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No. 63, Spring 2014

Tribute to Judy Knox

By The Last StrawApril 22, 2014May 9th, 2022No Comments

Judy Knox was one of two founders of this publication back in 1993.  She passed away in late 2011.  This section is a tribute to her work and how she helped others realize the power of straw bale construction.

Judy and Matts at Sandhill Meadows, Nebraska

Judy and Matts at Sandhill Meadows, Nebraska

Back in the early ‘90’s The Last Straw was coming into its own, generating a buzz and inspiring thousands of people to either build with straw or at least consider it in their next project.  TLS was founded by Judy Knox and Matts Myrman in Tuscon, Arizona where they fed early believers the stuff they yearned for, which was the gospel of helping each other, making sure as many people as possible knew their choices when it came to the built environment, and to use straw bale construction as an agent of change.

Judy Knox was the reason The Last Straw exists.  It was Judy who asked how all of the new information back on the early ‘90’s about bale construction was supposed to be shared with the public.  At that time dozens of people had sent Judy and Matts information about their projects.  What could they responsibly do with the trust of so many pioneers?

TLS #1

TLS #1

The Last Straw was a natural outcome from such stewardship.  A quick effort to publish resulted in the first issue, From Russia With Love in the Fall of 1992.  [Ed note: This first issue did not see much attention.  The version most people think of as the first in the publishing list of TLS documented the testing program more than a year leter referred to in David Eisenberg’s article on codes at the beginning of this issue].

Helping Others

As Judy told us in one of her TLS editorials, she ended up in Tucson after working on natural resource management reform in Alaska and mental health reform in New Hampshire.  In 1986 she joined a non-profit organization “converting grassroots domestic donations into micro-enterprise loans and village banks for severely impoverished women and children in Latin America,” where she met Matts.  Helping others was in her DNA.

Her work was a result of seeing the planet in jeopardy, and it is best to reprint her own words to remind us of her passion:

“…most importantly, I realized we must re-perceive our lives and our well-being as irretrievably connected to all other life on the planets.”  She continued, “For us, it was, and is, important to make straw bale construction widely accessible as a transformative experience, as well as a way to make simple, livable homes available at a cost both people and the planet can afford.”

Straw bale construction was another way for Judy to help those around her.  She helped us believe that bale construction could be an agent of change, and at the time it became the backbone behind the work of everyone who brought natural building into the broader consciousness.  Straw bale was not just a wall system, it was an experience meant to symbolize much more than any one of us could lay claim to.

Judy’s Impact

Judy and Matts Courtesy of the Tucson Weekly

Judy and Matts preparing to host international guests for the first gathering of bale builders. Courtesy of the Tucson Weekly

It was her passion to increase choice, open up opportunity for those in need and spread her love.  Judy’s heart was boundless and she affected many who heard her speak.

As with someone who impacted so many and offered such a profound level of inspiration, her writings and speeches best tell her passion.  Her speech at the 2005 MENSA Colloquium is a great example of who she was.  We would like to share a couple excerpts from that talk and you can find the entire presentation at the link below…

“If I could transform one word from human language and thought, it would be the word “they.”

The Moravians have a wonderful saying:

In essentials, unity
In non-essentials, liberty
In all things, charity

The quest to restore and sustain life on this planet is essential and it is here that we must find our way to unity; it is here, above all, that we can no longer afford “they” in our language and actions.” 

“Many of us have adopted a new technology or an innovative idea and then grafted it on to old paradigms and values.  Matts and I see this all the time in straw-bale construction and related building technologies:  a straw-bale, rammed earth, or adobe home utilizing solar energy and water collection systems, and then built on a hilltop of 40 virgin acres, located 20 miles away from the daily commute to work, with a road cut up to it, a new well dug, and all the other infrastructure and materials necessary to accommodate a 3,000 or 5,000 square foot house for a couple or one family.

