Posted by: Sally Ingraham | March 16, 2012

Make only beautiful things: Adventures at Aprovecho


Last night I realized that one of my favorite things about being here at Aprovecho is one of the skills (among many) that I am starting to pick up. I am learning to live more intentionally, by which I mean I am taking a bit more time to consider most decisions and actions. This stems from two kind of silly things – the fact that I have to take my shoes off every time I enter The Strawbale (the dorm and general living space of the interns here) and the fact that I have to be mostly dressed and equipped to face the weather whenever I need to use the bathroom! It seems fairly obvious that I would quickly learn to untie my shoes every time, and leave them at the door I am pretty sure I am going to exit through the next time I need to go out, or remember to grab my flashlight when I make a midnight bathroom run…but as I was untying my shoes last night I realized that I was taking a few extra seconds over each task to consider the implications of the action.


This is kind of an essential concept to the whole lifestyle I am shifting toward – slowing down, taking a moment to think, doing everything for a considered reason instead of hurtling round in a tizzy. In a way, living more thoughtfully is a way of making a beautiful thing in the sense that I’m making a life, and a more beautiful life at that.


So, Aprovecho. I’m here in a nook amid the hills of Oregon with about 16 fellow interns and 10 or so staff members plus an assortment of their children. Aprovecho isn’t exactly a school, but it’s far more than just a community. I am learned how to build structures or shelter with natural materials along with a few folks, while the rest of the interns are studying permaculture. We’re all going to be here for 3 months in total, picking up the concepts and ideas while also getting a chance to apply them in real life situations.


I’ve only been here since last Sunday, but the days have been full to the brim and it feels like much longer. It’s pretty amazing to be surrounded by people who are passionate about the same things you are, and there are few things more wonderful than geeking out over something like cob with a whole community! The atmosphere here is full of excitement and joy. Hardly anyone really cares that it has rained with varying intensity every day since we got here. The things we are doing are too much fun to be dragged down by a little rain.

In my practicum, so far we have had some intense and enthusiastic discussions about what natural building means to us, which led to this interesting “tree”:


Natural building is all about using local materials, processing them as little as possible, and then using them to make shelters that exist in harmony with nature, impacting the land only lightly. You are merely borrowing from nature. Your structure or home should reflect the personality of the place it came from, and then also the personality of the person or people who built it. The facilitator of my practicum said that one of the most basic and important concepts for him was the responsibility he felt to make only beautiful things.


Of course we have spent minimal time in the classroom. This week we have been slinging mud – we have been cobbing. Cob is building material made from clay, sand, and straw. It has been used since people first started building shelters but it fell out of use for a few hundred years in the US. A fellow named Ianto Evans built the first cob structure in the US here at Aprovecho in the 70s. It was taken down some years later, but we placed fresh balls of cob on what remains of the walls on the second day of the practicum. We learned to mix cob (something that is traditionally done barefoot, but we remained sadly muck booted due to rain and chilly air!) and worked on building the new garden wall.


The ribbing you see on the top of the wall is a technique used to make incorporating the next level easier. The poles will hold up a ceder shingled bit of roof and aren’t necessary to the cob.

Cobbing in the rain is an adventure! We had elaborate tarps covering our work area, but even so too much water kept getting into the cob mixture, which makes for less structurally sound building material. We learned a lot about what it takes to get the right consistency. Between the wind and rain blowing the tarps away, the general pleasure that comes from getting very muddy, and the swift development of friendship and camaraderie between us, we all could cheerfully admit at the end of the day that cobbing is fun – in fact, it’s cob-tastic! (Oh yes, the cob jokes are never-ending…)

Yesterday it was raining even more enthusiastically, so we abandoned the cob in favor of building a retaining wall that will be the foundation for another bit of cob wall. We learned about dry stacked stone walls, and spent the day playing Tetras with rocks.


Our days begin at 8ish with breakfast, then the work/study begins at 9 and runs until noon. The lunch break lasts until 1:30, then work resumes until 4:30 or 5ish. A rather lovely schedule. Lunch is prepared for us all by a staff member, but the interns are in charge of breakfast and dinner in shifts. I will be making dinner on Sundays with 3 other folks, and I am on the breakfast team Mon-Thurs next week. The following week a different team will tackle breakfast. The food is great – hearty and healthy and delicious.

So far the cooking and cleaning has been accomplished with relatively few hitches. The power did get knocked out during a storm on Monday which made for some exciting times, and the oatmeal has gotten dangerously close to burning at least once – cooking for 20 people takes some getting used to! We’re all learning together how to live together, which has been almost entirely fun if not downright hilarious.


Evenings are especially full. Spontaneous sewing bees break out, we seem to have the beginnings of a resident jam band, the other night the most enormous apple pie materialized, and last night (the “Friday night” of everyone’s week) The Strawbale rang with laughter as games and general shenanigans ensued.

Amid the fun there is also a great deal of fairly serious conversations – ideas are tossed around, dreams are given a bit of airtime, and people are free to imagine a more beautiful world. And then the really cool thing is that the next day we all go out and really try to make those dreams become reality. It’s pretty amazing to be surrounded by folks that aren’t just dreaming, but are actually doing. There are things being invented and dreamed into existence here at Aprovecho that have impacted the world and will continue to do so.


The confidence I’ve gained from just a few days of being here is extraordinary. I’ve never been more certain that I picked the right path to head down, and I can not wait to see what is around the next bend – not to mention what amazing things I’ll discover or experience in just this day alone!

And that’s all the news from Aprovecho. If you’re curious about anything please don’t hesitate to ask me. I’m hoping to post something here at least every other week, but also check my new Tumblr site for briefer (and probably more frequent) updates. If it ever stops raining for long enough I’ll hopefully get some prettier pictures from around the place and share those too.



  1. That sounds amazing! Glad you’re having such a great time, I look forward to hearing more about it 🙂

    • I’ll try to keep you updated. 🙂

  2. Thank you for this lovely and inspiring post. Awareness is a wonderful thing, living intentionally of course as well.
    Cobbing is interesting and it reminded me of an amazing house I’ve seen that is in England. It looks a bit like the Hobbit’s houses. I need to find it. They built it all by themselves as well. It’s so beautiful.

    • That house has been referenced by a few folks here! In fact, there is an English kid here who was directly inspired by that house. Pretty neat. Glad you found my scribblings inspiring!

  3. Here is a link to a site I used to visit often. It has been made by the author of the Stonewylde series which I like a lot. Some of it is in the spirit of what you do. I saw those houses there somewhere.
    PS WordPress has changed the comment policy that’s why I have a new avatar and am in moderation.

    • I’ll be sure to check that site out – thanks!

  4. I have been so excited about your adventures getting to Apro, but I think it just as awesome what you are (and are going to be) doing there! the experience sounds fantastic. I especially like this intentional living pathway.

    • It’s so interesting what just a few extra seconds of thought does to your whole day and experience! Pretty cool. I’m grateful to have a cheerleader and friend like you along for this journey. 🙂

  5. You described me perfectly. Hurtling in a tizzy. Yep. I do try to simplify things when I can, but it’s tough.

  6. […] with paper, and take pictures, and go hiking. All the things I used to do all the time, before Aprovecho hijacked my life (in a good way!) – with one additional thing. I’m an apprentice timber […]

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