by Collin Vickers
Thomas Kortkamp, wildcrafter and woodworker extraordinaire, is living the Porous Life in Mirth Lodge, his ever-evolving tiny home and time capsule.
A permaculture food forest grows in the heart of Dancing Rabbit Eco-village, where an ongoing experiment in ecological living is underway. There you will often find Thomas Kortkamp smoothing a length of local walnut with an old fashioned hand plane, or sculpting a massive bowl-like-object from a hunk of mulberry wood. Inspired by the circular roundhouses of the ancestral Mandan people, (Mirth Lodge is a punny take on earth lodge) Thomas set out long ago to build a home in which he could live while maintaining a respectful relationship with the place he inhabits. His chief inspiration was Gary Snyder’s masterpiece: “A Place in Space,” in which Snyder tells the story of his home in the Sierra Nevada, with walls that could be opened to welcome the wilderness in. Snyder’s lifestyle is known as the Porous Life, characterized by permeable barriers between the untamed natural world and the carefully contrived microcosms we construct for ourselves.
So far, Mirth Lodge is ten years in the making – at first, Thomas lived with his partner at the time in a makeshift shelter called the Wigwam, (which you can read about here,) then moved into a canvas Coleman tent while he erected the building’s frame. Right from the beginning, Thomas’s design was intended to be as non-invasive as possible.
Rather than digging an expansive foundation to form the footprint of the home, Thomas opted for what he calls a double foundation. Stout timber posts are arrayed on the north and south walls to provide ample structural support, each inset deeply in the earth. Between these posts, double-course brick stem walls rest on trenches filled with gravel road base. This approach drastically reduces the need for cement, the manufacture of which results in a large share of our global CO2 emissions. For many years Thomas lived with a bare earth floor, which was graded on a gentle slope just as it was when he moved onto the land. Horse nettles, a species suited to arid climates, used to grow indoors in the soil under Thomas’s windows and survived off of low levels of ambient moisture wicking up from deep underground.
The western wall of the house is formed by enormous rough-sawn logs reclaimed from a dilapidated Civil War era barn, which were cut from old growth trees that were probably saplings in the days when Europeans began to colonize New England. These logs are installed vertically in tandem to support an earthen berm, which provides Mirth Lodge with abundant thermal mass. The berm plays host to numerous specimens of local wildlife – raccoons, possums and rabbits – that have made nests in a remote gap between earth and timber. Almost all of the materials used in Mirth Lodge are reclaimed, recycled, or acquired by barter in exchange for his labor. Some of the reclaimed dimensional lumber Thomas used was harvested all at once from the legendary Motherlode, a post-second world war barn that was demolished by several members of the community; he traded labor for it, or in some cases just scavenged scraps. Keep an eye out for similar opportunities in your area if you want access to high quality materials without shelling out cash. He did purchase a few things, such as a sheet of polycarbonate paneling used to shelter his porch, bits and pieces of hardware, and steel flashing used to waterproof the edge of his living roof. These items give his project a current out-of-pocket price tag of around $300, (not counting his $1000 wood stove).
The interior living area is 108 square feet of brick floor, (108 is one of Thomas’s favorite numbers – I will let you research its religious significance on your own,) which was installed in recent years to help with winter solar heat gain. A trench has been dug into the floor just past the threshold, which is overlaid with a metal grill. This feature allows Thomas to scrape mud or snow from his boots before entering further into the home without the need for a separate antechamber – once a year or so he will remove the grate and clean it out. Originally, Thomas had plans to expand Mirth Lodge as the years went by to enclose a larger area, but he now realizes that he does not need the space, and so the home is likely to remain a quarter-circle slice of the Mandan earth lodge pie he started with.
As much as a third of the surface areas of the southern and eastern walls are made up of windows. They are mostly cheap, but perfectly serviceable, factory rejects acquired at a steep discount because of minor cosmetic flaws. The strategy behind this style of window placement is to permit the morning sun to warm the structure in winter when the sun is low on the horizon, while broad eaves shade the southern wall in summer when the trajectory of the sun is much higher in the sky, thus preventing unwanted solar gain during the warmer months of the year. Thomas has been using high-tech quilted curtains to insulate the windows at night during the dead of winter, but he finds that they are often ineffective and prone to collect dust – instead, he recommends tightly fitted sliding panels like the ones he has cut from heavy-duty industrial shipping cardboard, which could also be made from wood or rigid foam.
