Monday - December 5, 2011

We’ve had a few odd days – weather-wise. At first there we signs that snow would come … then the temperatures went up … it’s now been cool for three days not cold … almost feels warm compared to the weeks of subzero temperatures. There has been no fog in the mornings though it has been very cloudy with the sun rarely appearing. There has been a little rain … enough to get the ground to look wet but not much more.

The day before yesterday was great fun as Andreea and I spent most of the day together in the improvised workshop (=moving the sawhorses into the barn and laying out a long power cable for the power tools). I was busy measuring and cutting and Andreea was on the sander. We got some finishing done on more of the bedroom cabinet and got most of the first of two couches cut.

Yesterday we pretty much took the day off as Nora and Valentin came for a spontaneous visit. Valentin spent some time with the ax and I collected the wood he cut … and that was pretty much it.

Today I got an earlier start because it was really not-cold. Not cold is becoming a precious temperature for us. Not cold weather is pleasant to go outside in. Not cold water (usually left in the boiler the day after we shower) is superb for washing up in the morning or doing dishes. I started out in the living finishing  room and applied a final (I hope) layer of oil to the cabinet pieces. I then went outside and spent the entire day sanding more pieces. That is UNTIL ….

Andreea came outside and noted that the chicken that was having breathing problems a few days ago wasn’t looking to good. He was closing his eyes and wasn’t moving around much. So we decided to bring his life to an end. Andreea prepared everything she needed, I brought out the camera … and … the knife wasn’t sharp enough so Andreea had a hard time cutting into his neck … so I quickly took over and did the slaughtering and Andreea continued the bucthering … one small step for mankind one giant leap for the both of us. More on that in a separate post (coming soon) with images … we seem to be going through a period of intense slaughtering 🙂

Andreea continued to finish taking care of the fresh chicken and to make dinner while I went back to my sanding. Just as light was coming to an end (there is electric light in the barn yet) I managed to finish sanding the parts that make up the frame of the cabinet. I carried them all inside and began applying oil finishing to them.

By the time I was finished I was starving we had dinner … and this day is pretty much over. Andreea just came out of the shower and I am waiting for more hot water 🙂

Three Pigs

PLEASE NOTE: This post contains VERY graphic images of three pigs being slaughtered. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there to take the images nor that I would be able to. In the end I wanted to be there, I was there and I was able to take these images. If you feel you may be disturbed by them now is a good time to stop scrolling this page. You are invited to skip to the end where I have noted some thoughts and reflections on this event.

From the end of November through to Christmas in many village homes in Romania  pigs are slaughtered. Pigs are a very popular source of meat here in Romania. It is a somewhat celebratory event as it provides an abundance of meat as the holidays approach and the winter sets in. I don’t eat meat (and I’ve put that to the test here in Romania) but Andreea does crave it occasionally. She prefers red-meat but that’s harder to find and more expensive then the abundantly available pig meat in Romania.

When our neighbor told Andreea that they would be slaughtering their large female pig, Andreea asked if she could purchase 10kg of meat but she was gently refused – there simply wasn’t enough meat. The purchase, feeding, slaughter and butchering of a pig is usually a family effort – so when the meat becomes available it is divided between the people involved in this process. So, though a large pig was butchered (about 160kg) there simply would not have been enough meat. However she did invite Andreea to purchase one of the smaller pigs promising they would also butcher it for her. Andreea took up the offer and we joined in for a day of pig slaughtering. I was invited and welcomed to come with a camera.

We woke up to another beautiful & picturesque frozen morning (I was actually praying that the sun would not come out so I would not lose a woodworking day).

And a short walk down to our neighbors brought us into a warm room where everyone was ready to get to work. On the table you can see two dishes filled with a Romanian pastry called Placinta – large dough dumplings (in this case fried) some filled with cheese and others with a cooked cabbage filling. They were prepared the evening before (we know because we were there to eat them warm as they came out of the frying pa) in a large quantity to feed the group of people who worked throughout the day.

