Linda, the lady traveller I had met at Lake Macquarie mentioned she was going to take part in a strawbale house building workshop near Dungog NSW. Oooh! I thought; this is just the kind of thing I would like to do right now. I had been a bit listless lately, wondering why exactly I was travelling around still. The scenery was fabulous, nature pristine as ever and the people friendly but...I was just not getting the same buzz from it as before. Before I was welcomed to Tasmania and forced to stay there for more than a year of love, adventure and joy. Before, I had been searching for something; call it home, or love, or a sense of belonging. Perhaps Tasmania was it, I’m still not sure but miss it already.
So after pestering Linda for the details, I went; turning up in the late afternoon at a collection of small buildings and concrete foundations without walls. The roofs were up, supported by a special wooden framework which is designed to take the measurements of strawbales. The raw material for the walls was stacked up under the roof to keep the rain off. Wet strawbales are not a good idea as they rot, fall apart in no time, grow mould and smell like silage. You end up living in a compost heap.
Judy, the owner of the property introduced me to Shane and Claire who were the builders, busily finishing off the final details before the workshop on the following day. She explained the functions of the different buildings over a cup of tea.
The main house, in which she would be living, overlooked a large curved dam in the valley with a backdrop of a dense mixed forest on the slopes beyond. This was all her land, many acres of forest which she was preserving and managing for biodiversity. The second largest building was to be accommodation, either for Bed and Breakfast guests, friends and family or WWOOfers [Willing Workers On Organic Farms]. There were two small, square buildings to be used as a “mudroom/laundry” [where you can leave wet clothes, use the toilet and wash yourself and your clothes] and a cellar/toolshed. [I am not exactly sure of the functional combinations].
Linda turned up, then one or two others came to set up their tents. Some of them knew each other from previous workshops. We said a brief hello and retired for an early night, ready for some hard work in the morning.
It was cold at 7am, probably just above freezing point, as the team gathered together around the hot water urn which was blowing steam, like our breath in the crisp air. Cars and Utes turned up; soon there were around 15 of us including the builders and of course the expert straw man Frank Thomas, with the English name but a German accent. He has been running workshops like this up and down the Eastern states right down into Tasmania for years and knew many of the people at this gathering.
After a short safety briefing we got to work. I could tell you all about the small detail but I don’t want to bore you with technical stuff. Basically we spent the next three days piling bales on top of one another in a brickwork pattern, fitting them in between the uprights of the structure, which sounds easy but was not really so. We needed a lot of half bales [think LEGO], which had to be split and retied with twine by hand. Sometimes the structure got in the way of easy placement and when we got to three trimmed with hedge cutter bales [on edge] high, a wooden compression plate was placed on top inside a groove cut in the bale with a circular saw and compressed down squarely and correctly by high tension steel wire and Gripples. Whew; what a mouthful! Told you it was complicated! It was good to have a selection of large bottoms to choose from to provide extra compressive power; especially, [for me personally] the female ones.
We swapped jobs, at our own discretion unless Frank found an urgent need somewhere. Trimming with the hedge cutters [noisy, dusty, hot and tiring], carrying bales to be stacked, stacking and fitting bales, splitting bales in two and retying, cutting grooves [hot, extremely dusty and tiring], poking wires through bales and under bearing plates, tensioning with Gripples, making mistakes and doing it again, sitting on top of bales if you had a large bum and so on...
At the usual mid morning smoko and tea break, we were provided with an endless stream of yummy cakes and goodies by Judy, whose job it was to provide fuel for the workers. Lunch was extravagant, with choices of wholesome homemade soup, fresh bread, a stack of sandwiches, fruit, nuts, salads and more cakes. She did us proud. I hardly ate an evening meal as I was not used to all this food.
The atmosphere was enthusiastic and wonderfully cheerful. Soon we began to distinguish the chatters from the quiet workers; the keen from the hangers on; but it did not matter. We joked openly about it and had a good laugh. One of the hangers on, too busy rushing around the state making loads of money, felt guilty perhaps, because he arrived with a car boot full of junk food one day. Oh dear, not the right thing for us Greenies! Some of us ate it because we did not want to waste it [that’s my excuse and true]. It tasted horrible and there was plenty left at the end of the week.
Boy, I was tired at the end of the day! I would stagger back to the bus after five and collapse for at least an hour. Sometimes I dozed off on the bed and woke as the cold was creeping into my bones. But I got fitter towards the end of the week. It was good to feel my muscles tighten and the fat disappearing from around my waist. I felt lighter in body and mind. In the mornings I would do my newly discovered T’ai Chi exercises as the sun rose through the mist and bathed the valley in a pink glow. “Hey, this really works!” I thought as I breathed the universal Chi energy into my lungs, glowing with health of body and mind. “So this is wellbeing...” [Slightly sarcastically, for I know how it feels already].
Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it for building a hut...
We mixed and mixed, got covered and splattered, sucked into the ground by it. The soil had been dug up from the site, it happened to be just the right clay for the job. Great! But why had they not sifted out the stones before mixing it with water? Now we had to make mud soup, push it through a totally inadequate sieve that fell apart, and pick the stones out one by one. I could not have thought of a dirtier, more labour intensive job if I tried. A bit of bad planning I think.
The walls were up, bashed and squashed into place and been given a haircut.
Now the dents and cracks had to be filled with a lime render. Mud was mixed with lime, water and gravel in a secret blend by Master Thomas. He had his magic machine which puffed and grumbled like a beast until the brew was done. The grey ectoplasm extruded itself from the trunk of the beast into the battered barrows. “Quick! Mix in the chopped straw!” shouted Frank over the din. We mixed like demented slaves, one of us clasping the writhing trunk to direct the turgid flow.
It really did feel like something out of the lord of the Rings. Orc like creatures, made from earth to slave for the evil wizard. It was great fun!
I did not feel so great when after filling cracks for two days the ends of my rubber gloves were eroded away and my fingers were raw soon afterwards. I had to stop, the blood seeped from where the skin used to be. I put myself on light duties for the rest of that day, the last one of the week. Oh yes, I nearly forgot. I also got some lime render in my eye which caused me pain for more than a week afterwards, despite immediately washing it out with copious amounts of water. Nasty stuff lime; they used to dissolve bodies with it in Snowtown, South Australia.
Most of the workshoppers were gone; there would be another mob next week to do the main house. That morning Frank had brought in a team of plasterers to smooth out the render he sprayed onto the walls. That kind of job is best done by professionals, or else you would get an amateur looking job at the end of a lot of extremely hard work. I know what it’s like to hand render a house and so does Jean, my ex. We have not recovered from it yet, six years later. [Psychologically at least.]
That’s it, a fine experience for a traveller. It makes him feel as though he is making a difference and not just bumming around. For he is making a contribution towards a better world for the future.