The Last Straw: A Straw Bale Home Built With Native American Wisdom

Solar energy and natural materials make this artist's home an inspired hideaway.

| May/June 1999

Stillness. Serenity. Sanctuary. These sensations whisper to your soul as you cross the threshold of Noël Bennett’s sophisticated straw-bale home, a veritable haven nestled in the Vallecitos de los Indios Basin in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. Once home to the Anasazi, whose over 1,500 ruins punctuate this Little Valley of the Indians, the sacred land has been lovingly preserved and honored by Bennett and her late husband Jim Wakeman, who together created a home that celebrates the environment and their partnershipn with it.

Cradled in a bell-shaped basin in the shadow of Redondo Peak, the Sacred Mountain of the West to many Native American tribes, the south-facing structure is surrounded by 200,000 acres of untamed national forest land. It faces a meadow awash in grama grass, evening primrose, penstemon, and skyrocket. And a small river runs through it. It is here that the U-shaped structure “opens its arms to the sun,” says Bennett, nationally renowned artist and author.

Native American wisdom 

The straw-bale sanctuary is not only set like a jewel in this pristine setting, it’s a shining example of h¸ózhó, the Navajo philosophy of harmony and balance. “In Navajo way, h¸ózhó is beauty, blessing, balance, and order—a convergence of opposites, unity from ­duality,” says Bennett.

She embraced this philosophy during her eight-year stay on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Arriving there in 1968 with advanced degrees in art and education from Stanford University, she immersed herself in Native American culture, learning the ways and weavings of the Navajo people. “Together we sheared the sheep, collected plants to dye the wool, carded, spun, and wove,” says Bennett. The artist has shared these gifts through her many books and lectures around the world.

The h¸ózhó theme is evident in and throughout Bennett’s home. Interpreted as a T-shape—symbolically the coming together of one vertical and one horizontal line—h¸ózhó manifests itself in Bennett’s abstract acrylic paintings, in Bennett and Wakeman’s collaborative steel sculptures, and the home’s own post-and-beam construction.

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