Blog

The Brick that Broke the Camel’s Back

I have a lot to say about where I am, about what I’m doing, about what I’m feeling and about bricks. And no pictures to say it with. So, please be persistent and listen to what I have to say and perhaps we’ll all be the wiser for it.

After two years of homesteading, the floors of our two small huts are still laid with dusty gravel. As a result, a thin layer of dust hangs on everything. The walls are dusty, the sheets are dusty, the shelves are dusty. On exceptionally dry days, when the dust causes Marcin to sneeze and makes his eyes water, he sprinkles water on the floors, bringing temporary relief to his ailments.

The floors aren’t the only unfinished parts of the living space at Factor E Farm. Mice scurry between the abundant holes in the walls, floor and ceiling. A light sleeper can hear them scratching as they search for bedding and crumbs. The one-person kitchen houses more mice than the rest of the farm combined. They do not care that there is no heat in the kitchen. They don’t care because they love the crumbs. The crumbs that accumulate because there is no water to wash them away. The sink in the kitchen doesn’t work and the crumbs sit where they are dropped along side piles of dirty dishes, pots, and pans.

Only one small sink on the farm has running water. A bucket catches the water, which is then carried outside and returned to the earth. Some of the time. Most of the time, it overflows, watering the dusty floor of the humble hut. Keeping the dust down in a ring around the sink.

When the pipes freeze on cold days, there is no running water. We store it in barrels, hoping it will last until the next thaw.

Since ice floats to the top, the solar shower (which drains water from the bottom of a barrel) doesn’t freeze. But it certainly doesn’t warm up much either. Even if the electric heater element is working, the surrounding air is too cold to make a shower feasible. Time to move the shower into the humble hut.

The bedroom is also in the humble hut, which doubles as a computer room, which doubles as a meditation space, which doubles as storage space, which doubles as a hand washing- drinking water space (when the water is running) which has no space for anything else. The cordwood room is attached to the humble hut and is a common room. Except when people are visiting. Then it is also the guest bedroom. And when its too cold to eat outside, it doubles as the dinning room. And when the stove is going and isn’t strong enough to reach through the thick cordwood and earthbag walls to warm up the humble hut, it doubles as back up meditation and computer space. Privacy is a luxury.

I am reminded of a story of a refuge family that was given an apartment in the USA to live in. The eight person family moved themselves into one bedroom of the apartment, leaving the rest vacant. When their host came to check on them, worried that the three bedroom apartment would be too small for their needs, he was shocked to find that they were all in one room. He discovers that they assumed such a large space would be for several families. Personal space is a previledge.

There are four stoves at Factor E. And only one is lit. It takes too much wood; too much time and energy to keep any more fueled up regularly.

Plants, faithfully watered all summer, line the greenhouse, asking to be put into the fields. Plant me, plant me. They call. The Wild Woman hears. But the Compressed Earth Block Press has begun to move its jaws. It crushes the voices of the earth into bricks. The men heed its call.

But the Wild Woman can still hear the voices calling. She hears the animals and plants. She hears the water and the dust. Loudest of all she hears the Cracks in the walls of the huts opening up to the howling winds of winter.

The machine screams for attention. The Rototiller whirls and the Tractor purrs. But through all the noise, the Cracks speak clearly: “We cannot deny the winter wind entrance to this room. Winter Wind knows the password and will take the heat of your fire one day when your back is turned.”

So, I make it clear that I cannot make bricks. For the song that fills my soul to be answered, I need to fill the cracks in the walls before winter comes.  The dust, the water, the mice, the bricks will wait. That’s the art of Pioneering: patience, prioritizing and listening to the heart. I follow my heart and mud the cracks.  Marcin follows his heart and makes bricks. 

But the machine pleads, it begs, it twists the psyche until the subtle voices of the land and cracks are drowned.

So, I help make bricks. Five gallon buckets of dirt dumped into steel chambers. Bucket after bucket. Into the chamber and out the other end. Bucket after bucket. Arms, shoulders, back, neck, wrists asking for a different rhythm. But the machine has a rhythm of its own. Bucket after bucket, it asks for more and more until the monotony is broken only by the rhythm that creates the monotony.

I think of the humble hut, built humbly by three. The tractor, Marcin and me. At our pace and at times, even without me. By Marcin alone the structure could still be erected.

I think of the Earth Bricks built to an unfaltering rhythm. The Press asks for more and more people and more and more machinery at a faster and faster pace. When is enough? Enough is when there is a village or a building company full of people ready with equipment and energy. Compressed Earth Bricks have a place, but are not for low equipment or low people-power operations.

Enough is when the Cracks call again louder than the Machine. And I stop after a week of bucket after bucket. More bricks are needed, will always be needed. But the Wild Woman must listen to the voices of the wind, the stiffness of her neck, the garlic asking to be planted, and the Cracks.

