Friday, February 10, 2012

The Frontier Economy and the Culture of Monotony

Originally published January 16, 2011

The winter storm that slammed into the East Coast this week came through our parts Wednesday, leaving a foot of snow and bringing just about everything, my work included, to a standstill. As it happens, Wednesday was also my son’s fourth birthday; he says winter is his favorite season and he loves the snow, so the weather seemed like a perfect gift from nature. The whole family ventured out into the blustery snowstorm and we built a 7-foot snowman in the middle of one of our food forest guilds, right between a honeycrisp apple tree and a nanking cherry. 

On either side of the storm I worked on each of the two projects that currently occupy most of my working hours: the farmhouse kitchen and bedroom I’m adding to our house, and the French-style farmhouse I designed and have been building for the past year for clients. For our addition, I was working with conventional materials and methods, framing the window and door openings and building the lightweight trusses I use to create thick wall cavities for insulation that’s about double a standard stick-built (i.e. framed from 2x6 “sticks”) house. Winters here are cold, and I want to minimize the amount of wood we need to heat our house for the long winter. At my paying job, on the other hand, I was applying a lime/clay plaster to the interior walls. My clients have done most of the plastering themselves; I’ve served mostly as teacher, consultant, and coordinator, but I’m also doing some of the plastering on the largest walls so we can get them done in a single day. These two projects offer useful insights into the nature of various economies and the uses they make of workers, resources, and ecologies.

The addition I’m putting on our house is one of many compromises that defines our semi-rural, part-time homestead. I say part-time because although we grow and forage some of our food, cut the firewood that supplies all of our heat, and this year are cutting the timbers that will form most of the structure of our addition, the large majority of our needs and wants are purchased in the broader economy. Although my work is necessary as our only source of income, since Tanya has been a full-time parent for six years, I’m fortunate to do work I enjoy, creating houses that I believe have long-term value. I had plans to build the kind of small timberframed house I build for clients, but we decided with our kids now four and six we needed the extra space sooner rather than later, so I went ahead and designed an addition that has features of my timberframes, but also accommodates the existing structure. It will be much faster and cheaper than building a new house, use fewer materials, and involve no additional disturbance to our forested property. I didn’t design or build our house, a small stick-built cabin that was only half finished when we bought it. It’s basically two rooms: a 20 x 20 living/kitchen area downstairs and a 10 x 10 loft bedroom upstairs. Electricity comes from a 4-panel solar system, and there’s no plumbing or running water. We use a composting toilet. There was a small hand pump on the kitchen counter when we moved in, but the pipe froze solid each of the first two winters (we hauled water) and we decided we would rather have our water source in the middle of the edible forest garden (described briefly in the previous post) just outside our front door. Our third year here we installed a stainless steel Bison pump, made here in Maine, which we’ve been very happy with.

After I framed the floor and stood up the timber posts, I was ready to build out the walls. In the buildings I’ve designed, this is the part of the process that is closest to conventional stick (2x4, 2x6, etc) framing, and it is the work that I least enjoy. The process is repetitious, more or less automatic, and boring. My mind tends to wander when I’m doing it, especially if I’m working alone, and I find myself making careless mistakes, or standing around trying to remember what it is I was about to do. It’s no coincidence that there is often loud music blasting on job sites, the work of conventional building is so unengaging. There is no real connection to the materials either. The wood is of the lowest quality, cut from young trees grown in plantations or from young forests managed for rapid production of the spruce or fir trees that get milled into framing lumber. When I go to the building supply store to buy the sticks I have to pick through the pile to find some that are even usable. 

On ecological and economic grounds, my first choice would be to cut the wood from our property, but it was cut aggressively in the late ‘70s, and it hasn’t recovered enough to have that many trees taken out of it again. My second choice would be to buy the better quality wood that I used to be able to get from the small, family-owned sawmill here in town, but the sawyer disliked the work and took up carpentry instead. I miss the business, but I can’t blame him; running trees through an electric sawmill five days a week year after year seems to me—and to the former sawyer—like tedious, soul-crushing work. So I settle for the least good option. At each step down the ladder of options—from homestead, to the local mill owned by a local family, to the large business—the role played by care and affection for the forest and the work are likely to diminish. I love our forest and want to see it restored to some semblance of the health that is its natural birthright. I enjoy spending time in it, so cutting out trees for a week or two is more pleasure than work. The local sawyer lives amidst his work, in the same community as us. His family may have been here for generations, and he likely has no plans to leave. His commitment to the land is perhaps not unlike mine, since his livelihood depends on it. On the other hand, it is possible that he values the trees he buys only as commodities, and not as the key species in a delicate ecology, but it is also possible that he values my business or my good opinion of him enough to be sensitive to my values. The concerns of the large business, on the other hand, are likely to be purely mercenary. They operate at a large scale, and the wood they sell comes not from here, but from somewhere else, cut and milled no doubt by another similarly large operation. 

