I grew up in a middle-class suburban house in the suburbs of a small town in the Rocky Mountains, the house at the edge of the three-block-long development on an unpaved street, half a mile from the rest of the town. It was an area of young people starting families, a lovely place for children, our house mere feet from a seemingly endless forest of ponderosa pines and robins and blue sky. With my dog, I would leave the house with my fishing rod and we would run along deer trails for miles to the lake to fish for trout, to hunt for India arrowheads, to search for dumps of cobalt bottles, and search for driftwood figures of strange beauty on the lakeshore, to build a treehouse that no one else could enter, my dog curled up at the base of the trunk while I decorated my private place with things found from the forest floor and the edge of the water. My own place; my own world.
In my little town books were generally frowned upon. People were meant to “do something,” and reading meant one was doing nothing. In my little world, books, those few that I found and hoarded, opened up the world beyond the forest and the lakes and rivers and mountains. The draw grew strong as I grew up, and soon I found myself wandering the world, restless and curious, driven to go farther, deeper, ever onward. It was a life of hotels and hostels and sometimes camping in the rough. Years of moving turned into decades of homelessness, brief periods of settlement and university studies, years that pale in comparison to those decades of travel. And on the road, I looked at buildings, at art, at history, at books and books, and books. Everywhere I traveled I looked at places I wanted to live in, to call my own home. I wanted a bit of this and a bit of that from the places I saw. I wanted vaulted arches and cathedral domes and hand-poured stained glass windows in my own private house in the forest. Now, over 50 years later, my dream home is about to come true, my house in the forest, far from my memories of the Rocky Mountains, my home being– soon– in the Amazon Jungle. This is the beginning of the book I am writing about building my house, me doing nothing.
Over the course of a long life, I find that I haven’t done much. My wandering years have taken me to countless museums, art galleries, opera houses, and concert halls; cities on fire during savage wars, fields of rotting dead, diseased settlements of despair and death; ancient ruins towering to the sky and scattered in the dust. I have seen small houses beautiful beyond description, the dwelling places of private folk living quiet lives. I’ve been to mansions filled with priceless objects of art; the huts of the starving collapsed on urine-soaked mud floors, children dying from diseases commonly cured with a bit of modern medicine, spirit-bourne maladies adults cannot comprehend without the aid of shamans. I’ve witnessed much in other peoples’ homes and places. Personally, I haven’t done much. I’ve never had my own place. I seldom stayed long enough in one place to call it home. In rented rooms, I read about the lives and times of others. I’ve seen a great deal, but I haven’t done much about it. Now, it’s time, at last, to build me a house on a hill and call it home.
William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts Movement.
Nature is a mindless, soulless matrix within which mankind finds itself alive and aware. On this earth and within this life, we contend by the instant with nature that is too often destructive of our human life. We do our best to control this thing we call nature. Magic and prayer, sometimes simply terror, we live briefly and die like all other living things. In Genesis, God gave man dominion over nature, but He did not give man control. Man is higher than other forms of life, but he is not powerful in the face of Nature. Man simply lives as well and as long as he is able. Fate, too, is nature. Our fate is to suffer and die. We learn to tame some parts of nature and we eat, we sleep, we survive for a time. We are mostly at nature’s mercy. It is definitely not our friend or benefactor. Nature just is. If we can, we master it and live somewhat better than if we are at nature’s mercy ourselves.
Dominion over nature without control over nature is the course of humanity from time immemorial. Then, hundreds of years ago, things changed. Francis Bacon wrote Novum Organum, 1620.
To reduce nature and strip it bare is the best way to gain knowledge of nature’s secrets,
“so the secrets of nature betray themselves more readily when tormented by art than when left to their own course.
Modernity is over. Back in the 1970s, I began encountering the idea of Post Modernity, and I didn’t like the concept, or what its proponents advocated. I shrugged it off. Now, my shoulders are too stooped. Post Modernity won out, and what we have left is decay so profound that my life, what’s left of it, has to be devoted to my own pursuit of the private Modernity one can create from the leftovers of a period past. I’m leaving for the jungle as soon as the law allows to build my own place where the Modern rules again.
Modernity ended, I think, with the last glimmers of Art Deco, the apex of machines and industrial production in the hands of man. Now, it is time to remove myself from what is in the West to create my own version of the Middle Ages with electricity and found objects from our Modern past. The glory of machines is gone, the remnants being, at best, Art Deco so dear I can barely afford anything, however small and insignificant. Goodbye, machines of Progress. So long, the art of Deco. Hello, the arts and crafts of what can be done with hand tools and scraps from the Modern world long dead. Forward to the past and all its glorious good.
I recently fell in love with Paul Sellers, an old Englishman who puts out short videos on woodworking. He is quiet and calm and serious. He is a total master. While watching one of his videos I became acutely aware of another old love from university days, William Morris. Thus, from now on, whenever I attempt some personal joinery project, I will limit myself to the use of hand tools to get the job done.
