“This planet is so powerful and diverse, but also fragile. I felt that building a smaller home, out of as many local, natural and recycled resources as possible, would be a wonderful way for me to remain more connected and grounded.”
You can tell a lot about a person by their bookshelf. I’d repeatedly scanned Marie’s books in her 400-square-foot Vancouver Island cob house; a mishmash of ecology, homesteading, environmental activism in the tar sands, accounts of solo treks from the Pacific Northwest, cob house building, and some new-age philosophy. Now, standing in Mermaid Tales, a modest little Tofino bookstore, I realize I could buy her the entire collection. There is hardly a page in the shop that wouldn’t complement the cob-house vibe or impel Marie’s interest.
“There’s this Gary Snyder one,” says the bookshop owner, as I am standing at the counter making a decision. “You know, beat poet, activist …”
I am nodding attentively, but picturing the small, rounded pockets carved out of the mica flaked walls of Marie’s little island sanctuary; the pockets where the book clues to her personality live (and the occasional fennel plant or collection of eggs from the hens). Would the local mushroom foraging guide or some classic Coelho title complement the cob compartments more? The walls and shelves sparkle with mica and light brushes through scattered glass pieces (including one blue gin bottle) randomly schemed across the rounded cob of the house’s first floor. The twinkle and light resemble the vivacity of Marie’s French Canadian, wild-woman eyes, and pile of airy, dirty-blonde curls that sit on top of her head. There’s nothing about Marie, or her home, that doesn’t lend itself to a natural brightness.
The owner is still talking Snyder. “Environmentalist, speaker, essayist …”
He flips open a large coffee-table-style-book to a mostly blank page centered with Snyder’s words in a typeface that catches my attention. The sentiment couldn’t hit at a better time: “The most radical thing you can do is stay at home.”
There are three of us girls, fluctuating sometimes to four, five, six, and seven, for a weeklong surf trip on Vancouver Island, based at Marie’s cob abode. Every day we’ve ventured to the ocean for surfing and then back to the tiny hobbit home, with the occasional skate park session or quick bookstore exploration in between. The home space keeps pulling us back, inviting us in to cook and share meals, to warm up and sweat in her hand-built cedar sauna sprinkled with candles and a small Buddha statue, and to observe and appreciate the artistically tiled cob floor, as some of the girls play and sing with the guitar and ukulele.
The original impact of the fresh cedar smell in her outpost bathroom is starting to wane slightly, but the details and intricacies of her house keep cozying up to our deepest fantasies of a home space. Separate from the main house, the bathroom boasts a rusty old tub, next to an embracing window that fogs during a shower, but allows glimpses of the West Coast rainforest. On a misty day, it’s like taking a bath in a rain shower. The walk between the bathroom and the main house is short enough that even in a sleepy stupor, one doesn’t think about bears. Between the cob house—and the Marie-built chicken coop, greenhouse, wetsuit drying rack and sauna—are patches of West Coast rained-it-perfectly-green grass and rained-it-into-sucking-and-sinking mud, and the resident bears that come around to sniff Marie’s chickens. But, it isn’t the rain or the bears that keep us inside when we’re not surfing; it’s the space, the home that Marie has created.
A five-year building process, assisted by her brother Alex who works as a builder on the Island, Marie has now lived in the cob house for her first full-time summer. Her winters are spent in Whistler, filming and snowboarding in British Columbia and beyond. But it is the cob house that keeps Marie coming back to the island; a place she created as a tangible extension of herself and her values.
“The cob making process doesn’t require any building experience and it was the most fun and creative part,” says Marie. “Cob is so malleable that it allows you to really personalize a space to your own taste, like no other material.”
A combination of hay, clay, plastic bottles, and other locally sourced and recycled materials create the walls and foundation of her habitat. The second floor, or sleeping loft, is made up of recycled wood and windows, decorated with jewelry hanging from a branch of the one small cedar that was kept as part of the structure, a framed magazine cover of Marie snowboarding deep in her element, and a small rack of jackets and scarves. The streamlined approach towards Marie’s “stuff” is harmonious with the eccentric shape of the eco-abode. It is a place of both striking simplicity and obscure oddities. Her dwelling is simply perfect, in its’ own odd little way.
“Her personality is infused in the walls. I always thought that it would be easier to do things more traditionally during the building process, but in the end, Marie always does what she envisions and this house is testament to that,” Marie’s brother Alex says one night, crowded into the cozy space with six girls cooking up a tasty veggie burrito dinner while dancing to the Beach Boys.
Building the house was an idea inspired after breaking her neck in a snowboarding accident in 2010 in the Whistler backcountry. During her recovery time, Marie enrolled in a cob house-building course with Mudgirls, a collective of women living on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the process of dreaming and doing began there.
“I’ve always admired the minimalist attitude, in the sense of needing less material things and having more time and resources to enjoy the true, simple pleasures of life,” says Marie. “I really feel like I am a part of this massive and beautiful ecosystem on the Island and it feeds my soul to have a home here. The house makes me feel like it is where I truly belong.”
On the sixth evening of our stay, I watch Marie and skier Leah Evans laugh about something—as Leah jokingly poses with two soup spoons suctioned to her eyelids—and wonder if Marie notices the impact of all of us in the small space. If she can, none of us can feel it, and within the group, not a single person is ready to leave. We would stay forever if we could. We don’t need to leave home for adventures; we must create home where all the adventures live. Between the hours in the ocean, cooked-with-love food, and soundless sleeping in between walls of cob, the moments have become quite simple, and suddenly a week has tumbled by, radically lived and radically enjoyed.
Note: Thanks Marie for being radical. Thank you for letting us stay at your home. I never did make a decision on a book for you because I think you’re living the best story there is. Keep living it.