Seven Nights in a Strawbale Cabin: Part Four

SATURDAY September 16: The Harvest Festival

“That’s what I love about nature. Death is never sad.” Alexis, Everdale intern

Seven Nights in a Strawbale Cabin: Part FiveFog on the hilltops. Fog rolling down the sloping meadows. Fog in the pig-pen. Fog hiding the sunflowers and the morning sun. The morning of the festival and, just like in the famous opening of Dicken’s Bleak House, fog is everywhere. A thick stew of it that eventually lifts to reveal a disappointing sky full of angry clouds predicting inclement weather. As I strolled up toward the community house and witnessed the bleak scene, my heart sank. ­ Everyone had worked so hard preparing food, tours, activities for kids and many other things. Now it looked like the Harvest Festival might be rained out and confined to the indoors ­ not the end of the world, albeit, but it takes some of the wind out of one’s sails nevertheless.

Some sails, however, seem to be ready for anything. I entered the kitchen to see the clan in full swing, buzzing cheerfully about, taking care of business as if the sun were blazing down on them and they’d never heard of the phrase “rained out.” It reminded me that accomplishing big things starts with keeping a check on the basics, like one’s attitude ­ if you let a little rain get you down and get in the way of your goals, how are you ever going to survive when a hurricane strikes?

As it turned out, there was no need for discouragement. The day transformed into a smashing success. There was some rain, before the crowds appeared, but with a bit of creativity and determination we managed to set everything up in good time.

Jan had procured a wicked folk band from Toronto called The Young Folk Revue, who spiced up the indoor festivities with “blazing Irish reels and rollicking sea shanties”, and the sky eventually cleared so that people could roam about outside, visit the animals and plants, or just sit at the picnic tables and socialize. Barbecues were fired up and the air was filled with the aroma of organic corn and fresh burgers cooking on the grill.

The outdoor area had been charmingly decorated with colorful squash and wildflowers all about the grassy borders and on the picnic tables, and once Alexis finished all her cooking, she headed to the outdoor earthen oven, where she was in charge of baking focaccio bread for the more than 200 guests who visited that day. Everdale’s earthen oven is similar to the European-style ‘bee-hive’ ovens; the heat from the burning wood is stored in the walls (made of baked earth, typically up to 12 inches thick), which radiate heat for hours, allowing for plenty of bread to be baked. Watching Alexis tending the fire and sliding the gorgeously baked loaves out with those gigantic metal spatulas, I felt as if I’d been transported back to an earlier century. I suppose if she were a goddess, she’d be Demeter, associated with sheaves of wheat, autumn harvest, fire, honey, and of course, loaves of bread. It made it all the more striking that after her baking extravaganza in the kitchen, she changed into an amazing outfit ­ a pumpkin-colored tunic over a black tee-shirt and wide-legged black flowing pants with embroidered flowers that reminded me of daisies and orange blossoms, many of which are the hues of Demeter: vibrant green, gold, brown, orange and violet ­ very harvesty. As she¹d said just the other night, about the autumn season: “That’s what I love about nature. Death is never sad.” Her gorgeous get-up seemed to express exactly that.

