archive, January - March 2005

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Motivation -- 2 January 05 -- As long as I've known that this world could come to an end, I've been excited about it. In the 1980's, when everyone else was afraid of nuclear war, I built elaborate fantasies in which my friends and I would occupy the high school and drive around the empty highways of eastern Washington having adventures.

Everyone said that in a real nuclear war the lucky people would be killed instantly, but I could not accept this because then I would have had to kill myself: To me, having radiation poisoning and half the skin peeling off my body and starving in a nuclear winter sounded like a great deal, in exchange for not having to go to school any more, or mow the lawn or do homework or endure empty social rituals or look forward to the deeper hells of college and employment.

I'm not joking and I wasn't wrong. I understood what I can only now articulate: that meaninglessness is the only suffering. People in "poor" countries, who are "forced" to spend their time surviving, are suffering much less than people in rich countries who have the "privilege" of sitting all day in office buildings moving data around to maintain their social status. Suicide rates prove it.

The main reason I stick around, through years of dodging cars, reciting my social security number, and not being permitted to autonomously provide my own shelter and food, is that I feel like the meaning of my life, the reason I came into this world, is to experience the collapse of civilization and appreciate the world that follows. I want to ride horses on the ruined freeways, and explore silent cities with trees growing through the pavement, and travel on foot across a continent where all the towns are different and where I might be killed by bandits but I will never be imprisoned by police officers.

I'm not into homesteading for its own sake. Gardening and cabin-building don't sound especially fun -- they're just better than conventional living, and they're my best chance of surviving to see the world come back to life. And if it doesn't, if civilization outlasts me, then I at least want my own little corner of aliveness. I want to have a place where it's OK to scratch the floor and stain the couch and burn the tabletop, where there aren't silly doors on the cupboards and I can leave crumbs on the floor and let the grass grow. When I'm 60 years old, I want to shit on a compost pile and drink from a stream and eat peaches off trees, and spend all day playing and watching the clouds.

Low Budget -- 11 January 05 -- As wonderful as The Hand-Sculpted House is, it's written for people with a lot more money than me, to convince them to spend less money but still more than I can afford. It's frustrating to read inspiring motivational chapters about how I can build a natural house with indigenous materials and almost no money, and then have the book assume I have easy access to a pickup truck to haul in all the straw bales and 55 gallon barrels and sand and plywood and boards and scavenged windows and doors and gravel and broken concrete.

I've thought hard about buying a truck. I figure it would cost $2000, and then another $2000 a year for insurance and registration and maintenance and gas. $2000 a year is roughly my income. What's yours? $20,000? $40,000? Would you spend that much per year to own something that's unsustainable, polluting, and super-dangerous? That could get you in debt for the rest of your life for a single slip-up? That attracts attention from the police and that you're not allowed to leave anywhere without paying a lot of money? Just so you can go gather "free" straw bales and scavenged building materials?

I suppose I could rent a truck to bring stuff I'd already located. It's hard to explain... That whole universe seems as painful and unnatural to me as dumpster diving or barefoot bicycling seems to some of you. I lack all motivation for it. If I owned a truck I could at least take my time, haul up a load of gravel and recover for two weeks before looking for barrels. To spend a weekend renting a truck and buying and hauling up gravel under a deadline sounds less easy and less fun than spending a whole month gathering pebbles.

What I need is a book that will tell me how to ride to my land on a bicycle and build shelter with nothing more than an axe and a knife. Then I can use that as a base and add on when I'm able to borrow a car. Such books exist and I own two of them, Shelters Shacks and Shanties by D.C. Beard and Tom Brown's Field Guide to Living with the Earth. So that's my plan.

I'm going to stick to tools and materials that will fit in the back of my mom's car which I can borrow when I'm housesitting, and build sheds and cabins out of clay and sticks that will last five years instead of 1000. And within five years I can either find a helper who's already indentured to a truck and has nothing to lose, or I can hand-gather enough grass and rock and gravel for a good house, and learn to make doors and roofs without boards or plywood.

