Building a straw-bale house - and a new life - among Central Otago's hills

by North & South / 09 July, 2017
Jillian Sullivan: “Finding a home is more about finding a place where you can be who you believe you are.”

How Jillian Sullivan built a straw-bale house – and a new life – in Oturehua, Central Otago.

Late autumn, and once again it’s time for the firewood we gathered through summer – jaunts across the paddock to the old willows, cracked and split in storms, for the branches they delivered on top of fence lines and into the damp gullies. Fire crackles and brightens the room at night, though in Auckland, perhaps, warm weather still rules. Here, the wind presses up to the windows, whoos and blusters around the house. The clouds foretell a time soon to come when snow will lie on the hills and rocks, and if the wind is from the north, on my boots on the verandah and the twigs for the fire.

Before my first big snowfall here, the locals had checked with me – “Are you ready for the storm?” “Yes,” I said, but I’d shifted down from Motueka and didn’t know the power of cold. On the first morning, the council snowplough half buried my car, which I’d left parked on the side of the road. Snow lay half a metre thick over my unprotected firewood pile. In the village, gutters collapsed under the weight of it, and in the hills, farmers and volunteers, helicoptered to the tops, tramped pathways in a chain to bring the sheep down to safety.

To live here is to come to terms with the dominance of nature. When the storm-snow melted, the Ida Burn stream on my boundary thrashed and swirled over its banks. My paddocks, from the first ditch to the neighbour’s hill, became one writhing stretch of water. When it was over, there were new grey shapes by the trees; sifted sand delivered by the flood. I took Roman architect Vitruvius’s words to heart: “Where there is no pit sand, we must use the kinds washed up by rivers or by the sea,” he wrote more than 2000 years ago, “... and other problems we must solve in similar ways.”

Buckets of sand, carried from the stream, became part of the last coat of earth plaster on the house (one part sand, one part clay, one part straw, one part water, half a part sawdust). Rubbed on by hand, baked by sun, it became a thick, undulating shell protecting the straw walls from rain.

I didn’t know what vernacular architecture was when I drew sketches for my straw-bale home. I’ve since come to understand it’s the architecture that arises from place. It fits the weather, the landscape, the culture, the materials, and is often built with community help.

Graeme Male gets ready to ratchet the straw.

The goldminers and farmers who first came to this tussock-covered valley built with rock and earth and limestone. If there was timber to be had for floors and ceilings, it came from the ships that brought the pioneers here. The straw-bale house echoes the high-pitched roofs of the early cottages. The straw for my house came from a farm near Gore, the clay from a site 30 minutes up the valley, the lime from a quarry over the Pigroot, an hour away. The milk for the lime wash came in buckets from a farm across Rough Ridge in Gimmerburn, fetched one foggy morning when the mist made dark shapes of the cows and the gravel road curved into cloud.

In fact, straw-bale building came out of a vernacular tradition. When the baling machine was invented in 1820, the people of Nebraska, who lived where there were insufficient trees to provide timber, turned to what was available locally – bales of straw – and began to build with those, incorporating the new structure of bales into the age-old method of using straw and mud to build shelter.

But it’s not only in history we built our own houses. UK architectural historian Paul Oliver wrote in 2003 that vernacular dwellings, built by owners and inhabitants using locally available resources, are presently believed to constitute about 90 per cent of the world’s total housing stock. It is essential, Oliver wrote, that vernacular traditions are supported, to address our global shortage of housing.

Bring on the earth, the straw and the grandmothers, I say.

The people who helped build my house came from across New Zealand, and also from right here; from next door, from up the road, from the next valley. When they walk in, the hints of their handprints are still in the walls. They know this house, from the scent of golden stalks to the acid cream of lime. Their kindness and strength is in this house, their mortality and mine in the walls, which will continue beyond us, like the rock walls half formed into the sides of hills, the uncapped mud huts, the chimneys beside the Manuherikia – all testament to the people who arrived and shaped a dwelling for themselves and their neighbours.

In the days after my marriage ended, before my shift to Central Otago and all that ensued, I’d thought of American mythologist Joseph Campbell’s quote, that life is an unremitting series of deaths and births. Old life gone. New life begins. Campbell spoke of the journey a hero must make – the quest, which is chosen, or the path the reluctant hero must find. But how? And where?

Sullivan on the top scaffold, west wall.

Choosing

(for Nick and Bex)

How do you know

which hills and sky and water

will be your home,

the place where you long to return?

 

There’s the unexpected beauty of light

in city structures on a lengthening night

beside the sea,

the dark of furrowed loam,

an alabaster cottage, sheen of calm tide

through a wheelhouse window.

 

What of a river? Under the resilient arms

of willows, whatever the water says

over brown and shining stones,

you’ll know if it is meant for you.

