So the Mad Farmer just got back from the Rocket Mass Heater Jamboree that took place at Wheaton Labs. If you are not familiar with Wheaton Labs it is the place where Paul Wheaton, the Duke of Permaculture (Paul was given that title by Geoff Lawton), holds his events and experiments with all things permaculture, natural building and cool technology, like the Rocket Mass Heaters.
The RMH Jamboree was a nine day event that took place in early October with multiple instructors and multiple build tracks.
Also instructing were Rodney Morgan, Isaac Workman, Christina Keegan and of course, Paul Wheaton himself. Several instructors scheduled to be attending had visa issues, and other various things that came up so were unable to attend. All things considered, there were a lot of people there and a lot of things going on.
Sky brought one of his Liberator RMH cores to install at the shop and a Bulgarian Gamera RMH was sent to the lab for installation and testing. Sadly the Gamera inventors were unable to get clearance to come to the event but I did get to say “hello” to one of them over a video chat that Uncle Mud was having. Both the Liberator and the Gamera are very cool stoves and I will be posting more about them in future posts.
Over the course of the nine days there were quite a number of projects that were started and most of them completed.
Sky installed his Liberator into the Shop and performed the initial install of the Gamera into the Red Cabin (one of the rentable buildings at the Lab).
Uncle Mud took on a Rocket Heater Assisted Solar Dehydrator and a rebuild of the pebble mass bench in the Red Cabin where the Gamera was installed.
Donkey Mobert tested a Rocket Kiln concept and started work on a portable 8 inch Rocket Engine that can be “plugged into” various types of experiments, the kiln, a forge and anything else Paul can dream up.
Christina led the build of a Rocket Sauna and installed a smaller Rocket Mass Heater into a small WOFATI (Woodland Oehler-style Freaky-Cheap Annualized Thermal Inertia) home for one of the boots (more on that program in other posts).
Isaac led the build of an eight-inch Pebble-style Rocket Mass Heater in the new Solarium
Rodney led the build of a Lorena-style Rocket Cooktop and outdoor kitchen, repaired the electric “Bad Boy Buggy” and lent his myriad areas of expertise to many of the other on-ongoing projects.
Special Mention for Jamboree attendee JR who designed and replaced the plumbing in the Rocket Heated showers!
That’s a brief overview of what was going on. In future posts the Mad Farmer will do a deeper dive into the individual projects and what it’s like to visit the Lab (this was my second trip and boy did things change in just three years)!
If you can’t wait that long you can always go sign up at Permies.com and check out all the things happening a Wheaton Labs.
Polyface Farms might be the coolest place on the planet. Okay, it’s probably not even on the coolest list unless you are a fanboy for regenerative agriculture and Joel Salatin is one of your favorite authors and presenters in the agriculture/Permaculture space. In that case, Polyface is pretty darn cool. First off, the lunatic farm tour they offer every other Saturday from March thru October is a bargain at $20.00 per ticket. The tour was the primary destination for the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy’s trip to Virginia recently. We went other places and learned other things but Polyface was the place we wanted to go.
Because we had traveled to Polyface the afternoon before we knew how long it was going to take us to get there. The Mad Farmer showered, had the coffee going and most of the stuff packed into the family truckster pretty early the morning of the actual tour. Miss Mercy said it was plain to see that I might be a little bit excited. That part is definitely true. I’m not sure exactly when I heard my first Joel Salatin podcast, might have been on Jack Spirko’s The Survival Podcast, might have been on Diego Footer’s Permaculture Voices Podcast, either way since that first podcast I have listened to a lot of interviews with Joel Salatin. The first time the Mad Farmer got to meet him in person was several years ago when he was a keynote speaker for the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS. I’ve read several of Joel’s books but my favorite is “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal“. Miss Mercy’s favorite book up to this point is probably “The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs“.
