Catalan the Dotted Lines
Arriving to a place is like taking a water slide the first time. You’re wide-eyed, fascinated; you want to take pictures of the whole way down. But once you have been down it a million times and are exhausted and there’s chlorine-water in your nose and ears, you’re ready to lay shivering between two towels on the cement, and let your shriveled toes, shredded and fragile from scaling the bottom of the pool, explore the topography of sand in the cement. So it’s been, and I wish I could share the strange fascination I had when first entering the castle in Catalunya, my eyes adjusting to the dim light. A 12th century olive oil press was in the corner, yet a pair of volksawgen seats sat in the entrance next to a few boxes of recycling and donation clothes. I wanted to look around on arriving, but it was midnight. Then the 6-month old puppy came downstairs, wiggling like a tadpole, flipped onto her back at my feet and peed on her belly. She would have more fingers toes and shoes to chew for the next month while I worked with her master on a book he’d write. I was shown my room, tile floor, stark, bright, a two foot thick window reveal: Stone walls. An IKEA bed on a few wooden pallets and a small bedside table. A bed frame with many slats, leaning up against one wall would soon become my dryer for sweaty clothes when I came in from walks. We go into the kitchen and the living room and the dining room in one circle and I wonder when I will remember which rooms leads to which. I’m goggle eyed, there’s the cookstove I’ve seen in pictures, there is the masonry heater I hadn’t seen yet, there is the living room, just like in the pictures, a former terrace, when this place was a boy’s club, run by the bishop. And when it was thousands of other things for the previous hundreds of years. There is a smell of agriculture that reminds me of catshit. Now it will ever remind me of Girona. Pigs, in nearby farms. We sit at a long table in the dining room and chat about everything, from music to marijuana, stoves and their builders to district energy. He’s a story teller. I’m letting the dog chew my cowboy boot because this is keeping her from chewing my hands, pant legs, shirtsleeves.
I’m here and I’m of course safe and working hard on a little book: with a man who builds masonry heaters and lives in a castle in Catalunya with his partner, and a puppy dog. His first language is Danish, but he wants the book to be in English, thus more accessible to more readers; and while he hardly needs an English translator, I think he wanted me around to keep him on track with the book in his head that wants written down. We jumped right in to work, abandoning what he had previously written for the immediacy of the witness a writing partner can provide.
[As of writing this a month ago] I have been here in Europe for almost a month now, and it’s funny how it’s been hard to write postcards home. Usually I am all chatter when I get to a new place. I’m in an incredibly weird place but that’s not unusual for me. I think it’s that my language has become a broken English ‘cause that’s what I’m hearing. I have told you that I am too impressionable: I can’t even watch a movie or TV without taking on the characters. I want to post photos on Facebook, but even that seems inappropriate: This house/castle, the surrounding Medieval village doesn’t want to be broadcast: it’s too quiet and personal.
The village is like what Northern California’s wine country wishes it was, rolling grassy hills, olive groves, terracotta roofing tiles, terraces. But this shit is Real, and Real Old! The foundation of the building I’m staying in is 12th C. The carving of the date on the lintel over the door says 1649. The roads are paved but very narrow and TIDY! It’s dead quiet. I think these are retirement and vacation homes for super-wealthy people. You go out and don’t see a soul. The man across the road Guisepe, or Pep, was a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, but when he retired early (like my own dad), he went back to painting, which he was pretty good at when he was young. Look at his hands, and you’ll see signs, as in my father’s hands, that everything he touches turns to gold. Now slow and methodical, his English is just good enough for me to find out what a bad-ass he was in medicine, and his paintings bite you in the butt from a knowledge of what’s really under the surface, in all ways. When he saw my enthusiasm about art he invited me to help him hang a small show in a city center. Today he and his beautiful young wife host the football game, in which there will be likely more talking about art than slugging weak Spanish beer. It’s stunning. A fantasy house.
So it’s off to Storage Stoves and Primer’s Primers.
Bangkok Thailand: Mind the Gap Between Train and Platform
Welcome to the first Southeast Asia Episode, in which I experience a hot and humid climate, and celebrate the Beloved chili pepper. This is my second trip to Thailand, and so far my favorite. I’m visiting Leo Fernekes, who has been my friend for as long as I have had the backpack I travel with: 30 years. Both will get their own ‘blog topic soon.
