Landing on earth (Part I of II)

Yoga posture for the day: Hand at the Wheel Pose
Full slideshow of photos from the day

The Earthships and the Hummingbird community in one day seem like almost too much to cover! Both were such unique experiences, filled with expanded perspectives and possibilities. As such, I will cover the Earthships in this post, and Hummingbird in greater detail in “Landing on Earth Part II”.

Door to the Earthship Visitor Center

First off, the Earthships. If you haven’t heard of him, the creator of the Earthship concept, Michael Reynolds, is the subject of the documentary “Garbage Warrior“. This guy is a true pioneer in salvaged material design, and he is helping to build sustainable homes across the world out of mud, old tires, and empty beer cans (presumably only some drunk by crew on site – I mean, how could you resist?). His work spans from the Andaman Sea, where he flew with an expert Earthship crew to assist with post-tsunami reconstruction efforts, to Haiti, helping rebuild in the wake of the earthquake and infrastructure collapse in Port au Prince.

Earthship under construction

Earthships are an incredible cross-section of sustainable practices, all interconnected and supporting one another. To begin with, the mud-packed tires that form the load-bearing frame of these homes have an incredible capacity for storing temperature and buffering temperature changes, keeping Earthships cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. This creates an internal climate where plants can thrive and food can be grown throughout the year. Food growth is further supported by the intelligent placement of angled, South-facing windows (meant to maximize sun in the winter, and limit it in the summer), and advanced technological systems that created a closed water loop to recycle water and sustain the plants. Rainwater is harvested from the roof, while graywater and blackwater are pumped through gravel and garden beds, feeding the plants, and purifying the water for later use. The resource loop is then further closed through the use of sustainable energy sources, such as wind turbines, solar panels, and passive solar heating.

South-facing windows

There are backup gas systems in place to supplement energy needs, and while not all Earthships are designed wholly with sustainable materials, the point is that they get pretty gosh darn close. With a little guidance, they seem to be the sort of homes that many people could build for themselves.

Life at the Earthship Community

They are intriguing and inspiring creations, and yet I have to admit that there is a part of me that viscerally resists the Earthships; part of me that still feels drawn to the comforts and designs of the traditional homes and neighborhoods I grew up in: the wood, the brick, the carpeting, the concrete foundations, the asphalt driveways and green lawns. I realize that I still have preconceptions about “trash” and what a house says about one’s relative prosperity, and they’re preconceptions I know I need to continue working on for myself. Deep down, I know that the Earthship concept makes more sense than the unsustainable homes we are designing today, and that Earthships represent the intelligent beginnings of an evolution towards sustainable living: an inspiring marriage of waste reclamation, sustainable building, and cutting edge technologies.

Harvesting Rainwater

Our visit to the Earthships was also a testament to the difficulty such innovative programs face in our increasingly restrictive society. I get the sense that, thirty years ago, Michael Reynolds and other Earthship architects like him came out to New Mexico wanting only to explore and experiment with the dream of sustainable housing. They weren’t thinking about building codes, or liabilities, or lawsuits – they were looking to conduct research into new architectural frontiers. Besides the many trials of perfecting their design, they have faced an ongoing battle with building codes across the States, and most recently, have been harangued by lawsuits from people building their own homes incorrectly, as well as visitors to their New Mexico community who have injured themselves on the premises.

When we arrived at the Earthship visitor center, we were a half an hour early, and we asked one of the folks walking by if we could explore the surrounding facilities. The lady whose attention we grabbed seemed very hesitant, and asked that we simply stay put or go explore the gorge until the tours were ready. It was only later we found out that only a few weeks prior, someone walking into the visitors center had fallen and injured their hip, and had decided to sue Michael Reynolds and the Earthship team for $70,000.

Looking out over the land

I’m not sure if it’s a testament to how easily our legal system can be abused, or how absurdly high our medical costs are. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I can understand why someone might feel compelled to talk to a lawyer when faced with a $35,000 medical bill they couldn’t afford. Either way, the Earthship team hadn’t ever needed a waiver in the past, and now everyone passing through the Earthship community is restricted in their movements because of this lawsuit.

Knowing that the rules had become a bit more stringent, I figured our only way to get a real behind the scenes look was to find someone we could tag along with and help during our time there. As luck would have it, just as we were about to go find an epic spot along the gorge for our morning Yoga, we noticed a gal hauling buckets out of her truck. After helping her carry a few buckets of coffee grounds to the compost piles, we chatted with her about her history with Earthships, and learned that her name was Michelle. Upon hearing about our trip and our enthusiasm about growing food, she agreed to let us help her for an hour or so after our tour, turning compost in exchange for learning a bit more about the Earthship community.

Me and Michelle

While the tour itself was fairly straightforward, getting out and getting our hands dirty was wonderful. I feel like we learned more talking to Michelle than we did during the entirety of our self-guided tour through the visitor center, from how to create a blackwater treatment system, to how to plant trees in arid climates with little to no soil present. She had a wonderful Australian accent with just a hint of German (it may be that I am completely off – apologies if so!), and it was easy to listen to as she took a deep dive into the work she had done. Despite the heavy lifting, and Than swinging a machete to break up the thick tendrils of a tomato plant, no injuries occurred, and no lawsuits were registered.

Than w/Machete

Working the compost

The Earthships are definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in Northern New Mexico, and they’re definitely worth some further thought either way. All else aside, do you think you could live in a home built out of mud, tires, and old discarded beer cans? What if it had an HD TV? Where would the balance be struck for you between the homes we know, and the homes we may need going forward?

If you made it to the end of this post, I admire you,

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