Straw Bale House Building Work Party

NATURAL BUILDING WORK PARTY!  Learning opportunities for straw baling, light clay, and plastering starting now and continuing throughout September for our straw bale addition on Pender Island, BC.

It has been a rather unpredictable summer in terms of our building schedule, but we are finally at the point of putting the straw bales into the walls of our house.  These things just always take longer, right??  We started off on Monday, August 21 with an enthusiastic group, gathering in the morning to check out the partial solar eclipse that was visible from this part of the continent, and then spending the rest of the day getting the order of operations sorted out.

Our method of placing the bales standing up in the columns created by the stud frame is different from what we did for the other half of the house, which was a timber frame structure with the straw bales stacked like bricks and secured with exterior vertical bamboo.

We would like to invite everyone who is interested in experiencing building with straw bales to come for a few hours, or a few days, to take part in a variety of jobs which will shift over the next few weeks as the work progresses.  From this point onwards, there will be many tasks to complete, and while it will be difficult to schedule the type of work being done over this next time period, we would like to offer a general list of natural building components that we will be looking for help with:

  • trimming, notching, sizing, and stacking bales
  • stuffing
  • light clay- we will be filling some areas
  • clay slipping all the wall surfaces
  • mixing and applying the first coat of plaster

light clay- filling the forms

Give us a shout and let us know when you can come and we will try our best to let you know what we will be doing.  Or, let us know what you want to do, and we will contact you when that job will be happening as soon as we know.  Things will be much quicker depending on the amount of help we have, but realistically, we also have to consider the cooling of the days as we get into the plastering part of things.  The plaster needs to dry completely within a certain time frame… same for the light clay.

trimming and notching bales

This week, August 23 – 25, and August 27-31, we will be working to fill the walls and we are looking for extra help.  Anyone that is interested in learning a different way of building with straw bale is welcome!    We also have a lovely pond for swimming and will be providing snacks.  If you are from off island, please send us a note of your interest and we can provide more details.

Weaving for a Collaborative Art Show

The local winery here on Pender Island offers their large tasting room to local artists each weekend of the summer for art shows, and this summer I was invited to add my weaving to a group of four artists- painter (and my mother!) Margaret Alpen, photographers Eve Pollard and Derek Applegarth, and glass jeweller Nancy Westall.  The room at Sea Star Vineyards is open and bright, with lots of wall space and a large, plank style table in the centre.  It was wonderful to have so much room in which to display scarves and ponchos, rather than trying to fit everything in on a market table!  I also really enjoyed seeing my designs blend with the work of the other artists.  The colours of Nancy’s jewelry really matched beautifully, and Eve had a photograph that she took of my and Rosie.  Also my mother’s west coast arbutus trees and forest paintings created a wonderful sense of place.

I was inspired to focus mainly on pieces in which I had incorporated my hand spun angora fibre from my angora rabbit, Rosie.  I have been spinning it in a blend with other fibres, mostly merino and alpaca, and the pure white result is refreshing to weave with.  Having a few display mannequins really helped to show the shape of the ponchos, which were the pieces that sold the best!  This was my first art show, and it was lovely to chat with the folks that came by, and show them my Saori loom which I brought along to set up.

Another nice touch is the Winery’s request for the artists to donate to a local non-profit organization in lieu of rent for the space.

GROUNDWORK- Building with Straw Bale

Last year we were approached about being interviewed for a short documentary about building with straw bales.  We are excited to share our story as well as our reasons for choosing straw bales and other natural materials to build with, and it is delightful to be among other home owners and builders who share the same sentiments about the homes we create.  We are currently on this journey once again, and the reminder of why we are doing this is truely valuable in the face of the various challenges that manifest during such a large and complex project.

Our wood working shop is also featured in Episode 1-Building with Cob.

Other episodes made are Episode 2- Building with Timber and Episode 4- Building with Rammed Earth.

*Made by TELUS Optik Local~ supports compelling, original stories told by filmmakers from BC and Alberta by providing production funding, training and exposure to new audiences.

Water Storage and Irrigation System

A small deck and arbour disguises the concrete cistern which collects our spring water, and provides a beautiful space from which to enjoy the pond. The hand pump allows us to access water if the power is out.

Water is a precious resource on the Southern Gulf Islands… and figuring out how to manage what we have when we have it is integral for everyone.  The water source for our three acres of land is supplied by a spring, which has been a registered water source since the 1950’s.  It comes out underground from fissures through the bedrock slope that we have built our house on, and it is beleived that the main supply is filled by rain water running off of George Hill, which rises to the north of our property.  While the land had been only mildly developed, the source of the spring was dug and pooled into a gravel bed and directed to a small concrete cistern.  Previous owners added a small water pump and plastic 300 gallon tank for their domestic use, which serviced the trailer that we became residents of when we purchased the land.