 

How do you choose

which rocks and trees and soil

will be your own?

 

Sometimes just by standing still

there with your feet on earth where you have landed

you’ll feel the way two cogs within you

settle into unison,

power your heart, gain traction.

 

And when a bird lifts in the sky above you

something in your own heart

flings forward with a gust of joy,

the way a hawk soars, wingfeathers fanned

riding the currents of desire

in a wide blue territory of sky.

Sullivan on the top scaffold, west wall.

I saw the Ida Burn from a bridge first; a coppery, shining pathway bounded by trees. There’d been nothing to tell me the swampy piece of land for sale beside the main road had anything of such beauty. Only a scrawl of willows along the far boundary. The Ida Burn – it flows down the Ida Valley and, uniquely, is met by a stream flowing from the opposite direction, the Poolburn. Joined, it heads through the Poolburn Gorge, between the Raggedy Range and Blackstone Hill, where viaducts rise and rail tunnels lead cyclists into the dark of the land and out again.

I’d looked for a piece of land with running water because for 17 years in Motueka, I’d lived beside the sea. The light on water and the call of seabirds had been a constant solace to me. And when your life takes a sudden turn, it’s the thread of things that can lead you through.

Starting over – we think we did that when we first left home, aged 18 and a future yet to be shaped. If we were lucky we already had some sense of a thread, like Ariadne’s string, that we followed. A catch in the throat – ah – this is where I want to be, who I am, who I love.

Aged 55, deposited on the shore once again of the childless, partnerless, soon to be homeless. This time round I was facing it all with hair going grey, body stiffer, and a numb sense of hopelessness.

“Never let yourself be bitter,” friend and writer Joy Cowley reminded me. I took that piece of advice as if it was timber redefining my boundaries.

Loss. It comes to us in many ways. Comes silently, suddenly, or sometimes as if it is the last piece of jigsaw put into place. There, and now it’s time to go. Change is something else, though it has the same outcome. One is chosen, the other not. Yet there you are, walking into the unknown. And something in us arises to face it.

But why did you come here, people asked me: a young farmer at the pub, or a farmer’s wife – farmer herself, seeing to the lambing beat and three children while her husband was overseas.

“Because of the hills,” I’d say.

When all else fails, the light on the hills is unfailing; the ridges outlined in gold at sunset, and in the morning the folds and gullies blue, almost transparent, as the sun rises.

Land is cheaper here, too, because, as one traveller put it, sitting in the local cafe with a very good coffee, “I’m in the middle of nowhere.”

Work boots caught in a storm.“To live here is to come to terms with the dominance of nature.”

Yet nowhere is always somewhere – to the hawks cruising the thermals above the Ida Burn, to the stolid Hereford crosses munching the ryegrass and timothy, oblivious to the rain. To the farmers bringing in an unexpected third crop of lucerne after the wet spring. And to the new people who find this valley, who find any valley in the middle of nowhere, that offers respite from a broken life, or from that dull and awkward feeling that perhaps there is more to life – and perhaps it is here, with the sparrows thriving in the willows, the blue heron an arrow gliding towards the pond and the light changing on the rocky tors. Everywhere is a reminder we are only a part of this world, not its dominator, and privileged to be here.

“And to be near my grandchildren,” I say.

Oh, family then. “Where are they?”

“Queenstown.”

And then the snort – as if I’d thought Queenstown, with its ragged, mystical mountains, thronging streets, traffic maelstroms and art galleries open till almost midnight, was close by. It’s another country to this village of approximately 29 people.

Most likely many don’t know of Oturehua, here on the high alpine plain on the old goldmining route to Dunedin.

A Christchurch writer, coming to stay for the first time, felt lost on the long stretch of the Ida Valley Road heading towards the Hawkdun Mountains. She stopped at Poolburn Pub, 15km down the valley from the village, and asked where Oturehua was. The people in the bar shrugged. “Where the poet Brian Turner lives,” she said. But they hadn’t heard of him, either. It was a shearing gang, we worked out later, unfamiliar with the people or places here, but at the time it only reinforced her sense of isolation.

“Oturehua?” she said again. But perhaps if she’d said “Turi”, like some of the locals do.

Once there were mainly farmers here, and truck drivers. People who were born here, or nearby. And now on a Friday night at the pub, having a pint alongside those who work on the land, are imports from Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Tauranga, Dunedin, Motueka. The publican brings us out free trays of garlic prawns or chips or pizza. Rail trailers might join us, too. “Where have you come from?” we ask – meaning Omakau or Wedderburn by bike, and also, which land do you call home? And if it’s fine in the west, from the bar we can watch the Hawkduns glow tangerine with the setting sun.