Anyway, the Mad Farmer is a self-proclaimed fanboy. The tour is either led by Joel himself, or his son, Daniel. It would be great if Joel was the guide, but it was a 50/50 shot who would be guiding the tour (okay probably more 90/10) but, either way, we were really looking forward to the tour. I kind of felt like I knew Daniel – reading about him growing up, his early start in business raising rabbits and all the other family experiences that were described in detail in the books. So either way, we would be happy to take the tour no matter who was the tour guide.
When we first pulled up we were about a half hour early, but we weren’t the first ones there by a long shot – we also weren’t the last, so that was good. The farm has been doing tours for a while and they approach it like everything else on the farm, they study the best ways to do things, then they put that process in place and tweak it until it works. Your first impression of the farm is the actual layout as you drive up the road, the second, is people directing parking, answering questions and just generally being super helpful.
The first other visitor we met when we got out of the car was a gentlemen who was a long-haul trucker from Missouri. The trucker thought it was “great to meet people from Kansas who had come farther than he had”. A pleasant fellow, we chatted briefly and then we went into the Farm Store.
The store is rustic looking, has a bank of fridges and freezers for the grass-fed, grass-finished pork, beef and chicken they sell and also has racks of shelves and other items that are display. Lots of T-shirts, books, local produce, jams, jelly’s and such. It’s an inviting place, easy to move about and the people staffing the store are helpful, cheery and give you the impression you’re not a bother – they are glad to help you. There’s an autographed picture of Joel with the band Train – pretty random, but very cool, especially since we’ve seen them in concert in Kansas City. Miss Mercy and I decided to buy our T-Shirts early and leave them in the car before the tour. The Mad Farmer was as happy as a Marvelous Pig that he was able to get an “Everything I want to do is Illegal” shirt.
Right on time the tour started. The Lunatic Farm Tour is kind of like a hay-rack ride. Two Tractors with two hay wagons attached provide seating for the tour participants. The tour is limited to about 100 people, but because of how it is set up it doesn’t seem crowded and everyone has a chance to see, hear and ask questions. Plenty of water is provided, which is a good thing, because, on a two hour tour in the Virginia sun in June, (cue the Gilligan’s Island Theme song) there is more than enough time to get dehydrated if you are not careful.
It was Daniel who showed up to lead the tour, and shock, shock, he’s a grown man with a family. You read about Daniel in the books as a young boy, and even though later Joel talks about him getting married and having a family, in the Mad Farmer’s head he was always a “young boy”. Clearly not the case. Daniel comes across as a highly competent, clearly intelligent, individual who is in charge of running a large farm operation.
So the tour starts out with everyone getting on the hay wagons and we chug off across a stream and up a hill towards various areas of the farm. The first leg of the tour was about a mile by tractor and stopped at the current location of the chicken tractors. Many of Joel’s books discuss the chicken tractors – portable shelters that protect the very small chickens and still let them feed on grass and bugs and keep them relatively safe from predators.
Each chicken tractor is made from light weight materials and can be moved by a single person. It only takes a couple of minutes per tractor and 1500 birds can be moved in under an hour. Very efficient and a proven method that has been tested over decades. Everything about Polyface farms is about flexibility, light weight and mobility. If you aren’t sure it is supposed to be a permanent fixture then it probably shouldn’t be. The tour then moved on to the chicken roosts
The roosts are surrounded by electric fencing which helps keep predators out and chickens in. The portable structure provides a place for laying eggs and nighttime roosting. It’s proven it’s working, plus the water storage and chicken feed storage is attached to the front, so everything is easy to hook up to a tractor and move. Polyface is all about making things work – a life lesson for everyone to be sure.
The next stop was the fabled “egg mobile” or is it “Eggmobile”? Either way there aren’t fences around the area. These chickens are as close to “free range” as is possible in a world where they don’t crap on everything you own, especially your porch. Polyface also raises Turkeys in a similar fashion.
