SECTIONS OF THE BOOK SOLVIVA:
Table of Contents
|| Some current realities
|| A visit to Solviva
How I got on the path of seeking
better ways to live... || Wastewater
Greyburg or Greendale: where
would you rather live?
HOW I GOT on
THE PATH of SEEKING BETTER WAYS to LIVE
WHAT I DISCOVERED ALONG THE WAY.
( a chapter from the book Solviva)
When I was a child growing up in Sweden, Mother
Nature was my best friend. I roamed over hills, through meadows
and along pristine stream beds, intimately learning the names
and habits of wildflowers, trees and insects. The forests were
deep, misty and fragrant, carpeted with spongy mosses and furnished
with giant boulders. Lured by the beauty and mystery, I glanced
over my shoulder with pounding heart, fearing/hoping for the appearance
of the trolls and fairies I knew so well from storybooks. I knew
where the mushrooms would pop up after a rain, which could kill
you and which were safe and delicious. I knew when the wild strawberries
and blueberries would ripen in the dappled birch glens.
My mother kept houseplants blooming and climbing in every window,
and I soon did the same. I had gardening grandmothers, each with
her own paradise, one in the city, the other in the country. The
one in the city gathered horse "pears" from the streets
(there were still plenty of horse-drawn carts), the one in the
country got manure from the neighboring farm, and each garden
resulted in a glorious succession of flowers, vegetables, fruits
and berries. I joined the birds and the wasps in search of the
ripest cherries and plums, pears and apples, gooseberries, currants
and strawberries: abundance without any toxic sprays.
I grew up with relatively clean air and surroundings, in a society
with minimal crime or social strife, poverty or unemployment.
Design was sensible, efficient and attractive. There were no billboards.
The few cars were small, there were no traffic jams, and you could
go anywhere with public transportation.
Thus, I was quite shocked when I came to America in 1957 as a
young bride, complete with my looms and other weaving equipment.
Looking at the memory album in my mind of my life in New Jersey,
New York City and Long Island, I see snapshots of gigantic cars
sporting tons of chromed fins and fangs, clogging eight-lane highways
lined with billboards telling me I'd be happier if I drank this
or smoked that. Beyond, I see acres of parking lots, and suburban
housing developments with thousands of identical homes with picture
windows looking across the street into the neighbor's identical
picture window, not a tree in sight. Live now, pay later.
I see forests of chimneys spewing out thick smoke of all different
colors, and oil-slicked, trash-filled rivers and harbors belching
I see degrading poverty and despair in one block contrasted with
ostentatious wealth in the next.
On television I see fire hoses, clubs and snarling dogs attacking
people requesting equal rights to voting, education, seating on
buses and lunch counters.
I see the pinkest hot dogs, the yellowest mustard and thegreenest
relish: food coloring in everything.
I see myself in New York City, nauseated from breathing the air
and drinking the water, both fouled with toxic substances.
I see people gardening and farming in dead soil with chemicals
from a bag and foul-smelling liquids from bottles marked "poison".
I see my first child being born in 1958, while I fight for my
right to be awake at the birth, my husband not allowed to attend,
and I see the nurses labeling me uncivilized and unsanitary because
I insist on breast-feeding my baby.
I see myself waking up one dawn, while summering in Edgartown,
Martha's Vineyard, by a screaming roar coming up the road. I rush
into the bedroom that faces the street, where my babies are waking
up from fright, just in time to see a sickening cloud billowing
in through the open window, filling our lungs, coating our skin:
DDT for mosquito control.
I see us taking a walk along the Charles River in Boston, and
one of my little daughters trips and slips in up to her knee.
She is dripping with unspeakably stinky black ooze as I whisk
her up and rush to find a place to clean her off.
I see people building fallout shelters, preparing for The Bomb
to fall, furnishing them with food, water and blankets, and guns
to prevent anyone else from getting into their shelter.
