Every moment with Deanne offers a lesson. It is a part of her personal philosophy to take a moment to choose the right wording. Everywhere else in my life I have been taught the importance of efficiency, brevity, and a necessary flow of conversation. These are the things that make for a competent charisma, are they not? My time with Deanne has lessons within lessons, and they have me wondering at these “optimal” conversational characteristics. In communication, clarity and care are growing on me as what are truly important. Deanne and I are both teachers, and any good teacher knows that the most memorable lessons are the ones that didn’t go as expected. In the following post, I will explore three of those memorable lessons within lessons.
A Continuum of Natural Materials
This first class set the foundations of all the natural building classes to come. It dives into the polarities of architectural choice and sets each of these polarities on a spectrum: raw materials and processed ones, local materials and distant ones, low labor and high labor, etc.. Deanne has probably taught this exact class dozens (if not hundreds) of times, and yet we both stumbled into a conversation we did not expect. I have often thought of natural building in economic terms. With such a low embodied energy (a measurement of the energy expended in the retrieval, manufacture, and transportation of a good), much of the money exchanged in the construction of natural buildings (if any) goes to the local folks who personally helped on the project.
From this, we began to talk of another economic concept: externalities. When considering the cost of a construction project, it is rarely considered just how many fossil fuels went into the construction materials. Even in a LEED Certification this can only account for one or two points for or against a building’s score. Yet, as one can easily imagine, the materials can account for most of the environmental impact of a building (both in its construction and in its life cycle after construction is complete). For more detail about LEED certification and the environmental impact of buildings, I have an essay on the subject here. These externalities are difficult to measure, but have been measured before. However, one externality that is nearly impossible to measure is one’s sense of connection to the earth. Natural building can decrease one’s environmental footprint. It can directly benefit a local economy. It can protect one from rot, mold, fire, and HVAC bills. Still, we spend so much time of our lives in and around our homes (COVID-19 aside) that, surely, the presence of such a humble material must have positive benefits on one’s health, the diverse appearance of one’s neighborhood, and even the behaviors of local wildlife. Such was my first lesson within a lesson.
The Variability of Earth
In our second and fourth classes together, Deanne and I discussed the correct proportions of gravel, silt, sand, and clay in cob, mudbrick, and earthen plaster and how to identify this proper soil. The classes were quite straightforward, but the advantages of an outdoor classroom and hands-on learning opportunities certainly helped to make the classes memorable and engaging.
However, it was after we began to talk about the properties of clay that we each made discoveries of which we planned to make much use. Unfired clay is an essential part of each of the three aforementioned applications of natural building. When exposed to water, its near-microscopic platelets set (much like mortar sets bricks) the sand granules in place, forming a tiny wall within the material application. Fired clay has many uses, of course. It is a primary ingredient in conventional (or as I like to call them “convectional”) bricks and in ceramic pottery and plattery. Ceramics often involves a glazing process, an application of a tiny layer of glass to the outside of the work in question. This is because fired clay is porous (not great for a vase, cup, or mug designed to hold water).
This porous characteristic can actually be quite beneficial in certain contexts. Some water purifiers force unclean water through a ceramic filter with great pressure, and the pores of the ceramic are so small that many contaminants cannot travel through them. It was during this discussion that I was reminded of the olla, a wonderful ceramic contraption that, when buried next to the roots of plants, acts as a moderated water delivery system as the water condenses on the outside of the unfired pot. Deanne loved the idea. At this, Deanne mentioned a similar concept of passive water purification used traditionally in the Middle East to both filter and cool water. The pot in question ends in a tip to which point all the condensed water collects and drips into a container. I know little of the practicality of the passive purification pot, but I intend to learn more. What an adventure those little clay particles took us on!
Harvesting Stones and Sensibility
One of the wonderfully unexpected opportunities of the Strawbale Studio is the land itself. When I mentioned that I would like to see the process of selecting the stones to be used in the building of a foundation, Deanne immediately took me on a walking tour of the faraway arcane abundances of her little wilderland. As we journeyed, my poison ivy senses were tingling, and I pointed out great swathes of the stuff. In her usual fashion, Deanne hopped and bopped around them, thanking them for their existence. As we viewed two or three of the great stone walls that were made when former owners of the place used it for farming (the plowing kind, not the permaculture kind), Deanne pointed out some wild lemon balm. I, however, dared not to enter the patch of the citrus-smelling stuff, for once again, I tingled at the presence of poison ivy in much abundance.
It was at this point that Deanne told me of a visitor to the property who began a study on the land and the effects of climate change at that time, he mentioned that one way he could track this change is by the increasing presence of poison ivy, which prefers a warmer climate. Despite my fear and friendship to those three mitten-shaped leaves, this new knowledge surprised me. Many of these little changes may go under our radar, but poison ivy certainly will not escape mine! While I am not sure I’m so happy to have learned this lesson within a lesson, it certainly is memorable.