Saturday, April 19, 2014

Extracurricular Learning at Earthaven

One of the coolest things about Earthaven is that there are so many learning opportunities both within and nearby. The work-exchange is great, but there's a lot more...

My Work-Exchange 
I’ll describe the work-exchange in more detail in another essay. The core obligation is 17 hours / week in exchange for rent, and I spend the bulk of this out in the garden learning and practicing the permaculture principles we embrace here.

This is the core learning experience for me - it’s what I do regularly and gives me regular mentorship opportunities from the old-hands here. Permaculture is a lot more than just classic gardening - it’s basically a philosophy and set of principles that enable humans to live permanently within nature rather than destructively outside. Permaculture emphasizes growing a whole ecosystem rather than just food crops, so I’m not just learning how to plant and harvest plants - I’m learning how to understand energy, water, and nutrient flows; how to maximize plant, soil, insect and animal life while minimizing the impact of detrimental pests; how to maximize food, medicinal, aesthetic and other yield while minimizing human labor and cost input. Pretty cool!

Outside the Work Exchange
Every learning opportunity I checked out had a core activity such as natural building or organic farming, but few programs had as many peripheral learning opportunities as Earthaven. I’ve tried to really immerse myself here in every opportunity I could find, and sometimes I've encouraged others to put on activities they wouldn't have otherwise. Here’s what’s been keeping me busy: 

Foraging for dinner: the house buys most foods but tries to eat as much from the garden as possible. I’ve expanded this out to foraging in the local woods and gathering edibles from the garden that we didn’t purposefully plant there, including day lillies, mazuna, and onion grass. Right now this only supplements our bought goods rather than displacing them. Here are a few I've gathered recently:

Wild Onion is the vertical plant; most of the surrounding is spearmint, great for teas.
Day lillies; the smaller/younger leaves are succulent and tasty.

Rope making: I taught myself to make rope from the Yucca plant. When I went to make my second rope, a 14 year-old short term guest named Joel wanted to try it out, so I taught him while making my own. It was fun teaching it while only on my second rope project.

Yucca plant. Bring the leaves to a boil and then let them soak overnight. Strip off the green crap and you're left with fibers for rope.
Finished product!
Only after I built it did I realize I didn't actually need the  rope for anything, so it's a necklace.

Cooking w/several people to learn lots of techniques / foods: Every evening a pair of people cooks dinner for the whole group. We use no or almost no processed foods, so food prep usually starts 2-4 hours before the meal. A head chef and a sous chef do all the prep. I’ve cooked a few times now, and it’s been a great chance to learn new cooking techniques. I recently learned a substitute for milk in cornbread recipes when milk is unavailable: tahini, salt, stevia, nutritional yeast, water. I didn't even know what tahini, stevia, and nutritional yeast were before coming here.
Wood stove cooking: we started using our wood stove over the gas stove to get even more local and reduce financial support for fracking companies.
Plant walks: I was in 4 plant walks in a 7 day stretch one week, including:
  • wintertime tree identification (i.e. tree ID w/o leaves) 
  • medicinal herb ID and use; we made a medicinal tea afterwards
  • spring ephemerals
  • general intro to local plants

Plant walks with regional experts can cost $20-40, but folks at Earthaven will do them for free or for ‘Leaps’, which is Earthaven’s currency. I’ll describe Leaps in another essay! Essentially, it allows me to trade labor for attending their plant walk, so I can get a ton of education without spending dollars. These are especially cool because we have lots of plant enthusiasts, and they’ll show up for each others’ plant walks and help identify mystery plants. It’s fun watching them figure out a strange plant.

Food projects: outside of meals, we make lots of fun food projects that get shared with the group. I’ve helped with some and enjoyed eating the others. 
  • granola
  • hummus
  • home made raw milk ice cream & whipped cream
  • milk-free cornbread
  • sauerkraut
  • mead
  • dandelion wine
One step of making dandelion wine is to gather jillions of dandelion flowers and remove the green body. We still need >=2 more quarters of this before we're onto the next stage.
Weekly natural medicine production: a local herbalist named River Otter invited me and a few others to help her produce some medicines. Plant processing can require a lot of unskilled-but-supervised labor. In exchange for pitching in, it’ll be a regular chance to learn about the medicinal properties of plants - antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, etc. I'm still as skeptical as ever about 'alternative' medicines, but I do believe plants can have medicinal properties, and I want to understand them!

Cool vignette interlude: some plants work really well as poultices, where you chew up a leaf and put it on a cut or bugbite to stop the bleeding or pain. Apparently when little kids get hurt they start crying and asking for plantain leaf instead of a band-aid. I hear yarrow works too.
Plantain; I found these all over northern Virginia too.

Trapping / Skinning / Cooking small animals: some folks around here have grown up trapping and do it for pest control. One guy, Seaver, will be working for free with 3-4 of us. The plan is for each of us to set our own traps and monitor them. As soon as a trap is triggered, he’ll show us how to process the animal for food and skin and then cook it.

I couldn't find a picture of the one squirrel he's skinned so far. Hear's an example of a snare one of his brothers set: 
Sorry it's hard to see; it was raining and I had to take the pic quickly. The bamboo stalk is on the left; the anchor/base is on the bottom right.  See below for a diagram of how it works when it's set up.

When the snare is activated, this is how it will look. When a small animal goes through the noose, it frees the top hook, and the animal is yanked upward by the sapling (bamboo in our case), hopefully killing it or at least trapping it.
Cob / natural building: We’re building a chicken coop next to the house I’m staying in, and we’re building it with cob. We build one afternoon a week unless it gets rained out so that the mud has time to dry between layers. 