I see myself buying canned and powdered milk, because fresh milk
was contaminated with Strontium 90, fallout from atmospheric testing
of nuclear bombs.
For a young woman from a clean and nature-loving country, where
peace and justice prevailed, the United States was not a good
experience in the late 50s. I had never imagined that human beings
could be capable of such carelessness and brutality against self,
others and Nature.
Then came the 60s with its powerful revolt against waste, materialism,
racism, militarism, sexism, and destruction of our planet. Rachel
Carson sounded the alarm about pesticides with Silent Spring.
It felt as if things could not get much worse and that the times
"they were a-changin'."
Yet evidence indicates that since then, in spite of a tremendous
rise in right action and awareness and a great deal of improvements,
many social, health, economic, resource and environmental conditions
in the United States and around the world have deteriorated faster
than they have improved. Alas, the same is true in Sweden. Thus,
the current costly, polluting, wasteful conventional systems,
and the bureaucracy and regulations that enforce them, have us
trapped in what many consider to be a hopeless downward spiral
towards unimaginable disasters.
In 1972 our family moved year?round to Martha's Vineyard, in search
of a simpler, more harmonious lifestyle. We designed a home and
built it with sincere but novice carpenters. We installed a Franklin
stove for wood heating and a beautiful old kerosene heater. For
backup heating we chose electric baseboard heaters because of
low installation costs and promises of cheap, clean and reliable
Unfortunately, our hopes for a more harmonious life did not survive
the stress of building a house. Soon our marriage broke up, and
I was a single woman living with my three daughters in an isolated,
drafty and poorly built house, facing the problems of a harsh
In late 1973 the first oil embargo hit. The cost of oil skyrocketed
and with it the cost of electricity. Kerosene became unavailable,
and the Franklin stove became the sole provider of heat. However,
the limited supplies of seasoned firewood in our community were
snapped up within days after the start of the embargo. Unseasoned
wood tripled in price and made a poor heat source, even when I
supplemented it with deadwood that I laboriously gathered from
The gasoline crisis was just as severe, as it became close to
impossible to buy any gas at all. I'll never forget the bitter
cold morning I got up before 5 a.m., hours before dawn, to get
in line at the gas station in order to ensure myself of a tankful
of gas. But 52 cars had already gotten there before me, and many
more joined behind. The temperature was minus 4 degrees F, with
a fierce windchill factor. The cars formed a long line snaking
far down the road, snorting exhaust fumes and wasting gas as the
cold, stiff, hungry, worried occupants kept engines running in
order to avoid hypothermia. Finally at 7 a.m. the gas station
opened, and the cars began to inch toward the pumps. By 8 a.m.
I got close enough to see a sign that read "3 gallon limit",
but much worse was the sign that suddenly was placed two cars
ahead of me: "No more gas today. Come back tomorrow".
This crisis of heating and transportation went on week after agonizing
week. And yet, what happened on the Vineyard was minor compared
to many other places across the United States where some people
froze to death and food stores were emptied of vital supplies
as people hoarded and no trucks came to replenish stocks. There
were violent protests, strikes and blockades.
And then the whole mess was repeated in 1979.
The oil embargoes of the 70s were indeed shocking and frightening,
profoundly threatening our sense of security. They provided a
vivid demonstration of the danger of being dependent on foreign
resources. All across the United States people were painfully
affected as severe shortages and spiraling costs of oil and gasoline
devastated their lives and economies at all levels.
In addition to the oil embargoes there were many environmental
disasters. The oil tanker Torrey Canyon went aground in the English
Channel, spilling millions of gallons of oil that ruined the ecology
and economy for hundreds of miles of British and French coastlines.
Another tanker went aground in Nantucket Sound right close to
Martha's Vineyard, but by an incredible stroke of luck the wind
blew the oil out to sea instead of onto our beaches and estuaries.
