Sunday, March 11, 2012

Milkweed and the Dance of Life

Just outside our front door is a small patch of Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, that Tanya grew from seed a few years ago. In late spring when the large clusters of pink flowers are in bloom, the air comes alive with their sweet perfume. That scent, or perhaps the flowers’ shapes and color, must serve as a signal to a whole host of insect species, because no other plants on our property rival the milkweeds for the sheer number and variety of insects that buzz, hum, and hover around them when they are in bloom.

For several weeks, the flowers are host to an ecstatic dance of insect life. Bumblebees, beetles, moths, spiders, flies, and wasps all make an appearance to suck the flowers’ sweet nectar. The showiest and most easily identified of the insects is the monarch butterfly, with its large orange wings bordered in black. I’m not much of an entomologist, and I don’t know the names of most of the insects that feed on the milkweed flowers, but the monarch is one of those charismatic species that stands out and is instantly recognizable. The milkweeds are the only host plant for the larva of the monarch; the continent-wide decline in monarch numbers is due in large measure to a loss of milkweed habitat. The causes are the familiar ones: native ecologies bulldozed and plowed under to make way for agriculture, industry, urbs and suburbs.

Each of the last two years Clementine and Guthrie decided to “raise” a monarch butterfly. They found a couple of caterpillars on the plants and we put them in a small fish tank with some of the stalks and leaves of the milkweed for food. Within days the caterpillars had suspended themselves from the piece of window screen that served as the lid, and wrapped themselves in the chrysalis that would be their home for about ten days until their transformation to butterflies. When that metamorphosis is just about complete, the chrysalis turns clear, and in less than a day a young monarch emerges, its wings tiny and unfurled at first, but growing to full size literally before your eyes. The whole process takes just a couple of hours. The monarchs usually stay in our garden, close to the milkweed, for a day or two before beginning their lifelong journey south, toward the forests of Mexico.

We feel a close kinship to the monarch, and to all the other insects that feed on the milkweed. Not only because they represent the diversity that we are working to restore to our land, but because, like them, we too take our nourishment from the milkweed. Milkweed is delicious, and the shoots, buds, flowers, and immature seed pods are all edible. In spring and summer it has become one of our main vegetables. We like the young shoots as well as any other green vegetable, and the small seed pods are also good, having a taste and texture a little like okra.

But it’s the shoots that we really crave. We prepare them all the different ways that we eat asparagus: grilled, sautéed, chilled as a salad. We eat more than our small patch produces, so we gather them in bunches from a couple of old fields in the neighborhood. We’re happy foraging, but we like to grow as much as we eat, so last year we planted another, larger patch on our own property. This year we’re growing still more from seed.

As their name suggests, milkweeds are easy to grow. In the case of common milkweed, maybe too easy—at least from the perspective of gardeners looking for tight control of their plantings. Two of our favorite native plant authorities, Donald Leopold and William Cullina, both write in their respective native plant guides that the common milkweed is perhaps too invasive for garden settings. Again we’re left with the “problem” of a delicious, native plant that simply wants to take over. That’s OK with us. Our long-term goal for our land here is to restore native seed stock and then let the plants themselves figure out what will grow where.

As for the milkweed, rather than trying to constrain them to formal garden beds, we’re after what Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm described seeing when he traveled through northern New England in the mid-eighteenth century: “The Asclepias syriaca…grows abundant in the country, on the sides of hills which lie near rivers, as well as in a dry and open place in the woods and in a rich, loose soil. Its flowers are very fragrant, and when in season, they fill the woods with their sweet exhalations and make it agreeable to travel in them, especially in the evenings.” Kalm also noted that the French in Canada ate the young shoots, “preparing them like asparagus,” which they of course had learned from the Wabanaki or Iroqouis.

We love asparagus, the non-native garden vegetable that everyone is familiar with. We’d been growing it for years in our annual vegetable garden, assiduously weeding around the fussy plants, composting and mulching the beds. But last summer we decided to take them out, in large part because of how they measured up in comparison to milkweed. In taste they are equal, or nearly so.

In summer asparagus was my favorite green vegetable to grill over a fire, but I like the taste of milkweed just as well. Tanya likes it more. Beyond taste, asparagus just doesn’t measure up. The plants take up a lot of space, offering only a handful of stalks each year in return. No other part of the plant is edible or useful. They dislike competition, and so require a lot of work weeding and mulching. As non-natives, they aren’t integrated into our woodland ecology, and so support few insect species. Milkweed plants are the opposite in most regards. The plants produce a lot of food in a small space. In addition to the edible parts, the pods contain a down that was used as bedding and pillow stuffing (French colonists called the plant le cotonnier), and the fibrous stalks provided material for a tough cordage. Milkweed is a vigorous perennial that requires no tending.

The semi-rural area where we live has plenty of old fields, where milkweed grows most abundantly, and since few people eat it (or even know it’s edible), for now we can gather as much as we can eat. But more important than any of these other factors is the symphony that milkweed plays to the dance of insect life.

Nothing better distills what we are trying to achieve on our homestead than making milkweed a part of our diet and personal economy. The two pictures capture what I mean by an ecology of home probably better than all the words I’ve written in this space. We live off the grid in a small house, heat with wood, compost our own waste, garden organically, et cetera et cetera, but none of these things gives me quite as much satisfaction as the ecological and economic relationships implicit in a plate of milkweed shoots. Dinner may be the most potent force we have available for restoring our ecologies and our place in the world.

Further Reading:

Regarding the edibility of milkweed all of the wild food guidebooks and cookbooks on my shelf, except for one, tell the same story: milkweed is bitter and should be boiled in several changes of water to remove the bitterness. This has not been our experience, and the one book that tells the story that matches our own experience is Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest. He also traces the genealogy of the error about milkweed’s supposed bitterness back to a misidentification made by Euell Gibbons. Thayer’s two wild food books are highly recommended. It probably goes without saying, but please don’t use this essay as a field guide.

The quote from Peter Kalm is reproduced in Medicinal and other Uses of North American Plants by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Work and Ecology: Less Is More

Originally published May 22, 2011

As for the agrarian Romans, the insatiable mouth of empire devoured the land, clearing it for agriculture and leading to irreversible erosion in regions that were once the most fertile in the world. It is hard to imagine that a civilization as brilliant as that of the Greeks, or an empire engineered and administered so efficiently as that of the Romans, could remain so blind in their practices as to bring about the ruin of the ground on which their survivals were based.
—Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: the Shadow of Civilization

Herring, if any desire them, I have taken many out of the bellies of Cods, some in nets; but the savages compare their store in the Sea, to the hairs of their heads: and surely there are an incredible abundance upon this Coast. In the end of August, September, October, and November, you have Cod again, to make Cor fish, or Poor John: and each hundred is as good as two or three hundred in the New-found Land.
—John Smith, A Description of New England (1616)

Spring has unfolded haltingly this year, the snow hanging on in the forest almost into May, the skies grey and cool, the normal seasonal warmth slow to return. The robins are back though, and we are awakened at five o’clock by their daily morning song, which lasts for more than an hour. The forest green is interrupted with delicate bursts of white Juneberry flowers, and the aspens, birches, and apples are all unfurling tiny leaves. From our cultivated gardens we’ve already harvested rhubarb, asparagus, violets, sedums, giant Solomon’s seal, cat-tail shoots, ostrich fern fiddleheads and the young leaves of bluebead lilies, which taste like cucumbers. Only two of those plants, asparagus and rhubarb, are from away, as native Mainers say. (They’re native only in the sense that their families have been here for at least several generations, but they’re of European descent like most of us more recent arrivals. We’re all usurpers). The others we’ve bought or transplanted ourselves, and are encouraging their spread in various places in our forest gardens.