Innumerable species of plants grow on the Lodge’s living roof and offer a habitat to a host of birds, much beloved by Thomas, who come and go through the seasons. Most homes with a living roof strive for water tightness with the use of an expensive, petroleum-based pond liner, but Thomas has taken a different approach. He started by screwing in two layers of galvanized corrugating roof panels, which he laid down in a staggered pattern like shingles. He applied silicone over every screw head and seam to prevent water penetration. Over this, he layered pure clay some six inches thick, which, when wet, is impermeable. Six more inches of top soil made up the final layer, along with dense thatch that has accumulated after years of plant dieback – Thomas attributes much of the water tightness of his home to this natural thatch, along with the tendency of the plants living in the roof to draw up moisture before it has a chance to work its way through any of the other layers. The drawback to this style of roof is that it has poor insulative properties in winter, but snow buildup actually helps quite a lot with making up for this shortcoming.
As Thomas was giving me the account of his journey in building Mirth Lodge, he chuckled with mirth most often when telling me about the mistakes he made in his younger days. “The main support beams of the roof are huge timbers weighing hundreds of pounds. I was not an experienced carpenter when I started building this house, (I did not even know how to sharpen a saw, though I thought I did,) so I failed to cut everything to fit on the ground before raising the walls. I ended up having to size the mortise and tenon joints twelve feet in the air, because I did that part of the framing after the main support posts had already been installed in the ground. I had to go up and down a ladder about ten times with each of these heavy timbers on my back before I got it right – I definitely will not make that mistake again!”
“A few years ago I had an open cistern for watering my garden, which collected runoff from my roof. It was half of a huge steel tank, sunk into the berm on the northeast side of the house.” Anguish and frustration was written in Thomas’s thick eyebrows as he went on, despite his ever-present smile, “One night it rained especially hard and enough water soaked into the soil of the berm that the steel tank became buoyant and floated up just enough to let water in around the edges and start eroding its foundations. This proved to be a huge problem, because it was letting lots of water in right next to the stem wall on that side.” Thomas heaved a sigh and laughed, “It was a huge pain to get rid of that thing – now I just have an old fifty gallon drum over there.”
Thomas is a bit of a cross between Tom Sawyer and Tom Bombadil – between you and me, I’m convinced that he is a Time Lord, and that Mirth Lodge is his version of the Tardis. So far I have been unable to prove his Gallifreyan origins, but I think his sonic screwdriver has been disguised as a handmade wooden spoon. My only lead is Thomas’s close connection with the mythical Tron people: sentient, trans-dimensional beings who pass into northeast Missouri once a year through an ephemeral portal to offer gifts of sweets and nuts to human children in exchange for the most beautiful of rocks, which kids in the area work hard all year to stockpile.
“I love having living things around me,” Thomas said when I asked what he appreciates most about Mirth Lodge. “I have maybe a dozen species of spiders living here with me – Shelob’s lair is right over there,” he told me with enthusiasm, pointing to a gap between his desk and a case of shelves. “I’m really interested in geometry” he also went on to explain as he showed me a meticulously crafted paper model, “like this rhombic dodecahedron, which exhibits both cubic and triangular geometry. The ancients understood this shape pretty well, and it is becoming really hot right now in modern architecture – I considered using this shape as the basis for Mirth Lodge at one time, but I do not want to do that much measuring!” After a laugh, Thomas went on, “I also love being surrounded by the stories of all the things that I have collected and used to build this place.” I have attempted to summarize Thomas’s many enthralling tales below.
Thomas has a close and personal relationship with wood of all kinds, and you will find a great deal of it inside Mirth Lodge; indeed, he can tell you a story about each and every rafter in his home, including the location from which it came and many other details. Thanks to Thomas’s introduction, I am now on first-name terms with various posts, beams, planks, chisel chips and wood shavings. Here is an incomplete list of tree species you will find represented in Mirth Lodge: spruce, pine, sycamore, redwood, hickory, pin oak, red oak, walnut, mulberry, cherry, black locust and elm. I even got to meet a few choice boughs of crabapple wood Thomas harvested from a tree planted by his great grandmother, and a purple piece of South American guapinol, also known as Brazilian Cherry – he obtained it from an ordinary shipping pallet, which are sometimes made from offcuts of wild-harvested tropical hardwood discarded by distant flooring and furniture factories. Last on the list, but not least, is a particularly controversial sample of locally grown honey locust – it once stood as a landmark in the pond orchard at Dancing Rabbit, and harvesting it resulted in much scandal and heartbreak among the old-timers of the community.