For the first time since I arrived at Everdale, I had the opportunity to tour the farm with an expert guide and hear Gavin and others talk in detail about what happens there. After a week of being flooded with brand new experiences and information, the tour brought it all together for me and gave me a clearer picture of the farm. As Gavin explained to the group of keeners gathered around him, farms are like artificial eco-systems and Everdale tries to imitate nature as much as possible. Most farms, however, operate under a mono-culture (or one-crop) system, which leaves them more vulnerable to disease and total crop wipe-out. It makes sense. If you only have one crop and that one crop gets attacked, you can lose your whole year¹s harvest in one fell swoop. Everdale farming, on the otherhand, uses a crop-rotation system, which is part of a poly-culture that has been around for thousands of years and involves growing dissimilar types of crops in the same space, in sequential seasons, to control pest infestation and among other things, avoid both a depletion of the soil’s nutrients and the buildup of pathogens that tends to occur when continuously growing one crop. It also reduces the use of artificial fertilizers and poisonous pest control products. It’s all about balance and good old-fashioned commonsense.  The kinds of crops an organic farmer will plant under this system will depend upon various things such as the climate, the soil and economic variables. Diversity in general is useful in containing disease. Sheep, for example, are prone to intestinal parasites, so if you keep them in the same area for too long, they’ll be loaded with worms and will need insecticides. So, Gavin tells the crowd, Everdale rotates pastures. Similarly, a variety of animals is good not just for fun but, like the crops, they keep things balanced. Hence, the alpacas, sheep, cows, donkeys, etcetera. Everdale has two darling donkeys: Smudge, a miniature Spanish cross, and Sargaent, both adopted on loan from the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada. Apparently, the Donkey Sanctuary has fifty donkeys at present ready for adoption and if you have a bit of land to spare (especially with lots of red clover, which they love) I highly recommend signing up for donkey-adoption immediately ­ but be prepared to have your donkey for a long time. If you take good care of him, he can live up to fifty years. “At first”, says Gavin, “I thought Donkeys. Whatever. But when you spend some time around them it feels like you’ve been to a Buddist monastary.” The crowd laughed heartily, but it’s true. There is an almost Zen-like calm about these creatures.

As we move about the farm, Gavin continues to chat about the different animals. Everdale keeps a variety of hens, whose names sound more like they belong to baseball teams than to birds ­ Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire
Crosses, Plymoth Bardrocks ­ but whatever they’re called, on a good day they¹ll still plunk out some 12 dozen eggs, which will later be hand-picked, wiped clean and eyed carefully for any abnormalities. One day I proudly cleaned and polished about 10 dozen of them. I couldn¹t stop thinking of the little golden yellow chicks, who were not much bigger than those eggs, realizing they would one day soon be hatching offspring just like these ­ except many of them won’t see the light of day.

In the same vein of environmentally responsible practice, Everdale believes in using a local food system instead of transporting food over a long distance, which contributes to excess fuel consumption and pollution. In doing so, Gavin says, we are being more responsible in our roles as environmental healers.


One of the most fascinating things happening at Everdale is their “sunflower biodiesel” project. The idea is to cultivate a field of sunflowers, out of which sunflower oil will be produced. The oil will be ‘rented’ to restaurants for cooking use and given back to Everdale to be re-used as biodiesel.

Biodiesel can be produced from a variety of renewable resources including canola, soybeans, sun-flower, mustard, and hemp seeds, as well as algae and waste grease. It’s made through a process called transesterification whereby
a catalyst separates alkyl esters (biodiesel) from the glycerin in the seed or grease. Biodiesel has a many advantages over petroleum diesel: it¹s renewable, nontoxic, and biodegradable. It can significantly reduce or eliminate altogether such environmental toxins as greenhouse gas emissions, hydrocarbons and sulphur ­ and it can be produced by farmers in our own province, which, again, reduces the eco-print made by transporation and oil production.

When I heard this story I couldn¹t help but recall my dream the previous night about the sunflowers walking around in the fields, shaking hands. It struck me as remarkably symbolic of what the farm’s plans were for the sunflowers ­ which became a metaphor for humans and plants working together on a project that would be beneficial to both the land and people. I guess that¹s why the sunflowers were smiling and shaking hands, as if they were
entering into a contract with humans and were quite pleased about it. Another cool ‘demo’ the farm has going is a biointensive garden (which Paul the ‘digital master’ undertook as part of his internship skill developments). It is intended to show people what they can do with limited space ­ whether they live in the city or country, an apartment or a house ­ and how to grow enough fresh veggies to sustain themselves for a whole year. The first step in growing a biointensive garden is “double-digging” ­ a technique aimed at maximizing the yield of crops from the available area and maintaining the quality of the soil through sustainable organic gardening methods. Plants need nutrients, moisture and oxygen, and having aerated soil (which is accomplished by this technique) is critical in this type of gardening.

