I had the wonderful pleasure of taking my daughter away with me for 2 days to Knowlesville, New Brunswick this past weekend. The Fall colours were mind-blowing and at times when we crossed a ridge, my driving knees would go weak with awe at the gradation of colours. Nature gets very showy at this time of year and I feel so blessed to be able to enjoy it in one of the most magnificent places in the world.
There is nothing so awesome to me than hitting the top of a ridge and seeing nothing but trees, trees and more trees. Central New Brunswick has little to clutter up it’s beauty but a few choice farms and fields of harvested food peppered with livestock on it’s landscape. There is no industry, few gas stations and fewer factory farms. It feels like Vermont, only about 200 years ago!
Our chosen destination had a few purposes. I’d chosen to take my daughter away before my husband and I leave Canada for a warmer climate for the next 6 months. I also wanted to visit the Knowlesville Art and Nature Centre and my new friends Tegan and Leland, educators, natural builders and off-grid homesteaders. I wanted to connect with the people that I’m working to become.
When we arrived at the straw-bale constructed home, our hosts had let us know that they would be attending a birthday party nearby and that we should just go on in, settle ourselves and then go in search of children’s voices to join them at the bon fire celebration. Once I entered their magnificent home and cozied in next to the fire after the 3.5 hour drive, from Saint John, it took a lot to tear myself back outside into the brisk Fall air.
I felt myself take in the walls with awe and wonder. Most of the walls were finished with a white lime wash, while others still had their “rough coat” only where some bits of straw were visible in the corners. I was very thankful that I got to observe the living phases of a natural building on these more exposed walls. It was like observing everything that I had studied about natural building thus far.
The walls felt warm, insulating, enveloping and they seem to lower my more churned up city psyche and bring it down several notches. My gut was smiling into the roots of my being. It confirmed how much I’ve craved this feeling full time in my own home. The post and beam construction spoke to a solidity and master craftsmanship that made me almost weep with the detail and care. My woman’s heart felt love and beauty carved in each male and female joinery. This home was an artful rending. My soul rejoiced!
Each window provided a seat for one of the four children that I later observed reading or napping in the warmth of the sunlight. The lights were few and remained off much of the time due to the desire to conserve the solar power stored in the bank of batteries and so often you’d feel drawn to the deeply magnificent linseed oil sealed windows to see or read something more clearly. Beauty and activity abounded by the portals of light.
I loved how each wall curved in the most feminine way from the surrounding straw bale shape making the window that much more accentuated. The ledges so wide and inviting that a bowl of fresh picked Quince, a Russian Doll, the ingredients to make sourdough bread and necessary travel books, lanterns and a hat all graced the ample surfaces. Posies from a day gone bye dropped the seeds of potential for next year’s planting.
I was truly besotted by every detail. So much love, meaning and tenderness went into this more than 3,500 square foot dwelling. I was captivated to such a degree that it was like falling deeply in love. I could not wait to meet my hosts!
Tegan and Leland were both the most generous, talented and loving individuals that I might ever have had the pleasure to meet. Their home was a tapestry of muted children’s voices, the straw bale walls seemed to absorb and then exhale their calls for their mother or the 8 month-old baby’s mewling in the early morning shortly after the near light of dawn.
Both Leland and Tegan chose to build their house on a 4 foot poured concrete foundation given the height of this buxom timber frame structure. Each floor above rose in a slightly smaller proportion allowing for the slope of the roof and the load bearing posts and beams. My daughter and I were on the top floor in the loft, just below the ladder to the pinnacle which is “tree-house” sweet spot of the home. What an awesome place to play, sleep and marvel at the world from above the surrounding treetops.
The bath had a traditional four claw tub and a humanure toilet. I’d read extensively the practice of bucket pooping, but I’d never personally sprinkled sawdust onto urine or excrement until this weekend. I was sure that my olfactory senses would balk, however, I only noticed a mild earthy-like odour that smelled very much like an early day in Spring, just alive and healthy without wasting precious drinking water. Leland let me know that the compost from this culmination of organic materials created the richest of soils about every 3 years. I was so excited to have lived everything I’d studied in books and watched hours of Youtube videos about natural/off-grid building.