From a gardener’s perspective, the great thing about the natives—the plants, not the non-native native Mainers—is that they require so little work. They’re already adapted to the thin, acidic forest soils and New England’s variable climate, so most of what we have to do is stick them in the ground in the kind of habitat they like—wet, dry, full shade, part shade—and watch them grow. There’s a lesson here, though it’s one we’re slow to learn: Work, for an individual or a society, begins with the effort required to modify or eradicate the ecology that’s there and replace it with something else. For most of history, this is in fact exactly what was meant by the word work. Even more specifically: in most places it meant cutting down forests and then hoeing, plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting fields. In another word, farming. That was the first work and it is still the one that is prior to all others. 

The Puritans who settled around Massachusetts Bay are well known for their vaunted work ethic, but I suspect that they had no choice in the matter. Their food came from fields planted with crops that weren’t native to anywhere within 3000 miles, which meant making wholesale changes to the ecology. Since economies create cultural values as much as vice versa, it seems reasonable to assume that the Puritan faith in the redemptive powers of hard work was no more than an effort to make a virtue of necessity. If unremitting toil is the price you have to pay to get your daily bread, you may as well tell yourself that Providence is smiling on your efforts. And there’s no doubt about it, waging daily war on a native ecology, trying to make it grow one thing when its collective DNA tells it to grow another, is hard work and risky business. The power of stories to bend a culture’s collective thought should not be underestimated: the Puritans turned their noses up at the mussels and lobsters that were there on the coast for the taking, thinking them fit only as food for their servants. 

Meanwhile the lifestyles of the real natives, i.e. the various Algonkian tribes of the northeast, whose claims on the land go back millennia rather than a century or two, offended the Puritan belief in work as virtue. Among the tribes who raised corn, beans, and squash, only the women did the work of planting, weeding, and harvesting. The Puritans applauded their industry, but condemned as wastrels the men who spent their days hunting or fishing or making weapons or playing games. But since they got their food from the ecologies that was already there, i.e. forest, river, and sea, they did little that the Puritans recognized as work. They modified the forest to facilitate their hunting, but that involved no more than burning the understory in Spring or Fall. In the world of English social and economic relations, there was a name for people who spent their days hunting and fishing and sporting rather than in the real work of tending fields and growing food: royalty. And it was only royalty that ate a diet rich in game animals and birds, since only they had access to the royal forests.

Today of course not one person in a hundred takes up the hard work of farming, and most of that work, and the other work of modifying or eradicating native ecologies—mining, drilling, paving, damming, logging—is performed by big machines running on fossil fuels. Today when most of us in the developed world speak of going to work, we mean something else entirely from altering the landscape in one way or another. Mostly what we mean by work is one of the nearly infinite forms of administration and communication that have either come into being or become common endeavors since the advent of fossil fuels. At the end of the day, nothing is created in this work but words, which means the work itself is in essence no more than elaborate, highly ritualized and mostly institutionalized forms of storytelling. Made possible because the essential work, the making of food, clothing, shelter, energy, and other things, is carried out by machines that need only a very small number of people to operate them.

This level of abstraction in most people’s daily experience of work has made it difficult for us as a culture to remember that work, and the wealth it creates, inevitably begins with an assault against native ecologies, an effort to make the land more productive than it is in a wild, or only slightly modified state. From this perspective, work is the necessary agent of the ideology of conquest and control that are at the heart of the agricultural and industrial enterprise. Since the work is unpleasant and antithetical to how most people would choose to spend their days given a choice, for most of history it has been done by forced labor, i.e. slaves, indentured servants, or masses of landless peasants constrained by economic necessity. Only when fossil fuels and industrialization came along was it possible to gradually eliminate the more coercive of those relationships.

Knowing that work is at its most elemental a war against ecology gives us yet another reason to modify our native ecology as little as possible in our efforts to get our food, clothing, energy, and shelter from it. This is a (small p) protestant non-work ethic. It is a protest against engaging in wanton violence against an intact ecology, a protest against unnecessary toil, whether performed by us, other people, or machines, and a recognition that if we want to benefit from all of the embodied energy and intelligence in a native ecology, we have to do less, not more. 

Put more specifically: If we want to grow a forest here in eastern North America, we can go on permanent vacation and let the forest take care of the work of growing itself, which it inevitably will. In energy terms, the energy returned over energy invested, or net energy, is just about the maximum possible. (We only have to deduct the energy we use to harvest whatever grows in the forest that we want or need). So is the time we have to do other things we might find more enjoyable than work, such as hunting, fishing, exploring and studying the forest, telling stories, making or listening to music, reading books, visiting friends, or a hundred other things that gather under the general headings of culture and leisure. On the other hand, if we want to grow a field of wheat, say, the odds of its growing itself here are effectively zero. Which means if we want wheat grown locally, some body or machine is going to have to do a lot of work, beginning with removing whatever is now growing on the future field. History shows that when the work is done we can expect an energy returned over energy invested just a little better than parity, at least in the short term. In the long term, the return may be less than zero, depending on local conditions.

Lacking the Puritan’s conviction that the creator of the universe wanted nothing so much as a field of wheat where forest had always grown, or even the conviction that the universe has a creator with an active interest in horticultural practices here on Earth, or that if the universe does in fact have a single creator, that his, her, or its mind is knowable, if we want to kill the native ecology and grow that field of wheat we’re going to have to justify it on some other terms. By our reckoning, the net return of waging war against an ecology in psychological, cultural, ecological, and even economic terms, is less than zero.

It’s no wonder that the native people here, the Wabanaki, never developed a work ethic, at least not one recognizable to Europeans. Of what use would it have been? They had figured out that by letting the forest and coastal ecologies do most of the work of creating food, and by finding a place for themselves in those ecologies, they could meet all of their needs, enjoy a lifestyle that suited them, and inflict little or no long-term damage on the land or sea. Our own culture, the one that arrived here with the Puritan farmers, took the opposite approach, relying on long days of labor and a conviction that proper food came from a small selection of domestic plants and animals that were superior to any found in a native uncultivated ecology. 

It isn’t surprising then that our own culture’s rediscovery of the benefits of local food has little to do with plants and animals that actually belong to a region’s ecology, but is limited to the practice of both raising and eating food in a single place. Most of the plants and animals—greens, beans, root vegetables, apples, herbs, chickens, cows, sheep—are the same that the Puritans brought here almost four hundred years ago. The local food movement helps solves the problems of reducing transportation miles traveled by the food, increasing the food’s freshness, and supporting local farm economies, but it does nothing to help alter or alleviate our culture’s principal occupation of assaulting every native ecology it encounters. If anything it encourages that work.

Of course many of the practices that the Wabanaki relied on are no longer available to us. The ocean and rivers especially are depleted to a point where they may never recover. The Grand Banks cod fishery alone supplied Europe with 60% of all the fish it ate in the seventeenth century. John Smith, who made himself a small fortune from the cod he caught in the Gulf of Maine, and other English explorers claimed that the fishery here was even better. And that’s just one fish. The inshore waters and rivers here also hosted prodigious runs of herring, salmon, shad, mackerel, eel, and alewives. In our household we all love seafood, and I would be more than happy to be able to catch enough fish to feed us for a week or a month by spending a day fishing from a canoe on the inshore waters of the coast or on the Penobscot River, but the fisheries have all been so abused that those days are long gone. 

On land the forest we have now is radically different from the one hunted by the Wabanaki. The nut-bearing oaks, beech, hickories, and chestnuts that provided nuts (and nut flours and nut oils) for people and fed so many of the game animals that they hunted have mostly been logged and sold off, and the forest is now mostly spruce and red maple, which provide much less food for mammals. Game birds were far more abundant also; some, such as the auk and passenger pigeon are gone forever, having been hunted to extinction. The passenger pigeon was by all accounts delicious, and so numerous that it is estimated that they accounted for more than half the birds in America. Early settlers reported flocks so large that they darkened the skies for hours at a time as they passed overhead.

The important point about these rich ecologies and the food they provided, the salient fact of culture and economy, it that people had been living among this abundance for more than 10,000 years. The stories our culture tells about resource use have a hard time reconciling the twin facts of long human habitation with almost unbelievable abundance. We much prefer to scour the planet for examples of overexploitation and collapse—Easter Island for example, or the Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis. They comfort us with the notion that what our culture and economy are doing to the planet and our own resource base is inevitable, that other human cultures have done the same, and that the scale of our destruction is only the result of our superior technological prowess and numbers. 