The hard fact is that at the largest scale, each step of the process, from management of the “forest” to cutting and milling the trees, to assembling them into a conventional wall system, is fully embedded in the industrial economy and a culture of monotony that values efficiency of production above all else. The system’s center of gravity is in maximizing opportunities for profit at each step in the process, not in the quality of its products. In the bloodless idiom of the economics text: the system maximizes production of a resource and products. In plain English: it converts trees to lumber to houses to money as quickly and profitably as possible. In ecological terms: it sacrifices the complex, diverse genius of the forest for a commodity monoculture. Since an economy of monotony, such as the one of trees to lumber to houses I just described, is fundamentally at odds with the functioning of ecologies, it operates most effectively on frontiers, where it can exploit fresh resources that its own operation hasn’t yet degraded.
This is not a process that is new in the world, but it came relatively late to the forests of New England, arriving with the first settlers from England and France. Those first explorers and colonists were driven by a whole complex of motives, purposes, and desires, but at the top of the list of priorities was to seek out trading opportunities and commodities that could be sold at a profit. The pilgrims who founded Plymouth in 1620 may have been exiles from England’s political and religious divides, they may have been utopian seekers looking to do God’s work in a new world, but they were also frontier speculators sensitive to the presence of forest products that could be sold back in England. The ship that returned to England just one year after their arrival was “laden with good clapboard, as full as she could stow, and two hogsheads of beaver and otter skins, which they had traded in exchange for a few trifling commodities,” in the words of their governor, William Bradford. With most of its land cleared for agriculture, England had been chronically short of wood for at least two centuries. So when English settlers looked at the forests of New England, they didn’t see the diverse ecology that was the essential heart of equally diverse native economies. They belonged to the field culture of crops and pastured animals. Forests didn’t even count as property, since they were uncultivated, and therefore unimproved. But they were rich with a valuable commodity, wood, available for easy trade or the taking. 

This is the essence of the frontier economy and the culture of monotony. It exists wherever a landscape is reduced from native ecological complexity to the artificial simplicity of commodity monoculture. So old-growth forest is cut down, sold off and replaced with single-species tree plantations or young forests managed for fast cutting cycles and stripped of a diversity that may have been thousands of years in the making. Or native prairie is plowed under and replaced by fields of wheat or corn. Or a mountaintop is removed to get at the coal inside. In short, the frontier economy and the culture of monotony replace the native intelligence embodied in these intact ecologies with the ignorance of the idiot. I use idiot here in its original Greek meaning: a man who did not take part in civic life, an individual separate from the community. The idiot does not inhabit an ecology, and he is ignorant of its workings, dumb to its accumulated intelligence. Remember that no scientist anywhere in the world understands completely the ecology of a forest. Knowledge of the thousands of species and the nearly infinite number of ways in which they interact, particularly in the forest soil, is simply not a part of the body of knowledge of our culture. We are the descendants of the farmers and speculators who cut down and sold off the forests of New England. We know enough to manage them for profit, at least in the short term. Their culture, the culture of fields and commodities, is ours. They didn’t live in the forest and neither do we. Though of course we do, since forest is the native ecology of New England, England, and about half the land area of the planet. Most of us are exiles in our own homes, idiots. I don’t like living as an exile, and neither does Tanya, and when we moved to our forest homestead, a major motivation was to find out what it might mean to become native to this place, and what kind of economy it would permit.

But standing with my circular saw cutting the knotty, twisted 2x4s at the far end of that economy, encompassed in the frontier speculator’s vision of the world refined in the centuries since, I participate in the culture of monotony. I help feed it. (As I said above, I would prefer to get my wood from our property or a local mill, but the frontier economy excels at foreclosing options). But I have ulterior motives. The wide walls are for extra insulation, which will save a cord or two of wood every year for the life of the house. It seems a winning trade, since that’s a lot of trees not cut over the next century. And as more people switch their heating from oil to wood, the pressure on our forests will grow. While the implications of peak oil, peak natural gas, and peak coal are all alarming, if you really want to scare yourself late at night, lie awake trying to imagine a world later this century where everyone is trying to heat and cook with wood. The sixteenth-century Native Americans of southern New England who cleared land to cultivate corn suffered local shortages of wood for heating and cooking; their population density, where Boston stands today, was about 3 per square mile. 