There were oil well blowouts off the coast of Santa Barbara, in
the North Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. Later, 11 million gallons
of crude oil spilled from the grounded Exxon Valdez, and it is
reported that tenfold that amount is spilled annually in many
smaller oil spills around the world.
Yet, we now use more oil than ever and are more dependent than
ever on foreign oil. In fact, over 50 percent of U.S. oil consumption
is imported, about half of that from the Persian Gulf region.
The Gulf War of 1991 showed us the extreme danger, destruction,
expense and suffering that is associated with that dependence.
Terrifying evidence, from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the Hanford
Nuclear Waste Facility, and many hundreds of other actual or near?catastrophic
incidents around the world, demonstrates the dangers of nuclear
power, weapons and wastes.
There were increasing findings of polluted groundwater, ponds
and lakes. Evidence showed that the major culprits were nitrogen
and phosphorus, and although the blame was placed on laundry detergents,
shorebirds and agricultural and landscaping fertilizers, there
was mounting evidence that the major cause was actually human
waste flushed through conventional septic and sewage systems.
Although some areas such as Lake Erie and the Charles River have
indeed greatly improved, in these past 20 years groundwater and
surface water has in many places continued to deteriorate. In
Iowa, for instance, where most of the water pollution is caused
by agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, over 40 percent of
the groundwater is no longer safe to drink. When I visited Fairfield,
Iowa, a few years ago, I was warned not to drink the tap water.
I thought it would be safe to take a bath in it, but the water
smelled so repulsive that I reluctantly took a quick shower instead.
I began to fear that it was perhaps inevitable that we would face
unimaginable horrors within the foreseeable future and that humanity
would foolishly drive itself and most of Earth's other wondrous
creatures into extinction, either through freezing, starvation,
and rampant disease, or with a global nuclear war caused by competition
for our planet's land, water, minerals, oil and other limited
But while I became increasingly aware and pessimistic about the
problems, I was also finding out about possible solutions. Among
the most important discoveries for me was the New Alchemy Institute
on Cape Cod. Here a group of down-to-arth scientists had started
in the early 70s to create a showcase of sustainable recycling
design. They were making compost out of kitchen and garden wastes,
growing worms in the compost, feeding the worms to fish grown
in tanks, and then feeding the fish to people. They were using
the "dirty" fish water for irrigating the gardens, which
resulted in magnificent vegetables, and finally they completed
the cycle by putting wastes from the garden and kitchen into the
They were employing beneficial insects for controlling harmful
insects and using windmills for pumping water and aerating the
fisk tanks. They were using water and rocks as mass for storing
the heat of the sun in greenhouses, and keeping flowers and vegetables,
even bananas, alive through record?cold winters, without any backup
I had long been nurturing my own compost and organic gardens and
had read about experiments in recycling, nonpolluting, sustainable
design around the world, but seeing it actualized comprehensively
and beautifully was believing it, and I yearned to adopt such
methods. In the late 70s three major catalysts combined in my
life to deepen my yearning and create the opportunity for transforming
my dreams into reality.
CATALYST No.1 ... YOU'RE-IN-CHARGE
The first catalyst for major positive change in
my life happened in 1977. By that time I had moved out of the
house where my marriage broke apart and into a cozy little cottage
in a clearing in the woods. This was a pristine paradise next
to a marsh, among huge old hickory, beetlebung and oak trees,
inhabited by birds, frogs, ferns and flowers, and filled with
magic sounds and fragrances. Here I made the first of many startling
discoveries that led me to believe that the situation for humanity
and other life on Earth is anything but hopeless.
To some it may seem inappropriate and shocking to start out the
list of these discoveries with a story about urine, but this is
indeed how I first awoke to the fact that there may be ways of
living sustainably. It truly surprised me when I discovered that
this substance, so taboo and polluting in our society, is actually
an excellent fertilizer. "You're-in-charge" began to
put me in charge of my destiny.
