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Thinking about Thatch

by Tara

This past October, on the way to our family vacation in Vermont, Tyler and I stopped at Deanne Bednar's Strawbale Studio. While we were there, we discovered an important detail about thatched roofing: reeds need to be harvested in the wintertime. This came as a bit of a surprise, and it meant one very important thing: we'll have to start our homesteading project a bit earlier than planned.

Thatch Roof Closeup

The kind of thatched roof we'd like to build requires roughly one "bundle" of phragmites reeds per square foot of finished surface. After some calculation with Deanne, we figured that Tyler and I will likely have to harvest full-time in Vermont for a month straight to collect 600 bundles for our roof. (Buying them is pretty much out of the question—the going rate is $15 per bundle, and they're shipped in from Europe and Asia.)

This unforeseen wrinkle dredged up all kinds of emotions and logistical concerns:

I don't want to leave our friends and families for a month this winter, during the last season we'll live in the same area. How are we going to haul the reeds if we go out there? I guess we'll need to buy a truck ASAP. How much is that going to cost? Where will we stay while we're in Vermont? How much is THAT going to cost?

If we go through with this, we'll be hosting a thatching workshop on our land this summer, and to do that, our timber frame has to be assembled by a set date! Oh, and we'll have to fly Deanne out and pay for her expenses, and somehow organize the workshop. How are we ever going to manage this? How much will all of this cost?

It makes no financial sense to do this! We should just slap a $1,000 metal roof on our house and be done with it!

I was ready to give up on the idea before we'd even begun, but over the course of several long talks, Tyler helped me remember that chasing big scary goals is always worth it in the end. That sometimes the pursuit of knowledge and adventure is more important than what makes sense practically or financially, and that as soon as we've committed to taking the leap, all of the pieces will come together. They always do.

And he's right. Our project is about more than just building a house—it's about learning traditional skills, and exploring sustainable building practices in the pursuit of self-sufficiency. Learning to thatch a roof in the manner of our ancestors, utilizing an otherwise useless and loathed invasive species, it just feels like worthwhile pursuit. It's certainly more inspiring than than throwing a metal roof on our first home.

What's more, it's a skill we'll be able to use over and over again in the future, both for ourselves, and for friends and family. So, in the spirit of adventure, we've decided to take the plunge and head out to Vermont for a month or two this winter. And sure enough, things have been falling into place.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!

W. H. Murray, from The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951)

For the past two weeks, we've been mobilizing our plan. While Tyler has been researching sickles and scythes and sharpening, I've jumped headlong into the world of governmental bureaucracy. This has entailed loads of emails with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the Vermont Land Trust, and various Audubon societies.

I've been working to get Tyler and myself permitted to do two things: 1) collect phragmites on state land, and 2) transport those reeds to our land. (Phragmites reeds are very invasive and practically impossible to get rid of. There's even a quarantine on transporting them, hence the bureaucratic red tape.)

For once, these are rules we respect; we do not, under any circumstances, want to inadvertently spread this vicious plant any further throughout our new home state. Thankfully, despite the quarantine, our prospects of being granted permits seem to be favorable. I didn't expect to enjoy slogging through governmental bureaucracy, but in reality, everyone I've talked to has been friendly, welcoming, and interested in our project!

Next, we're off to see a man about a scythe.