Friday, February 10, 2012

Site Work

Originally published December 24, 2010

This is a blog about ecology and economy; about food, shelter, energy, and forests; about relationships, family, and love; about limits and possibilities; about a fracturing world on the cusp of epochal change. My aim in writing it, and the book for which these entries will serve as a rough draft, is to explore in real time one family’s efforts to integrate the basic essentials of its livelihood with a local native ecology in a way that not only diminishes the deleterious impacts on that ecology, but that actively works to restore the health and diversity that have been stripped from it over the past 400 years. 

We established the rough contours of this work eight years ago this week, my wife Tanya and I, when we moved to our property, eight forested acres four miles outside the village of Blue Hill on the coast of Maine. We met in Asheville, North Carolina ten years ago. Tanya had just finished law school with a degree in environmental and Native American law and had moved back east to be closer to her family. I was writing and publishing backcountry guidebooks. In my spare time I was renovating a bungalow I lived in and writing editorials for the local papers about local land use issues. My writing attracted some favorable attention, and I ended up sitting on the city’s 2020 visioning committee, speaking frequently before city council and civic groups, and serving as president of a “smart growth” non-profit. I met Tanya when we hired her as executive director. We became best friends, then lovers, finally partners. We used to go for long walks along the winding mountain road that rose up behind my house. She had the unsettling habit of interrupting long silences by saying exactly what I was thinking, even when it was unrelated to any previous discussion. I think it was on those walks that I decided we’d better get married, since in some deeper sense it seemed like we already were. Our shared interests then, as now, were sustainable local economies, permaculture and forest gardening, natural building and historic preservation. We have two children, Clementine (age six) and Guthrie (almost four).

A few words about ecology and economy before we get started. Both words are rooted in the Greek word for household, oikos. The phrases ecology of home and home economics therefore both contain a certain cross-lingual repetitiveness. I like both and find the echoes pleasing. Both are central to these writings; I chose ecology of home as the title since it’s closer to the heart of what we’re doing and I couldn’t think of an elegant way to incorporate both. 

All durable, successful economies--whether at household, village, or national level--are rooted in a respect for the local ecology,. Nevertheless, it is a matter of historical fact that most economies at the largest scale have not been rooted in a respect for the local ecology or the limits it imposes. To my mind among the most interesting aspects of such economies are the details of their eventual disintegration. It is fashionable at present to talk of such disintegration as collapse, and while the term is apt (particularly as it applies to our own national and/or global economy), I think it also reveals the unspoken bias that large, extensive economies are the norm, the inevitable end result of a natural progression, and that the smaller scales are earlier stages in an upward evolutionary trajectory. It is common to hear these largest economies referred to as complex, with the complexity itself being unsustainable and in part responsible for their ultimate collapse. I think it’s more accurate and profitable to speak of the largest economies as the most highly centralized in their organization, with a fundamental simplicity behind the apparent complexity. For a given geographic area, North America say, a large diversity of small economies offers more complexity than does a single centralized economy. This perspective eliminates the awkward attempts to reconcile the fact that while diversity and complexity are central to resilient, durable ecosystems, they are somehow fatal flaws when it comes to economies. But that’s a topic for a later post and I’m getting ahead of myself here…

The starting point for our project is also the most obvious feature of the landscape: here on the coast of Maine, as across the rest of North America east of the Mississippi River, our home, our oikos, our ecology, is forest. Since we humans use stories to narrate our worlds, I'll suggest several narrative threads to set the stage for the story of our forest home. First, if we listen to the land, it speaks quite clearly and insistently: “I want to be forest,” it says. Leave it alone, and forest it will become. If that strikes a reader as sentimental, anthropomorphic nonsense, it can be put another way: life organizes itself into forest communities. If still a reader objects to the implication that the disparate lives that make up a forest are up to anything more organized or far-sighted than their own survival, the fact can put more simply still: Forests happen. Repeatedly, persistently, almost without exception, and perhaps most importantly for our current predicament, without any external energy input. Unlike suburban lawns, vegetable gardens, cow pastures, or fields of wheat or corn. Each of these requires initial and ongoing energy inputs–human, animal, or fossil fuel. To create a lawn, vegetable garden, pasture, or field, also requires an ideology of ownership and total control, since the forest and all the life it encompasses must be removed. We might suppose that such control is both necessary and inevitable if human economies are to be sustained. History suggests otherwise. Archaeologists say that Maine has been inhabited by human beings for roughly 12,000 years. After the last ice age, the forests recolonized the land within 1,000 years. For the next 10,600 years the human economy was based on the forest ecology. Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with European settlement, did field culture become the basis of the human economy in Maine.  

