I just got back from a weekend at Strawbale Studio, taking the Rocket Stove and Earth Oven workshop this last week, and the Roundpole Timber Framing workshop with Sylverleaf, gifted to us by her mother.
There are some things where you just need to do them to know you can do them, and this would be one of those. Like a lot of things we’ve fallen away from doing, building our own structures can garner a quality to it that makes it seem only able to be done within the realm of professionals. We forget that our Ancestors used to build their own homes from the ground on up. We disconnect from the understanding of knowing the land, and our place in helping to keep the trees, the forests, all of that healthy, by being collaborators with Them.
This is not to say I’m an overnight expert; hardly. What it does mean is that with very simple tools and techniques, what I have learned can empower me and mine to build a house. Given enough people, a community could raise several homes if we put our minds to it. A small build team supported by a community could do the same if there was need or desire for it.
That is part of the power of places like Strawbale Studio. You not only can learn the skills and get guidance on where to go from there, you understand in a real, in-person way that you can do these things. It goes from a conception or an idea of the thing, into hands-on experience with the skills and techniques with the tools and materials. It goes from feeling so far away, to very here.
I found myself at several times thinking, or saying aloud, “Oh wow. If we had land/space to build on, this could easily be a reality.” Every time I went to one of the classes, or watched the Roundwood Timber Framing DVD by Ben Law, I could feel the push that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir were giving us were actually able to be achieved. That the dream our family and friends have can quite readily become reality.
We were taught what kind of growth we needed to look for in our wood, and when seasoned vs. green wood was useful. With teams I helped to make roundwood joints that, with a bit of refinement, could hold up a roof or become a support beam. I learned how to use a sawhorse and draw knife to debark wood, and also to make square pegs into round pegs. After drilling out a hole and inserting the peg into or behind a joint, then splitting the peg and inserting a small wooden wedge into the peg, it would hold them together tight. All of these were simple building techniques that utilize the wood harvested around the place we were learning. I went to the chainsawing demo, because even though I do not currently own one, learning the basics of tree felling is a skill I may need. Granted, if I need a chainsaw I’ll be taking a safety course on that as Mark Angelini recommended.
There was a deep communication with the wood I was working with, and it’s not dissimilar from working with the body of an animal. After all, the tree’s bark is the ‘skin’, and the wood is the ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ of the tree. It once lived. Learning to work with a tree by shaping its with a chisel is a very different experience of that tree and working with its body, and its spirit. It’s similar to when I skinned a mole; it is one thing to work with an object in which leather is part of it, like a book cover or a drum, but a whole other thing entire to work with the skin before it becomes anything. Same with the wood before it becomes a mallet, a peg, or an a-frame.
I had a similar experience this last week in working with the rocket stoves and forming the earth oven. As with the previous workshop, I would catch myself thinking and saying “If we had land/space to build on, this could easily be a reality.” Sylverleaf and I have a few books on our shelves, one of which is the Cob Builder’s Handbook by Becky Bee, and we picked up The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linday Smiley, and Deanne Bednar. As part of the workshop we received a copy of Rocket Mass Heaters by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson. It’s one thing to read these books, and a whole other thing to experience their contents.
The books can only describe so well how good cob feels in your hands for making the earth oven, how the slip layer for insulation should feel and look. While I find it fairly easy to learn by sight, most of these things can only be learned by doing. For instance, I was having a really hard time visualizing how the dividing bricks between where the feedbox for the firewood is and the chimney were supposed to be put down. Seeing it done and helping to do it put it together made things click in a way I just couldn’t wrap my head around looking at the diagrams.
During the workshop on the second day I was the only person who took their shoes off to feel what the cob should feel like as you work it through the stages of adding water to the mix, which will be helpful when we do it outside in the spring or summer. After doing that, I can hardly blame the other folks. The cob was so cold my feet were aching till I put them near the rocket stove and scraped the mix off of my feet. It was a lesson in why cob is used for mass thermal storage, though.
I really, really wish we could have finished off the earth oven. From what I understand the drying process can take most or all of a day, depending on how big it is. All we would have had to do was apply the insulation and the plaster layer, and we could have started making bread or pizza. Albeit, since we made the earth oven at half scale, it would probably be more suited to breadsticks. When we go to make our own we’ll be putting down foundation for the first time, since the model we worked on we really couldn’t put down a foundation as our diagrams depicted and all work on forming it.
One of my big takeaways from the weekend was that we really can put our hands to making a new world with the things around us, and do so in a respectful manner with the Gods, Ancestors, and landvaettir. As with the coppicing, working with the materials around one’s home or locally sourced materials harvested with care worked very, very well for the work we were doing. Having actually seen Strawbale Studio’s full-size earth oven work, and what’s more, tasted the amazing pizza that came out of it, I appreciate the art of making it all the more.
As with the roundwood timber framing, what I deeply appreciate and enjoy about natural building materials is that working with them is not some locked-off secret no one can access. It’s the accessibility of the material and the building process that is really the key to it all. The natural building techniques and skills I have learned require relatively few tools, almost all of them simple ones. Most of the tools I was able to pick up for less than $100 all together. Some day I will commission or make my own. Especially when I sit and watch an episode of HGTV or DIY with the folks and see how much it takes to even remodel a kitchen using contemporary building measures. What galls me about watching these shows is how often the turnaround time comes for needing to gut them and remodel them. There are wattle-and-daub structures that still stand 600 years after their construction with relatively little input. With cob thatched roof homes, the thatching needs replacing every 20-30 years, but do not required reconstruction of whole sections of the home. The multigenerational aspect of working with the land, multigenerational homes and home ownership has been lost in going for materials that have built-in breakdown times, planned obsolescence, and we’re worse for it.
Othila or Othala presents the idea of odal land, ancestral land, and it is this concept that, in part, inspires me to learn and to pull together all these skills and to work with those in my family, clan, tribe, and with those in alliance with us. It is why I am looking at working with those already in the community and doing these things, and it is why I encourage folks to take the steps for making firm ties now. Putting our hands to crafting our own homes and things, or supporting those who do, strengthens our ties as community, and our resilience together. If you get the chance to do something like this, formally or informally, I would take the opportunity with zeal. If you’re not in the Michigan area, check around! More and more folks are engaging with natural home building, reskilling, and networking with those willing to learn.
If you are not sure where to start, I am putting together a post which will give a general start for folks to work with, including basic internet resources, books I have read or worked from, and video links to get started. There is a lot out there, so if you find or have done work from a source, let me know either in the comments section or by email, and I can add your recommendations to the list.