Monkey Business

There's lots of monkeys that live and pass through the trees in my backyard every day.  The dogs go totally nutso watching them cross overhead.

Recently, one monkey decided to venture down a tree branch to sample the flowers on our blossoming papaya tree.  (Yummy!)  He suspended himself by his tail and nibbled the flowers while keeping a close eye on the dogs who were watching intently below.

After a few minutes, the monkey seemed to lose interest in the flowers and allowed himself to start bouncing and hanging like he was bungee jumping directly above a completely mesmerized Merlin.

The dangling monkey above head was just too much to take and the monkey knew it!!

He bounced himself lower and lower and lower over Merlin's head teasing and taunting him.

The other dogs got really excited, and were barking and running circles around Merlin until he just couldn't take the teasing any longer.

For being such a large dog, Merlin is able to jump amazingly high.  In fact, it's one of his favorite pastimes!

With a huge jump, Merlin lunged upward toward the monkey.  Just in time, the monkey tugged the branch with his tail and sent himself high up into the tree.

Maybe next time Merlin.  For the monkey's sake, let's hope not.


How Well Does Your Garden Grow??

I've always been intrigued by people that grow their own veggies and herbs.  A green thumb seems like such a great talent to have.  I love plants, but through trial and error I arrived at the conclusion that cactus seems to be what I'm good at growing.  They don't depend on me much and so our relationships have always been pretty satisfactory.  

Earlier this year someone forwarded me an article regarding The Monsanto Protection Act.  I'd heard little bits and pieces about GMO vs. non-GMO, organic vs. non-organic, etc., but had no idea what the commotion was all about.  After a little research I was stunned.  (Talk about living in a bubble!)  It just seemed so illogical what's happening with the food system when there is such an obvious problem.  And these toxins aren't only in the food we eat, they're in products we expose ourselves to every day by using toiletries and cleaning products loaded with poisonous ingredients.  What the....??

I've always considered myself a healthy person.  I'm athletic, I eat mostly a vegetarian diet and feel that I live a generally health conscience life.  But after learning about what's really in all that we consume, it became clear that unless a person makes some conscientious decisions about what they eat and the products they use, they are slowly poisoning themselves.  I wanted to eliminate these things where I was able to.  So, I slowly refilled my medicine cabinet with organic or homemade toiletries and started paying more attention to the labels on products, the food I was buying and questioning where it came from. While for the most part the agriculture industry here in Costa Rica is not saturated by GMO crops, many of the food that is available at the supermarket are products manufactured using altered crops.

The hubby and I decided that we would start a veggie garden.  We have tons of space and the climate and soil here are ideal for growing.  However, since I've never grown anything successfully, I wasn't really sure how to begin.  I starting collecting ideas and learned that it was possible to sprout seeds from kitchen scraps, which I found amazing.  I can start a tomato plant from the seeds that are left on my cutting board?  Really?  I can have ayote (Costa Rican version of butternut squash) by sprouting the seeds inside rather than throwing them away?  Yes. 
Cherry Tomato Sprouts

I started viewing just about everything as potential food to grow.  Curious, I attempted to sprout the seeds from the kitchen scraps of several types of chilies (Jalepeno, Aji, Rocoto, Panamanian), cherry tomatoes, ayote and even lemons.


I was so excited when after few days, there were roots growing out of the seeds.  Neat-o!!

Around that time, my beautiful friend Miranda started sharing photos with me of her amazing garden.  She has a raised bed and grows pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, strawberries, honeydew, watermelon, bell peppers, and purple peppers, not to mention some unbelievable dahlias!  She really inspired me out of the curiosity stage of gardening into the "let's do this" stage.  Her stuff was beautiful!!

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We placed our first order of seeds -- arugula, swiss chard, jicama (which does not exist here), edamame, wheat grass and some anti-mosquito plants, catnip, mint, lemon balm and marigold flower.  We started them in little seed planters and slowly moved them to larger containers as they grew.


Arugula, Swiss Chard and Wheat Grass

Cherry Tomato
I decided to do a raised bed garden like Miranda was using and asked my bro-in-law to build us two (we'll be starting off with just one).

We live close to a wooded area that has really good, dark fertile soil (says the hubby who knows these things), so we've been making trips there, filling buckets, cleaning the soil, and slowly layering the bed with the cleaned soil.

One day we went to get some soil and as we started, a tractor came by and offered a helping hand.  What luck!!