So we ignore the stories that don’t fit that model. You’ve probably come across more magazine articles and book chapters about the people of Easter Island and the ecological collapse of that small Pacific Island than about the Wabanaki, who lived here (and still do) on the coast of Maine and Maritime Canada. The Easter Islanders are practically celebrities among societies covered by ecological historians, but the Wabanaki have far more to teach us. They lived here where we live. Somehow, they found a balance between themselves and the rest of the ecology in their homeland. Their long tenure here puts paid to the fiction that human culture and ecological health are fundamentally at odds. Some cultures make a mess of their homes. Others don’t. 

One of the fundamental differences between the two is in the nature of work. For cultures based on agriculture, work is mainly the hard labor of making fundamental changes to an ecology and ongoing efforts to make the land produce things that won’t grow without significant inputs of energy. For other cultures, work means making slight modifications to an ecology to make it produce more of certain food species, and then harvesting those products. In these cultures, there’s generally less work, the harvests are more reliable, and the quality and variety of the diet is far superior. In designing and implementing a homestead economy, we have tried to follow the model of native cultures that lived within the means of their homeland, and so didn’t rely on frontiers. For us, homesteading is as much a form of restoration ecology as it is a means to provide ourselves with as much food, shelter, and energy from our own land as possible. But it is a long-term project, the work of several or perhaps many generations, and we’ve only just begun…

The World We Make

Originally published April 27, 2011

I’ve been fortunate to spend most of the past couple of weeks in two of my favorite places—our forest and our small town’s excellent public library. In the forest I finished hewing the last tie beam for our addition. The tree I was cutting it from was a large spruce—fourteen inches at chest height—that had grown up under a pair of red maples  and so was stunted and gnarled at the top with no room to grow upward. The red maples were both healthy and vigorous, though a little spindly from growing so close to the spruce. Felling the spruce was complicated by the location of one of the maples, which limited my backswing with the felling ax.  After about twenty minutes I got it down though, and right in the line I had chosen. I set about chopping the limbs off of the trunk for the first fifteen feet from the butt. From that point to the top of the tree I leave the limbs on to hold the tree in place while I hew. 

It was not an easy tree to work with an ax. About ten feet from the bottom a whole tangle of thick limbs began protruding from the trunk. I would need to use about three feet of this section to get the thirteen-foot timber I needed. Spruce knots are hard; so hard that they can chip a chisel or ax striking one. And then the grain at the other end was difficult and prone to tearing out with each slice of the hewing ax. The work was difficult, hard physically, and it took me a full day of work to finish both sides. But this wasn’t like the start of the project when the work was difficult because I was out of practice and couldn’t find a rhythm. It was just the nature of the work—the way the tree grew in the forest gave it certain attributes that made it difficult to convert into a timber. I didn’t care. The section of forest I was working in had been transformed from an overgrown tangle of crowded trees to a place beautiful and magical, with the strong spring sun slanting through the still bare trees and melting the last of the snow on the forest floor. In places like these it’s easy to understand why the ancients worshipped in sacred groves, even as they built temples of stone. 

In fact I was enjoying my work in that part of the forest so much that I extended my time there by spending a couple more days cutting firewood and thinning an extensive fir and cedar thicket that had grown up in the last dozen years between our gardens and the forest grove that I had just shaped. Most of those thin saplings I left in the forest to rot. First I cut off the boughs and pile those in low spots to provide protection for various forest critters. The one- to three-inch trunks that remained I scattered in small piles on the forest floor too. Rotting wood is essential to the health of forest soil, feeding all those minute and microscopic organisms that feed on bark, cellulose, and lignin. Among the findings of forest ecologists is that decaying wood actually has more living cells in it than a live tree does—in some cases five times as much. One of my pet hypotheses is that the reason our forest trees today don’t reach the same soaring heights and wide trunk diameter that the early European explorers and settlers encountered is that we’ve starved our forest soils by depriving them of rotting wood. By this logic a forest with a floor cleared of dead and decaying wood is a dying forest.

While I was aggressively thinning the thicket, Tanya made an unexpected find in the place I was working: a few scattered wild cranberry plants growing in the mosses that carpeted the ground. We’d already planted some cultivated cranberries and lingonberries in our gardens, and had plans to put in more, but this new find created a perfect transition between our cultivated forest garden and the forest that was already here. Our ideal is to blur the lines between our cultivated and wild spaces as much as possible, and the newfound cranberries were a nice affirmation of those efforts.

I should say—even though it doesn’t really need to be said—that the industrial economy has created easier, faster, more efficient ways to convert a knotty spruce log into a tie beam for a house addition than with a couple of axes. With a portable bandsaw mill or even an Alaska chainsaw mill, I could have gone right through the knots and hardly noticed them. My decision to hew the timbers for our addition is an indulgence, and from a certain narrow perspective, a little irresponsible. We could use the addition sooner rather than later, and I can’t really afford to take much more time off from work. From the point of view of our individual desires, that is our desires cut off from any consequences that our actions have on the world around us, my decision to build our addition slowly—using materials and techniques that will take at least twice as long rather than the fastest way I might have built it—is foolish. But from the ecological perspective, from the perspective of the forested land that sustains and supports us, I made the right, responsible decision, even if it means our personal desire for a larger house will be unmet for another half-year or year. 

The truth is our desire for a larger house is relatively superficial. We have a house right now that does all the things a house needs to do: provides shelter from the elements, keeps us warm in winter, gives us a place to gather and be together in reliable comfort. By modern American standards it’s tiny for a family of four, only 500 square feet, and as I’ve mentioned it lacks indoor plumbing and has only a very modest amount of electricity. But it sits on eight acres of land and, most importantly, we actually own the house and land. So by the standards of most people in the world, and most people in history (history in the narrow sense where it refers to literate, agriculture-based societies), we are outrageously wealthy. We aren’t landless peasants, we aren’t slaves, we haven’t confused debt and wealth by taking on a huge mortgage. With the notable and important exception of indigenous people, those three categories encompass the large majority of people in the world today and in history. Our lives will be more comfortable with the addition, but the only way I can feel good about using resources to satisfy our wants, as opposed to our needs (which are already satisfied), is to build it with as much respect and care for the native ecology as I possibly can.

If I went the other way, if I built the addition as quickly as possible with industrial materials—two-by-fours, plywood, sheetrock, asphalt shingles, manufactured windows, etc—my responsibility would end with my family’s personal desires. That limited responsibility is superficial and ultimately not responsible at all because it ignores two important facts: we live in a world that we are connected to at every moment, and that world has a future that I and my family will have to live in. Soon. To ignore those two crucial facts—that we belong to the world and that the world has a future—is a form of irresponsibility so large that it overwhelms my much smaller responsibility to do my best to satisfy my family’s desires. So large that it compromises and threatens the integrity of the world. 

If I choose to build with the industrial, standardized materials available at every building supply store in the United States rather than by hand with local materials, the building would be bland, anonymous, standardized. The materials would all come from places other than here, non-places that exist and have value only as links in a chain of industrial production. I could use stylistic tricks to make our addition look “nice,” even traditional, but those efforts would be nothing but skilled fakery. The nature of the work would be different too, as would the uses of my body and mind that the two ways of building require. Gone would be the very real, sensual connections among my brain, my body, the trees of our forest, and our addition. I know those timbers that I’ve hewn intimately, each one an individual whose grain and knot size and curve resulted in a slightly different experience of work. When I look at the biggest tie beam in the addition, that last log I hewed, I’ll remember it in my arms and shoulders and wrists as much as my mind. I’ll also remember its place in the forest and the combination of hard physical effort and pleasure that filled my days there. As they grow up my children will remember those experiences as well; they’ll become a part of who they are. For each timber I’ve hewn, my daughter has asked me where in the house it will go.