The last stop on the tour was the cattle. We had hoped to see the pigs reveling in the Marvelous Pigness of being Pigs but Daniel told us they were several miles away in fields that were not conducive to easy access by tractor and the time to get there and back would have taken longer that could be accommodated. So we tractored on a bit and came to a shady wooded area near a stream that was full of cattle. Just up the hill was a very nice pond.
We were told the pond was man-made and collected run-off from all the fields above, helping to keep the stream below flowing and allowing the water to be used for many other things downhill. Land and water management is a huge part of Permaculture and it’s a huge part of Polyface Farm’s land use. The last part of the formal tour was being able to watch the Polyface interns “paddock shift” the cattle to the next grazing location, opening electric fencing and “calling” to the cows. The cows are used to the process, appear to look forward to new grass, and seem eager to move. In just a couple of minutes all the critters had moved to the new area and started grazing.
When the Mad Farmer was much younger he used to walk out to the fields with his Grandpa Farmer (a man who farmed successfully all his life, with hard work from sunup to sunset) and used to bring the dairy cattle back to the barn. I can tell you that experience was night and day different from what we saw at Polyface. I loved my Grandpa, but he was definitely a product of his time. Grandpa was born before airplanes flew and passed after man had walked on the moon, but I’m pretty sure what is happening on a daily basis at Polyface would have left him shaking his head at the “newfangled notions” and confused him mightily.
After the tour went back to the main area we were invited to stay as long as we liked, ask questions and take a look around anywhere we liked. Miss Mercy’s first beeline was to the chicken coops, where there were hundreds, if not thousands, of very cute baby chicks being grown big enough to go out and “get on the grass”. It wasn’t smelly, they weren’t standing around in their own poop and we knew the birds we were looking at would shortly be having the best experience poultry being raised for egg laying or for later “freezer camp” can have.
After a short walking tour around the grounds and work areas Miss Mercy and the Farmer ended up chatting with Daniel for a bit. Yours truly forgot to ask him what it was like constantly having people drop by the farm while trying to work (guess we’ll have to go back again, oh darn). Miss Mercy asked him about the pigs. We were told where they were and that we were welcome to hike up and take a look. Daniel also mentioned there were a lot of younger pigs that were currently in the barn and we could go check them out if we liked. So moments later we are in the barn, taking the in Marvelous Cuteness of piglets (come on, you know they are). After a bit we started toward the field where the larger pigs were grazing.
Pop-up lightning and the start of a fairly intense rain storm cut the sojourn to the pigs short and your intrepid wanderers left the wonderful place that is Polyface Farms and started our journey back to the homestead. The trip home was stormy, long and ultimately uneventful. Your weary homesteaders arrived tired, happy, and having been some wonderful places and learned some amazing things.
For those of you who might now be tired of the Mad Farmer’s adventure in Montana we will go ahead and shift topics for a bit to the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS. If you are not familiar with Ogden Publications they are a publishing company based in Topeka, Ks. They publish magazines like GRIT, Mother Earth News, Mother Earth Living, Capper’s Farmer, UTNE and several others. They have been proponents of homesteading, green living and regenerative agriculture for a lot of years and possibly one of the best kept secrets in Kansas. Ogden Publishing shouldn’t be a secret of Kansas but we’re considered a “fly-over state” so some of the really cool things that do go on here seem to get overlooked by some of the snobbier states (take notice Oregon and Washington, it’s not just you greening up the desert anymore)!
Anyway, the Mother Earth News Fair is a homesteading, back-to-nature, gardening, beekeeping, sustainable-living jamboree of vendors, presenters and small business folks that get together to put on a event several times a year in various locations around the country. Currently there are six fairs a year and Ogden Publications started having one in their own hometown in 2014. It looked interesting and it was local so we attended the first one they had in Topeka, Ks and had a great time.
It’s hard to believe that I blogged about the last fair only a year ago. A lot of the bloggers and podcasters I follow have had dozens if not hundreds of articles and podcasts in that time. I’ve posted far fewer than that and hope to be better and more consistent going forward. So, moving down memory lane to the present this year’s fair came the weekend after I got back from Montana. Having just spent several days with some pretty awesome innovators I was pretty stoked to attend the fair when I got back. An added bonus was that Uncle Mud was going to be there with his family presenting on a number of topics.