This’ll be nifty - there will be an inner and outer layer of fence in concentric circles around the garden. This is called a ‘coop-and-run’ model where the chickens can roam along the entire garden perimeter eating all the bugs we want out, decreasing human labor to feed them and human money to buy feed.

We also grow specific plants that produce massive amounts of foliage the chickens love for the same money-saving reasons.
Comfry: a great plant for producing tons of huge leaves quickly and providing chicken feed. It also has medicinal value I'm just beginning to learn.

Carving: Some teenagers who're staying briefly made a cup and knife from bamboo, and another work-exchanger likes to carve spoons and figures. I hear bamboo can also be used to as a container for boiling water outdoors.

The cup with my hand for size comparison. The knife was lost sadly, but it was quite sharp.
Hand-carved, half-finished... dog? I haven't asked.
Fermenting: Work-exchangers Allie and Dmitrios started learning to ferment a few weeks ago and I followed along in their footsteps with my own last week. It’s a week old and is tasting really good as I write! Fermenting apparently has tons of uses, including increasing the nutritional value of the foods and food preservation.
My first fermented food. It's got cabbage, water, salt, ginger, apple, onion, and garlic.

Community life: what’s it like to live within minutes of everyone? How is life different with lots of public spaces and facilities to make it easy for people to run into each other while preserving the ability to have privacy/solitude/space? With no or few cars making the roads unsafe or polluted, and when you don't have to worry about kids outside playing alone a mile away?

Self-governance: how does a community self-govern? This place practices consensus-voting using non-violent communication to facilitate discussions. Visitors like me are allowed to watch but not participate in all the governing meetings. I'll write more about this soon.

Chance Encounters
Good communities are designed in a way that it's easy to meet and meet up with people, even by accident. I've had a a bunch of cool incidents along these lines, but here are a few:

  • Chainsaw safety course: No one’s allowed to use chainsaws at Earthaven ’til they’ve taken the course. One course happened right outside the garden while I was outside, so I jumped over and got a free chainsaw safety course!
  • Met Laura the nurse: I described my experience meeting Laura in the ‘lunch time’ section here (do a text search). She had quite the stories to tell.
  • Met Tom the Paramedic: Tom stayed with us for a few days while checking out intentional communities in the area. He is a firefighter/paramedic in Ohio. I told him how I was considering taking a WEMT (Wilderness EMT-Basic) course and possibly becoming an EMT to learn/practice first aid and as supplementary income, and he gave a lot of insight from his paramedic experience and supported the plan I outlined (I’ll write more in another post).
Emotional support in transition: A lot of people here have purposefully made changes in their lives similar to what I’m doing, so it’s been great hearing about others’ paths, learning what worked and didn’t, and generally getting encouragement.

Chance to give back w/IT skills: I’m helping the Earthaven office improve their infrastructure, including setting up printers and setting up a computer backup system. They’re competent-enough users but don’t have much admin experience, so they’ve been very grateful that I can fill this niche. It’s been a great way to ‘give back’ and spread my name around the area as a giving and competent person. The ‘learning’ benefit here is that I’m meeting people I wouldn’t run into otherwise.

Wood chopping / sawing / splitting: I've worked with axes, various electrical power tools, and a gas-powered splitter. I do like axes the best though.
Our wood splitter. This is privately owned but the community is allowed to use it, presumably chipping in for gas costs.
Co-housing social space: I’m staying in a group-housing building with ~10-12 people. The house’s main social space has couches and chairs surrounding a wood fireplace where we often congregate in the evening. Sometimes we're quietly reading, but often people are working on various projects (fermenting, rope) or talking about movies, the history of marijuana criminalization, local politics, etc. The group energy here is great, and really encourages me to want to learn and try things out.

Tantra spirituality/philosophy: There’s a world-renowned tantra teacher here named Rudy Ballentine. I’m always on the lookout for work opportunities in other neighborhoods as a way to meet people, so when I heard of one at Rudy’s I volunteered for a few hours and got invited to dinner afterward. I didn’t get much of an introduction to tantra over dinner that night, but I got invited to future discussion sessions and I’m looking forward to trying them out.

Local schools / festivals / gatherings
There are tons of 2-7 day workshops and schools for learning all manner of things. Here are a few I've attended or signed up for: Most are within 1 hour's drive, and all the ones I'm interested in are < 4 hours away.

Organic Grower’s School: A two-day conference on everything organic farming and even mildly related, including seed saving, solar energy use, foraging, nut harvesting, you name it. This was in Asheville, about 45 minutes from Earthaven. This cost ~$65 because I didn’t discover it ’til after early registration ended. I wrote about it here.

Mother Earth News Fair: Similar to Organic Grower’s School. This was also in Asheville and would have cost $25 entry if I hadn’t gotten a volunteer slot with Chris McClellan of the Natural Building Network. Instead it was totally free!
Playing with cob (sand/clay/water/straw) at Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville.
Rivercane Rendezvous: An earth-skills weeklong course in Lafayette, GA, about 4 hours from Earthaven. I’m going April 26-27 with 4-5 other Earthaveners so we can carpool and learn together. Should be a blast! “Earth skills” are sometimes called “survival skills” - foraging, trapping, tracking, understanding bird songs, natural pottery, etc. At $80/2 full days + food it seemed like a good deal.

In conclusion...
The core work-exchange requires I do/learn exactly what I want - food production permaculture-style. However, the huge number of opportunities and high energy level in this area make it a much richer experience than the work-exchange alone could provide.

UPDATE Apr 23, 2014: less than 24 hours after posting this, I got invited to milk cows in exchange for a portion of the (raw) milk, which is utterly amazing! I also learned how to diagnose cows to ensure their milk is safe for drinking raw.