Ray Cirino would be a good guy to know. Cause, when it all goes to pot, the bottom falls out and we’re headed waddle over tail feathers to hell in a hand basket, he’ll be sitting in a stainless-steel lotus-shaped hot tub, heated by the timbers of our wasted society. Grilling his tilapia dinner on his rocket stove, smiling, clay house–proud, at his abundance of tangerine, orange and avocado trees, and his chicken tractor and fresh eggs.
For the past few years, people who are worried about the future have flocked to Cirino’s workshops at his permaculture house in Mar Vista to find out how they too can make a rocket stove or a clay house or any number of sustainable survival objects born from his backyard living laboratory.
“Permaculture, or permanent agriculture,” he explains as he heads toward the yard, “is totally our salvation. It’s totally it. It’s a way of creating a settlement that will last 200 years or seven generations without having any problems.” He surveys the yard and its various projects in various states of development — a half-dug tilapia pond, wooden beams for an outdoor shower, the foundation for a cabana. “I call this the Eco Wonderland.”
There is an impressive landscaped edible garden growing in the eye of the storm. A 12-foot-high copper-wire tomato cage, shaped like a giant mushroom — a functional sculpture of Cirino’s — decorates a bin already sprouting tomatoes and lettuce. When the garden is finished, according to his sketches, it will look like an amphitheater, with curving 3-foot-high bins, filled with all manner of fruits and vegetables, spreading out in concentric circles, their stone edges doubling as seats. The garden will also function part-time as a classroom and forum, to educate people on living sustainably — and not just Leed-certified sustainable, more like a there’s-no-more-electricity-sustainable.
“In the digital age, people don’t know how to do things with their hands,” Cirino maintains. “So if we go through a real bad depression, they’re gonna be pushing buttons, and nothing’s going to be happening. That’s why it’s superimportant to connect with nature again. Get your hands in the garden. The garden will save you in every way, shape or form.”
Cirino, a Florida native, began studying architecture and moved to L.A. to continue his education. He dropped out, preferring freelance jobs that afforded him more freedom. For a while he had a successful company that made small tables he called “One Night Stands.” He also made high-end sex toys and is known in certain circles for his Water Woman sculpture, which inspired an annual festival some call “the green Burning Man.” But it is his work spreading the good word on permaculture that really gets him jazzed.
“If you use nature to do what you want to do, you can do anything,” Cirino says sincerely. “It’s all available. People destroy nature in our society to get what they want. I go with it. And that’s going to be the paradigm shift that enables us to survive.”
When you hear him explain how his rocket stoves work — designed with “intake principles” and something called the “Venturi effect” — it’s easy to see why he’s earned the title the “mad scientist” of permaculture. He’s taken a hydrogen rocket tank, a piece of metal from what he thinks to be “a piece of some kind of vegetable-processing machine” and other scraps and welded together a wood-burning stove that burns so clean it consumes its own CO2 carbons and gets so red-hot you can see through it. Similar concepts are applied to his air pollution–free wood-burning “rocket cooker,” with a flame that shoots horizontally across the food; or his “solar cooker,” which simply works by reflecting the sun’s rays off its smooth, round dish back to a specific point, which can ignite a piece of wood in two seconds.
“For me it’s an opportunity to excel at what I do,” says Cirino, an admitted junk collector. “And what I do is look for something for nothing and turn it into something that’s gonna create one, two, three, even four functions.” Like the finished bike rack with its tilted corrugated aluminum dove-shaped roof, which protects the cycles from the elements, while collecting rainwater into a cistern for starting plants. And then there’s the aforementioned multipurpose hot tub/barbecue/wood steamer/garden irrigator, already in the works.
And Cirino has begun building what he says is sure to be “an international icon” — a Cob Butt House, an outhouse shaped like a giant derrière (into which users enter through the crack). Made of cob (clay, sand and straw), it will have a living roof, while fresh air and the aroma of strategically planted gardenias and other scented flowers will be drawn inside by a perpetual updraft. The waste, mixed with duff (grass, chopped sawdust and mulch) will be composted for six months before it is used as manure for the giant avocado trees. Urine will be harvested and diluted with water and used for watering plants.
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“It’s completely safe — people don’t know that,” he points out. “People are so afraid. If you just do the opposite of what society says, you’re ahead of yourself. There’s no blueprint for the future, but I know I’m living a life where I don’t have any doubts anymore.”