Green House: Leo Staat
A self-described “scrounger,” 80-year-old Stevensville man treasures the ability to make due from whatever materials are readily available.
Leo Staat’s eco-friendly interests and talents are made up of so many distinct characteristics, qualities, and elements, that spending three hours – or perhaps even three weeks – with him isn’t enough time to hear and appreciate them all.
From wool weaving to mechanics, to harvesting bee hives, to cultivating 200 to 300 pounds of grapes in a thermal mass greenhouse, the results of Staat’s improvisational aptitude are ubiquitous. Indeed, this 80-year old Stevensville man possesses the special natural ability to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available. A self-professed “scrounger,” Staat has handmade everything from a cider press out of a car steering wheel and wood scaffolding, to a felting machine made with logs, springs and a pulley belt, and he can concoct curious items with great ease and simplicity, the same way that most other people unthinkingly improvise a meal from yesterday’s leftovers.
Clad in plaid shirt, sporting a ponytail, with a fluted face maintaining profoundly etched lines revealing an openly friendly smile and a greater spiritual significance, Staat’s knack of transcending traditional ideas and rules and patterns, and creating meaningful new forms and interpretations, is where his originality and imagination lie.
While extensive reading has stimulated much of his creativity, most of it comes from within, from his spirit, vitality, and resoluteness.
“I live the way that I do to convey my spirit. I put my heart into everything I do. And I’ve tried to do things as right as I know how,” says Staat, who lives along the banks of the Bitterroot River on Stevi River Road, Stevensville.
The son of a rancher, Staat came with his family to the Bitterroot Valley from North Dakota in 1936, as part of a larger migration of regular folks striving to preserve their humanity in the face of social and economic desperation, brought about by dust bowl storms, later to be immortalized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. He was nine-years old at the time.
As an adult, Staat worked for the Anaconda Copper Company for more than a decade operating a smelting concentrator, and he also found employment throughout the years as an iron worker.
In between working in the feverish world of rigorous and stern steel work, Staat spent much of his free time diving, including taking a six-month, 16000 mile, scuba adventure in which he plunged his way from Washington to Costa Rica. In fact, Staat was one of the first people (if not the original person) to teach scuba diving in the state of Montana, which he did in Anaconda more than three decades ago.
“I’ve got lots of movies from those days, and I just found over 8000 feet of reel to reel footage. I completely forgot what was on them…but, wow, some of them are pretty interesting. Today, I don’t crave diving. I’m fulfilled now.”
Throughout the years, Staat has been creating and inventing useful items for the three pieces of property that his family has owned since the early 1960s. Three years ago, the idea came to him to build another structure made solely out of recycled and reclaimed materials. Using thick bales of hay wrapped in chicken wire, stucco, and scratch coat, and more than 1000 cement blocks, Staat built himself a home from scratch.
“You’ve got to do something to keep busy. See, I’ve got more energy than brains, and I didn’t have a single plan. I just knew I wanted a greenhouse. I don’t owe five cents on this place. Shows you what you can do when you put your mind on something.”
Staat has been fixing and improving his home for the past three years. He hopes to have the dwelling completely decorated and perfected to his liking by the spring of 2008.
“It’s comfortable here, but a lot of work needs to be finished and needs to be done. I love it here. I have an inside and outside garden and I’ve got everything I need all under one roof.”
Staat’s crescent-shaped greenhouse is a structure enveloped by glass and insulated by plastic. Unlike some other greenhouse arrangements, Staat’s is set up near the entrance to the home as a way of reminding owner and visitor alike to be conscious of the fact that plants and food are indispensable means of sustaining life and human livelihood.
“I’m a greenhouse nut. It adds so much to a house. It warms the house up and adds energy. I have the greenhouse in the front, so I’ve got to observe it every day in order to get into the house. There’s a completeness here that comes from within. It’s my way of acknowledging my spiritual values and my Creator.”
In today’s world of greater ecological awareness and newfound sustainability concepts, Staat’s progressive living arrangement is at harmony with these somewhat novel, though increasingly appealing, notions.
“To me, sustainability is part of being raised in the country and it’s a way of life. Farming is sustainability. The joy of living isn’t always so wonderful in the country. It’s hard work. But my work is spiritual. I’ve made myself a complete person and I express it outwardly. With all the things I make, I have no plans, only a desire,” says Staat.
Most of the materials Staat used to build his home, including more than 100 feet of glass, were donated or gifted to him. So perhaps not unsurprisingly, he spends ample time pondering the laws of reciprocation and mutual exchange. He believes that when somebody asks you for your help, you’re obligated to give it. The act of unconditional helping, he says, shouldn’t be something that comes with a price tag or an expectation of financial reward.
“You have to give from the heart. It needs to be true. Just when I’ve needed things in my life, somebody has showed up and asked me ‘can you use this?’ And I’d answer ‘you’re darn right.’ So, now it’s my turn to give back to other people and to take care of them.”
Staat, who’s the walking, breathing antonym of unengaged, has a few things that he’d like to do to his house over the course of this next year, including install solar paneling and add a 1500 gallon drum in the basement that will recycle rainwater from the roof and nourish the greenhouse.
“I’m 80 and I’d like to finish up this place. You know, the bricks may be getting heavier every year, but I’ll always be busy.”