On Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my upcoming book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which was released this week. This post is a tribute to Kate NaDeau, who introduced me to wabi-sabi many years ago.
I met Kate NaDeau more than a decade ago, when I went to check out Stone Soup Farm, her 26-acre farm on a south-facing hillside in Monroe, Maine. I was immediately drawn to Kate’s hand-built stone cottage, comfortable and worn décor, and seasonal lifestyle. When I asked her about a rusty grate hanging on the wall, Kate said, “Oh, that. That’s just wabi-sabi.” Kate launched me on a journey to learn more about this Japanese concept, which finds beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent and aged. Her home is wabi-sabi at its finest.
Inspired by back-to-the-land pioneers Scott and Helen Nearing, Kate and her former husband, Phil, spent five years building a stone house using a slip-form method of construction with elements of Japanese architecture. The 1,500-square-foot home is bermed into the hillside to the north and open to the south to take in passive solar gain. “Passive solar is so wonderful—working with the climate instead of trying to fight it—bringing in some kind of harmony, working with the elements,” Kate says.
Kate and Phil hand-dug 4-foot-deep trenches for the home’s foundation and gathered flat stones from the woods and fields nearby. (Some visitors to the farm, hearing they needed flat stones, hauled in loads of them.) Kate and Phil mixed cement in wheelbarrows and built wooden forms that held the cement while it set around the stones. Inside, they attached insulation, plastic vapor barriers and pine walls to two-by-fours inserted into the 6-foot-high stone walls; trimmed out a second-story bedroom using fir two-by-fours and topped the structure with a double metal roof. “The construction was spread over five years because we were paying as we went,” Kate says. “But the advantage is that you really get to know the land—where you spend time, where the sun comes up at different times of the year. There’s something to be said for going slow—which is very different from the way people in this country do things.”
From the large overhead beams for drying herbs and flowers to the greenhouse attached to the west side, the home was designed to accommodate agrarian ways. “I live a strongly seasonal lifestyle,” says Kate, who now lives alone. “The weather is ever changing, and farm-related activities are so different. So my home’s areas of use are very seasonal.”
In winter, the low sun streams into Kate’s denlike dining room and living area, providing heat that she supplements with a fire in the early evening. “Burning wood is a winter activity that I love, a gentle way of keeping things going—getting a couple of armloads of wood each day, keeping ahead of the storms,” she says. In spring and summer, Kate basks in the sun on the 15-by-20- foot wooden deck on the home’s south side and serves tea or picnics on the covered terrace attached to her workshop. She loves to catch the sunrise on the eastern porch. “Because summer’s such an expansive time, I really use that outdoor space much more,” she says.
Before she moved to Maine from California, Kate had grown a few tomato and basil plants but had no real experience with a large-scale garden. Yet she doesn’t consider the terraced masterpiece she’s created on the steep, sunny hillside such a big deal. “This isn’t rocket science,” she says. “I read the Nearings and other books, but it’s mainly a matter of just doing it, learning from your mistakes, trying and trying and trying. It always seems to be a good year for something or a bad year for something. Some pest is eating this and this, but you get the bounty in something else. When you look at the big picture, it all seems to work out okay.”
Shortly after the family moved to the site, which they dubbed Stone Soup Farm after the inspirational folktale, Kate began selling vegetables, flowers, and herb vinegars at a farmers market in nearby Belfast. She now gives workshops on using herbs and runs a small shop on the property that sells plants, herbal crafts and other garden-related products. One of her personal highlights was selling a perennial to the late Helen Nearing. “Here was someone I’ve so respected, who so influenced me and the way I’ve done things,” Kate says. “It just felt like a complete circle.”
If you’re in the area this summer, stop by and say hello to Kate at Stone Soup Farm, 156 Red Barn Road in Monroe, Maine. For information, call (207) 525-4463.