I think they were waiting for us to get to work … knives in hand 🙂

So we headed out back to the get the first pig – the large mother.

You can already tell from the conditions in which the pigs are kept that they don’t get much opportunity to be pigs nor are they familiar with human contact (beyond basic feeding).

The pig didn’t want to come out and was lured to the door with a cob of corn – there they tied a rope around it’s foot.

Still they couldn’t pull her out.

So one of them went in and got her by the tail … and so they managed to get her out.

In case you are wondering, as I was, why the leg, here’s the answer … by pulling the leg out from under her they got her lying on her side.

Which exposes her neck for the slaughter. She struggled and yelled fiercely to no avail.

It took a few gurgling minutes for her to die and was then pulled to the work space for butchering.

And it was then time for one of her siblings (the first of two) to go.

And one was picked out and quickly slaughtered.

… and pulled out to the field

that was starting to get busy.

I took a small pause to again appreciate how beautiful a place we live in.

… and then it was time to torch the pigs … this is both to burn off the hairs and a first act of cleaning/disinfection. Traditionally this was done by placing the pig in a pile of hay and lighting it. Apparently that was a slow process and today everyone is rushing and there is no space for tradition so blow torches connected to home cooking gas cannisters are used. The problems is that the gas is effected by the freezing cold so the canisters need to be heated. At first they torched the canisters themselves (safety is not a big thing here) and later placed them in hot water.

And so begins a very tedious and time consuming process of burning and peeling/scratching:

Pieces of wood are used to support the legs … you gotta get it all … and the fingernails are burned and then pulled off … which is when bone is first exposed.

A victim

and a crime scene

Meanwhile the smaller pig was coming along much faster … it was already flipped over and they started rubbing salt into its skin and cleaning it with warm water.

And then it was time to bring in (or take out?) the 3rd pig … this one was selected by Andreea and will henceforth be referred to as “our pig” or “our dead pig” or “our pig meat”.

And the place started looking very busy … though a quiet and pleasant pace of work was maintained.

Meanwhile the 1st small pig was getting its last scraping and washing

… and then more salt rubbed into it (pity it wasn’t alive to enjoy this)

… and finally propped up between two pieces of fire wood … ready for butchering

… and quickly cut open (it was relatively easy because it was still small and not very fatty … see larger pig ahead).

The procedure starts with emptying the chest cavity … so you reach in, tear through lots of ligaments

and there is the heart and lungs still hooked up

Then the bowels are taken out into a large dish

And the unwanted gallbladder is cut away from the much wanted liver

Which left an empty shell of a pig

Which was then cleaved into two halves

Which were carried inside

This is one example where two halves don’t make a whole

And the butchering continues

Once the large pieces are cut away a blanket of fatty tissue and skin is left … this guy did a very nice and elegant butchering job

Here you can see half the pig piled up neatly in the rear and the second half still whole

The other small pig (our pig) was taking a different route (different butcher and a more improvised work space). The head was cut off first and the rest was … well laid back 🙂

And again in a meticulous and what looked to me a professional chunks of meat and organs were efficiently organized

And … here is Andreea salting a fresh sliver of pig skin

… and reliving a childhood memory she’s shared with me numerous times – relishing its fresh taste

On to the main show … the large pig.

… again some final scraping and washing

… propping up

… and cutting open

… a very large liver and gallbladder

… and a huge bowl emptying

… and a kidney cut up. The kidney is used to determine the “market weight” of the pig. The kidney is weighed and its weight is multiplied by 1000 … so a 50gram kidney (like our little pig had) indicates a 50kg pig.

And again, an empty, though very large, shell of meat remained.

It was cracked in half

And again one half at a time carried to a work table

Where the butchering continued

… and fat was peeled

and loads of meat were carried into the house.

including heavy blankets of skin and fat

which were meticulously carved and cleaned

and set aside for processing and preservation.