Leo and I had a few Skype conversations in the days before my flight. For example,
Me: Should I bring my own motorcycle jacket? My prescription snorkel goggles?
Leo: No, nothing, pack light! You don’t need anything here!
Then there was the April Foolsday Joke I played on him, saying I had cancelled my flight. And then the conversation in which I asked where his building was, and how to get there from the airport. I had an address, but enough travel experience to know that might not mean anything in a city like Bangkok: Do the numbers go in order? Is your postal address the actual address?
Leo: Call me when you land, it’s simple but complicated.
Me: That’s not fun enough. Give me directions from the nearest subway stop.
The challenge of finding my way, especially in a big city subway system, is one of the thrills of city travel, and makes up for my dislike of big cites, especially smog-strangled, o-zone depleted, air conditioner-infested Bangkok.
Leo’s directions were precise without the many details that can lead to confusion. He told me which train lines to take in which direction, and which door to exit the station from (very important, because this determines which side of the street you’re on on when you hit the surface, so you don’t have to cross the street aboveground. (And avoiding a street crossing in this place can save a life!) Next, he sent me down a side street with no name next to the battery store and the clinic called MD. By the time I reached the sidestreet and the battery store I was beaming. There was the shiny showroom of Sensacell, as promised, next to a grungy backstage of an auto body shop and a silkscreening/poster printing business. The entrance to the Sensacell showroom was behind a wall of lush tropical container plants that framed the entrance. Glass doors, hard-edges, the showroom quiet and lit by magical programmed LED arrays on table-tops, on the floor, hanging on walls. Quietly dancing unobserved in the cool hard space.
Sensacell is an invention of Leo’s in which a large flat panel–a wall, a table, or a floor–interacts with you in pre-programmed ways: You wave your hands, you dance, you poke. It responds in patterns of colored lights.
Greeting each other is no different than catching Leo at work in Berkeley in 1983 or New York in 1990 or 2010. This kind of friendship always picks us up where it left us off, regardless of time and distance and we are off to have pepper-infused lunch and coffee in the neighborhood.
Alaska: A Whole ‘Nother Scale
The first port-of-call of a fantasy I am living (a.k.a. a research project I am working on about rocket mass stove builders and their innovations) takes me to the cabin of Lasse Holmes. (He’s “Canyon” on the rocket mass heaters forum). He has a homestead on 20 acres in the mountains above Homer, Alaska. Homer’s on the Kenai Peninsula.
It’s a thrill to be visiting him here. I’ve travelled to 22 foreign countries, but even though the state of Alaska is part of the US, and I can honestly count 23.
From the moment I transferred to the plane for Anchorage from Salt Lake City, Utah, I knew I was somewhere else. Suddenly I was in a group of people all of whom don’t give a fuck about fashion, yet are uniquely expressive people. On the flight, they all seemed to know each other. There was such a din of conversation between companions and strangers alike that you couldn’t hear the heavy metal pop over the PA, no nor the emergency preparedness spiel, nor the inflight movie. People are dressed to withstand the temperatures and their activities in those temperatures, cleavage is not an issue. Nor color coordination. Kinda refreshing.
I generalize (and exaggerate) ALL the time: Here’s one. The Kenai Peninsula celebrates both wild animal conservation and wild animal exploitation: People are either catching fish or counting fish.
I land at midnight, my host and I spend the night in Anchorage, at friends’ and in the morning, he reviews my pack for what clothing I brought. He drags an enormous parka of his mothers from the back of his well-equipped truck and I swallow hard. He’s calm, patient, practical, instructive. If you want to get out into the beautiful places, you have to be ready for the conditions. Here’s something I wouldn’t have thought about: Did you bring anything that can’t handle the freezing conditions in the back of the truck? My camera? No. That stays with me anyway, duh. Toiletries: Bottles and vials of liquids, especially in glass: My Korean ginseng. That would have made a big shards-of-glass mess. My laptop? Actually if that heats up slowly to room temp before you turn it on again it should be fine. Things you have to think about. Prepare about. How to enjoy the sweaty (1-mile) snow-shoe hike from the truck to his cabin while the fingers ache with the cold. I read in an outdoor guide’s advice on staying warm called Cold Comfort that “poor goose down lofts less than good duck down.” (An editor’s field day, and my delightful new mantra).
