Heart + Twine: The University of Montana’s Forum for Living with Appropriate Technology
Prose + Photos by Nick Triolo
As a young kid, I often wondered what it would look like if I placed a line of twine on the ground for every path traveled over the course of my life. Everything. Every trip to the bathroom, every bike ride to school, every commute to work, every trip to the grocery store, the barber. Over enough years, I was always curious what shapes might start to emerge. If I were to climb up the largest tree—perhaps that ponderosa pine leaning in my backyard—and peered down at my life of twine, what patterns would I see?
Choking on wanderlust, I always assumed the more far-reaching these twine paths the better—more stories from more exotic corners of the world. Yet as I grew older, I understood that most people were likely to discover only a handful of major centers. These hubs would shoot fraying twine out in every direction to demark life’s rhythms, but they would all travel back to relatively few gravitational centers. We might call these places “homes,” or oikos. I imagined looking down into these patterns as an old man and seeing them as a constellation of stars, or eyes wizened and reflecting my own, staring back with their long twine lashes, their centers contented.
6:45 a.m. I pull back the blinds to take inventory of the day. Late summer in Missoula, Montana, often delivers smoke and heat, but the sky artisans have painted in cobalt and crisp-cool sunray this morning. The air inside my cottage bites cold so I set the kettle to urgent, appeasing my foggy mind with the promise of hot coffee.
A day at the F.L.A.T. has begun.
I often twinge with pretension when I tell people I live at the “F.L.A.T.” as it initially sounds like some modern-chic London apartment. Believe me, this place is as far from cramped, European urban life as you could get. The F.L.A.T. stands for The Forum for Living with Appropriate Technology, and, according to the mission statement, it is “a living-learning residence for university students to demonstrate sustainable ways of living, such as energy monitoring, urban agriculture, passive solar, and ecological design.”
This University of Montana housing project began in 2009 after Derek Kanwischer, an environmental studies graduate student, tried to convince the university to convert an entire city block near campus into an ecovillage. Kanwischer reasoned that if the university spent so much money maintaining Greek Row, why wouldn’t it consider investing in a Green Row? His plan was ambitious, and, in the end, he had to settle for a single, four-bedroom property near campus.
And it was so. The F.L.A.T. was born.
Derek’s vision was simple: six students—both undergraduate and graduate—would apply and live together to transform this residence into a model for environmentally responsible living. Each member would live onsite and maintain the house by working ten to 15 hours a week, while demonstrating sustainable living practices for the university and greater Missoula community.
The plan started with a skeletal budget and little clout, but Derek and the founding members broke ground immediately with structural enhancements. After securing grants they installed solar panels, crafted a cob oven, plotted a garden, and raised a chicken coop. To offer a meeting space for student and community groups, the residents retrofitted a separate studio space in the backyard, complete with straw bale insulation and a pellet stove. In three years, this inconspicuous quarter-acre home was converted into a highly functioning living space and recognized nationally for its efforts in ecological student housing.
With the kettle singing, I reach into the cupboard to retrieve my favorite mug, the chipped one with a fancy curled mustache painted on it. After five years of previous F.L.A.T. members, the accumulation of mismatched kitchenware is impressive—lacking uniformity but excelling in functionality.
Coffee in hand, I step into the backyard and greet the day. The yard is spongy-cold and smells of wet straw. I pass the cob oven, a three-foot-high dome of earth and sand. As a previous resident project, it’s common to find pizza crisping or bread bubbling inside this earthen structure. Adjacent to the oven stands an L-shaped chicken coop and run. Six hens inspect my arrival, bouncing and moving together as one unified ball of feather and beak. I crouch into the run—cobbled together awkwardly with repurposed materials—and sit with them while the New Hampshire Red pecks at my big toe to taste whether I am predator or protector. The answer is ambiguous as I fill their water and share food scraps, then reach into the coop to steal three warm eggs.
After crawling out of the run, I pry open the deer fencing and enter the garden. Though modest in size, this plot of land explodes with vegetables, providing each F.L.A.T. resident with more than enough plant sustenance: fireworks of kale, knuckles of cabbage, tomatoes and curling squash and pumpkin. Aster flowers and nasturtiums wink in confidence with their peppery edge. A fragrant teasing of perennial herbs huddles together near the fence.
I grab a pail of water from the rain catchment tank and walk over to the greenhouse. More tomatoes and peppers live here. Last semester, an intern built this small but productive structure, and, as I enter, the floorboards creak hollow underfoot. Below, a vermiculture pit wiggles with worms, an age-old technique to expedite compost breakdown.