Kate loves to eat breakfast and watch the sun rise from the porch on the home’s east side. She often spends summer afternoons bundling herbs on the porch swing. Photo by Carolyn Bates
Kate’s collection of vintage tools, appliances and other decor create a wabi-sabi atmosphere. Kate uses the woodstove for baking, but in summer it doubles as counter space for her many garden-related projects. Photo by Carolyn Bates
A yard sale find, this chair is another example of an item that Kate loves for its “patina.” She spends winter afternoons reading seed catalogs and gardening-related books. Photo by Carolyn Bates
A window from an old California bungalow made its way to Kate’s kitchen door in Maine to remind her of her roots. Kate chose open shelving in her kitchen as a nod to old farmhouses. “I love to get access and see things—jars, dishes,” she says. “That harkens back to the farm mentality and peasant living; you have what you have, and it’s there.” Photo by Carolyn Bates
A brick floor in the dining area absorbs passive solar gain. Kate’s greenhouse is through the wood door. Photo by Carolyn Bates
Kate bought the Amity woodstove (the company’s now out of business) in the early 1980s, when high oil prices were forcing many people to seek out heating alternatives. “I love the aesthetics of it, the pattern on the front,” she says. The chimneys from the woodstove and the kitchen cookstove are encased in a massive interior stone wall; the radiant heat from the wall warms the upstairs room. In winter, the sun reaches almost to the back northern wall; Kate uses only four cords of wood each year to keep the home toasty. Photo by Carolyn Bates
Kate designed organically shaped beds that undulate through the terraced hillside, planted with evergreens, shrubs and perennials. She built up the thin soil by growing cover crops such as buckwheat and winter rye then tilling them into the soil as green manure. Photo by Carolyn Bates
An echinacea fan, Kate leaves the heads on the coneflowers bordering her expansive southern deck so that they attract birds all winter long. The birds also help strew seeds that pop up come spring. During the summer Kate leaves flavored vinegars—here, opal basil gives the jars a deep red glow—on the big southern-facing deck to steep in the sun for a few weeks. Photo by Carolyn Bates
The stone walls extend 6 feet high, and the second story was constructed from fir two-by-fours. Kate made the signs declaring the property’s name, Stone Soup Farm. “Because we didn’t have a big construction and building budget, we made a lot of choices that had to do with what we had at the time,” Kate explains. “It was a lot like that great old folk story: a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but making it all out of stone.” Photo by Carolyn Bates
Kate gathers statice and winged everlasting for making dried bouquets and wreaths, a fall and winter activity. Photo by Carolyn Bates
On Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, released last month. (Today, because of technical difficulties, I'm making it Wabi Thursday.)
“A luxurious house and the taste of delicacies are only pleasures of the mundane world. It is enough if the house does not leak and the food keeps hunger away. This is the teaching of the Buddha—the true meaning of Tea.”—Tea Master Sen no Rikyu
In wabi-sabi conversations, this word authentic pops up. Everyone, from authenticity snobs who like certificates to Eastern religion seekers who hold authenticity in a completely different realm, has a different idea about what it means. For the purpose of this conversation, I’m defining an authentic wabi-sabi home as one that feels right, without pretense or compromise.
Homemakers in the Depression era knew wabi-sabi (even if they never uttered the phrase). In their homes, things were patched and mended but scrubbed and clean, handmade or chosen and paid for with care. Their linens may have been thin from many washings, but they were crisply white from lemon-juice treatments. Floors may have shown the wear of many feet, but they were swept clean and warmed up with a rug that had faded gracefully from brilliant red to pale rose. Wood had scratches, but it was polished to show off its grain. For those indoctrinated to believe that anything less than perfect should be replaced, our ancestors’ hands-on frugality is enlightening—welcome respite in our prosperous age of planned obsolescence.
Madeleine Cenac’s Louisiana kitchen is welcoming and wabi-sabi. Photo by Philip Gould
In a wabi-sabi home, possessions are pared down, and pared down again, to those that are necessary for their utility or beauty (ideally, both). What makes the cut? Useful things: the hand-crank eggbeaters from the flea market that work as well and with much less hassle than electric ones. Things that resonate with the spirit of their makers’ hands and hearts: a handmade chair, a six-year-old’s lumpy pottery, a lumpy sheep’s wool afghan. Pieces of history: sepia-toned ancestral photos, baby shoes, a set of dog-eared Nancy Drew mysteries.
Wabi-sabi interiors are muted, dimly lit and shadowy—giving the rooms an enveloping, womblike feeling—with natural materials that are vulnerable to weathering, warping, shrinking, cracking, and peeling. The wabi-sabi palette, limited to browns, blacks, grays, earthy greens and rusts, implies a lack of freedom but actually offers the ultimate creative opportunity. In Japan, kimonos come in 100 shades of gray.
Eighteenth-century painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin captured wabi-sabi light, color and mood in his domestic still life paintings.
Non-biodegradable plastic bags take hundreds to thousands of years to break down in landfills. Americans toss billions of plastic shopping bags every year, putting tons of toxic chemicals into the trash—and into the environment. Progressive communities are discouraging shoppers from relying on the bags by placing fees on their use—but, sadly, Seattle won’t be among them. Last month Seattle voters rejected a proposal for a 20-cent fee on plastic bags.
Plastic bags can pile up in your home—or in the landfill. Photo By evelynishere/Courtesy Flickr.
Had the fee been approved, it would have instituted a 20-cent charge per disposable (paper or plastic) bag at grocery, drug and convenience stores, encouraging consumers to bring reusable bags. Small businesses (those that receive less than $1 million a year in revenue) would have been allowed to keep the entire 20 cents, while bigger businesses would have kept 5 cents. The remainder would have gone to Seattle Public Utilities to maintain the program and to provide free reusable bags to low-income families.
