Friday, February 10, 2012

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.

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