My aim with this project is to live a more healthy, ecological, low consumption lifestyle. I bought the property in July 2012 and am slowly renovating the house using ecological materials and methods where possible and have started to grow food. Ideas for the future include planting a forest garden and creating an association to encourage a low impact lifestyle.
So now about three quarters of the way through insulating the torchis walls of the house with a mixture or straw and slip insulation. Pros? It's cheap (2 to 3 euros a bale of straw and the earth is free if you dig it up from your land). If you have lots of friends/family/ and/or ability to organise chantier participatifs it can be lots of fun to do together. Cons? It takes a long time to prepareand put in place and can take many months to dry before being able to render.
Anyway - straw and slip insulation in a nutshell:
Above left: I use one bucket of clay soil to one of water mixed in the concrete mixer then poured out through a sieve into a container of straw (no pre-seiving required in this case as the earth here has no stones - just clay and silt)
Above right: I use a curved pronged fork to mix the straw with the slip
Above left: Using the fork, the straw soaked in slip is lifted out of the bucket into a wheelbarrow
Above right: Tip the straw and slip mixture onto wooden pallets to allow the water to drain off for 24 hours. It is a good idea to cover the mixture with a plastic sheet to prevent it drying out.
Above: OSB board or bits of plaster board (easy to cut) were used to create a 'coffrage' into which the mixture is tamped - use small wooden battons to compact the mixture. We screwed through the boards into wooden uprights leaving a gap of a few centimetres between the boards and the uprights so that the mixture could cover them. Use a builder's level to make sure the boards are vertical.
Above: The first section of wall took me around three weeks to do on my own!! And it is not too even or vertical. I got better over the weeks
Above: The third section of wall - much more even.
Above: I find the best method to hold the mixture in place is to cut lengths of thin wooden batons to fit between the uprights (BricoMarché have loads of these lying around outside that they let you take for free), push them down to compress the mixture while it is still held by the OSB boarding and then drill screws through their ends diagonally into the uprights (see below).
I leave the boards on at least 12 hours then move them up for the next intake.
The kitties get bigger and bolder every day. They spend much of the day curled up together in a hollow log but have recently discoverd the house and have taken to exploring every corner of the downstairs.
It's interesting that I can't think what the English equivalent of this phrase would be - literally translated 'friend's work day' or 'participatory workshop'. Anyway my lovely friends Noel, Lisa and her son Toby came to help out for a day. Some images:
Above: Lisa and Noel take it in turns to mix the straw and slip mixture with a fork while Toby mans the concrete mixer.
Above: Toby mastered the drill quickly and set to screwing the horizontal pieces of wood to the uprights to hold the straw and slip mixture in place. Toby found it all very interesting and announced that he was inspired to build a cabin with mud and straw.
Above left: Toby the concrete mixer manager Above right: Toby enjoying the feeling of mud on his face
Above: Noel with mud warpaint and bringing straw and slip upstairs
Above: Relaxing in the shade after a filling lunch.
I don't mean this in an existential crisis kind of way - I just feel it may be useful to explain how I got here ... why I have chosen to live in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country and to devote all my energies to creating a low impact eco site ...
My Early Love of Nature
I can't say where it all began but perhaps I can say that I developed a love of nature and the outdoors growing up in the Sussex countryside. Rustling leaves on a line of beech trees outside my bedroom window seemed to have made a lasting impression ... when I first started living in cities it took me a while to realise why I felt 'cut off' and disconnected. I missed the rustling leaves and lying in the grass gazing into the sky for hours on end.
Not the original line of beech trees and probably not so much rustling of leaves in this winter scene. Interesting that I was drawn to take this photo (as part of an Open College of the Arts painting and photography course that I started a few years back)
A Road Trip Around the USA, back to University in the UK and an awakening to the Environmental Crisis
A year off hitchikng around the USA when I was 18 where we met hippies, slept in forests and on beaches awakened a wanderlust and a curiosity for the alternative. Coming back to the UK to study for a degree in philosophy and psychology helped me to develop the capacity to question, analyse and think sideways. It was in my final year that I discovered the environmental debates around the 'limits to growth' and questioned the premises of the classical economics notion of 'homo economicus' who is driven primarily by profit.