It's warm all year long here, but the rainy season is definitely WET.  As of a month ago, we were dragging all the plants out into the sun every morning and then heading home when it was going to rain to put them all back under the patio.  What a pain!!  So we decided to build a covered gazebo garden area with a clear roof so the plants could get light all day long, but still have protection from the rain (more of which is coming!).   It is SO nice to be married to someone that knows how to build things!

We also needed a fence to keep the doggies out -- boy do they love to dig!!

Hopefully in the next few days I'll replant much of the stuff in the containers into the bed. 

First flower on the ayote :)


Arugula and Swiss Chard

I love this new addition to my daily routine.  Every day I wake up, rub the sleepies out of my eyes and go out to check on my lil' garden.  It's so much fun to see each of the plants growing and changing.  Sometimes things shoot up overnight! 

I have more seeds on the way with the intention of growing the veggies we use most regularly as well as a medicinal herb garden.  We shall see how this all turns out...this would be a huge move up on the green thumb ladder from the cactus that I've had so much luck with ;)

Continue to the update...


Earth/Mud Houses

Earlier this year, the hubby and I met a new couple in town, Jamey and Hooma, along with their blue-eyed, Baby Betty Boop look-a-like daughter, Zarapheena.  (She's gorgeous!)  Jamey, a clay enthusiast, came across the hubby's pottery shop and popped in to talk "mud".  Come to find out, they were looking for a large piece of property to develop an eco-friendly, off-the-grid, earthen house community, complete with vegetable and fruit gardens, and solar energy.  With so much focus on eco-tourism in Costa Rica, it seems like a perfect fit. 

Since the hubby is a potter, I'm always around clay and have seen it used to create lots of lovely things, however, I'd never thought about using mud or clay to make something as large as a modern day living structure.  Maybe this whole concept sounds as intriguing to you as it did to me?  Upon learning more about the process and then seeing photos of the house they had built in Northern California, (and especially after doing the following interview with Jamey), I was totally on board with the idea and excited to witness firsthand this amazing project blossom into fruition. 

To give you an idea of what a mud/earth house can look like, here are a few photos of the first house they completed.  Despite its dollhouse appearance, the house is about 420 square feet, has a first floor living room and upper floor loft/bedroom area.  Check out Jamey’s FB album to see more photos.

Beautiful mosaic entry

Bedroom/Loft. Beautiful stained glass windows!

View from the loft into the living area
How's that for playin' in the mud!?!  

Jamey and Hooma eventually found a great property about 10 minutes outside of Tamarindo and are now in the planning stages.  The uniqueness of this project intrigues me, so I thought it might be interesting to follow along and document it as it progresses.

Jamey was kind enough to let me interview him and gimme a peek at the history behind all this. The interview is a wee bit long, but Jamey is a great interviewee (and writer since this was a written interview!) and I promise that not only will you learn something about clay and the architectural process, but you'll be entertained as well.  Be sure to click on the links to the earth structure artists that inspired Jamey so you can get a full appreciation for the scope of artistry that can be accomplished using earth to build structures.  Amazing!

Tricia:  How and when did your "love affair" with clay begin?

Jamey:  Though I enjoyed playing with Play Doh as a kid, I would say that my “close friendship (with benefits)” with clay really blossomed after discovering that it was the key to achieving my quest of integrating art with architecture.  As an art/design major with a focus on architecture in college, I had a vision of combining the two and building sculptural homes—some kind of a cross between caves and playgrounds, because I was sick of all the conventional box-like forms people tended to litter the landscape with.  Once I proved to myself that it could be done in a perfectly functional way (despite being told by the chairman of the architecture department in Denmark to forget it because it’s virtually impossible), the biggest obstacle (other than building codes) was economics.  Such homes would normally cost a fortune since constructing organically shaped, non-rectilinear houses with rectilinear materials is normally a very tedious and expensive proposition, a luxury typically affordable only by the wealthy. 

However, when building with earth, curves are just as functional as they are aesthetically pleasing, and clay has to be the most fluid art and architectural medium in existence.  Not only that, but earth is the most abundant, inexpensive, ecological, and sustainable building material, and houses built with it have the ability to be resistant to fire, earthquakes, water, mold, rot, UV, acid rain, rodents, termites, and even bullets, with excellent aerodynamic, thermal and acoustical insulation properties as well.  No wonder humans and animals have been building with it for millennium!  Clay also happens to be one of the best medicines for cuts, burns, swelling, splinters, external and internal detoxification, and can even remove heavy metals and radioactive particles from our bodies.   What more could one want from a material?

Tricia:  Wow, I don't think most people think of mud as such a useful element.  Was there something or someone that inspired your idea to use clay for building structures?