2009- pond dug and water cistern going in

The spring flows all year, but has seasonal fluctuations of flow which correspond quite directly to local rain fall.  It slows to a trickle during the dry season, and fills up again within a few weeks of our first fall rains.  So we have a huge abundance of water in the winter, but we still have to be careful not to overtax the storage capacity in the summer.  With more gardens being created, and more water facilities in the house up and running, we needed to amend our water system to include more water storage.

We added a 1200 gallon buried concrete cistern at the time that we dug the pond, in 2009.  Our field is solid clay, and so was horrifically wet all winter and the pond helped to redirect the incoming winter moisture.  The concrete cistern overflows into the pond, which overflows towards the garden.  However, the water level of the pond drops below the outfall in June, and so the spilling waterway dries up in the season when we could use it the most.  As the next 6 years went along, we watered the garden by hand (which got to be a bigger and bigger job) and experienced  a few summers of extended hot dry conditions, which proved difficult for the spring. Last April we addressed this by adding 2 plastic above ground tanks, each holding 2,000 gallons, for the prupose of irrigation.  The summer following was another long and dry season, but we had awesome results with keeping plants well watered through drip lines and mulch, using the water we set aside from the spring.  We had to refill them partly in August, setting the refill flow at a slow trickle overnight.  By the time the rains returned in october, our season of growing was less intense and we could turn off the irrigation.

 

Here is a water map of our system as it is functioning at this time.

  1. Underground spring collects into gravel bed and perforated pipe, then gravity feeds to fill the cistern.
  2. Buried concrete cistern holds 1200 gallons, and overflows into the pond.
  3. Water pump in the shop draws water up to the house for our domestic supply.
  4. Water goes through a UV filter.
  5. Outside house tap is turned on to fill the two above ground cisterns using the filtered spring water. (2000 gallons each)

The water is then fed by gravity into the irrigation lines.  A 1″ hose heads to the orchard, where it is split into a 3/4″ line that continues around the pond, and into a 1/2″ line that runs through the orchard.  Drip hoses with either 6″or 12″ spaced drip holes irrigate the rows of cordon espalier fruit trees, and into the various flower, herb, and berry beds.  The veggie garden system is similar, with various drip lines coming off the 1/2″ line.  We dug the 3/4″ line shallowly into the ground around the pond as well as burying the 1/2″ line in places where it crossed paths to avoid damage from stepping on it or tripping.  Two timers are attached to the lines leading into the orchard and leading into the veggie garden, since each area has differing water needs, and shut off valves are placed at the major forks to allow us to manually open or close each section.

The drip system was fairly straight forwards to install after a lesson from islander John Eckfeldt who supplied us with the system.  It is fairly flexible and configurations are easy to adapt for year to year changes.  It works well with a gravity feed, although it is usually affixed to a pressurized system.  Our large tanks are uphill from the gardens by a small degree, so we did some drip tests to see if the volume of water coming from one drip hole was the same as the product indicated, as well as testing out a length of drip line to see if the drip rate was the same after 20 feet.  The timers we bought are also intended to work with less pressure such as gravity provides.

 

 

 

Framing~ The Bones

roofDespite a very frigid December (for the west coast), we managed to continue building just in time to get the roof sealed up and water tight before the wet west coast winter starts in.  Here is a brief account of the structure of the frame, and the way in which we are going to insert the straw bales.

first wallOur decision to use a stick frame method as opposed to a timber frame (as we did for our first house) was mostly a compromise of time and money.  Stick framing is super fast, and we hired an experienced framer friend (thanks Danny!) to work with Colin and his design with the curved roof lines.  Dan helped Colin put his drawings into a model of the house in Sketch-Up, a computer program for architecture, so they could get accurate measurements for all the framing, especially where the lengths of the 2×4’s change subtly with the curves.  The curved roof was the main reason to use stick framing- it was eaiser and faster to frame the studs under the curved beam which is essentially two 2×8’s (cut out of 2×10’s to get the curve) overlapping all along as one continuous header the length of the roof- this also alleviates the need for headers over doors and windows.  Framing started on December 2, and was done in a month, despite a week break over Christmas.  We still have some interior shear walls to frame, as we were focused on the walls that were necessary for the roof.  Also, window and door framing will be cut in sometime in the spring.  Many people have asked us about how 2×4’s can be the only thing holding up a living roof, but the engineer says they are strong enough with the 3×8 beam on top.

The exterior walls are framed to 18 inch centres, as we will be standing the bales on end between the 2×4’s.  A lengthwise notch will be cut down each side of the bales to fit them snug around the framing, and thus hide the wood frame down the centre of the wall of bales.  The new international building code for straw bales has published findings that the bales placed 14 inches wide in the wall is the same insulation value as their 18 inch wide option, due mostly to the orientation of the straw.

