Earthen LivingSeptember 27, 2019
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Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Traci Westcott
When you think of a straw-bale house, three little pigs and a wolf with strong lungs probably come to mind. Outside of a nursery rhyme though, a straw-bale house would be difficult to blow down, no matter how much huffing and puffing you put into it.
Just ask Darren and Espri Bender-Beauregard of Paoli. Ten years ago, the couple built a straw-bale house on 12 acres of land near where Espri grew up. In the years since, the couple has had three daughters — Viola, 9, and twins Eleanor and Sylvia, 6 — who call the straw-bale house home, and they’ve built a life centered around homesteading and sustainable living.
“We were looking into natural building methods, and straw-bale is tried and true,” Espri said.
So, how does one build a house from straw bales? First, you need a frame built from wooden beams — Espri compared that to a pole barn frame. Then, you fill in the walls with straw bales. Last, you cover the inside and outside with plaster. The end result looks like an adobe house of the Southwestern states, albeit a bit darker in color.
With the basics down, Espri, 41, and Darren, 38, customized their home by plastering clear, blue and green glass bottles into the walls for decoration. A greenhouse stands on one side of the home, against the stone wall of their kitchen to offer passive solar heating. Inside, the home has an earthen floor. On the main floor is the kitchen, dining room, a bedroom and the family room. In the family room, a round window cutout shows the straw inside the walls. In the center of the home’s main floor is a wood-burning stove used for extra heat. The family often fires it up when they return from trips in the middle of winter.
“It’s nice to just huddle up next to the stove,” Darren said of those times, adding that it doesn’t take long for the home to heat up.
Although there is electricity in the house, there isn’t a need for it during the day. The plentiful windows fill the house with natural light. Most of the furniture is made of wood, though there is a modern, metal refrigerator and dishwasher in the kitchen.
“We actually found that a dishwasher uses less water than hand-washing,” Darren said.
Upstairs is the office, bathroom and the girls’ rooms. At the foot of the stairs, a bookcase stretches from the floor to the ceiling.
The house is extraordinary, but inside, the family lives a life like that of anyone else. One September evening, the sound of Viola, Eleanor and Sylvia clamoring around upstairs with their friend from next door echoed through the house as Darren prepared hamburgers for dinner and Espri cleaned up after a long day of building a shed.
“It’s easy for us to forget [that] what we’re doing isn’t normal,” Darren said as the hamburgers — made from meat harvested from a cow he raised — sizzled on the grill.
Espri and Darren raise most of the food their family eats, whether it be organic produce grown in their gardens and orchards, eggs and meat from their flock of chickens or beef from a small herd of Dexter cows. They could milk the cows, too, but they instead purchase whole milk from an Amish farmer they know.
That’s not to say there’s never a trip to the grocery store. A box of Reese’s Puffs cereal sat on the counter one afternoon, and the girls dug into it after they got home from school at Throop Elementary in Paoli.
“We’re not sustainability ‘purists’ by any means,” Darren said. “I think it’s important for people to start with whatever aspect they’re comfortable with.”
For some, that could mean having a vegetable garden in the backyard or purchasing more food from local sources, Darren explained. For him and his family, it means going all in for the homesteading lifestyle.
In the 10 years since Espri and Darren built their straw-bale home, their plot of land has grown from 12 acres to about 32, and the pair now operates Brambleberry Farm on the property. The farm is a small permaculture operation that provides fruit, nut and berry plants that Espri and Darren sell to the public. They also offer consulting services and educational tours for those interested in sustainable living. There’s a lot to see on the tours.
Walking around the property feels like walking down a nature trail, as Espri and Darren grow many of the food trees they sell, and several gardens flourish on the property.
One summer afternoon, the Dexter cattle grazed in a pasture near the house while Darren and Espri worked in the greenhouses. Darren uses tree grafting to grow the trees sold in the nursery, and Espri keeps them all watered using water from a 9,000-gallon cistern that collects rainwater for their nursery and animals. A separate cistern collects rainwater to be filtered and used in the home. The cistern system provides running water throughout the property, and the girls even have a small cistern hooked up to their playhouse in the yard that gives them a working sink.
That’s just one way the girls learn about sustainable living. They also have a handful of rabbits that they care for after school, and part of that involved helping build the enclosure the bunnies live in. The girls also learn about edible plants when Espri and Darren take them on walks.
“We haven’t done any sit-down, formal teaching with them about it,” Darren said. “It’s been more like, ‘Hey, we are on a walk. Check this out. You can eat it.’”
When Espri and Darren aren’t tending their plants and animals, they can always find projects to keep themselves busy. They built every structure on the land themselves, and there’s always upkeep or something new to build.
One afternoon, Espri, who does a lot of the building projects around the farm, worked on a new shed. Pieces of sheet metal and two-by-fours made a path from her project to the workshop next to the house, and Espri took many trips back and forth to cut wood on the circular saw.
