Tinkers Bubble is a 24 year old off grid woodland community that run a horse powered, hand tool forestry business on the land and mill the trees in their steam-powered sawmill. Tinkers Bubble spans 40 acres mostly comprised of Douglas Fir woodland that was an old abandoned tree plantation. All the houses and buildings in the community are built from trees on site. The whole community revolves around wood. Wood is used as their only fuel source for cooking and heating.
I got to stay with three other volunteers in the Guest House. They have hundreds of volunteers passing through each summer and this constant stream of eager helpers keep the building and gardening projects fully powered. When you dont use fossil fuels you start to quickly realize how critical it is to have community. Human power becomes essential. The guest house at Tinkers Bubble blends back into the forest. They use all their own trees for their buildings. These wild edge cladding boards showcase the forms and shapes of the forest they came from.
The hilltop is dotted with timber frame homes all built onsite with hand tools and horses. Below the logging horse Jim gets suited for the days work of moving some felled trees down to the steam powered sawmill. Fascinating to see and hear trees being cut, felled, processed, and dragged with out any engines. The softness of the sounds of animals and hand tools is powerful.
Community forestry day at Tinkers Bubble kicks off with group tree sawing. Forestry without chainsaws. Forestry without gasoline. Forestry by hand is a community effort at Tinkers Bubble. It forces you to connect with your sawing buddy, hold focus and move in rhythm. Laughter and story telling while cutting up a tree. Human-speed logging. When you spend the day using two person cross cut saws to process a felled tree a pile of wood holds so much more weight. Using hand tools creates a very different sense of what energy is and how it shapes our world. Easy to forget if your running a chainsaw all day.
Once the trees are cut into log lengths the horse is brought in to pull it to the steam powered wood fired saw mill. Horses in the forest are fast and agile floating down trails a tractor could never dream of getting through. From the forest to the sawmill the horses make logging possible without the use of fossil fuels. When the Douglas Fir and Larch start piling up that means it time to fire up the wood powered steam engine sawmill! Behold the beast! This is a 1930s Portable Wood Fired Steam Engine! Used for milling in the woods in the 1930s when it was more economical to bring the mill to the trees. It arrived at Tinkers Bubble 20 years ago to assist in their goals of forestry without fossil fuels. Pedro fired it up at 5am to get it hot for a long day of milling recently felled Douglas fir.
It takes three days to weave a willow coffin and then it only has a few days after that before it's buried or cremated. It has a short life which makes willow perfect because it grows very very fast".
Jake started as a coppice worker who got interested in using excess material for small basketry but loves the scale of coffins. His next challenge he said would be a hot air balloon basket! Jake is planting out willow in fields around Sussex to create more coffin material for local supply and simultaneously creating better meadow habitat where there previously was just grass. Life and death supporting each other. Jake's is working to create more biodiversity and habitat in the woodlands he works in and in doing so gets to harvest the different pieces of wood he needs to build his woven coffins.
Willow coffins start with ash splints as a structural component for strength. The ash is coppiced by Jake during the winter at a local ancient woodland he manages.
"I invite the families to join me in weaving their loved ones Coffins. It's been amazing. It seems to help in the grieving process to be part of the weave, part of the ceremony".
Jake winds his way to the top of this beautiful coffin while telling me about the experiences he's had with bringing people into the process.
"More and more I'm seeing people want to celebrate life at the end of a life rather than a black quiet funeral".
Another finished woodland coffin ready to be delivered for a natural burial the following week. It's been a fascinating journey with Jake seeing the process of forest stewardship to woven coffin. By weaving together the wood from this landscape this type of work offers a full circle of ceremony for celebrating the life of the person and the place.
"Chestnut trees are magnetic. They pull in all types of creatures like deer, turkey, raccoons and kids. All I want to do is plant as many of them as I can."
Akiva Silver and his family of five harvest hundreds of pounds of chestnuts every year from their neighbors old chestnut orchard. They love roasting them and processing them into flour to make breads, cookies and pastries. The American Chestnut was once the dominant tree across its range from Maine to Mississippi. This tree could reach heights of one hundred feet with diameters up to ten feet! While hanging out with Akiva and his family for their annual nut gathering they caught me up on all the of the tree's fascinating ecological and cultural history. Train cars used to load up to the brim with chestnuts and bring them into cities across the northeast for holiday roasting. After a chestnut fungus blight was brought to the US in 1904 they were wiped completely off the map and quickly disappeared over the next few decades.
"It's like corn that grows on trees the difference is these trees can grow on rocky hillsides and crappy soils and only need to be planted once to feed wildlife and humans for hundreds of years!"
Akiva started his nursery originally for himself to grow out the trees on his farm but quickly realized it wasn't that much harder to grow a thousand trees in his long garden beds. When friends started asking for huge orders he decided to go full time growing out trees.
"We make these Chestnut cookies with only chestnuts for flour! They are already sweet and way better then any other cookies we make. The more we can get people growing these trees the more we can have access to these tree flours".
Seeing these cookies from harvesting the nuts to the cooling rack was mind blowing. We live in an annual grain culture and it is hard to remember many places in the world still rely on trees for staple foods. They were insanely good.