All of our interior walls are shear walls (plywood on one side, and attached to the foundation directly), as required by the engineer, since our exterior walls are straw bales and not considered to have any shear strength.  The shear strength is the load that an object is able to withstand in a direction parallel to the face of the material, as opposed to perpendicular to the surface.  In walls, it is usually plywood or cross bracing that provides the shear strength, preventing any side to side movement.  So our internal walls are (or will be) sheeted with plywood and continue down to the foundation.  At the foundation, the walls are secured with hold downs to resist any upwards movement in an earthquake.

The roof is standard construction with 2×4 strapping over 2×12 joists, though in the more curvy parts of the roof we had to use double layers of 1×4.  On top of the strapping is standard 1/2″ plywood decking and a 4″ curb all around the edge to keep the dirt in.  We decided to go with a double layer torch on roof membrane this time, which should easily last a very long time, longer than us… The roof was torched on in early January and we are now secure and dry for the rest of the winter.  Colin is back to work in his shop for the next few months to get caught up with his ThujaWoodArt projects, but come the spring we hope to do the infloor heating and plumbing under the concrete slab on grade subfloor, and prepare for installing the straw bales in the summer.  We will be offering workshops for installing the straw bales and plastering in the summer through the local Heartwood Folk School, check their website for more info as we get closer!

Phase 2- Continuing the Build

foundationFoundationThe basis on which something stands or is supported; a base.  The basis or groundwork of anything.  An underlying basis or principle for something.

An overview–  The previous straw bale house chronicled on this blog was the first section of two parts of our whole building plan.  The first half is designed as an in-law suite for my mother, with a shared art studio space, and this second half that we are just starting will be bedrooms for us and our kids and a garden level living space.  The 3 acres that we have contains a lower open feild where the pond and gardens are situated, a forested upper area, and a sloping face of bedrock in between.  Since we don’t want to clear the forest or use up valuable growing space, we have designed the house to be built on the rock.  The first half sits at the top and overlooks the pond and gardens, and the other half is separeated into two floors, each built like a terrace from the garden level up to the existing section and attached with an enclosed walk way.  The total square footage will be about 2,000 square feet.

excavatorWe are building with as much attention to natural materials as possible.  We are using sustainably sourced or salvaged resources whenever we can.  The walls in this half will be straw bale with clay and lime plasters, with a living roof, just as in the first half.  We are aware of the imprint of building houses these days and the huge amount of toxic off gasing that occurs with many conventional materials as well as the chemically saturated waste that ends up in the landfill.  However, since we are building within the boundaries of building codes and needing to meet the requirements of engineers, architects and inspectors, there are just some things we can’t avoid.  Natural building can be a tag that is placed on our house as a whole, but I think it is important to state that not every aspect of the house is “natural”.  Such as, for example, the foundation.

The second half-  There are not many places in Canada where you could begin to build a house in November.  Of course, we didn’t plan to start at this point, but the process of aquiring the permit took longer than we expected.  We learned from our previous build that everything will take longer than expected.  Amazingly, the weather has been quite co-operative, allowing us to complete the form work in one week, and giving us the sunniest day of the month on the day we scheduled the pumper truck.

There is not much about the foundation that would fall into the “natural” category.  We hired an excavator to dig the footprint, and rented a large rock drill with a giant, gas powered compressor to drill out 140 holes in the bedrock, each ranging from 16″ to 24″ deep and filled with concrete grout and rebar.  We purchased a lot of 2×10 and 2×4 lumber as well as some plywood for the forms that we hope to re-use again in the framing if possible.  We set five runs of rebar inside the length of the footings and stem walls with a 1′ grid of rebar in the higher walls and snap ties every 2 feet, and placed knockouts of pvc in the footings wherever we need drainage, septic, and water runs.  We hired a concrete pumper truck and 3 truck loads of concrete.  We set anchor bolts every 3 feet in the top of the concrete to attach the framing.  The engineer is happy, the geo-tech is happy, the building inspector is happy.  This is not terribly extraordinary in the world of regular construction, in fact it is quite standard and even a “small” job.  To me it seems rather complex, requiring a lot of effort and money to create forms that become deconstucted and a structure that is largely unseen in the end.

However, this crucial first step is the foundation upon which we will begin to build up our visions of a beautiful, healthy, comfortable, sustainably functioning and lovingly hand built family house.   

 

Winter Collection~ Blending Angora

drum carderIn the past few months, I have been blending my collected angora fibre with a variety of other fibres.  After changing out the cloth on my old drum carder to one that has a higher tpi (tooth per inch), which is better for finer fibres such as angora, I started with alpaca roving, which is very soft and also white, the same as my angora.  It carded and spun up beautifully!  I moved on to using a heavier merino wool that was hand painted in shades of light blue and purple, which became more diffused when I added the angora, but which held a lovely softness.  I also tried out some long staple llama locks in auburn, which produced a heavier weighted blend.  Lastly, I have blended the angora with a black merino wool, which gave a very tweed-ish grey, and was still very soft.  Here are some photos of replacing the carding cloth on my drum carder.  I took the whole thing apart, and pried off the old cloth.  The new cloth was cut to the correct length and stapled back onto the large drum, as well as the small one.  It was important to notice the tooth direction when putting the cloth on!  (Teeth at the top of the drum need to bend away from the loading tray).  Everything got a good cleaning before putting it all back together.

