usually a foot or more, you’ll be able to see the line of black hummus vs. what is underneath) and then filling a mason jar 75% of the way with the sub-soil (broken up) and then adding water. Shake the jar up and sit it down on a flat surface. What immediately falls to the bottom is sand. What falls within the next 30 or so minutes is silt, and what falls over the next 24 hours (as you let it sit still) is clay. A good cob mix will be sticky and hold together well. I tested my soils while I was planting trees. It took a bit of searching till I was able to find clay (my soil apparently has a ton of silt and sand). I ended up not finding clay in any of my holes I dug for trees but instead down on the banks of my pond. So to make my cob, I have to mix sand from one part of my yard and clay from another.  If you can’t find one of your ingredients–ask around.  Chances are, someone nearby has too much sand or too much clay :).

Screen your cob. Once you have a good cob mix, you want to screen it.  You can make a simple screen by using hardware cloth and stapling it to a frame.  Then you just sift the cob mix through the screen.  1/8″ or 1/4″ is a good size so that you aren’t going to be stuck with big rocks.

Wet your cob mix. Now that you have some screened cob, you can add water enough to make it form into an earthen ball.  It shouldn’t be so wet that it goes goopy.  At this point, if you want to add something to stabilize it and give it more strength, you can do that.  Finely chopped straw or cut grass (dried) will work well.  At our workshop, we actually added a wheat glue (it was just wheat + boiling water, which got soupy).  It held together well!

Cob before drying!

Cob before drying!

Shape your cob candle holders or other objects. I had a good time making some earthen candleholders for my beeswax candles.  You shape these like you would any other clay, but recognize that cob isn’t able to hold the fine detail like pure clay can; it can still take basic shapes and imprints.  One of the candleholders cracked really bad, and based on my knowledge of pottery, I think it may have dried out too fast because I had it sitting near my stove to dry out.  But the other three were great.    Our group made all sorts of candle holders–turtles and spirals and leaves.

Let them dry. My cob candleholders took over a week to dry.  When they were dry though, they were very tough.  Obviously, these aren’t fired, so if you get them wet, they are going to fall apart.  But they work great indoors or outdoors if they are kept dry.

Use them! In using the candleholders with my beeswax candles (directions for how to make them here), I found that the beeswax, when melted, kinda seeps into the earthen candleholder and darkens it a bit.  I have no problem with this, but it is something to take note of.  The cob candleholders, overall, worked wonderfully!

 

Natural Building II: Rocket Stoves! October 17, 2012

Earlier this week, I blogged about my visit to the Strawbale Studio.  In this second Natural Building post, I’m going to talk about the rocket stove workshop itself.  I’m quite excited about rocket stoves, because they use simple materials to create incredibly energy-efficient ways of cooking and heating.  I took this workshop because we’ve been talking about building an outdoor kitchen.  The plan next year is to build a rocket-stove cob baking oven and a rocket stove cooking oven.  Should be quite cool!

Rocket stoves can do a lot of things.  Typically, they are being used for two things in natural building: heating spaces and/or people and cooking.  Deanne’s indoor rocket stove features a cob bench.  The bench heats up at 1″ per hour when the rocket stove is going, so if there is 4″ of cob (a sand/clay mixture), it will take four hours to get warm.  Deanne says this kind of rocket stove heating system is best for long-term heating.  The basic principle of the rocket stove is that it uses a “J” shaped design to funnel heat through the stove system–the stove system can take many forms.  One form that Deanne has in-progress at the Strawbale Studio is a heating bench that goes the entire way around the natural building, so that people will warm up as they sit.

Deanne’s indoor rocket stove couch!

Deanne explains the rocket stove

Close-up of stove diagram

Rocket stove #2 (bare bones stove)

The above photo is a bare-bones rocket stove that Deanne had on the property.  You can see the “J” shape made with bricks.  This stove doesn’t have much insulation at all.  But it gave us a good idea about what the inside of one of these could look like.

Before we set to building our own fireplace, it was quite cold and a little rainy.  So we decided we’d also build a “rumford” fireplace that reflected heat back to us as we worked.  It was such a simple, elegant design–and it worked SO well in keeping us warm!

Building Rumford Temporary Fireplace – to keep us warm!

I ended up tending the fire for a lot of the day, and worked to build a fire that would keep out the rain and protect the coals.  Turns out, the rumford design is really good for that!  Here’s our fire going strong, even in the pouring rain!

Rumford in Rain!

So after building this quick stove, we set to work about 8′ away from it to build a cob-and-rocket cookstove.

Step 1. We began with mocking up what our rocket cookstove would look like using bricks.  Deanne told us that the bricks are important–old, red bricks work fine.  New red bricks are different and don’t work as well.  You need something that can handle repeated heat-ups and cool downs and that is fire-resistant.

Step 2: After we were satisfied with our design, which consisted of a piece of fireplace pipe, insulation, and an outer layer of bricks with a cob mortar, we began the process of putting the stove together.  The photo below shows us learning about brick laying!  As we put the bricks into place, we dunked each brick in water, then added cob to the brick.  Then we placed the bricks, tapping them into place.  After tapping, we used a level to make sure that we were building level as we went–both vertically and horizontally.

Beginning to add cob mortar to the rocket stove!

