Originally published February 21, 2011
A homestead economy needs to be flexible, and a winter of very heavy snow has forced me to adjust my building plans. During my work week the storms and three-plus feet of snow on the ground have chased me inside the shop to make cabinets for one house and doors for another. For our own addition my original plan to drag or carry logs out of the forest and then hire or trade with a farmer/contractor friend who owns a portable sawmill to come over and help saw the logs into timbers isn’t possible. So I decided to cut the trees and hew the logs in place, then carry the lighter timbers out once the snow has melted. Hewing is quite a bit slower than a sawmill, but it was also my first choice, since I particularly like the rippled surface of a hand-hewn timber. The snow gave me the excuse I needed to accept that the project is going to take longer than I first planned.
It’s been four years since I’ve worked on a project that involved hewing for most or all of a day, and my muscles and technique suffered the first couple of days from the long layoff. The work was much harder than it needed to be, since I was forcing it rather than finding an easy rhythm and letting the axes (felling ax for scoring, hewing ax for finishing the surface) do the work. As a result my muscles tired more quickly, and then the quality of the work suffered since I had less control of the hewing ax as I squared the side of the log down to the line. Since timber framing is my livelihood, I expect the results to be professional, and when they’re not I get frustrated. So for a couple of days I was at war with myself. This week was better. I stopped pushing and settled down into a consistent rhythm, and the pleasure I’d found in the work before returned. I wouldn’t want to do it day after day and year after year, but going into a forest with a couple of axes and turning trees into timbers is one of the things I’ve most enjoyed in the time I’ve been building and renovating timberframes.
I haven’t written very much here about the relationship between building and ecology yet, which probably seems a little odd for a blog published by someone whose livelihood is house-building. I plan to take it up in the weeks ahead, but I want to take this week to ground the various themes I’ve raised over the past couple of months on a solid foundation. When I’m building a house, my first choice of foundation material is stone—slabs of granite or field stone. Maine’s coast is famously rocky, so raw material is abundant, the stones are beautiful and last essentially forever, and even once the house that sits on the stone foundation decays, the foundation or the stones can be reused.
The foundation I have in mind serves two purposes. It provides a ground for our story to stand on, and it guides and informs our actions as we try to build a homestead economy that is not at war with our native ecology. The memoir half of a philosophical memoir should stand on its own; at worst you’ll find our story uninteresting or unrealistic or find us disagreeable or flaky. We can live with that. But the philosophical half, the argument, needs a solid foundation, and I want something as hard and immovable and unassailable as the granite outcrops along the coast here.
I’ve written that we came here to become part of an ecology, that we identify with the native forest, that we’ll work with the land to help it become what it wants to be, that we’ll make a place for ourselves within that context; that we’re seekers of happiness and richer, deeper experiences of being alive. All true. I’ve written that our economy, the economy that consumes frontiers, the economy that is rooted in agriculture and mining and drilling, the economy that too often levels native ecologies to extract the commodities they contain, has run out of new frontiers to exploit and so must inevitably begin to cannibalize itself. It defines the word unsustainable. I think that’s the best interpretation of the evidence. I’ve written that this economy has altered the makeup of the atmosphere, changed the climate, and reduced biodiversity to the point that life on earth is now in its sixth major extinction epoch. As a matter of verified scientific fact, yes.
These concerns and convictions, our determination to live a certain set of principles, these are the values that animate our story. And there is the story’s weakness, for we’ve learned that values are relative. Yours may be different from ours. Your story may not be our story. Our story is certainly not the story of those who look at a landscape and see only resources to be exploited, or who see economic growth in and of itself as the highest good, or who believe that we stand apart from the wild green world, enabled by our intelligence and technologies, to conquer and subdue. But how will we judge whose story is better? Where is the unmoving ground on which that judgment depends?
This ground I’m searching for is a first principle, some unifying thing or principle or movement that can be used to explain the world and everything in it. The search for this first principle is as old as our western intellectual tradition; in fact it explicitly defines the very moment of birth of our intellectual tradition. It begins when Thales, the first of the Greek natural philosophers, seeks to discover the one thing that everything in the visible world is made of. Western philosophy begins with this single question. Thales is quickly followed by Anaximander and Anaximenes, who propose different answers to the same question. As Greek philosophical thought progresses through Parmenides and Pythagoras, it becomes increasingly abstract and the search to discover a material first principle is dropped in favor of purely theoretical organizing principles for the visible world. But the emphasis on a single, unchanging, eternal, unifying principle that orders the visible world with all its apparent complexity and change is nearly constant.
By the time Plato adapts these ideas, another shift in emphasis has taken place as well: to Plato the material world of trees and rocks and rivers and flesh and bone is a deceptive, flawed, unredeemable mess that serves as nothing so much as an obstacle to true knowledge. He invents an invisible world of forms or ideas that are perfect and unchanging and eternal. The world that we see and experience with our senses is merely an imperfect imitation of that divine invisible world. That in a nutshell is Plato’s metaphysics. If you’re unfamiliar with the specifics but it all still sounds familiar, that’s because Plato’s notion of two worlds, one visible and corrupt and deceitful and the other invisible, perfect and pure provided the basic architecture for western ideas about the nature of reality and knowledge until the nineteenth century when the whole edifice came crashing to the ground.