Miss Mercy (the most tolerant, long-suffering , Mad Farmer’s wife on the face of the planet) and I were hoping to get together with Uncle Mud and family prior to the show (okay, it was really just me hoping) but they were late getting in so I didn’t to get to see him until his early Saturday presentation.
The second morning of the tour started at the Fisher Price House (FPH). Paul and Jocelyn call it that because it’s a double-wide trailer, mostly made of plastic and almost an air-tight plastic baggie. Their goal is eventually to move to a wofati up on the lab but at this time staying in the FPH allows them to get the outside work done that moves projects along and provide the basics for all the visitors that Paul’s ongoing projects attract.
There are people that call Paul gruff and hard to be around and that might be some people’s perception. I would say that Paul and Jocelyn open their home to a wide and varied mix of people. Some of the people that I have read about that they have welcomed in the past I doubt I would have let into my home. And, at the first sign of the ingratitude that has darkened their doorstep on occasion, I would have booted out or had arrested some of the folks that have heaped unwanted and probably unfounded abuse on on my hosts.
Paul has some fairly strong opinions on a number of topics and I have no problem with that. I have a lot of strong opinions on a number of topics myself. Paul seems to have actually mastered the ability to let others speak, listen to their words and then, after they are done, discuss the subject with a well thought out and reasoned response. I, myself, am still trying every day to be fair-minded, reasonable and thoughtful and there are a lot of days I struggle with each leg of that stool. Paul actually seems to walk the walk and I applaud him for that.
I had listened to most of Paul’s podcasts and the thing I was actually most worried about was that I would be disrespectful in some way (it might be a shock to some people that know me that I don’t actually have the best social skills on the planet) that would cause us to not be able to converse on a reasonable level. I don’t agree with everything Paul has tried to do, or the way he has tried to do it, but the man has put an enormous effort into moving Permaculture and Community forward and there is no denying (at least from my perspective) that he is moving things forward and shaking things up in way that no one else is and moving forward in a positive way.
So, to get back on point, Paul invited us to come into his home for a look at the Rocket Mass Heater that is in the Fisher Price House and to spend some time discussing the care and feeding of a RMH on a daily basis.
We spent a productive morning hearing about their experiences actually having a working rocket mass heater in their home. We actually got to fire it up (I didn’t get to light that one but I did get a chance to light another later) and see how it worked first hand. It’s an amazing appliance and I can’t wait to start learning how to build one myself. After learning about the FPH RMH we then went and toured the rest of the lab.
You can see all the amazing things we also got to learn about at Permies.com.
Our second day of the tour started at what Paul and Jocelyn call the “Fisher Price House”. The Fisher Price House (FPH for short) is a double-wide mobile home that has been basically permanently installed on a granite slab that was cleared in the side of a mountain. It’s mostly made of plastic and chemicals, hence the moniker FPH. Paul also calls it “an air-tight baggie” because all of the doors, windows and joints are sealed so tight there is almost no air-flow in the house.
There was quite a bit of discussion while I was there about how homes should “breathe” and how after years of mandating minimum levels of insulation and tightening up on home regulations the government finally got some studies done that showed there really should be a minimum rate of air exchange to keep people in structures healthy and reversed their policies. All of that was mostly an aside, the air-flow discussions primarily centered around the effect of proper air-flow and draw to keep Rocket Mass Heaters working correctly.
There is a beautiful proof of concept Rocket Mass Heater in the FPH.
