Bales of Knowledge; an essay by Arthur Olson

Written by Andrew Morrison

Young man in front of a riverBales of Knowledge, an essay by Arthur Olson (18), who attended the Culyer, New York workshop is a powerful example of how this work can change the world. When I met him, I immediately liked him and was struck by his ability to fold into the large workshop group. Turns out this young man is taking his life by the reigns and creating an incredible future for himself. He is in the finals for 12 merit scholarships at colleges all around the country, is a finalist for the prestigious 1693 Murray Scholarship which only accepts 6 students from a pool of 13,000 applicants, and has received full ride scholarships to several colleges. At the center of this success has been an essay that he wrote about his experience at the Culyer workshop. We want to celebrate Arthur and his accomplishments by bragging a little bit about him here (he’s worked hard and deserves it!) and also to give you the opportunity to read his essay. It’s well written and put a smile on our faces. Please check it out below.

“Hey bud, can you grab me that board‐stretcher, you know, the one with the yellow handle?” I heard myself answer, “yes,” almost as if by compulsion before I had time to stop and consider what I had agreed to do. Too late, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what a board‐stretcher looked like. Yellow handle, yellow handle, don’t see anything; I’m sure it’s been over a minute by now. He’s going to start getting antsy. I’ll just bring over a yellow level and play it off as a mistake. I returned with the level in hand and was met with a roar of laughter from the rest of the crew; I would soon find out that there was no such thing as a board‐stretcher.  Flushed with embarrassment, I promised myself I would never work on a construction site again. So, it was with some considerable reservations that I signed up this summer for a straw bale home building seminar in upstate New York.

As I touched down at the Syracuse airport, I was still unsure of whether these straw bale houses were real or if I had accidentally picked up a brochure for a Lord of the Rings hobbit home expo. After a short ride from the airport to the site, Andrew, the instructor of the seminar, met me with a broad smile and a hearty handshake. “You ready to make this a real house?” he asked motioning over his shoulder to the bare‐bones wood frame. Flashes of the board‐stretcher fiasco came streaking into my mind and all I could manage was a rather feeble, “You ‘betcha.”

Wading through the haze of construction terminology was like reading from a long lost arcane text. “Put the four and a quarter in the toe‐up at a sixty‐five degree angle so it catches the frame but be sure to make it plumb with the plane of the wall.” What? Fortunately, with each challenge came an opportunity to learn. Instead of accepting that I couldn’t internalize the contractor lingo, I forced myself to embrace it and by the end of the week I was spouting off jargon with the best of them. No longer was I intimidated by building a house, in fact, I was actually starting to enjoy it. Inspired by this success and fueled by the fire of ambition, I decided to capitalize on my newfound ability and undertake something truly daring: designing my own sustainable off‐the‐grid cabin.

Was it possible that I, Arthur Olson, the boy who once loathed the sound of a buzz saw and shrank at the mention of a board‐stretcher, could design a house? It only took me a few days to realize I was in over my head, but I didn’t give up and began churning through books and websites at a devilish pace, scouring over every detail for ideas and direction.

Finally after months of research, sketches, and planning I had my design. In my hand was the floor plan for a five hundred square foot, straw bale cabin that brought together everything I had learned during my gap year about off‐the‐grid living and sustainability. My heart swelled with intense pride as I looked down at the smeared charcoal markings and eraser shavings still on the page. It was then that it hit me. If I could go from zero knowledge to designing my own cabin in only four months, imagine what I could do with four years in college, surrounded by intellectually stimulating peers and spurred on by brilliant professors. This straw bale experience helped me to develop a “mental template”, if you will, for overcoming daunting challenges which I can apply to obstacles in the future and will continue to model for others. Just like building that first straw bale house, I now know that approaching the unknown requires a floor plan of open‐mindedness, anchored by a foundation of diligent study, secured with solid walls of research, and finally roofed with shingle upon shingle of determination.

7 Responses

  1. Good job Arthur, and congratulations on all your possibilities! Your essay was fun to read, the descriptions really brought me into your world on the construction sites, and I loved the wrap up analogies between education and construction of foundation, walls, etc.

    Great job, and best wishes to you at uni!


  2. What a great read,takes me back to my youth in construction.
    All the best on your journey Arthur and if you host a workshop I would love to help out.Billy

  3. Nice work Arthur! I like your take on things. You’ve got a great way of observing life and reporting on it. It was a distinct pleasure meeting you at Cuyler,and working with you and Erin on sewing the mesh onto the bale walls. I wish you the very best in your future endeavors, and it would be great to cross paths again. John

  4. imagine what your future holds with the “mental template” you have established for yourself through the workshop … congratulations

  5. Wonderful writing Arthur! Best of luck to you! Much gratitude to you as well for filling my heart with hope for the future!

    Wishes for optimal health! Happiness! And tireless energy!
    Many Blessings!

  6. Keep your mind open and your heart will fill with those things which are for your growth in life. The best is yet to come.
    God Bless,

  7. Methinks you have a big mission on this planet Arthur! Loved reading your essay and wish you all the best! You started off right in the first place, working with Andrew and learning from a master! If you are ever in Ontario Canada, come visit me at I would be pleased to give you a tour!
    Go forth and spread your message!

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