Most of the meat will end up smoked. Before it is smoked it is salted (which apparently dries it). A large plastic container was filled with layers of meat and salt. The bottom layers were the neatly arranged blankets of skin and fat – this will be left in salt for two months and then smoked – a recipe for Slanina – smoked fat – considered a specialty dish.

On top of that the rest of the meat is piled – including this heavy slab of meat – a complete leg and thigh … deep cuts were filled with salt and it was added to the container

… no meat gets left behind 🙂

This meat will sit for 2 weeks and then be smoked.

And other parts of the meat are processed into various sausages. One kind of sausage is made of the fattier tissues and another is made of the internal organs together with cooked onions and rice. The meat is ground and packed into the intestines. For this the intestines need to be untangled … a meditative task where the tender ligaments keeping it all together are cut away until the intestines can be pulled apart. A gruesome task (if you ask me) and smelly one especially since the intestines are packed with … shit at different levels of digestion.

Then the intestines are filled with water.

… and their contents rinsed out

and … well piled on the ground

… until they are collected and washed and taken back inside.

The internal organs were washed and set aside earlier.

At this point (around 15:00) I left and went back home. The room was getting to be to intense for me … the smell of meat was overwhelming, some was already cooking (chunks of meat frying in melted fat) for a meal. Smoking had accumulated, I was hungry … and I had enough. So no images of the sausages.

Thoughts & Reflections

One Room: It’s easy to miss, especially for people of a western mindset – that everything indoors in these images happened in one room. The house has two rooms but only one is heated so in winter this room is everything – a bedroom, living room, kitchen … everything. One wood-stove is used for both heating and cooking. It houses two women (Maria and her mother) and occasionally on weekends Maria’s two children. At one point this small room (approximately 4 by 4 meters) sheltered 9 people. One of the sofas/beds was covered with plastic sheets on which the meat was piled. The small table (pictured at the top of this post) has seen the meat from many pigs over its life. Under the table, between the two beds, there is now a large plastic container containing a pile of meat that will be enjoyed over almost a year.

Respect: I have greatest respect for Romanian villagers, they are survivors. They are relatively poor and yet they manage to create an abundant (at least food-wise) life.

Hardship: Romanian villagers are set in their ways – and their ways make for a life of hardship. Pigs are typically grown in a confined and inevitable dirty space (permaculture wisdom is that pigs, if given an option, will keep their shelter clean). They are not given space to roam and range, they are not put to work, they do not live long. They are grown over a better part of a year for meat and meat alone. They have to be fed (expensive and tedious). Pigs here have a poor life and a poor death.

Respect: There seems to be very little respect in life or death towards animals – pigs included. There has to be a better and more respectful way to slaughter animals. There also seems to be missing a respect toward the abundance of food that comes from the taking of an animal’s life.

Appreciation: The lack of respect towards the animals also reflects inwards. Romanians do not seem to be able to recognize and appreciate the abundance of food from such an event. They seem to have lost touch with a capacity to enjoy the gifts bestowed on them by nature.

Biology: It was amazing to see the internals of a living being. I had theoretical biological knowledge – but it went to a different level when I saw the diaphragm that separates the chest and abdominal cavities and the internal organs all in their places.

Strength: I didn’t think I could handle being so close to slaughtering and butchering. Two years ago when I visited Romania I could not sit for long at a table that had just a slab of freshly butchered meat. I don’t know what changed … but except for a first few seconds when blood gushed out of the large pig … I was fine.

Life: I noted that biologically, the pig and I have quite a lot in common. Yes, pigs have a very small brain … but most of the biological workings we share (breathing, digestion, elimination, etc.) are autonomous anyway. Mind aside, What is the magical force behind this? What was it that drained from the pigs eyes as blood was draining from its throat. What was it struggling uselessly to hold on to?

Farm Animals: If When we get around to expanding our livestock (currently poultry only) – slaughtering is going to be a challenge. It is an inevitability – it is impossible to sustain animals on a farm without there being some slaughtering. We will need to figure this out.

