The Druid's Garden

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

Spiritual Practices to Finding Equilibrium in the Chaos: Grounding, and Flow through the Druid Elements July 22, 2016

A tremendous amount of really difficult occurrences are happening in the world right now. It seems like the more time that passes, the more we balance on the edge. The edge of what exactly, nobody can say.  But the edge of something, and likely, not something any of us are looking forward to. Things seem to be spinning faster, and faster; the light growing darker and darker.  A lot of folks are having difficulty just coping with reading the news or even being on social media, the enormity of everything–social, political, environmental, personal–weighing down.  Responses to this range from rage and anger to numbness. There is a heaviness in the air that cannot be discounted.

A good place to seek the stability of calas

A good place to seek the stability of calas

 

And so, many of us turn to spiritual practices as a way of helping make sense of it all, to find a way forward, finding a way to keep ourselves sane and to levy some positive change in the world. For me, any outer healing or change in the world begins with my own inner work, finding my own inner equilibrium in order to compassionately respond and enact change. I find myself returning, again and again, to the elemental work I did in my AODA and OBOD curriculum: working with the healing power of the elements, seeking balance within. And so, I’m not going to talk about everything that is happening (as a lot of it is well outside of the scope and purpose of this blog), but I am going to share with you some ways of self-care and balance seeking that I’ve found helpful in dealing with all of this. Specifically, I’m going to use the framework of the three druid elements: gwyar, calas, and nywfre, and discuss how we might use those elements (particularly the first two) to help maintain our own equilibrium during difficult times.

 

Equilibrium

We have a lot of terms that get raised when we are faced with instability (instability of any type: culturally, locally, politically, or personally). These terms most often focus on grounding, but may also include balance, composure, equilibrium. I actually prefer the world equilibrium, for a few reasons. One dictionary suggests that equilibrium is “a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced.” What I like about the definition and concept of equilibrium is that it doesn’t require one response (e.g. grounding) but rather a range of responses based on the needs of the moment.

For example, if I am feeling really disconnected, scattered, and unfocused, I might do some grounding techniques that help more firmly root me back in place. But there are times that being rooted firmly in place is not the best idea, and instead, I need to let go and simply learn to flow. Equilibrium implies both of these things: finding and maintaining it is situational based on the context and your own needs.

 

Grounding, or the work of Calas

When I talk to spiritual friends about these times and all that is happening, I think a lot of them talk about “grounding” and grounding strategies. Grounding usually happens when we connect with the energies of the earth, of stability, of calm. In the three druid element system, this grounding is clearly represented by calas, which is the principle of solidity and substance. Calas represents the physical substance of things, the strength in the cell walls of the plant, the stones beneath our feet, the stable and unchanging fathoms of the deepest caves. When we ground, we plant ourselves firmly and solidly on the living earth–we plant our feet strongly and with purpose. We stand our ground, so to speak, we dig in our heels, we spread ourselves out upon the earth and feel its stability and strength.  Now, there are times when grounding is the correct response, and there are also times where I actually think it does more harm than good. The key questions to determine whether or not grounding is an effective approach seems to be: do I need stability in my life right now? Do I need something firm to stand on, to hold on, and to simply be present with? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then by all means, ground away. But recognize that sometimes, holding fast to something is a reactionary response, rather than the best response.

 

There are so many practices and ways of grounding–I’ll just share a few of my favorites.

Earthing and forest walking. I really love to take a barefoot walk through a path in a very familiar forest (even better if it is raining, lol).  I wouldn’t do this in an unfamiliar forest, or one that has a lot of poison ivy or brambles. But certain forests, dirt paths, and mossy areas lend themselves really well to this kind of activity. It is the most simple thing–you take off your shoes and socks, and simply walk on the earth.  Feel the land beneath your toes.  Walk, perhaps in movement meditation, for a period of time. You can combine this with energetic work.

 

Energetic work. When I do the forest walking, I like to stand a spot and envision the energies of the telluric current, those of the deep earth (envisioned in green-gold) rising up through my soles of my feet and into my body, clearing me and filling me with a sense of calm and stability.  The OBOD’s Light Body Exercise, for those that practice it, works quite well as a grounding and clearing activity.  Really, most kinds of energetic work can be good during the forest walking.

Some shagbark hickories can provide amazing grounding!

Some shagbark hickories can provide amazing grounding!

 

Weeding and Garden tending. Spending time with earthy things, like in the garden, can be extremely grounding and stabilizing. Planting, harvesting, weeding–even laying in the garden with a good book is a sure way to help do some grounding work.

 

Working with the stones. Carrying a small stone with you is a grounding activity in and of itself.  I have one that I’ve been placing above my heart if I am feeling really awful about all this stuff–I clear it once in a while by placing it in running water or sunlight, but at some point, I know I will be casting it off back into the earth permanently. This stone work is good for trauma and really deep healing.

