environmental education Archive


The Work of Art

Monday, April 5th, 2010

It has always seemed to me that the central activity of humankind is art, that our common job consists of fitting each and every one of our unique and individual selves into a whole life and landscape, into our communities, into our common stories. http://www.theworkofart.org (Irish pun intended) features some essays about that work — the day-to-day making and fitting together of whatever parts and pieces that come to hand, to make beauty.

Like so much of industrial and post-industrial life, art suffers from fragmentation, isolation, separation between self and community. And artists have had little choice but to accept the terms they've been given — to "be an artist" you have to make it pay. So artists either have to work for wealth and power, or they have to work for advertisers, entertainers, and various purveyors of lies or inanity.

But real art — from washing the dishes to hoeing the beans — as well as the painting and drawing and sculpting —  requires celebration and sharing of common beauties. Success comes not in the form of money, or fame, or status, but in the continued life of all those various beauties that we no longer know, and that we can't, perhaps, understand: the beauty of life itself; the miracles of sun, moon, and earth; night and day; stars and seasons, and the utter uniqueness of our small blue and green planet. 

Such beauty only makes sense when shared. That, to me, is the primary and ultimate motive for art. Wealth, power, markets, or even ballots make lots of money, noise, and mayhem, but only art makes beauty. 

Essays will be posted in order, as formatting gets figured out and as time allows. It's a work-in-progress, so comments are welcome, here or there!

ovens and efficiency

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Dear Oven builders, mud teachers, bakers, and eaters:

I would like to talk to you about some of the claims being published about the efficiency of earthen ovens.

I think we need to be clear that any masonry oven, whether it's made of unfired earth or fired brick, is not, by definition, a "fuel efficient appliance" – especially if it isn't insulated.

There are more and less efficient ways to work with an oven, and some of them make quite good use of the wood burnt in them, but in my experience, those ways don't apply to people who just want to cook a few pizzas, or a few loaves of bread, or perhaps a holiday turkey. That kind of use requires the burning of many pounds of fuel to cook just a few pounds of bread or meat. I don't think we can call that "fuel efficient."

There are different kinds of efficiency besides fuel efficiency, and those are, I think, equally important. "Efficiency" itself means "what comes of our making," and goes far beyond pounds of food cooked for pounds of fuel burnt. There is also the work of making family and community, which can benefit greatly from the kind of communal hearth provided by an oven. There is the work of building relationships with each other and the earth, which can benefit greatly from working together with strangers to build something beautiful and useful. Ovens can be wonderful even when they go unfired: simple and magical to build, lovely to look at, and beautiful for how they bring people together. But like every thing human — like every thing living — life comes at the cost of life — and in order to actually cook in your oven, the cost is the life of trees that we cut and burn as firewood.

I suspect that most of the ovens built in the US don't get used more than a few times a year, and if they bring people together for a day or even just a few hours, then perhaps the exchange of life for life is fair. If they are well insulated and fired with small dry sticks, the exchange is even better (good insulation under the hearth and over the dome can increase retention of useful baking temps from just a few hours to 12 or more).

But when we teach people to build ovens, or if we build ovens for clients, I think it's very important to be very clear that the simple /fuel efficiency/ of an oven can be anything from terrible (a few pizzas) to OK (pizzas, flatbread, loaf bread, meat, casseroles, lasagna, soup, pies, stew, cookies, warmed milk for yogurt, dried food, and dry wood for the next firing). In America, we are rich enough in fuel that we don't pay that close attention to how many trees we cut to cook our food — but that is not so in many other countries. So a claim of "efficiency" in America or on the web may carry the wrong message to a country where trees are scarce, and fuel is in short supply.

If you're interested, I'm happy for a chance to continue this discussion, either here on the blog site, through the comment option, or directly (contact me at handprintpress.com, or by snail mail at POB 576, Blodgett OR 97326). 

stix 'n mud can make a hug

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

A new charter school in Corvallis commissioned this mud project as the initial step in creating an "outdoor classroom." All 60 kids, K-5, participated in 2 days of playdough brainstorming and design, and six days of mud. Parents and neighbors contributed random prunings of willow, fruitwood, and forsythia that we wove into a rough hut; the mud came up out of a hole in the ground, and we ended up making a lovely cob bench and this "hug hut."  

The hut is intended to be temporary. It will probably "last" for at least one winter, but my hope is that teachers and parents will replace or augment academically defined "art curriculae" with a culture of creativity, where every year, individual students not only get to "express themselves" and "make things," but where all the citizens of the school will share in re-making the school into a warm, inviting place to be and to learn—rather than the cold, factory-like institutions that we've inherited from industrialized systems thinking. It seems to me that the underlying foundation of culture is not the things we make—why burden future generations with mandatory maintenance and obedience to a single vision?—rather, let's pass on the skills and stories by which our children can live and celebrate their own lives in joyous relation to the lives and stories of those who went before them. 

The hug arrived completely unplanned and uninvited—perhaps it was a response to the uninviting "no trespassing" sign that marks the boundary between the playground and the adjoining property (just visible in the upper right corner of the photo above). 

The source of our inspiration was this fuzzy, lumpy, perforated pile of mud that pretty much followed whatever shape the underlying sticks gave us. The finished hug was a bit of a surprise, but once we saw it, it was clear what we needed to do: Spike defined the regal roman nose on the yellow figure, and all we had to do to bring the red figure to life was outline the head, and clarify the eyes, nose and mouth. The arms were there—they just needed hands…

We started with homemade playdough, and as many ideas as we had kids. 

The idea of a small, enclosed space was popular with at least half the kids, each of whom applied their own  embellishments, sculptural shapes, and stories. 

We looked at all the work and considered our options, given a short time frame and limited materials…

The first four sticks seemed impossibly mobile and indefinite, but every additional stick lent strength and shape to the growing form…

leaves on the sticks helped define the shape and fill in the gaps…

but the bigger gaps made for nice windows, both large and small…

There were a few kids who really didn't take to the mud, but we had other jobs, like stripping the bark off trees that were donated for a "challenge walk"—balance beams that will be set on blocks to mark out the edges of the playground, provide for shady seating on hot days, and a path from here to there…

Most got dirty, and when they did, they got happier, too!

The bench takes shape under expert hands. I'll be curious to learn how many kids make mud at home this summer…

The hut takes shape…

The principal: not sure she wants that kind of hug…

In addition to books and desks for every student, this school also provides shovels, wheelbarrows, and other real tools suitable for doing real work. 

Parents and other community volunteers make such projects possible; there are always more details and more work than one person can manage alone. 

Many hands…

Light work…

applying color: both red and yellow are local soils mixed with water and just a bit of cooked flour paste for binder. 

The finished bench, with concrete cap. 

Cutting rebar for setting the beams of the challenge walk… The kids devised the clever system for clamping the metal while cutting. 

The nature of childhood, it seems to me, is to seek shelter and observe the rest of the world. Such observation is the basis for all other learning.  

And shouldn't shelter feel like a hug? 

The earth embraces us, in a mud hut, on an earthen bench, or in a circle of stumps.