Embracing simplicity as a way of life is prerequisite to life-affirming choices. Simplicity is necessary in a world of burgeoning population and finite resources.

What we must experience, and demonstrate to others we hope to inspire to step in our path, is that living the life of simplicity that cherishes other life is a life that exudes gratitude and joy.  Less is truly more.  I firmly believe our life is blocked from joy (to be distinguished from short-term pleasure) in any place where we are using more of our commons than is necessary.”

The best words we can find about Judy from someone else were shared in issue #61 of The Last Straw by David Eisenberg.   The theme of the issue was The Women of Straw Bale and Natural Building and Judy led the group.

“It is not a DEtour to take the time to honor at least a few of the women who have helped lead the modern emergence of straw-bale construction. It is, however, a very risky thing to do because I know that I leave out some who are worthy of mention, people who either never came to my attention or have slipped through the ever-more porous sieve of my memory. So apologies in advance to those not mentioned here, and please trust that I have real gratitude for you and your contributions. I will name a few who I know helped open the door for many others who have been drawn into the realm of straw bale and natural building.

I can’t imagine starting with anyone other than Judy Knox, who I’m quite certain is responsible for the humane and generous character of the straw-bale revival. Judy came to a leadership role in the straw-bale revival somewhat unwillingly, seeing it as a distraction from what she saw as the larger work she had been engaged in – a coherently integrated set of activities around the rights and well-being of children, community empowerment, education, micro-economics, international relations, environmental stewardship and more. When the New York Times put an article about straw-bale building and Judy and Matts Myhrman (her husband and co-conspirator in their little business that emerged from all this, Out On Bale) on the front page of a section of the Sunday Times, the world (literally) beat a path to their door with a flood of mail arriving daily and the phone ringing off the hook for months. As a result of the depth and breadth of her experience and her commitment to action in service to larger ends, once swept into the strong and rising current of the revival, she realized that they would not soon return to their former lives.

In her unique and powerful way, she saw straw-bale construction as a vehicle to empower people, especially women, to go, as she put it so clearly, “from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can!’” And it was her attention to the human and personal potential of this movement, that shifted the revival to being much more than about a building technique or material, or a more environmentally responsible way to build. It was all of that, but she also nurtured a foundational aspect of the revival, helping people see what they were capable of doing. She has always been on the lookout for champions – a champion of champions – seeking to pull people into their fullest potential. She certainly had a big influence on me.

The structure of the Out On Bale Workshops, which I was fortunate to be invited to attend and eventually to teach, paid as much attention to the process, and the possibilities emerging from the workshop participants, as to the importance of sharing the most current and best technical information available. As a result of Judy’s focus on process, those workshops became a safe place for everyone to explore possibilities about their own capacities and for each participant to share their deepest feelings about what was most important to them. This was also about building people and community. And thus the straw-bale community was seeded with a communitarian spirit and a generosity rare in building circles. Judy and Matts made it clear that this was a building system that was part of the commons.

The Last Straw grew out of a vision of having a vehicle to expand that community and enable those of us in it and coming into it, to take responsibility for guiding what we were creating with our ever-growing collective knowledge that occasionally rose to the level of wisdom. While Matts was tirelessly, inquisitively, brilliantly, and, thankfully, often hilariously exploring and working on the physical and technical and historical details, Judy was attending to the health and well-being of the movement and all of us who were involved with it. Judy’s initial and essential framing of the revival in terms of community and personal potential carried forward and out as straw bale construction echoed out into the rest of the world. I know how deeply her focus on these things affected me then and how it resonated in me and became part of who I am and how I do what I do in the world, a gift for which I am profoundly grateful…”

It is with great honor that we pay tribute to the founder of this publication, Judy Knox.  We are grateful to be able to continue its purpose and remember her very special place in our hearts.

With much love and respect,

The TLS Team

The Alternative Journal of Design and Construction for Dirtbags and Dreamers
Since 1992