This simple little cottage had no indoor plumbing and for the
first year not even an outhouse. We managed, surprisingly happily
actually, with boards placed securely over a hole dug into the
ground at the base of a grove of tall elegant hickory trees. This
was down a path a little distance from the cottage. Although we
sometimes dreaded the trip out, we always came back happy from
that outing no matter what the weather was like, rain, snow or
shine. There was always some great Nature Show going on close
by: a bird singing to us, or an ant trundling a stick four times
its own size over the rough terrain of the forest floor, or sunshine
sparkling on a perfect spider web draped with dewdrop diamonds.
Anyone who has ever camped out in the wilderness can relate to
For peeing we usually stayed in the cottage, using a pot designated
for this purpose, a technology ubiquitous in all sectors of society
until so recently. Knowing that dog urine can kill grass and bushes,
we disposed of our urine by first diluting it with water, about
1:10, then tossing it out here and there in order to avoid any
damage and odors.
It never did smell, but I was in no way prepared
for what followed when spring burst forth after that first winter.
The first indication was from the wild lilies-of-the-valley that
soon carpeted the forest floor. Here and there were patches of
significantly healthier and larger plants. Then there was the
little stunted bleeding-heart plant I had adopted and planted
the previous fall. It quickly grew into an exceptionally large
and splendid specimen which was amazing enough, but I really began
to wonder what was going on when it then proceeded to bloom way
past its normal stopping time in mid-July. In fact, it bloomed
continuously up until frost took it in late fall.
nourished with urine power.
Indian poke plants, normally no more than 5 feet tall, grew to
over 10 feet tall, reaching half way up the second floor window.
The spirea blossomed into the most extraordinary bridal bouquet
display. These and other unusually vibrant patches of plants,
such as St. Johnswort, Queen Anne's lace and black-eyed Susan,
formed roughly a circle around the cottage, and I soon realized
that these were the places where we had tossed the diluted urine.
Could it be that this waste product was not just an ecological
menace, but could actually be a beneficial fertilizer?
Most intriguing of all was the kinship and communication I sensed
withthese plants. The waste molecules from my body were being
absorbed as nutrients by the living plants. I felt reincarnated
while I was still alive. This liquid soon inspired new names:
Peace-on-Earth... Urine-charge... You're-in-harmony... Aqua Vitae....
I started using this golden elixir purposefully, with astonishing
results, as is evident in the photographs. As an experiment, I
sowed some lettuce seeds directly into a growing medium of plain
peat moss (practically void of any nutrients) and provided only
diluted urine and a sprinkling of wood ashes as nutrients. These
grew into full-sized healthy (and delicious) lettuce heads.
I began to understand some of the language of the plants. To describe
the physical signs and the process in a greatly simplified way:
when green leaves turn toward yellow-green, it means the plant
needs more nitrogen. I then apply diluted urine, and within a
day or two it begins to
respond by becoming greener and more lush. At the first sign of
the green turning bluish, accompanied by a subtle shrinking, closing
attitude which means "enough nitrogen for now, thanks",
I withhold the diluted urine until the plant goes through the
bright?green full-open stage and begins to return to yellow-green
again. Depending on the speed with which the plant is growing,
the cycle is about two to six weeks.
I learned the hard way not to overdo it, especially with potted
plants. One actually died from overdose. But there were only a
few failures among the many plants that thrived. A friend lamented
over a small maidenhair fern which had not grown one new leaf
since she had bought it a year earlier. I suggested applying Peace-on-Earth,
and after a month she reported that the plant now had five new
leaves, more than twice the number it had before.
I went in search of information about the nutrient content of
human urine, but could find nothing in the literature. Finally
I found something, in a book that quickly got on my list of Most-Important-Reading:
THE INTEGRAL URBAN HOUSE by Olkowski et al. of the Farrallones
Institute in California, published by Sierra Club Books. Here
a chart states that urine contains, by dry weight: 15 to 19 percent
nitrogen (far higher than any animal manure), 2.5 to 5 percent
phosphorus, 3 to 4.5 percent potassium, and 4.5 to 6 percent calcium.