Book: 'The Turning Point' by Fritzjof Capra
I was particularly struck at this point by a book written by Fritzjof Capra called 'The Turning Point' in which he describes a paradigm shift that is happening in many different disciplines (physics, biology, psychology, economics) - a shift from analytical/cause and effect thinking to that of holistic/interconnectedness.
And so emerged the sentiment that somehow I wasn't made for the material, career centred life that had been expected from me up until then and that was being played out in London by all my contemporaries. Instead I headed off to a kibbutz in Israel, followed by a volunteering trip to India and a lot of reading of sociology, history, politics; philosophy and religion.
Academic Study on Environmental Issues
I to'd and fro'd from my family home to various foreign countries for many years until the house was sold and I began a town/city based life in the UK where I furiously tried to develop a career and get on to the property ladder. After a brief spell in Brighton teaching English as a foreign language, I spent two years studying for a masters in social research at Bath universtiy where I undertook two extensive projects - one on the politics of organic farming and environmentalism; the other on indigenous communal property resource management systems and how modern life is impacting on the quality of the environment.
The first project gave me an insight into the workings of government and the powerful influence that certain lobbies have on policy making. I was particularly disconcerted to learn about a little talked about organisation called the Country Landowners Association who protect the rights of British landowners. It would seem that they are able to wield considerable influence in the corridors of power.
The second project made me aware of the fact that many ancient/traditional cultures had in-built ethics and practices that protected the environmental resources around them and that much 'modern development' has resulted in a breakdown of these systems with a resulting damage to the environment. I was sent to Sumatra in Indonesia to do some field research for this project. I spent many days wandering around the countryside marvelling at the lush exotic vegetation. Interestingly I spent two weeks in Perth Australia before coming back to the UK and experienced a culture shock on witnessing this ultra modern city that had been grafted on the landscape and its Western inhabitants many of whom were caked in thick white suncream to protect themselves from the harsh sun to which their skins were not adapted.
It was at this time that I witnessed first hand a full blown road protest in Bath where I was living. Environmentalists had camped out in nets in the treetops of a wooded area that had been earmarked for felling to make way for a motorway bypass. I saw young protesters being hauled out from under builders' lorries and groups of people linking hands around bulldozers. I had this image in my mind of 'those in power' who like to give us the impression that we have freedom of speech and action but in fact when there is a real threat to the status quo and vested inerests - that's when we realise the limits to this so called freedom- that's when the security guards arrive and the violence against protesters begins.
Some photographs that I took of the conflict:
I discovered a love of practical hands on work when I undertook a woodwork training at Bath Women's Woodwork Centre. I learned how to use handtools and machines and learned a little about green woodwork (bodging). I started to do commission and was teaching woodwork to groups of children but unfortunately the Centre burned down. These woodwork skills have served me well with the renovation of the house here in France.
Studying Urban Planning and Environmental Assessment and Management
In 1994 I embarked on a Masters in Urban Planning and Environmental Assessment and Management in an attempt to have a professional career that would pay a mortgage and in which I could work on my developing passion for environmentalism. There were only two occasions when I felt anything other than boredom or despair during this course - one was during a lecture on a development where people had designed their own idiosyncratic dwellings and another was when I researched and wrote up a document about people centred grass roots environmental projects. Somehow it felt that the heart and soul had been forcibly removed from the syllabus . Thinking back, it's not surprising that I felt so alienated from this training course as it is the physical embodiment of a set of ethics and philosophies that relate more to domination, control, linear thinking ... all played out in the physical environment that is our home. It damaged my soul to be immersed in this environment.