Jamey: While still an undergrad, years before I had ever even considered using clay for building structures, I actually used it to construct my first few models of those livable sculptures I had fantasized about, because of its inherent sculptural qualities.  Shortly after graduating, I decided to spend a semester studying construction at a local community college where the depressing reality had kicked in that even if I could afford a small parcel of land, it would cost another fortune for tools and building materials and, after several years of faithfully following my intuition and not straying from my path, I started feeling very defeated. 

It was at this time—in 1991—after attending an Organic Architecture Convention in California and visiting structures built by my favorite organic architects, I stumbled upon a book written by the internationally renowned architect and author, Nader Khalili, who rediscovered the ancient technology of “ceramic architecture”—the art of building and vitrifying adobe buildings.  Once I found out that all I needed was some simple hand tools and the four elements (earth, air, water, & fire), I was so blown away knowing that this was not only the solution to manifesting my vision but it was nothing less than an architectural revolution—the key that would enable anyone to build their dream homes while liberating themselves from a lifelong debt to banks.  I was absolutely ecstatic and practically finished reading the book before I even got home that day.  You can imagine my surprise when I discovered shortly afterwards that the author was teaching at a nearby architectural school!  To make a long story short, I became his most enthusiastic student and apprentice within the week. 

Tricia:  Was your earthen house in California your first attempt at building a usable structure?

Jamey:  No.  Thankfully, I already had some basic carpentry and welding skills from my sculpture and design classes, but my first usable structure was a two-story wooden deck for my parents’ backyard.  Shortly afterwards, I worked on an award-winning elementary and junior high school in Tijuana with my favorite living “organic architect”—the world-famous artist/builder--James Hubbell.   
Kids and parents working on the mosaic in the Tijuana school.
Mosaic done by Jamey in Tijuana
Next, I apprenticed with another builder, Joseph Diliberti (whose work has been featured on TV, newspapers, and the cover of Clay Art magazine), to build and vitrify an earthen hut.  Later on, I built a couple of greenhouses, a few “hornos” (mud ovens) including a huge dragon-shaped one with the kids at a local charter school, and an earthen playground at another charter school.  It’s one thing to design something on paper but it’s a whole other thing to have to build it.  One of the big problems with many conventional architectural programs, is that most architecture students never actually build anything, and their training tends to encourage/breed expensive and ugly rectilinear buildings that don’t breathe.  Personally, I think all humans should learn how to build themselves a “nest” (like every other animal), instead of being dependent on money, bankers, and professional builders.
One of Diliberti's ceramic houses being fired (from the inside out).
Tricia:  How long did it take to build your home out of mud?

Jamey:  MUCH longer than it should have!  It was done on a very part-time basis over the course of several years, some of which I didn’t work on it at all.  I bought land northern California in the year 2000 and was living in a very remote location and (for the most part), had little or no help.  I was in a very weakened state of health having just recovered from cancer (due to living in a conventionally-built mold-infested house), with an undiagnosed but inactive thyroid (due to the radiation treatments) making it hard to muster up the energy I needed.  Especially after having to do lots of physically demanding work to develop my land and create gardens, while trying to earn a living.  I’ve also had to deal with injuries from a dirt bike accident and two herniated disks in my back.  On the bright side, the long process and isolation made it possible for me to spend years researching, designing, and refining my architectural techniques.  

In the end, I don’t know exactly how many hours it took to build my home, but I can tell you that about 650 hours were spent just digging, mixing, and applying the mud, not including the sculptural layer.  Now that I’ve figured out how to do it, and have gotten plenty of hands-on experience, I’m confident that, with the right tools and a few good helpers, I could build an equivalent structure in a month or two.  Theoretically, it would take two or three days to build the foundation and framework, one day to excavate and mix the mud, a week or two to smear the mud on the frame, and a few days to apply a few coats of lime, but each coat would need at least a week to dry between coats, during which time, other details like plumbing, electricity, tiling/mosaics, etc., could be completed.

Creating the frame

Hooma packing clay/mud onto the frame.
She's such a hard worker :)
Tricia:  Are there any limitations on the type or size of structures that can be built using clay? 

Jamey:  First, I need to point out that clay is only one component of the earth mixture.  By itself, a clay structure will crack very badly which is one reason why sand and/or fibers are equally important components.  As for the type of structures that can be built solely with earth (other than walls), one is generally limited to building using forms that work well with the laws of gravity--like arches, apses, vaults, domes, cones, and pyramids.  However, there are ways around that—like by using some kind of metal armature as I did with my loft. One can build mud structures with vertical or diagonal walls but not unreinforced horizontal ones.  That’s partially why many earth houses have wooden roofs, even though the wood lacks almost all of the earth’s beneficial qualities.

