Friday, October 10, 2008

When is a worker a skilled worker?

Friday 3rd October, noon

Just about to say our goodbyes at Emerald Earth, it feels like we've been here a lot longer than 2 weeks. I'm quite sad to be leaving, I've had the most amazingly grounding experiences, that have fuelled my dreams and excited my fantasies. Is it strange to have fantasies about building mud huts?

And it was my birthday on Thursday, Lisa made a fabulous morell mushroom risotto for dinner, just like I wanted, and stuffed squashes to boot. And the birthday cake was an Eve Special - bananas, brandy-soaked raisins, chocolate. Mmmmmm Mmmmmn.

So I explained a bit about the setup in my previous post. That was quite broad, so I'll say a bit more about the details, from my perspective anyhows. The 2 weeks here were also cut in half by going to the Handcar Regatta to help out our "Producer" friend who "organises festivals".  Maybe I'll start with that.

So we arrived in Santa Rosa on Saturday, the day before the Regatta, to help out with what I assumed would be a busy day for him. Well, nobody on site seemed to know who he was, nor could be discover his whereabouts. Hmmm. We headed back to Sebastopol, and collected our post - the new car stereo and rear speakers. A couple of hours and twizzles of wire later and we could now play whatever music we want as mp3s via a USB stick. Nice.

Well, it turns out we were not needed until Sunday actually after all, which is a little disappointing because we left Emerald Earth, missing the earthen oven making workshop which I was rather looking forward to. The photos show the development of the oven in preparation before the workshops, and after. The seduction of glamour can be deceiving (of helping our 'Producer' friend that is). No matter, the Regatta sounded exciting, and furthermore, Aubergine, the huge vintage clothing store in Sebastopol, was having a party to celebrate opening a bar/cafe in the back of the building - a huge wooden structured warehouse. With free food - my favourite kind of party.

Well, the party was OK, the sound system was a couple of regular Mackie speakers that simply couldn't quite fill the space. The band were good, but perhaps better on a CD than live. The bassist was a good craic to watch tho - the most energetic of them all, bashing out a smooth reggae bottom line. If I had a slightly larger wallet and wardrobe, I would be more interested in all the fantastic vintage wear, but alas I have neither so I tried to restrain my visual appetite.

The Regatta on Sunday was a blast. The dress code appeared to be 1920s inventor with a good dose of playa chic. Ideal for the old red braces and dress shirt get-up, with a marker-pen handle-bar moustache. We personned one of the info booths, selling T-shirts and jute bags and pointing to the food ticket booth a lot. And as for our Producer friend, Joseph is actually a friend of one of the Producers - with a slightly overinflated sense of importance, bordering on the delusional. But a lovely chap nonetheless. And despite his adamance in advance to the contrary, there was no afterparty.

looking at the old cob earth oven mid-destruction

So on Monday we trekked back to Emerald Earth, via a couple of stops to run errands, picking up some Hardy frame templates for the foundation of the new Common House. It's being made up to California Code specifications: an interesting pragmatic choice sewing a gap between visionary utopianism and the 'default' world.

laying the foundation for the new earthen oven

So in the 2 weeks I was there, I dabbled in a plethora of different tasks around the place. Trench digging had to be the toughest - good to get the blood flowing. Hauling, stacking and chopping firewood was fun. Fence bracing - for the new deer fence around the new Common House site - was fairly laborious but a useful skill. Clay waddling the new chicken coop was great - a timeless technique - I think I need more practice, as mine sagged a fair bit. Working in the garden, I moved 17 wheelbarrows of horse manure, and got a good sweat on. I cooked another meal, lunch this time, onion soup with polenta. And I helped out with the child care. The nice thing here is that everyone has a go at helping with childcare, including non-parents.

laying the sand/clay/straw mix for the oven base over the wood-store form

The sauna went on a couple of times over the weeks, a nice end to the day. When the hot tub's leaks are fixed it would be great as a cold plunge bath. The shower suffices for now though. At the end of a day up at the foundation in full sun all day, it's a welcome treat for the muscles. I spent a few days dogsbodying up at the foundation, helping out when I could. In that time, I had a good think about a lot of stuff, and one of those things was about 'skilled' labour. At the moment, there's one or two skilled workers working on the common house. A lot of stress is placed on those shoulders. If one of those got ill, it would set the whole thing back a lot.

laying the oven base

The problem is that most people are unskilled in this line of work. You can't just tell someone to go get on with that portion of the foundation. This interrelated to another problem, which is that one person is the site manager (as well as the main worker!)- that is the person overseeing the whole operation, and knows exactly what's going on everywhere on the site. So he's got to set people up with mini-projects, oversee them to make sure they are accurate and precise, while getting on with stuff himself, figuring out what needs doing in what order, the next task for helpers, etc. A mammoth task, undertaken admirably.

