A Personal Look at Sage Mountain Center
(with a cordwood construction slant)
|By Christopher Borton||
November 11, 2002
In 1989, Linda (25) and I (27) moved to Montana with a dream of establishing an education and retreat center. Free from our accumulated clutter and the confines of conventional religious dogmas, we began to explore basic philosophical approaches and lifestyles that more closely mimicked nature and our own inner prompting. With our '83 Nissan 4X4 with 150,000 miles, (just retired at 357,000 miles) and boxes full of books by the Nearing's, Emerson, Muir, Fukuoka, The Desert Fathers, Krishnamurti, and so on, we left the world of conventionality to set out for the land of uncertainty, mystery. Shouldering a guilt-ridden awareness of our pioneering ancestors who often approached the West with the "divide and conquer" mentality we quietly vowed to try to live in a new way.
After one year of searching Montana for the "right" piece of land and finally signing a paper that said we now "owned" it, a sense of relief over came us. However, this relief was quickly overshadowed by a feeling of tremendous responsibility. We were now newcomers to a forest that we really knew nothing about. We were immigrants who didn't yet speak the language of this place. And would we be able to learn?
In some ways the best way to tread lightly on the land is to not tread. Stay in a city where other people live, get rid of the car and let the wilderness be wilderness. This makes a lot of sense. We, however, justified early on that had we not purchased this land, which was on the open market, it most certainly would have been acquired by others concerned only with the "best view" and who would then put up a conventional house which took much more from the land in terms of energy production and consumption than it could ever return. With humility we decided to view the land as a teacher, an ancient sage who had all the answers for those who were willing to listen.
Realizing that every blade of grass that we stepped on altered the face of this terrain, we first established a 10 year plan. Part of this plan was to use the natural elements that made up the land -- wood, stone, topsoil, granite, sun, wind, and, so on --and build the shelter with our own hands as much as possible. Cordwood Construction was a natural fit. Good insulation, great thermal mass, and when built with the wood from the property, aesthetically pleasing.
Compromises in building materials were many but they were backed by much study and reflection. We paid for the buildings as we went along. In the beginning, Linda provided the consistent income working as a nurse and I tapped into my fourth-generation-construction-genes (which I had yet to do) to build fulltime. As a certified yoga instructor and practitioner for 20 yrs, I also gave yoga classes.
Our kindergarten course in Cordwood Construction began in 1992 with a 285 sq. ft practice cabin we named Tilting Tree Cottage. All we had were two books, one by Rob Roy and another by the University of Manitoba. We hid Tilting Tree in the forest so that if it came out rotten nobody would see it. Two years later we practiced building a 1400 sq. ft. Guest House and applied everything we learned from the first building. Bear in mind that we had never seen a cordwood house in person! Soon after completion of the Guest House we discovered a cordwood house just 1 hour away! Naturally we became and have remained great friends with the owners.
In 1996 we completed a third structure, the workshop/studio (phase 1 of the Main House), all the while honing our building techniques while refining our winter survival skills (like, why didn't we build the garage first and avoid scraping windows and frozen engines). In the meantime we were finding more and more people who wanted to learn what we were doing. This was before Sage Mountain Center was officially operating. As the interest increased we began to open our facility up at regular intervals until finally, after continuous requests, we began offering workshops. This was the start of Sage Mountain Center's Sustainable Living branch. (In the meantime Tilting Tree Cottage burned to the ground -I couldn't resist mentioning this since Cordwood enthusiasts would be interested. But we did rebuild. Those of you interested in details can email me).
This brings us to the present. We have about 4 months left to complete the construction phase of SMC. This is the completion of the 5000 sq. ft. Main House, which we will move into from the Guest House. The Main House will serve as our home, school, and retreat facility. It is a Cordwood/Strawbale hybrid powered by solar electric, solar thermal, and wind. Other features are in-floor radiant heat, greywater heat recovery system, woodstove hot water, and rain water collection. Feel free to check out our website, or if you are in the area stop by for a tour or workshop. We are always happy to share what we have learned in order to promote sustainable ways of living.