The Druid's Garden

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

Earthen Nature Spirit Statues with Cob September 15, 2019

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

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

 

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

 

Ephemeral Sacred Objects

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

 

Many earth spirit statues

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

 

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

Gathering Materials and Decorations

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

 

Making Cob

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

To make your cob:

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

 

Goose blessing of my cob

Make Your Statues

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

 

Bless your statues

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

 

More earth spirit statues!

Place your statues

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

 

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

Happy feet mixing cob!

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

 

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

Preliminaries for Cob: Testing Your Soil and Quality of Cob

Soil Horizons and Your Subsoil

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Soil Jar Test

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

Soil jar after shaking well.

 

Goose inspection of the jar. All is well.

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

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

24 hour later, all has settled.

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

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

 

Clay Ribbon Test

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

 

Making cob at my PDC in 2015!

Soft and Sharp Sand

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

How to Make Cob!

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

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

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

 

Tools

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

Screen with soil

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

Making Cob

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

Wheelbarrow full of subsoil

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

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

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

The well with water

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

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

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

 

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

A good mix!

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

Ready to use!

Cob and cobblestone wall ongoing in the greenhouse!

 

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

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

 

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

Making some cob!

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

 

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

 

Connecting to the Earth

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What are the benefits of working with Cob?

The Strawbale Studio - Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

The Strawbale Studio – Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful features

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful feature

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

 

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

 

Example Cob Projects: Rocket Stoves, Ovens, and Structures

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

 

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

A cov oven at Sirius Ecovillage

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

 

Cob oven with fresh mushroom pizza

Earth Oven at Strawbale

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

 

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

Indoor rocket mass heater

Indoor rocket mass heater at Strawbale Studio

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Rocket stove with cob mortar

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

Hobbit Sauna

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Why are Ecobricks a spiritual and sustainable practice?

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Making an Ecobrick: Step by Step Instructions

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

 

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

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

Unrecyclable plastic avocado bag with preening goose in background

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

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

Goose inspection of my bottles

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

Bottom of bottle

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

Stuffing an ecobrick with Widdershins’ supervision

 

Twist method for a plastic bag

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

Three recent ecobricks!

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

 

 

Travel Ecobricks

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

 

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

 

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

 

Building Projects

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

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

Outdoor kitchen plans

Cob oven plans

 

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

 

 

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

 

The Ancestors, the Descendants, and the Stones September 4, 2018

The Stone Circle at Four Quarters

The Stone Circle at Four Quarters

What would our descendants say about this time period? How would we, as a people, be written into their histories? What stories would they tell of us? Perhaps our ancestors would say that this was a time of recklessness, willful ignorance, of extravagance, and of excess. They might mourn the loss of ecological diversity and habitat that we did not protect, they would lament the loss of cultures and languages, the loss of so many things. Perhaps our descendants would say that we pillaged the land and many of its inhabitants by not knowing how to curb our own greed; that we were victims to our own quest for abundance; and that we filled the air with carbon simply because we wanted to move faster.

 

Or, perhaps, our descendants will tell a different story. Yes, they would say, the larger culture and government leaders didn’t want to make change and thereby created a more difficult, less ecologically stable, world. But there were others, their ancestors, who thought differently.  Their ancestors saw with open eyes the destruction surrounding materialist patterns of life, and they worked to change them physically and spiritually. Their ancestors paved the way for a new paradigm of thought and action: one of balance, respect, and nurturing for the living earth and all her inhabitants. And the reason that the descendants are here to record this history was because of their ancestors’ bravery, determination, and commitment to the sacredness of the land and the interconnected web of all life.

 

The stones await their newest additions

The stones await their newest additions

It was with these thoughts of future generations, and what legacy that we might leave them, that I journeyed to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for my second year at Stones Rising. As I wrote last year, as we engaged in the physical activity of raising a very large standing stone to add to the growing stone circle, we created something powerful. Stones rising is not just about us in the present moment, but rather, about building something that will last generations and cultivating a community that allows that work to continue to happen. And so, as I arrived at Four Quarters for Stones Rising, I was on the land once again, I was with my tribe once again, and we had sacred work to do.

