An Apprentice’s Perspective

My name is Wesley Jobe, and I spent the summer of 2012 at Ananda Village to learn about natural building, and much more. This is a summary of my experience.

Wesley mixing some plaster for the cob classroom
Wesley mixing some plaster for the cob classroom

When I applied for the Natural Living School apprenticeship I knew very little of Ananda. Only the sheer drive to get some hands on experience with natural building fueled my decision. Before arriving in California, I had already been practicing yoga and meditation, and was keen to find out more, so this was a perfect fit for me. Turns out it was more than I imagined.

Never before had I been away from home that long, or alone, yet I did not feel nervous or uncomfortable. Since my pickup at the Sacremento airport I had begun an adventure I will never forget. Everyone I met at The Expanding Light where I camped was so welcoming and helpful, some even interested in what I was to be doing there. The following morning I met with Pablo and Miguel (the other apprentice) to go over some design plans for the project. We met like that for the first week or so, and I even got to help finalize the plan by making some architectural drawings and elevations. This was a perfect initiation time for me to get comfortable with the new surroundings, establish a solid yoga and meditation practice (daily classes made that easy), and settle into the peaceful feeling all around. Observing how the people there live, work, and interact with eachother was a heartwarming inspiration alone. Like one big family, not just selfish individuals. I felt for the first time in a while that there was hope for this world, and that I had found a place that is a shining example of how we can all work together to improve current issues in society.

community Blessing the site.
Community blessing the site.

Turned out the original plan we were discussing and fine tuning had more time consuming restraints due to obtaining the counties approval for building permits. Though the set back did not hinder our spirits and was a good learning experience. Because first of all, modern building codes are one of the major blocks holding back natural builders from full creative freedom, and thus, influence on a larger scale. Secondly, it was a good reminder that no matter how much planning has been done, sometimes things just don’t work the way you’d hoped, and that is where the creative changes are made. So it turned out to be a blessing for us. We scaled down the size of the building just enough to not require a permit. This was more appropriate for the time we had, then we were able to learn and practice all the techniques and problem solving from foundation to roof. Problem solving and being open to change are two of the most important skills I developed for natural building, coupled with the confidence to take ideas and turn them into reality.

Wesley working out the joinery for top plates
Wesley working out the joinery for top plates

After those kinks with design were massaged out, we got right to work. Starting with sustainably harvesting trees for the round-pole timber frame. As we went through each phase of the building, I see now that an analogy was taking place within me. I learned more about myself than I did about building, and I learned a lot about building! We searched the forest for just the right trees to fell, with the right size, shape, and location, so as not to harm the forest ecosystem but enhance the old growth already there. Simultaneously I was searching within myself to find strengths and positive qualities I had almost forgotten. 

Then we went on to begin the foundation. This begins with a whole lot of digging, but lucky for us, and with the magic of community, a wonderfully helpful man dug the hard part for us with a tractor. Stacking rocks for the stem-wall proved to be quite labor intensive as well, and very fun, like three-dimensional tetris. So I was learning the importance of making a solid foundation by taking the time to do it presicely and accurately, which was very gratifying later on, and at the same time looking inward once more. I wanted to change myself and the way I was living, so it was good to relate my physical task with a mental one. Looking for the right rock to fit with the others made me ask myself, “what is my foundation?”  I needed to find what made me strong, and who I was at the core, which all of my identifications were built off of. I must give thanks here also to Pablo, for inviting me there and encouraging me to do whatever I needed to do. Positive reinforcement is the basis of his teaching style, and it is completely sincere, and extremely effective.

Conner posts going up at the same time as the balecob walls go up.
Conner posts going up at the same time as the balecob walls go up.

Next we started the walls and the frame, at the same time, because with natural building you are free to do such things. Around this time a large group of campers came to experience Ananda for a three week program called, “Living With Spirit,” and stay up at the building site where some of the villagers set up an awesome outdoor kitchen and living space. Miguel and I got our first chance to teach a little, I prefer the term guide, because natural building techniques are very simple, and achievable by anyone. There help made a great impact on the progress of the structure, and it became very clear that working together is really what makes natural building practical and successful, and far more fun, too. If playing with mud and experimenting with friends can eventually turn into a beautiful home for perhaps some of those friends to live in, then modern construction has it all wrong. I have worked in construction in the city where I live, so I have seen both sides, and of this I am convinced.