No wonder the plants were responding so happily.
The output of nitrogen per average person is about 10 pounds a
year, over 6 pounds in the urine and another 4 pounds in the feces.
As stated earlier, conventional septic systems release most of
this nitrogen into the ground water, and this nitrogen then seeps
unabated with the groundwater toward the nearest down-gradient
body of water, whether 50 feet or ten miles away. There it causes
massive algae infestations which have a disastrous effect on the
ecosystem of ponds, lakes, rivers and harbors.
Urine is usually sterile (unlike fecal matter, which always contains
many kinds of harmful pathogens, such as staphylococcus and streptococcus,
even from a healthy person), and therefore it appears that your
own urine can be safely used for growing your own food. For a
couple of years, before starting to produce vegetables to sell,
I used no fertilizer other than diluted urine and ashes from the
woodstove (using wood and waste paper as fuel) with great success,
as the photographs demonstrate. Ashes, on the alkaline side of
the pH scale, balance out the pH of the urine, which needs to
be slightly acidic in order to avoid urinary tract infections.
The alkaline ashes also help precipitate out the salts in the
urine, so that they do not accumulate to harmful levels in the
soil. In addition, ashes provide extra potassium as a plant nutrient.
Over 200 full-grown
onions on one square yard and only urine as fertilizer.
200 onions in 7 braids lasted through
However, I realized after some time that using
just urine and ashes was not providing the soil with the"fodder"
contained in compost, which is needed to keep up a high humus
content, and this would eventually lead to a downturn in garden
productivity. Compost, made from a mix of manure, food wastes,
leaves and clippings, shredded paper, sawdust and other organic
"roughage", enriches the soil with humus, so essential
for increasing the water-holding capacity and microscopic surface
areas that enable the earthworms and other visible and microscopic
creatures to flourish. These creatures aerate and mix the soil,
and their life and death cycles break down the minerals in the
soil and thus make them available as nutrients for the plants.
In other words, urine acts more like a chemical fertilizer, feeding
not the soil, but the plants directly. So I decided to put the
urine in the compost bin instead, which speeded up the decomposition
process, and then to use this nitrogen-enriched compost to feed
both the soil and the plants .
IMPORTANT NOTE: I
want to clearly emphasize here that for the Solviva Salad or any
other food produced in the Solviva greenhouse and gardens I did
NOT use urine or even the compost containing human urine. Why?
Because Western society, especially the United States, has such
an extraordinary taboo and prejudice against human body waste.
This taboo is for a good reason, because if human waste is not
managed properly, as was the case in the Middle Ages and beyond
in Europe and still is the case in many parts of the world, it
can contaminate water and food with pathogens that can cause disease.
Smallpox and cholera epidemics killed millions. Underground sewer
pipes and the flush toilet (invented in the mid-1800s in England)
greatly reduced health problems stemming from bacteria and parasites
present in human feces. But, as we now know, the methods that
evolved in western culture for dealing with the wastewater proved
to have disastrous effects on the environment and the economy,
as I explain again and again in this book.
No.2 ... MEDITATION
While living in elegant simplicity and close communication
with the plants in the forest, I became increasingly convinced
that we can learn to live in harmony with life on Earth. But at
the same time I grew ever more despairing over the destruction
being perpetrated by modern man. What could I do to make a difference?
How could I achieve the clarity of purpose that I observed in
the birds, frogs, trees and flowers among whom I lived?
I began to learn about meditation and yearned for the stillness
of mind that was said to be possible to achieve. A friend told
me about the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts,
and I signed up for a two-week retreat led by Joseph Goldstein.
