My Little Grass Home

Lessons from my first Long-term Shelter

When we began Ways of the Earth Living Museum in Indiana, we each planned to build our own long-term shelter, and each needed to be different so our guests would have a variety to experience. I had fallen in love with the spiral lodge of the Algonquin which was only known because they found the post holes at an archaeological site. They made conjectures about what the structure would look like but no one really knows how the roof was, or even what the building materials were.

I decided to build this and started with a model, which modified my ideas for the what would work for the roof. We had a volunteer week so I got a lot of help in creating the initial structure.

The structure is 10 feet with the spiraled entryway added another 2 ½ feet. The poles in the ground were deadwood, originally 5 feet, with fire hardened ends pounded into the ground about 1 ½ feet. Then green saplings were bent and tied to create the walls.

Originally two larger poles were pounded into the center, but eventually, as I added material, a third support pole was needed for weight bearing. I created a twined sapling hoop and attached into the notched poles. This had to bear a lot of weight and I was afraid it was the shelters weak point. But fortunately, for the year and a half that this stood, it held up fine, even with a couple feet of snow on the roof.

We then began, adding the roof poles.

Here’s my great helpers and with the roof frame started.

From here, I had to finish adding the roof beams and then did a spiral wrap to the top with green saplings. Here it is with just a ways to go with the spiral roof wrap.

And then it was time to thatch. I had decided on thatching, since it would be different than what the others planned. In this environment though, it wasn’t a good choice because it took an incredible amount of grass to thatch this small shelter. We ended up using ornamental grasses we had to go harvest from folks all over the area. It was a great learning experience, not to mention, beautiful, so glad I did it.

Some things to consider if considering thatch. First, like I said, it takes so much more material than you might think. We’d go and harvest a huge amount and in a surprisingly short time, it was already running out. We thought we had enough to finish multiple times. Another consideration is how much string it takes to tie thatching. If you were to use natural cordage, it would take a tremendous amount. The last thing I found, after moving in, is that thatch is great when there is no wind or gentle wind. A strong wind, however, can blow the cold right through the grass. I had planned a debris wall for winter, but my first winter I ran out of time so had just the thatch.

Wild Nature Project kids came to help for a day and we had the first fire inside the shelter. This is about a month after starting thatching and pretty much thatched all day, so you can see how long thatching takes.

Here it is about two months into thatching. I made cattail mats for the roof edges to support the roof thatching and here we’ve started adding the roof thatch. We probably had to stop to go harvest more grass!

Here’s haircut day. The top still has a tarp on it, but I got moved in.

I had tied in a frame for a raised bed before thatching, but by now, the ground was frozen, so I couldn’t pound the frame in. I ended up just having my bed on the ground and never finished the bed. The frame that was tied in made a nice back rest though, once a hide was draped on it.

I built a number of shelves in the shelter for storage. My fire pit was offset from the center, and when it snowed, I would get a little pile inside. I did not make a smoke hole cap, as very little rain or snow actually came in. One great thing about this shelter, I and don’t know if it had to do with the spiral entrance, but it drafted incredibly well. I never had problems with getting smoked out. sometimes, it might hang at the ceiling if the air was heavy out, but mostly, it just rose right up and blew away!

Here she is in the snow.   I stayed in this shelter all winter except for two nights. It was forecast negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit with 38 mile per hour winds. I wasn’t willing to risk our lives on the shelter, especially with the winds, so I loaded up my kitties and we moved down to the office for a couple nights. Otherwise, with a small fire, the shelter worked even without debris walls and that was to a temperature of negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

I found, since I only used small wood and didn’t keep the fire going for the night, that the shelter got down to about 3 degrees warmer than it was outside. So it was cold until you got a fire going, and I had some problems with water freezing, but those are the lessons you learn to deal with and the fun of living in a shelter. When it rained, I found a few leaks and added thatch over those spots, but it was localized. One really windy rainstorm, however, blew the rain threw the thatch everywhere and everything in the shelter pretty much got wet. So there’s always something to learn!

Here she is after surviving her first winter and enjoying spring and summer.

After the first winter though, I decided to add the debris wall. I added another ring of stakes pounded in, used saplings to wrap for strength and then lined with reed and cattail stalks. The wall was about two feet from the interior wall and ended at the roof, so most the water would flow down the outside.

And then it was time for leaves- lots and lots of leaves. I filled the wall densely with leaves, creating a two foot wall, in addition to the thatch. Needless to say, the shelter was toasty warm the second winter.

I also built a lean-to roofed with debris to help keep some of the rain off my firewood.

My last addition:  a latrine cover. When you have to go out no matter the weather, it’s nice to have a little cover, and in our case, a little privacy, when you need the latrine.

Here she is all winterized and glowing in the moonlight.

I had originally thought I’d only do this wall for winter, but after all the work, I’m not sure I would have taken it down. I moved out in April, so didn’t do it, knowing the whole thing would need to come down when I left. For this environment, I decided the thatch wasn’t the best idea, I should have done debris to start, but it was very interesting for me and for others to see and experience.