 

Eating nurturing and nutrient-dense meals. Sometimes, when we are upset, we forget to eat.  But food has always been a grounding thing, and the more nutrient-dense and protein rich, the better.  An omelette of sausage and eggs and kale, for example, is just about as grounding as one can get!  Remember to eat.  The body and the soul both benefit.

 

Burying your feet in the earth. Similar to my earthing and forest walking, I have found great comfort in taking a shovel, digging a hole in my garden, and sticking my feet in it, covering them up with the soil. Sit there for a time in quietude, doing perhaps energetic work as well, or simply being and soaking up the sun while you sit. It works.

 

Sitting with Hardwood Nut Trees. When I am feeling ungrounded, I seek out hickory or oak trees and spend time sitting with them or hugging them. There is something about the energy of the hickory that I found extraordinarily grounding. Many of the hardwood nut trees also have this quality, as well as some others. I’m not sure I’d use a walnut, they have a bit different of an energy, like an expelling energy, which also has its own magic (but is not really well suited for this purpose). .

 

Sitting with a flock of chickens. Maybe this is just a personal thing, but I get great stability out of simply being near chickens. Chickens do many of the activities on this list, after all: dust baths, burying their feet in the earth, eating nutrient dense food, walking on the land barefoot–and they have tremendous connection to the energies of the earth. Spending time with them can be very grounding.  It is fun to watch them find bugs, peck, scratch, take dust baths–and most flocks that were raised with love will welcome your company and companionship.

 

Truthfully, as delightful as the above activities have been, I haven’t been drawn to grounding much lately–it seems like, in some ways, I am already too grounded and connected to what is happening.  Like my feet are planted so firmly that maybe I’ll just fall over if the wind comes by.  And so because of that, I have really been embracing the second druid element this year: the principle of gwyar.

Flowing, or the work of Gwyar

The element of Gwyar, often represented by water, represents the principle of fluidity and of flow.  Gwyar is the principle of change, opposite of the stability of Calas.  All things grow and change, and sometimes, we must learn to be adaptable and embrace that change.  Water teaches different lessons than the grounding of the earth–it teaches us the power of flow.  The babbling brook cascading over the stones, the water flowing off the leaves during a storm, the air flows pushing clouds and rain further across the landscape, the constant flow of time: these are all part of the power of gwyar.  Like Calas, there are times when embracing Gwyar is the right approach, and there are times when being too “go with the flow” is not the right strategy.  Questions I like to ask to determine this are:  Am I in need of letting go? Am I in need of trusting the universe to guide my path?  Am I feeling to rigid or inflexible?  Affirmative answers to these questions suggest a need to embrace Gwyar.

I have found that embracing Gwyar has been helpful for me as there are a number of things in my life, and certainly in the broader world, that are out of my immediate control. As much as I would like to control them, I am unable to do so, and attempting to exert control is only going to lead to my own suffering.  Instead, I must learn to accept these things at present, and flow with them, and the act of releasing my attempted firm hold is in itself a very powerful magical act.  And so, here are some ways to embrace the power of flow:

 

Getting on the water!

Getting on the water!

Get on the water. This summer, I bought a kayak, and have spent nearly all of my free time out on lakes and rivers, learning how to flow with the waves.  This has its own kind of healing work, but in a watery sense–rather than being firmly planted, I am learning the power of flow.  Of riding the waves, leaning into the current, anticipating–and simply moving along.  Not fighting the current. Putting up my kayak sail, and simply letting the wind and waves take me on an adventure.  Kayaks and other water vessels are easy to come by–you can rent them at many state parks or local lakes; you can also ask around and I’m sure at least 1-2 friends will have one you can borrow.  I would suggest a kayak, rowboat, or canoe for this kind of flowing work–you want to be closer to the water, as close as possible.  The other option is tubing–a lot of rivers offer a tubing option where you rent a tube, bring a cooler, and spend the next 4-6 hours floating down the stream.  This is really, really good for connecting to the principle of flow.

 

Whitewater Rafting: If you really want a more extreme version of “getting on the water,” whitewater rafting or kayaking is a good choice.  The stronger currents force you even more to get into the physical embodiment of flow and adaptability, which is a powerful spiritual lesson. In fact, the reason that this post is two days early from my normal schedule is that I am getting on the extreme waters this weekend and heading out to one of my very favorite rivers, the Youghiogheny, for some rafting!.

 

Water observations. Sitting by moving water (or even still water) can teach you a lot about flows and the importance of going with the flow. I love doing this by small streams and creeks–playing with the rocks, seeing the interplay between gwyar and calas as the water tumbles through and down the stream.  What amazes me even about still water, like lakes, is that the lakes themselves change as the weather conditions change–from choppy waters to still and clear waters–and this, too, is a powerful lesson.  As I observe the water, I think about the places in my life where I need to embrace gwyar and flow, and the places where calas is a more appropriate path.

