monday night – milk paint, sawdust, and building philosophies/communities

23 07 2009
Collage of building materials - stone, thatch, slate, and wood. By flickr user ...jeddy3

Collage of building materials - stone, thatch, slate, and wood. By flickr user ...jeddy3

On Monday evening, I had the incredible pleasure of sitting in on a lecture/question-answer session at a natural building and design school in rural central Vermont. The session was led by the co-owners of the natural building company I’ve been working for this summer, one of whom, A, is a close friend, and the other, D, – someone I’m hoping to become a larger part of my life. (The latter, D, the not-yet-close-friend-who-I-like-a-lot, has been teaching all summer, so we haven’t been working together.)

The whole evening – from dinner on picnic tables, outside, surrounded by Vermont greenery and creative energy, chickens in a nearby coop and a thriving garden; to a lively lecture in a small classroom between the woodshop and outdoor workspace, with walls covered in milk paint and air filled with the faint, sweet smell of sawdust; to late-night drinks in the local bar with aforementioned wonderful people – left me feeling filled to the brim.


Toward the end of the lecture/Q&A session, one student brought up a question about the similarities and differences between Natural Building and Green Building. A & D answered deftly, I thought, masking what was either exhaustion or frustration (or both), as it was already getting pretty late into the evening, following on the heels of a long day on the worksite, AND, D had given a lecture on *precisely* that question a week and a half ago. Though I certainly wouldn’t wish frustration or exhaustion on him, I loved hearing D articulate what natural building was to him. I loved hearing him tease out the intersections and points of departure, gracefully drawing a picture of how these movements connect to one another, and also the strength in their divergences.

I don’t think that I can do justice to his answer, but the short version is this:

Natural building is about a fundamental, comprehensive, holistic change in, and approach to, building. It’s about understanding our environments as composed of communities – broadly defined. It’s about making sure that people are part of the equation, and that so is the non-human landscape. It’s about bringing together and bridging varying and sometimes conflicting needs in a manner that respects the fundamental value of each piece. It’s about not sacrificing the environment for the sake of aesthetics, but also about not sacrificing the needs we have as people, to live full, vibrant, healthy, nurturing lives, for the sake of ascetic principles of environmental preservation. It’s about a building site that prioritizes the safety and comfort of the builders, the happiness and satisfaction of the clients, as well as the health impact of the materials we build with, and the carbon footprint of their production processes. It’s about radical change, and justice, rather than just reform.

Green building is more about reform. It’s about working within the existing system to bring about incremental change. It’s about being palatable to a wide, mainstream audience, about not asking too much of people too quickly, but taking small steps. It’s about broad-based visibility, and profitability, and often – greenwashing.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious where I stand between the two. And yet, as D pointed out, there is space for both, and each relies on the other, benefits from the existence of the other, and there is growth and productivity in the healthy tension created. The visibility that the Greening movement has brought to natural building has been really valuable. Sometimes it can bring up questions of priorities and sacrifice, but it can also bring about opportunity for really important change and an expansion of existing frameworks. If so much natural building is happening in places like rural Vermont, the outskirts of Santa Fe, NM, and sequestered in the abundant forests of the NorthWest – perhaps there is a need for an impetus, a catalyst, to push people’s creative gaze and critical perspective to urban spaces. Not just because urban spaces are the source of much environmental depletion and pollution, etc. But also, and importantly, because the faces of the homesteaders in Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Vermont, and New Hampshire are so often white, and in many places must be economically privileged, and their family structures are so frequently heteronormative. Because prioritizing people means prioritizing ALL people, not just those of us who can hop in a car and head three hours into the forest to satisfy a need for health-promoting spaces and environments.


The other thing that really struck me about D’s answer to the question on Monday night was how easily his answer could have been translated to a conversation about activism, and political movements. Because the tension between the Green movement and natural building feels a lot like the relationship between liberal, or progressive, political movements and more radical political activists. In the US, the liberal/progressive contingency also encompasses a broad range of people and beliefs, from Beltway-entrenched Blue-Dog Democrats (or even regular, mainstream Beltway Democrats) to the hordes of young Obama volunteers who believe in and want to act for change, and believe that voting and the existing political institution are the best way to get that done. (Full disclosure, I had a short stint of Obama volunteering – canvassing in NH a couple days before the election – but I wasn’t a deeply invested campaign organizer. Although I did, admittedly, get somewhat swept up in Obamamania.) And then there are also us radicals, a designation that also encompasses a very broad swath of people and political beliefs. There are more Anarcho/a-______ ideologies than it makes sense to name here, and then there are the Socialists and the Communists who don’t attach the circle-A to the front of their beliefs. Some of us in this wing off to the left see no space for intersection or overlap between the two, and some of us see possibility in the tensions created, and a fundamental need for interconnection.

Mostly, I just really liked that momentary (continual?) reminder of how interconnected the spheres of my world really are. I liked that a conversation about techniques for air and moisture -proofing strawbale buildings could blend so easily with theory and ideology, and how natural the connection between building philosophies and my political ideologies felt.

I’m a little worried about taking on more than I can handle, but I want to start volunteering with what looks like a really great organization in my community, YouthBuild Boston. I’m not sure in exactly what form, because I don’t know that my building skills are good enough that I can teach other people a whole lot, on a technical level, but I just want to support these kinds of programs. And I’d love to find out more about the collaborations happening, or the opportunities for them if they aren’t, between organizations like YBB and The Urban Ecology Institute.


Later, over drinks in the only bar still open in town, the conversation meandered away from building houses, and toward building communities. I explained to D what I’m going to be doing this fall, and was sort of blown away, in the best way possible, by his enthusiasm. He was just so excited to be reminded that there were spaces and environments (not even all that far from VT) where there were enough Jews for a Jewish community organizing fellowship. And for LGBT/queer Jewish organizations. And for politically radical Jewish communities to form. Because rural northern Vermont is definitely not one of those places.

It was a reminder to value the blessings and opportunities abounding in my community, and in my life. I anticipate that this coming year is going to be challenging, for a lot of reasons, but it’s also incredibly exciting, and I am lucky to have such an opportunity, in *my* community. Where I already live. Where I’ve been building a life and pulling together strings of community for almost a year now. I don’t have to go elsewhere to find it, it’s here already. So many people don’t have that blessing, and I don’t want to take it for granted.


These days, I’m feeling full and rejuvenated. I’ve been building office infrastructure for A & D’s company, and that feels really fun and exciting too, in a way I haven’t experienced doing similar work before. I can’t wait to do more building, and I can’t wait for this next adventure (which is quickly approaching) to start. Life just feels full of possibility.




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