Making a blend on the drum carder-  I didn’t do any specific ratio measurements, as I am still getting a feel for how much angora I need to include at a minimum to still have a predominant angora feel.  I have been estimating a half and half ratio to start.

Generally, I loaded the tray and carded it through, doing about three loads before I pulled the batt off the large drum.  Then I carded the whole batt through once again very slowly, letting it spread out while it was pulled in to get a smooth, overall mix of the two fibres.  I didn’t take any photos while I was spinning it!  Here are some scarves I wove with the yarn from that combination, and a skein of angora/alpaca in which I spun little coloured bits.

I am very excited about exploring more options with the angora I am getting from my rabbits.  The neutral colours of the angora are flexible with colour combinations, and the added softness and warmth are simply divine!  These and other creations are for sale on my etsy store~ Silver Circle Weaving.  I also look forward to having all my weaving for sale at the Christmas Craft Fair at the community hall on Pender Island this weekend!

First Pear Crop

We have six pear trees of three varieties in our cordon orchard that was planted in 2014.  This was the first year that we got pears from these trees- a small number of very large pears of each kind.  In my attempt to chronical the annual progress of the orchard, here is a brief description of the pear varieties we planted.

conference pearConference pear- Conference is by far the most widely grown pear in north-west Europe. The variety was found in 1884 as an open pollinated seedling, from a Leon Leclerc de Laval, and cultivated by Thomas Rivers, from Sawbridgeworth in England. It was named ‘Conference’ in 1895 after the ‘British National Pear Conference’ where it was first exhibited. Not long after, this variety occupied a major position within European pear cultivation, due not only to its good flavour characteristics but also to its excellent storage properties. During the last few decades the quality of Conference has been further improved following changes to cultivation techniques, making it the highest in pear cultivation in the Netherlands and Belgium.  Ready for harvest mid september, the conference is a medium sized pear with an elongated bottle, and is suitable for fresh-cut processing.  The skin is thick greenish-brown, becoming pale yellow when ripe, with a moderate amount of russet. The flesh is white, but turns pale yellow when the pear is ripe.  The texture is very fine and soft, and the flavour is sweet.

From European heritage, to local Pacific Westcoast modern varieties…

orcas pearOrcas Pear- Discovered on Orcas Island, Washington, and introduced in 1986, this excellent, disease-resistant variety produces good crops of very large and attractive, carmine blushed, yellow pears with smooth, sweet, buttery flesh. Excellent for fresh eating, canning and drying, Orcas Pear is very reliable and productive and ripens in early to mid-September. These beautiful and tasty Pears can weigh of 1 lb. each!  The Orcas is included in the gardens of the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation, which works to advance fruit horticultural programs for the unique Western Washington maritime climate through advocacy, research, education, and demonstration for the benefit of the general public and the small farmer.

rescue pearRescue Pear- This very large, attractive, yellow fruit with reddish-orange blush is sweet, juicy and flavorful, and great for fresh eating and drying. Well adapted to our Pacific Northwest growing conditions, Rescue is a vigorous, productive, and reliable variety.  The rescue pear was found by Knox Nomura, a nursery grower near Buckley, WA. He had seen the pear at fruit shows but the exhibitor never allowed anyone to take cuttings from his tree during his lifetime, and after his death the tree was scheduled for removal to expand an adjacent cemetery. Knox Nomura “rescued” scionwood from this original tree, and sent trees to Mount Vernon in 1975 for testing. Introduced in 1987.  Ripens early september.

We deeply enjoyed tasting these home grown pears and getting to know their unique qualities.  I look forwards to the maturing of these young trees and the productivity that will flourish as I learn the best pruning techniques for the cordon espalier system that they have been established on.

 

Expanding the Orchard

chojuro asian pear

Last fall we ordered 5 more fruit trees from Bob Duncan at Fruit Trees and More, our favourite fruit tree supplier.  This time we got 3 plums and two asian pears, all on a dwarf stock.  Bob did some initial pruning when we went to pick up the trees, and showed me how to bend out the remaining branches to encourage tiers of branches spread in a circle around the main leader.  I have tied down the branches while they are still bendable to encourage an open shape.  I planted the trees right away with a sprinkling of bone meal and organic fertilizer, watered them in well and later applied a thick layer of leaf mulch.  Here are the details of the varieties:

Seneca plum– large purple fruit, resembling Italian variety.  Ripens early september, with high quality eating plums also good for canning and drying.