We chatted for hours over freshly pressed apple cider from the apples in their yard, or warm milk from their family’s jersey cow with a dash of organic molasses. Yum! Tegan and Leland informed me that their house is powered by 30 year old solar panels that the Reagan administration had done away with during the oil and gas boon in support of the petrochemical giants. Some unassuming fellow in Maine had the foresight to buy them up and sell them to other off-grid-ers for a reasonable cost.
Tegan mentioned that they did have back up wind power for November and December when sunlight is in short supply, however, one day after stepping out of the bath, during an ungodly storm, she heard the wind rip into hollow beside their house and watched with horror as all the blades of her windmill got blown to smithereens, scattering like toothpicks across the gnarly landscape. She said that someone had kindly donated a new kit, but that they’d been so busy, of recent, to have gotten around to installing it yet.
As we got into the territory of She-Bear Construction, Leland said that he was blown away by the recent surge of women builders. He said that women were adding a real artistry to their homes with coloured glass bottles in transoms over the door to river stones in the shower or hand-made tiles for back splashes. He said that they all seem to want round homes! In fact, he’d just finished building a permanent round yurt out of straw bale for a hospital nurse neighbour up the road, “The cedar shakes for the roof was the biggest challenge. She’ll have to apply Linseed oil on them every 5 years on a hot day during the summer to maintain it’s durability.”
After a pause, Leland spoke, further ruminating, “With all our traditional supplies designed to build square structures, I sometimes wonder if there will be a place in future for a male builder like me. Natural building is evolving so quickly that I’m unsure how I might fit in to serve this burgeoning evolution.” When I looked around his home, I could see no reason for him not to be served by an apprenticing natural builder like me. I’d do just about anything to spend a summer working for him. Also, he could build me a square, triangle or round house for me any day … his craftsmanship was superb!
After Leland had provided me with about 5 different female builders from Nova Scotia to Oregon, I decided to go for a walk to clear my head and check out the area. I walked down the road to get a good look at the round house he’d built from the outside. 900 square feet with a naturally peaked cap of the roofline over the doorway, lent an artistry that was awe inspiring. The chimney was blowing smoke rings from the height of the central peak. What a masterful feat of thought and engineering! Would I ever be able to pull off something as beautiful as this?
I continued my walk while being passed by periodically by trucks with men and women wearing camouflage gear and bright orange vests. I waved to them, as all New Brunswickers wave to each other on country roads. It is buried courtesy in our culture. I got down quite a piece when I heard the hunter’s shots not too far off in the distance. Even though I was wearing a bright yellow rain jacket, I decided to turn back. I hadn’t slept well the night before due to the excitement and so I had the desire to take an afternoon nap in the loft next to my teenage daughter who still wasn’t out of bed yet.
The snowflakes on this late October day fell in giant clusters as I reached the front porch. Several laying hens, and their accompanying roosters, had hopped up on the wrap around deck in an attempt to stay warm and dry as the early snowfall must have also accosted them. I found them hiding behind several cords of wood stove wood. The hammock hanging at one end spoke of summertime’s passing and Tegan’s work in Mexico and Central America as a biologist, propagating orchids, before marriage and children. She now spends her days studying and applying the principles of holistic and inspirational education from the inside out.
The next morning, on Sunday when we departed, full of wonderful, dynamic conversations about Waldorf education and natural building, I stopped by the church cum school that they’d had moved from the village of Knowlesville a few years prior. The sunlight dappling it’s mustard walls with the early tree figures from the sun on the rise. Our bellies also full of homemade oatmeal peppered with raisins and fresh apples from this years bumper crop. The local maple syrup, the chai tea made with fresh cream skimmed from their Jersey milk still churned with pleasure in my mind and belly. I’d enjoyed a little slice of heaven on earth. I had embodied my model of excellence in natural living for myself. The key for me will be to hold this ideal in my mind while I work to become it for myself.
To find our more about Tegan and Leland Wong-Daugherty’s Natural Building, Land Trust and Intentional Community, you can find them here: http://www.back2land.ca/about-us.html