Sunday, September 13, 2015

Our Strawbale Workshop Experience

This will undoubtedly go down as one of the best weeks of my life. 

I have sat down four separate times to write this post. Each time, I try to think of that week in the woods of Vermont and how I could possibly fit all that we experienced into one succinct post. I have realized that it will never happen, there is no neat and easy way to convey it all- it's much better just to share what I can before the memories fade even more.

Dan and I headed off for our belated honeymoon the third week of July. We initially heard about the workshop through tiny house channels. Continued research and much discussion led us to the conclusion that if we do build a long term home on the ground, it will be strawbale. Not only is this form of "alternative" building more readily accepted by zoning, codes, and towns in general, but it is very efficient, stable, and - despite popular belief- fire retardant. I especially loved the depth of the walls and what happens around doors and windows. It is also very satisfying to know it's 100% organic (not created with chemicals) material that is keeping us insulated. I highly recommend some research on strawbale houses if you like the idea of efficiency, but maybe can't go quite as tiny as us.

I think by the end of this rambling post that it would be quite evident, but I will open with the obvious anyway:

 If you have a chance to participate in one of Andrew Morrison's Strawbale workshops- DO IT!
 Re-arrange your schedule, work to make it happen! It is beyond WORTH IT!

It's too hard to believe, now, that I almost didn't want to go when the time came. We had paid in full nearly 8 months before, and it had started to feel like one of those events that would just never get here. I also felt guilty about leaving the business idle for a week- so early on in it's development. But, as the days neared and we reviewed our DVDs, my excitement was renewed. This was our honeymoon, damnit, so I was going to set the rest of life aside for one little week and ENJOY it!

Ahhh labels and favorite!

We arrived at the newly carved out homestead in the early afternoon. After enjoying the last hour of absolutely gorgeous green hills and far off blue mountains, we wound our way down a small road. A little sign and silver star balloon hung from the mailbox with a cheery message of “Welcome Straw-Balers!”

We drove slowly up the steep dirt driveway, and I let out an audible gasp as I caught sight of the building we would be working on. It was an absolutely stunning exposed timber frame structure, a simple rectangular shape, and perhaps 600 square feet. The timbers that served as support pillars were easily 5 feet around or more. Every massive joint was hand carved and crafted to work in harmony with the curves and sways of each unique log. The two seasons before, they had cut and prepped all the timbers right from their own land; they hosted a timber frame building workshop to get most of the structure up. Our hosts, Tara and Tyler, actually finished the last of it on their own. I cannot fathom how mentally challenging (perseverance!) it must have been, let alone the sheer physical challenges of just two people moving massive timbers.

We continued up the winding drive, squeezing past a large RV and a second smaller travel camper. We exchanged looks, both thinking the same thing...are we the only ones who decided to tent out? We soon learned that the large RV was the permanent home of a pair that had been traveling the US for years! And the second camper was once the home of our hosts before they built their first small structure, and current home, on the land. For this particular week, it would be the luxurious quarters of our instructor, Andrew. Aside from one last minute attendee who had lent out her camping gear without knowing a spot would open up- every last participant tented out on the land. Our kinda people already!

We climbed to the top of the driveway which made a large loop around a huge pile of cut logs. Setting up on a steep knoll, over looking the land, was the cute tiny strawbale house (about 250 sq ft!) that Tyler and Tara call home. No one appeared to be around, just another car or two. Then, suddenly, an agile, fast, firey red-head came bounding down what could scarcely be called a natural stone stair case. Tyler greeted us with warmth and ease. I liked him right away, he had a soft spoken way of communicating, but his eyes churned with a fierce tenacity. He instructed us to tent out wherever we pleased and reminded us that this first night was still “fend for yourself”.

We chose a spot tucked into the tree line and began setting up. As people arrived we exchanged our first awkward hellos and basic facts. We began collecting rocks and building a small fire pit as night fell. I imagined we would be sitting and watching that little fire several nights that week, but it was to be the first and last time we used it. Every night to follow was spent conversing, forging bonds, drinking and merrily singing along to acoustic covers played by Andrew...and he took a lot of fun requests too! I really thought this kind of thing was dead and gone, something only staged in movies, a group coming together over a fire simply to enjoy one another's company.

Tiny Straw-bale house dance party! Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen

The first morning began with a phenomenal breakfast spread; so many lovely options all excellently prepared by Tara. She took the time to converse with each of us, via email, in the months leading up to the workshop. She accommodated vegans, dairy free, gluten free, nut free, you name it. While Tyler helped and managed the baling with the rest of us, Tara took on the chore of feeding us every meal that week. There were 20 of us- and we worked our asses off all day every day- I mean it. 

