Far up north, there’s a bard in the woods creating dream worlds for himself out of timber and earthbags. He’s built a cabin, a yurt and a hobbit house in his quest to escape the drudge of the wage economy. Let me introduce the free spirit that is Hugh Morshead.
“Ten years ago, I moved into a one-room cabin in the woods. I thought that I would be living a life of voluntary simplicity with one boot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st,” Hugh explained to me. “After my first summer the bank called. The manager met me at the door and asked if she could sit in on the meeting. Across the desk I faced two sets of arched eyebrows. Their concern was my sudden wealth...I paraphrased the money lender in David Copperfield – disposable income equals income minus expenses.”
Disposable income equals income minus expenses. Stick that on a billboard, someone! Whenever I read all these ludicrous “How to earn a million bucks” stories, I’m prone to chuckle or sigh depending on my mood. Yeah, earn a million and spend 900,000 in the process, not to mention selling your soul, your health and your peace of mind. Hugh’s philosophy is mine. Reduce your expenses, love the Earth and her creatures, tell stories and create beauty.
Now, I’m not going to recount Hugh’s tale, because he’s written that himself and will do a far better job than I. But I’ll whet your appetites with a summary.
Born in Ireland in 1953, and having spent most of his twenties backpacking, I think we can safely say Hugh has always possessed a touch of wanderlust. He emigrated to Canada in 1980 to build equestrian cross-country courses, and for 30 years ran a horse farm with his wife.
Then ten years ago they divorced.
I always think wherever you are in the world, divorce is poorly treated. There are no proper ceremonies or celebrations, because the staid judgement of society is that a divorce is some kind of failure. I would very much question that idea. Divorces are major successes, they are the victory of the individual soul over the expectations of the herd and the temptations of the comfort zone. They are beginnings, the time to dust off old dreams and live them to the full.
So, in true Thoreau style, Hugh left his old world and moved into a 150 year old log cabin on a spacious property in the woods in Ontario. “I went on a crazy building spree – sauna, earthbag hobbit house, yurt, greenhouses, gardens, root cellar, sheds, ponds,” he says. Thus began his new life. “I divided the year into three: reading and writing in winter, working and building during the summer and travel by bicycle or on foot in the autumn.” Now if that doesn’t make you consider going it alone, I don’t know what will. :)
One earthbag house after another
Then somewhat later, ‘on a whim’ as he describes it, Hugh built an earthbag house for himself. It cost him just $500 to construct, and was semi-submerged beneath the ground. He lived in it for a year, and described the experience as much of a spiritual journey as a physical one.
The thing with mud homes is they are as infectious as smallpox, so naturally earthbag building didn’t end buried in the woods for Hugh. “My neighbour had a similar whim,” he says, “so I built one for her. Then I got a call to go to Australia for a month and build one for indigenous women elders.”
I always think building with mud takes you places you never thought you’d go. The dirt opens doors and paves new ways. So off Hugh trotted halfway round the world, from the northern cool of Canada to the Pacific heat of Australia, to build yet another earthbag dwelling for The Sacred Womyn’s Camp near Byron Bay. “It is a collection of tents in the bush...home to Lois Cook, the eldest surviving member of the local aboriginal tribe and designated as Custodian of Country.”
That story of Hugh’s experience with the Sacred Womyn’s Camp is a beautiful one that he recounts in his book, which will be available soon.
Which shelter is best?
Having built a variety of sustainable shelters, I asked Hugh which kind of structure he preferred and why. “I believe earthbag building is simply the best form of owner-build home for any environment,” he says. “Yurts are a perfect starter home or guest house, and combined with an earth plaster wall they have great potential – less work, less materials and easily built by one person.”
Why do we love earthbag?
I’ve often noticed that people are smitten by earthbag. I am too, still. It’s so simple and solid a technique, and so so sustainable, because in the right climate you can actually get away with zero timber. It’s solid, earthquake and hurricane proof, fireproof, bulletproof and soundproof. You can create gorgeous organic shapes with earthbag, too.
As you may have already gleaned, despite his appetite from freedom, Hugh is incredibly socially-minded. He is involved in his community through public speaking, a farmer’s market, and workshops. While the workshops are open to all, the emphasis is to empower women and indigenous people to build their own ultra-low-cost homes.
This summer he’s at it again. He will be up to his knees in dirt in a workshop in Canada organized by an indigenous Elder, Becky BigCanoe who lives on Georgia Island on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada. The course will take place on indigenous land and the plan is to build a hobbit house and a yurt over a few weekends in July and August. I’ll be posting details of it in the newsletter when it’s finalised, but heck if I were in Canada, I’d go!
Hugh is very helpful and sociable. "I'm always available to answer questions," he says. You can read more about his lifestyle and building projects, or contact him from his blog: http://hughmorshead.blogspot.com/
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