Yellow Egg plum– large, oval yellow fruit with yellow flesh.  Ripens mid september, soft and sweet for eating and canning.

Stanley plum-Ripens mid september, European plum medium to large, excellent for eating fresh, cooking, or canning.

Nijisseki asian pear– ripens late august, medium round, greenish yellow skinned, firm and crisp, excellent eating quality.

Chojuro asian pear– ripens mid august, medium round, brown skinned, mildly sweet, firm and crisp.

asian pear and native berries

asian pear and native berries

The new area is to the west of the orchard that we put in two years ago, and is slightly shadier and wetter than the rest of the open space.  However, this was the only place we could expand the fencing due to our continued plans to have excavators and piles of building materials in the next few years.  I dug trenches for drainage to keep the areas where the bare root fruit trees were to be planted as well drained as possible.  I have been wanting to establish areas of berries, like blueberries, strawberries and raspberries, but I think this new area is too dark and wet.  I discovered that there are lots of native berries that produce abundantly, so I added a few plants each of evergreen huckleberry (growing 5-6 feet tall), lingonberry (2 feet tall), and wintergreen (ground cover).

wintergreen

wintergreen

Hummingbirds love the small, pink-white flowers like fairy bells of the evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum). Late in the summer, black-purple fruits form. Native only to the Pacific Coast (USDA 6-9), it likes acidic soil and can tolerate salt spray and strong winds.  The delicious fruit for pies, jam and unique toppings is an added bonus. In forested areas it can reach 15’ and spreads to form beautiful, dense stands. The glossy, dark green leaves are small and the new shoots are a bronzy red. In full sun, it dwarfs to 3-5,’ and the mature foliage often turns reddish purple.

lingonberry

lingonberry

Vaccinium vitis-idaea (lingonberry) is a short evergreen shrub in the heath family that bears edible fruit, native to boreal forest and Arctic tundra throughout the Northern Hemisphere from Eurasia to North America.  These plants thrive in moist, acidic soils from Massachusetts to Alaska, producing an abundance of healthful, cranberry-like fruits.

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbent) is a ground cover that produces the classically refreshing flavour of crisp mint.  The small red berries can be mealy, but are rich in vitamin c.  It is cold hardy and keeps it’s glossy leaves all winter, producing white or pink-tinged bell-like flowers.

new orchard

drainage trenches running between planting areas

Already established in the same area is a black elderberry (sambucus nigra) and three chokecherries that I planted in the margins of the original orchard area.  They are all now nice and tall and bushy, and producing lots of bunches of berries.  Last fall I made a jar of elderberry syrup.  We also have a small native red huckleberry, so I hope to see this corner of the garden flourish with series of all types that we, as well as the birds, can enjoy! dwarf fruit trees

 

 

Silver Circle Weaving on Etsy

silvercircleweavingI finally decided to test out the services of Etsy to sell my weaving online.  So far, I have been offering my creations at the local farmers’ market during the summer, and I have often received inquiries from visitors about how they can see my work online.  I have really only used this blog to post photos, but never really had a purchasing format.  I am hopeful that Etsy will help connect my hand woven creations with those around the globe seeking to support small home businesses focusing on hand made items.

Visit my shop:  Silver Circle Weaving

I also realized that I needed a name… so I did some research on spinning and weaving and the symbolic associations with Celtic mythology, which I have always been interested in.  This is what I found:

83117db14f606e3e121892b219b44076Arianrhod, Celtic Welsh Star Goddess of Reincarnation, is known as “Silver Wheel”, “Silver Circle”, “High Fruitful Mother”, “Star Goddess”, and Sky Goddess. She is considered by many to be a Moon Goddess.  She is a primal figure of feminine power, a Celestial Mother Goddess who through her role as Goddess of Reincarnation, rules fertility and childbirth.  Arianrhod also rules arts, magic, and manifestation. As the Goddess of the Silver Wheel she is associated with spinning and weaving.  With Her wheel she magically weaves the tapestry of life.

Things sacred to Arianrhod are the owl, wolf and the birch tree.  The owl has long been associated with death whereas the birch tree is the tree of new beginnings.  To the Celts, the wolf was associated with the power of the moon.  Thus, Arianrhod’s wheel circles the continuum from birth to death and to birth once again, and creating the journeys therein.

Her palace was found in the far north on the magical, rotating island of Caer Sidi, which probably means “Revolving Castle”. She lived there with her female attendants. The ancients believed that her domain and her castle, Caer Arianrhod, were in the Corona Borealis, the constellation of stars moving around the apparently motionless North Star.  Legend tells us that poets and astrologers learned the wisdom of the stars at Caer Sidi.