Economies produce the resources they require, and they produce the people too. Before industrialization, the economy required skilled joiners schooled in the long tradition of timber framing, which was the standard building technique in North America, Europe, and indeed in most parts of the world where there was forest and iron-making technology. In Europe, timber framing developed through a guild system of master, apprentice, and intermediate stages such as journeyman, It was a craft with a body of knowledge and a set of skills that had developed and been refined over centuries. The chief benefit of the elaborate system of joinery that evolved was that it allowed the conversion of trees to buildings constructed with large timbers with a minimum amount of processing and without the use of nails or other metal fasteners. It is one of the great technological triumphs of history, made possible by the forests that girdle the planet. At its highest expression, it allowed for the creation of buildings of refinement and beauty that could last for half a millennium or more. The timberframing revival of the last forty years has been called the most successful revival ever of a traditional craft.

Most often the original timberframed buildings were finished with clay or lime plasters, and later in the week I was helping my clients plaster one of the walls in their new house. Instead of the traditional three-coat system, I like to use a single coat that is a mixture of clay, lime, sand and straw. We use lots of chopped straw to eliminate cracking as the plaster dries, and doing one coat instead of three saves time and money, but still produces a beautiful finish that far surpasses sheetrock and paint for warmth and depth. I’ve worked with sheetrock crews in the past, and even done a little of it myself when I had no choice. The work is monotonous and tedious, the materials standardized and insipid. Paint is what makes sheetrock tolerable as an interior surface, but even so, to my eyes it is flat and lifeless. Plaster, on the other hand, is luminous, with each subtle variation in the surface and texture catching the light in different ways, giving a plastered wall richness and depth. I like plastering, and tend to lose myself in the work. A rhythm of moving the plaster up the wall, smoothing it, adding more, smoothing that into the previous section, is quickly established. For me at least, the work becomes a kind of meditation, and time passes quickly. 

Like timberframing, plastering is a traditional craft that long predates industrial economies and modern building technologies; plaster finishes of clay or lime have been used for millennia on all types of handmade buildings all over the world. Plasters have also been central to the growth in popularity of traditional and natural buildings over the last couple decades. Plaster is commonly used on strawbale, cob, and adobe buildings; it can even be used as a finish over sheetrock. The skills needed to begin plastering are easily acquired, as are the materials, so plastering is popular with owner/builders. But like most traditional crafts, plastering encompasses a large body of knowledge, and the master plasterer has an intuitive feel for the material and techniques that takes years of experience, dedication, and study to acquire.

We could use more jobs like that now, and we’ll need more in the future. As the frontier economy falters, crashes, and then disappears—as it must without ever expanding frontiers to exploit—we’ll need to return to the practice of building things of quality and long-term value that rely more on traditional skills and local materials than on mass-produced components manufactured from commodities. Those will be in short supply. We might find the rewards of making things well from the materials at hand more deeply satisfying than the promise of quick profit from speculation. We need to create an economy that doesn’t rely on a frontier. Right now, yesterday in fact. I need to work in an economy that isn’t the work of idiots destroying ecologies they don’t understand and sacrificing diversity and complexity for the quick profits but long-term instability of monotony. Diversity created us; monotony will be our ruin. The forest is more than the sum of its trees, the mountain is worth more than the coal it holds, the prairie is more supple and resilient than the field of corn. I can imagine an economy deeply rooted in local ecologies rather than the unsustainable extraction of particular commodities. Such economies have existed before; they exist now, in the marginal lands out past the frontiers. An economy is nothing more than how we choose to get our food, clothing, shelter and energy. Our home, our ecology, is the forest; we can nurture it or cut it down to make a buck.


Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford is the source of his quote.

The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins is the book to buy if you’re interested in composting your own waste.

Of the many timberframing books, the ones I find most useful are Build a Classic Timberframe House by Jack Sobon, Timber Building in Britain by R.W. Brunskill, and the classic English Historic Carpentry by Cecil Hewitt.

The Hand-Sculpted House by Ianto Evans, Linda Smiley, and Michael Smith is the natural building book that I have returned to repeatedly for sound advice, an ecological approach to building, and inspiring writing. Even though cob isn’t really suitable to New England’s climate and weather, it’s worth having for valuable information on subjects such as design, site work, natural plasters, and earthen floors. Building Green by Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan offers sensible advice on various natural building techniques from a more mainstream perspective.

No comments:

Post a Comment