Industrialized humans are geniuses at turning play into work, at taking something fun like building a mud hut or playing music or even having sex, and adding on "do it right" requirements until it's a chore. We all have to learn and repeatedly practice letting go, stripping it down, remembering the initial spark of aliveness and rebuilding from there. I'll have to do it again and again with this land project. A reader gave me some amazing advice that took me a minute to understand: "Homesteading is really hard. But squatting on your own land is easy."

More Shelters -- 20 January 05 -- Last week I drew more sketches and refined my house design, from squares to ovals to a truly cob-like design of elegant interlocking curves. I made the kitchen the core and center, since that's the center of my activities even in the city, and I stuck a loft above it, a sitting room with a cob bench off to the northeast, and two little storage rooms to the north and west, for food and tools respectively. Then I made a model of it with some crusty leftover white rice and a flour-and-water paste, mostly to see how the roof could go on.

The roof is a big problem. It's the most difficult and important part of a natural house, a vast surface area where water can leak in and heat will leak out, and in a cob house, the only place with any chance of catching on fire. I want to do a roof with all natural materials, which makes it even harder, and very little has been written about it.

So I got another idea: a cob tower! It would be shaped roughly like a traffic cone, with a big room at the bottom and sleeping and storage lofts above it, and at the very top, a tiny little roof, easy to pack with insulation and waterproofing. The whole outside could have cedar shakes set into the cob to shed water. But there are serious disadvantages: a tower is less stable in wind and earthquake, it attracts more attention, it tends to suck heat up and away, and it's a less friendly space, with too much going up and down stairs.

So I'm still brainstorming on how to do the spread-out design and make a good roof. If I can get cattails growing, eventually I'll have plenty of leaves for thatching and down for insulation, but that could take five or ten years. In the meantime, I'm thinking two levels of roof, four inch round beams set loosely into the top of the cob walls, and one inch poles set densely about a foot lower, maybe resting on shelves set into the cob. On the beams, I can nail cedar shakes, and on the poles, under the beams, I can cram dozens of thrift store blankets, or make giant insulation pillows by sewing sheets around dry leaves. Also, I have to research this more, but I'm thinking between the cedar shakes and the top beams I could make a matt of clay and grass, so I could just cement the shakes in instead of nailing them, and that material would absorb any water that made it through.

Maybe the only way to research it is to do it. Here's how I feel: eventually we're going to have to figure out how to make lasting, water-shedding, insulated roofs without hydrocarbons or industrial solvents. So let's do it now! We don't have to think about it as work. Look at all the "work" rock climbers do. Why don't they just pound metal spikes in, or carve a stairway to the top? Because they get pleasure out of doing it by clutching the raw Earth with their hands.

Commitment -- 30 January 05 -- Until I bought land, I didn't even understand commitment. Or, I didn't understand it until I bought land, read that it's important to commit to land, noticed that I was committed, and examined and thought through that commitment, in comparison to how I used to think about the word. I always thought commitment was like a promise, or a pact. Really it's a mental state. It's unilateral and it cannot be forced.

It's hard to explain. If you're unable to commit to a person, you might be thinking, "What about this flaw or that flaw? What if, next week, I meet somebody better?" But in the commitment mental state, that's all irrelevant. I know there are a million pieces of better land, but they don't matter, because this is the land I'm with. I know it has cold winters, dry summers, and thin topsoil, and I look forward to working with all of that, just as it is.

If you're a baseball hitter, you don't hold out for the perfect pitch, just for a pitch you can hit. And when you get it, and you're swinging at it, connecting with it, following through and launching it off the bat, you're not thinking about all the better pitches out there. You're focusing all your attention on hitting this particular pitch as well as you can. Commitment is an extended being-in-the-moment.

