Sunday, November 18, 2012

Nothing for Christmas, or Maybe a Llama

Published in the Sun November 17, 2012

The busiest shopping day of the year is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Now if you are one of the people who really enjoys cruising the mall for Christmas bling, read no further.  There is nothing in this column for you.  But if you, like me, have a bunch of relatives who always buy themselves everything they want the minute they figure out they “need” it, and if battery-powered plastic widgets from China already fill every nook and cranny of your children’s rooms, shopping for more unnecessary stuff may seem like a strange way to celebrate a spiritual holiday.


Every year my family proposes cutting back or not giving Christmas gifts, but then we chicken out.  I’m sure it has happened to you.  You make a pact with somebody not to give gifts, and then on Christmas Day she shows up at your door with “just a little something” and you stand there like the Grinch.  Or maybe the adults in the family draw names for each other but everybody gets something for the children.  Then on Christmas morning the poor children open one gaily wrapped package after another for two hours and then collapse sobbing into a pile of wrapping paper when the frenzy is over.


Surely there are acceptable alternatives to buying gifts that end up in the back of a closet.  I have tried giving those Christmas cards announcing that a llama or water buffalo was donated to Heifer International.  If, en route to South America, the llama actually stopped by the honoree’s house, this would be a quite interesting gift, but without such a visit I suspect the recipient just wonders why I didn’t donate livestock in my own honor and give him a more immediately useful bottle of Scotch.


The Friday after Thanksgiving has another designation as well.  It is also known as International Buy Nothing Day, a campaign by Canadian-based Adbusters Magazine inviting people to go cold turkey from consumer culture for 24 hours by not buying anything.  No lattes, no movie tickets, no groceries, no gasoline, no shoes, no Christmas presents.  Buy Nothing Day has a website that explains the concept.  They suggest such alternative activities as a “Whirl-Mart,” in which you and your friends parade through certain big-box stores pushing empty shopping carts.  Or you could offer to cut up your friends’ credit cards.


As I perused the website I found myself wondering if there are Buy Nothing Day T-shirts.  I clicked on the shopping tab and received only a snarky admonition, “What?  Shopping already?”


After some reflection I came up with a plan that doesn’t involve embarrassing myself at a retail establishment.  My family members are forewarned and invited to retaliate appropriately.  I am going to celebrate International Buy Nothing Day by not shopping.  That won’t take long, so then I am going to sit down with a homemade cup of tea and list some gifts I can make.  Some of these will be cookies, some will be photographs, some will be artsy-craftsy.  Some may end up in the trash, but what difference does it make?  Expensive store bought items can end up there too.


I’m also going to buy gifts at the Christmas Stroll from local artists.  I get something unique and the money stays in our community.  Some of my family will get vintage items from antique stores.  My daughter and her husband don’t need another household gadget and would probably prefer a few evenings of babysitting.  Some lucky soul may still get a llama.


If your family has an interesting way to combat consumerism over the holidays, please send me an email.  I’ll have plenty of time to check email on Buy Nothing Day!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Straw Bale House Arises from Ashes of Bastrop Fire
published in the Sun November 4, 2012

On September 4, 2011, Charlie and Carol Jones were relaxing at their hilltop cabin near Bastrop.  Charlie had just talked to the sheriff about some small fires in the area, but had been reassured that the fires were under control.  It was a windy day, and a door blew open, so Carol got up to close it.  She came back and told Charlie that she smelled smoke.  They both went out to look around and noticed burning embers blowing across the deck.  A massive cloud of smoke was roiling up the side of the hill.  Carol threw the dogs in the truck and Charlie grabbed his guns, the computer, and a box of family photos.  Hightailing down the hill toward the main road, Carol remembered their neighbor Jess, who was out of town, so she called to tell him what was happening.  Jess is lucky to have a friend like Carol, because he had not left town after all.  He was holed up in his computer room, unaware that his home was about to be incinerated.  By the time Carol and Charlie reached the road, five minutes after they first smelled smoke, the entire hill was an inferno.  They stopped to take pictures, because they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

A few days later, when the Joneses were allowed to go back home, they still had hopes that the cabin might have been spared.  But when they reached what had been their home, Charlie said, “It was like the top of a volcano.”  The ground was still smoking.  Not a single tree was left unburned.  The cabin was nothing but ash; even the metal sleigh bed was twisted like a pretzel by the heat.  The only trace of their previous life was a wind chime tinkling in the breeze, and a large iron sugar pot in the yard that was home to a collection of goldfish.  Amazingly, the goldfish were still alive.

Thirteen months after the historic fire, the hill is covered with yellow flowers, and a few green shoots are emerging from blackened oak stumps.  Charred pine trunks stud the landscape.  Charlie and Carol are temporarily staying in a nearby RV park, but today they are the center of a small energetic crowd on top of the hill.  The Jones’s new straw bale home is being built by a very unorthodox construction company:  Clay, Sand, and Straw, owned by Austin architect Kindra Welch and her husband, John Curry.   The workers will be living on site until the house is finished.  A tent city occupies what was once the front yard.  Outdoor showers and composting toilets are hammered together out of scrap lumber.  Under a tarp, a gypsy kitchen provides three meals a day.  John is chief cook and bison potato stew is a specialty.

The new house has been framed and roofed, and volunteers (who paid for the privilege of learning straw bale construction) are helping the crew install the large bales that will insulate the walls.  Kindra, her hair tied back under a blue bandanna, is instructing the volunteers how to fit and secure the bales.  After all the bales are in place, the walls will be plastered inside and out, creating a beautiful, cool, and fire-resistant wall.  No drywall required, no siding.  John is supervising volunteers (when he is not cooking for them) and goes everywhere with a small boy peacefully strapped to Daddy’s back.

Kindra Welch installs a straw bale

Kindra got her degree in architecture from Rice University, and was comfortably installed in a fancy architecture company in New Jersey, earning the big bucks.  But Kindra was restless sitting at a computer for nine hours a day, and unhappy with the sort of buildings that her company was turning out.  The goal was to build fast and cheap without concern for quality or durability.  She wanted to build houses that people would actually want to live in.  Chucking the six-figure salary, Kindra loaded her belongings into a truck, and headed for the west coast to learn to build with cob, an environmentally friendly mixture of clay, sand, and straw.  After two years living out of the truck and learning natural building techniques, she came back to central Texas to share what she had learned.

Kindra’s dwellings are unique, stunningly beautiful, and energy efficient, so it is not surprising that she has developed a reputation.  For Carol and Charlie’s new home, she has salvaged timbers from the burnt forest.  Two branching trunks, still etched with char, arch over the entrance to the new front porch, a testament to new beginnings arising from devastation.  Carol and Charlie lost almost everything in the fire, but they weren’t hurt, and some surprising good things have come out of the disaster.  Although they miss the trees, they now have a stunning view in every direction.  More significant, they have a new community of supportive friends.  Charlie has only praise for the Clay, Sand, and Straw people.  Just thinking about how much they have helped his family brings a tear to his eye.  “You just won’t find a finer group of people.”

Charlie and Carol Jones