There’s also the connection forged between the forest and our house. Our house is made of the forest, so our house is the forest. To help preserve the memory of this connection I only hew the timbers on two sides, leaving the logs “in the round” on two sides. The subtle curves that remain visible are another reminder that the timbers are trees, that each one is unique, and that they belong to this place. I suppose you can put a price on that, but I don’t care to. Both of our children were born in our house, and I would like it to belong to them or their children when we’re gone. Our house, our forest gardens, our land are so much a part of our lives and identities that they are as close to sacred space as we can imagine. Finally, I’m building our addition to the highest standard I am able to so that it becomes part of a process and ethic of conservation. My hope is that our house advertises that ethic by telling a story, as all works of culture do. It doesn’t shout, “Look at us, we’re rich.” It asserts simply, “We belong here.”

The truth is, even though I make my living as a builder, I think it’s insane that we build as many houses as we do. A sane culture facing serious resource constraints—or a sane culture not facing those constraints—and having the technologies and knowledge to build new houses to last a couple centuries at least would do so as a matter of course. It might cost a little more for the first generation to build those houses—as did more than doubling the average size of an American house over the last 50 years—, but then the next seven generations at least would have quality homes and would only have to bear the cost of upkeep. When I tell this to carpenters they inevitably mention, if only jokingly, that if we build houses to last that long we’ll all be out of work. And if I mention it to most other people, including some prospective clients, as often as not they’ll say, “Oh I don’t care if it lasts that long, I’ll be dead.” 

Our economy encourages this kind of thinking, so only a few idealists really mind if things are built poorly and intended to be thrown away after a short while. In an economic system where the producers have a vested interest in things falling apart and the consumers don’t care if anything lasts longer than their own use of it, a conservation ethic doesn’t have much of a chance. And so we don’t have conservation. But please don’t tell me that the reason we don’t is because we have evil corporations or a corrupt government or criminals running our financial systems. All of these things may be true, but the corporations only exist to sell us what we demand, our government is representative, and only a vanishingly small minority of Americans were concerned about who was running the investment banks or mortgage shops when credit was cheap and all asset classes were going up in price year after year. 

When people with money demand that houses be built to last several centuries, then they will be. When people who buy food demand that it be grown as part of an intact native ecology, then it will be. And when we decide as a people that we satisfied our needs and reached enough many generations ago, then we will have a conservation ethic and a sustainable culture. Not before. In my darker moments I suspect that the nasty truth is that in this movie the good guys all died in the first act and the remaining scenes are just one long, grim denouement. If you’re waiting for a hero to ride in at the last moment and save the day, you’re going to have to put on the white hat yourself.

Working for the Land

Originally published April 10, 2011

April is the month that our daughter Clementine’s homeschooling group comes to our place, and so this past Thursday there were seven kids aged four to eight here for most of the day. It’s mostly a semi-organized play day, and they did what little kids do when they’re together outside: ran around making up games, explored things in the forest, played on the swing and big Mayan hammock, fussed and complained when they got tired or bored. Tanya was responsible for orchestrating their activities and maintaining relative peace and order. 

I was content to be off in the forest for most of the time, hewing the last of the timbers for our addition. Over the course of the day, groups of two or three kids would come to see what I was up to. Almost all the families in our group heat with wood, so seeing one of the father’s swinging an ax was nothing special. Besides, what immediately grabbed their interest was the top of a felled tree that I had left lying on the ground so that it formed a long incline. They all turned it into an instant jungle gym, and I understood where that phrase comes from: like fires, another attraction hardwired into us from our deep past.

As a culture, we’ve given up so many of the deep pleasures and satisfactions that shaped our lives for almost the entire course of human history: communal fires, climbing in trees, wandering through the forest, making by hand the things we really need to see us through a human life. Like shelter. Hand-hewing timbers for a house addition in the early twenty-first century is unusual, a determined, self-conscious departure from the norm. But as recently as the early nineteenth century hewing timbers and building a house by hand was the norm, at least here where we live.

Our village was chartered in 1762, the charter imposing a number of conditions on the first settlers: that they settle “sixty good Protestant Families, and build sixty Houses, none to be less than Eighteen Feet Square, and Seven Feet Stud; and clear and cultivate five acres of Land on each share fit for Tillage or Mowing; and that they build in each Township a suitable Meeting-house for the public worship of God, and Settle a Learned Protestant Minister...” The learned minister arrived in 1796, recently graduated from Harvard. He carried with him an ax, lime, and carpenter’s tools and promptly set about building his house from plans he had already drawn. The house still stands today, elegantly proportioned with a hipped roof—a little fancier than most of the farmer’s houses from that period when the coast of Maine was still a frontier.

I’ve done restoration work on some of these early houses. The framing and designs I’ve seen are workmanlike, competent, but nothing exceptional. The rafters, purlins, and floor joists were often unpeeled logs hewn flat on the upper side only to save time. These were farmer’s houses on a new frontier. But many of them are still here, more than two hundred years after they were first built. And if rain hasn’t gotten in to the wall or under the roof, the frames have another couple good centuries left. Any house that has a serviceable life that can be measured in centuries is by default an ecological solution to the problem of shelter. To put it in some perspective: today there are just over 10 square miles of forest with trees more than 200 years old in Maine, a state that encompasses 35,000 square miles and is 90% forested.

Despite the durability of their houses, the intent of the emigrants from Massachusetts who settled the coast here was anything but ecological. They considered it part of their divine mission to subdue and improve the land, to finish God’s work by clearing the wilderness (as the charter in fact demanded) and planting fields of grain and grass. These ideas have their roots in the middle ages, particularly in the reign of Charlemagne, but also in the monastic tradition, especially that of the Benedictine monks. Our own culture is more secular than Puritan Massachusetts in the eighteenth century, but we’ve taken up the imperative to subdue the land with a vengeance. We’ve subdued many of the species that inhabit the land right out of existence and we seem determined to finish the grim work of subduing them all until there’s not much left but the species we eat or find valuable for some other reason.

A couple items in the local papers in the past few weeks frame the issue nicely. Some of the state’s sport hunters have been calling for a more aggressive program of trapping and killing coyotes in the state, since they claim that the coyotes are responsible for a reduced deer population. I’ve been reading some of the hunters’ letters and editorials recently, and the kindest thing I can think of to say about them is that their ignorance of biology is no greater than their ignorance of history. Coyotes are predators, like wolves whose ecological niche they occupied after the wolves were exterminated in New England by farmers intent on protecting their livestock. They do eat deer, though studies of wolf predation and hunting success have shown almost no correlation between the presence of wolves and hunters’ success in killing deer. Knowledge of history confirms this. Early English settlers such as William Wood and John Josselyn wrote about the large number of wolves in New England. Yet the natives hunted deer as part of their seasonal subsistence food cycle. In other words they relied on killing deer for survival, not for sport. But there’s no record that they ever attempted to eliminate the wolves, or felt that it would benefit their hunting success. Maybe they were just confident in their abilities as hunters.

The other news item was an article about the most expensive home in Maine, which is being built one peninsula over. The article mentioned that the house would cost 30 million dollars, that it was 9,000 square feet, and that it would be the owner’s fourth house. Those facts offer an interesting glimpse into the ways we’ve chosen to arrange our economy, distribute wealth, and use the finite natural resources that are the only source of that wealth. 

The first and most obvious fact about the house is that it is unnecessary. And so all the fossil energy burned, all the trees killed, all the cement poured, all the copper and iron mined, all the carbon released into the atmosphere, every single resource used is wasted. Some of it might be recovered at some future date, but most of it will not be. The house will create jobs, but the work is a waste because the end product has no reasonable value. In fact it has a negative value, since it will require ongoing resources to maintain it. The best it will do is satisfy one man’s, or one family’s, vanity and greed. But it won’t even do that, for it seems clear that by the time anyone gets to building their fourth house that neither their vanity nor greed can be satisfied. 

For the same amount of money, which means for the same amount of labor and resources, 150 modest houses could be built instead. These would employ the same carpenters and craftsmen, but in the useful and necessary work of building houses that are needed to provide shelter, rather than to advertise a multi-millionaire’s affluence, which is the first purpose of any vanity palace.

