Learning to Live Earthways

We live life outdoors, and we appreciate our home for what it really is: a shelter from the weather, a place to be warm and dry, something we have learned living at Earthways.


| February/March 2004



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Chris and Ashirah Knapp in front of their Scandinavian-style lodge at the Earthways School near Canaan, Maine.


Photo by Sally Kwan

My wife, Ashirah, and I live and work at Earthways, a school in Canaan, Maine, that teaches classes in crafts and other natural skills. Together, we have been fortunate enough to build a simple life that requires a minimum of material possessions.

When I first walked the long dirt road to Earthways in 1997, I was just out of high school and ready to prove that there was a better way to live and that I could live it. I had within me a sincere desire to learn to live in harmony with the Earth. That desire has taken me down a path that I would not trade for any other. I have also been fortunate enough to share that path with others.

I grew up near Portland, Maine, and first came to Earthways as part of an independent study program while I was attending the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Earthways was founded by Nancy and Ray Reitze. As a young boy, Ray was apprenticed to a Native American elder of the Micmac tribe who taught him an Earth-based philosophy and the life skills used in the Micmac homeland, the forests of Maine and eastern Canada. Ray now passes that knowledge on to others: Earthways is dedicated to teaching the ancient skills of Earth-based peoples and combining those traditions with the modern world to create a conscientious and sustainable lifestyle.

I already knew a few traditional skills when I arrived at Earthways because I had just completed a year at an alternative school in Norway. My first winter at Earthways, I built a gamme, a traditional dwelling of Scandinavia's Sami people, who also are called Lapps. Although this lodge — a tipi-shaped structure covered with straw for insulation — was intended to be a winter shelter, I ended up living there for several years; I stayed on at Earthways as an apprentice, living on the property and teaching classes. Four years later, I married Ashirah, Ray's other long-term apprentice.

The first lodge I built was only 11 feet wide, but Ashirah and I lived there happily for more than two years before building a new lodge together. Our current home is a larger version of the first gamme I built; it is 20 feet in diameter, or a little more than 300 square feet. Our home has a wood floor, cob entryway, three dormers for windows and a door. At the top, the poles rest around a wooden hoop, forming a large circular skylight.

The supporting structure of the lodge consists of two strong arches made from four curved trees mortised together at the top by a ridgepole, which holds the arches apart. The arches support hundreds of peeled fir and cedar lodgepoles, which we carefully thinned from our woods. We waterproofed the structure with a layer of recycled floormatting rubber that is invisible from inside and out. Over the rubber we stacked square hay bales for insulation. The hay continually decomposes, so we add more when needed. Our foundation for the poles is loose rock piled 2 feet across and 1 foot high; the main support arches are on large rocks.





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