We also spent some time each week helping out at the Ananda Permaculture Gardens. This is a whole other part of the apprenticeship that focuses on growing food, flowers, and herbs, where we learned a lot just by being there, and asking questions. It gave us a bit of a break from building, no break from the sun though, haha, and really piqued my growing interest for sustainable living.

The Expanding Light Yoga and Meditation Retreat
The Expanding Light Yoga and Meditation Retreat

Staying at the Expanding Light was a phenomenal contrast to the daily work. The food there was amazing, it was very nice to get well balanced, healthy meals whilst doing so much physical labor. Another of my favourite points of my stay there was the amount of wildlife I saw everyday. The gardens around The Expanding Light are very well kept, with many bright flowers surrounding the main temple and dining hall. Gorgeous mountain scenery with a symphony of birds to wake me each morning (far more peaceful than an alarm), and crickets and frogs to sing me to sleep at night. That really made me feel more connected to earth, and everything I was doing made perfect sense.

While the work was physically challenging, occasionaly puzzling mentally, we never pushed too hard. Pablo definitely helped us make the most of our downtime also with stops to the market for ice-cream after a hot days work. One day that was especially hot we stopped work early to go for a swim in a nearby pond. It was more like being at summer camp, where you can just be yourself, and better yourself if you so desire. The lasting relationships I made there, with people from all over the world, was a remarkable enough experience to make it worth more than just money. Added on to that the massive amounts of knowledge I have gained and the confidence to make my dreams a reality have made that summer more than I could have hoped for. As my memory allows, it was the best summer of my life.

This is not a natural building apprenticeship, it’s a natural living school, true to every word, complete with laboratory and playground combined, and I hope that one day I too will inspire people to live in such a way.

“Live Simply So Others May Simply Live,” Gandhi

I have been meditating on this quote for a while, to really understand the meaning behind Gandhi’s words.

Gandhi lived in a day and age were the simple truths that we take for granted, like justice, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not self-evident.  Though some may argue that these truths are still not evident, I would think most of us feel that these rights are more or less present in our day-to-day activities.

The pursuit of happiness is the one truth I wish to focus on, because I feel this is the one right we have the most control over.  The laws and liberties have mostly been prescribed to us.  But the pursuit of happiness is within our reach.

Gandhi and Yogananda Aug. 1935. It was during this visit that Gandhi received Kriya Yoga initiation from Yogananda

Why live simply?… So others may simply live! If we use up our natural resources, trash the earth with our waste, and end up destroying ecosystems around the world, what kind of life are our grand kids going to inherit?  Gandhi also said, “we must be the change we wish to see.”  Paramahansa Yogananda said, “Be as simple as you can be; you will be astonished to see how uncomplicated and happy your life can become.”

If we don’t take responsibility for our actions, it will come back one way or another.  We believe it’s best to teach our kids from a young age how to take care of our mother earth, so she can take care of us.  It’s important for them to see that living simply can be fulfilling and joyful.  Without the added desires of consumerism, one can learn to enjoy the simple things in life.  Happiness is found within, as all the great masters have said through the ages, not somewhere outside of ourselves.  Swami Kriyananda says, “The secret of happiness is the determination to be happy always, rather than wait for outer circumstances to make one happy.”

Swami Kriyananda, founder of Ananda Village, direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda

At the Natural Living School, the wish is to help the participants understand that the pursuit of happiness is attainable by simplifying ones life, connecting to nature, and going deep within to unlock the inner joy that lights our flame of passion through meditation, yoga, and self-realization.  So try it, live simply, so others can simply live.

This Year’s Natural Building

The idea of this year’s natural building project hatched many, many months ago.  Since then we have been working tirelessly as a group to finalize the design, so we can start building this season.

We first started with the idea of building a cluster of detached bedrooms with a shared bathhouse and a separate common building with a kitchen, dinning room, and lounge.

The idea was to build in phases, first starting out with the bathhouse. as shown below.

The Bathhouse included 3 showers, and 4 bathrooms, (Drawing created in Google sketchup)

We went to the county planning office to see if we could do this, and they said, “no.” The main building has to be attached to the bathrooms and the bedrooms, otherwise they would each be considered separate dwellings, which we couldn’t do on this particular parcel of land.

