That's right: with a chainsaw. Turns out that a chainsaw is a handy tool if you're building a strawbale house.
Strawbales have a super high insulation value, being so densely packed and thick (18"). The walls are strengthened by installing the strawbales like bricks, called a "running bond," where the end of a bale in one layer rests on the middle of the bale beneath it. Once all the bales are up, plaster is applied to the inner and outer surfaces, to keep the straw airtight and prevent bugs from finding a home.
But getting the walls up is harder than you might imagine. To make plastering smooth, the bales need to be plumb and level, otherwise you might be applying 6" of plaster in one spot and 1" in another. Not only would that be a waste of plaster but plaster is very heavy, and it's likely that applying a coat of plaster that's two inches or thicker will end up sagging.
When installing the bales, you want them to be as well aligned as possible. And, at the same time, you want to get them in as close next to each other and the frame as possible, compressing them tightly into every nook.
But the fact is that strawbales are unruly. They are not uniform in dimension, and they can be more or less densely packed. And, to make things just a bit more complex, you sometimes have to resize bales to fit into certain corners or gaps. But turns out that's pretty easy, once you do it a couple times. The harder part is re-shaping them into angles, or cutting notches into them to make them nuzzle up close to wall studs. That's when the chainsaw comes in.
I'd never used a chainsaw before, and I was pretty nervous. Everyone tells you how dangerous they are. Well, I don't know if anyone actually ever told me that directly, but it seems like I must have heard that a thousand times. Not only are they considered dangerous, but as a girl, and then as a woman, I had never been encouraged to try using one. Recently, we have had a wonderful permacultural designer named Andrew Faust doing some improvements to the farm, including cutting down some trees to increase the sunlight to the main garden. One day at lunch, he and Bill, another resident companion at the farm, were talking equipment, using numbers. Something like, "What are you using, an 18, or a 20?"
I realized at that moment, which took place just after I signed up for the Yestermorrow course, that I was going to have to get comfortable asking a lot of basic questions, because even though I could make an educated guess that they might be talking about the length of the blade (or maybe the size of the engine?), I really wasn't sure at all. I was going to have to get used to asking questions like "What does that mean?" "What do you call that?" and "Can you show me how?" The Yestermorrow course gave me lots of opportunities to get comfortable asking all my "newbie" questions.
And I got to try out using a chainsaw. I have to say, it was really fun. Assessing where and how much you want to cut is one thing, but then, at some point, you have to just dive in and start cutting. Ace and Deva showed us how easy it was to re-strap a bale, so when someone accidentally cut through the strap, it was no big deal ("low-stakes" exercises, in learning/educational jargon). But even though I knew that the bale could be easily fixed, I dreaded the possibility of cutting the strap. All my "good girl" training came out in full force; I didn't want to "do it wrong."
As I sat there wrestling with that particular little demon, I realized that I was never going to learn to shape a bale if I didn't start actually cutting. So I took a deep breath, got into a balanced stance, and began. It was so cool to see all the straw go flying, and to feel the resistance of the bale against the blade. I learned that you had to apply some pressure in some spots as well, or the straw would just sort of yield to the blade, bending, and thereby avoiding being cut. Ace was a great mentor, going beyond just telling me how, but staying with me and guiding me until I got my sea legs.
I learned that I had to be decisive, even if that meant that I might not do it perfectly. And as I practiced on my second and third bale, I got better at seeing the negative space of the angle I wanted to create (geometry!), and at leaning into the cut. Like a lot of things in life, there are precautions to be taken, and you have to cultivate a certain awareness, but in the end, you have to take action.
I plan on getting comfortable with power tools; there are courses at Yestermorrow designed especially for women to learn how to use power tools, and to learn carpentry skills. It's incredibly empowering to pick up a skill that you were probably never really encouraged to even want to have. My last carpentry experiment was in 7th grade, I believe, when I made a tiny little bookstand, maybe about a foot long. I remember that class, and wanting to fit in, and wanting to learn how to use a saw, and wanting to please the teacher, and not wanting to make a fool of myself, and wanting the boys to like me. All these desires were like a storm within me. I'm so thankful to be an adult now, to be able to recognize my internal conflicting voices and desires, and (usually) to not let them paralyze me. I can quiet my mind, and simply ask myself, "What do I really want to do?" And I can be decisive in pursuing the answer.