I welcome your comments and questions publicly below through “comments”. I also invite you to contact me directly through email: brittany.gill [at] gmail.com 

edited by Brittany December 15, 2008

16 Comments

  1. Sasha Mrkailo

    Don’t know about farming and Mission, but you are a gifted writer. I’ve enjoyed the text although i feel it is a sad story.

  2. Richard Tietjen

    Your vivid account is reminiscent of my so-called commune days in New Hampshire in the late 70s. We had things better it sounds, running water usually, clearer boundaries with the outdoors, some income from outside, but a certain degree of persistent squalor also. Exploding backhoe battery, ornery cow to milk, frozen water line, and a bunch of dead chickens.

    What you’re doing is frankly more ambitious than the spiritual aspirations we had. And more laudable, probably in view of the contradictions converging on industrial civilization. I believe in the theory of what I think you’re doing. But theory is also probably the source of the trouble you indicate: a lack of balance between comfort and progress. I don’t know: can you take a break, come back when the amenities of life have been attended to, integrate technological revolution with organic care? That’d be a good thing, better even than CEB walls, the progress of which I’ve been cheering.

    taycare,

  3. Amy

    there aren’t even words. we will miss you, and are happy that you’ve listened to the depths of your soul. so much love dear brittany…amy, chris, salem

  4. Bob

    Brittany –
    I understand the thin line that is tread between simplicity and squalor, servant and slave, revolutionary and lunatic at factor e. I admire the sacrifices you have made and extend my deepest gratitude for letting me be part of the family wholly and completely. I myself have jumped camp for the winter but know that I’ll be a part of OSE experience for years to come. Much love and hope to see you in the spring.

  5. Geoff

    I’ve been following Factor E for a few months now, and really enjoyed seeing what is produced there, but as much as I enjoyed the progress on earth blocks, the hints at the other, living elements, were just as valuable, just as inspiring. That the development work you do appears in the context of a real life is more inspiring to me, personally, than the results on any particular project, though both are priceless.

    A farm is not all about buildings and machinery, and an inspiring model farm such as this one you’ve set out to create is no different. I often find that I’ve set myself goals and worked too single-mindedly toward them, to the exclusion of the other things that also have meaning and importance in life. Thankfully I have my partner, who pulls me up and sets me straight. I sometimes resent being diverted, but always in the end I’ve seen the value of what she had to say, the worth of the change in direction she demanded. It’s the only reason we’ve got vegetables as well as a forge 🙂

    I believe that if we draw from the lessons of permaculture, and start with zone 0 and 1, establish a home base that promises and provides a core of stability to the enterprise, the happiness and efficiencies realised there will result in more energy, time, and quality to all other work carried out on the farm. The Mission must allow time for the people that make time for the Mission.

    Winter is a time that requests (demands?) introspection, consolidation, and quiet comfort. We build our reserves for the coming Spring when we must break out into growth once again. No matter how cold and dark the Winter we can have faith that the Spring will come again.

  6. Sepp

    Thank you for sharing, Brittany,

    and for being there to listen to those sounds drowned out by the machine.

    Yours is a plight that women have been suffering for eons but your standing up to the noise of the machine and the tendency of males to heed only the louder is what makes life worth living.

    We can all be slaves of the ‘machine’ but what this is all about is ‘life’.

    To Marcin one word of advice: The Italians have a saying that goes “Rome wasn’t built in one day”. I take that to mean that, even if they seem lazy to an outsider, they actually have found a way to balance the concentration needed to do great works with the contemplation of life needed to not lose your spirits. Slow down. Huddle up for the winter. Make yourselves as comfortable as you can.

    Spring will come, and summer, to finish the extension. There will be time to do the great works. But meanwhile, you have a family to protect, a project to give a future to. Think of that. Brute force won’t do it all. You may end up with an empty shell of a home, empty of all that makes life worth living, of all the subtle things that only women can feel and describe and keep alive.

    And Brittany, thank you so much for providing that balance and please keep doing it. Your efforts ARE appreciated.

    Do I dare hit the “submit” button? Yes, I do.

    Hoping you guys will find the right balance. (It’s both yin and yang. Never push one to the exclusion of the other.)

