Sean and Esther, as they are known by friends have carved and
dug themselves a piece of “heaven on earth” in rural
Grand Forks. Their unique approach to life and lifestyle is one
that many may consider learning a little more about. Sean has
had magazine articles written about his paper & glass houses
in New Mexico a building material useful in warmer drier climates.
When I arrived for our meeting, Sean was busy on the roof, building
a new structure that had his trademark, round shape for his northern
habitat “the Sanctuary” as it has been called. This
structure was taller than the rest though and was being built
outside of the deer fenced main housing compound.
OM: What will this building be used for?
Sean: This one will be the Star Chamber, a meeting place connecting the main compound with the Medicine Wheel, for sheltering people when they arrive for the weekend, approximately 24 feet, floor to ceiling and 24 feet in diameter. There will be a inner balcony for drumming, and a central fire place. This one is a little different from the other Kivas that we built, it has a higher arc on the dome roof and the roof starts at 7 feet off ground level, where the others have a lower arc on the roof with the roof being started on the ground and the inside dug out. As it comes up I’m getting ideas how to finish it. Fill the walls with cord wood in a stack wall fashion, dig out the inside and use rocks as building materials and then berm it with the rubble.
OM: You seem to play it by ear and let inspiration tell you how to build as you go along as if you were an artist with a canvas?
Sean: I guess that’s how you could describe it. I didn’t have a clear conception of what it would look like at first, and as it goes up it surprises me and I get all sorts of ideas for it. The really amazing thing is that in a week you can have the super structure for a house for $50. You cover it with greenhouse plastic and you have a micro-climate. You can be in there digging it out in any kind of weather, heat, rain or snow.
This one will be finished of with clay, salvaged windows and bus seats. It will cost no more than $100 for a 700 square feet of living space. There will be no cost for fuel because we will heat with wood. We use mostly hand tools but now we do have a chainsaw.
OM: How long have you lived here?
Sean: We came in 1985 and just fell in love with the valley. We set up our Tee Pee on the banks of the Granby River here and would go out looking for land in a 50 mile radius. Every time we came back to the Tee Pee it was the most peaceful and beautiful spot. Then after going out for a week or so and not finding anything better than what we were feeling around the Tee Pee, Esther went across the river and talked to the owner and asked about selling us the piece of land, and he did.
OM: What were some of the qualities you were looking for?
Sean: We wanted a place that was outside of town, on a piece of land that was not enviable, filled with 2nd and 3rd growth timber and mostly rock.
Esther: The owner thought I was crazy when I said “This place is perfect, look at all the beautiful rocks.
Sean: We had our experience living near a hot spring where there was a lot of competition and envy and conflict. Even though it was a beautiful place it was harsh emotionally.
The first winter here, the neighbours helped and we put this structure up in 2 weeks and moved out of the TeePee with 3 feet of snow on the ground, no windows, doors, insulation ceiling or power. Just a central stove and a dirt floor, and finished it during the first winter.
OM: Were you into anything like this before doing it here?
Sean: Our first building in the centre which now is the bedroom was the first building that I’d ever been engaged in. It’s the building that you stay in if you stay the winter, it’s insulated, 300 square feet with a central stove, simple but very cosy.
OM: How many buildings are there?
Sean: 9 buildings, including library, sauna, work shop, kitchen, guest houses, our video theatre and Grand Kiva.
OM: I notice a solar panel. How long have you had power.
Sean: We purchased that about 4 or 5 years ago.
OM: It must have brought a few new possibilities to the place?
Sean: It runs our TV lights and for the first time this year we got a phone in. We also now have what we call “Gem Theatre North” in competition with Gem Theatre in Grand Forks. It took about 2 months to build and cost me about $120. We get our weekly supply of videos from the stores and library in town on Tuesdays when they have there discount days. Being a fair drive from town we have to be a little more efficient.
OM: You have a unique way of handling all your human waste.
Sean: We layer the waste with sawdust and compost, we cover it with old compost, weeds and vegetable waste and so on and it matures for a couple of years, then we grow cover crops in it, turn it under and eventually grow zuchinni in it which grow rampantly. Now that we have a number of people staying in the meadow we use the same system. They come down and deposit the waste in the primary compost bin and cover it with sawdust. When they do that they are entitled to a dividend of 1 zuchinni, and at the peak of the season, the rate was increased to 2 per deposit, so for their investment it was a pretty high return. It keeps the cycle going, put in one end – take out the other.