Forests work. They are stable, resilient, and have been a pervasive ecological form for about 300 million years. They occur everywhere on earth where there is adequate rainfall and warmth. It is quite possible that in their structural and biological complexity and diversity forests embody an intelligence, worked out by natural selection over millennia, about what works and what doesn’t that dwarfs any of our own ideas about sustainability or ecological resilience. We would do well to listen. And to remember that among the many creatures that have evolved from the diversity of forests is a funny looking naked ape with an unusually large brain and a propensity for tool use and a gift for language.

My plan for the blog is to post once a week (Sunday nights) for the next year. These posts will chronicle a story, our story, as it unfolds over the course of that year and varies with the changing of the seasons. But it will also be a meditation on a particular place at a particular historical moment: I hope to use the mundane details of a household’s daily functioning to address larger issues of economy, ecology, family, community, and happiness.

I have a couple other hopes for the blog. 

We live in precipitous times. As more people learn about peak oil and other hard ecological limits, or about the very shaky foundation of our economic system, many are coming to the realization that some fundamental, perhaps epochal shift is under way, even while political leaders and the mainstream media whistle happy tunes about recovery, growth and signs of renewed vigor in the consumer economy. For anyone who doubts the sincerity of those singers, or detects a disingenuousness in the tune, these notes might offer not only an alternate interpretation of present circumstances and future prospects, but also an alternate set of values that may prove more durable and honest than those shaped by an economic system based on extraction and exploitation, and more amenable to a life fully lived.

Second, I make my living building and restoring timber frames. I would like to have the time and space to make the case for my approach to this work as completely as possible. I would like to help move our culture away from assessing houses – and just about everything else for that matter, people included – as commodities that have a value of so many dollars.  Houses and other buildings are works of imagination that become persistent features of the landscape. To build a house is to remake a small part of the world. Like any other craft, it can be done well or poorly, with care for the work and respect for the world or without. Too often in our bottom-line culture the world suffers from the undertaking; too often each new building leaves the world a little poorer for beauty and ecological health. Winston Churchill once (twice actually) famously observed, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” That’s true I think, and I can’t help wondering why, when as a culture we’ve put such enormous time, energy and money into cultivating an organic food movement that supports artisan food producers and emphasizes quality, freshness, and sustainability above cost, we’re so willing to settle for the fast food or big box retail mentality of fast and cheap when it comes to our buildings. In what strange, unwanted ways are we letting this bottom line accounting of our houses shape us, our culture, and our landscape?

We are still a wealthy country. In fact, with oil production at its all-time peak and coal and natural gas not quite at peak yet, we have as much real energy and wealth at our disposal as any people are likely to ever have again. I believe that the best current use for that energy and wealth is to build an economy of food, shelter, energy, and transportation that allows us to flourish while at the same time restoring the ecological health and diversity that the land naturally cultivates and that the rest of the community of life depends on. Whatever out intent, we are on a path to leave future generations much that they will not want: crushing debt or the ruins of a failed economic system, an unstable climate and atmosphere, a biologically impoverished world, depleted mineral and energy reserves. Perhaps we might start thinking about a few things we could leave behind that they might actually find of value, particularly since “they” are our children and grandchildren. It seems like the decent thing to do.


Eastern Forests by John Kricher is an excellent introduction to the ecology of eastern North America. Twelve Thousand Years by Bruce L. Bourque covers the archaeology and history of Native Americans in Maine.

This is not a peak oil blog, but the reality of peak oil structures much of the discussion, as it will structure so much of our future. Attempts to plan for the future without taking into account the consequences of peak oil are like trying to build an airplane without accounting for gravity: the results are bound to be disappointing. offers the best ongoing discussion of the technical issues surrounding peak oil and energy. is also good and covers a wide range of related topics.

Of my writings from a decade ago, the only one I’m aware of that is available online is an interview I did in 1999 with the writer James Howard Kunstler, that was published in Asheville’s arts and entertainment weekly. I link to it here because I think he has been one of our more prescient, intelligent writers. He writes a funny weekly blog at

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