The barrel on this RMH is made of stainless steel and is really quite striking. The thing about this RMH that makes it special is it is the first “pebble style” RMH build. For those not familiar the “Mass” in Rocket Mass Heaters is used to store the heat produced by the system and release it slowly over time, that is part of what makes them so efficient. Typically the mass is made out of Cob, which is a mixture of sand, clay, straw and water. In a pebble style heater the mass is primarily large-ish rocks that are surrounded by pebble size rocks contained in a wooden frame. Paul’s also has a granite top to the mass “bench” so it also looks very nice and is useful at the same time. I’ve been told in the winter they put their clothes drying racks above the bench (Permaculture function stacking at it’s best)!
When Paul, Donkey and Ernie Wisner built the FPH RMH (how’s that for acronyms?) they originally tired venting it out the wall, just to see if it could be done. It turns out it can, but it did not draw well on cold days. They re-routed the chimney through the roof, as is typical with most wood stoves, and that did the trick. Paul figures that his pebble style bench and the stainless steel barrel make this stove about 30% less efficient in actual heat generation and retention than a cob style with a normal metal barrel but he still typically only runs it a few hours every couple of days in the middle of a Montana Winter.
We spent a bit of time in the house, firing up the Rocket Mass Heater, and discussing design tricks and I can personally attest that it didn’t take long for the room to be cozy and it stayed that way long after the fire was out.
Paul Wheaton has an several on-going experiments about building community through natural building, shared ideals and the limitless possibilities of Permaculture. One of Paul’s on-going experiments is Ant Village. Ant Village originally started out as the Ant Challenge where a minimum of six “Ants” would pay a minimal amount of rent for a one acre plot for a year. The Ants would have access to all the rest of his property to use for resources to build their own shelters, gardens, graze livestock and anything else they would like to do within a certain set of parameters of the challenge. The parameters included no “off-site” commuter jobs, no paints, toxic chemicals or insecticides and using natural methods as much as possible for building and heating.
As I understand it the people participating were called ants based on the “Ants vs. Grasshopper” parable. The reward for winning the challenge, which was basically who had the most complete, livable plot after a year, would get a “deep roots” package which is basically lifetime rent on the acre and continued access to all the other property. Structures could be wofati’s, or other natural building styles approved by Paul. One of the Ants who has since moved along built a Mike Oehler-style structure.
The cabin is cozy inside, probably less than 200 sq. feet, more like a tiny house. The bunk is right up against the ceiling, pretty narrow and requires some acrobatics and the ladder leaning against the wall to get to bed – I would probably do something different, but I’m considerably older and less agile than the person that built it.
There is a tiny wood stove inside, that Paul approved with reservations because he was told that it would be replaced with a Rocket Mass Heater.
Apparently it heats the space okay but it doesn’t hold any heat and the design of the stove is not really intended for extended use. Personally I think I would have it out of there pretty quick, but in the interest of full disclosure, I probably would have gone with a different design for the whole project. That being said, it was built by hand, by mostly one person and I have yet to do anything quite that elaborate in round wood timber framing so, “kudos to you” Ant Who Built the Oehler cabin.
Later that evening the participants of the tour gathered at Base Camp for a Pot Luck meal that featured Jocelyn’s “Spaghetti Flavored Cake” (that’s lasagna to the uniformed) that was fantastic and side dishes and bits and bobs that were provided by the folks who attended. Arlo and Jenn, a couple who are homesteading in the Washington area cooked up a fresh salmon in the Rocket Oven and it was very tasty. Overall a nice end to a long day and eventually I got a ride up to the Cooper Cabin where I was staying the rest of the trip.
Paul has recently changed his policy on the Ant Village tying it closer to his bootcamp program. You can read about that here.
So at Wheaton Labs they encourage you to do your number one “bidness” anywhere on the property to return the nitrogen and minerals back to the environment. They also ask that you eat organic or better especially while you are on property for myriad and various reasons that you can look up on their website at permies.com. For your other functions there are multiple locations on the property that have various different types of “willow feeders”.
The concept behind the willow feeders is that willow trees and cottonwoods love excess nitrogen. After human byproducts are stored long enough to kill all the pathogens the remaining composted nutrients left behind are still too “hot” to put around most plants and most people have a natural aversion to composting in the garden with human waste (even though that was the practice in Asia for thousands of years and still is on-going but that is a discussion for another time). Turns out however that willows and cottonwoods will take as much of that kind of stuff as possible and turn it into oxygen and wood and such.
So the “willow feeders” at the Labs are more efficient than an outhouse and I can personally attest that they don’t smell and they are very clean. I’ve probably used more out-houses and porta-potties over my lifetime than most folks and I can tell you personally that the willow feeders are way more civilized than anything else of that nature that I have ever used. The biggest hassle factor is having to get mostly dressed if the weather is not good to use them.
We also got to take a look at a project that was built by a couple that was staying in the tipi. Yep, you read that right, Paul has a tipi on his property that is available for rent and contains a rocket mass heater.
It’s a full size tipi and has a rocket mass heater and circular thermal mass bench inside. Paul told us the first year it was on a property a couple stayed in it over the winter. One morning they got up, put on their outdoor clothes, came out side and found out it was 25 degrees below zero! Inside they said they had the Rocket Mass Heater going the previous day and when they got up it felt like 50 – 55 degrees out. They were shocked by the outside temp. And that was in an uninsulated tipi with canvas walls. Pretty amazing stuff!
Anyway, while the couple was staying onsite they wanted to practice their round wood timber framing skills so in their own time they built a skiddable “bee hut”.
There are a lot of black bears in the area and black bears love honey, so they added a solar panel and an electric fence around the structure that is powerful enough to discourage bears without permanently hurting them. The straw bales you see around the hive are in preparation for the coming winter to help the bees maintain the temperature in the hive and make it easier on them. It also cuts down on the wind and the roof cuts down on the rain and snow. Bees typically maintain their hive temperature in the 90 to 95 degree range all year round so cutting down on wind, rain helps a lot.
Allerton Abbey was to be the primary focus of the upcoming Natural Builders week and there were some really cool people coming into work on that and I will cover that in a future post. On this day I got to fire up the Batch Box style Rocket Mass Heater that was in the abbey. It appears the trick to successfully starting any Rocket heater or stove is to start a small fire in the back to warm the heat riser and then build the fire more towards the front (batch box) or add more wood to the infeed (J-Tube) once the unit is drawing well. If you don’t, you’ll get smoke (and Paul will explain why that is bad and look at you funny).
This particular heater is built with a glass top from a regular stove so you can see the fire and uses a pyrex casserole dish lid as the fire feed door. Without a door on these style Rocket Mass Heater/Stoves they are not finished and will not operate properly – that is one of Paul’s biggest pet peeves with this style. People start building, don’t finish or build it wrong, then say “Rocket Mass Heaters don’t work”. They do work but this style build is not for the novice, so it’s recommended you do others before you tackle this type.
I will say you could see the fire through the glass cook top and it was wild to watch it burn sideways, then roll towards the center of the chamber in elongated tubes like sideways fire tornadoes. Erica Wisner explains about Fire Science on their website and she also has a booklet called “The Art of Fire” that you can purchase that is super informative and interesting about how fire behave in various environments and conditions. I learned a lot by seeing all of the different Rocket Mass Heaters and Stoves and I am super glad I made the trip.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Wheaton and Wheaton Labs his property is divided into two parts – “Base Camp” where the current home and shop is located and “Wheaton Labs” which is a larger section of property where the Ant Village (we’ll cover that soon, I promise) and a lot of the other experimental structures are located. He calls it the Lab to make sure everyone remembers that the goal here is to experiment and prove concepts, not necessarily to churn out a finished product.
After the Pizza Party there was a bit of a mix-up on Friday night about where I would be bunking and Jocelyn graciously extended an offer to me to sleep the first evening on the couch in the Fisher Price House (they call it that because it’s a double-wide trailer made mostly of plastic) which I happily accepted. I helped her and Chef Ron with the dishes from the party and ended up turning in fairly late. Due to the time zone change and the length of my trip I had no trouble getting to sleep almost instantly.
