Hello, Tony here! This past weekend Emily and I had the pleasure of attending a work party at a developing site. We heard about the event through a fellow named Erik, whom we met at the San Diego Permaculture convergence. He was filming the whole shebang, and hopefully that footage will be available in time. This guy is a big personality, and seems to have some big dreams for Permaculture and changing his corner of the world in southern California. It is exciting when talking with him, because change just seems so DO-able. He is one who has the energy, the ideas, and perhaps most importantly, a huge web of personal and professional friends. More and more often I am seeing that it takes people working together to get great things done. Eric was able to wrangle Emily and I, and about 35 other folks into attending this Strawbale party over the course of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
We drove from our Palomar Mountain hideout Friday morning through the Cleveland National Forest to the 8 interstate. Just over the crest of the San Diego mountains is the sunny area where the forest blends into the desert and oak trees grow next to creosote bushes and cacti. We were within three miles of Mexico, passing numerous border patrol SUV’s as we passed through the small outpost of Boulevard, CA. The site was past the town, hidden in a green valley surrounded by a mini Joshua Tree National Park. You can explore it for yourself on their website: http://www.libertyadvance.org/ On a previous visit Emily and I explored the many caves and crevices in the hills of decomposing granite surrounding the property. I am still healing from a recent hip dislocation and the feeling of crawling on rocks again was extremely freeing.
Our purpose there was work on the new kitchen which is being constructed in the straw-bale style. The property, Liberty Advance, is a yoga retreat center that ” embraces both the traditional and the cutting edge of wisdom, technology, and lifestyle.” Currently, and I believe in large part due to Erik, they are embracing Permaculture. Strawbale structures are a traditional building style that use technologies from the earth of straw and clay. The thick straw walls have a high insulation value, while the earthen clay plaster/mortar is fire retardant, locally available, and extremely durable while maintaining a beautiful natural look. As with all earthen buildings, natural construction materials lend in variety and organic differences.
Emily and I stayed for three days, sleeping the two nights in the dormitory of the event center (when you enter the main property the event center stares you down with a giant pair, or trio really, of Buddha’s eyes). The framing of the kitchen was wooden and was built with the help of a local contractor, friendly to the cause. Our job as volunteers was to assist with the earth and straw portion of the structure. The first day we stomped in a mud pit, re-hydrating and mixing up the dried clay. Saturday the party really got underway. With the help of many hands we moved clay around the property. I do mean hands because shoveling thick clay is an effort in futility (do you ever remember stepping in a mud puddle and finding your shoe missing from your foot?) We heaved clay into the tractor bucket and moved it into a pit much closer to the building and once again danced and mixed, adding water to turn the thick sludge into a thinner slip material. I found it amazing how if you build a mud pit, children will come out of the hills to dunk themselves in it. In retrospect it was foolish to do the “work” when the kids will gladly do the same task as play. One father kept telling his son “no” only to finally give in and see the great joy on his son’s face. I have been told several times in past months that sometimes the children can help us adults see the simple truths, and this was one of those times.
We learned how to make cob as well, an extremely versatile material made from clay, sand, and straw. We used it to fill holes and irregularities in the strawbale walls. Making cob was literally a dance between two people, a tarp, and a pile of sand, clay and straw. Kind of like Irish step dancing, or maybe Russian. Emily and I were especially excited about this step as we want to build a cob oven one day, and perhaps even whole buildings out of the material. Cob makes me think of Hobbit houses.
Other jobs included cutting and sewing haybales to correct sizes, dunking them in the clay mortar, hauling the bales to the wall, positioning them, and filling gaps with cob. There was lots and lots of slathering going on, many thoughts of cake batter and remarks about chocolate pudding.
The day went on in an extremely muddy fashion. At events like these people come to help in exchange for the ability to learn a new skill, so much of the day is spent learning and teaching. The progress can be slow, but it is made up for by the amazing spread of information. The building itself is organic, but so is the amazing way that knowledge grows. You might learn a task, say cutting strawbales to size, then find yourself teaching it to the next person ten minutes later; the chain of learning happens extremely quickly. Everyone rotates and gets a chance to experience all the phases of building. And of course, the property owners get the labor out of the deal.
As the day or weekend goes on everyone learns together about the process, and when you work with earth, there are lots of variables to learn that will differ on every site. How does the clay react to water? How much sand is in it? How wet do we make it? How hot is it today, how humid? Is the straw long or short? All of these factors and more are important and will effect the difficulty of work and the flow of the day. As the workshop progressed we all learned the properties of the materials and could easily begin to make judgments to help the process along: “This clay is to dry, let’s water it down so it sticks to the bales better” and so on.
Throughout the workshop Emily and I met many people. I was amazed that so many came to see or help with the building. I thought that I was part of this fringe movement, and while that may be true, it is obvious that word is spreading and knowledge is growing. Every one of the people I met shared our desire to change our world for the better, recognized that the path our country has been walking this past half a century cannot be sustained much longer. Everyone was excited to learn how to use the resources offered abundantly by the earth to minimize our dependence on energy intensive petroleum products, or other specialty products; in this case by using straw in place of the “pink stuff”, clay for mortar and paint, and glue and fasteners and so on and on. I was consistently impressed by the excitement and drive of the people in the San Diego Permaculture Movement. Many might not claim to be part of a “movement” as Erik, Emily and myself would, yet they are all worried for the future, and passionate about doing what they can to make this land a better place for heath, beauty, and simplicity’s sake. And then there are the people who do see it as a movement, or the way; the excitement coming from this group of minds is intoxicating, partly the reason why Emily and I are writing this blog at all. Phew!….OK… I got a bit caught up again just there. At any rate it was very refreshing to meet so many like minds and be re-energized by the camaraderie.
When we left, our muscles were sore, our skin dark (Emily’s red), and all our clothes dirty. I had had great conversation with three dozen thoroughly excited people, and making many connections. I am sure I will meet many of these minds again. We ate a few really splendid and wholesome meals, (that’s really what this is all about anyways) and played music. I even got to soak in the site’s hot tubs. The project has a ways to go, and we will likely be back to help again soon