The race may have come down to money. The anti-fee side, which included the American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and other major plastic bag producers, raised $1.4 million for its campaign, while the pro-bag side raised only $80,000.
The good news? Other cities in the United States and across the globe have implemented fees on plastic bags or banned them altogether. In January, China banned all shops from providing customers with free plastic bags. Plastic bag use is already down 66 percent, eliminating 40 billion bags total. Ireland’s PlasTax campaign in 2002, which created a 33-cent tax on plastic bags, reduced Ireland’s plastic bag use by 94 percent. In the United States, San Francisco and Oakland, California, banned large retailers from providing non-biodegradable plastic bags.
Even if your home city hasn’t banned the use of plastic bags, make a statement by carrying reusable bags. Use the plastic bags you do have for fun crafts projects: Try making a quirky lunch tote or check out Craftzine for more plastic bag craft projects.
Yesterday was the first day of summer, and homeowners in many regions are already feeling the scorching summer temperatures and are cranking up their air conditioning units.
Summer is a great time for an energy audit. Leaky windows, inefficient lighting, poor insulation and inefficient cooling keep your energy bills sky-high. If you haven’t performed (or hired someone to perform) a summer energy audit, you can do it yourself, or in many cases public utility companies offer free or low-cost audits.
Incandescent light bulbs emit heat and use more electricity than efficient lighting—in fact, 90 percent of the energy used by a standard light bulb is given off as heat. Although that heat is minimal, it could cause you to crank the AC down a few degrees, which could lead to an energy-spending spree. Energy-efficient lighting options include light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which don’t emit nearly as much heat. These choices (especially LEDs) can be more expensive, but they last longer than traditional bulb. Their longer lives and reduced energy use can make up the cost difference.
Poorly insulated pipes and walls also contribute to energy loss. In 2005 a study estimated that 65 percent of the homes in the United States had poor insulation. When installing insulation, opt for one with a high R-value. You can determine R-value by multiplying the insulation’s by the number of inches installed.
Check your insulation when you perform your summer energy audit. Photo by thingermejig/Courtesy Flickr
Find air leaks near older windows, electrical outlets, baseboards, fireplaces, pipes, mail slots, foundation and doors. By minimizing drafts, you could reduce energy savings 5 to 30 percent annually. Single-pane and other inefficient windows usually result in lots of energy loss; changing out old windows for double-pane, energy-efficient ones can save money and energy.
Inefficient air conditioning units can also result in energy loss if not maintained well. Clean filters once a month or every other month, depending on use. Typically, cleaner equipment runs more efficiently. Replace filters as needed, especially if you use it frequently.
With all the money you can save by simply tightening up your home and doing a little maintenance, you can enjoy summer even more.
Tom Newmark is a man on an admirable mission. The executive chairman of New Chapter whole food supplements told me this morning that he won’t rest until he’s helped to establish 10,000 Sacred Seeds Sanctuaries—living gardens devoted to propagating and nurturing endangered plant species—in life zones around the world. He came one step closer to his goal this week with the establishment of a sanctuary in Hosagunda, a 600-acre sacred grove in southern India where hundreds of medicinal herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine will be reintroduced into their natural habitat. “This is a spectacular expansion of sacred seeds and sacred knowledge in a sacred forest,” he told me.
I had the opportunity to tour the charter Sacred Seeds Sanctuary in January when I visited Finca Luna Nueva, a sustainable eco-resort and organic biodynamic farm that New Chapter owns in San Ramon, Costa Rica. In 2004, Tom; his partner, Paul Schulik, and Finca Luna Nueva general manager Steven Farrell established the 2-acre garden, which is home to more than 300 species, as a dynamic laboratory and observatory where scientists can understand how plants are responding to climate change—and help nurture them through the worst. “Half of all plant species come from this narrow band around the center of the earth that we call the Tropics,” Tom said. “The Tropics never freeze, so what does it do to a seed when it’s frozen for 50 years? No one knows. It’s a tremendous risk.”
For Tom and his partners, access to the indigenous wisdom behind using plants for medicine, food and fiber is as important as access to the plants themselves. As one language goes extinct every two minutes, he pointed out, we’re racing against the clock to preserve this knowledge.
“We think it’s important to have a place where we can actually grow plants and engage with shamans, healers and grandmothers—where we can be constantly propagating plants and interacting with the custodians of the knowledge about them,” Tom explained to me yesterday. “We’ve pulled together all these plants that are so important to the Neotropics, and we’re seeing how they adapt to the changing climate. We’re allowing the power of evolution to guide gardens and plants as they are adapting to climate change.”
Sacred Seeds Sanctuaries are a living counterpart to seed banks, which store seeds in a frozen vault. “Seed banks are a very Western, one-size-fits-all, high-tech response to what is ultimately the most chaotic and dynamic thing we’ve ever experienced,” Tom said. “Ours is a living, breathing experiment in promoting life on the planet—a kind of Noah’s Ark for plants.”
