Wednesday, 12 October 2011

WWOOFing at the Earth Art and Architecture Society of BC

On Saturday morning I left Hornby Island after two weeks of WWOOFing at the 'Earth Art and Architecture Society of BC', also known as 'Harmony Temple', 'Omtomes healing centre' and 'The Hornby Tea Garden'. In other words at Shahla and Jay's property on Harwood Road.

I'd got there via Santa Clausu's sleigh, greyhound from Qualicum Beach, ferry from Buckley Bay to Denman and then a hitch hike across Denman, on to the ferry to Hornby and to Shahla and Jay's door. It is considered normal for people to hitch hike around the Gulf Islands, but it was still pretty nerve racking going up to the cars and asking if they could give me a ride. In the end I found a lift with Roy (or Ray) a builder from Manchester, who used to be a dyes chemist and now lives on Hornby Island.

Shahla and Jay are originally from Persia. Jay was sent to live with an aunt and go to highschool in the US when he was 14, he had been living in the States ever since, studied business and management, and now works as an accountant. Shahla was a stewardess, then studied fashion at Lucie Clayton College in London before moving to the States and doing further study and helping with evening classes in art and fashion while working as a waitress. Jay is semi-retired and during the summer Shahla has a weekly bakery stall- 'Persian palate' at the Hornby Island Farmer's Market. Sometimes tourists come to eat lunch or have a spot of afternoon tea in the garden. They have grand plans to run music or healing courses.

About eight years ago (while living in California) they purchased this ½ acre piece of land with a cabin on it and self built (along with many helpers) their super adobe house using the technique of Nader Khalili. They used 'Cali Earth' bags of 10% cement with sand and earth, with 30% cement on the outside, and a white clay and sand plaster on the inside. The bags are laid on top of one another and coiled to form a domed house. It is a small house, with a main living area, with very very small rooms coming off of it- a kitchen, a bathroom, a porch area and a bedroom, just large enough to hold a small bed. There is no room for Jay and he was sleeping in a shed in the garden. And since there is not much room in the house for their possessions, most of them are scattered around the garden in makeshift sheds. A carpenter is currently hammering together a self-contained new room in the garden, which they would like to eventually coat the outside with cob or to build it up in 'Normandy style'. This is apparently how you build houses in North America. I stayed in the cabin, which is pretty tidy, spacious and pleasant.

When I arrived a storm was starting to brew, but after a few days calm descended again. There were already five other WWOOFers at the place when I got there (one of them strangely enough had been a volunteer in Churchill a few years ago). Outside it started pouring with rain, almost non-stop for two days. Shahla and Jay seemed disorganised and there was no inside project for us to start on. They suggested we just think about how to approach the projects they had in mind- digging a drainage ditch, tiling the bathroom, making an outdoor shower, building a composting toilet, making an earthbag terrace, helping with the construction of the new room. It felt as though they didn't really want to start some of the projects such as the composting toilet. Shayla kept saying how she had been blessed to have six WWOOFers all at once, the WOOFers on the other hand were not feeling quite so blessed... We had all been expecting to build an earth house- 'an earth art and architecture society building project', but this didn't seem to be the case. As the rain continued to fall, there was a day long power cut with no running water or electricity. All the WOOFers and Jay were cooped up in the living room of the cabin, tensions and frustrations rose. There was a lot of noise and stress, I got a headache and longed to be picking blueberries with Mr. and Mrs. Santa Clausu. Just a few days before they arrived three of the WWOOFers, one with a broken arm, had written to Shayla to ask if they could come and she thought she was doing them a favour and hoped she could do some healing.

When the sun momentarily shone we helped Shahla with a mad blitz of clearing out her laundry room, which was difficult because you don't know what items are important to other people (it's bad enough cleaning out your own mess). In another mad blitz Jaimie decided we were going to clean out the shed where there is a fridge that smells of paint thinner (and subsequently all the food tastes of it too..), some food items, hardware items etc. Meanwhile Chris made a door for the outside shower and Brett and Florianne cut some plastic to go around the outside. One afternoon Brett and Chris began to tile the bathroom. All the same we didn't really feel like we were doing enough work.

To get away from the cabin almost everyone went on an outing to Hornby's freestore, which seems to be the happening place in Hornby on a Saturday and Sunday morning. Half the island is rummaging in the freestore or dropping off their rubbish, recycling and donations. The other WWOOFers seemed to uncover some good finds such as rooibos tea, fairtrade carob tea, old tapes, nice looking clothes, old prunes and a nice selection of unused postage stamps. I didn't find anything of note, but then I wasn't really looking too hard due to that heavy backpack. Outside some kids were delighting in having each found themselves a super soaker water pistol. We also drove around the island and went to Ford's Cove to buy some crisps and chocolate, which was the only shop open since it has its own generator and wind turbine.

The following morning all the other WWOOFers packed their possessions, washed the dishes, swept the floor, said goodbye to Shahla and Jay and went to stay at a farm on the island. The farm seemed like it would have been a nice place to stay and planting garlic would have been more my thing. But I didn't really have the heart to leave too. So suddenly Shahla and Jay only had one WWOOFer, and Shahla couldn't stop thinking about the early morning's events. Consequently I got the day off.

