When it rains, a hat keeps us comfortable and dry, and when the sun is glaring down, a hat keeps our head cool. Our straw bale house was going to get a green meadow hat. It would absorb the rain, keep the house cool, and look awesome. We were inspired by the ancient sod roofs of Scandinavia. In 2015 my daughter and I took my mom to the northern tip of Norway to see the midnight sun (a bucket list item). We did see the midnight sun shining bright and nearly white on the quiet fjord. We also saw sod roofs on the little summer cottages, and I loved the untidy riot of wildflowers and the bird family nesting up there. That image is my hope and dream for our sod roof.
Last week, we had seven cubic yards of 1-2” little stones delivered. Since then, I have been shoveling them by hand – with the help of three amazing folks here on Workaway - into trenches for our French drains. Shoveling stones is probably the lowliest of the lowest labors in the panoply of humble human tasks. Prison labor comes to mind. Why not rent a little tractor with a bucket to shove the rocks in?
Why would a person actively choose to shovel stones?
Some things just go so fast. The straw bale walls of the little studio went up in four and a half days, thanks to the hard work of an enthusiastic group of folks who came to our workshop, and the able leadership of Michael. After having spent months organizing the workshop so that I could attend one without traveling to the other side of the country, I was ironically unable to participate because I was still recovering from COVID. Luckily, it all happened in our backyard. Every day, once or twice, I would go out, sit in a chair for a half hour or so, and take in all the activity before needing to go back to rest. In this way, along with conversations and lots of photos, I got the gist of what happened.
One classic introduction to growing mushrooms at home is a workshop on inoculating logs with shiitake spawn. Shiitake are, of course, eminently desirable, and after all what could be simpler than leaving a log in some shady spot in your back yard for a year or two before you go out and pick off a nice little basketful of beautiful round and speckled mushrooms?
In 2013 I wrote: I would like to take a course at the Agriculture extension school so I can become certified to grow and sell them. Not as a huge business, but say on the side with Kate’s business. Kate was a farmer at our local farmer's market who at that time grew her vegetables in people’s yards, one of which was ours. This statement is then followed by a story about how I tried to grow said mushrooms – the basis of my budding business – on waste materials with little effort. I was encouraged by the expansive writings of Paul Stamets, the undisputed Guru of modern American mushroom growing.
At the time when I started to try to grow mushrooms in the 2000’s, the only books easily available were by the mushroom guru and genius Paul Stamets. Of these, I read “Mycelium Running” and “Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms”. Both of them are hundreds of pages long, pretty dense textbooks, in which the how-to chapters were somewhat vague on the details (although there is no lack of grand vision for the role of mushrooms in saving the planet). .The only other written source of information was when you actually ordered mushroom spawn. In the 2000’s you could order mushroom spawn from two places in the United States, Paul Stamets’ shop Fungi Perfecti, and Field and Forest in Wisconsin. Luckily, Field and Forest products came with pretty good practical instructions. That’s how we knew how to inoculate those shiitake logs from the earlier letter. But there was really not a good, practical book.
Seven years later they are starting to come in! So exciting. Thanks once again for those logs!! :)
This was the email I sent to my father-in-law on October 24, 2016, seven years after he had brought us a pile of 3 foot logs from a freshly cut ash all the way from his woods in Utica, New York (we lived in the Boston area).
It is said that a little bit of knowledge is worse than ignorance, presumably because you think you can make decisions and do things that you don’t quite have the insight for. Something similar can be said for having a little bit of skill. Some people, once they have a smidge of skill, start to feel confident. They start to think about what you could do with those new skills, dreaming up awesome projects. Then they start on one of them … and it just turns out to be way more complicated and take much longer than they had thought it was going to. That is how I feel about our lovely straw bale studio - as lovely as it is.
It was the morning of May 21 and Mark and I were out at 7 AM. It was going to be hot, so we wanted to start early! With us were Mark’s friend Jeff Goldenson and his 8-year old daughter, Joya; Auyon Mukharji from the band Darlingside, with us for two weeks on workaway; Ari Okun; Kelly Vaillancourt and Dan Taylor from Templeton MA; Chris Monahan all the way from Rochester NY (go Chris!); Willie Crosby, Moo Butler and Emma Golden, all from Montague. Ezra Ward, from Woodsmith Forestry just down the road (also a workshop attendee) had agreed to lead the day. A fun group!
We did not find much online about the practicalities of raising a timber frame with a group of people. Yes, YouTube has some videos, mostly in fast motion, of people raising frames by themselves or with a group. We found these of mediocre use: the motion was too fast to follow, and key moments tended to be missing – like how do you get the extremely heavy plates (long posts that go lengthwise along the building) up on the bents (arches that go cross-wise); or how do you keep a bent from falling over once you have raised it but not secured the braces yet? So, we were happy to have Ezra with us! I am going to try to fill in some of those practical gaps in this letter.
We have an unusual mix of sheep - Santa Cruz/Shetland - and that means, we have an odd, weird, or rare and desirable, but in any case unknown, type of wool. Could be a great product. Maybe. I don't know; in starting out with wool and sheep, while I was not completely unprepared; I was completely naive. In 2019 and 2020 I made numerous spreadsheets about the costs of having sheep, processing wool, and the supposed income from selling yarn. All using real numbers: from a recent book on raising sheep with the costs of hay and grain; real costs of wool processing; and market-based estimates of sale prices. These miss costs of course, like the hundreds of dollars to buy materials for an electric fence set up. But more critically, none of them figured out the problem: how do you get your product to market and get that return??
An old tree in a forest plays many parts. It provides shade, oxygen, multiple habitats, food for fungi, browse and nectar for animals. Not to mention that a forest of trees together manages the local water and climate system by storing rainwater, evaporating water that falls as local rain, and moderating the temperature. At other end of the size spectrum, a tiny wasp also has multiple parts: she is a pollinator, a pest controller, and food for birds. Such is the way of nature – each part is multi-functional. In permaculture, we try to mimic that – each part of our garden or farm has multiple functions. Our chickens lay eggs, make compost, eat ticks when they are out in the pasture, and provide chicken companionship.
But what about tasks, our work? Can one task fulfill multiple functions? I never thought about it! But the other day, we stumbled upon a task that accomplished six things in one go. Wow, talk about efficiency!
A lot of this farming business has been pretty humbling – as a newbie farmer, we have seen lots of disappointments. Tree-lings we put in the ground that fail to thrive or die. Mushrooms that don’t grow or get moldy. Sheep wool that can’t be sold. Blueberries that get a disease and shrivel up. Oh dear.
But every now and again, there are small signs of improvement. As with those blueberries I just mentioned.
This month, we collected eggs from our very own chickens, and got them set up in our incubator to hatch in early March!
Kick off the summer with our weeklong Straw Bale Building Workshop!