Inside the workshop, chainsaws and various motor oils sat on the shelves, and a tractor and four-wheeler were parked just inside the entrance. Espri spends a lot of the fall and winter in the workshop, as she makes wooden cooking utensils, cutting boards and other items that she sells at craft fairs around the area. That day, though, her focus was on the shed.
For the shed, Espri chose to use recycled doors. The choice was better for the environment, but it meant more work for her, as she had to adjust the hinges and latches to make sure the doors closed properly.
“Everything just sort of takes longer,” she said of their lifestyle. “If you’re cooking with your own produce, that requires growing, harvesting and processing it. And having the gardens and animals is a lot of extra work.”
But they save time other places — fewer trips to the store, for example — and the money they save producing their own food makes up for the instances when living sustainably can cost more. They also save money by doing most of the maintenance and building projects around the property themselves.
“We’re real do-it-yourselfers,” Espri said. “We get a lot of satisfaction out of learning to do things on our own and being independent.”
They’ve both been like that most of their lives. Espri’s parents were back-to-the-landers in the 1970s, and bought the property in Paoli with the intention of being homesteaders. Although it didn’t work out quite like they planned, they still live on the land — just down a hill from Darren and Espri’s home — and they instilled Earth-conscious values in Espri.
“I enjoy all aspects of homesteading,” she said. “The fact that it’s more sustainable — that it’s living in a way that cares for creation — helps you get through the hard parts. It’s not all just fun and playing with animals.”
Darren grew up in the mountains in Maryland, not far from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Amish country. His mom was a gardener, and his parents, too, taught the importance of taking care of the environment, and playing outside was key to his childhood.
“I would say for me [this lifestyle] has been a life building on different parts,” he said. “I grew up in the mountains, and I would just play outside in the woods with my friends after school, and I think that’s really where I got my love for nature and being outside. I think a more sustainable lifestyle started in high school where I did an experiment on simple living. That made me aware of how my lifestyle impacts nature.”
Espri and Darren met at Indiana’s Goshen College. Espri was studying art and psychology; Darren was studying biology and environmental science. They both credit college with being the point where they fully committed to a sustainable lifestyle.
During their college years, they each worked on organic farms where they learned a lot of the skills they use at Brambleberry Farm today. After Darren graduated, the couple spent a year in Tucson, Arizona, doing full-time volunteer service through the Mennonite Voluntary Service — they currently attend Paoli Mennonite Fellowship church — that ended up being sort of on-the-job training for the life they’ve built. Darren spent the year helping people establish backyard gardens, and Espri worked on home repair for elderly and low-income families.
They moved back to Indiana in 2003, got married and eventually started work on the straw-bale house. It took them two and a half years to build, and they moved in right before Viola was born.
Although Viola, Eleanor and Sylvia are growing up immersed in sustainable living, Darren and Espri don’t believe they’re raising the next Greta Thunberg, and they aren’t necessarily trying to. Their goal is to model a fulfilling life that is also Earth-conscious, and they hope at least some of those lessons will stick with their daughters once they’re adults.
“I have no illusion that my kids will want to be back here and farm with us when they’re adults,” Darren said. “I mean, that would be awesome, but really I hope that they take this wherever they go and can make connections with people and places that they wouldn’t otherwise.”
In the 10 years since moving into their home, Darren and Espri have done a lot of trial and error as they’ve sought out the best way to live sustainably, and they still look at the lifestyle as a constant learning experience.
Espri and Darren emphasize that they’re living a sustainable life because they find it fulfilling. They don’t believe they’re saving the Earth from climate change. They know that just by living in the U.S. and having a car, their carbon footprint is bigger than that of most people in the world.
“I keep it in the back of my mind,” Darren said. “We are doing what we can in our country, but we are terribly rich compared to a lot of the world. It’s good to remember that.”
And although they’re not doomsdayers, they do think often of the direction the world is headed, as a whole, and what kind of future that may bring.
“I feel a little bit of hopelessness in terms of is it really possible for us to reduce our emissions in time?” Espri said. “But a lot of what we are doing is working toward resiliency for whatever does happen to the environment. That’s a much more hopeful place to be in.”
Take the nursery stock, for example. Part of that is trying out different crops that can survive climate extremes.
Darren and Espri know their lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and they wouldn’t advise people to jump right into it, even if those people were already interested in sustainability. But they do encourage everyone to think about little steps they can take that can make a difference. It might seem insignificant, Espri said, but if enough people take small actions, it can chance society.
If you decide you do want to go all in, Darren and Espri are there to help through their consulting work. Chances are they’ll tell you to take it step by step and find people who are trying to do the same things so they can share ideas. Most important, Darren said, is to be patient with yourself.
“Don’t get dogmatic about it,” Darren said. “Just look at it as an experiment.”
And if you meet someone who’s trying to make the same changes you did, help them out.
For Darren and Espri, when it comes to sustainable living — and caring for the Earth, in general — one old adage holds true: We’re all in this together.
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