In Praise of Inefficiency

by Kimchi Rylander

Unplugging from consumer culture, living simply and building community . . . it’s not an easy path! As I review my past ten years here at Earthaven, I’ve discovered that letting go of efficiency may be a shortcut to village togetherness and happiness.

I owe so much gratitude to the Tribal Condo, one of the earliest timber framed, hand built structures at Earthaven and a place that I call home. While the original builders gained much needed skill, building with lumber hand harvested from the land, the house has minimal plumbing, salvaged leaky windows, and no inside insulation between floors. In essence, it’s a house that needs constant maintenance and care. In 2001, I took a leap of faith and bought into the 1000 sq ft “apartment” house.

In the early years, I wondered if I had made a poor decision. Clearly, this house was inefficient and likely to decay sooner than other homes. However, as Suchi (my house partner) and I began to maintain and repair it, we noticed how each episode offered a tremendous opportunity to connect and relate within the village.

One year, our roof blew off when a strong wind funneled down the mountain and pulled out purlins that had only been nailed (not screwed) in. Torrents of rain came down, and all the residents of our home crawled out on the roof at two o’clock in the morning to pull the tin back on. The next day, villagers offered to provide lodging for us and repair the damage. It was awesome how the community helped us through our “disaster!”

While efficiency offers a way to make the most of the available energy, time, and money we have on hand, it doesn’t always maximize opportunities for relationships in a community. Take a look at Nature: at one level it’s very inefficient, but at another level, it provides myriad opportunities to weave a tapestry of dense interdependency within a locale.

“If a house is built too well, so efficiently that it is permanent and refuses to fall apart, then people do not have a reason to come together. Though the house stays together, the people fall apart and nothing gets renewed. Coming together … to do communal tasks gracefully—tasks that a machine could do in an instant anonymously—or to repair rickety houses ensures the very smiley togetherness so missing in the pre-planned, alienated lives of modern civilization.” (Secrets of the Talking Jaguar: Memoirs From the Living Heart of a Mayan Village, by Martín Pretchel.)

Suchi and I chuckled after discovering yet another item to be fixed in the house. “Please pass the bottle of inefficiency,” I decided. “I’d like to sprinkle some more of that on my plate of life.”

Kimchi Rylander is co-Firekeeper, and longtime member of Earthaven Ecovillage. An artist, deep ecologist, and permaculture activist, she is currently building delicious new cultural topsoil beginning in “her own backyard.”

Natural Building Family Camp, August 24-29

Natural Building CAMP!

Natural Building School Interns and Friends

Natural Building School Interns and Friends

Well, well, well! It’s been many a year since Culture’s Edge at Earthaven hosted a natural building camp. But this August (24-29), we once again are offering a full six-day adventure into the world of cob and its sophisticated cousin, compressed earth block.

Both cob and the blocks are started with the same basic ingredients—a good, clay-y soil, and sand. Cob, however, also has a significant amount of straw crushed into it and is put on quite wet in cobs, or loaves. Compressed earth blocks are made without additional water or straw, and often a small amount (ten percent) of Portland cement is used in the mix.

The other big difference is that the neat rectangular blocks are made by a big machine requiring mechanical power, and are set in place with an earthen mortar, whereas cob can be made by a pair of folks and a tarp (although it can also be mixed several other ways) and requires no mortar at all.

Block

Since cob is a basically seamless material, the way the molecules adhere to each other depends especially on the water and the straw in the mix. Ideally, the soil is soaked in water ahead of time to allow the molecules to fully absorb the water and become as sticky as possible. The straw acts like a crisscross of fibrous “nails” that interweave the cob mix and make it the most solid of natural building materials. Another similar earthen material is adobe brick, which is a hand-made version that is pressed wet into forms. Adobe brick thus takes significant drying time to use and is probably in its best setting in dry climates.

At this year’s Natural Building Camp, participants will be working on a cob and block tower for the new Village Arts Building at Earthaven. The recently built rubble trench foundation with its two-foot stacked stone base wall will take a couple of rounds of cob and then be continued with the earth blocks.

Village Arts Studio

Village Arts Building

The Camp will begin with a comprehensive tour of natural and green buildings at Earthaven, featuring a wide variety of traditional and experimental techniques. Our experienced staff and natural building interns will be on hand to demonstrate, teach and guide participants through the basics of hands-on natural building. There will be plenty of time for questions and discussion, plus all the good things about summer camp—group meals, walks in the woods, dips in the creek, and starry nights around the campfire.

As the famous cob builder, Becky Bee, explains in the documentary First Earth, there’s nothing like natural building to bring people of all skill levels together, creating the very sense of community we seek by the process we use to do it. We’re very excited to be reintroducing this delightful approach to housing ourselves and our activities to the public. Folks are welcome to sign up for the entire six day camp or to come just for the weekend. More information is available at www.culturesedge.net.

Prevent Birds from Striking Windows

Our passive solar home--Photo by Caroline Williford

Millions of birds are killed each year when they strike windows of homes and offices. I used to worry about cats killing birds, but window strikes are a significantly bigger problem. Here at Earthaven, our passive solar homes have large, south-facing windows that can be lethal for wild birds.

I was distraught last spring when a bluebird father and the fledgling he was feeding both hit our building at high speed. I tried out a simple, inexpensive technique that was described on David Sibley’s website, and it has virtually eliminated the problem of birds striking our windows.

Just get a flourescent yellow highlighter and draw a grid on the inside of the windows. It will be virtually invisible to humans, but for birds it breaks up the reflection that otherwise induces them to fly into the windows at top speed.

Please try this solution and let me know if it works for you. (It is best to apply the highlighter when the window isn’t too dusty–otherwise the grid is more visible.) Please comment if you have had any luck with other methods of reducing bird strikes.