As “Silver Wheel”, Arianrhod was responsible for the souls of warriors who fell in battle. She gathered them aboard her ship, the Oar Wheel. and transported them to Emania, also know as Moonland.  In the Northern sky, whirling around the enduring stability of the north star, Arianrhod presided over the fates of departed souls, nurturing their journeys between lives.

images-1 c525809ad0d9e5ac521c00cc79790dd7

I like the simple image of a silver circle, and I hope to also create a little design to go with it.  I also hope to be offering more items with my hand spun angora fibre that I have been harvesting from my own french angora rabbits.  I am still in the process of learning the skills of blending and spinning the very soft and silky fibres so that I may integrate it within the weaving.

Diversity in Education

farm day It has been six months now since both of my previously home schooled children have been enrolled in a new educational program offered at the elementary school here on Pender Island.  Since September, they have been attending a full time class (four days a week here in our district) for grades 4-8 focusing on ecological settings- in a true sense of the word: relating to or concerned with the relation of living organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

Yes, it is a program defined by the use of the natural outdoors and skills relating to living outdoors, enjoying outdoors, learning about nature, and challenging the physical strengths and confidences of active bodies in nature.  However, in the way that permaculture is not just about gardening, ecological learning is not just about plant identification and learning the life cycles of frogs.

This new program, initiated by parents and supported by the school board, started in September 2015 with 24 kids ages 9-13.  Some of those kids were previously home schooled,  some came from the previously established classrooms, and some were new students to the island.  Much of the focus in the first month was establishing respectful student relationships and group dynamics, regardless of age or social circles.  Co-operative games, trust games, continual cycling of group configurations, and blanket academic games allowed the teacher, Steve Dunsmuir, to begin the process of observing each student and their abilities on many levels.

Steve Dunsmuir came to us from Saturna Island, where he founded and taught the successful SEEC program for many years.  Steve Dunsmuir designed the Saturna Ecological Education Centre as part of his master’s degree in Environmental Education and Communication from Royal Roads University. He has taught and learned with almost every age group from kindergarten to university over his 25+ years as a teacher, and enjoyed four years as a Faculty Associate for Simon Fraser University’s Professional Development Program. He has also learned much from his wife and six children and was surprised to be named “Outstanding K-12 Educator” in 2010 by the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (EECOM).

The PEEC program (Pender Ecological Education Community) was inspired by the format of the Saturna program, which has also branched into the Salt Spring hosted MYSEEC program for grades 6-8.  A similar program on Galiano has been created for the older students there, unofficially called MYGEEC.  “SEEC’s place-based approach to learning blurs the lines between school and the community so that both are one and the same. Our island is our classroom and our people and the natural world our teachers.”

forest daySo what do they do in a day?  It varies.  There are many project based activities that get attention during the week, like independent science research projects.  Sometimes a community member comes and talks or leads an activity, such as building books with cedar covers, or carving, or a presentation on archaeology.  The students participate in the school music program, and can take part in any lunch time activities or whole school events.  They have a buddy program with the primary grade class, and use the library, gym, and computer lab.  The whole class in engaged in a game called Archipelago, which is a multi-faceted experience ranging from geography and topography to native flora and fauna to writing skills, math, predictions, adventure, developing real and imagined skill sets for characters, and eventually creating settlements and pioneering skills.  They spend one full day every week at a local forest/farm, where they play games, develop outdoor skills (like fire, food and shelter), have Solo-tude time, write, build, hike, create spaces, and inhale a lot of oxygen, no matter what the weather.  They are learning to become Enviromentors, and will host days with visiting classes from on and off Pender, leading the visitors through games and activities.  As the weather improves, plans to explore further and for longer lengths of time are in the works.  One such outdoor adventure was a 7km hike, in preparation for the proposed plan of hiking the Juan De Fuca trail (Vancouver Island) at the end of the school year.  During their hike, the students looked for and found four geo-caches, (which they have all become experts at through developing orienteering skills with a compass), climbed Mt. Menzies where they had lunch overlooking a magnificent view of the islands, watched for and made notes of the various birds they saw, and looked at a small salmon hatchery in the Hope Bay stream were the eggs were “asleep” but about to release as fry.  The kids were also writing alliterative haiku poems, all day, according to an attending parent (of which there are usually a few, because we all feel like this is the school we all wanted…)

Academics have been expanded to fit the levels of the age spread, regardless of grade.  A math topic such as “the sphere factor” can be taken from basic circle and sphere calculations to complex formulas.  “Novel Ideas” are opportunities for any level of reading and writing skills to be exercised with reflection and comprehension.  Individualized spelling lists are given based on each students’ spelling errors.  A supportive relationship between Steve and the kids results in communication about challenges (not enough?  Too much?) and the ability to self evaluate is encouraged.  Parents have been invited for student-led conferences, where the kids take their parents around the class and explain the different activities and how they are doing, with Steve available for further open discussion.