We had a little one come visit and add some art. Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen
Every one of us was soaked with sweat, covered in dust, straw, and other filth, and absolutely spent at the end of each day. So there might as well have been about 40 normal people eating. I can't speak for everyone, but Dan and I ate like machines....king machines. With every single meal, we were presented a large white board menu with cute doodles and messages of kindness and thanks, along with a break down of every last item on the table. I wouldn't call myself a food snob, but my expectations are high. I've waited tables at several high end restaurants and everything in between. For me to lift an eyebrow, let alone exclaim over and over how good something tastes, is really a rare thing. I think I did it at least twice every single day that week. BRAVO, TARA!!!

The lovely lady herself! Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen

Our Hosts placing the first bale!
Is there a word for platonic love of another couple? Because if there is...after the first day I fell in {insert word here} with Tyler and Tara. There are so, so many reasons- which I will touch upon- but the meticulous labeling is what really iced the cake for me. I am an anal organization freak to the core. My heart fluttered with pure joy as I entered the work space and saw that they had created a neat storing place for every last tool we would need, complete with a traced shape and written label. My favorite way to quietly say- don't eff it up, people! And we were all tickled pink by the purely honest labels placed on foods as well...”of unknown strength” was one of my favorite phrases...I think it might have been everyone's favorite. It was on a bottle of hot sauce I believe...but I could be wrong- the days of amazing food became a blur after day three. ;)

After a wonderful breakfast, we started with an ice breaker exercise to learn everyone's name. Then we headed up for a quick tour of Tyler and Tara's current home- the tiny strawbale house. Of course I loved it immediately. It was two of my favorite things in one: minimal and mega efficient. After a spontaneous, tiny straw bale house dance party to the tune of “Brick House” (which we all re-worked to include the words- she's a STRAW.....bale-HOUSE!) we headed to the work site.

Andrew opened up with a brief lecture, covering key points about the framing and structure as it stood on day one. He then proceeded to tell us his favorite cautionary tales, some heard, some actually witnessed through his decades in the construction business, but all gave us the heebie-jeebies. I found myself involuntarily cringing and clutching whatever body part he described being mangled. We all had our minds on safety after that. Day one was spent mostly checking the moisture level of bales, trimming and shaping them to fit as needed, and laying the first few courses of bales along the walls. At the end of that first day, we had about 6 feet of straw bale wall.

The days run together in my mind, but what I remember most vividly, and what will endure is the feeling of camaraderie and team effort. It was amazing to join forces with a group of like minded people and watch a common goal be achieved. I have never really enjoyed group projects. My experience was usually school related, and I was often quickly pegged as the one that would pick up the slack...because I wasn't about to get anything less than an “A” just because of some lazy dead beats. I did not get that feeling here. Everyone worked with enthusiasm and gumption. There were no cliques, and no job too low. We made jokes, talked in silly voices, and broke out into song more times than I could count. For the rest of my life, when I hear: “YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD WITH PRAYER!” I will smile and think of that week. Andrew and TK took a timeout from the work and belted out this song intro with such fervor that I felt I was almost at the real performance.

Each day, Dan and I worked (separately-weird I know- given it was our honeymoon, haha) with different groups of people on different aspects of the project. Through this, we really got to know the people we were working with, and we have forged some incredible friendships that will last our full lives. It was truly amazing to be with such an eclectic yet unified group. Our backgrounds and jobs were wildly diverse, but our interests and passions all converged to create some incredibly charged and fruitful conversations. I learned so damn much that week, and not just about how to build with straw bales. I gained back some of my faded passion, conviction, and hope. Even months after the workshop has ended, we all continue to exchange emails and talk about life's greater lessons to us all.

Each day was solid progress disguised as loud chaos. I'm sure each of us had at least one moment where we needed to step away. Mine came about mid week. We were almost done with all the bales, and getting ready to “sew” the walls together, but there were certain nooks and crannies that needed shaping via chainsaw or weed whacker...the noise pollution of three chainsaws, two nailing guns, skill saws, grinders, and the scariest weed whacker I've ever seen- finally pushed me to the edge. I had to step away from the work for a few minutes.

Ohh those massive gorgeous doors!!!
When I returned, I witnessed a small exchange between Tyler and Tara that made my heart swell and my respect grow in folds. In the midst of this noisy chaos, Tara wrapped her arms around Tyler and they locked eyes. They sweetly asked each other how they were doing, how the day was going. They politely and genuinely thanked one another for all the work each was doing, shared a smile and a kiss, and then moved along with the day. It became clear that this was a solid couple; a pair that had faced some seriously trying times together (a two year bicycle & camping tour overseas to name one) and made it through to the other side, still holding hands and admiring one another. I have been through serious relationships that have failed, and the greatest lesson I walked away with was the absolute need for open and honest communication. To be strong as a couple, not only is communication necessary, each must recognize and respect the abilities and contributions the other has made. It was clear that Tyler and Tara had embraced and mastered this. Yep, they're grade A Awesomeness in my much {insert word} love for them! ;)
It just wouldn't be us without a pic like this..