Our Pig: Andreea now has 20+ kg of meat – most of it frozen in small one-serving bags she can defrost whenever she feels like having some meat. Some of it will be smoked together with Maria’s batch of meat. Our dogs will also enjoy some of the meat.

Holiday: This event took place on December 1st – a National Romanian Holiday.

Friday - December 2, 2011

So today the sun came out ***celebration*** and fairly early in the day at that… so just after 10am I was out and getting to work on our bedroom cabinet. I had about 5 hours of work before the cold began to set in. I am happy to say that, though there is still much work, the first pieces are already coated with a first layer of boiled linseed oil. The new finishing room is, for now, our living room. The BLO has a much stronger smell indoors then it does outdoors. So, I am grateful that Andreea moved us to living almost full time in the bedroom (both because we still haven’t build the couches in the living room so it’s not that comfortable to sit, and to cut back on firewood). I wasn’t very happy about the change but it immediately revealed its true purpose – wood finishing!

So today is also the first day that we’ve fired up the rocket in the morning … and wow what a difference that makes. It was running for 3 or 4 hours this morning and the room as warm throughout the day. Its burning again … and I am very curious to see what the night and following morning will be like. It seems to be much easier and more effective to keep a room warm then to warm it up from cold temperatures time and again. Our rocket is not very comforting when the room is cold because it doesn’t have a radiating heat barrel so- it takes 2 or 3 hours to effect the space. But it’s thermal mass does seem to be working for us once the room is warm.

I found the flash-card reader in our storage space (see why we need a cabinet?) … so I am off to have a look and process the pictures from yesterdays pig slaughtering … story and images coming soon to a website near you 🙂

Noapte Buna 🙂

 

Shit

I think that on the previous time-line post I made an error. The first wood-working project was not the temporary poultry cage – it was our composting toilet.

It’s nothing glamorous but it was a huge relief to have a more decent and comfortable place to shit then the dirty wooden-shack-over-a-hole-in-the-ground behind the house (a common Romanian outhouse). It was dirt-cheap to build and to the best of our knowledge we are almost the only people in the village (a rather large village that does not have a sewage system, though I am guessing there are a few houses that may have septic tanks installed) who do not need to go outside into the freezing cold when we have to pee or poop.

This can be a long post, but I am going to try and keep it short … mostly because the sun is coming out today and I want to take advantage of it to make progress on our cabinet. The bottom line is this:

  1. We shit in a bucket set in a simple wooden box. There is no smell, no flies and most importantly no sound of fresh water being flushed at the end.
  2. A bucket fills in about 4 days.
  3. We have numerous buckets so they can be emptied once every week or two.
  4. The buckets are dumped into a composting … structure.
  5. I do try to pee outside as much as possible … good for the plants and less weight to carry away (pee is surprisingly much heavier then poop).
  6. We dump all of our organic waste there too.
  7. The structure has two containers. One container is filled for a year and then left to rest for another year during which the second container is filled.
  8. In two years (actually 18 months as we’ve been active for 6 months) we will begin to harvest excellent fertilizer.

The choice to use composting toilets kept us on edge for many months while we were planning our house. Though it made sense and seemed like the simplest and most sustainable solution we were very disturbed by it. Ultimately the universe solved the dilemma for us by placing us in a situation where we had no alternative other then building and using a composting toilet.

It wasn’t as easy to build as it should be because, like almost everything else here in Romania, we had a hard time finding materials we needed to build it. We do not have access to affordable plywood. We could not find properly sized, proportioned and lidded buckets. We could not find a toilet seat that would fit and seal. Anything we do here that is outside the far-from-sustainable main-stream requires much effort, time and patience. We eventually found plastic buckets that fit (though they need to be carried carefully  because the lids cannot be fastened down). We built the toilet from sanded OSB. We just barely found a simple and cheap toilet seat that didn’t have raised notches that would prevent a seal between the seat. and bucket.