    Sepp

  7. ruth steck

    I have arrived just lately to the E-Farm sites, and, like many, I am feeling immensely charged by the potential here. Your beautiful, beautiful letter has dropped into our morning’s mix–a mix that has for weeks now incorporated e-farm’s bricks and tractor into our own evolving mission here at StarWind Farm; and the also-morphing mission of Project CoffeeHouse, the youth empowerment center my partner and I parent.
    The mission. Sort of sounds like it was our idea, like we know what we’re doing. But it feels more like a Big Hand wants to use us as its glove, and that it matters less and less whether or not I think I know what I am doing, or that I am afraid.
    We got turned on to E-Farm through our dear Steve, who has lately been in touch with Marcin. Steve, too, is a scientist, has received his ‘certificate of over-specialization’ and is now in the process of daring to be a full-fledged science maverick while at the same time being a Sanskrit-reading, Elvish speaking, wolf-talking, god-listening self-confirmed introvert. Through him, an aspect of our larger possible mission has emerged: to be a retreat center for sick-at-heart scientists. He has been here for the past week, touching home from California, after 6 weeks in India. There hasn’t been a day that we didn’t talk about Marcin and the E-Farm, or haul up your sites for someone else to see. (For a while there, not knowing how his name is pronounced, we just called him the Martian. ((sorry, Marcin–we know better now)))
    All other substance aside for the moment, isn’t it just amazing how you there, unknown to me in the ordinary sense, can become so real in my experience as to shape and inform my days, to have us thinking about you and wondering how it is for you all there? These are amazing times, with amazing technologies. And with them has come the peril of having our technology outstrip our humanity.
    So we talk a lot about balance; about how to focus enough to get stuff done without devaluing the stuff that appears side-line to whatever the focus is. Which is to say: we build, we toil, and we develop the vision; we also like blue glass in the windows, and how the light bounces from a polished table. It matters to Lu and me as much how our dwelling feels as anything we’re doing ‘out there’. People love the way it feels here, and we don’t want to lose that in our drive forward. When the season is going full bore, though, it’s easy to say, ‘later’ to the laundry, for the tools and detritus of our daily doings to wind up places along the way to where they really belong. We are working on this, framing the issue as one of flow—of dancing, of tending simultaneously both the minutiae (things-in-the-moment) and the ‘bigger’ mission.
    Your posting, Brittany, has spoken straight to the core of our own most pressing considerations. Just yesterday Lu said, “I wonder what their lives are like there day-to-day?” And there you were this morning, answering. We would like to invite you here. Rest, revive, recharge. And, if you wish, speak with a couple of sisters you didn’t know you had about how we can—and must—weave the heart into all of our makings.
    And Marcin, we would open this invitation to you as well, and with it a gentle caution: As important as the bricks is the baking bread.
    Peace.
    Ruth Steck
    StarWind Farm
    212 Narber Fry Rd
    Pennndale, PA 17756
    (570)546-7769

  8. Lucas

    Hi,

    Not much we can do from far away, but you have our best wishes. [After writing that I just read how people are ready to invite you to their homes. Closer homes, geographically. Warmth exists.]

    Filling in the cracks comes first in my book. I even thought, hey, if there’s a separate place to chip in for your basic wellbeing I’d nourish that first. But I didn’t know you had mice around, so I chipped in for bricks. :-/

    Take care.

  9. Ronny

    Beautifully Written.

    As living with you guys for about three months I feel a duty to say a few things.

    “Prioritizing” is a key word here. I find it amazing that a in a solar powered operation where world changing instruments are being developed, people still have to shit in buckets and go weeks without a decent shower, being unreasonably cold at nights (I used to sleep while wearing two layers of coats in two sleeping bags). That was the situation a year ago and I bet nothing will change next year. It’s pretty easy to romanticize this whole living condition situation. “Young Crazy Idealistics”; Enduring pain, suffering and discomfort for this amazing philanthropic goal, we all heard that. But I know for a fact that in any given point the conditions could be drastically improved in a short period of time (relatively short when comparing other projects that are going on). You might not understand what the big fuss is about after a visit of a week or two, but living like that for more than two years is not heroic, its just plain stupid. It takes a toll and a heavy one and very quickly. I am speaking from experience.

    Knowing some interesting bits from the farm’s past and the history of its creation, I absolutely know that the farm could not be here today in its current state without Brittany. That is a fact. Financially, Logistically and just as a good old plain morale providing being, Brittany was there. When Mercin says jump, Brittany should say “how high” (and smile doing so). That is not cool. Brittany was and still is 50% percent of this show. But you will never know that from the websites; she is humble and do not care about credits.

    Mercin:
    People said it before. Take it easy man, you will have many more seasons to achieve your goals without griding people to their max. Is getting something done a few months earlier is more important than keeping good people happy and relaxed (I am not talking about Brittany alone but in general, this is a known issue that other people also raised). You are great. Very result oriented and posses a “Get Shit Done” attitude which is a real rarity in the P.H.D wanker world. Already you have achieved amazing things in a phenomenal time line. Developing an open source CEB press that is actually freagin’ works is a good example. Right now (and probably for a long time in the future) people are more important than quick results.