As for the age-old question of whether size matters, no, it’s really more of a matter of proportion.  There’s no real limitation on height so long as the thickness of the walls is in the proper proportion to support all that extra weight.  There are 11-story high skyscrapers in Yemen built with mud which pale in comparison to the heights of various mud brick pyramids still surviving after many centuries.  To put it in perspective, the planet Earth is a giant round earthen structure.  The only theoretical limitation on the size of a structure is that it would have to be smaller than the planet it’s built on because otherwise there wouldn’t be enough materials nor room to give it an adequate foundation.

Tricia:  What were some of the biggest issues that you’ve had to work around? 

Jamey:  Once I got past the societal programming and philosophical issues, the functional and technological issues, the economic issues, my personal health issues, and lack of help issues, the final and most formidable obstacle (more so than actual construction issues), were the legal issues.  By that I mean oppressive building codes tailored to force people to buy expensive, heavily-taxed, and often toxic, unsustainable, non-biodegradable, corporately manufactured building materials, and pay for the various building code inspections at various phases of construction.  Though it’s perfectly legal to be homeless (which is NOT safe), God forbid you try to build yourself a shelter for protection from the elements (what should be a natural birthright, as it is with all other life forms), you quickly realize that there is an invisible leash around your neck in the form of building codes, enforced by people whose own houses are not nearly as safe nor ecologically responsible.

Though I was aware of this significant impediment from the beginning, and spent countless hours stressing out about it, I refused to let it interfere with my architectural pursuit because I had faith that if I could figure out how to make it work, I would find a way to actually do it somewhere, even if I had to move to another country.  My initial solution was to live remotely in the wilderness, outside the scrutiny of corrupt government officials, in a region known for it’s relatively permissive building codes.  However, though I haven’t had any trouble so far, I realize that no matter how far away one chooses to live, it’s hard to escape the nosey tax-funded bureaucrats armed with satellites to spy on us.  Next they’ll be using drones to make sure nobody escapes their rigid regulations and fails to pay them for their “services”.  The consequences of building a structure without their blessings can range from being fined, to being forced to demolish the structure you spent years building with your own hands, to even being arrested and thrown in jail.  How’s that for an obstacle?  Who would have thought that building a simple mud shelter would be such a difficult and risky proposition?  

The fact is that governments (and the bankers that control them) have made a fortune by instituting elaborate systems designed to deprive people of their innate human right to house themselves under the guise of public safety.  As such, earth houses are a serious threat to their financial well being which is why building a mud house is not just a more artistic and ecological alternative to a conventional one, it’s an act of revolution.

Tricia:  Were there any surprises while building that you didn't anticipate?

Jamey:  Yes there were a few big surprises—one was that it took so long.  Part of the problem was that I was not satisfied with the way the tractor-mounted rototiller mixed the straw into the mud and, in the end, I decided to mix it all by hand and foot instead, which took far longer than anticipated.  Another was the fact that I outgrew the house before I had a chance to grow into it.  I didn’t plan on getting married when I started the project, and I certainly didn’t plan on having any kids but one popped out anyway.  Though my building is completely fireproof, a forest fire affected my building process because (during peak building season), we had to evacuate for over a month to escape the smoke as the firefighters struggled to contain the fire.  This was particularly bad timing for us because we desperately needed to finish our mud house more than ever now that our baby girl was born.  I busted my ass struggling to finish before winter set in but, by the time it finally came into fruition, we decided to move to Costa Rica.

Tricia:  What made you choose Costa Rica to build your first community?

Jamey:  I first had the idea to move to this ecological paradise and build an intentional eco-village over 20 years ago after unsuccessfully trying to convince a prospective eco-village in upstate New York to build their community using a modified version of Nader Khalili’s large-scale ceramic technology.  I later tried to convince all my friends and acquaintances to chip in for a huge piece of land to build an earthen co-housing community here in Costa Rica but there were no takers.  People liked the idea in theory, but either didn’t have any money to invest or were unwilling to put their money where my mouth was.  I ended up moving to northern California instead but found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the government’s insanely destructive political, economic, and environmental policies, and overall cultural trends in the U.S. 