We have done (and continue to do) much research and have pretty much come to know most of the available alternate solutions. If money is not an issue then there are alternatives that remove the need to carry buckets of waste to the compost pile. But for us money is an issue and more importantly simplicity and self-build are core values. So honestly, even if money was not an issue, we would mostly likely still be using simple bucket-based composting systems.

If you want to know all you need to know (actually much more then you need to know) then all you need is the “Humanure Handbook“. Other then maybe curiosity you won’t need anything else besides this book (probably only a third of it will do).

I will write a separate post about our Humanure Hacienda – that “structure” where  we dump all of our waste. It too is taken from the Humanure Handbook.

As I make the final edits to this post I am smiling to myself  … it has been a process of maturity and expansion that brought me to the point where I can freely write about “pee and poop”. Somewhere in the history of society (at least those societies I have lived in) we took a wrong turn and moved away from practical honesty for the sake of some superficial social appearances. We all pee and poop and we all do so on the same planet that we all must continue to be able to inhabit for a long time. I know what happens with my shit … do you know what happens with yours?

 

What is different about “Global Model” Earthships?

The modern incarnation of Earthships seems to be going under the banner of something Earthship Biotecture calls the “Global Model”. There is very little documentation of the “Global Model” (I’ll get to that point a bit later on in this post), so here’s what I’ve been able to piece together. I am sure there are many more details, but what follows are strategic issues that matter to me. If you know more about the “Global Model” you’re welcome to add more insights in the comments to this post.

 Evolution

The most important lesson I’ve learned in tracing the Global Model is that Earthships, as designed and built by Michael Reynolds and Earthship Biotecture, are a work-in-progress. They keep changing, removing past mistakes, improving on old ideas, introducing new ideas, etc. This implies that there is no “ultimate” Earthship design – it changes (and must change) with context (cultural, economical, ecological, etc.). It is ultimately up to me to make the choices that best fit within my life context and best serve my needs. Don’t go looking for a manual on how to build an Earthship – there is no such thing. Even the original Earthship books by Michael Reynolds (though packed with valuable information) have obsolete information in them. You are better off understanding the underlying principles, studying as many Earthships as you can find and then taking responsibility for filtering and applying that information to your build. My interest in the Global Model is not as a(nother) template but rather as a reflection of changes and refinements Earthships have undergone. I am curious to see how the underlying principles have been challenged and how those challenges have been met.

 One Big U

I think that the most prominent change has been in the core structure of the Earthship. Originally an Earthship was built using connected U’s built from rammed tires.

Global Modal Earthships seem to have done away with that and instead are built with one large encompassing U built of rammed tires creating one large internal space. Then, that one large space is further divided into smaller spaces using internal walls (usually from concrete-can walls).

I can think of numerous reasons for this:

  1. Architectural Design Freedom – rammed tire walls are not a flexible design element – they are massive and structural – they are an overkills for internal non-structural walls. Removing them from the inside makes it easier to divide the internal space.
  2. Less Work – rammed tires are hard work much more difficult then concrete-can walls. They take longer to build (given the same manpower).
  3. Faster Closed Building Shell – there are two main phases of construction – before there is a closed shell (roof + glazing + skylights + doors) and after there is a closed shell. Less tires means you can get to a closed shell faster – much faster. Since Earthship Biotecture also build Earthship shells in blitz-projects – it makes sense for them to strive for a quick-closed-shell.
  4. More Floor Space – Though it isn’t a drastic difference – replacing thick tire walls with thinner concrete-can walls leaves more open floor space.

The price:

  1. Concrete Buttresses – concrete pillars attached to the rear wall have now been introduced (instead of the massive rammed tire walls) to provide structural support for the long rear wall – this is a whole new skill set (suddenly there are stories of forms breaking and concrete flowing around the building site).
  2. More Concrete – much more concrete is now used in the project – both in the buttresses and in the internal walls.
  3. Thermal Mass – though I don’t think it is a high price I do believe this results in less thermal mass in the house (though I may be wrong here – because concrete may be more dense and therefore have the same thermal mass as a thicker earth wall!).

This change seems to be coupled with additional and interesting structural changes.