So we all went back to the drawing board and came up with a design for an organic shaped community building that could be built in phases, but then there were some concerns about the roundness.  The reason argued against a rounded building was that cabinets and furniture would be harder to fit, and would need to be custom made.  Also squaring off the corners increases the square footage and makes it more affordable to pour a concrete stem wall, which will be required when building to code.

One of the second generation designs, you can see the squaring starting to come forth.

These are all valid reasons, but from our experience a well designed organic shaped building feels bigger and is more functional. Especially if the custom cabinets, built in’s, and furniture are designed to optimize the available space.  It was also suggested that we use prefabricated conventional building materials, like trusses, plywood, and sheetrock, to speed up the construction and make it easier to budget the costs.

Third generation design, the squaring off is more prevalent

In the end, we had to pick our battles and decided to focus on using as much natural materials as possible and compromise on a more conventional shaped building.  After all, who would want to come and learn how to build a standard conventional building with some straw and cob here and there.  Not us!

After many discussions and drawings we were able to collaborate on a design for the community living space that works for everyone.

Hopefully in future building projects we can find opportunities to demonstrate the practicality, beauty, and benefits of building with more organic shapes.  For now, we are excited to be creating a beautiful building with roundwood timbers from the land, strawbales from the valley, and clay from the building site.

The next step was to find an engineer that works with natural materials.  I contacted SunRay Kelly, one of the most renowned natural builders on the west coast, and asked him who he uses?  Bonny his partner, gave us a name, Jennifer Anthony, with Fearless Engineers.  She specializes in working with natural builders, and has been great to work with.

She has been helping us with the structural aspects of the building, as required by our building department.   Here are some of the newest drawings, sketched by Alex Forrester, the master planner for the Ananda Village, and our number one supporter.

The above drawing is an illustration of a schematic plan view from the top.  Most of us can’t do a drawing like this, so if you want to build to code, I highly suggest that you work with an architect, or an engineer that can also do drawings.  The Natural Living School will show you how to illustrate your ideas so a professional can covert them into data that the county will accept.

For me, one of the many things that will make this building exciting to work on is the timber framing.  We will be using beautiful oak trees to create the curved crooks that will be holding up the ridge beam.  All of the timber framing will be exposed either to the inside or the outside, and will include red cedar, doug fir, and black oak trees.

We will also be using milled lumber for the purlins, sheathing, and tung and grove ceiling.  The above drawing shows the high roof framing for the great room. This room will be the main dinning area and also be used for yoga, music, and educational talks.

The above drawing shows the framing for the west side, which is similar to the east side.  They are the two lower roof sections on the plan drawing.  The kitchen will be on the east side, and the lounge will be on the west side.  The north will have the bathrooms, storage areas, and possibly bedrooms.

The sketchup drawing above is an example of the high roof section with the two lower roofs on the wings.  The high roof will actually be lower than in the image.

We are now in the process of redesigning the interior of the building to make accommodations for a communal kitchen, dining room, lounge, and bathrooms.  The building is called Hyranyaloka, which comes from the “Autobiography of a Yogi,” by Paramhansa Yogananda.

Stay tuned, we will update you as the approval process continues.

The Natural Living School

In this day and age, where the answer to many questions are just a click away, people are still having a hard time answering the age old question, “why do I feel so unhappy?”  Most of us, who have tried to answer this question, have come up with several logical answers.

“More money,” if I had more money than I would be happy. 

“Better job,” if I had a job I liked, or if I had a job that paid more, then I would be happy. 

“More time,” if I had more time to do what I wanted, then I would be happy. 

The list can go on, and on, but these are some of the most common answers.  At the Cob Cottage Company, as you walk up the trail to the main building, there is a sign that says, “There are two ways to get rich, you can make more money or you can require less.”  The truth to us is in the second statement, “to require less.” 

Oliver and Esme's Hands Making Natural Plasters

The Natural Living School is a place where people can come to explore how to live simply and require less, to gain experience so they can construct natural buildings that are affordable for themselves and their families, to learn how to grow their own food so they can lower their food costs, and to gain the confidence to change their lives forever.

"Joy is within" sign at Ananda Village entrance. Hansa Temple in the background

The Natural Living School is an organization, focused on examining and co-creating new and old methods of sustainable living and natural building. Come and study with us, the art of natural living and higher thinking.

The View from Sunset Ridge. I like to think of these trees as old friends holding hands