making the door arch

So there are the inter-related problems of skill more generally, and specific expertise on the section that needs work. Now what got me thinking is how do you gauge someone's skill? There is the underlying factor that work on the foundation needs to be very accurate - as it's holding up a building, hopefully to be able to withstand an earthquake, being that we're not that far from the San Andreas fault. I guess it's a process of building a picture - from experience of using particular tools (or at least how they work), and accuracy and precision. The more experience, the less mistakes, the less questions and the faster the work gets done.

completed earth oven

Anyway, these were some of the thoughts that drifted through my head as I dug into (admittedly soft) rock with a pick and a rock bar. And some questions - am I a skilled worker? Does that fact that I know how to use a bunch of tools and I have a good dose of common sense and got top marks in my physics A-Level assessed practicals make me skilled? Probably not. Does the fact that I don't know that the rafter goes from eave to ridge (and then the purlins go on top horizontally) make me unskilled? Probably.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Recipe For Successful Sustainable Living

200 acre plot of land
16 people (firm but not overripe)

Bake carefully in an earth oven for 9 years, stirring horizontally regularly.
The longer you bake it, the tastier it becomes...

Wednesday 25th September, 2pm

This place is very cool. How I justify this, I guess is down to a mixture of the people there and the structure of the place. There are 11 full or becoming-full members, their 4 kids, 3 work-traders and us at the moment. The members are all in their 30s, the kids are aged 2-5. Their histories are diverse, but share a desire to live rurally, and developing living practices to be as self-reliant as possible.

What I find really interesting is that this position is quite a nuanced, and tricky, one. Radical, alternative, sustainable, utopian, whatever label you apply, there is a real sense of living the change you want to see in the world. And that is the tricky part. The manifestation of the dream, the utopia, can never be a perfect one and precisely how that is done, the translation of the image, the vision, into the everyday, and how people cope with that, is a process of compromise and pragmatism. This is what armchair activists call hypocrisy in a negative condescending sense.

For example, infrequently (not since I've been here though), the solar and micro-hydroelectric power sources are supplemented by a petrol generator. But they are off the grid. So here is an unsustainable practice that could be called hypocritical. Nonetheless, energy use is minimised and lifestyles are have been transformed towards those that are less energy-reliant. Sometimes power tools required to build the new common house, it's foundations, frame and roof are used. But minimally. This is a community of people that are not luddites - technology exists and it is harnessed appropriately - but there is a level of awareness of the resources required and used that you just don't get living on the grid. The meter that ticks away, as long as you pay the bill - usually by direct debit, so that you don't even see how much it costs, let alone be able to comprehend that energy use in fathomable terms - such as gallons of petrol, or hours of sunlight.

Cob making - stomping clay with sand and straw

None of the residents have been here since the beginning. One has been here for 9 years, when the community at the time settled on the land. The previous attempt ended in one guy living here, mostly on his own, for the previous 5 years. What is interesting about this is that although the mix of people changes, and the talents and energies and skills change, there must be something that evolves through this, what makes the place what it is.

The meeting room in the new common house

So my second justification for why the place is very cool is the structure of the place. The land is owned by a co-op, first off. The 'land council' oversees the maintenance of the land, and includes all full members, and also ex-resident members, and also the lady who bought the land and sold it to the co-op in the first place. The council operates by consensus, and is non-hierarchical. They meet quarterly.

Several unorthodox watering techniques are practiced here

Then there is the resident council. This includes all current residents (duh). This also runs by consensus, and is non-hierarchical. They have weekly business meetings, on Mondays, for a couple of hours. There are full day process meetings roughly monthly. And there are weekly sharing meetings, on Tuesdays, for 2 hours. This part I find really interesting. Here, they talk about what people have liked, what bugs people, and generally checking in with the group about what's going on in people's lives. I think this is a really crucial part to any successful community - having the opportunity to get things off your chest, and how you feel about things. Although they are aware that you can't separate business from emotion in quite such a way as is structured here, some overlap goes on but this is what works better for them, and makes sure they actually get a fair amount of stuff done.

The meetings are facilitated on rotation, and for each functional area of the community (e.g. garden, workshops, etc.) there is a focaliser (and backup). Each household has their own space, not owned by them but occupied solely, with enough distance between households. There are 6 natural build dwellings, ranging in small sizes, all cool as fuck. They are designed to the landscape and the climate, with an earthen floor that get winter sun but not summer sun, big South and South East windows, cob and straw bale walls, a fresco wall, visible timber frames, central hearths set into cob, etc etc. Oh they're so beautiful!

A small selection of harvested tasties

They eat lunch and dinner together every day, cooked and cleaned on rotation. And it's damn tasty. They are mostly pseudo-vegetarian - like me, they rarely eat meat and when they do it's local and organic. Last night I cooked hamburgers, flame-grilled mushroom burgers, steamed minty new potatoes, and tomato salsa. No quinoa, which has been in every meal for the last 3 days. Lots of raw food - fruit, vegetables, and in the States they call unpasteurised foods - milk, cheese, yoghurt, juice - raw. I can't recall whether we can get unpasteurised milk in the UK. But it contains loads of enzymes and bacteria that help the stomach, and nourishes the immune system. Kids fed on raw milk hardly ever get ill. And there's loads of fermentation going on. From soaking legumes (like beans) overnight in slightly warm conditions, to home-made sauerkraut, home-made yoghurt, those good bacteria are getting a good crack of the whip here.