OM: One can’t help but notice the largest building over here. Could you tell us about that one.
Sean: That is the Grand Kiva, 44 feet in diameter, 12 sided, about $700 in material costs. Like most of the other buildings The roof was built first then covered and the interior dug out.
OM: It’s quite impressive with the cement around the rock.
Sean: There is just a ribbon of cement around the rocks just to seal them, and when you build in a circle underground the whole house forms a buttress against the pressure of the earth around you. Much more strength than linear walls which would need massive reinforcements. Again the asset of building this way cuts down drastically on material costs. You get 20% more floor space for the same perimeter of wall space, and as you dig down to the 10 foot level you reach a geo-thermal layer where the ground remains a constant temperature, so it’s cool in the summer and easy to heat in the winter using minimum of energy. The rocks and rubble act as a heat sink to store heat for the winter as well.
OM:This is a remarkable use of the earths resources.
Sean: What we are looking to accomplish is to use indigenous materials, very low cost, labour intensive, and to meet basic needs, and basic needs are described as universal needs, food fuel and shelter. How do you meet them using the material in your area without exploiting other people, or having a lot of intermediaries between you and meeting your needs. So it allows a person to meet their needs in a balanced way. We don’t have to take the land away from a 3rd world resident and they can do the same by gaining independence and achieving a comfortable lifestyle for them selves with what they have there.
OM: Even though there are only the 2 of you living here permanently one can often find many people here. Is this place used for more than just your residence and occasional visitors?
Sean: We hosted a Medicine Wheel, we had a large gathering in August, pot lucks, we have had various speakers as well as gatherings related to natural building techniques, ecology, spirituality, music, drumming and dancing, and gatherings related to the consumption of food.
OM: Your open air summer kitchen with the gardens all around seem to be the ideal situation for food gatherings.
Sean: The summer kitchen has a big restaurant style propane cook stove which is the backbone of the gatherings with a capacity of feeding up to about 200 to 250 people. A lot of out food is being pulled from our extensive gardens.
OM: The gardens are all raised beds with more rocks for the walls. Was there a unique method to their construction too.
Sean: Oh yes, we didn’t have any soil so I had to dig down 2 feet, take all the rocks out, put the soil back in the bed, move the bigger rocks to make the walls for the raised beds, dig the path, take all the soil out of the path and put it in the raised beds, and the smaller rocks from the beds and put them on the path, and cover the path with sawdust. We rotate our crops, add compost, grow cover crops in the fall, and turn them under in the spring.
OM: It’s a very labour intensive lifestyle.
Sean: Yes it is. You move with the seasons, you are never doing the same one thing all the time. I could be digging in the beds or chopping wood or building another structure. You start to act according to your direct and immediate needs. If you are cold you cut wood and build a fire, when it’s spring you plant seeds and when fall comes you harvest so there is a very natural rhythm to it and no one needs to wait for a job to do. There is no anxiety about loosing your job with so many to do. When its raining out there is work inside and you move with what is appropriate. We need so little to live really. A small shelter, good food, fuel, with the ability to exercise our creative gifts in a community. What else is there?
OM: Do you have any vision for the future of “the Sanctuary”?
Sean: It is growing, we have 25 acres with 3 families living here now.
OM: I sense a Native North American influence around the place with the Medicine Wheel and some of the small rock sculptures lining the driveway.
Sean: We are not from that tradition but we appreciate the balance of their teachings and their spirituality and what we are trying to do is to be open to all spiritual paths because we believe them all to be valid and complimentary and choose to celebrate our differences.
Greenwood may be Canada’s smallest City but it is very big
on things to do and see that explore its rich history and beautiful
scenery. Just shy of 1 year from now on September 9, 2000 the
Trans Canada Trail will be the officially opened. At the north
end of town is the old tunnel where the highway went under the
CPR railway now the Trans Canada Trail. The CPR bought the C&W
in 1898 and started construction from Castlegar reaching Grand
Forks in September of 1899 and Midway by 1900 with a spur line
from Eholt to Phoenix, and a spur from Eholt to the Emma Mine.