“Imagine Toronto”, said Gavin to the Harvest Festival enthusiasts, “and every rooftop blooming with fresh vegetables.” I closed my eyes and tried to imagine but kept on seeing satellite dishes that beamed down more than 300
channels to addicted customers, and wondered, what with all that TV madness and frenetic schedules, would people really make time to grow things on their rooftops? Apparently, though, I am a cynic because I did some digging
of my own and found it is something of a trend that¹s been steadily growing in Toronto. In February 2006, council approved the city’s Green Roof Strategy, one of the most comprehensive of its kind in North America, which sets a target of greening 50% to 75% of all newly built city-owned rooftops. Presently there are almost 60 green roofs with 17 more in the works.

Benefits of green-roofing it include a decease in local temperature of up to 2 degrees; a decline in storm water runoff; more ‘beach open days,’ a drop in carbon dioxide levels; and a decrease in energy cooling costs. The strategy is expected to save Toronto more than $37 million a year.

As we walked up the path to the community house, Meagan and her boyfriend were singing their hearts out to a group of captivated children: Old McDonald Had a Farm. Later, those same little faces we’re painted with delightful patterns of butterflies and other grand things. It appeared Meagan, along with her musical boyfriend, had hidden talents outside of her knack for organic farming ­ which wasn¹t surprising. Had I had more time to dig for matter other than veggies, I knew I¹d learn all kinds of fascinating things about this eco-friendly team I’d come to think of as natures superstars in their own right: their past experiences, adventures, interests and secret skills.

“We can all make a difference, living more lightly on the earth … we will become the kinds of citizens who can push the governments to create a movement” (Wally Seccombe, Chair, Board of Directors, Everdale Environmental Learning Centre)

Everdale is a member of the Credit River Alliance (CRA), which was formed to protect the Credit River Watershed from the impact of urbanization and its fallout (soil erosion, flooding, contamination and groundwater loss). The Credit River watershed is made up of 1000 sq. kilometers of land drained by the Credit River and its 1,500 kilometres of tributaries, and includes parts of Mississauga and Brampton, the Halton and Peel regions, Wellington County,
and beyond. The CRA says that the watershed is “more than halfway toward a level of damage that is irreversible.” Ontario has lost a staggering 75% of its wetlands and, it says, the Credit has suffered its share of loss, standing at only 6% (Environment Canada recommends 10% wetland to remain relatively healthy). Similarly, Credit Valley forested area is at 15%, whereas 30% is considered healthy. Alongside its members, Everdale works with the Credit Valley Conservation in the areas of public education, stewardship and conservation. So, Everdale is not just living in its own little organic world ­ it realizes that what happens to the surrounding land and water affects us all, and by practicing what it teaches, and protecting the land it occupies, it contributes directly to the betterment of our local environment while training others to learn how to be future stewards of the earth.


The second part of the farm tour, led by Wally Seccombe, Chair of Everdale’s Board of Directors, takes us in to Everdale’s award-winning HOME ALIVE : the house that “breathes, drinks and thinks.” HOME ALIVE is a model strawbale home that looks down on the community house from a slightly higher altitude on a delightful little patch of garden-land. As Wally explains, the strawbale home is the most ancient and venerable of living designs. The fact
that its value has been lost on society for so long shows us how much we have forgotten, and part of what the building of HOME ALIVE is all about is remembering what nature has given us. The benefits of such a structure gradually become apparent during the tour of this amazing ­ and aesthically stunning ­ house. Built in 2002-2003 with the help of various ‘green’ builders and suppliers who provided things from solar panels to labor, it is a perfect example of how feasible it would be to survive and even florish independent of (or much less dependent on) our present toxic-laden, energy sucking life-support system.