Embedded into these morning rhythms—these twine pathways—lives a distinct pattern of growth, of maturation. This kind of growth is of the relational kind, a sort of ping-pong participation: of caring and being cared for, investing and being invested in. Oikos, defined. No more clearly is such reciprocity experienced than with the five other F.L.A.T. residents.
I weave through the backyard towards the main house for our weekly 7:30 a.m. meeting. A housemate recently implemented a xeriscaping plan to minimize water-intensive lawn maintenance, while retaining a sharp aesthetic edge. The yard is central to the property layout, where six F.L.A.T. residents live in two surrounding structures. As I approach the main house, I smell something sweet, something syrupy. Heather, the director, is preparing waffles from scratch. Each week, one member provides breakfast for the meeting. As an overworked and often fatigued student, I appreciate stumbling into meetings to be fed by another. Consider it an inbuilt gratitude trap.
Coming to Montana from California for graduate school, Heather makes clothing choices that always reveal a mastery of the cozy: a multicolored alpaca beanie sags from her head, contrasted with a charcoal University of Santa Cruz sweatshirt. As I enter through the kitchen, Heather places her spatula down and delivers a sleepy embrace; her hair smells of waffle batter. Heather makes the F.L.A.T. function. Tending to endless emails, workday reminders and event planning, Heather is the director for a reason, someone fully dedicated to sustainable living. Without missing a beat, she swivels back to waffle production.
I walk into the living room where the other four members—Peter, Dov, Kate, and Mara—mingle around the dining table which is covered in laptops, scribbled agendas, and French presses. Kate is our meeting facilitator, a role that rotates weekly. She writes today’s agenda on an oversized whiteboard plastered to the wall. An unruly head of brown curls matches her wild but highly experienced ways—a lover of whitewater kayaking and everything crafty, Kate studies environmental education and is our master gardener. Her thumbs are dark green and her laugh tickles you from the insides.
I sit next to Peter and immediately feel shadowed in both intellect and size. Well over six feet tall, his past accolades include a previous master’s in engineering at Stanford University and a recent Peace Corp stint in Tanzania. Sounds of an accordion often drift from his basement room and he makes the meanest BBQ sauce this side of the Continental Divide. For him, the F.L.A.T. is a playground for experimenting with residential energy conservation, so each meeting he reports on our energy and water consumption trends.
At the head of the table sits Dov, his long hair and beard still wet from a morning shower.
“Wanna try some of my coffee?” Dov asks. “It’s a new one, a dark roast. Real fierce.” I accept his offer and slide my mug across the busy table. A young and impressively well-read graduate student focusing on conflict resolution, he delivers one of those grins that force-feed your heart to grow larger. A few years ago, Dov was named Montana’s Bachelor of the Year by Cosmopolitan, something he rarely chooses to go public with.
Mara, the only undergraduate resident, is finalizing a sketch of her backyard landscaping plans. She and two interns have been working all year to transform the yard into a climate-adaptable, native plant demonstration. With shocking blue eyes and shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair, Mara is one of the most driven young people I’ve ever met. Raised in Montana, she is a scientific illustrator, concert violinist, and backcountry ranger, to start.
I arrived at the F.L.A.T. with ambitions of redefining place, to mark with fresh twine my entrance into this authentic expression of home, of oikos. At 30 years old, I am the oldest member. Following my undergraduate years, I spent a year traveling, volunteering on farms and working around the world. After returning home, I spent several years at a nonprofit marketing job in Portland, Oregon. So, when I started as a graduate student and newly admitted F.L.A.T. member, I wanted to position the house as a strong resource for the university and community. I saw that after the five-year gestation period of structural development, it was time for the project to turn outward and strengthen its influence through events, workshops, and action.
As I find my seat, Heather walks in with a wobbling stack of waffles and a mason jar of maple syrup in the crook of her arm. The meeting begins. Josh Slotnick, our faculty advisor and local farmer-poet legend, storms in to provide departmental support. Josh is a busy community leader in Missoula and we’re lucky to have his input at every meeting. For the next hour we discuss a wide variety of topics, with Kate moving us along in striking efficiency. The main focus is planning for the Fall Harvest Festival, our biggest event of the semester. Every year, students and neighbors congregate in the backyard for live music, apple pressing, and pumpkin carving. Anything earned goes directly into house improvements, reducing our reliance on university funds.
At the F.L.A.T., decision-making is entirely consensus-based and there is often fiery disagreement. Much like any living situation, when you live together you must compromise. You must listen. The house is by no means insulated from these challenges, especially when living and working with highly ambitious, opinionated people. But this is where growth seems to happen, along those razor edges of passion, honesty, and exchange.
Our meeting ends and everyone quickly scatters. It’s off to the races—papers to write, classes to teach, internships to attend. All of us are deeply entrenched in a whirlwind of academic activities, and this group wastes little time. I grab what remains of my coffee and head towards the studio to satisfy my monthly role as “studio czar.”
The F.L.A.T. has found an efficient way of organizing tasks. The six of us are assigned a rotating job to manage each month—chicken coop, garden, studio, web updates, yard, or support. Of these monthly roles, residents choose one of them to manage as “czar” for the semester. This position focuses more on the bigger picture. Dov for example, is the chicken coop czar, so he works on new coop designs, retrofitting it with a longer run and easier access for cleaning. The Czar thinks strategy while the monthly role is the workhorse, or “grunt”—cleaning the coop and feeding the chickens.
This month I am in charge of the studio, so I venture into this space to check on its cleanliness. The F.L.A.T.’s studio hosts four or five events each week, from university student groups to community club meetings; in 2013, we housed nearly 150 events and meetings. I light the pellet stove for a local wilderness association that will be meeting later that evening. We purchase pellets from a local mill, where sawdust and shavings are reconstituted and sold at a reduced rate. The stove quickly warms the space, allying with straw bale insulation.
I grab the broom and begin to sweep, finding artifacts of past events lingering in the neglected corners. I remove a flyer taped to the wall promoting the popular Wild Mercy Environmental Reading Series. Every spring, graduate students congregate to read their latest prose and poetry. Last spring, visiting writer and food activist Janisse Ray read from her most recent book, The Seed Underground. This fall, we will host an Environmental Documentary Film Series, screening new documentaries and hosting a faculty-run discussion afterwards. The studio also supports a Skills Workshop Series, where experts offer free workshops for the public—fermenting foods, making natural body care products, and bike maintenance are a few highlights.
The studio fire flickers as I shut the door and walk into the backyard. The sun has risen above the towering twins of Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo, reflecting off our large solar panels that satisfy most of our annual energy needs. Since their installation, these 2.7 kW panels have saved 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide.
As I split through two fruiting plum trees, I find all six young chickens perched on the roost together. They get anxious as I approach, their claws gripping tight to the wooden beam. I’ve never witnessed all six birds, the whole fleet, standing on the roost together. Suddenly, one by one, the hens take flight from the perch, flapping their newly discovered talent for the first time. It all happens in an instant, as each chicken watches the technique of the next and tries to follow suit. Most of their short flights are awkward. I suppose this new way of moving through the world is scary at first. Yet these six young birds are learning new ways, the ways of coming together in an uncertain future.
Writer Paul Kingsnorth recently said that stories are really what interest him most when it comes to our environmental crisis. “What failed stories have got us to this point in human history?” he asks. What got us to “this point where we have managed to change the climate of a whole planet and kick off another mass extinction? What do we believe—what do we think—that is wrong, and what would new stories look like?” I see the F.L.A.T. as telling a new story, and this is how it goes:
The F.L.A.T. is a story about coming together, about joining forces to co-create a new plot, a new home. This is a story about a public university, originally founded on a rich sustenance of extractive industry money, now sponsoring a housing project that encourages less fossil fuel dependence through local, decentralized food and energy production. It is a story about a central hub of twine and heart, where sharing and participation and creativity rule. And this home is woven with each of our distinct paths and conscious participation—with ourselves, our school, our community, and our planet.
The F.L.A.T. is a story about students coming together to call a place home, to love that place and to know it damn well, and to take pride in making that place—that twine-heart center—the most nourishing place possible. It is a story of bioregional literacy and celebration, of healing, and of building a new cultural heritage. It is a story of joining forces to alter convention—simply by living together, communicating together, arguing together, loving together, and learning together.
The F.L.A.T. is a story about coming home.
Nick Triolo is a writer, environmental activist, photographer, filmmaker, and long-distance mountain runner from the Sierra foothills of Northern California. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Montana and senior editor for Camas: The Nature of the West. Nick has been published in Trail Runner Magazine, Camas, Occupied Stories, and others. See more on his blog (jasminedialogues.wordpress.com), Twitter (@nicktriolo), and Instagram (@jasminedialogues).
This essay originally appeared in Whitefish Review.