Dissertation on Permaculture and Rural Planning
Towards the end of the course I researched and wrote a dissertation called 'permaculture and rural planning' in which I explored the idea of opening up the British countryside to rural ecovillages as an alternative to modern intensive agriculture. I visited and wrote about a number of settlements that were trying to create low impact communities (Tinkers Bubble, King's Hill ...) and who were having battles with the planning authorities. It was at this time that I began to draw parallels with my own personal experience of loss (of my home/of the land/of the rustling beech leaves) and the loss that the majority of British people have endured as a result of the enclosures and the concentration of British land in the hands of a priviledged few (that can be traced back to the invasion of William the Conqueror). It was heartbreaking for me to witness this conflict and I was full of admiration for the pioneering spirit of these few eco lawbreakers.
Book: 'This Land is Ours' by Marion Shoard
While researching for this dissertation, I was particularly moved by a book written by Marion Shoard called 'This Land is Ours' in which she charts the history of British land use and abuse - how it has come to be that the majority of us have been forced off the land into the cities ....
Book: Ecopsychology - Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind
...and another book 'Ecopsychology' - a series of chapters that explore our connection with the environment. I recently re-read a chapter from this book in which Jeanette Armstrong a native American Indian by birth writes: ' ... Our most essential responsibility is to learn to bond our whole individual selves and our communal selves to the land'. I am going to reproduce a passage written by her word for word as it describes more and more how I am beginning to feel about some aspects of the so called 'developed' world:
'As a child of ten I once sat on a hillside on the reservation with my father and his mother as they looked down into the town in the valley floor. It was blackcap berry season and the sun was very warm, but there in the high country a cool breeze moved through the overshading pines. Bluebirds and canaries darted and chirped in nearby bushes while a meadowlark sang for rain from the hillside above. Sage and wild roses sent their messages out to the humming bees and pale yellow butterflies.
Down in the valley the heatwave danced, and dry dust rose in clouds from the dirt roads near the town. Shafts of searing glitter reflected off hundreds of windows, while smoke and greyish haze hung over the town itself. The angry sounds of cars honking in a slow crawl along the shimmering black highway and the grind of large machinery from the sawmill next to the town rose in a steady buzzing overtone to the quiet of the hillside.
My grandmother said:'The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane'. My father agreed commenting 'It's because they are wild and scatter everywhere'
Armstrong later writes: 'I have always felt that my Okanagan view is perhaps closer in experience to that of an eyewitness and refugee surrounded by holocaust'
72 hour permaculture course and Training to be a Professional Organic Gardener and Designer
During my Urban Planning course I also studied to be a professional organic gardener as well as undertaking a 72 hour permaculture course. I subsequently worked as a volunteer officer with British Trust for Conservation Volunteers where I lead groups of volunteers to do conservation work (tree planting, coppicing, dry stone walling, tree felling and land clearance) and then set up as a self employed gardener where I managed around 20 gardens in Bath.
Teaching/Supporting Children with difficulties
I spent the next 8 or so years working closely with children with a range of difficulties (depression, anxiety, Asperger's syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia) and after a specialist training in dyslexia worked for a year in a Steiner school as a dyslexia specialist. I was deeply impressed by some of the aspectq of the Steiner education - in particular the emphasis on teaching crafts, ecoconstruction and biodynamic gardening but most of all the fact that the children develop a sense of self confidence and are able to articulate their beliefs and thoughts with clarity and without inhibition.
Green Woodworking with Gudrun Leitz
I spent a summer helping with green woodwork courses- preparing organic vegetarian food for the course participants as well as assisiting in the workshop and making my own green woodwork furniture. I lived in my converted Ford Transit van in the forest and decided that it was time to leave a life that had been based around trying to fit a set of principles and belief systems that no longer felt right. I headed off to Normandy to look for a property and to create a low impact eco-site.
Some photographs I took of the green woodworkshop while working with Gudrun:
Wwoofing in France, ecoconstruction projects and the search for a property
I spent many months visitng and volunteering on ecological projects in Normandy and Brittany as well as in the South of France. I discovered cooking with wild plants, collecting wild herbs, teaching environmental awareness to children, organic market gardening and building with natural materials. After a long search for property I finally bought the house and land next to Saint Hilaire du Harcouet in Normandy and so began my own project.