I don’t envy the owner of the most expensive house in Maine. I wouldn’t know what to do in one 9000-square-foot house, and I certainly wouldn’t want four. In fact I feel a little sorry for him, though my pity is tempered by disgust and anger at his own contempt for the planet and the future. But I feel sorry for him because he lives in at least four places, and so he doesn’t belong anywhere. Maybe he belongs to a computer screen, or a conference room, or a corporate jet. But his experience of the world is necessarily shallow. His experience of the world is of scenery, which is probably why he chose the coast of Maine for his fourth house—a pretty view for a few months of the year. He’s an exile with the means to spend a lot of time and energy shopping, no more, no less. If it weren’t for the damage he and others who share his values were doing to the world and to the things we care about, I wouldn’t bother to write about him at all; he’s null and void.

I don’t believe we’ll be able to change our basic economic relationships until we change the ways we get our food and shelter. And I don’t think we’ll be able to change those until we change the stories we tell about our place in the world. Our start here has been to see how much of our food we can get from the native forest ecology while at the same time working to restore that ecology, and to build and advocate for modest, durable houses designed to minimize demands for future resources. These are expressions of one basic idea: we belong to the land, we are part of a community of life, and our relations with that community are reciprocal. I’m optimistic: I don’t think it will take many people telling this story to change our culture. The roots of the stories we tell now—everything belongs to us, I want more—only grow in impoverished soil. I think they’re dying as I write. 

For thousands of years the native people who called this place home, the Wabanaki, believed that everything in the world—trees, rocks, sun, stars, animals—was imbued with a living spirit. Manitou, they called it. They didn’t believe you could own the land, only that you had a right to use it, and then only if you used it with reverence and respect. The land was sacred. They believed they held it in trust for their children and for their children’s children. How can our culture’s practices of exploitation, extraction and contempt for the people of the future compete with that idea? I don’t believe they can. 

Further reading:

The information on deer and wolf predation is from Richard Nelson’s beautiful book Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America.

Michael Williams analyzes medieval European practices and theories of land clearing in Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis.

The essay “Turmoil on the Wabanaki Frontier, 1525-1678” by ethnohistorian Harald E.L. Prins in Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present gives a short description of Manitou and Wabanaki ideas about their relationship to the land.

Gardening on Forest Time

Originally published March 28, 2011

As suddenly as Spring appeared last week, it retreated this week; six inches of new slushy snow and a cold front that settled back over New England curtailed some of our early garden prep work. I went back into the forest to work under the big trees, hewing more timbers for our addition. Tanya focused on gathering maple sap and boiling it down to syrup over a wood fire outside. One of the fringe benefits of being a house carpenter is that I end up with a lot of wood scraps from each job. If the wood is oak or cherry or birch or some other hardwood I’ll use it to cook over, the hardwood smoke flavor adding depth and subtlety to the taste of the food. The softwoods, however, have resins that make them unsuitable for cooking over an open fire, and we usually burn those scraps as kindling in the woodstove or, this week, under a lidded maple sap pot where the smoke isn’t a concern. 

The long stretch of days with temperatures rising a little over freezing during the day and then dropping back down below at night is making this a banner year for maple sap. Very different from last year, when the season ended almost as soon as it began. We’ve got ten taps going, and our preferred beverage for the past week has been sap straight from the tree. Our trees are red maples, which average only half the sugar content of sugar maple; the sap tastes like the purest water ever, with just enough hint of sweetness to make it a perfect spring elixir. It’s better than anything you can buy in a bottle—so good that we temporarily forgot all about the hard cider that we had bottled just two weeks ago.

Mornings this week were cold when I started, about 25 degrees. When I’m swinging an axe I wear only thin gloves so that I have better control, and my fingers were stinging with the cold the first day. The wind whistled through the tops of the trees, but down at ground level the air barely stirred, for which I was thankful. I find it challenging enough to balance on an eight-inch log and swing a heavy felling ax so that it bites into the wood just inches from my foot without 30-mph gusts of wind to contend with. Shelter from winds and storms of driving rain or snow are just one of the many benefits that forests provide.

Most of the logs I was hewing I had felled earlier in the winter, but there are a handful of trees that I still need to cut down, and I cut and hewed the first of those yesterday. This is the last pass thinning an area within sight of our house where we’d thinned once before five years ago. I’d left trees spaced about eight to ten feet after that cut, and in the time since they’ve taken advantage of the added space and available nutrients to put on a lot of new growth and are still crowded at their crowns. So even with cutting out all the timbers I need for our addition—about 30 trees in all—the canopy will still be about 75% closed. I’ve left the oldest trees—white pine, red spruce, northern cedar, and red maple—which I estimate to be from 50 to 75 years old. Forests here take 200 to 300 years to go through the stages of succession to reach old growth, and we’re helping the forest toward that goal by leaving the oldest healthy trees.

While I worked at felling and hewing a red squirrel busied himself carrying seeds back and forth from an underground hollow at the base of a big red spruce to some other lair that I couldn’t make out. Chickadees were plentiful in the boughs too, flitting here and there, calling to each other across the forest. The sun is up early now, and even though the thermometer never hit 40 on the days I was working, by nine o’clock it was plenty warm enough for someone swinging an ax. The work went quickly and well, and I averaged about an hour and a half to cut each rafter on two faces. It’s days like these when time seems to stand still and I lose myself in the forest, not quite sure where the boundaries between me and the rest of life are, or if I gain anything by trying to make them out.
When I first started thinning the forest here five years ago it was so choked with spindly balsam fir saplings that it was all but impossible to walk through. There was literally no place for us in the forest, and no place for anything to grow in the understory. Today this patch of forest is open and inviting and one of our favorite places to spend time. Clementine and Guthrie came to watch me work this morning, using the fallen tree as a balance beam before I started hewing, helping me snap chalk lines, replacing a chickenwire cage that had fallen over from the sapling it was protecting, and then going off to repair a fairy house they had made last year.

In these open spaces we’ve already planted new trees over the past several years—two chestnut hybrids, a northern pecan, a sugar maple, and a mulberry. These will become part of the canopy in the second half of this century, but even before then they’ll be providing nuts and berries for us and for the wildlife. In the sunnier openings we’ve filled in the understory too, and with this last pass of thinning, we’ll focus this season’s planting on filling in some of these new gaps. We’ll plant shrubs or small trees that bear fruits and nuts—native plums, serviceberries, hazelnuts and chinquapins. Over the next decade the harvest from this part of the forest will have almost completely changed from wood for heating and building and cooking to nuts and berries and tubers and vegetables for eating. And I expect that beyond that, as the open woodland structure and more abundant food attracts and supports larger populations of deer and turkey and hare that our harvest will expand yet again.

Gardening in the forest requires a much different approach than vegetable or landscape gardening. For one thing, the harvests are much more diverse, and can include wood for shelter, cooking, and heat; plant and animal food; and animal skins for clothing or leather. Unlike a vegetable garden or a flower garden or a field of wheat or corn, a forest garden can provide all the necessities of a human economy, especially at the small scale of a homestead or village. History confirms this. But to reap these harvests requires an economy that is in most of its features the opposite of the economy that we have now and that organizes our world. That is the economy of commodities, where the brute force of fossil-fuel powered machines—or of slaves, servants, and animals in an earlier, and perhaps future, age—is deployed to render the landscape a blank slate that can then be planted with one of a handful of cash crops. This commodity economy is an expression of hubris: in the modern English sense of arrogance, yes, but more definitively in the original Greek, where it means wanton violence. This describes precisely the relationship between an economy and a native ecology when commodities are the repositories of value. Hubris is an effect more than a state of mind, and it can be read in a landscape of overlogged forests, suburban lawns, corn fields, and parking lots.

