Beyond this, we found yet another dimension added to the experience, involving optional participation in practices such as mediation, yoga, spiritual exercises, songs and dances. The inclusion of the latter into the events of the week highlighted an essential partnership between both domains. The act of designing and building one's own home will necessarily involve a great deal of contemplation and reflection: values, morals and ethics - the very core of any spiritual belief- are thus embodied in the act of natural building.
Those who arrived and registered early were treated to a pre-event earthbag workshop with Steve Kemble and Carol Escott. Steve and Carol also gave the subsequent strawbale seminars later in the week, and further indulged us with stories and slides of their earthbag home in the Bahamas the first such structure ever built on the island.
As the convergence officially got underway Monday morning, I found myself giving in to a last minute change of heart and ditching the strawbale talks in favor of learning about the exciting world of cob! Cobbing is a centuries old technique of building with a mixture of clay, earth and straw. As it turns out, cob structures are surprisingly versatile and are ideal for hot, dry regions such as the South West, and also fare well in cooler damp climates, as found on the British Isles and the Northwest coast of the US and Canada.
Some people had previous experience mixing and building with cob, while this was also a first time for many. Janelle Kapoor (of Kleiwerks) was our instructor, and she gave a brief, yet thorough overview of the methods, applications and limitations of building with this technique. But it didn't take long for her to get us all dancing in the mud pit, mixing up cob with hands and feet. The resulting material can be sculpted and formed into any shape undulating and curving walls; nooks, altars and shelves carved into place; benches and beds that flow out of the mass of the dwelling. Janelle was also quick to point out that each cob mix will vary according to the location, as after all, we were simply digging a hole in the ground and using what material we found under our feet. And so we learned the first lesson of Natural Building : there is no right way of building everything depends on where, how and what one is building.
Later that evening, like every night, we were treated to several slideshow presentations on everything from urban permaculture to traditional European stone dwellings. But after a full day of listening, learning, and building under the desert sun, it proved difficult to stay awake, let alone focused late into the night. Yet the learning experience did not only come from the workshops and lectures: I found myself constantly "on" receptive to new thoughts, knowledge and perceptions which continually unfolded from the many wonderful interactions and conversations with other participants.
Later in the week, I joined Ianto Evans (of the Cob Cottage Company) to learn how to build a rocket stove a simple yet unbelievably effective design. The hot gases emitted from the stove are funneled through a large pipe, which is then cobbed over. The result is a cob bench that absorbs heat from the stove, which is then slowly radiated into the house over the course of the day!
Such feats of ingenuity are exemplary of the tradition of natural building, which encourages the most effective use of available materials and spaces. And, by simple virtue of reacquainting one with the feel, the smells and textures of earth, wood, plants and stone, natural building can perhaps offer a new paradigm of understanding our world, and of our role and responsibilities within it.
As BHN came to its inevitable end, we all reveled in all that had been accomplished in the space of one short week : building, learning, meeting of new and old friends, discussions, films, puppet shows, song and dance and exceptionally delicious organic food.
Through it all, it was the ebb and flow of new ideas, the free interchanges of thought and opinion that marked the true nature of the week for me. Being surrounded with so many others who all shared the same vision was a most invigorating and encouraging experience. And from this one fantastic week, we saw the defining character of BHN emerge: a collective, yet unstated commitment to share our new-found knowledge, and to spread the seeds of our enthusiasm far and wide into the world.