A branch line was built to Deadwood, running behind the smelter
at Anaconda. In 1992 the line was abandoned by the CPR and the
tracks removed. The trail that those early pioneers built for
those tracks to connect industry and people is now part of the
Trans Canada Trail which will connect people with the beauty and
grandeur of our area. To help say hello to those who come to visit
Greenwood, the Mayor has been painting flags of the world on the
“tunnel” as a Millennium Project.
We’re in the Movies!
Pictured below is the original government building with the upstairs being where the Supreme Court of Canada resided. The jail below kept the the guilty off the street. This building is the oldest wooden courthouse in Canada, also used for the Universal Studios feature movie, Snow Falling on Cedars recently filmed here.
Another building used in the movie was the Greenwood Inn (top
right) at the south end of town. Three rooms were used in the
production on the top floor of the hotel where they were transformed
into the living quarters of the character Ishmael.
Originally the Greenwood Hotel was the dream of two men, George
Seymour and Sam Webb and was first called the Windsor. The Windsor
was completed in May of 1896 and opened for operation on July
1st of that same year and has remained open ever since. Its saloon
was the most popular on Copper Street, with the best ale, company
and a brawl or two.
The Hotel has gone through a large share of its own history. The Windsor has burned down and been rebuilt twice on the same property, it has ben renovated three times inside and out, most recently in 1996. One of the most interesting features of the hotel is a large mirror behind the bar in the saloon. The mirror is 6.5 meters long and 3.25 meters tall and has original ice boxes and wine racks in the cabinet below it. It is rumored, the mirror in the saloon and the mirror in the restaurant were bought as a pair. Ghost stories are told about a miner named Willie Peters, who was supposed to have drowned in the bathtub on the second floor and is rumored to walk the halls at night.
Take a trip into Greenwood and walk the trails, check out the unique shops, and quench your thirst at one of the local cafés or drinking establishments. Be sure you stop by the museum to find out more of the rich history of Greenwood or phone Merilyn Walker at the Greenwood Museum (250) 445-6355.
A Leap Of Faith
A Fellow Citizen, Michelle Tetreault
100 years ago when the Doukhobor first arrived in this beautiful Valley, were they certain of their Fate or future? I think not. A new Country. A new land. What was here for them? Their Faith. That is all they had. They left everything ever known to them behind. A Leap of Faith. Grand Forks has since had its ups and downs and as a Community we are at a low at this time. So now, comes a time for that Leap of Faith once again; you have to have Faith to see the vision and this vision is the “Community Use Centre”. The key word in this phrase is “Community”; A group of people living in one locality subject to the same laws, having common interests, common ownership or participation.
This centre will be a place for every Citizen in the City and surrounding areas to enjoy; the young and elderly alike. These things don’t happen overnight. Everyone knows that. There has been a lot of planning for this to become a reality. A lot of enthusiastic hardworking people from various groups in the Community have been working together as a whole to ensure it is not swept under the Political carpet once again. I have heard from numerous people that this issue is at least thirty years old. Why? As a Community we should work together to make this project a legacy for our up and coming future Citizens to enjoy.
If you want Grand Forks to stay vibrant and attract Tourists then think this over, this is not just going to be a building on a piece of land. This 21 acres of land to use. Within this land will be facilities most needed in this area; one being a permanent home for The Grand Forks Fall Fair. There are other groups as well that never know from one year to the next where they will hold their events. There are a lot of ideas on how to use this to its full extent, but some things take time and the first bridge has successfully been crossed.
As we have heard and soon you will as well, there are persons out there who will try to deter you from supporting this project. They will throw figures out in print, talk about it running on a deficit budget of X amount of dollars a year and scare you with tax increases. All these even before the ground is broken. Don’t let this happen, be a Community and support it. Take a Leap of Faith. We have a beautiful area here; why do we have to travel elsewhere for certain activities when we can enjoy them here where the facilities can be available locally?
Grand Forks OCP
Public Meeting for the Grand Forks O.C.P. will be held September 24 at 6pm at City Hall. It’s not too late for your input!
The Grand Forks Fall Fair was a sunny success this year. Lots of prizes were given out including
The North Fork Community Club (pictured below) and their prize
for best display. (Great Cookbook too!)
Grand Forks not only has a great BMX track but a Chris Astofooroff (pictured below with his trophy) became the first Canadian Champion here, taking first place in the 12 year old Division.
Get ready for next year during the July long weekend when Grand Forks BMX Track will be hosting the National Championship Race.