An economy of the forest as garden requires intimacy and understanding; hubris and the brute force it implies are useless. The Wabanaki who gardened this land for centuries before European settlement exemplify these levels of intimacy and understanding, and provide rich historical material to draw on in assaying the features of a modern forest garden economy. As I’ve written throughout these essays, the salient features of the forest are complexity and diversity. Gardening in the forest requires methods and actions calibrated to these qualities and to the forest’s own seasons, patterns, and rhythms. We remove wood from the forest, but slowly, incrementally, leaving the stands of trees dense enough to withstand windstorms and prevent soil erosion. We add new species of trees, shrubs, tubers, vines, and herbs, but mostly species already native to the forest, and in patterns already established by the native ecology.

A forest garden economy may ultimately be more productive than commodity economies—I don’t know, and I don’t think that is the criterion by which it should be judged. I’m sure it is more productive when we count the incidental benefits that forests provide, such as climate moderation, topsoil creation, erosion prevention, carbon sequestration, and many others. And the comparison becomes truly absurd when we add the long arc of creation: a movement toward greater degrees of ecological diversity and complexity exhibited over the whole history of life on earth. But some values escape measurement in dollars and cents: the pleasures of intimacy with a living community, the richness of experience that comes from inhabiting a landscape alive with meaning, the value of the diversity of life that is beyond human reckoning. These values can’t be quantified. They are the values central to native economies; monetary values are assigned to the living world by frontier speculators, and their insistence that all values can in fact be monetized demonstrates nothing but the poverty of their own vision. For the fact remains: there was no currency in North America north of Mexico until European settlement. 

Scales of time are the other major difference between gardening in the forest and other kinds of gardening. Heraclitus famously wrote that you never step into the same river twice; the same is true of a forest. It changes with the seasons, it changes with the years and decades, and it changes with the centuries, following an arc longer than a single human lifetime. Forest gardening demands patience, but the rewards, slow to arrive though they may at first seem, exceed those of any other kind of gardening. In our first years here our harvests were almost exclusively wood, and that was obviously because our land was already forested. We planted our first fruit trees in the front yard the first spring after we arrived eight years ago. We had to wait four years until we picked the first cherry, five years until we tasted our first homegrown apple. But this year our forest gardens will produce more food than last year, and next year we can count on them producing still more than this. Each year the work we have to do to get that food shrinks, as the main jobs of mulching and composting are taken over by the maturing trees and other plants we grow for those specific purposes. In other words, the energy returned over energy invested increases every year, at least for the next couple of decades.

But this week we’ve been feasting on the last of the bear meat, gathering mussels again from the ocean, and digging the jerusalem artichoke bulbs that are the first garden harvest of the year. We have a big patch of these last at the sunny edge of the forest, and they produce an incredible amount of food with no effort at all at a time of year when the first new growth is still a month away. Their one supposed drawback as a garden plant is that they are so vigorous they are hard to eradicate, though I can’t write from experience since we’ve never tried to get rid of them. We have ours surrounded by a seasonal frog pond, our tool shed, and the forest, but since they’re native to here we wouldn’t worry much about them spreading anyway. In any case, I can’t quite follow the logic that declares a plant that is native, vigorous, pest free, beautiful and produces lots of food a problem.

Note: These blog posts will probably be more sporadic for the next month. I need to spend some time working on the book for which these essays serve as raw material, and with my other commitments I don’t think I’ll be able to post every week. Thanks for reading.

Further Reading:

Two books on the economy and ecology and forests in North America are well worth reading: Americans and Their Forests by Michael Williams is a comprehensive historical treatment and New England Natives by Sheila Connor is a beautifully written and illustrated account of the myriad relationships between people and trees over the centuries here in the northeastern corner of the country.

One more: I thoroughly enjoyed Notes on a Lost Flute: A Field Guide to the Wabanaki by Kerry Hardy. It is the work of an amateur in the best sense of that word: passionate, personal, and engaging, even when it wanders to dark places on the map a professional historian or ethnographer would avoid.

An Ecology of Building: Making a House in a World without Frontiers

Originally published March 21, 2011

Pasted Graphic 1.tiffSuddenly, it’s Spring. The temperatures have climbed sharply in the last week, the snowstorms have turned to rainstorms, and the four feet of snow that lay on the ground just a couple of weeks ago is now mostly gone. The maple sap started running only a week ago and then yesterday the temperature almost reached 60. Some of the sap we’re boiling down to syrup, some we drink straight from the tree. Yesterday we made a trip to the ocean to gather a truckload of seaweed and put it around our fruit and nut trees as a compost/mulch. Today we dug jerusalem artichokes, pruned the grapevines, and deer-proofed some of our plantings. Tomorrow we’ll go back to the ocean to gather mussels for the first time since Fall and have a wild foods feast to celebrate the first day of the year that is as long as the night. Our lives here are closely tied to the rhythms of the seasons, and this is the week we left the sung—sometimes too snug—winter harbor of our small house and moved our lives back outside.

Until the twentieth century these seasonal rounds were the norm; it was only with the advent of fossil fuels, the industrial economy, and electricity that we’ve come to spend most or all of our time in artificial, climate-controlled environments unrelated to the world outside. It’s easy to forget, from the insistent perspective of now, for just what a tiny sliver of time those conditions have prevailed. The assumption for most people, I think, is that they are normal, and therefore permanent. Only in the last few years, as oil prices skyrocketed, have even a significant minority of people begun to wonder if perhaps “normal” isn’t resting on a shakier foundation than they had supposed. Here in Maine, where 8 in 10 homes are heated with oil and winters are cold, a rise in the price of oil is doubly painful: at the gas pump and for half the year in the home. And an actual prolonged interruption in the supply of oil—I don’t think anyone at any level of our society is psychologically or politically prepared to come to terms with the implications of that.

The major part of creating an economy based on ecological complexity, and the heart of what I mean by an ecology of home, consists of embracing these seasonal rhythms, and the landscape and native ecology they create, rather than relying on massive inputs of energy and complex technologies to impose an artificial order on the landscape and to wall ourselves off from the wild green world. The differences in the habits of thought and culture that each approach requires are profound. It is the difference between the frontier speculator on the one hand and the native on the other, between an ideology of ownership and one of belonging, between hubris and proportion. In this post I want to sketch the relationship between economy and ecology where they come together to form the walls and roofs that shelter us. 

For most of history in all parts of the world, people built houses with the materials at hand, mostly wood, stone, earth, and fiber. These traditions expressed themselves in Maine in the wigwam, the log cabin, and the timberframed house. The wigwam, built from poles and bark or woven mats, was temporary and portable. The log cabin, usually the first house built by frontier settlers, was temporary and fixed. The framed house, which most often followed the log cabin by about seven years, was permanent, fixed, and a store of value. Each was technologically simple and easy to build, but ingenious in the ways they used the most abundant local resource, wood, to provide snug shelter against the elements and extremes of climate.

I build timberframes, and I’m partial to that tradition. Its advantages are many: it requires only adequate timbers and a small number of forged tools; it allows for the creation of buildings of great strength and durability; it uses a renewable resource and should therefore encourage care for our forests; the body of knowledge that governs its deployment is large and easily accessible; it requires work that is skilled, enjoyable, and permits a sense of accomplishment and aesthetic expression; and as a technology it has already proven itself over a thousand-year history in the West and across a vast range of economic and cultural conditions. For these reasons, I think the “problem” of building a house in a way that doesn’t offend or degrade the local native ecology has already been solved, at least in terms of the technology.

The other obstacles are cultural; they are results of the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, and these shouldn’t be discounted. In fact, I think they are the most pernicious obstacles we face. I can think of plenty of timberframed vanity palaces plunked down in some remote scenic locale to satisfy some billionaire’s notions of rugged individualism for the few weeks of the year when the house is actually used. I even have a book or two on my shelves that celebrate these monstrosities. They embody the frontier mentality that is systematically using up the world’s resources and waging war on the world’s ecologies. As a builder, I’m interested in a very different kind of work. 

I call this approach an ecology of building and below is the set of principles that informs our practice of building houses. But it is also an attempt to align that large chunk of our economy and material culture with a story about the world where we are only one part of the ecology and use its other elements with reverence and respect. In this story, making a house is a vital first step and a major part of becoming native to a place.

Build houses to last centuries, not decades.

All human cultures build one of two kinds of houses—temporary or permanent. Our culture builds permanent ones—sort of. Actually most of what we build isn’t designed to last more than 50 or 75 years. This needs to change. We’ve had the technology to build houses that last 500 years since about the 12th century. Building a new house requires very large amounts of energy and material, so we should design them to last as long as possible. The best way to do that is to get them up off the ground on a solid foundation, use wide overhangs to protect the walls, windows, and doors from the elements, and make sure the house is usable regardless of future levels of technological complexity.

Use local, natural materials, mostly wood, stone, earth, and straw.

This is how houses were built for almost all of human history, and it is how they will be built once again after we’ve burned through the allotment of fossil fuels that has allowed us to depart from this norm in the first place. Because we live in a forest ecology, we use mostly wood: timbers for the frame, boards for sheathing, shingles or clapboards for the exterior finish, cellulose for insulation, lath to support the plaster, milled wood for the windows and doors. The foundation is stone, as is the roof and some of the floor if we use slate. Earth and straw we use for the plaster and floor. We’ve eliminated most industrial products from our buildings, including cement, plywood, and sheetrock.

Build for deep beauty in the structure, materials, and craftsmanship.

We think buildings should be enchanting, and although we build with a strong ecological consciousness, our first test for whether a building is successful is that it has to make people smile when they first walk inside. Especially kids. Since the beauty is mostly in the materials, and since the materials are natural, the beauty is subdued and hopefully timeless. And we think that is the key to durability, because if people love the building, they will be more likely to take care of it.

Build small.

Our houses are habitats, they shelter and enclose us like nests. Small houses cost less to build, to heat, and to maintain than large ones do. They’re better suited to people who like one another and who enjoy each other’s company. They help us overcome the toxic notion that everything in the world belongs to us and that more is the only goal worth pursuing.

Rely on local skills and creativity instead of energy-intensive industrial processes. 

The abilities and knowledge necessary to cut timber frames, to plaster walls, to work with slate or tile, to build windows and doors, are accessible to most people. These are skills, however, and each takes a certain amount of time and commitment and study to acquire. Each requires first an understanding of the raw materials, and then sufficient practice to assimilate those skills in the hands, eyes, and muscles. In this they are very different from the do-it-yourself world of the big-box home improvement centers, which relies on standardized, industrialized components designed to permit assembly without skill or much knowledge. 

Make buildings easy to maintain and alter using traditional tools and skills.

Building a house to last centuries means making certain guesses about the future. When I see the technologically complex buildings being sold as solutions to energy efficiency or sustainability, my first thoughts are always: How will the components be repaired or replaced in twenty or thirty or forty years? Who will work on the geothermal ground pump? Who will replace the triple-glazed windows when the seals on the insulated glass fail, as they inevitably do? What will be done with the structural insulated panels when the strand-board sheathing part has rotted due to water damage? Will SIPs or the tools to work with them still be available? 
Except for the mechanical systems, which are separate from the building itself, a 15th-century carpenter would have no trouble working on one of our houses. Only the wide wall and roof cavities filled with insulation would be new to him.

Honor the landscape and local ecology.

Our houses are part of a partnership with the land. The materials come from it, the durability and energy efficiency of the houses are meant to minimize future needs for additional resources, the continuum between human habitat and native ecology is meant to be unbroken. In the end, waging war with the landscape is a losing proposition. Like it or not, we are part of an ecology. Cultures that rely on the strength of those connections are strong; cultures that sever them suffer or, in extreme cases, disappear.

Minimize heating and cooling costs with passive solar design, thermal mass, and super-insulated walls and ceilings.

We use a lot of insulation in our buildings, with the result that they require little energy to heat. Our first strategy is passive: orient the building to the south, put most of the glazing there, and then use lots of thermal mass inside to store that heat. Only the extra insulation adds any cost to the building, and that is paid back in the first couple of years that the house is lived in. My goal is that each house should require no more than one to two cords of wood to heat each year. It’s possible to get heating requirements even lower than that, but I think the law of diminishing returns comes into play here, as does the law of unintended consequences. Prophecy is risky business, but my best guess for the future is that we’ll be cooking with wood again before the century is over, and I’d like my buildings to be usable if that comes to pass. If not, a modest change in the windows and doors would cut the heating requirement probably in half, the tradeoff being that a mechanical ventilation system would then be required. 

Draw designs from vernacular traditions.

Vernacular designs embody a lot of intelligence about what works in a region, and because they evolved when buildings were made from local materials and assembled with mostly human energy, they are hard to improve upon. Because of that, vernacular traditions change slowly, and over time specific building types have become as much a signature of different landscapes as the native flora and fauna. Think of Swiss chalets, Cotswold cottages, or the low-pitched, clay-tiled farmhouses of Provence and Tuscany. That said, we’ve repaired enough rotten sills, tie beams, and window framing on old farmhouses to know that the New England vernacular would have greatly benefited from the protection afforded by much wider overhangs, and so we like to design with the widest overhangs possible.

Create a healthy, safe, non-toxic living space.

With today’s tighter houses, it’s more important than ever to eliminate toxic chemicals and VOCs. We use natural materials and finishes, and the only VOC in any of them is a very small amount in the citrus thinner that is used in some of the oils and resins we use to finish wood and our poured adobe floors.

Waste nothing.

Because we use so few industrial products, there’s almost no waste at our job sites. We don’t need a dumpster, and trips to the waste station are rare. Leftover wood goes into the wood stove, stone is saved, metal is recycled, straw is used as mulch, and earth—well, that goes back to the earth. The same will be true at the end of the building’s life: almost everything in our buildings is either biodegradable or recyclable. We’re leaving the people of the future enough toxic waste as it is. I think it would be nice if our houses didn’t unnecessarily add to the waste stream.

The first question most people ask is: So how much does it cost? The answer: No more than a conventional custom house. In fact we’re at the low end of that spectrum, although at the high end there’s so much waste and vanity and ostentatious display that housebuilding is little more than an exercise in burning up resources to satisfy shallow impulses. As I said, the biggest obstacles to integrating an economy with an ecology are cultural; but an economy is no more or less than what we choose to spend our money and labor on, and a culture is no more than the stories we tell about the world and our place in it. The houses we build are the major part of our effort to change both.


No discussion of building in vernacular traditions is complete without mention of one of the great books of the twentieth century, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Some of the patterns I use in every single building project I undertake.

The relatively new, three-volume Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial North America by James D. Kornwolf is a comprehensive and invaluable resource. It would keep any serious student of early American building traditions busy for years.

Native American Architecture by Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton is an excellent, amply-illustrated, continent-wide study of the many various native building traditions.

When Technological Complexity Comes Home

Originally published March 13, 2011

As I write this the unintended negative consequences of technological complexity are being writ large in headlines from Japan as the world holds its collective breath waiting to see how much radioactive material might be released from several nuclear reactors in the midst of or on the verge of meltdown. There are few technologies more complex than a nuclear reactor; there are also probably not any on the planet with more built-in safeguards and precautionary redundancies, since the consequences of failure are so well known and are horrific on a scale and timeline that no other technology can match.

As our technologies have gotten more complex and grown in size, the scale of the problems when failures occur have grown in step. Even when technological complexity works according to plan, the scale of ecological and environmental devastation can be unprecedented, as mountain-top removal in southern Appalachia, the tar sands of Alberta, and the vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico remind us daily. It is no coincidence that the destruction of species and ecosystems has reached an epochal level at the same time.

But our culture’s ruling ideology, the story we tell ourselves as we confront each of these problems, is that we’re in control, we need just a little more technical competence, slightly better technologies, a little more time, and we can fix all the problems, and have a bright, clean, green, energy-efficient future of universal affluence. Don’t worry, the engineers and technologists reassure us, we are as gods, we are so close to omniscience that we can reach out and—almost, almost—touch it. We can control nature, orchestrate reality, organize the world.