I bring this all up here for two reasons. First it is simply impossible to overstate the importance of the development of Greek thought and culture from 750 BC, when literacy returned to the Mediterranean world following a 400-year dark age, to the death of Aristotle in 322 BC. Our culture, our institutions of learning, and especially our ways of organizing reality owe everything to this period. And second, because the defining feature of our intellectual tradition for the vast majority of its history is a conviction that unity is superior to diversity, simplicity is superior to complexity, that the spiritual is superior to the material, that being is superior to becoming. As I said above, as a metaphysics, the whole edifice came crashing to the ground in the nineteenth century, but the looming shadow and residue of that edifice are with us still. We are still living that legacy. Not at the highest levels of academia perhaps, but as a matter of cultural habit we still believe in unity, and one is still the number of divinity.
A society, an economy, a culture organized around unity implies centralization, control, a diffusion of knowledge and intelligence from a single point. But ecology points to a different model entirely. Where is the center of a forest? It depends on rain and sun and warmth, but those are so elemental to almost all life on land that it makes little sense to talk of them as centers. They are preconditions. Intelligence in an ecosystem is diffuse. So is energy. Diversity and complexity are its most salient features. Try to photograph it and you quickly understand that no single point draws the camera. The forest is everywhere all at once. This is the key to ecological resilience. Try to kill the forest. The obvious way is to cut down or burn all the trees. But the forest’s DNA, its intelligence, is stored in the soil and it quickly regenerates itself. To kill it it must be destroyed again and again until all that stored intelligence has been wiped away. It can be done, but it requires continued, repeated assaults. Try to kill a centralized state, whether it is fed by oil or corn or wheat or coal. You don’t really have to do anything but wait. All its intelligence flows through its single fuel source and the military/administrative/religious establishment that feeds off it. Its resilience is limited by the resilience of that energy flow and that single cultural node. Cut that off, or wait for it to fail or run out, and the entire organization fails. History provides a nearly endless run of examples. As long as the frontiers are large or numerous enough, the centralized state can survive. But frontiers inevitably close. They closed for Athens when access to the timber it needed to rebuild its navy was cut off. They closed for Rome when the Iberian silver mines ran out and it had to debase its currency. They’re closing today in the Middle East as oil production declines and revenue streams dry up.
I’m suggesting that to the extent that our culture and economy are built on the intellectual tradition that began in Ionia in the sixth century BC, developed in Athens in the fourth, and prevailed throughout the Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods in Europe, it is vulnerable to collapse. Centralized systems aren’t resilient. Collapse—or restoration of a more dispersed state depending on your loyalties— is inevitable because it operates in direct opposition to the first principle that organizes the reality of living ecologies.
This is the ground for our story. It expresses itself in a trend that is observable across the whole history of the living world. I think it qualifies as a first principle, and to the extent that it organizes the visible world, I think it is similar to what the early Greek philosophers were after. I think it is sound enough to form the basis for value judgments. For the purposes of building a homestead economy and ecology the forest itself is probably good enough as a starting point. Forests have existed for 350 million years. They’re ubiquitous, persistent, and resilient. They naturally occupy about half the land area of the planet. As I’ve written before, forests work. Other ecologies work too, but forest is what works here where we live, and probably where you live too, since forests and humans have many of the same requirements. The answer to why they work is also the answer to the search for a first principle on which to ground our story and our actions: diversity and complexity. Forests are the planet’s greatest terrestrial storehouses of diversity and complexity. The large majority of the planet’s land species are found in forests. Forests work because diversity and complexity work. As Edward O. Wilson put it in his book The Diversity of Life,
“Biological diversity embraces a vast number of conditions that range from the simple to the complex, with the simple appearing first in evolution and the more complex later. Many reversals have occurred along the way, but the overall average across the history of life has moved from the simple and few to the more complex and numerous…Progress, then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard... It makes little sense to judge it irrelevant.” [italics mine]
It’s a memorable synopsis from one of the world’s foremost scientists. Life is up to something. It is becoming more diverse and more complex. Not always, and not in every place, but as an average across all of time from the beginning of life. Life may not have a goal, but the trend is unmistakable. The first principle that organizes reality has been with us all along. It’s the opposite of what the Greeks were looking for, the opposite of what the western intellectual tradition accepted as a given, but it’s what the world is made of, and it’s what we’re made of. And for what it’s worth, the same movement is seen in the history of the universe as well, from nothingness to singularity to a few elements to many, from simplicity to complexity. Diversity and complexity work, the evidence suggests that they are woven into the nature of things, and they express themselves most often on land as forests.
That’s our rock, the granite upon which our story stands. We have a first principle. We can build an economy, make judgments, create new myths, find an intelligible context for history and the world around us. We can work within an ecology and be confident of our actions. Since intelligence is dispersed throughout the ecology, we can do less rather than more. We can watch and learn rather than dictate and control. We can build resilience and retake our place in the majestic pageant of life. We can revalue our commodities, restore our native ecologies and cultivate diversity and complexity. We might find our way back to Eden.
The hewing ax I use is made by Gransfors Bruks. It’s a very nice tool, but the blade lacked the correct curvature when I first got it and I had to spend quite a bit of time modifying it. To hew properly and produce the rippled texture that makes hewn surfaces so appealing, the back of the blade should be slightly convex in both directions. The Ax-Wielder’s Handbook by Mike Beaudry is a good introduction to hewing.
I don’t have a good general-interest book to recommend on the development of Greek thought from the presocratics to Plato. The one I used in graduate school is The Presocratic Philosophers by Kirk, Raven, and Schofield. It’s the standard bilingual academic text, but best suited for someone who really wants to immerse themselves in the topic, as I once did.
The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson is one of the books that has most informed and influenced my thinking about biological diversity over the past couple of decades. I highly recommend it.