Natural Building Blues

Posted on March 7, 2007 by

Author: Mark Mazziotti
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #134

“When I made a mistake, I went back next time, knew what it was. I didn’t do that no more.” —James Brown
The awkward silence in our morning meeting was shattered, thankfully, by what sounded like a glass breaking in our makeshift outdoor kitchen, only louder. It was a still morning and already tension lingered with the humidity in the air—tension carried over from yet another processing session the night before. When we heard the second crash we knew it wasn’t an accident. Things happen in threes. I turned toward the noise in time to witness the smashing of the final dish on the cast iron sink. That may have been the point when we realized our intern program was over.
Our 15-week natural building internship at a rural community offered a stellar lineup of weekend workshops: strawbale building, permaculture design, useful plants walks, living roofs, and a hands-on class on food fermentation. Our interns, meanwhile, were skilled in all manner of modern and metaphysical disciplines. Architecture, herbs, Rolfing, religion—we had a specialist for any contingency.
Fresh from leading a natural building workshop in South Africa, and with three years of experience doing and teaching natural building, I was the program co-teacher and intern coordinator along with an amazing builder from the local area. This was to be my first experience with a program of this length, but I felt confident. After nearly 15 years working quietly as a graphic designer, I had entered the new worlds of natural building and community living with trepidation, but had quickly found them to be a perfect fit—so perfect, in fact, that I felt prepared for anything life could hand me. And now I was surrounded by a veritable dream team of other workshop leaders, all banded together to practice natural building in the beautiful surroundings of a model intentional community. What could go wrong?
Shelter, food: it’s a good idea to make sure you’re covered on these two bases when planning an internship program— or any other endeavor involving life on Earth. We managed to come up short on a both of these right out of the gate.
The plan was for the interns to camp for 15 weeks in a rainforest. Cool—we just looked for a relatively level spot in the woods and pitched our tents. Tent platforms—what are those? Not having tent platforms while camping in this kind of weather is what permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison would call a Type 1 error: a kind of broad, basic mistake likely to doom nearly everything else. Needless to say, we got hit with the perfect storm during the first couple of weeks. The upside is we got to do a lot of creative swale- digging. The downside is that none of it really worked and damp tents remained our ever-present companion. People get cranky when all their stuff is wet.
On to food. There were seven interns and myself to cook for and clean up after in the community’s outdoor kitchen. None of this was the problem. Nor were the coolers that had to be restocked with ice every other day to keep our food from spoiling. Exactly who would do the cooking, the cleanup, and the restocking was the snag. When would we eat? Where would we eat? How much intern help was needed to prep meals? How much intern help was needed, generally? When would we wake up and start the day? What was our daily schedule?
You know, I swear, we did have a plan in advance. But what about consensus-building? Why not try to work out something everyone could agree upon?
It’s a good indication that something is wrong with your group process when you can’t get it together to settle on how many rings the dinner bell gets. I think at one point we decided that a sort of random calypso thing would do the trick. Or your group can’t decide when to wake up. Intern One was up with the sun. Intern Two liked to sleep a little later. Maybe we could all do Qigong before our morning meeting. Maybe we should meditate first. Are you getting the picture?
Buildings need structure. So do natural building internships. In the role of coordinator, I didn’t provide the necessary structure to build the intern program around. Had I underestimated the difficulty of consensus building? Or overestimated its importance in basic decision-making? Whatever. I know now that I should have asserted more leadership to get small decisions made quickly.
As a teacher—and this is the harder one to reconcile—I had underestimated how much preparation I needed to do to deliver the academic section of the program. We had planned for approximately 15 classroom sessions on topics ranging from site selection to structural engineering. It wasn’t a lack of time, or even I think laziness, but maybe just a lack of experience. My being in a constant state of catch-up had a ripple effect throughout my other responsibilities.
Nevertheless, we plodded on, adjusting the schedule, tweaking the calendar, and trying to stay dry. We even managed to have some fun. Not enough, but some. Master natural builders pulled us through the weekend workshops. We did lots of Qigong. We made raw chocolate. We learned to say “y’all” instead of “you-guys.” We made friends with the people of the community. We got to see how the community lives and breathes. We settled into its trees.
But now it was eight weeks into the program and an intern was smashing plates. If I remember right, one of us had just yelled, “Why are you here, people?” no doubt hoping to rally us toward our shared goal, “To build!” Instead an intern yelled out, “To smash plates!” and I don’t think she could have been wiser. At that moment, it was the best use of plates we had. And shortly after, we finally acknowledged with relief that we would agree to end the program seven weeks sooner than originally planned.
In the end maybe we all got something out of it. After all, how many people get to see authentic plate-smashing? And maybe workshop instructors always learn the most. I’m grateful that, in our final evaluation, other workshop leaders suggested things they might have done differently to help the project along. But I know one thing I won’t forget. My skills at implementing some of the tenets of community living had endured their first major test, and I got … well … all wet.

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