This beautiful center, previously a monastery, was filled to capacity
with 125 seekers. Sitting meditation alternated with walking meditation,
and these were interspersed with working meditation and eating
Peace of Mind
The object was to be aware of every detail of every
gesture in every second, for as many hours as you could stay awake,
letting the thoughts go by without getting trapped in them, all
in silence and with no eye contact. The schedule started before
dawn and went into the night.
The first couple of days were agony. My back and legs were in
excruciating pain, but this I could at least contol somewhat by
changing positions. But I was horrified to be confronting my uncontrollable,
incessantly grinding mind. Plans, ideas and insights were randomly
mingled with nonsense and silly repetitive phrases, sabotaging
my attempts to count my breaths or repeat a mantra in silence.
Joseph reassured us that this was going on, more or less, in everyone's
head, even his own, and I couldn't help laughing as I visualized
the balloons of silent cacophony rising from the 125 heads in
the Great Hall. We were urged to be very patient with our minds,
just to notice the amazing scenes go by, without attachment or
rejection, and to keep breathing, keep relaxing.
Gradually I started to experience silence in the mind and complete
body relaxation, first for just brief moments, then for longer
and longer stretches. Each silence was like a golden glow which,
paradoxically, both filled and emptied my mind and suffused my
body. On the second to last day of the retreat I experienced something
I had never imagined could be possible. I was in that golden state
of mind and body when I suddenly felt my body bounderies melt
away, first my head, then down to the ends of my fingers and toes.
I had no sensation of the size or whereabouts of any part of my
body. My mind and soul were free, floating somewhere 2 feet or
200 million miles above. I was utterly free of effort, filled
with bliss, barely musing that I could remain like that forever
- and then what?... In this state I became aware of a quiet, powerful,
brilliant presence, not a defined entity but rather a force imbuing
everything everywhere, including the limitless me. And in this
state I, having no previous experience with religion, silently
prayed from the depth of my soul: God, what/whoever you are! Just
tell me what to do! I'll do anything to help restore and protect
this Garden of Eden....
The answer came promptly, slow and clear, from behind and above
my left shoulder: Do No Harm.
Suddenly I was back in my body and in the room. Tears were streaming
down my face and my shirt. I had never before felt so completely
happy and content. Do No Harm! How simple. Just live in ways that
do no harm, live in harmony with life on Earth, and it will again
be the Garden of Eden. Now I knew what to do with the rest of
This event fit so well with my discovery of how urine could nourish
plants and how this opened up sacred channels of communication.
Soon after I returned home, I was talking not only with the plants,
but also with the frogs and the birds who lived in the woods.
They started to come into the house, where we shared eye/soul
contact and conversations. The most extraordinary of these events
was with a hummingbird. I had just finished meditating out on
the deck and was in that golden state of mind, when I saw the
little hummingbird close by, droning along from flower to flower,
sipping nectar. I started talking to it in the rather silly, high-pitched,
gentle singsong way that I had found effective for communicating
To my surprise and delight, the tiny creature sat down on a branch
just a few feet away, looking at me. I flowed imperceptibly toward
it, my hand outstretched, all along talking softly. Soon I found
myself ever so gently stroking the little bird, who reacted by
visibly relaxing, eyes half closed. Occasionally a dog barked
in the distance, and each time the bird bristled and popped open
its eyes, but a second later the eyes were again half closed,
the body and feathers relaxed, leaning onto my finger. This went
on for many minutes... could have gone on forever... and then
what? There is indeed SOMETHING going on, beyond what we think
of as "normal reality".
These kinds of experiences strengthened my commitment to living
in ways that Do No Harm. But I needed more sunlight than was available
at the site of the little cottage in the woods, so I decided to
move back into the bigger house which I had left two years earlier.
Although poorly built and drafty, it had great solar exposure.
What I had learned about solar power intrigued me, and I wanted
to incorporate it into my new way of living. Thus, with meager
funds I immediately set about to increase the solar heating potential
of the house.
The first thing I did was to knock out some of the south-facing
walls and replace them with large windows. Next I built a deep
indoor planting bed below this new long window wall and filled
it with good soil from the summer garden. I transplanted dill,
parsley, thyme, chives and marigold from the garden and sowed
lettuce, spinach, chard, carrots, beets and radishes.
Then I laid up several cords of good seasoned oak firewood and
installed the latest state-of-the-art airtight woodstove, especially
paying attention to fire safety in every detail.
Then, as winter descended and the sun was pouring in through the
windows, I sat back and watched the garden grow. And it grew ...
and grew. The dill, for instance, grew to over 5 feet tall. I
had always had houseplants, but growing food plants inside in
the winter cold was a special thrill.
On a frigid, windy, sunny day in mid-winter my home was one of
several open for a solar home tour. Busloads of visitors streamed
through, oohing and aahing about the indoor garden and the cozy
warmth, especially when they realized that the woodstove was cold
and that all the warmth was provided by the sun.
The various pieces of evidence that had unfolded for me over the
period of a year or so were powerful indeed. To me they were proof
of extraordinary possibilities that I could not ignore. Although
I continued my longstanding profession as a weaver, I became restless.
My hands continued weaving the wool yarn into soft blankets and
shawls, but my mind was weaving a different cloth. In the warp
of the impending worldwide doom and gloom I laid in a weft of
glorious opportunities for sustainable living.
I decided to open a restaurant to provide wholesome, organic food
and also information about sustainable ways to live. I rented
a defunct greasy-spoon joint in the center of Vineyard Haven,
at cost and in exchange for cleaning it up. A bunch of friends
helped remove most of the old grease, and I adorned the naked
walls with houseplants, paintings and photographs, weavings and
quilts that I brought from home. I offered Good Food for Body,
Mind and Spirit, and called it The Rising Sun. I served one entree
each night, salads and soups, fresh-baked Swedish bread, and killer
desserts. I also offered the space as a forum for music and poetry,
slide shows and movies. In the bleak winter on the Vineyard this
place became an instant success.
That February we were experiencing a prolonged and severe cold
spell, accompanied, as such cold usually is, by clear sunny days.
I spent the mornings at home, doing paperwork by the hot woodstove.
When it was time to leave for the restaurant, the fire had burned
down to glowing embers. If I had stayed home, I would have just
let the fire go out and the house would have been toasty all day
with just solar power. Then, as the house rapidly lost its warmth
in the late afternoon (it was drafty and poorly insulated, had
no solar heat storage, and I had not yet made the movable window
insulation), I would have relighted the fire for the evening and
night. But on the days that I worked in the restaurant I was gone
from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and, even though it was solar-heated
during the day, the house and the woodstove were ice-cold when
I got home. It took what seemed forever to build a fire and begin
to warm up the stove. This was not very cozy.
But I learned what I thought at the time was a great trick: if
I laid firewood on top of the morning's glowing coals, and then
closed down the stove completely - the flue damper, the primary
draft control in front, as well as the secondary draft control
in the back - then the combustion of the wood was greatly reduced
because there was no inflow of oxygen. In fact, instead of burning
up, the firewood turned to charcoal. When I then returned home
at night, I simply opened up the draft a bit, and as oxygen hit
the charcoal and the remaining low-glowing embers, voila! there
was an instant glorious fire. But what I thought was a great management
technique soon proved to be disastrous.
CATALYST No.3 ... FIRE
On February 20 I was down at the restaurant as usual,
baking bread and making soup. Suddenly a friend rushed in and
reported that he just heard on the emergency radio in a store
that my house was on fire. NO, that's impossible, they must be
mistaken, it must be one of the neighbors', not mine, no way,
my woodstove and installation must be the safest on the island,
I left the house just a couple of hours ago and all was well,
it can't be, not mine! As we raced in his truck the four miles
to my home, I saw over the hill a giant column of smoke rising
straight up into the sky. NO, NO, it cannot be my home!!