    Some stuff may seem harsh but you guys do know I truly love you, right?
    Peace,
    Ronny

  10. Brittany

    Thank you all for such thoughtful replies. I am astounded by the responses, but I think they emerged because the questions raised here are universal. Factor E is not the only place where people are struggling to balance priorities. Families, communities, partners around the world are looking for a balance between giving to greater goals and the needs of the self; finding an equilibrium between peoples gifts, needs, and wants; searching out a balance between day to day maintenance and achieving larger goals; exploring the boundaries of machines, of nature, of humanity.

    I hope through this exploration of balance, people are encouraged to listen to their inner voice, no matter how strange or faint it may seem. It is that inner voice that will lead us to balance with the chorus of voices of the universe.

    My voice is leading me beyond the mud walls of Factor E for an indefinate period of time. This doesn’t mean my voice will be silent. Change happends when everyone participates. I hope that you, too, will find the voice to participate here and elsewhere.

    Much love,
    Brittany

  11. Dan

    Jeez, Brittany, you don’t need inner voices to give you permission to be warm! This isn’t about balancing priorities, it’s about choosing your living conditions. You’re an adult: make some choices, take responsibility. Don’t blame it on the voices.

  12. […] Nick is working on the steam engine for the solar turbine. Brittany left, as she discussed on her post. Presently, 3 Global Village Construction Set projects are being engaged actively in […]

  13. Josef Davies-Coates

    This post and the messages moved me.

    Thank you all.

    Love,

    Josef.

  14. Reed Kinney

    Jan. 1, 2009, Dear Brittany , and all of you, I just came upon your website tonight.

    I remember what cold is. I wrote about the several months in 1970 that I lived in the commune “Castanos” in the state of Vera Cruz in Mexico. It was at a high elevation.
    “We froze in the loft. Juan el Pastor approached me
    in the dim light of the single candle he held in his hands.
    He trembled, and I saw his chilled breath when he spoke, “I do not have a
    blanket. You have one blanket, and a sleeping bag. It is
    too cold to sleep without a blanket. May I have your
    blanket little brother?” I gave it to him, and he said,
    “Thank you little brother. I appreciate it.” Without that
    blanket my comfort was insufficient. Everybody was
    in the same condition. It was a savage land, and looking out from the loft’s window I watched El Cofre De Perote mountain showing off it’s bright, snow night-cap
    in the moonlight.”

    I mustn’t write too much here. Your efforts are noteworthy. I’m beginning to notice a contrast between the scientists that work towards equitable society, and the social philosophers, and the humanistic psychiatrists that want the same. I think that science, existentialistic philosophy, humanistic psychiatry, mutualistic alternative economy, Education through art, and dialogical decision making processes, must be combined into an expanding, coherent whole. I think that societal decentralization and sustainable regionalism is necessary, and, too, that this needs to be actualized while furthering the best technologies that lend themselves to that type of culture; all the while cognizant of the emergent nature of this corporal reality we are born of. I think that maximum individuation within maximum community is the ideal of futurism. And, I think, too, that to become always more human is our primary occupation.
    Happy New Year !
    With affection, Reed Kinney [[email protected]]

  15. Reed Kinney

    Jan. 1, 2009, Dear Brittany , and all of you, I just came upon your website tonight.

    I remember what cold is. I wrote about the several months in 1970 that I lived in the commune “Castanos” in the state of Vera Cruz in Mexico. It was at a high elevation.

    “We froze in the loft. Juan el Pastor approached me
    in the dim light of the single candle he held in his hands.
    He trembled, and I saw his chilled breath when he spoke, “I do not have a
    blanket. You have one blanket, and a sleeping bag. It is
    too cold to sleep without a blanket. May I have your
    blanket little brother?” I gave it to him, and he said,
    “Thank you little brother. I appreciate it.” Without that
    blanket my comfort was insufficient. Everybody was
    in the same condition. It was a savage land, and looking out from the loft’s window I watched El Cofre De Perote mountain showing off it’s bright, snow night-cap
    in the moonlight.”

    I mustn’t write too much here. Your efforts are noteworthy. I’m beginning to notice a contrast between the scientists that work towards equitable society, and the social philosophers, and the humanistic psychiatrists that want the same. I think that science, existentialistic philosophy, humanistic psychiatry, mutualistic alternative economy, Education through art, and dialogical decision making processes, must be combined into an expanding, coherent whole. I think that societal decentralization and sustainable regionalism is necessary, and, too, that this needs to be actualized while furthering the best technologies that lend themselves to that type of culture; all the while cognizant of the emergent nature of this corporal reality we are born of. I think that maximum individuation within maximum community is the ideal of futurism. And, I think, too, that to become always more human is our primary occupation.

    Happy New Year !

    With affection, Reed Kinney

    [[email protected]]

  16. […] Molly and I built a hand washing station and I put together a shower, sanitation is still a major problem at Factor E Farm. This post is an analysis of the sanitation problems rooted in geography, […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *