Chewy and Other Innovations

‘Chewy’ is the name of a macgyvered Styrofoam shredder made at Manitoulin Permaculture. Its genesis is soaked in the ingredients for a highly creative marinade. The process that gave birth to it illustrates the unique learning environment at Manitoulin Permaculture. Eventually selected as opposed to air-crete, EPS-crete, sometimes called styrocrete, was chosen to insulate their unique greenhouse design. Styrocrete ‘rocks’ because instead of using gravel to make concrete, Styrofoam is used instead. It’s also a great way to recycle non-biodegradable Styrofoam. They eventually became the proud owners of their proprietary blend of styrocrete thanks to chewy. Here it is insulating the greenhouse:

The greenhouse is its own myth. After years of painstaking research that included professors, internships and volunteering, with months spent at organizations like the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute and SchoolGrown, a cost-saving, and permit-hacking greenhouse was erected.

Mark, who graduated with a bachelor’s in biochemistry, came on site and built a dome for himself that eventually became popular, so he built others. He is among many here who have benefitted from the extra time and space to create and research. Justin acts as a sort of venture capitalist at a Research and Development firm, and reallocates his funds to benefit the group. This group is steadily expanding. Their non-profit the Northern Ontario Permaculture Research Institute (NOPRI) recently scored the green light for community gardens and greenhouses at their new Little Current headquarters. They are also building a strong network of permaculture and alternative living enthusiasts. I meet a few every week who say they are catching on to this place. It is a vortex. Obstacles, like getting approval by engineers and architects, become opportunities to build a better network. Needless to say things are growing quickly.

Chewy was forged in the nexus of scavenged materials. Made of parts originally for another project, as well as a $2 addition, the collection of motor, nails, and axle was enough to shred Styrofoam, turning a once impossible process into a grueling and tedious task of dropping Styrofoam into the void.


There are constant setbacks and ‘technical maneuvers’ needed to keep things running smoothly. In many ways we are always living on the edge. Shane stresses that we are living on the ‘tail-end’ rather than the ‘front-end’ of development. Although Chewy survived the season, it was decommissioned. I think it represents a step in the right direction for the organization here.

I see a team of people who are resourceful with their scavenged materials. However, the immaterial scavenging here has as much if not more potential than the material scavenging. The opportunity to think combined with the freedom to create in a resource rich environment is the stuff places like The Recurse Center, a famous hacker school, and Open Source Ecology are made of. Wired magazine even had a similar idea when they ran this article

Here are the principles of scavenging that I think apply on both the material and immaterial plane.

-Tetanus. Avoid tetanus at all costs. Regarding information, I think that means ‘play it safe’ and avoid toxic material.

-Don’t take things you don’t need. If you take something that you do need but there are parts you don’t use those can turn around and benefit you later. If you take things you don’t need but that look cool, you’ll get distracted. In the end you’ll have to burn it all in a big fire anyway.

– Wood is always good. Never ignore a building block, especially a multipurpose fundamental like a new concept.

-NO MAYBEs. If you are iffy about it, just put it down. That’s how big fires start.

Diving into the innovation process here has revealed a few paths to me. The first is a combination of deliberate and non-deliberate network creation. One of the inspirations for the greenhouse was The Garbage Warrior Many of the resources that went into Mark’s research into the greenhouse came out of Google Scholar. The networks that need to be built are informational and social. While working here I notice many of the interns going in their own directions and leaving trails unexplored. This isn’t because they aren’t diligent, it’s usually because there just isn’t enough time. The potential energy is palpable. With an accelerating network in a resource rich environment (resources include: freedom, time, parts, ideas) minor increases in human capital lead to major increases in production. This is the kernel of educational theory that the above mentioned organizations/movements are based on.

These organizations are competing to create a synergy of forces (or resources) that accelerate their acceleration. The vision here is of a sustainable future, with a focus on regenerative agriculture. Hopefully, the success of NOPRI and Manitoulin Permaculture insures the food sovereignty of Manitoulin Island. This is what it feels like here when you make something.




Musings of an Intern

First Week Impressions

I arrived on Manitoulin Island bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Shane picked me up and told me about the lay of the land. He took me through Little Current and showed me the learning center where he works as a tutor/mentor.