Why is it so easy (for me, anyway) to commit to land, and so hard to commit to a person? I can think of several reasons. 1) There aren't any Hollywood movies telling us that the perfect piece of land exists somewhere, and we can have eternal happiness if only we can find it. 2) It takes enormous dedication and effort, and a lot of money, to find a piece of land, but you might find a new person in an instant, unexpectedly, just by going to a party or writing about yourself in a personal ad. 3) A good reason to hold off committing to a person is if you're going to be in different places for too much of the near future. Land doesn't go anywhere. 4) With enough time and attention, you can turn the worst piece of land into the best. With a person, you'd better not count on making even one change.

OK, then why is it so common (for other people) to commit to a person and so uncommon to commit to land? 1) Land won't have sex with you. 2) Land won't tell you what you want to hear. 3) We are not taught how to love land. 4) There aren't any Hollywood movies telling you that without being allied to a piece of land you're a pathetic loser. Maybe there should be.

Twin Oaks -- 12 February 05 -- So I've been staying at Twin Oaks, a community in rural Virginia. They have about 100 people on about 350 acres, and (like me) they've been here since 1967, so they've had some time to try stuff and find out what works. Their structure is pretty good -- they have clear written policies on everything, but without the kind of uptight rules one would cynically expect at an intentional community. It's like staying at a good group house that's really a bunch of houses in the woods, and produces its own organic beef and dairy and vegetables, and unschools its kids, and treats its own sewage, and generates enough income that no one has to have a job outside it.

I'm especially impressed with their labor system: You get credit for stuff like washing dishes and taking care of kids, and all labor is valued equally, and if there's nothing to do you don't have to look busy, and most people do a variety of different jobs, and your "commute" is a walk through the woods. This compares so well with industrial civilization that I'm surprised they're not swamped with applicants.

I'd consider applying here myself, if I didn't already have land and exciting plans for it. Also, members must do 2000 hours a year of work, which is much more than I do now even if I count bike rides to the dumpster -- though less than I'll do this summer on my own land. Also, a lot of the food is not healthful -- white flour and tofu and cheap cooking oil and refined sugar.

Most important, the work would not feel meaningful, because the community is not going where I want to go. Their agriculture, and the products they make and sell, are not sustainable, just less unsustainable than the "normal" society. (All the ancient empires depleted the land and crashed practicing what we would call "organic" farming.) They're not driven to get independent of civilization, to get off the electric grid (which is supplied by nuclear plants), to persistently reduce the amount of money they need, to produce more and more of their own necessities. They're not going to make passive-solar-heated cob and straw bale houses, or replace the cow fields with fruit and nut and berry orchards that would eventually produce 20 times as much food. Only a few members are interested in permaculture, or catching rainwater, or tracking wild animals.

What it comes down to is that Twin Oaks doesn't share my vision (though some members do). It was founded by people obsessed with human psychology and society, which explains why it survived when so many others failed. But they were believers in "progress," oblivious to the interests of species other than humans, not even interested in the wider human effects of their choices of what technologies to use and what products to consume. And that foundation maintains a great inertia that the newer members can change only slowly, if at all. For now, Twin Oaks is not a path to the post-industrial world, just a nice outpost on that path.

Still, this place has added a lot to my own vision of what a great path to the next world would look like: 100-150 people, comfortable housing for all of them, plenty of room for guests, a large common area with a huge kitchen, workshops for bikes and wood and metal and cordage and pottery, a laundry room, a bath house, composting toilets, greenhouses, orchards, gardens, ponds, food animals, water tanks, vast storage for food and tools and wood and clothing, and the skills and dedication to keep it all going.

Even Twin Oaks doesn't have all that stuff, and I can't do anything like it with only ten acres. My own land is, at worst, a place my friends and I can learn natural building and food growing and permaculture skills, and then sell the land and build or join a community with a lot more space. At best, it's the physical core and seed of that community, if we're able to take over the surrounding land by buying it if no one else wants it, or by occupying it in the collapse.