Greenhouse Separation

In the original Earthships the greenhouse was bordering on the living spaces.

Though it is mentioned only in passing in the original Earthship books it seems that in the Global Model the Greenhouse corridor is almost always separated from the living spaces by an additional (mostly glass) wall.

This one was a hard nut to figure out. My understanding is that this configuration provides better climate control in the living spaces. What follows may be totally wrong … but this is the best I have to offer so far. The greenhouse, besides it’s inherent function as source of food, is also a heating device – especially in the winter when it gets direct sunshine (when it can it heat up more then it does in the summer). When the Greenhouse and living spaces were one – whatever happened in the greenhouse directly effected the attached living space. Separating them introduced a better level of climate control. My gut tells me that the greenhouse also had at least two unwanted effects. One is increased humidity due to the abundant plants. The other is obnoxious smells due to the grey water presence (I am guessing that smell problems come not so much from the grey water processing but rather from the attempt to store it for reuse – flushing toilets). So by separating the greenhouse from the living spaces all three problems were mitigated:

  1. Heat – the heat in the greenhouse can now be controlled by (a) letting cool air in from the low-placed operables ad (b) by letting warm air out through skylights. Heat in the rooms can be controlled by (a) windows in the separating wall that let warm air in from the greenhouse and (b) skylights which let warm air out and (c) ventilation tubes that let fresh air in from the outside (more on later on).
  2. Humidity – increased humidity in the greenhouse can be vented out through its skylights without automatically effecting the living space.
  3. Smells – can also be mitigated through ventilation before they take over the living space (though personally I would not contain grey water … more on that in a future post).

The Price:

  1. More construction – a new wall requiring footings and framing has been introduced.
  2. More Glazing – assuming you will want to let as much light in to the actual living space be prepared to pay for a lot more glazing (I still haven’t decided if simple one-pane glazing is enough or more thermal-double-pane glass should be used).

 Roof

There are two changes I have noticed in the roof. One seems to be more consistent the other less so.

The first is the direction of roof rafters. In the original books rafters ran in an east-west direction.

In the Global Model it seems that rafters are now being installed in north-south direction.

This change seems to be related to the One Big U approach – which have a limited depth but unlimited length. So now rafters can be laid to enclose a space of almost any length – the longer the space the more rafters are installed.  The price is that- north-south rafters need a front (south) frame onto which they can be laid – that frame comes in the form of the wall that separates the greenhouse from the living space.

The other change that seems to be prevailing is that the roof now has single slope – it seems that new models no longer have the raised greenhouse lip that was originally described and implemented almost as a trademark of Earthships.

I am not sure this is a change in design strategy but with the north-south oriented rafters it makes sense (to me) that the roof is one single slope. Also, I have to admit, I never really understood the importance of the original design – other then create a larger opening – which, to my understanding, can be achieved with roof that slopes down to the north – so that the south end is raised.

 

Experimentation

To summarize and re-iterate the process of evolution of Earthships I feel it is important to highlight that Earthship Biotecture seems to be a group constantly exploring new directions seeking new solutions that further complement their core direction. Some of these experiments may never find widespread adoption, some may only lead to further inquiry. I haven’t seen things such as indoor cisterns and jungles (Earthships Volume III) in many Earthships. I personally feel that their solar toilets are way too complicated and expensive compared to the dirt-cheap (and renewing) composting toilets we are already using.

The point  is that everything about Earthships needs to be filtered and contextualized. There are no “global” solutions, there can be no “global” Earthship model, there shouldn’t be. There should be constant striving for creating better and more sustainable solutions and open sharing of build attempts (both failed and successful ones).

This post is a first in our effort to understand and process the latest and greatest that Earthship Biotecture have to offer. We continue to explore other self builds and their experiences. Ultimately this will lead to an adaptation of an Earthship that will be best suited to us.

If you have any further insights into “Global Model” or other core Earthship workings, please do take the time to leave a comment. We would appreciate it greatly 🙂