Friday, April 23, 2010

Bridge Work

As a professional facilitator and conflict worker, a lot of what I do is build bridges between two or more folks having trouble hearing each other. While my life in community didn't start out with this focus it has decidedly become a central part of what I do.

After 36 years of living at Sandhill Farm, my role has gradually evolved from homesteader (there was no end to what things we didn't know how to do when we bravely moved onto the land in the spring of 1974) to community networker (I became my community's delegate to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities in 1979) to nonprofit administrator (I've been the Secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community since the late '80s) to facilitation trainer (mainly through a two-year program I pioneered in 2003, where I teach others how to build bridges).

Over the decades, my life has shifted more toward meetings and report writing, and away from milking cows and swinging hammers. While I know why this has happened and don't regret my choices, I haven't lost my enjoyment of more physical tasks, and I've been looking forward for some time to this past week, where I set aside my laptop to honcho building a cistern next to my wife's house at Dancing Rabbit.

Ma'ikwe shares the leasehold of a lot (styled "warrens" in DR argot, to continue the rabbit theme) with her next door neighbors, Bear & Alyssa, and we were all on hand at first light Tuesday morning, when Luke Zimmerman arrived with a backhoe to start excavating the site. Where there had been grass and undisturbed soil at 6 am, there was a 26'x13' hole eight feet deep by 10 am. Ever-conscious of the risk of a cave in (where the digging out would be done by hand), we were poised to work as fast as we could, and were in the hole by 10:05, trying to find the low spots with a transit.

After carefully shaving down the high spots in the clay subsoil, we slapped together 2x6s sufficient to build forms for a 22'x9' slab six inches deep. After leveling and staking the forms, we laid out a lattice of 1/2-inch rebar on two-foot centers, bound every intersection with tie wire, and called for four yards of ready-mix to be delivered from the concrete plant in our county seat, 13 miles away. I had about 30 minutes of down time between the completion of the prep work and before the truck had not arrived—just enough to realize how tired and sore I already was from having worked all day with shovels,
ladders, and hacksaws (to cut the rebar). When the truck rumbled in at about 4:30, there was no time to contemplate how tired we were; it was time to work concrete.

While pouring a 22'x9' slab is relatively straight forward, I knew that this pour would be extra effort. For one thing, we didn't want the truck coming too close to the edge of the hole, where it might precipitate a cave in. That meant we'd have to push the concrete into the corners. For another, concrete is stronger (much stronger) if poured with minimal water and extra cement. Most residential jobs are done with a five bag mix (bags of cement per cubic yard), and contractors regularly allow extra water to be added to enhance workability—even though it results in a marked degradation of the 2500 psi strength that is possible if extra water is not used. I had ordered 3000 psi concrete and had told them up front that I didn't want any extra water. I knew that this was going to be the stiffest concrete anyone in the pit had ever seen.

With the help of neighbors, there were about eight people in the pit: five to push concrete and agitate it in place, two to run a screed board, and one to bull float the finished product. After the floating, we had to place 34 L-bolts at precise locations in the hardening concrete, so that the slab could be tied to the concrete bock walls yet to come. Last, I crawled out on a pair of 2x6s that we laid across the forms and I hand troweled two shallow depressions in the slab to facilitate pumping out the water when we needed to clean the cistern.

When we were finally done, we gently lay a film of polyethylene over the top to retard drying and climbed up the ladders for the last time. It was about 6:15, and beer never tasted any better. When the driver of the concrete truck came over to have us sign the work order, I asked him if he ever made deliveries calling for 3000 psi concrete with no water added. He thought about it for a second, and replied: "It's not common, but we do it for bridges."

Hah, I thought. Even when I try to go back to homesteading, I'm still doing bridge work.

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