I found out the next morning that Paul and Jocelyn tend to get up around 5:30 am. Paul was very kind and was being quiet in an attempt to let me sleep in. It turns out that Paul’s version of attempting to “be quiet” is quite adorable for a 6′ 4″ large man although it’s not actually very quiet. I appreciated the effort but the early wake-up was fine because I was excited to be up and start the day. The tour and the chance to see and play with all the Rocket Mass Heaters I had been reading about was why I drove to Montana in the first place.
Chef Ron, one of the tour participants, had come in the day before from Washington and helped Jocelyn prep everything for the pizza party. Chef Ron really outdid himself making a breakfast casserole with the leftovers and making homemade biscuits to boot. He told me he had never been in Jocelyn’s kitchen prior to the day before but he had found everything he needed almost immediately. I figured that was a) because Jocelyn rocks as a cook and a person and b) he’s a chef, and people who cook tend put things they use the most nearest where they use them. After breakfast the group of tour participants gathered together and carpooled in various vehicles up to the Lab area.
The first thing we saw when we arrived at the first Lab location was the Cooper Cabin.
Cooper Cabin is a WOFATI which stands for Woodland Oehler Freaky-Cheap Annual Thermalized Inertia structure. The Oehler stands for Mike Oehler who was a designer of underground earth houses who recently passed away. Mike was the author of the $50 Dollars and up Underground House Book and apparently quite a character based on the stories Paul was telling all weekend.
The WOFATI is designed to store heat in the summer and release it in the winter, maintaining a year round temperature without heating or cooling the structure. The Cooper Cabin is not completely finished but very close and Paul is hoping to have someone or a couple of someones live in the structure for year to document the conditions and prove that it works. If you are interested in helping out with that project let me know or contact Paul at Permies.com and let him know you want to be involved in the Thermal Inertia test.
The next project we looked at was the skiddable Wood Shed.
The wood shed was built as a place to store boards they have milled with their portable saw mill. Recently sawed green lumber needs to dry for a considerable period of time before being used in structures to prevent shrinkage. There is a style of building using green logs, called Round Wood Timber Framing, that actually takes advantage of the shrinking to tighten the joints of a build but that’s a topic for another post. The Wood Shed was built by a novice builder as their first natural timber build and it’s not perfect but it does the job.
We then got a look at Paul’s Solar Leviathan.
The Solar Leviathan is a portable solar charging station that has multiple solar panels mounted on a frame built onto a trailer that Paul’s brother welded together. The wheels look out of whack because the type of suspension they built has both wheels in a kind of floating frame, attached to a axle to allow for being driven over rough terrain. The solar inverter and batteries are contained inside the trailer making it a completely self-contained mobile power station. Very, very, cool, especially if you are off-grid and want to run an electric chainsaw, charge up your cellphone and have lights in a wofati cabin at night.
The next structure we looked at was the Canning Kitchen.
The canning kitchen is a skiddable structure (skiddable means it’s designed to be hooked up with chains to a vehicle of some type and dragged to a new location) built to make canning in the summer more bearable by performing all the heated operations outside. All the blue food grade barrels you see in the picture are for water storage and the kitchen sink on the lower right side of the picture has a manual foot pump that allows for running water.
The structure is designed with an open bay (lower right side) that you can insert a module unit into depending on what you need. When used as a canning kitchen they can put a Rocket Mass Stove for heating water into the bay or they can put the Rocket Mass Oven into the bay and use the shelves for food prep. The structure is about 65-80 percent finished but is certainly usable.
The drive from Billings to Missoula was only about 4 1/2 hours so I slept in a little bit, went down to the continental breakfast, had a nice chat with the lady who was serving (unfortunately I did not get her name) and continued on my way. The event I was attending at Wheaton Labs was a get-together for some of the folks who had supported Paul’s Rocket Stove Kickstarter. Paul was having a natural builder’s event starting the week after so he had some natural building rock stars coming in for the event and since I was coming in from the East I was asked if I could pick up Chris “Uncle Mud” McClellan at the Missoula International Airport. I was happy to do it (basically that was like asking a teenage girl if they would like to meet Taylor Swift).