I then dug a drainage ditch around the outside of the earth house, in an attempt to stop the water going towards the house, and after that began to approach the tiling. First we had to agree on a pattern for the 'mosaic', but Shahla couldn't find the design she'd made a few years ago. So there was lots of 'thinking' before I finally started putting the tiles on. I've never done tiling before, so it was a good thing to learn, although I didn't feel like it was something I needed to learn now. Over the next week I slowly tiled some of the curved bathroom, using a plastic fork to make indentations in the thinset and feathers, matches and sticks as spacers. For a perfectionist the task was frustrating, since the curved wall didn't lend itself to tiling that joined together (and Shahla was reluctant for us to cut the tiles)! Now at least I feel confident that I could do a half decent job on tiling a flat surface with the proper equipment.

Shahla's cooking was pretty good. With the beans and tomato from next-door's garden she would make a sauce, which we often ate with saffron rice and tofu. The next day she would fry potato slices, with the mixed sauce and rice on top. She also made a complex soup with beans, fennel, parsley, carrot, courgette and many other things besides. It was tasty too, but I'm just not sure if I would spend so long making a soup. Most of her meals seemed to take a long time to cook, since she likes to fry each vegetable separately as they all require different cooking times. We also had lots of homemade bread, a stew, courgette chocolate cardammon cake, baked apple pear pastries, sweet scones with cardammon and cranberries, jewelled rice (rice with fruits and orange peel), and some good salads. Often eating dinner at nine or ten thirty made me appreciate the food even more!

I had a lot of free time in my first week and since it was raining a lot outside I read the book that Santa Clausu lent me, The Wild Trees, quite a gripping tale about these people who search for and climb the world's tallest trees in California. There was also internet access, so I had some time to try and make some plans and write some emails. I also went to the beach just up the road many times to sit and stare out into the mostly calm Strait of Georgia. I saw loads of gulls, some harlequin ducks, flickers, cormorants, herons, loons and a few sealions. I hoped to see an orca, but didn't. Jay tells me he likes to go to the beach to re-energise when he's feeling depressed. It helped me too.

My main problem at the 'Earth Art and Architecture Society' was feeling detached from nature. Since the beginning of July I've spent a lot of time outside either working, hiking, exploring or admiring the natural world. There I had a bike with flat tyres, so I couldn't really go anywhere, it rained a lot the first week and then I worked a lot the second week, so that the day was almost gone by the time I'd finished.

Halfway through my stay Dave and Sarah from Derby (who were fellow volunteers at Cathedral Lakes Lodge) paid a visit to Hornby Island from the farm they're staying at on Denman. I had been looking forward to it all week. We met at the co-op and shared tales of the Similkameen valley (they had been staying on the farm next to Mariposa, driving the helper car without brake fluid, oil or decent tyres, living amongst flies and picking rocks- they only lasted it a week; apparently the farm I was staying at has burnt down..). After that we attempted to hitch-hike around the island, which is easier said than done. We did see a possum though (albeit flat) and took a daring ride in the back of a truck full of mountain bikes. There really weren't many cars about that were not full up or inhabited my generous people. Our attempt at hiking or hitching to Helliwell provincial park was not really a success and it was just too far to hike all the way. It still felt like a good day, despite the fact that we saw very little and walked quite far.

Finally on my second to last day the bike's tyres were pumped up and on Friday I cycled to Helliwell, stashed the bike behind a large tree in the forest and then walked around the loop. It was a beautifully sunny day and the landscape reminded me of the westcountry. Cycling past all the Hornby dwellings was also very interesting. All the houses are completely different, and most of them self-built. Many of Hornby's residents are artists and have studios in their gardens, some others are retirees or rich second home owners. There is a co-op, a general store, a bakery/pizzeria, a few other shops and cafes that rarely seem to be open, a police station, community centre, health centre, the recycling depot, and a small school. For high school the children have to get the ferry to Denman, bus across Denman, ferry to Buckley Bay and bus to school in Courtney. It seems like a lot of effort.

My stay on Hornby Island reminded me a lot of home- the disorganisation, an element of untidiness, the accumulation of lots of stuff because it might come in useful for a project, the wife who goes to drop rubbish and unwanted possessions off at the recycling depot and comes back with twice as much stuff, the 1001 projects on the go or being thought about and not much happening (my parents are still building the millenium terrace), the husband and wife arguments that seem to escalate because there's an audience, almost missing transport when I leave (we had to dash to the ferry when I left because Shahla had been too busy teaching me how to crochet), the rainfall, the chilliness, the damp, the condensation on the windows, the patches of mildew on the door and on the walls, the mouldy fridge and the slightly unwholesome looking kitchen. This probably gives me a better understanding of Shahla and Jay's lifestyle than most people, but I must admit I can handle my own parent's chaos more easily. At the end I did actually feel quite at home though, and might even have stayed if I hadn't had to tile that bathroom.

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