The stove Lasse lives with is almost too scary to show you: I would be most afraid someone seeing this would try it themselves. Lasse is a brewmaster, an inventor, a whiz at welding stainless steel, worldly, a macrobiotic cook, and blues harmonica player. Every horizontal surface of his sturdy timberframe-and-strawbale cabin is crammed with books: almost all of them practical manuals on homesteading, beer brewing, and macrobiotic cooking. His stove fits his own needs for warmth in conditions like winter temps that can dive below 15 degrees F; it can start getting cold enough to fire up the heater from October to April. It may be easier to say he doesn’t fire up his stove in July. He needs to cook as well as heat water with wood. His stove fits his abilities too. As a brewer, he has access to lots of stainless steel kegs, and can weld stainless steel, so his building blocks include kegs, beautifully machined stop-cocks, and piping. So much of the art of rocket mass heater building is determined by needs, available materials, and abilities.
Our busy plans to visit several of the rocket mass heaters Lasse has installed around town is peppered with jam sessions with friends, dogsled running, beer brewing, and sharing his volunteer spot spinning jazz records for the local radio station. How Alaska is it around here? Well, on my first night, we were enjoying a local brew in the pub, Down East Saloon, hearing a Portland band and making new friends, when the door-man took the mic and instead of announcing that someone’s pick-up lights were on, announced a one year-old moose grazing in the parking lot, so be careful as you go out to your cars. Alaska is on a whole ‘nother scale.
March 24, 2013.
Now that spring is upon us and the wind doesn’t sing through my leaky poor man’s craftsman bungalow, the days lengthen, and the sun shines even more, you’d think this Californian would relax back into her favorite ripped-up Blondie tee shirt and enjoy the hiking trails. But instead, I am packing my camera and laptop to head north to Homer, Alaska to taste real winter. Or at least the tail end of it.
From the Spring Equinox to April Fool’s Day, I will have my mind blown by Mother Nature’s expression in Alaska. “It’s on a whole different scale,” my friend Ian says. I will be in snow –a rare event for me, I will ride in a dogsled for the first time, enjoy locally brewed beer, and predictably, eat some salmon.
This visit will be the first stop on a series of visits to builders of rocket mass heaters around the world. Since its publication in 2005, the book I helped Ianto Evans write, that started out as a pamphlet called Rocket Stoves to Heat Cob Buildings, has grown into a cottage industry. And much to my surprise and delight. It is now a real paperback with a glossy cover called Rocket Mass Heaters: Fuel-efficient Wood-Burning Stoves YOU Can Build (and snuggle up to). It has been translated into French and Japanese. We are working with translators now who will take it into German and Spanish, and I just heard from an Irishman who offered to translate it into Czech. There are countless YouTube videos—from the absurd to the sublime—documenting these stoves. People are participating in discussion forums all over the world. And there are two Facebook groups, with over a thousand members between them. How did this happen?
The rocket mass heater is a make-it-yourself wood-burning device, based on the principles of the rocket stove, which because of its geometry and materials burns bio mass really efficiently. The rocket mass heater takes the heat so efficiently produced and stores it in thermal mass—in most cases, cob—benches and beds. These stoves are for human comfort. You sit and lie down on them. They’re for tinkers, inventors, and people in love with fire. I’ve been assuming we had an underground audience, but at least 30,000 copies are in circulation. That’s a lot of underground to cover! Who are these people? I want to meet them all.
While I hustle on the third edition of Rocket Mass Heaters with Ianto, I am simultaneously curious about who is out there building—and improving—these stoves. So off I go, with my Olympus OM-D5 and MacBook Pro in search of stovers. I’ll keep you posted!
Please visit Rocket Stoves for more stove stuff.
To further keep me in (dancing) shoes, I have posted a few additional books for sale (at left) by friends of mine in the natural building vein…As someone aptly said recently: “Build it yourself, build it small, occupy it.”
Here is a recent email response to a question that you, too, may have about how to get into natural building as a career: Natural Building.
Please visit Jack’s Picks for some local things I’m excited about. There’s something sweet and something sexy!
The Turtle House images are back up! A back-yard remodel of a sea creature. An Adventure.
For a more info, email me.
This page was last modified on Monday, April 21, 2014.