Cob Building, Summer 2015

Getting there…

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Rocket Stove Adventures

Part II: Level, you elusive devil.

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In The Book, there is a mere few sentences about starting on a level surface. Of course, it is common sense. The stack and burn tunnel need to be straight and smooth, so, level.

However simple the idea, the task was in no way easy.  Our floor started out level, tamped drain rock. Then we made cob and built walls in there. Over time, globs of cob fell and built up. We walked over them and stomped out cob on top of them, forming little hills and valleys that had to be scraped level without disturbing the drain rock below. Not easy.

So, I am dedicating this entire post to the topic The Importance of Being Level.

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Marble base (it's a all about that...)

We dumpster dive for chunks of granite and marble. Laid out with mortar, this one-inch marble will collect heat under the stove and lend it to the floor.

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Marble

Kind of a shame this beautiful stuff will be below floor level. (The floor will be a cob floor with a beeswax finish.)

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Earthen mortar

We mixed small batches of mortar in one of Nathan’s water drum troughs, usually used for soaking clay. Mortar is made of strained construction sand and clay. The sand needs to be sharp and fine, aka masonry sand.

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Pea gravel

Nathan used an old kitchen strainer he scored at a thrift store.

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We used the course sand to set the marble slabs.

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And spent hours trying to get them level.

The Mighty Red Huckleberry

You’ll not find these beauties in the market. They grow in the shade of old red alder trees. They aren’t harvested like their blue siblings. They produce scattered bright red gems that birds love. The berries are tart and bright. It’s hard to gather enough for pie, but stepping outside to pick a handful for my breakfast or for a delightful snack is to accept gifts from the divine. And I am grateful.

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Stop! Get back!

What happens when you fling a pair of Carharts overalls over the cob wall in winter and leave them there until early summer?

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Carharts with Yellow Jacket

Something find it cozy and starts a family. In this case, no baby robins, no nest of startling disease-carrying but totally adorable deer mice, no. We got Yellow Jackets.

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Yellow Jackets' nest in the cob wall

I admire these brightly dressed and fierce carnivorous pollinators. From a distance.

Yesterday, upon removing the overalls from the wall, the wasps flew out, past Nathan (owner and disturber of Carharts) and unleashed their rage on our sweet bulldog, who had no idea where the attack came from and why.

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Wake Robin

Luckily, it was not a big, well-established nest (yet) and he escaped with just a few stings.  But he cowered in the kitchen with the rest of us for what was left of the afternoon. Nathan was stung a couple of times. I ran at the first sign of buzzing.

Every time we opened the door, huge guard wasps would hurl themselves toward us, so we had to slam the door shut while they buzzed angrily against the glass.

We re-watched season one episodes of Game of Thrones, roasted coffee, made jam, then dinner, still the wasps stood guard. Finally, the rain fell harder, the sun moved off of the property and they settled… back into the wall. But they let us walk by (even the dogs) with just an increase in buzz volume and pitch as long as we keep walking.

We were hoping the disturbance would make them want to move away, But they seem perfectly happy in our cob wall. A whole matriarchal society that I have to slaughter. Sad, but we must finish the walls this summer, wasps or no.

Ant v Wasp

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In our 120-square-foot kitchen, near the east-facing window, just around the sill, rages an epic battle.

Foolishly, we insulated our tiny kitchen house with pink foam board. If you ever want to build a DIY ant farm, use this stuff under the plexiglass. Ants, particularly wood ants, love it. It is pretty, carvable, easy to haul, easy to clean. (Okay, I do imagine that beauty is important to ants on some level.)

Each spring, the ants start showing themselves by way of scouts, busily searching, communicating with others and poking around with a clear purpose. Then others, that seem to be on vacation, wandering and resting lazily along the walls and windows, or following their own pheromone trail around and around a flower pot. Just when they become a little much, they decline and almost disappear. A little while later, the male wasps show up.

You wouldn’t know by glancing at them that they were wasps, but upon closer examination, you would see the slender neck and distinctive face, antennae and legs of a wasp. They are tiny and black with pale blue abdominal stripes.

They swarm around the window, waiting for the young females to hatch, just like the parasitic wasp, Ichneumonidae, only these are much, much smaller. The only time I saw one land was on the window, with a trapped female on the other side of the glass.

The female, like the Ichneumonidae, has a long ovipositor. She uses it to deposit eggs in the ants’ nest.

When the females hatch and mate, they fly away. And the ants come back. We find this fascinating. We watch the cycles with wonder. On the outside, amazing creatures come and go, creep and fly, guard and fail; while inside the walls, unimaginable horror and carnage is taking place.

It causes ripples of internal conflict between the baser pity for the ant/disdain for the wasp and the higher all-immersing awe of Nature and her curlicue shaped laws.

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