Living Off the Grid in an Earthship
MONTANA LIVING — Tucker Bolton’s arms are tired.
He’s spent a hot afternoon, alongside a half a dozen or so volunteers, beating old tires full of dirt with a sledge hammer. Each tire takes him anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to fill, and by the time he’s done pounding, each will weigh upwards of 300 pounds.
Once filled, the tires are stacked, brick-like, in rows, and by the end of the day, he can almost visualize the first wall of his “eco-groovy” home. Not only has Bolton found a creative way to recycle old tires, but he’s also undertaken the first leg of his journey toward earth-friendly, autonomous living.
Bolton and his wife, Glenna, along with another couple, Scott Elder and Karla Lund, are building an Earthship community on 20 acres of land ten miles outside of Miles City, Montana. Earthships, a type of passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials, were conceptualized in the 1970s by eco-pioneer, Michael Reynolds.
Along with using recycled cans, bottles, plastic bags as well natural materials as their building blocks, Earthships also exist “off-the-grid,” which is to say that they do not rely on a city’s municipal services, such as electricity, water, gas, or sewer.
In fact, municipal independence seems to be the driving tenet for Bolton and his crew, who collectively eschew modern dependence on public utilities.
“We’re an incredibly wasteful society,” Bolton explains, “We’re one of the few societies who think it’s fine to take a dump in five gallons of clean water.”
Elder laughs and follows up Bolton by loosely quoting Humanure Handbook author Joseph Jenkins, who believes that there are two types of people: people who defecate into their water and people who don’t, and clearly these folks fall into the latter.
The two go on to enthusiastically describe the Earthship’s water sewage system, a three-part recycling process that begins with water harvested from rain or snow. Water collects on the roof and is channeled through a silt catching device, which feeds into a gravity-fed cistern. This cistern filters out any existing bacteria and makes the water suitable for drinking. This same water is then pushed into a conventional pressure tank where it can be used for other household activities like flushing.
As Bolton explains, this process of water conservation is an ideal solution for drought-ridden communities like many of the towns scattered across the Eastern Montana prairie. Along with re-using water, an increasingly threatened resource, Earthship infrastructure also provides the added benefit of responsibly utilizing other natural resources—like wind and sunlight—to power the home and allow for other amenities, like growing one’s own food.
“Where else can you maintain a greenhouse year round without relying on so much as a drop of water from an outdoor hose or on electricity to bolster fake sunlight?” Bolton wonders, squinting through the café window at the blue-skied morning sun. “Sunlight is free and there for all of us.”
If eco-friendly people can be neatly clumped into a category, then Bolton fits the stereotype. At 63, he’s an artist/musician with a full head of crazy, white hair that spills out from underneath his engineer-style cap. A former rugby player, he’s a cuddly bear of a figure who smiles with his eyes as he greets incoming friends from his seat on a leather couch in his favorite downtown Miles City hangout, Kafé Utza, which shares an adjoining wall with Scott Elder’s health food store, Great Grains.
In some ways, Bolton’s building partner, Elder, is his polar opposite. Although physically close to Bolton in size, Elder by contrast is quiet and reserved, with neatly cropped white hair, soft, watery blue eyes, and the soft-spoken reticence of a man used to weighing his words carefully. Despite these personality differences, it’s clear that both men share a mutual respect for one another that delves far beyond
their shared value of conservation and responsible living.
Bolton explains, “I have a huge ego and Scott has no ego, and I’ve got a lot to learn from him. Scott is thought-provoking and he has created a need for me to use this gray matter again,” he says, tapping his head. As if on cue, Scott agrees, quietly adding how much he appreciates Tucker’s willingness to discuss ideas without feeling a need to bully.
Meaningful debates and shared values aside, how do they feel about cohabiting together on the same bit of land? What’s the ultimate vision for their shared Earthship community, tentatively named “Laughing Goddess,” a name originally conceived by Elder’s partner, Karla, in reference to Bolton’s series of steel sculptures that he calls his “frolicking ladies.”
Will they also invite other couples to build Earthships alongside them? Bolton explains that his vision of “Laughing Goddess” is not one of communal living, but rather he envisions it as more of a learning community where visitors will be welcome to come out to explore various ways of alternative building. Along with their two residences, they also plan to build a learning resource center that will offer hands-on workshops in various ecological building methods, like straw bale hay.
Both men believe that the key to conserving our natural resources lays not in the hands of the government or corporate monopolies bent on controlling these natural resources in grid-style infrastructure, but rather needs to be in the hands of the people, who need to educate one another in a grassroots movement that involves working side-by-side individuals on a community level. Along with an educational center, Bolton also visualizes building a ceramic/art studio where he and Glenna can focus on their respective arts.
At some point, Elder trots off then returns with a book that he spreads open on the table in front of us. He purposefully points to an illustration, explaining how this whole thing works: the sun actives solar panels that in turn heat the earth and the insulated thermal wrapped walls, which in turn heat the house. These block illustrations, seemingly rudimentarily enough to be in a grade-school science book, look far too simple to actually work.
As Elder continues describing the various techniques, it’s clear he’s done this before. In fact, building an Earthship has been a dream of his for over thirty years and not one he takes lightly. He began experimenting with geo-desic domes in his backyard years ago and from there became hooked on the simplistic beauty of building infrastructures out of materials that most of us throw into our garbage cans.
For his part, Bolton is no stranger to building houses. He spent the bulk of his career in what he calls the “slash and burn” housing industry where he desecrated his fair share of wetland communities across California and Texas, building both commercial and residential structures. Given his former career, is this new endeavor an attempt at penance? He laughs, “I never thought of it, but yes. I think every day I’m atoning, in some way, for my past guilt.”
Bolton hopes to have a livable structure erected by the fall, while Elder sets a more conservative estimate of four-to-five years. Whereas Bolton’s designs will stem from intuition and artistic sensibility, Elder plans to purchase a blue-print from Earthship founder’s Michael Reynold’s online store, once again illustrating the many ways that these two very different, yet mutually respected sensibilities can exist side-by-side in perfect harmony.
This, no doubt, will provide fertile ground for Bolton’s “Laughing Goddesses.
No, Scott says, Scott, whose plans to buy a pattern from Earthship founder ….. and gives himself a four-to-five year span on which to finish, has no hesitation it will work.