Seed sanctuaries have now been established in Madagascar and Peru and in the United States at the Missouri Botanic Garden, Bastyr University in Washington, the Rodale Institute in Pennyslvania and the American Botanical Council in Texas. That’s encouraging, Tom said, but he can’t rest yet.
“Because of overharvesting, inappropriate wildcrafting and loss of habitat, the entire herbal pharmacopeia is threatened,” he said. “As many as 25 percent of medicinal herbs are under immediate threat of extinction. What would have happened if rosy periwinkle had disappeared before they discovered how to make leukemia drugs from it? So far we have studied an estimated 2 to 5 percent of the plants we know of for pharmacological and healing properties.” Half of all modern drugs were inspired by medicinal plants.
Listening to Tom, I understood the urgency behind his efforts. He said he would see 10,000 seed sanctuaries established in his lifetime—even if he had to live to be 200. “This is a very resilient ecosystem,” he said. “Planetary resources can recover if you engage in appropriate dialogue. If we listen to what the ecology and the fields are telling us, we can repair the planet.”
Datura is one of the 300 plant species in Finca Luna Nueva's Sacred Seeds Sanctuary. Photo by Barbara Bourne
Affordable shelter for everyone is the goal of Michael Katz’s L41 home, built from expandable, stackable 220-square-foot studio modules. “The major objective of the L41 home is to play a part in mass-producing houses that are so affordable that, before the end of this century, all the people in the world can have proper shelter,” the Vancouver, British Columbia-based architect says in the March/April issue of Natural Home magazine. “Affordability, mass production, quality, high design and sustainability is the L41 home manifesto.”
Katz’s energy-efficient homes can stand alone or be stacked and combined for multi- family dwellings. Artist Janet Come co-developed the homes with Katz to ensure a design that’s “delightful, livable, even downright luxurious,” Katz says. Katz plans to have the units on the market this summer. Though prices are being finalized, he says studio models will cost less than $60,000.
Expandable, stackable cubes are the basis of the L41.
• The L41 generates and stores solar electricity on-site through photovoltaic and solar thermal heating and cooling cells on its green roof.
• The home’s main construction material, cross-laminated timber, is made by laminating and gluing beetle-kill pine (literally pine trees killed by beetles) under high pressure into panels strong enough to substitute for concrete. Katz says in British Columbia alone, more than 35 billion cubic feet of beetle-kill trees—enough to build 100 million L41 units—are available.
• Curable, waterproof zinc panels require less energy to produce than most other metals and are often made with recycled material.
• When possible (based on location), geothermal heating and cooling systems will keep homes comfortable year-round.
• Radiant coils in the ceiling provide heat. A heat-recovery ventilator keeps air fresh and improves efficiency.
• The kitchen includes a two-element induction cooktop with a slide-out mini overhead fan, a convection oven that doubles as a microwave, a Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer tucked below the counter, and an Asko washer/dryer single unit.
After years of living in a 1948 Dodge school bus and roaming the country for six years in his van, Greg Miller has settled comfortably into an 816-square-foot condo in Boulder, Colorado—but he finds all that space excessive.
“This is the first normal place I’ve lived in,” Greg says, and sometimes he’s overwhelmed by all that square footage. “All we really need is a place that’s dry and warm—the basics. You can’t be in more than one room at a time. So why have more than one room?”
Greg spent three years transforming his unassuming condo, just blocks from Boulder’s lively farmer’s market and Pearl Street Mall and within walking distance of hiking, transportation and entertainment, basing his plans on what salvaged materials he had found. He improved the home’s storage and flow, beefed up its energy efficiency and brought in more natural light and decorated with furniture from local thrift stores and Dumpsters. “It makes me feel good that I did all the energy things I could do,” Greg says. “If everybody took care of their own stuff as far as how they live, that’s really all it would take for the whole system to be more efficient.”
Greg hasn’t lost his urge to hit the road, despite his beautiful space. Now considering his next adventure, he has also completed renovations on his van—where he experimented with and incorporated tons of great storage and space-saving ideas (many of which showed up in his condo). You can check out his super-efficient home on wheels in this video. (I’d live in it. Would you?)
The condo’s south-facing deck is home to an abundance of potted plants, which Greg refers to as his “family.” He can harvest kale well into October in the sheltered, sunny spot. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison
Sustainably harvested cabinets, LED under-counter lights and recycled glass tile give the galley kitchen a fresh, updated air. Greg opened up a wall to bring in light from the hallway. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison
In his office, Greg installed a cork floor and built a sleeping/meditation loft using reclaimed cedar, redwood and oak. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison
Greg’s south-facing living room is bathed in light all day long. He found his furniture in thrift stores and Dumpsters. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison