Guest Post by Collin Vickers
Modern day pioneers, Mae Ferber and Benjamin Brownlow, have set out to rediscover the lost arts of Old West homesteading in the information age, with a touch of high technology and fervent passion for ecological sustainability.
Their adventures in eco-living take place in the Foxhole, a living roof structure made mostly of natural materials on the outskirts of Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in the rolling hills of northeast Missouri. They have built it almost entirely without the use of fossil fuels, relying on their own hands and the help of a few friends and summer interns, with the exception of the foundation, which was excavated by machinery.
The house rests on a gravel bed foundation and the north wall, along with a spacious root cellar, has been dug into the crest of a ridge that merges with the soil heaped onto their roof, which has been planted with local flora that blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscape.
Locally harvested posts and beams provide structural support for the home and its earthen plaster walls are primarily insulated with regionally sourced straw bales. Recycled rigid foam is one of the few petroleum based products used in the building’s composition, employed sparingly for tricky applications where straw does not lend itself well.
Windows make up much of the south-facing wall, a feature that admits natural light throughout the year and in winter allows the sun to passively heat their 420 square feet of interior earthen floor, which serves as a thermal mass in cold seasons and a heat sink in warmer periods.
During the many months of inclement weather in the Midwest, a Serbian wood-fueled iron range is used for both heating and cooking, while summer cooking is done outside so the house stays cool and humidity-free, which reduces mold growth. Their diet consists mostly of dry staples, fresh foods they grow and produce themselves, (including poultry meat and eggs, along with Ben’s own hardy strain of black-eyed peas: poverty peas,) much of which they can in glass jars for the winter season. They have a preference for anything found in the ‘Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cooking’, such as this treat from last fall: a rich stew of root vegetables, wild autumn herbs and a road-killed female opossum, (whose pinkling babies made a high-protein snack for their flock of Muscovy ducks).
There is no bathroom facility in the Foxhole itself, so the family relies on an old-fashioned outhouse, (the aptly named Critter Shi… well, I’ll let you guess its name,) while a new moldering toilet is in the works not far from the Safety Barn, so-called because of the inevitability of bumping your head on a rafter when you go inside.
A single 120 Watt solar panel, combined with a pair of salvaged car batteries, powers all of the electronics in the household, including a sewing machine. Ben has found that LED lights are inexpensive and energy efficient – the kind manufactured in the form of adhesive strips for use as under-lighting in snazzy hotrods is particularly useful.
“When I was a little girl, all I ever wanted was to work for a tangible thing that I could hold and be proud of, and now I have it,” Mae told me as we sat in the shade of their Mother Tree overlooking the King’s Forest, where Ben is developing a permaculture guild of native tree species for coppicing and livestock forage. “Building the Foxhole is the hardest thing I have ever done,” she added, “and it was so worth it.”
The Critter lifestyle has been pivotal in the early development of their little daughter Althea, who has learned to identify scores of wild plants in the area and knows which ones she can eat and which ones must be avoided. “When she was three,” Mae told me, “she was walking down a flight of stairs and commented on how narrowly they were made and I was just blown away – I don’t think I was fully aware that the structures around me were intentionally built by someone until my twenties.”
I have known Ben and Mae for a year, thus far, and the thing that has struck me most about them is how deeply they care about our environment and the animals they raise. I was once invited to share in a supper of pan-fried fowl: Big Black, a rooster whose time had come. That meal was a farewell ceremony of sorts for Big Black, and a trip down memory lane for Mae.
This deep connection with their animals extends to the way in which they conduct their online business, Rabbit Feathers, where they offer the gorgeous feathers of their various rare, heritage breeds. They treat the matter of harvesting their birds with the highest degree of reverence, and they strive to ensure that the birds are raised both humanely and ecologically.
I asked what advice they would have for anyone wanting to follow in their footsteps, and Mae believes that having prior building experience stood her in good stead when construction began. “I had stomped tons of cob before, and I knew how to chisel the joinery for the timber framing.”
“But I had never done plaster work before,” Mae added as she indicated a patch of lime plaster whitewashed over a section of the clay fascia of a nearby wall. “I was nervous about applying plaster to the walls because I was scared that I would mess it up, and sure enough, I did.”
She also advised taking time to heed the qualified advice of those around you, prioritizing rodent proofing, (especially if you intend to build a straw bale home like the Foxhole,) and suggests that any notion of a budget you have in mind for a project of this kind should be tripled from the outset.
The Critters have spent more than two years and around $6,500, (a third of which went to the moisture barrier lining their living roof,) on the ongoing project so far, excluding the costs of tools and hired labor.
“Don’t skimp on the planning,” was Ben’s best advice. “If I had the foresight to build the house ten feet further uphill, I wouldn’t have had three weeks of work to do making sure that water doesn’t sluice into the foundation.” Ben also had these words of encouragement to offer: “No matter what, don’t be daunted. I failed special-ed geometry and look at me now – living in a house made of dirt!”