Once Shane opens his mouth you can tell that he is wicked smart. He was the first person to ask me about my interests and to try to understand why I was interested in them and I though no one would ever ask. It was no surprise that everyone on the farm was as passionate and curious about their own subjects as Shane is with his.

Upon arriving at the farm I was greeted first with the solar field, a disheveled barn sporting huge solar panels overlooking a large garden. I later learned that it housed a few turkey vultures too. After the solar field there is a beautiful and bright house with a green roof. Veronica stays there and comes by to visit. She checks out the sunsets from the farm property, which are beautiful.

Not exactly a sunset, I know.

Finally, the farm house is down a long driveway, hidden away from the highway outside Little Current. It has a red door, many cars and carpentry projects around it. The house belongs to the Tilson family who run the farm and a sizeable amount of side projects/organizations. Their output and work ethic are prolific.

After meeting all the interns, workaways, and visitors I am shown my tent where I will be staying all summer. While here I am encouraged to do my passion projects while doing duties such as tending the chickens, doing dishes, cooking, and cleaning. I am also allowed to participate in the many projects that are ongoing on and off the farm. For instance, the group here is launching a local community garden, which I will get to help build. On the second day I learned how to wire a solar panel and helped construct it. Since I have much less expertise than passion I’ve spent a lot of time learning. Fortunately, the environment is perfect for learning anything about permaculture, since everyone around me has a general understanding and their own specializations to boot.

The Manitoulin Permaculture farm is part of a growing network of farmers who are trying to do farming in a more holistic way. We have connections with local legends like Ed Burt, and have contacts participating in the new wave of biodynamic farming.

The biggest change for me, one that I had been meaning to get to, was waking up early. My tent is right beside the chicken coop, so the first morning was quite a shock as I tried to fall asleep to the sound of roosters. I got used to it pretty quickly. I also find that I get tired around night time, since I spend so little time on a computer and much time doing work/studying. My sleep schedule is finally back on track. I am having more vivid dreams too.

Since this is my first time on a farm I got to experience the pleasures of weeding and sowing seeds. I discovered that twitch grass is the plant version of evil, and recently learned that as it decomposes it becomes toxic to other plants. If you don’t already know about it look it up and you’ll see. Here is a great article on the topic One surprising experience, though small, is the feeling of roots in the ground as you dig them up. Picking dandelions is especially odd, since the tops are so unassuming, but the bottom is very large. I felt like I was lifting a complex alien life-form out of the ground.

Bugs are another alien life-form you’ll meet out here. Although you’ll meet several new fellows, it’s the familiar ones that will get you. The farm is situated in a windy area, so the wind repels most flies and mosquitoes, however, I wouldn’t recommend anyone take them lightly. I was bitten the other day and came down with a fever, so now I am sporting my ‘bug suit’ no matter how silly I look. Thanks Mom!

Nature can be kind of strange. There are many animals out here that are not under the purview of the farm. This morning I caught a chipmunk who had managed to open a banana and start eating it. As we get smarter, they get smarter. No more bananas outside of the fridge! One day a fish swam sideways up to our boat and offered itself to us. It was pregnant, so we harvested its eggs and cooked the rest for dinner. Talk about natural and local.

The food here is delicious. I feel like I live out of the extreme version of a whole foods store. When I was sick Jaime cooked up a stinging nettle and willow bark tea and it made me feel much better. Every night one of us cooks dinner for the group. The main interns here are all great cooks. This week we have had a French couple staying with us who have cooked amazing meals and desserts. They made caramel apple pie for us. Yum! I plan to make mac and cheese the way momma taught me.

It seems we will have many new faces come and go throughout the season. We recently housed three Buddhist monks who came for a visit. It was nice to have them teach us about Buddhism. I don’t know how they meditated outside!

My impressions over the first week have been that I am in a hard-working and disciplined group, like a mini-military operation, who combine healthy living and a strong sense of community to accomplish their tasks. Many people here run their own businesses on the side, and the environment is geared to unleash creativity. I feel like there is nothing in my lifestyle preventing me from achieving my self-improvement goals, and many people here foster me as I try to achieve them. By the way, the fitness program here is incredible. All in all I feel superhuman!