One of a series of occasional posts from T:
It recently came to be that an entire carpenter’s woodshop—a band saw, drill press, radial saw, 14” planer, and more—was up for sale at such a low price that I, one who has done little more carpentry than banging together a hoop house and a few other simple projects, considered buying the lot of it. I dream longingly of building our own house, and at least one condition of making this dream real is having the tools. It would seem to me that the rest of the conditions—land, wood, carpentry skills, and time—will come.
My reasons for wanting to build are many. Some are basic: working outside with my hands to build something functional; manufacturing a design and fueling the work with good food and cold water. Others stem from philosophy and aesthetics: taking more responsibility for how we live; making something durable; erecting a structure with living form and beauty.
Perhaps the strongest factor is a rebellion against specialization and “professional-ization.” I have Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” to thank for this. The thesis of this book, which I highly recommend, is that historically, common people built the world’s great (and workaday) structures. Professional architects with university degrees came very late in the story of building, but having arrived, they dominate the scene. The book is an analysis of specific design and building patterns that people the world over have to come to use. These are the products of thousands of years of trial and error, among people of vastly different socio-cultural backgrounds. The end result has been beautiful and era-spanning functional structures: the pyramids; the great pit houses and pueblos of New Mexico; ancient rammed earth homes in England. Certainly buildings themselves are of foundational importance, but other structures include relationships between elements, i.e. the distance between houses or towns, or the proximity of buildings to trees and green spaces. We have within us all the powers necessary to construct outwardly our own inner visions of good form and function.
We just have to want to do it. But of course, it is more complex than this.
If viewed from a conventional cost-benefit analysis, the enterprise is hard to justify. The knowledge and competencies required are faint relics that take time to get re-acquainted with. Time is also expensive, and the time it would take one or two people to build a house could be cashed in as a healthy portion of wages. Land is expensive, and the money it takes to buy it could be invested in something that will bring a more direct financial return or for retirement security. The ways to de-legitimize the notion are many, and thus why so few people try it.
The logic of the modern, Western economy dictates that we should pay someone to work for us. We should pay for materials that are extracted, manufactured, and shipped from China. We should buy lumber from trees that were felled thousands of miles away. We should bolster the energy and chemical industries that produce the materials that are conventionally used to build the world around us. We are led to believe that the monetary cost of all of these transactions is the only cost. Worst of all, we are encouraged to go into “debt-as-patriotic-duty” to support the “expand or expire” economy. The real beneficiaries of all of these machinations don’t live down the street from us, nor do they shop at our local grocery (actually, we don’t have a local grocery).
We are, of course, coming to know better as a society that the hidden “externalized” costs of all of these processes are horrendous. But I don’t want to dwell too long on all these downers.
The point is that in this era where (via federal government) we have been buffered from the real costs of the recent economic meltdown, we want to take more responsibility for ourselves, and one way to do it is to own the tools (means of production!) and learn crafts that will help us avoid deep entanglement with externalized costs and centralized industry. You can never get them to zero, but in caring more about them, you can be far more aware of our economic decisions and their consequences.
The couple who owns the land we’re living on, Seth and Sharon, are out and about all day on their 26-acres, picking bugs, processing chickens, planting, and doing all of the things that have to happen to keep a farm going. The DOT, that all-powerful government department, is paving the road that runs between our single wide and their double wide. It was a simple two-track dirt road, then the timber contractor came in and cut down hundreds of trees, and now the diesel earth moving machines are denuding the hillsides and widening the roadway. An upshot of all this mayhem is that the DOT gave the landowners whose land the road splits the trees. So Seth has hundreds of poplar trees, and he borrowed a portable mill from a friend. So on almost any given day, he’s out there in our driveway, cutting away at these huge logs.
It’s a real windfall, and stokes quite fortuitously my imagination of what is possible. One of the upshots for us is that he’s going to grant us some of that lumber for building a chicken coop and a shed. These are things I can do with a circular saw, a hammer, and some nails. In return, when I found out about the carpenter’s woodshop, I suggested to Seth that we split the cost and buy it all. In the end, it made more sense for him to buy it. We are at least a year away from buying land, much less from building on it. We also have 1/6 of the income we had in Albuquerque.
This great stepping off into the unknown that Z and I have undertaken has had its scary and de-centering moments, yes. But these are few and far between. When you open up to the world and make yourself vulnerable to risk, it opens up new dimensions and closes others. Albuquerque is, for now, closed. I can’t, for now, make biodiesel anymore. We can’t buy a whole woodshop at the present. But we are positioned just so for me to begin the process of learning carpentry. We are studying the serious farm life via Seth and Sharon. We are caring for our fall garden, catching our water, starting our coop, shopping for our woodstove. We are spending a lot of quality time together. We are making choices about how and when we spend money that represent a far more deep and lasting responsibility.
It is an odd thought, but it feels like we’re entering another phase of maturity: a second adulthood, if you will. A center of our own making.
Patience is the dimension that is helping to define it.