First of all, as most readers will have guessed, the strawbale house is not solely made of straw. That would be too Three Little Piggies ­ a huff and a puff and down it would come! Bales of straw are used as insulation, packed
tightly between the outer and inner walls, which are comprised of several layers of lime plaster, followed by silicone spray paint. All of these materials have the dual qualities of being resistant to various damaging agents such as fire and pests, as well as having the capacity to allow sufficient airflow, thus eliminating the plague of sick-building syndrome triggered by mold created from dead-air pockets and moisture build-up. Hence, the walls quite literally, breathe.

The house also ‘thinks’ in that it can tell (via a computerized set-up) when to cut off the supply from grid-power, depending on seasons and weather, and maximize the use of renewable energy.

The sun plays a big role in how the house is heated, and how electricity is created and utilized. The sun¹s energy is captured in two ways (by the use of specially designed black tiles and solar panels) as is rainwater, which, after flowing down a stainless steel roof (which apparently lasts four times longer than traditional tar-shingled roofs) gathers into the eavestrough; it is then sunk into a cistern and processed through a sand, charcoal and UV filter, after which it exits for the home’s use. Excess water is gathered in water-bottles and used to water the garden. As Wally describes it, the home feeds the garden and the garden feeds the home, hence the concept that the house ‘drinks.’

Another feature of this intricate system is that solar water-heated pipes beneath the floors serve to heat the house as well, combined with the overall construction and design of the home¹s exterior and interior materials. The house is not connected at all to the water table, so it is entirely self-sufficient in this respect.  The septic system is separate and uses what is called ‘grey water,’ which comes from dish water. An aerobic tank is also in place ­ but this would require a whole other chapter on how household organic waste is treated. From what I understand, aerobic compost becomes a breeding ground for helpful bacteria, which breaks down anaerobicwaste at a rapid rate, destroying pathogens in the process. The toilet is a composting toilet and is not connected to the septic at all (composted waste from the toilet is used around the house).

Among other features of HOME ALIVE are its stunning floors made of cork, bamboo and wood scavenged from demolition sites. The bamboo floors are actually quite beautiful. Bamboo (as opposed to trees such as oak, pine and maple commonly used for wood floors) is quick and easy to grow, and less expensive than hardwood. Bamboo has a sugar content and when it is baked, as is part of the process, each layer has different shades. As I left HOME
ALIVE and headed down to the community house, I decided that when I have my own strawbale home, I’ll definitely use bamboo flooring. I’d already decided on a name for my future eco-home: it will be dubbed the Sugar Shack.

When I arrived at the Round Room, the festivities were in full swing ­literally. Irish reels spun in the air and people were swinging contra-style to the music while others sat, tapping their feet to the beat. By the time the last souls had cleared out, dishes were done and the placed tidied up, I was so looking forward to retreating to the solitude of my comfy cabin, especially knowing that the next day was Sunday ­ the designated day off. Tucked under the covers, visions of sugar shacks danced in my head and somewhere from the deepest recesses of my mind, the words and melody to a song I’d once loved came back to me: There’s a crazy little shack beyond the tracks … dodododododo, do do, do do … and everybody calls it the…sugar shack… dodododododo, do do, do do … Well, it’s just a coffeehouse and it’s made out of wood. Espresso coffee tastes mighty good. That’s not the reason why I’ve got to get back, ah, to that…sugar shack, whoa baby to that…sugar shack …whoa baby to that … sugar shack, ah ha, ya, to that ….
As I began to drift off into the sixties, I thought about how wonderful the idea of a Sugar Shack was and I thought of Wally’s words, that heat from the sun is free ­ until a horrible notion came into my head like a needle scratching over vinyl: how long would it be before the government began taxing the sun, just like they have water taxes? It was simply too depressing to contemplate so, like Scarlett O’Hara, I decided, ‘fiddle-dee-dee,’ I’d think about it in the morning. Tonight, I wanted only to dream about building my own little eco-version of Tara.


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