Although much of this class is vastly different from when I went to school, some of it is not too different from what other “regular” classes have to offer.  I have highlighted here what appears to me to be normal opportunities, as well as the aspects that make PEEC an alternative choice for some students.  Diversity in education is a huge factor in raising diverse children in a world of diverse values.  My children are thriving in the class, in a way that as homeschoolers, they did not have access to.  I have heard nothing but positive comments from all parents of all the children enrolled, and that encourages me to believe that the PEEC class is off to a successful beginning.

For us, our journey as home schoolers appears to be over.  The term Life Learning, often used instead, is more aptly appropriate anyways.  Life has offered us a new direction, and we are all so very happy that it is a wonderful fit.

Angora Scarves

I have finally woven up two scarves using the skein of angora fibre that I spun from our chocolate french angora rabbit, Gustav.  I mixed it with some hand spun, hand painted merino from a Pender Island fibre artist, I Heart Ewe (iheartewe.etsy.com) that my daughter gave to me for christmas.  The two scarves are for each of us.

Truly, the softest fibre I have ever touched.  I look forwards to experimenting with more!

January Weaving

The (slightly) quieter schedule that engulfs us after the holiday swirl offers a perfect time to focus attention back at my loom.  After a recent trip to Knotty By Nature in Victoria for a new array of warp thread, including some shiny bamboo, I have been continually inspired to explore and play with many ideas and colours.

Moss & Arbutus- My first attempt to weave from an idea of composition that I originally drew.  Warp threads are bamboo, weft consists of merino, and baby llama/mulberry silk blend.  The white accents are hand spun angora collected from my own rabbits.  158cm long (63in.) x 27cm (10.5in.)  

Fire- woven on the same bamboo warp as Moss & Arbutus, I used green baby llama/mulberry silk blend with Noro wool featuring long colour changes.  I played with the effect of clasp weaving using two yarns of differing thickness.  130cm (51in.) x 27cm (10.5in.)  

Forest Windows was inspired by seeing small squares woven separately in a cloak somewhere online, creating little “windows” that opened on the sides.  Same bamboo warp as the above pieces, I used similar merino with the baby llama/mulberry silk blend, with moments of white alpaca.  145 cm (57in.) x 27cm (10.5in.)

Pond is a tiny little neck warmer in the same hues as Ocean.  It is only 105cm (41in.) x 13cm (5in), and was woven on the same warp as Ocean, except that I split the warp and wove two separate pieces at the same time.  

Ocean is a long expanse of blues, purples, and white with flecks of cream and deep green.  I used alpaca, merino, wool, and some locally spun and dyed merino on cotton warp.   Randomly placed spaces in the warp add some visual texture in the length.  This piece measures 195cm (78in.) x 32cm (12.5in.), and may one day become a piece of clothing.

Angora Heaven

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Locally harvested!  100% French Angora, Gustav, the fibre machine. 

It has taken a bit of time, almost 6 months in fact, to finally catch the chance to spin some of the super soft angora fibre that I have been collecting from the three rabbits, Gustav, Rosey and Peter.  In the time that I have been learning to care for them, I have witnessed their own unique bunny personalities, as well as individual fibre qualities and shedding times.  Gustav has proved to be the manufacturing machine, with a grow back and release time of about 2 months.  I have collected a large amount of his lovely grey tinted fibre.  Rosey loves to hold on to her wedding gown cascade of pure white fibre, and resists many of my attempts to pull it out until just the right time, which is closer to 3 or 4 months.  Peter is a satin x french angora, and has very fine fibre that doesn’t seem to ever grow too long, and doesn’t produce the quantity that I get from Gustav, as he sheds somewhere in the middle of the other two.  Peter has a lovely orange brown to his coat.

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My long term goal is to blend the angora with some other fibre, which means experimenting with carders to pre-blend the fibres together before spinning.  Since my time has been short, I have not been able to gather tools to test out before buying, so I decided last month to go ahead and try spinning some fibre 100% and without any carding.  Teasing out handfuls of lofty bunny hair which had been harvested straight from my rabbit, I gave it a light spray with water that had a few drops of jojoba oil and lavender oil in it, as was suggested by my most referred to book, The Nervous New Owners Guide To Angora Rabbits, by Suzie Sugrue.  That kept it from flying all around the room!  It was not too hard to spin, and I was inspired to keep the harvested fibre more orderly for next time.  The pieces that were nicely aligned spun up more evenly than the chunks that were tangled from the brush, or from being scrunched in the bag.

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I made one large skein of 2-ply, 100% angora, and then a made another small quantity that was 2-ply, one of the ply’s being 100% alpaca.  The two fibres mixed wonderfully, and I think that once I get a handle on pre-blending, then the possibilities for creative mixing will become another source of heaven in my hands.