Community -- 27 February 05 -- I'm still at Twin Oaks, and I also visited its spinoff community, Acorn. I've noticed that people in both places are deeply interested in the concept of "community," as a noun. They wonder how I like "living in community," and ask potential members why they want to "live in a community" and what other "communities" they've looked at.

I want to say: I've always lived in a community. First it was the cramped and stifling nuclear-family model. Then I divided my time between that and the hellish totalitarian-education-institution model. Then I spent a few years in the pretty good four-to-seven-person-group-rental-house model, with income from various numbing industrial-civilization-wage-labor communities.

There's really no difference between the Acorn "community" and a bunch of people living together on a farm, or between certain urban "communities" and a group house, except that the word "community" is like a magic spell that adds a kind of structure, without which many people are unable to focus and commit. I like to think humans will outgrow the need for that kind of structure, but I'm not hopeful. I can't think of any arrangement of human activity, from "partner" to "family" to "team" to "tribe" to "company" to "nation," that has survived long without it.

Previously I was thinking about this whole land project purely in terms of technology: forest gardens, permaculture, passive solar buildings handmade from indigenous materials, composting toilets, and so on, the whole thing moving toward no requirement of external energy or resources. I figured I'd just gather a bunch of people who were willing and able to live that way, and the internal culture would take care of itself. Now I'm thinking that's not enough. I need an explicit vision known by all, a written set of values, and a name.

Work -- 27 February 05 -- One thing I'm going to have to make explicit, a cornerstone of the community I'm founding, is avoidance of work. I've been unpleasantly surprised, in the two communities I've looked at, to find so many members infected by work ethic.

The very idea of "work" is a recent invention. Nonhumans and natural humans don't do any "work" -- they just do the activity of survival, and they like it. You might think I'm saying that because of some irrational attachment to the stone age, but it's the other way around: I've discovered that forager-hunters average less than three hours a day of necessary activity, and that some tribes don't require anyone to do anything. That's not a fantasy -- it has actually been done, cultures that lack the very concept of "freeloading," where some people do nothing productive their whole lives, and nobody cares because they like their activity so much. I like "primitive" people because they seem to be the only humans who have done it. My goal is to carefully add selected technologies to reduce necessary activity even further, to use our large brains to "progress" and "evolve" in slacking off, but in a way that's immersed in and supportive of the wider world.

In civilization, "progress" and "evolution" mean doing extra work to build and strengthen systems of domination, alienation, and extermination. For thousands of years this work was done by slaves and peasants who worked as little, and as slowly, as they could get away with. Medieval peasants worked less than modern people. Then, just a few hundred years ago, the slavedriver was internalized in the "work ethic," the idea that work is morally virtuous, and industrialization gradually sucked us into more and more artificial "needs."

On top of that, our language has been crippled -- pre-industrial people have a bunch of different words for various kinds of activity that we are told to blur together into "work," so we can't articulate the difference between autonomously producing our own food and clothing, and working in a factory. We are so blind to the issue that we think the Luddites were rebelling against "technology," when in fact they were rebelling to preserve autonomous high-quality work against hierarchically-commanded low-quality work, which happened to be allied to certain technologies.

Or consider the idea of "hard work." What, in this context, does "hard" mean? How does "hard" work look different from ordinary work? To me it looks like a satanic obsessiveness, combined with a ferocious frantic pace. It's a diseased condition that we learn only through years of torture in schools and jobs, and then, even when we move to self-sufficient farms, we tend to slide right back into it, valuing the speed and intensity and quantity of our activity, instead of slowing down and focusing on quality, artistry, and meaningfulness.

How does this happen, and how can I avoid it in the community I'm starting? I see two dangers, either of which is fatal. The first is psychological -- industrialized humans don't know how to do nothing. They call genuine leisure "boredom" and fear it, and set themselves up to be busy all the time, which can lead them into the second trap even if they're not forced there.

The second is economic: People find themselves in a situation where they need a lot of money, and it's easier to get in deeper than to get out of it, and money requires work. One community's web site mentions that several years ago they got worried about economic survival, so they... reduced expenses? No! They started a community business, which effectively locked them into even higher expenses plus extra labor. It's hard enough for a single person to avoid this, and even harder for a group. But that's what I'm aiming for.

Work and Technology -- 12 March 05 -- I just found this quote in a Mother Earth News article about Twin Oaks from 1970, three years after the community started:

"Twin Oaks embraces rather than rejects modern technology - their aim is to use technology in every way possible to reduce the per-person work load and enable people to lead more satisfying lives."

That's exactly my aim! The difference is, the founders of Twin Oaks were naive about technology. They didn't look closely or think it through. Like almost everyone in 1967, they were still suckered by the mythology of civilization, which says that "primitive" people live difficult lives, scrambling constantly to survive, while modern technology saves more and more labor as it gets more "advanced." Now we know (some of us anyway) that it's mostly the other way around. With a few exceptions, modern technology creates labor! Forager-hunters have more free time than any civilized people except the elite who feed off the labor of others.

A refrigerator seems to be a labor-saving device, until you look past the end of your nose and see the enormous labor that goes into manufacturing it, and the even greater energy necessary to run it. If you had to make it with all your own labor and ride a bicycle generator to keep it going, you'd see that it takes a thousand times the labor of a root cellar, or a pool of cold water, or just not keeping foods around that need to stay cold. Or, if you had to turn a crank to power a vacuum cleaner, you'd quickly switch to a broom and get rid of all your carpets. Only little kids and fools think electricity is free. All major present sources of electricity require the labor of building and maintaining power plants and electric grids, and they require the exploitation of other humans and the destruction of natural habitats, and even if you have no ethics or empathy, you should see that both of those are unsustainable.

Here's another quote from the article: "...they raise only part of their food - the rest they purchase with money earned by their hammock-making industry. They consider this a more efficient use of time (hence less hours of work) than trying to raise all their own food."

Well, sure, that's true if you're trying to raise your own food through grain and cattle, a destructive and inefficient system that has always required its users to violently conquer their neighbors to get more workers and more land for their crappy system that takes so much work and sucks the life out of the soil. And if you're a member of an elite nation that feeds off the labor of others, I suppose it is more efficient to use your labor to make money to buy sugar produced by near-slave workers in the colonies, or to buy meat and grains produced by corporate factory farms highly subsidized by tax money that people can only afford to pay in an elite nation that steals from the rest of the world. (For more on these issues, see the article The Oil We Eat.)

But if you're raising your own food through permaculture, no-till gardens, perennials and self-seeding annuals, fruit and nut orchards integrated with small animals, you can surpass even the efficiency of forager-hunters. And you can do the same thing with shelter, using indigenous materials to make thick sun-absorbing buildings with super-efficient wood stoves, that require no electricity or gas and far less wood burning than stone-age shelters.

These are all technologies! Some of them are quite new, though it's a semantic issue whether they're "modern." I'm not "against technology" -- I just want to choose technologies that work, that "reduce the per-person work load and enable people to lead more satisfying lives," where "person" includes all humans and nonhumans on Earth for the foreseeable future, not just the local tribe for the next two months. The Iroquois looked seven generations into the future. Amateurs! Why can't we look a thousand?

Of course Twin Oaks was founded in 1967, before Bill Mollison coined the word "permaculture" or Marshall Sahlins wrote The Original Affluent Society. They didn't know. And now that they could know, some of them don't want to know because they're stuck on a foundation of cow fields and hay fields and big stick-framed buildings with electric heat. It's too hard for them to change. And they're in a much better position than "ordinary" first-worlders who are stuck on a foundation of supermarkets and lawns and long car commutes. As oil prices rise, nuclear plants fail, and America loses its elite status, the communities that thrive will be those grounded in technologies that don't require any importation of resources.

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