And finally, the very sad day when I had to return her to the Earth. I cannot describe the spiritual, emotional and physical connection you have with a shelter you have built and lived in. I couldn’t even tell you how many hours I spent building and modifying this shelter, yet in half a day, she came down and was returned to the Earth. More than a few tears were spilled.

Goodbye to the most wonderful home I ever had. You will always be a part of me.

A snow covered forest

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Winter is the time for Cordage

Living in a shelter with only fire and lamps for lighting, not to mention the short days, winter can be quite dark. Cordage is the perfect skill to work during the winter months. The same is true if you’re living in a house. No matter the weather, you can still sit and make cordage, if you’re lucky, by a nice fireplace!

When things are busier during the other seasons, it’s difficult to find the time to make the cordage you need for projects, construction, bow strings and all the other needs you’ll have for rope and string. In the winter, when you’re not active, you’ll spend much of your time near your fire to keep warm and you might as well keep your hands busy. I always find making cordage rather meditative, so it fits very well with the spiritual and physical quieting of winter.

Ideally, you’ve gathered many materials already, but if not, it’s not too late to get some of the plant fibers such as dogbane, nettles (they’re dry now so there’s no sting) milkweed, or any other plant that grows in your area. You can also get inner bark, even though it’s not the ideal season. Whether you think it’s good or not, try all kinds of things. Some may not be strong, but you don’t always need strong. If you don’t have gathered materials, anything like raffia, jute or corn husks work for practice. If you don’t know how to make cordage, this is a great little video that provides instruction.

Once you’d tried one thing, start experimenting. How strong are the different types of fiber? Don’t be afraid to break a few by pulling as hard as you can. It’s the only way to learn…and better now than when you need it to work. What fibers are strong enough and hold up to the friction of the bow drill? Which fibers would be strong enough with a very thin string for fishing?

One thing you’ll quickly learn is just how long it takes to make usable amounts of cordage. When I finish a piece, I wrap it around a small length of a branch, creating a ball of cordage. I’ll add other pieces as they’re completed. I also keep several sticks with different sizes or strengths of cordage, just like you have rope, string and thread in your house.

Cordage is an important skill. Even in modern living we use lots of string and rope. In primitive living, you’ll use even more. So start twisting and have fun!

Experiment with food storage

One thing people often neglect when considering survival living is food storage and preservation. It all sounds so easy- dry it, smoke it, make containers for it…but each has its own challenges and learning curve. So much depends on the variables of your environment. Dried food doesn’t stay dry if it’s exposed to humidity or liquids, rawhide doesn’t store food well in the same conditions. Pottery is great, but is a whole skill set in itself. So it’s wise not to neglect experimenting with these important skills. Try drying some foods- fruits can be dried in the sun, but greens need the shade. Try smoking some meat on a primitive rack and see the challenges. Some of my biggest have been yellow jackets- especially with turkey jerky. Man, they were relentless. Experiment with temperatures- how well do things store in the cool of the ground? How do you store potatoes so they don’t rot? All fun experiments that can teach us a lot about making the food we’ve gathered at great cost, stay viable until we need it. And finally, there’s the little cooking tip. With no refrigeration, what do you do with leftovers? Well, the photo of my stew is a stew that was started about six weeks ago. It’s never been refrigerated, and I’ve never been sick. The trick? It needs to be brought to a boil every day or two. The cooler the weather, the longer I’ve tested that, but it is definitely fine to eat if boiled every day. Any bacteria that had started to grow are killed each day. If it’s a fatty stew, the fat can also seal out the bacteria from reaching the food. I just add meat every 5-7 days and vegetables every 2-3 days and the it’s fine. It’s also constantly changing so I don’t get bored with it and it tastes great and is very nutritious. So have some fun experimenting with food.

Primitive Weapons vs Guns

One of the book reviews implies that I think guns are bad and only primitive weapons are good. I didn’t explain the reasoning in depth in the story, but it is a good distinction for a survival situation so I thought I’d provide a comparison. First, I don’t believe guns are bad. They can be crucial in hunting and protection. When they become problematic is in a scenario such as in the book. First, guns require bullets and a time will come when you run out. With all primitive weapons- bows, crossbows, atlatls…you can make additional ammunition as they are broken, lost or ruined. As long as there is nature, you will not run out of ammunition. A good compromise is a commercial hand held crossbow. You have the convenience of a “hand gun” but you can replace the darts and string if you have the appropriate skills.

The other critical difference is that guns are loud. If you are in a stealth situation, the firing of a gun will give away your location- and that you have resources. This could put you in more danger- or prevent you from hunting when you need to because of concerns about giving up your location. I also love a story Tom Brown Jr. shared about indigenous people in South America who were provided rifles for hunting monkeys. The hunter shot a monkey and immediately returned the gun. The European didn’t understand why- saying, “it’s great, you got the monkey.” The indigenous man replied, “with bows we would have gotten many monkeys. The gun was so loud it scared all the others away.”

So I have no moral problems with guns. i just believe that in a wilderness survival situation as described in the book, guns would be an unnecessary liability for those with the skills to make and use primitive weapons. With no more practice than it takes to effectively use a gun, you can learn to hunt with a primitive weapon. With a bit more work you can learn to make your own so you are never left feeling unarmed.