 

As we gathered at the top of the mountain in the quickening darkness in preparation for pulling our first stone, we sensed the heaviness of that moment. Our ancestors were watching. Our descendants were watching. In the deepening darkness, by torchlight, we strained at the ropes to guide this new stone carefully, perilously, towards its new home. The magic is in the pull–the quiet on the lines, the breath of anticipation, the stone crew guiding the process. Fire and earth are in perfect synthesis as we complete our journey to the stone circle with the first of our two stones. Our ritual that evening invited us directly to engage with the past and the future.  We call forth and talked with our ancestors in front of the western “father stone” in the circle.  They are proud of the legacy that we are now living.  We then called forth and talked with our future descendants, in the east, near the “mother stone.” We listen to their voices, spanning through the ages, thanking us and urging us to continue our work now, so that they may come into being.

 

The next day, we prepare for the long pull. It is aptly named–we are pulling the second stone, the one we will also be raising this year–and it is a 5 ton stone, two tons heavier than what we pulled the night before and we have to pull it a much longer way. We once again assemble at the top of the mountain; our stone is strapped to a simple wooden sled, ready to join its brothers and sisters in the circle. We take three breaths and pull.

 

We pull for the ancestors, whose DNA floats in our veins and whose song we can hear on the breath of the wind.

 

We pull for the descendants, those young people among us, those in the womb, those yet to be conceived.

 

We pull for the land, our battered and beaten land, who, despite humanity’s treatment of her, still has skies that fill us with air, whose soils still produce our food, and whose rivers and storms still quench our thirst.

 

We pull for our community, strained as though it may be, knowing that this work is good work, and necessary work.

 

The stone does not move.  We strain at our ropes. Living in this time sometimes feels like the first long and desperate tug on that rope–when you keep pulling and pulling and nothing happens. When your feet slide in the grass and sweat drips from your brow and nothing happens.  When you feel your muscles straining to the point of collapse, and nothing happens. When everyone around you is likewise straining, giving it their all, and nothing happens. And then, when you know you can’t pull for another second, the stone finally moves a few inches, and then it moves faster, and you know no matter how hard it is to pull or how much time it takes, you will get there.

 

Pulling the stone during the long pull

Pulling the stone during the long pull

Hours later, we arrive with our stone in the stone circle. We break, and have more ceremony, feasting, and song.  The next day, the entire tribe gathers, first to be fed the delicious rolls of bread baked all night by the corn mothers. With nourishment in our bellies, we go as a community into the stone circle, making our commitments to the work, the land, and each other. We hold space as a community, and participate as we are able, to raise the stone into its place in the circle.  People sing, the drummers offer a steady beat, the crones offer a cup of tea, and the most delicious pickles can be found at the snack table. We sit among our tribe, celebrating this moment. Ropes are brought out and we move the stone into position.

 

Everything happens very slowly, ever so slowly, as only a stone can move. The stone raises up, inch by inch, with careful guidance and steady hands. The stone is a lot like the cultural and ecological challenges before us–the stone can only move an inch at a time.  It is a very heavy stone. We can’t expect change all at once. We need to endure, we need to understand that we are beginning the work of generations, and it will take us and our descendants to fully realize the dream of centering us, as humans, back in line with the living earth.

 

The stone is seated into place; a cheer goes up among the community. Now, we celebrate. Now, we feast. Now, through ceremony and song, we welcome the new stone into its home in the east. The East. The direction of the descendants; the direction of spring; the direction of new beginnings and new hopes. There in the east, our descendants stand watching, holding their breath, and dreaming of a tomorrow not yet here.

 

Our newest eastern stone, raised!

Our newest eastern stone, arisen!

The challenges we face as a world are so severe. Sometimes, I can’t fall asleep at night, my spirit heavy with the burden of the now, and even heavier with the burden of the future. When I look at little children, I think to myself, how will this world be for them when they grow up? What can I do now to ensure that they thrive? What about their children’s children?  When we welcome that new stone in the east, I felt my heart lighten. We are in incredibly difficult times, where change seems impossible, but like the slow raising of the standing stone, we–as a an earth-centered spiritual tribe, as a people dedicated to the land–are building a better paradigm for ourselves, our community, and our descendants. Each stone we move is a legacy for those yet unborn and for the stories they will tell, for the histories they will write.

 

We are in the process of becoming ancestors. Whatever our larger culture may offer future generations, we can leave a legacy that offers the seeds of hope, of re-connection to the living earth, and of living in balance. And, we can leave them the stones.

 

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.