The new chicken coop with clay waddle walls - lucky chickens!

Looking forward to the weekend, going back to Santa Rosa (right next to Sebastopol) to help out at the Handcar Regatta, before coming back here for a week... and my birthday, lest we not forget. Birthdays are made for hamming up, I say.

Decompression II - Sebastopol

Friday 20th September 2008, 1.30pm

Another week gone, I've fully decompressed now. Currently writing this in Sebastopol library, with a crowded booksale going on behind me. I just overheard the most comical argument about a 6-inch squared tabletop space. They really get into their booksales here.

So last Saturday I drove all the way back down to Sebastopol from the Redwoods, a good 7 hour drive. We imagined it to take a little less, and had hoped to get back in time for a beer festival that our Burning Man friend, Michael, was working at, for Ace Cider. We missed it, and hit Ace's pub. Later, we checked out the later-drinking establishment, The Underwood, as Ace's closes at 9pm on weekdays and 10 at the weekend. Jeffry, the slightly eccentric English landlord has trouble with the neighbours - a story not dissimilar to our local haunt at home, The Cadbury. However, it does mean that people can get up in the morning, and there's always the Underwood.

Bar bacchi is the American bowls. Played on sand, on a shorter pitch. Lots of fun. My bar will have one. Better than skittles. Afterwards, we headed to a house party. At last, what I had been waiting for. It happened to be that a load of 'Burners' were involved, and full playa regalia was called for. As if I need an excuse to dress up. And, in the DIY nature of it all, there was a great bar outside, serving tequila that took with it the end of my memory that night. I awoke in Michael's living room, and sprung up to find a fry-up. Which, they do here (The Apple Tree in Sebastopol - and the US in general) in style. Full English, plus pancakes. Mmmm Mmmmn.

Sunday through Tuesday nights we parked up at the local campsite. A nice, friendly place, warm showers, $20, fairly standard fayre. Ordered a new car stereo, with an aux in at the front, and a USB slot. Perfect, with a USB stick we have all the tunes we need. And, for good measure, some new speakers for the back...

Wednesday night we moved to a friend of Michael's with a nice place, with a cracking orchard, on the outskirts of Sebastopol. He also happens to be a festival Producer, and has just got back from Earthdance, one that he worked on. He's asked us for help at his next, The Handcar Regatta, in Santa Rosa on the 28th. Handcars are railbound human-powered contraptions that look like a lot of fun. Sounds like a gas.

Yesterday, the lethargy of inaction began to take its toll. So, we checked out some WOOFing in the local area, and came across Emerald Earth via a bulletin board for Mendocino and Sonoma Counties in California called It's an intentional community, in Mendocino County. They have 200 acres and the land has been owned by a non-profit corporation (which I guess is a similar legal structure to a co-operative in the UK) since 1989. They just emailed back saying that they're having a 'work party' this weekend, for which we are welcome to come and join. We want to stay for a couple of weeks, which without the work party would be tricky, but they can get to know us then, and then we'll know if they want our help for the next 2 weeks.

I'm intrigued by this place. Although we'd set out to help on a farm somewhere, it seems this will be a great opportunity to see an intentional community at work, and get some experience in natural building techniques, which this place is quite famous for. They run regular workshops, training in a variety to techniques, such as cob-oven making, timber framing, clay waddle and straw bale walling and organic gardening. It sounds like a fascinating opportunity to watch a community in action and learn from them. One small step to helping my dream of setting up such a community back home become more real. We leave in an hour. I'm excited.

Big Old Trees And A Beautiful Coast

Friday 12th September, noon

Have just arrived in Jedediah Smith State Park in the Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California (click here for map / route). Some very old trees here. Going walking soon.

Left San Francisco Monday, arrived in Sebastopol. Went to the Ace in the Hole to meet a friend I made at Burning Man. A Cider Pub! Ah, home away from home. The Joker, at 8%, is dry, refreshing with a clean finish. Oh joy. Tuesday we hit up the Armstrong State Park on the way to the Redwood National Park (although there are redwoods all along the coast), going for a beautiful good longish walk of about 6 miles. That stretched the muscles nicely. Wednesday we took the coastal drive up the 1, along a magnificent stretch of coastline second only to the Dorset coast. Fond memories of walking and fossiling can't dislodge the top spot. Thursday morning we left the State Park we arrived at by nightfall the previous day, and having got up at 8am we managed to escape without paying. Nice. $20 for a parking spot for a night is a bit much really. Thursday night we arrived at Klamath, got excited about the big salmon barbeque they were having 'Friday', which became Saturday so we left for here, the cold and the fog making this place a bit macabre.