Akiva is now working with a group of other Nut Growers in NY state to setup a nut processing facility where anyone could bring nuts to be shelled and processed into flours and butters. To keep up with Akiva and their farm events follow them on their Facebook page HERE!
EPISODE 4: WOODLAND MUSHROOM CULTIVATION
"When the mushrooms began fruiting from our first logs it was mind blowing. The transformation of wood into medicinal food...I was hooked"
Nestled at the edge of the Finger Lakes National Forest lies Hawk Meadow Farm, a woodland farm specializing in forest grown Shiitake and Lion's Mane mushrooms. This past summer I had the privilege of living in a cabin at Hawk Meadow and interning with the owner and founder of the farm Steve Seirigk.
30 years ago Steve and a group of his friends who were living on the property at the time began inoculating logs with Shiitake Mycelium to supply their miso soup making. To their surprise a year later mushrooms were popping out! For the past ten years Steve has been growing them at a small business scale selling on average 40 pounds a week to restaurants during the late spring, summer and early fall.
"This is about nutrition, ecology and decomposition. We are just players in the drama of decay".
Once he began to see the connection with forest management he realized this was a way of adding value to logs that were already being cut or needed to be cut to improve the forest health. Steve and his team now grow mushrooms on about 1,500 logs a year forcing about 125 of them to fruit each week by soaking them in the cold water of the creek. This 24 hour soak tricks the mushroom into thinking it is the change of seasons and they send out loads of Shiitakes.
In the deep summer heat, working in the creek under the shady pine trees was one of the most enjoyable forms of food production I have ever experienced. Being a fair-skinned person who burns easily I felt a kinship with the mushrooms who needed to soak in the water and lay in the shade to be productive. Shiitakes are the only mushroom that can be forced to fruit and many believe they have been domesticated from thousands of years of people cultivating them across Asia. They are also highly medicinal and Steve makes tinctures from the damaged mushrooms to extract their immune system boosting compounds.
"Growing mushrooms is healing in more then just eating them, the work is very healing too"
Many landowners around him are cutting beech trees out of their woods to help make room for other trees because they can become too aggressive and cause problems. This is a great opportunity for Steve to grow shiitakes and the beautiful Lion's Mane mushroom which is also highly medicinal and taste lot like crab meat!
There are so many layers to their farm. Not only are they doing forestry and cutting out smaller trees that are overcrowding their wood, they are also using those logs to grow wild simulated mushrooms and medicine. Their integration into the forest was beautiful to witness, take part in and share!
"The pockets of woods that are tucked away in these urban and suburban areas get just ignored"
Chara Dow and her father David Dow are woodworkers based in Rochester, NY. I got to follow them for a day as they harvested invasive oriental bittersweet vines that are choking out and killing trees in their local park. They don't just cut down vines but have also found a use for this malleable material in their rustic furniture and woodcrafts. Brought over as an ornamental, Oriental Bittersweet has escaped into the wild and decimates these urban woods.
"It will climb the tree until it kills it"
You don't need to live in the woods to take care of the forest, even in a big city like Rochester. We walked by tree after tree that was being choked out by these incredible vines. Their ability to not just use the tree as a trellis but also jump to other trees once in the canopy is impressive and terrifying. Once they claim the canopy the tree can't receive any sunlight and will die.
"If I can make stuff that I love it all brings attention to it and I'm using materials that need to be taken out."
Removing invasives vines and turning them into functional art is a creative form of forest stewardship. David Dow uses them for planter baskets that he sells by the hundreds at craft fairs during the holidays. Chara uses them in her rustic furniture as the wild shapes take the place of what would be straight legs and supports in tables and chairs.
"When I work with these vines I'm forced to accept the shape in which they have grown".
These amazing urban elves have proved to me that you don't need to live in the woods to be a forest steward, eaven in a big city like Rochester. Often the most neglected forests in most need of your help are tucked away in our suburban and urban sprawls. This is where the most ornamental plants that have escaped lawns tend to thrive and where the least conservation happens. These magnificent vines are a blessing and a curse for wood crafters who truly see them for what they are...BITTERSWEET!
"There is no machine that can make a basket...and if there was it would look terrible"
For four days in September I got to document Jamin Uticone of Swamp Road Baskets as he walked me through his process of creating a Black Ash Pack Basket. For eighteen years Jamin has been harvesting black ash wood from his swamp to support him and his family of five.
"On average it's seventy baskets from a seventy year old tree and that is my years work."
Jamin only needs to harvest one or two trees a year to make the seventy baskets that he sells per year. I was blown away by the idea that it is his skill alone that let him get such value out of his woods. To anyone else the trees in that woods would be worth very little for timber or firewood but his knowledge of basketry with these trees allows him to make a living taking very little.
"In the winter when the baskets in our house start to dry out they make loud creaky sounds, the boys always called it basket talk. It's like they're reminding you that they are there".
As the fall fires get going in Jamin and Julia's home at Swamp Road Baskets the baskets begin to speak. Jamin told me these baskets will out live us all and we talked about how almost everything we buy nowadays ends up being thrown away in our lifetime.
The process of removing the rings of the tree consists of hours hammering the log to loosen up all the years of growth. Each layer or year is peeled off slowly as he hammers farther down the log untill the ring is eventually free. Jamin talked about how he often thinks about each layer and what year it represents.
"You're making containers of time"