Step 3:  Add in the pipe.  The photo below shows how we placed the pipe.  Note the space around the pipe for our insulation (pearlite).  All of those spaces were filled either with insulation or cob.

Rocket Step 3: Adding in pipe!

Step 4:  We added a bit of insulation to the bottom (even below where the logs are placed) and then continued to cob up around the pipe.  Eventually, we had built up enough cob to add a brick which held the pipe in place.  You can see the cob is quite wet, but it still held together as we kept adding it!

Cobbing up the pipe!

Step 5: At this stage, we added more bricks and more insulation. Deanne used something called Pearlite (which you can find at a hydroponics store) but she said any non-flammable, insluating thing would work.  Wood ash works quite well, and that’s what we plan on using since we have a lot of it from our wood fireplace.

Adding insulation!

Adding more bricks!

Step 6: We finished the top of the stove with more cobb.  This is the heating surface.  You can’t just stic a pot on it though, you need a way for the heat to escape.  So you can put three little stones around the top and sit a grill or a pot on it.

Cobbing the top of the stove!

Step 7: After we finished the stove, we had to do some stove cleaning.  We took cob and patched up any cracks.  We also used a wire brush across the bricks to get off any excess cob mortar.

Cleaning rocket stove!

The completed stove!  I can’t wait to see how it works!

Finished Rocket Stove!

Concluding thoughts: 

Every time I learn a new skill or area, I am reminded about how much knowledge we have lost and need to work to regain. We claim to live in the information age, but for all of the information we have, we can’t do simple things like grow crops or build ourselves an oven. Its exciting and necessary to learn these new skills as we seek to live in harmony and transition to a more sustainable world.

I am looking forward to taking these skills and working on our outdoor kitchen project next year! 🙂

 

Natural Building I: The Strawbale Studio October 14, 2012

Yesterday, I attended a rocket stove building workshop at the Strawbale Studio and the sustainability-focused work of Deanne Bednar. In this post, I want to spend time highlighting the Strawbale Studio and Deanne Bandar’s work as an excellent example of permaculture and sustainable living.  In this first post, I’ll highlight some of the Strawbale Studio and other projects; in a later post this week, I will talk specifically about the rocket stove concept and what we learned and built!

I want to start by saying that site visits to places like the Strawbale Studio are really important and inspirational for anyone who is interested in natural building/sustainability/permaculture.  These places can bring us inspiration, joy, and ideas for transforming our own landscapes.  I’ve read about all of this in books and spoken to people, watched videos on Youtube, etc.  But its not till you really get to see it, and build it, that you really understand its power.  Its through being able to put your hands on the cool cob, or see the thatched roof from different angles, that you really appreciate the value of natural building skills.  I have been inspired by the Strawbale Studio and Deanne’s positive energy, and I can’t wait to get started on some of my own projects.

The Strawbale Studio

Deanne runs the Strawbale Studio on her rural property outside of Oxford, Michigan (in South-East Michigan).  Deanne runs regular monthly workshops, full moon potlucks, and regular volunteer days on natural building.  She has learned from a number of excellent teachers, including Ianto Evans. I feel incredibly fortunate to live so close to someone with such expertise on natural building–she is truly a wealth of knowledge and an inspiration.

I didn’t get to take pictures of everything because we had quite a rainy day, however, I did get some photos to share and will return for more when the weather is nice!

The Strawbale Studio

 

Strawbale Studio Back

The first two photos are of the strawbale studio.  Its a fully functional living space built out of natural materials–namely, cob (which is a mixture of clay, sand, and usually straw) and strawbales.  It also features natural thatching from phragmites (which are what many consider an invasive species in the area; its nice to see what Deanne was able to do with these reeds!).  These next three photos are of the inside of the strawbale studio. One of the things I really like about cob building is how you are able to be so creative with it!

Strawbale Studio Tree!

 

Inside the Studio #1

 

Strawbale Studio Loft

Sleeping Spaces, Living Roofs,  & Building Materials

Deanne brings in interns from all over the world to live and work at the site, learning natural building along the way.  They get to sleep in really neat places, like this natural lean-to and the strawbale studio!  And in the house… if they really want to. (But seriously, who would want to when you can sleep in these kinds of places?)

Thatched Lean-To

 

Living Roof – In progress

 

Natural Building Materials

Cob / Earth Oven

The next photos are of Deanne’s earth oven.  I’ve been planning to make my own for some time, so seeing a live one and being able to look at it and talk to her about the process was super helpful!

Small oven mockup!

 

Earth Oven!

 

Awesome Stick Spiral above Oven

Cob as a natural building material has so much potential. In Michigan, we have a really nice balance of sand to clay (which is about 75/80% – 25-20%) so we have great materials for cob here.  I am looking forward to making some of my own here next year :). Here are two more shots of what you can do with cob–as a decorative feature and as a building block:

Cob spiral

 

Brick of Cob

Food Forests

Deanne also uses permaculture principles to grow food and medicinals. Here’s a photo of her front “lawn”.  Love it!  This is a front yard that produces rather than consumes. And in the fall, its so beautiful with all of the colors and plants!

Food Forest!

 

Food Forest!

I am truly inspired by Deanne’s property and all of the projects happening. I think its important to remember that this  is the product of thousands of hours of work, many helping hands, and a woman with a clear vision for a sustainable future.  Her projects and presence in this community is something worth aspiring to. This is the power of community, knowledge, and action!