 

Energetic work.  Similar to the work above, I have found that I can connect to the element of gywar energetically, especially at points of water or other kinds of movement or flow (a dance, for example).

 

Mindful drinking of water.  Drinking high quality water mindfully, paying attention to the taste and the feel of it as it flows, and sipping it quietly while you mediate, is another simple activity that you can do.  Try to find local spring water, if you can, for this, but any spring water or well water would do nicely!

 

Bathing.  We all need to be clean, and bathing rituals and activities can certainly help.  Even if it is simply a matter of turning your awareness for a few minutes to the flow of the shower around you, or the comfort of the tub, it can be tremendously useful for  connecting to gwyar.  I sometimes will let the water drain out of the tub as I sit within it, feeling the waters flowing around me and cleansing.

 

Getting in the mud....

Getting in the mud….

Standing and walking in the rain.  Take a walk in a rain without an umbrella (and preferably without shoes). Pay attention to how the water feels as it soaks you, flows around you.  Pay attention to how it runs down the road, down the trunk of the tree, see where it goes afterwards.  This is tremendously useful and I try to do it often!

 

Swimming in a lake or stream. Jumping in the water, and floating for a time, is a really fun way to embrace gwyar.  I have been combining this with kayaking–I kayak out to a secluded spot and then jump into the water for a bit.  It has really been great.  I’ve also been working to visit the many local swimming holes near this area!

 

Sitting with a flock of ducks.  If chickens epitomize an earthy and grounding being, the duck is a good representation of gwyar.  I like sitting with ducks a lot–they have a very different energy than chickens, and observing them can help teach the principles of flow.

 

Some Methods of Bringing Balance and Unity of Calas and Gwyar

A third possibility, of course, is that in order for equilibrium, you need both the energy of gywar and calas.  I have found that if I’m generally just so overwhelmed, feeling both ungrounded and unadaptable, the unification of these two elements in my life can really help me find my footing.  You can combine activities above together, or engage in activities that innately emphasize the unity of the two elements.  Here are a few of my favorites:

 

Playing in mud puddles. Playing in the mud should never be discounted as a fantastic method for seeking equilibrium.  We knew this well as children, but have often forgotten the most important truths as adults.  Wait for a good summer rain (it has been dry here, but I am waiting) and find a puddle in the field or abandoned dirt road somewhere–somewhere safe and clean.  And get on the oldest clothes you can, take off your shoes, and just jump in it. Or make your own mud puddle with the hose.  Make mud pies, just like when you are a kid.  This is a most healthy antidote to present day reality!

 

Natural Building. An alternative is to visit a natural building site and become one with the cob.  Natural building requires initial flow and wet materials that dry into strong structures.  Making some cob with the feet and the hands, and plastering it on there, is a great experience.

 

Frankfort Mineral Springs - Embracing Gwyar

Frankfort Mineral Springs – Embracing Gwyar

Visiting Springs.  Springs are another place where you can see the interplay and balance between gwyar and calas in a natural setting. I have been visiting springs all over Western PA since moving here a year ago. I recently went camping at Raccoon Creek State Park and had the delight of visiting the Franklin Mineral Springs while I was there. It was really a cool spring–completely unexpected–with heavy content of iron (I shared a photo of it above). It had a basin where the water flowed so cold–I dunked my head in it, soaked myself up in it, and observed the flow of this spring. It was awesome! What I have found about these natural springs is that, at least here, they really do represent the intersection of gwyar and calas–the flow interacting with the stability of the stone.  This particular spring resonated strongly with balance of the elements: the stone where the water issued forth and the basin for stability, the ever-flowing gush of the water from the stones, and the mineral content in the water itself representing the unification of the elements.

 

Stillness. Stillness of the body and of the mind is another way to embrace the intersection of gywar and calas.  We spend so much of our time running around, dashing to and fro, and never really just being present in the moment, in ourselves. After the AODA’s practices, I like to sit in stillness in nature, quiet my mind, and simply be present in the world around me. This work requires us to both physically stop moving and be more stable, but also flow into the moment and simply observe what comes. It is powerful and profound!

 

Dancing: The principle of dance is all about the intersection of the stable earth and other objects with flow, and participating in some dance yourself (even if you aren’t very good, it doesn’t matter, go do it in the forest or wild areas where nobody can see you). I like to do this with ribbons or flags or something to even more appropriately attend to the energies of flow.

 

Throwing Pots. Any art forms that encourage the intersection of calas and gwyar are useful activities for seeking equilibrium. I have found that pottery, for example, is one of the best ones (for reasons similar to natural building/cob building, above). The intersection of the water to shape the clay, and then the application of heat, offers powerful spiritual lessons and opportunities.

 

As we all navigate these difficult times, I hope that the above material will provide you with some strategies for seeking equilibrium.  Blessings upon your path and journey!

 

Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible) April 11, 2015

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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!