A few years ago, after visiting almost every Central American country on our honeymoon (along with Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia), with the intention of looking for a better potential place to relocate, my wife and I agreed that Costa Rica was the best alternative.  Although there is no perfect place, Costa Rica seemed like it was better suited for my project because of its peaceful, non-militaristic, non-imperialistic, non-over regulated atmosphere, the government’s focus on environmental protection, and the natural biodiversity.  We were interested in tapping into the thriving eco-tourism industry that attracts environmentalists from all over the world who we thought would most appreciate this eco-architectural technology.  Now that we have a child, there is the additional incentive to raise her amongst this friendly, baby-loving, highly literate, and relatively safe society. 

So, having overcome every obstacle life has thrown at me so far, here I am finally getting ready to manifest this practically lifelong utopian vision I’ve diligently worked towards for the last 26 years in the very country I tried to do it in over 20 years ago, but armed with a lot more experience, knowledge, money, good Costa Rican friends, and an intelligent and beautiful wife.  I guess that’s another big surprise I didn’t anticipate… 

Tricia:   100 brownie points for that last portion, right ladies?? ;)

Tricia:  Can you tell me a little about the eco-community you are currently working on?
Ever since reading about fictional utopian societies in high school, I’ve been aware of how much better our lives could be with some intelligent architectural planning.  In designing structures and communities, architects and urban planners have incredible power (though often misused due to their conventional training), to profoundly influence human behavior both individually and on a societal level. 

Most of us are wrapped up in the daily drama of our lives and rarely give a conscious thought as to how much of our stress and problems stem from the bad design of our homes, neighborhoods, and society as a whole.  Unfortunately, the civilization that we have inherited was designed not for the interests of the community but by industrialists to create perpetual consumers and, as such, is riddled with flaws that bring disease, death, debt, and dysfunction upon its dwellers.  Our ancient tribal social structures have been dismantled and replaced with a capitalist version modeled on factory warehousing for wage slaves.

As a dreamer, I’ve spent most of my life trying to imagine what a sane world would look like and how it would work.  A utopia, as I imagine it, would be virtually the exact opposite of the dystopia we have now.  I’ve concluded that, in structure, it would be very similar to that of the rest of the animal kingdom—a diverse assortment of completely decentralized sovereign tribes that independently and sustainably take care of their own basic needs like water, food, clothing, shelter, etc., without being dependent on money or big corrupt governments, as it was for millennia before entering the “Age of Empires”.  Therefore, a key part of the antidote to our societal woes is a better home and community design based on time-tested wisdom and traditional living patterns.

This is the utopian vision and philosophy that motivated me to buy some land in Costa Rica with the intention of building not just a single mud or ceramic house, but a whole neighborhood full of them, each with it’s own unique design!  For this purpose, I’ve secured 14 lovely hectares (35 acres) of pristine and fertile farmland with abundant clean well water and a seasonal creek (with fish) passing through the center, in a quiet part of town less than 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the beach town of Tamarindo.  Half of the entire property will be communal and the other half will be privately owned or rented.  I’m planning on creating about 15 homes on one side of the creek and possibly as many as 20 cabinas for rent on the other side, each with their own private (non-rectilinear) lot that opens into a large, car-free, communal central park.  This park will feature a winding pedestrian path that weaves through the communal farm and orchard, grazing lands, sculptures, labyrinth, playgrounds for kids (and another for monkeys), connecting a water fountain on one end of the path to an Atlantean-like pyramidal structure located on a small island encircled by a large pond (stocked with fish) on the opposite end.
Eco-Village Plan
I’m still working out the business details but, other than by potentially selling individual lots and renting cabinas, funds will be raised with the creation of an earthen building school that will offer a hands-on approach to teaching my fellow nature-lovers and dreamers how to architecturally liberate themselves in this unique, ecological and artistic way.  It is my expectation that the permanent residents will be participating (at least to some degree) in the design and building of their own houses, though help will be available to them.

Ready or not, we are living in a new (post-peak oil) age and a major economic collapse along with a new way of life is upon us.  The sooner we adapt to this new reality, the less hardship we will bring upon ourselves.  By recreating a tribal village using locally available materials, simple technologies, and minimizing dependency on fossil fuels and money, my hope is that this model community will help get our species back on track by setting an exquisite example of how people can ease, if not eliminate, economic hardship by mutually providing for their own needs.  What kind of brownies did you say those were? ;)

Tricia:  It's all really fascinating and I'm super excited to see how it all progresses!
For anyone interested in more information regarding Jamey and Hooma's project, they can be contacted on Facebook (Jamey Scott Breinberg) or by e-mail at pyramidiotsavant@yahoo.com.