QUEEN of the
Netonia Yalte is an unconventional women who builds unconventional homes
BY SUSAN MUSGRAVE
A Wood Rooster, that's how Netonia Yalte, Stackwall Queen of the Queen Charlotte Islands, describes herself. Born in 1945, the Year of the Rooster, she grew up in the Cariboo, but even as a young girl she remembers the Misty Isles, these days known as Haida Gwaii, calling. She was to spend twenty-seven years schooling and labouring in the B.C. and Yukon wilderness, marrying at twenty-three, then, five years later, leaving to wander all across Canada and to eighteen different
countries before ending up on the Islands' shores. She has spent over three decades in this "looking within place". "If you can't look within yourself," she says of the Queen Charlottes, "you don't stick
Twelve years ago Netonia took a hard look around - she was
isolated, with barely enough money to provide for her three young
children - and forced herself to look even further within. She wanted
out of the rut she'd carved; with rats in her walls and the roof
caving in, she needed, at the very least, a shelter for her family.
She was reading a magazine article, "How to Build Out of Rock",
thinking she'd have to start hefting boulders from the beach, when
her friend came by with a book on alternate house building, called
Netonia sees this, now, as Divine Intervention. Though everything
about her house - on Graham Island's east coast, north of Skidegate -
is divine, it is entirely her own invention. She did every bit of it
herself, from digging a well to falling select trees and excavating the roots to make a clearing. Forty-two pick-up loads of wood and a year and a half of hard labour later (she lost her teeth, she says,
because she never had time to stop and brush them) her 1000-square foot, circular, "hobbit-house" (home for four, room for sixteen) stood, as if it had been lying dormant, waiting for her wish, and had
mushroomed out of the earth at her command.
Genius is not a gift, wrote Jean Paul Sartre, but the way we
invent in desperate situations. Netonia began her career as a builder
of stackwall houses (the preferred name for what Americans call
'cordwood masonry' here at home) out of despair and necessity. She is not an exacting person, she says, and she'd had little practical experience in the world of carpentry, though as a child she was
always building - out of sand, mud and sticks - but when she got pregnant she put up a stick cabin, a frame construction, "more of a lean-to", she adds, after considering. Now, having built, or helped
build, nine picturesque stackwall dwellings, and numerous funky garden walls, she is regarded as an Island treasure, a genius by all definitions.
Carl Jung described a house as an extension of the unconscious,"a kind of representation of one's innermost thoughts." Netonia has a relationship with wood as deep as the unconscious, but her approach to building is dauntingly simple. "You go out, gather your materials. Whatever you gather is what you work with. You live it, you live your home. You put so much of yourself into the building, you become part of it."
She exudes such enthusiasm when she discusses her work, it's
contagious. "It's about using your body and doing whatever you are
capable of doing with very simple tools - without being dependent on
the bank and the hardware store. People are talked into thinking they have to build square and use nails. There are those who can't free themselves of that notion."You never see two stackwall houses alike. The possibilities are limitless as to what shapes you can make; when you feel like adding on you don't have to start a new building. It is easy for me to do stackwall. It's my style, my love."
Stackwall has not only given Netonia a way to make a living, but
a purpose in life. When she first started building, Canada had joined
the U.S. fighting in Iraq: Netonia kept picturing the refugees,
envisioning all the homeless people, and she thought, "Someone could sleep here." She, like the rest of us, will one day move on, but the house she built would be there - if not forever - for a very long
time. (The oldest known portion of a stackwall building - made of cypress - still stands in Lebanon and is believed to be 2000 years old.)
These days Netonia gives informal workshops, and has
precipitated stackwall-building bees on the Island, to "help young
people who can't afford a house - so they don't have to get a
mortgage." "Stackwall masonry is 80% preparation," she says. "You
need basic tools: a truck, a power saw (or two), two or three
wheelbarrows, a hoe for mixing, mauls for splitting wood, axes, a
trowel and a lot of free time." Manual labour, not money, is the
chief component when it comes to stackwall construction. The cost is,
in fact, a tenth of a conventional contractor-built house (the same
building code applies as for a log house). If you find your own wood and barter some of your materials, a house can be built for roughly $10 per square foot.
Other necessary ingredients are cement, sawdust (for
insulation), sand and water. Wood, of course - Netonia's favourite
part of the construction - and "other things that add light and
loveliness - bottles and jars, glass fishing floats, whale bones,
shells." The wood has to be dry. She prefers fire-killed cedar, which
is soft, light and plentiful. A forest fire on the Island, eighty
years ago, left the wood "standing cured, brand new, until it is
logged." Stackwall dwellings are largely burn resistant, as fire
won't easily penetrate the end-grain of the wood.
Wood masonry is a wonderful recycling project, Netonia says;
she has become skilled at using whatever materials she has lying
around. She gets windows that are rejects, or glass from the
wreckers. She uses driftwood to frame a window, one end of which might curve down to form the back of a bench-seat, the other extending up to make a shelf on the wall. When she first moved to the
Charlottes the spirits in the drift pieces spoke to her. In Netonia's presence it is easy to see how - the same way the Islands called to her to come and make her home - the driftwood pieces might call out
to her, also, "Choose me! Use me!"
The beauty of stackwall, Netonia says, is that the house is a
living, breathing entity. It breathes from the outside, and from the
inside, too. From a distance it looks as if it has sprung from the
earth. On the inside it is cozy, warm, inviting. (The Seven Dwarves,
in the Walt Disney movie, had a stackwall home, which is no doubt
why, the minute you enter Netonia's kitchen, you feel as if you are a
child again; you want to tiptoe up the twisting driftwood stairs to stretch out on a feather bed and drift.....
Hi ho hi ho, it's off to work we go. There is no time for dreaming (not the kind you do while asleep) in Netonia's world. When she was building her house, she says, people would drop by to visit and would end up working alongside her; it made her realize there is a child in all of us, begging to burst out and get our hands in the mud.
But she works hard - so hard, in fact, it's sometimes a struggle
for others to keep up. "You have to be the type of person who wants
to do physical labour," she says, when I ask if, to do stackwall, you
need to be more of an artist or someone with practical skills. She likens what she does to practicing Tai-Chi. Cutting with a power saw is a balancing act. Stackwalling is her workout for the day, keeps
her fit. "It's a whole body thing. I'm tired down to my toes." Netonia, like many independent Island souls, believes in"busting a few old rules". "We don't have to continue on the path we've been taught as long as it isn't hurting anyone, or damaging the land. I think it's my job to spread the word that we have to break some rules before we can make a positive change in our society."
Go for your dream, she advises. If it's a castle you've always wanted, build it in stackwall!" Her dream is to spend the rest of her days designing and building stackwall, and teaching others how to build, on the Charlottes and further afield. She'd like to travel, off-Island to other, southern islands in the Pacific such as....Vancouver Island.....where there is also an abundance of the materials she needs.
"Everybody loves stackwall," she says, "even if they don't want their whole house made of it." That can't be said about every artistic endeavour on earth, but it says it all about Netonia Yalte's work.
Bio note: Netonia Yalte built Susan Musgrave a stackwall castle on the Queen Charlotte islands last fall. If you want one of your very own you can write to Netonia at:
Box 311, Queen Charlotte City, B.C.