A vast number of unique artifacts are also to be found somewhere within Mirth Lodge. One of the bricks used in the southern stem wall comes from Thomas’s family’s business in Indiana, (he does not remember which one, though). A row of the world famous Purington Pavers, not unlike those used in Buckingham Palace, make up part of the north wall. They were reclaimed decades ago from old Main Street in nearby Rutledge, Missouri, then used for many years as part of a chimney in one of the houses in town before taking up residence in Mirth Lodge. The threshold of the house is an old railroad tie taken from the Burlington-Santa Fe line that passes right by Dancing Rabbit property – Thomas is still wondering how long it will take for more people to cross that tie in its current place at his door than crossed over it in the decades of service it saw on the railroad. A special plank adorns the multi-purpose furnishing Thomas uses as a bed, sofa and storage unit – it was reclaimed from an old dairy and was worn with deep grooves and polished smooth by untold generations of cattle who used it as a scratching post. (Another interesting aspect of this multi-purpose unit of furniture is an old headboard that came from the bed on which one of the members at Dancing Rabbit was conceived – I am told it has an aura of good juju). A special marble tile is showcased in the brick floor, which was used once upon a time by Thomas’s great-great uncle to count change on in his shop; the poor fellow was bludgeoned to death by some drunken fool with an empty liquor bottle – Thomas’s great uncle did not even have any money on him at the time.
This tile was once the locus of a rocket mass heater Thomas installed to condition the space in winter, but nuances of its design meant that failure to maintain a fire in certain ways lead to appreciable levels of carbon monoxide inside the home. As a result, Thomas removed the old heater and replaced it with a primo Danish cast iron wood stove – he can often heat his home using only the waste shavings from his various wood projects. High thermal mass in the building means that once the space has been brought up to temperature, it takes quite a long time to cool off again. Even on the coldest February night, Thomas can go to bed while the thermometer reads 70 degrees and when he wakes up it will still read about 50 degrees, (a little less if the wind was really howling). The passive solar style placement of his windows, coupled with an efficient wood stove, mean that he can quickly heat the house again each morning and maintain that temperature throughout the day with minimal inputs.
There are no bathroom or kitchen facilities inside Mirth Lodge, because at Dancing Rabbit Eco-village we often share major infrastructure with each other in order to reduce the need for newcomers to invest in building their own, while keeping the impact of growth on our land in check. For storage purposes, Thomas has a 50 square foot shed that is topped with a truck bed camper shell – he claims it works perfectly for keeping his woodworking tools dry and secure. In the future he plans to build a two-story, cantilevered workshop, perhaps with space to rent out to tenants. Thomas is also well equipped with technology, and I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of a blinking plastic internet router against the backdrop of ancient timber harvested hundreds of years ago from trees that were already hundreds of years old at the time they were felled. “I am thinking of giving Mirth Lodge a new name: the Thermal Bridge,” he told me when I asked the name of his internet network, “because that is exactly what this building is, and because I love puns – sometimes I call myself Thermos.”
Thomas is also an accomplished epicurean, though he lives mostly off the mushrooms growing in his beard. Homemade miso is another favorite. “I used to eat lots of raw oats, which I moistened with vinegar,” he told me with a chuckle as he licked his lips, “I ate so much of it that I got an ulcer, so now I cook them. Nowadays I get to supplement my diet with lots of things growing around my house – I have scores of edible and medicinal plants that are maturing and bearing fruit. I also collect wild edibles from the land around here, like hickory nuts, autumn olives and various types of feral greens and mushrooms.” Feel free to try out his recipe for the yoozh, (short for ‘the usual’,) listed below:
2 fists worth of rolled oats, (preferably from a popcorn tin sporting a Christmas motif)
1 ‘thpppppt’ of ketchup
1 drizzle of organic cooking oil, whatever kind you like
1 fist of toasted sunflower seeds
6-8 leaves of mustard greens or any other greens you like, chiffonade
4-5 heaping table spoons of fermented vegetables, (tomatoes and Egyptian walking onions, chopped, packed with salt and pressed under a weighted plate – naturally occurring microbes will ferment the mixture for you over several weeks without need for refrigeration)
If you want to meet Dancing Rabbit’s gentle hirsute giant in person and check out his house first hand, consider making some time in your calendar this year to attend one of our visitor sessions. We still have spots available later in the season, so sign up today at our webpage!
If you want to hear more of Thomas’s regaling stories about life at Dancing Rabbit Eco-village, check out these videos, which were made about eight years ago while Mirth Lodge was still in its infancy.