After the first coat of earth plaster, with the Hawkduns in the distance.

The middle of nowhere

We take a picnic of peanut butter sandwiches,

a bottle of water and a stick, begin

 

the trek along the stream’s

fractured edge, the water rushy

 

in places it didn’t used to be,

how everything changes after rain.

 

Beneath the twig willows,

the snow melt water sings.

 

Grandma, do you live

in the middle of nowhere?

 

No, wherever you are

is the centre of someone’s life.

 

Around each secret curve

a ripple of sky and cloud.

 

There is slime on the stones,

long strands of green flowing under glass,

 

as if this is how streams are,

showy with nitrates and waste.

 

We can only imagine how water would live

if irrigators hadn’t flung the river’s heart

 

on grass, or beasts hadn’t strayed beyond trees,

and we’d only ever approached beguiled,

 

like a three year old –

entranced with light and air.

Starry, starry night, Oturehua.

Hammering in nails. I didn’t know I would like it so much. Hour after hour, only thinking of that one silvered point, and the rise and fall of my arm.

“The proper business of living is to enjoy life. To enjoy, to charge with joy.” I read that last week in a book of my grandfather’s, I Say Sunrise, by Talbot Mundy. He wrote that in 1940, referencing Samuel Butler: “All of the animals, excepting man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.”

Hammering in nails, charged with joy. I felt it too when we drove up to the building site, and I climbed out in my work boots and jeans and buckled on my tool belt. We lifted out the heavy drop saw, then my son-in-law Sam Deavoll turned the music on, the sun already up over Mt Ida, and a whole day of building ahead of us.

Seven grandmothers helped in the building of my house. And four poets. Four artists. A magician, a Harley biker, a finance manager. Only one other person apart from Sam knew how to build with straw (Pat Shuker, one of the grandmothers) and she was 73. You only need one builder.

“But why would you go and help someone you don’t know?” one of Pat’s friends had asked her.

“I can’t have my own dream of a straw-bale house yet, so I want to help someone else get theirs,” she told them. “That’s what you do, my generation anyway. If someone needs a hand, you get in and help them.”  

Early in the building process, when the walls weren’t in, blue plastic tarpaulins flapped and surged in the wind and the straw bales were stacked seven high in the rooms. I didn’t know how to keep going. Winter was only weeks away. The sky dwarfed the house, and the task of the house dwarfed me. Yet when they were needed, people came.

“The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.” Marilynne Robinson (American essayist and novelist).

The cosy interior of Sullivan’s house, with its lime-washed walls and floors.

When it came to lime plastering – covering over the timber frame, the walls of straw, the earth plaster – this time it was a reckoning between the house and myself. How much had I learnt from Sam about paying attention, about getting it right? How much had I learnt from those who came to help about generosity of time and energy, about not giving up? I climbed the scaffold alone, hauled up buckets of lime plaster by rope, and picked up my hawk and trowel, the concrete mixer rumbling beneath me. I began to lay on the creamy, golden finish. I had faith in the arc of my trowel, the new strength in my arms. The rare joy of plastering, of spreading this simple cloak on mud, the house transformed again. 

To live here is not so different from anywhere else. Finding a home is more about finding a place where you can be who you believe you are. If you take care of that inner need, then the home around you is simply the place that gives you rest, and the people nearby will be the ones who appreciate you. Intrinsic to this is that our communities are places where we can be recognised, acknowledged.

But how to live? It is a problem. And the solutions we come up with, if they line up with our values, then there’s where we’ll find “home”.

I believed I was capable, that we all are capable in some way, of helping build a natural house. I believed our homes were best made from simple, natural, sustainable materials. Out of these beliefs, a straw-bale home. A community in which I belong. And many possibilities to charge with joy.

The cold here unites people. We understand the need for wood. The need for rain unites us. And snow lays its mantle over all. I rise from my desk and go out when flakes begin to fall. Their rapturous descent is still a wonder to me, that vibrance of white on green, and the world of grass and willow forever becoming something other.

Slaking the lime.

With lime wash

rough walls become smooth, luminous.

It’s not so much covering

over, hiding flaws, but a building up of

radiance          and sure, the walls still

curve and dip under your hand,

there’s mud and straw,

you know how things arise –

yet       to walk in and feel

that presence of light

is to know how things

transform.

 

Want is a thing that unfurls unbidden,

Kingsolver says,   but needs

I can think of no other fineness

than to build with earth, brush

light from rock, and there rest

dreaming after a day by clinking

stones, while overhead a pipit

sings.

Central Otago poet and writer Jillian Sullivan’s A Way Home (Potton & Burton, $39.99) charts how she fulfilled a long-held dream of building a straw-bale house – and found a place to call home.

 This was published in the June 2017 issue of North & South.


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