Speaking of incredible people, I soon learned that every one in the whole damn group was amazing! There is simply too much to say! So I will mention just a couple to illustrate the vastly varied group. Ashley brought the calm open energy and gratitude of a healer, while Christopher the Compost King, eater of only raw veggies and fruits, proclaimer of scent free pooh (no one challenged him on , brought Tyler and Tara's cold, sad compost pile to a full a thriving 120 degree mound of LIFE.

Playing some Polish horseshoes before dark..

Then there was Rob, with the infectious laugh and a need to learn from absolute step zero. He wanted to learn to play guitar so he figured he would learn to build one first. He brought the guitar he built- GORGEOUS- and now he is learning to play. Martin brought a variety of noisemakers including “jaw harps”. It's a strange little instrument that rests on your teeth and lips to create different twangs. There is a more refined name, but of course the backwoods terminology is what sticks. (See what I did there? :p)

Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen

Martin on the jaw harp. Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen

I will never forget that spontaneous, entrancing...cosmic collaboration between Martin, Owen, and Andrew one night by the fire. Owen laid down a soft unfettered path with his djembe while Andrew's fingers gently danced in and out of broken chords on the guitar and converged perfectly with the strange but alluring metallic notes that seemed to spring forth from Martin's mouth, coiling and bouncing their way up into the night sky. Every one of us went silent, completely drawn into that musical moment.

Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen
On our last full day, something amazing happened at lunch too. Out of nowhere, one by one, we all took a moment to express our gratitude toward everyone and everything we had gained that week. It wasn't scripted or evoked by anyone. It simply started with one of us giving thanks, and others responding in kind. I wish the whole world felt this kind of acceptance and comfort to speak as openly as we all did that day.

Dan and Martin breaking up the 'mud'. Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen

Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen
Shall I go on? I certainly could, but then this post would never get published! Suffice it to say, we had an unbelievable time and did not want it to end. The last Sunday also happened to be Dan's birthday. I was really overwhelmed and greatful by how easily everyone jumped on board to do a little something for him. After much heckling, he agreed to go be the first to shower that day. Once he left the work site, I immediately began putting together a card from scraps of the project. A large piece of tar paper served as the card stock. Tape and some spray paint made the stenciled letters and pieces of materials were used to create funky patterns. Everyone gathered round to watch, help, and admire. Then everyone took a moment to write a nice message. Tara took her dessert option for that night and added candles for Dan. She also bought some balloons! She is such a sweet person!

Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen

I also fashioned him a crown from scraps and empty cider cans. Once dark fell, we emerged from behind the solar shed singing and presenting him with his card, crown, and candles. What I didn't expect was how so many of the group came up and genuinely wished him a great birthday, and a few even gave him gifts- Martin, he will cherish that jaw harp forever! It felt like a family gathering, and as I stood there looking around at us all laughing, smiling, exchanging jokes and hugs- I couldn't believe the contrast to the previous Sunday. How could all of this happened in just seven days?!

Photo Cred: Tyler Kellen

That last Sunday afternoon we stayed a little later to help clean up. A lot of us did. I don't think we were the only ones wishing it wasn't over. We said goodbye to Tyler and Tara last. They were still working- feeling renewed by how damn much got done in 7 days I imagine. They came bounding out of the shop, covered in mud, smiles beaming just as bright as the first day. We exchanged big hugs and promises to visit each other in the near future.

Muddin' time

The way Tara blew kisses more from her eyes than her mouth, and the genuine warm squeeze from Tyler lingered as we headed home. Within moments of leaving, tears began to fall. I honestly think I am still processing what happened to me. I felt so fulfilled, renewed, happy, hopeful. Each day the news and media mows us down with the stories of how awful people can be toward one another, other creatures, or the planet. Yet, people can also be so very amazing, compassionate, generous... and I can't believe I can call more than a few of them my good friends. To the members of the Arlington Vermont strawbale workshop: Thank you for all you inspired, taught, and gave to Dan and I. We will never forget that week and we miss you all!!!

Thanks for reading!

A lot of booze went into the making of this straw-bale structure.

And many a good shoe had it's last run...


1 comment:

  1. Wow! It's true. All of it! The energy from that week is still in my blood and still driving me forward to bring this energy that we shared out into the world! Looking forward to the reunion.