Strawbale cabin and sheds at Genesis FarmOne of the things I've loved the most about my post-academic life has been the physical labor.  Getting up early, being outside, and using my body--these were not the main themes in my life a few years ago.  I was surprised by how good it felt to be a little sore.  It was empowering to push myself, to find myself capable.  And I think that increasingly being in my body has changed my imagination, reshaped the contours of what I think is possible.  

At some point in the last year, I began to be interested in building.  I imagined a little bit of land somewhere, and dreamt of taking the time to build something by hand.  One of the workshops I attended last year at NOFA-NY (Northeastern Organic Farming Association of NY) was given by a young man, maybe 30, who was totally inspiring.  Without previous building experience, he went about rejuvenating an old farmstead, renovating the house, adding on a new wrap-around porch, and constructing some out-buildings including a new pole barn.  I left that session with my heart racing, his words jangling around within me: "If I can learn to build, so can you.  I mean it."  

In my experience, it is precisely that which is exhilarating that also proves to be the most easily, and quietly, pushed aside.  The doubts come in, those old voices that confidently shoot you down.  Mine said: "Come on, you haven't used a saw since middle-school shop class.  You can't really learn all this now.  It's too much.  You're too old."  The exhilaration that I felt at that NOFA workshop lasted all of about a week, before the "voice of reason" (i.e., insecurity) won out.

But some ember of desire persisted, and I kept hearing more about "natural building"--a method of using earthen (cob and adobe) and strawbale materials.  I visited Genesis Farm in the fall, and got to see a strawbale building close up, and it was simply beautiful.  I started looking at a few natural building books, and reading about it on the web.  Because of my love for making pottery, I was drawn in particular to cob, a mixture of clayey soil, sand, and straw--I could see myself sculpting my own little house.  And I could actually even feel it, in my body's imagination.

And all that while, I kept encountering the word "Yestermorrow."  Yestermorrow is a design/build school in Waitsfield, VT, where you can take classes in timberframing, drafting, plastering, home design, solar energy systems, earthen ovens, carpentry, and natural building, among others.  I had stumbled upon its website when I first started searching for natural building courses.  Then I met someone who was wearing a Yestermorrow t-shirt, and we got to talking about it; he was an instructor there, and could vouch that it was a fantastic place. And then, while at Genesis Farm, I met someone who was planning on taking a class there in January; he told me that he was a total newbie, like me, which assured me that at least I wouldn't be alone.

I have the sense to notice, most of the time, when the Universe is trying to tell me something.  And I was pretty sure that Yestermorrow was emerging in my line of vision for a reason.  So I came home and looked at the course list, and got totally excited . . . and then had to wrestle with those inner voices some more.  ("What makes you think you can build? Do you really think you're fit enough? What if you're not good at it? Shouldn't you be saving money, not spending it?"  You get the idea.)

But even as the inner doubts persisted, I kept dreaming about building.  I thought about it as I harvested, while I rode the train, during the three-day silent retreat I took for my 40th birthday.  At the end of that retreat, I had made a decision: I would go ahead and sign up for a class, I would spend the money, I would take a chance.  What did I have to lose?

Well, one thing I wish I had lost was all that insecurity.  I arrived at Yestermorrow a bundle of nerves, and entered a new group of people, some of whom had substantial building experience.  It took me 10 days to finally relax and fully be myself.  Just in time for the class to end.

But I did it.  I jumped in with both feet, carved strawbales with a chainsaw, swung a sledgehammer,  used a hammertack, got my hands in some plaster, asked a million questions, and even did some basic drafting of floorplans, sections, and elevations.  

The ten-person class was energetic, enthusiastic, and hungry for knowledge and experience.  They were also patient, generous, and helpful with one another.  I am so deeply grateful to have been a part of that particular constellation of people, and to have had the amazing teachers that we did.  Ace, Deva, and Jose were incredibly encouraging and challenging at the same time, and I learned so much about teaching from them.  I couldn't recommend them highly enough.

This evolution has been building in me for some months, and has contributed to the recent quietness of this blog. But now I'm back, energized, and ready to share what I have learned.  I'll be writing more about natural building in the coming weeks, but for now, I want to close with a few words about the larger meaning of building.

Just as our mainstream culture has become largely distanced from the growing of food, so much so that kids  and tweens can't recognize common fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes, I would stipulate that most of us have little familiarity with the making of our very own dwellings.  Our food and our homes have become something outside of our own bodily imagination--outside our physical sensibility of what we are capable of growing or making.  And with that comes a lack of understanding of what it takes, both in terms of labor and materials--to make a home.  My Yestermorrow class taught me that natural building is seriously hard work.  If you're not going to rely on pre-fabricated materials, you and whoever joins you will have to expend a lot more energy.  But that labor can be meaningful, an investment of intention and creativity, and the product can be a cherished embodiment of human effort.  Imagine looking at your home, and saying, "I made this."  Imagine what the experience of building can teach you about appreciating the true costs of materials, of labor, of maintenance.  I think we just might opt for somewhat smaller, simpler buildings if we were going to build them ourselves.  

There's too much to say right now about gender and building, so let me just say this: learning to build is empowering. My ability to imagine what I can contribute to the world has increased.  And as someone once said to me--if I can learn to build, so can you.  I mean it . . .