“The core characteristics of the Arts and Crafts movement are a belief in craftsmanship which stresses the inherent beauty of the material, the importance of nature as inspiration, and the value of simplicity, utility, and beauty. The movement often promoted reform as part of its philosophy and advanced the idea of the designer as a craftsman.”
William Morris (See post below this,) was big on wallpaper. I’m not. Morris covered nearly every aspect of domestic living as an exercise in art and craft; not just decorative objects, but architecture and villages, even life in a commune, as we would call it today. A “handmade life,” as it were.
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, Part Three.
William Morris wrote a novel, News From Nowhere, that I fell in love with as a university student many decades ago. It has been a lasting and profound influence on my life. A back-to-nature story about old hippies making things. Now, at this late stage of life, I can follow my Morrisian dream and live the life I think I should have pursued long ago. One might find it worth the while to borrow a copy of this novel from a local library. After 150 years, it is still in print.
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, Part Four.
“Morris wanted to find a way out of industrial ugliness, back to the joys of creation experienced in the ‘Golden Age of English history when Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) was on the throne.”
Today’s world of Home Hardware and Ikea is far better for most than the best of the mid-Nineteenth Century at best. We can thank Thomas Crapper, for example, for flush toilets. Joseph Lister brought the world antiseptics. Mr. Otis created elevators. We don’t want to give up these things for the less frantic life of Victorian times.
Nor do we have to forgo the good of our day to have the good of yesteryear. A village is always close enough to allow even the most eccentric man to buy and use daily things from the industrialized, technologically driven world. At the same time, one can live in a William Morris-inspired paradise of one’s own making.
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, Part Five.
Most people living in the Modern world will be content with what they have and the places they find themselves living in, i.e. condominiums and cities. Most, but not all will be satisfied with life. For the few, the very few, there is a William Morris kind of alternative life.
The average cost of a highrise condo in Vancouver, Canada is approx. $3,700 per square meter. One square is enough to stand on; two will allow one to lie down. It’s not so much a matter of price one considers in a shelter in the modern city: it is a matter of lifestyle, the thing central to the mind. Almost no one is happy to move into the forest and live a strange life among sun-blocking tree canopies and poisonous snakes. The isolation is a deterrent to most, those who thrive on social contact, even with strangers. Mostly, it’s a matter of not ever thinking about something different.
William Morris looked at England in the last half of the 19th Century and decided it was too modern for his liking. He created a movement to return, in the arts, to the Middle Ages.
We, today, can do even better than Morris did. We, living in close proximity to the modern, regardless of where we might be, can find packaged soap and toothbrushes at the local tienda in the village. Solar panels allow for Internet even for those lost on the land in the deep forest. Whatever one needs from the Modern is within reach. But, one can also, those few, step out and live a life of hand-made qualities.
The great irony of an Arts and Crafts lifestyle is that it is more easily available to people living in Liberia, for example, than it is for those living in Los Angeles. The greater the investment in Modernity, the less likely one is to pursue a life of Utopian retreat into nature. It’s in the mind.
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, Part Six.
Those who have lived through hurricanes, tornados, and floods, and those who have survived artillery barrages, know of the importance of sandbags. They aren’t very pretty as architecture. They are cheap, as a rule, being today plastic sacks filled with dirt. With a bit of thought, one could call it home.
An Egyptian architect Khalili, designed and built houses from sacks of sand, the original intention being housing on the moon. Carrying sacks of cement, sand, water, rebar, and so on to the moon is prohibitively expensive and stupid. Moondust is already there, and sacks are easier to carry than the rest one needs to build. And then, he thought, Why not make emergency shelters for disaster victims using dirt and sacks. The current name for this kind of alternative housing is “Earthbag Building.” If it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for me.
But, an earthbag house isn’t good enough for me. They are as ugly as mud. This is why one turns to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement of the mid-Nineteenth Century, a nostalgic look at the Middle Ages for the built environment. Take the cheapest possible material and create earthquake-proof dwellings.
Create, for example, a roundhouse with a conical roof, and voila, one has a home. Such a structure will withstand a crash from a speeding automobile, as some unfortunates discovered on the night. But, one asks, who would want a place like that? AirBNB customers. One such style of earthbag houses is known as Hobbit House style. AirBNB has some on-list, and they are the most popular places they have– booked years in advance. Because of the influence of William Morris, however indirectly. Dirt cheap and hand-made doesn’t have to be plain as dirt and slipshod. Look at what craftsy hippies do!
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, Part Seven.
Very few people living in Hollywood, according to those I spoke with at the cocktail party I was most recently at, are interested in giving up their mansions to move into a mud hut in the jungle. One rightly asks, “Why not? You certainly can afford it.?
My Liberian friends have a better chance of living in a William Morris-style house and community than do the filthy rich in America. As a friend in Iquitos pointed out some years ago, they are so poor all they have is money. There is a happy and practical medium.
Fancy up the joint.
What’s the essential difference between living in an earthen house in Africa and living in an earthen house in America?
OK, some of us are a little more sober-minded when it comes to the place we call home.
The cash involved is negligible. Dirt is still dirt. It’s really all in the mind.