How to rebuild your life, one straw bale at a time

Review: Vivien Horler
A Way Home, by Jillian Sullivan (Potton & Burton)
In an odd little general dealer-cum-coffee shop in a village in New Zealand’s south island I spotted this book and thought it looked interesting.
Newly divorced and 50-something writer Jillian Sullivan decides to fulfil a dream to build a straw bale house. She doesn’t know much about building, but her son-in-law Sam does, and she signs on as his apprentice. “This is a beautifully told and inspiring story, a book for anyone who needs to start again, or has a project bigger than they think possible.”
I didn’t buy the book, but a couple of days later spotted it in the home of friends near Dunedin. In half an hour or so I’d read enough to know I wanted to read it all. It turns out the little general store in Oturehua in Central Otago was down the road from the house Sullivan built, and we happened to be passing back through in a couple of days. So I bought their only copy.
I loved it. Sullivan is a novelist and poet and, certainly in the beginning of her project, was a lot more comfortable constructing a sentence than building a house. But she learnt, under Sam’s stern mentorship. In the beginning he asks her whether he is to treat her as his children’s grandmother or as his building apprentice and she says: ”Apprentice.” So he does, telling her on another occasion when she can’t work out how to do something: “I’m not coming down to show you. You have to learn how to figure things out.”
She writes: “That was how Sam was with me. He wasn’t my son-in-law or my friend on site. He was my boss, the builder, and I was the apprentice, and I had to keep telling myself that, no matter how tough he was. Would an apprentice whine to his boss that he couldn’t (do something)? Sam stayed firm with me the whole project, always believing I would step up and get things done.”
And she does, from digging the foundations, by hand, preparing the slab, erecting the interior timber framing and testing the limits of her strength helping to raise the weighty roof beams. Throughout the build Sullivan lives in a caravan on site in what can be both the coldest and hottest valley in New Zealand, with a single tap and electric socket.
Sam and Sullivan needed help with the straw bale raising – fitting the tightly packed bales into the wooden frames to form the thick and naturally insulated walls. Friends come to help, and later, when the walls are being plastered with a concoction of straw and mud, friends and grandchildren leave handprints on the surface, reminders of a community who have come together to build an organic house of that place, made from local straw, timber and clay.
The first night Sullivan spends in the house – when it is far from complete but the roof is on and the walls are plastered – she says: “There was no sense of being cut off from the earth but of being held by the earth, taken care of by the earth. The house was quiet, still, warm, and has been every night since.”
There were setbacks. Mice move into the straw bales, and once in the middle of winter Sullivan finds a whole family of sparrows tucked away against the icy air. They are late with the plastering, which means the straw starts to sprout. Sullivan burns herself making the lime plaster, and falls off a beam, breaking several ribs and tearing her knee.
Along the way she learns many things, not just about sustainable building. She meets kindness and generosity, and people who inspire her, like the new 60-year-old neighbour who visits the valley and imagines, in another lifetime, living there. “Then one day, back in Auckland, I thought, why don’t I go in this lifetime?”
At different stages her children and grandchildren are all involved in the project. She discovers “… building a house can be a way for families to come back and connect. It’s a chance for wise, more skilled people to pass on their knowledge, and not just about building. All sorts of things were discussed and worked out amidst the hammering”.
One evening she sits on a straw bale and watches the sunset. “A flock of sparrows lifted from the long grass and hurled themselves about in a joyousness of flight. … I felt a calmness, quietness inside, sitting there and watching them There was no place I wanted to be than right there, on a warm verandah, birds and grasses and mountains in the cool, clear air. And I knew that was because, with help, I was rebuilding myself here, with each nail that that was hammered home, with each bale that raised the walls.”
A Way Home is both thoughtful and inspiring – and there’s a fair bit about how to build a sustainable house too.

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