No. The story is false. Its basic premises are wrong. No one is in control. Central intelligence, as we’ve known all along, is an oxymoron. The levees fail, reactors melt down, machines wear out, streams and rivers and oceans are poisoned, the climate is altered, a new extinction epoch commences. The unintended consequences gather and lives—human, animal, plant, insect—are shattered. These are today’s failures; tomorrow’s will be different, but equally unanticipated. The technologists and engineers are specialists, educated and paid, often quite well, to innovate discrete solutions to discrete problems.  The problem isn’t the inadequacy of their knowledge, the sincerity of their efforts, or the lack of the right technologies. The problem is that there are no discrete problems and no discrete solutions. There’s no discrete anything. There is only a universe of relationships, infinite in number and complex beyond belief or understanding or control. The individual, the species, even the culture or the ecosystem—these are useful fictions that make the world easy to describe and make sense of. But the edges of each are so jagged that none stands up to hard scrutiny. And it is at the edges, where one thing rubs up against another, that definitions are formed and knowledge comes into being.

Failure is the most salient feature of technological complexity. It is as inevitable as the sunset that ends each day. Resilience and stability, on the other hand, are the salient features of ecological complexity. The reason for the difference is that an ecology is organic; it’s alive and therefore adapts. It adapts one plant, one insect, one animal, one fungus at a time, each changing subtly over the generations (and perhaps even within a generation) in response to a dynamic world. The result is an accumulated intelligence that is dispersed throughout the entire ecology. There is no point of control, no central intelligence. 

The problems of a homestead economy are relatively simple: food, shelter, energy, clothing. As people always have, we rely on both ecology and technology to solve these problems, but as I wrote last week, we look first to the complexity of the native forest ecology and the lowest level of technological complexity available. In this we are simply following a conservative, commonsense strategy. For this is the combination that has worked in most places and most cultures for most of the human story. I’ve already begun to sketch the implications of this for food, and I want now to shift the focus to shelter, which after food is the largest item in a homestead economy.

Among most of the more progressive members of our culture, a rough consensus has emerged that the most pressing problems we face as a society are peak oil and climate change. The houses we live in, which require a lot of energy to build and then even more to heat and cool, are major contributors to both of these problems. So a lot of the thinking about houses right now is about how to retrofit existing ones or design new ones to make them a part of the solution to these problems. As a builder and a member of that progressive community, I think this is a good thing. But if we approach the problem like a technician, that is if we treat a house as a discrete entity and energy efficiency or conservation as a discrete problem with a discrete solution, we’ll almost certainly be hijacked by unintended consequences. In fact I’m cheating here, because we’ve already been down this path once, during the energy crisis of the late ‘70s, and the unintended consequences that resulted are a matter of record.

Asthma rates in the United States declined steadily from 1960 to 1979 (if you click on the link scroll to charts 9 and 10), due I think to a decrease in smoking rates and the beginning of the exodus of the industrial economy and its polluting factories for other countries. But in the 1970s the downward trend slowed and then reversed, quite sharply in fact, and after a one-year jump of about 40% in 1979 asthma rates began a steady increase that has continued to the present. What happened in the 1970s was the first energy crisis, and one of the solutions to that crisis: the beginnings of the airtight house. Americans were told to seal their houses tight against air infiltration as the best way to keep heat in and so reduce the amount of oil burned. The solution worked, just as any engineer or amateur physicist could have told you it would. But the solution was only designed to solve a single problem and therefore ignored the fact that a house is more than a mechanism for heat conservation. Its primary purpose is to shelter human beings, who have certain needs, among them a regular supply of fresh air. 

There are several ways to get fresh air into a house. One is through open windows and opening doors as people come and go. Another is through leaks in the building envelope. And the last is through mechanical ventilation systems. The problem in the 70s was that since houses had never before been built to be airtight, indoor air quality wasn’t seen as a problem, and builders had no reason to add the extra expense of mechanical ventilation. As airtight houses became more of a standard—a very haphazard standard however, since efforts at energy conservation in the 70s were mostly reversed in the 80s—mechanical ventilation systems became somewhat more common, though by no means ubiquitous (those asthma rates are still rising). The Passive House, a new design standard which has generated a lot of excitement recently among advocates of energy efficiency, carbon neutrality, and zero-net-energy buildings, mandates a very low level of air infiltration, making mechanical ventilation an absolute necessity.

An airtight house then is a technologically complex solution to building or retrofitting houses in a world of expensive and environmentally destructive fossil fuels. A few of the unintended consequences that such a building might create in the future can be guessed by uncovering the assumptions embedded in the house’s design and components. First, this level of complexity assumes that electricity will always be available, and without prolonged interruption. Without the ventilation system, you would have to open the windows to be able to breathe fresh air no matter what the temperature outside. Second, since the building is designed to be heated passively, it assumes that cooking will never generate a significant amount of heat. This is the norm today, with gas and electric ranges and ovens that don’t produce a lot of ambient heat, but it is a departure from most of history, when cooking was done with wood. Third, replacements and/or maintenance for the technologically complex components, such as the windows and ventilation system, will always be available. 

In short, the designers and promoters of the Passive House assume that the future will be more or less like the present, only with cleaner, greener, better technologies. Maybe. But a good case can also be made, based on present evidence and history, that the conditions that came together one time to make our technologically complex, industrial civilization possible are ephemeral, and that the not-so-far-off future will more closely resemble the eighth or eighteenth centuries than the early twenty-first. In that scenario, the Passive House becomes an over-designed solution to a set of circumstances that will exist only as a memory, and its usefulness as shelter will depend on its occupants’ tolerance for stale, unhealthy air or cold drafts from open windows.

The Passive House is an engineer’s house, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that it originated with the ideas of Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute. It’s been years since I’ve read his work, but I never found his arguments about technology and the future very compelling. He’s a techno-utopian, convinced that in the future we’ll all drive hyper cars that get 100 miles to the gallon and live and work in buildings that generate more energy than they use. I don’t think that’s the most likely scenario for the future, nor do I think it’s even desirable, for reasons I’ve made clear above and in last week’s post.  

We live in uncertain times. The blueprint of the future is blurry at best, illegible at worst, and I prefer to design and build houses that will be useful across the whole range of possible circumstances that might prevail at the end of this century than to pursue a perfect, but fragile standard of zero-energy use. The best way to do this is to build houses as part of an ecology, rather than as a complex technological solution to a set of technical problems. Passive solar and energy conservation are great strategies that should be at the heart of every residential building. They are essentially ecological strategies that can be implemented with a very low level of technology. I stop short of committing to building for a world that must necessarily be all but identical to the one we live in today. 

Next week I’ll discuss in detail the ecology of building I rely on for new construction. In the meantime there are all those leaky, inadequately insulated houses burning through our diminishing supplies of fossil fuels. It’s unfortunate that we’ve dotted the landscape with houses designed and built for a make-believe world where energy supplies are infinite and another frontier always awaits just over the next horizon. There are a few things we can do to adapt them to the real world that has rudely arrived on our doorsteps, but I’m afraid there are no simple, cheap and easy solutions to the problems posed by houses designed for a world that no longer exists.

So: what should you do if you already have a house and want to use less energy to heat it? First, use passive, ecological solutions. Turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater, thermal underwear and/or a hat. The human body has evolved to quickly adapt to a wide range of temperatures, and for the vast majority of history people lived at or close to the outdoor temperature. Put heavy or insulated curtains on the windows. If there are four or more people living in the house, go ahead and seal it up, even if it doesn’t have mechanical ventilation. Studies have shown that with four people coming and going, enough air is exchanged through the doors to supply adequate fresh air. With fewer than four people you want to be careful how tight you make it, unless you’re going to install a mechanical ventilation system. No matter how airtight your house, it’s also a good idea to minimize toxic substances and VOCs, which are common in everything from carpeting to furniture to kitchen cabinets to paints, stains, and oils. Use natural materials and buy no- or low-VOC products whenever possible.