But as we neared the end of the driveway, I saw the unthinkable.
No amount of writhing or screaming could erase the horrible truth:
my home was totally engulfed in an inferno.
Amid the crashing explosions and deafening roar I prayed not to
lose the two items that seemed most precious: the family photographs
and my daughters' early childhood drawings.
It seemed that if they were destroyed, the footprints of our lives
would be erased.
A life raft of friends took me to the house next door, and one
them told me to drink a whole glass of - whiskey! Indeed it did
the trick of releasing me from the grip of hysteria. I finally
accepted the reality that my home and perhaps all my belongings
had been destroyed. As soon as the fire was out, we went back
up to the site. Amid the stinging smoke, stench and grotesquely
disfigured remains, I went straight to seek what I had prayed
for. There, in the living room, protected under all the debris
that had collapsed on top of them, were the family photo albums
and in the back bedroom was the box of drawings, all miraculously
protected. Though charred around the edges and smoked and soaking
wet, they were among the very few things that were saved. No life
had been lost: my daughters were away, my dog had been with me,
the cat had been outside. Even a little mouse, who had lived in
a large terrarium, had been seen by the firemen escaping along
the charred, smoking rafters.
A deep joy and gratitude surfaced through the despair, increasing
as I began to realize the opportunity that could be born out of
this crisis: I could rebuild, this time starting from scratch
instead of picking away at a drafty house. This hope was reenforced
by a long-lost friend who happened to call a few days after the
fire. He had lost both his home and his studio in a fire a few
years earlier (fortunately my studio was in another location).
But out of this catastrophe his life was reborn far better than
it had ever been before.
But there remained a large question: what had caused the fire?
It was obvious that the root cause was the fire in the woodstove,
but not even the firemen could figure out how both the woodstove
and the chimney had been ripped asunder by a massive explosion.
It was two months after this disaster that I learned of other
houses in New England burned down in similar ways, previously
unheard of. It was reported that the cause was gas explosions
in these new state-of-the-art, super-airtight woodstoves. The
explanation was that these new woodstoves, such as I had, could
be closed down so airtight that virtually no venting could take
place. When firewood is piled on top of a bed of hot coals and
the stove is closed down really airtight, the wood heats up and
explosive gases continue to emit from the hot wood, and having
no oxygen, the gases cannot burn but instead accumulate to critical
mass, like a propane gas tank. It was reported that a little back-puff
of air down the chimney, plus a bit of glowing coal, is all it
takes to ignite the gas and cause a massive explosion. Now I finally
knew what had caused the fire.
These three catalysts, the urine, the meditation
and the fire, took place during the 18 months around my 40th birthday.
A few months before, I had put a clipping on my refrigerator that
read: LIFE BEGINS AT 40. I had certainly known happiness and fulfillment
in the first 40 years of my life, but after these three events
a very clear vision developed of what my post-childrearing life
and mission would be about.
Soon after the fire I set about to design the ideal
No Harm Home. I decided to reexamine all aspects of how we live
and their effect on economy, security, health, environment and
resources near and far. My wish was to build a house that greatly
reduces the negative impact that is caused by the normal ways
we heat and cool our homes, get our food, and manage our wastewater
and solid wastes. I spent the next 16 months searching for the
best sustainable and renewable designs and methods. I read everything
I could lay my hands on from all over the world and talked with
anyone who might have some knowledge. In addition, because I wanted
to see for myself what was effective and what was not, I traveled
to some innovative places around New England and California, and
also to Great Britain where interesting experiments were going
BACK TO TOP
How to contact Anna Edey, Solviva, Trailblazer
18 Solviva Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
Tel: (508) 693-3341- - Cell phone: (774) 563-0898 - - Fax: (508) 693-2228
AND, as of January 2014, at Blog/Website: www.solvivagreenlight.com