I got into Missoula, MT quite a bit before the plane was scheduled to arrive so I did some grocery shopping and went to lunch at a place called the Mackenzie River Pizza Company. It’s a great pizza joint and if you are passing through Missoula I highly recommend stopping in for a slice. After lunch and a look around town I went to the airport to pick up Uncle Mud. I had seen him in person the year before at the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS putting on a straw bale building demonstration and was looking forward to giving him a ride. Uncle Mud turned out to be just as genuine as he appears when putting on a workshop and his enthusiasm for all things Rocket Stove and Natural Building related is apparent in every conversation he has. The other thing that impressed me was his dedication to family and I was honored to spend the time with him.
By the time we arrived at Wheaton Labs the Rocket Stove Pizza Party of 2018 was in full swing and just like that I was standing in a place I had been reading about for two plus years and meeting people that I been hearing about and reading about for longer than that. Just for the record Paul Wheaton is pretty much a giant. He’s 6’4″ tall and a presence in any room he is in, even if he’s not standing. Jocelyn Campbell might possibly be one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet and is an excellent cook as the next few days attested.
The first night of the event was cooking pizza in the Rocket Stove featured in the Kickstarter video, eating good food and getting to meet the people who I would be spending the next couple of days with. It turned out that the people supporting Paul in the Kickstarter and coming together to spend time in the labs and talk Permaculture came from all over and many different walks of life. A chef turned farmer, engineers, architects, IT geeks, retired administrators, homesteaders and many others. A diverse group that actually reflected in so many ways the diversity that Permaculture strives for.
After a few hours of good food and lots of stories and introductions the various participants separated to go to the various campsites and rented structures around the property and turn in for the night.
Journey to Wheaton Labs Day 2 started pretty well. Up and on the road by 7:30 am, a little later than I planned but not by much. Kansas is much prettier in the daytime. Many people think of Kansas as flat. That is mostly true for the East-West drive, but we do have the Flint Hills which are beautiful and the North-South drive has it’s fair share of reasonable hills. No mountains but there is definitely elevation change. In the western part of the state I was driving through with a little bit of imagination you can picture what it might have been like hundreds of years ago, covered in grass 20 feet tall and herds of Bison so big you couldn’t see them all. Too bad all that is mostly gone except for a few places where they have protected it.
Soon enough I entered eastern Colorado. The scenery changes very quickly and it gets colder, you start to go up in elevation as you come closer to Denver. Fortunately my route passed by Denver but it did go partway on a three-lane highway between Denver and Fort Collins that eventually went down to two lanes. If you like a leisurely scenic drive avoid traveling that highway at all costs. Even in the late morning on a Thursday it was wall-to-wall traffic. Not as bad as the corridor from Oklahoma City, OK to Dallas, TX, but pretty bad.
The good news is that once past Fort Collins everything thinned out and the traffic became lighter and sparser as I neared Wyoming. Wyoming has the aura of the Marlboro Man, riding his horse across vast, untamed prairie. There are wide open spaces and some mountains. A very pretty drive through lots of small towns and spread-out ranches. I could easily see myself living in Wyoming – in the Summer. Winters there are pretty harsh from what I understand and I’m not really a winter guy.
Once I finally got into Montana it was gorgeous. The whole trip on Thursday had very variable weather and temperatures through every state and time zone. I went from moderate rains and 50 degrees to sunny and 72 degrees, back down to the mid 30’s and rainy again and it was happening about every 30-60 minutes. Very interesting. I finally got into Billings, MT, the Capital, about 7:30 pm. I was checked into the Sleep Inn by a nice, friendly young lady named Alicia. I spoke on the phone with the lovely Miss Mercy and then got settled in for the night.