Marine Biology Beach Seine

beach seine netOur beautiful fall weather has offered some amazing days for outdoor explorations, especially at the beach!  As a snorkeler, I am always interested in finding out what is going on at different times of the year below the surface of the ocean.  Fish, however, are elusive, fast moving, and hard to identify as they scoot among the seaweeds.  So I was very happy to witness the workings of a beach seine collecting an array of fish that live in the nursery habitat of eel grass beds in the sheltered bays of the Gulf Islands.

Doug setting the seine net

Doug setting the seine net

Marine Biologists Doug and Jennifer Swanston came over from Vancouver for the day.  Jennifer has worked as a naturalist/interpreter for several groups, and has a BSc from UBC.  Doug Swanston has been working in the field of marine biology since the early 1980s, after graduating with his BSc from UBC.  He is involved in research as well as education.

eel grass beach seineA seine is a fishing net that hangs vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. Seine nets can be deployed from the shore as a beach seine, or from a boat.  Seine nets have been used widely in the past, all around the globe since the stone age.  Pre-European Maori deployed 1,000 meter long seine nets woven from green flax, with stone weights and light wood or gourd floats, and could require hundreds of men to haul.  American Native Indians on the Columbia River wove seine nets from spruce root fibers or wild grass, again using stones as weights. For floats they used sticks made of cedar which moved in a way which frightened the fish and helped keep them together.  Seine nets are also well documented in ancient cultures in the Mediterranean region, appearing in Egyptian tomb paintings from 3000 BC.  They are still in use today for fishing, but they also enable marine biologists to carefully collect samples of fish and other specimens for research, allowing them to be released with little disturbance.

setting the seine netDoug and Jennifer were working with a group of 24 children, from grades 4-8, who are a part of the Pender Ecological Education Community.  Doug began the day with some discussion of taxonomy and habitats; the classifications of seaweeds and grasses and the role that the different types have for different fish during the year.  The nursery habitats of the eel grass areas have been previously mapped, with help from the Seagrass Conservation Working Group, and are especially worth observing for fish populations throughout the year.  I have seen many types of small schools of fish while snorkeling, and the shallow, warmer waters protected by tall forests of the grasses with areas of sandy sea floors seem like the perfect place to hide and feed in relative safety from larger prey.

To set the seine net, Doug walked out into bay at the edge of the eel grass area and pulled along the floats of the net, leaving a rope going out of the water to the beach.  He continued to pull the net open as he waded, almost neck high, across to a large rock in the middle of the bay, and eventually came ashore with another rope.  Half the group was sent to one end of the rope, and the other half was to keep hold of the opposite side.  There were very controlled instructions, and an attentive atmosphere surrounded the kids, as movements were specific and closely monitored by Doug and Jennifer.  The group at the far end of the beach slowly pulled the rope towards the beach, while carefully walking along the beach towards the other group, who also began pulling and walking.  The idea was to make of the net a crescent shape, tucking the sides in towards the beach while leaving a gentle balloon out into the water so the fish were not startled or tangled in the net, but simply being herded in towards the beach.  As the net eventually came in closer, the excitement mounted, and Doug was wonderful at encouraging the interest but also outlining guidelines and procedures that will above all, ensure that the lives of the creatures being collected would not be harmed in any way- by being stepped on, dragged across barnacles and rocks, left out of the water, or suffering from scale damage due to too much handling.  To one concerned child he said,”this is a seine net!  If anything gets hurt, that would be insane!”

Once the net was pulled up closer to shore, the kids were encouraged to make an estimate of the number of fish rounded up.  Each child had a bucket with fresh sea water in it, and when the time came for Doug to really haul the net up, they each had the chance to scoop a fish for their own observations.  At this point, everyone was so excited- pointing and exclaiming and talking all at once, with questions and answers flying.  Silver and orange fish flashed in the vibrant green, while purple crabs clambered about and unknown creatures slithered.  Collected fish were named, shown, given seaweed to hide in, talked about, questioned, and eventually accompanied each student for a quick lunch break.  Doug was clear that the buckets had to be in a shady spot, and no hands were to be continually placed in the water, so the temperature doesn’t warm up.  Adequate oxygen levels needed to be considered, so a particularly large Whitespot Greenling was placed in a larger cooler of water.  It turned out to be a female carrying a belly full of eggs.

Doug went through the collected fish and made notes of what was found, as well as identifying to the group interesting facts about specific specimens.  Of particular interest was the bay pipefish, our local variety of sea horse, which depends on the eel grass beds entirely.  We also found a pen point gunnel, with beautiful eye stripes and a colour to match the eel grass itself.  There were lots of threespine sicklebacks, striped seaperch, pile perch, kelp perch, shiner perch, and tubesnouts, which congregate in large schools.  Doug estimated over a hundred fish were in the net, and as he pulled the net gently back out into the water to release them, he seemed quite excited that so much life was present and healthy in our local waters.

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