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Working for the Land

April is the month that our daughter Clementine’s homeschooling group comes to our place, and so this past Thursday there were seven kids aged four to eight here for most of the day. It’s mostly a semi-organized play day, and they did what little kids do when they’re together outside: ran around making up games, explored things in the forest, played on the swing and big Mayan hammock, fussed and complained when they got tired or bored. Tanya was responsible for orchestrating their activities and maintaining relative peace and order.

I was content to be off in the forest for most of the time, hewing the last of the timbers for our addition. Over the course of the day, groups of two or three kids would come to see what I was up to. Almost all the families in our group heat with wood, so seeing one of the father’s swinging an ax was nothing special. Besides, what immediately grabbed their interest was the top of a felled tree that I had left lying on the ground so that it formed a long incline. They all turned it into an instant jungle gym, and I understood where that phrase comes from: like fires, another attraction hardwired into us from our deep past.

As a culture, we’ve given up so many of the deep pleasures and satisfactions that shaped our lives for almost the entire course of human history: communal fires, climbing in trees, wandering through the forest, making by hand the things we really need to see us through a human life. Like shelter. Hand-hewing timbers for a house addition in the early twenty-first century is unusual, a determined, self-conscious departure from the norm. But as recently as the early nineteenth century hewing timbers and building a house by hand was the norm, at least here where we live.

Our village was chartered in 1762, the charter imposing a number of conditions on the first settlers: that they settle “sixty good Protestant Families, and build sixty Houses, none to be less than Eighteen Feet Square, and Seven Feet Stud; and clear and cultivate five acres of Land on each share fit for Tillage or Mowing; and that they build in each Township a suitable Meeting-house for the public worship of God, and Settle a Learned Protestant Minister...” The learned minister arrived in 1796, recently graduated from Harvard. He carried with him an ax, lime, and carpenter’s tools and promptly set about building his house from plans he had already drawn. The house still stands today, elegantly proportioned with a hipped roof—a little fancier than most of the farmer’s houses from that period when the coast of Maine was still a frontier.

I’ve done restoration work on some of these early houses. The framing and designs I’ve seen are workmanlike, competent, but nothing exceptional. The rafters, purlins, and floor joists were often unpeeled logs hewn flat on the upper side only to save time. These were farmer’s houses on a new frontier. But many of them are still here, more than two hundred years after they were first built. And if rain hasn’t gotten in to the wall or under the roof, the frames have another couple good centuries left. Any house that has a serviceable life that can be measured in centuries is by default an ecological solution to the problem of shelter. To put it in some perspective: today there are just over 10 square miles of forest with trees more than 200 years old in Maine, a state that encompasses 35,000 square miles and is 90% forested.

Despite the durability of their houses, the intent of the emigrants from Massachusetts who settled the coast here was anything but ecological. They considered it part of their divine mission to subdue and improve the land, to finish God’s work by clearing the wilderness (as the charter in fact demanded) and planting fields of grain and grass. These ideas have their roots in the middle ages, particularly in the reign of Charlemagne, but also in the monastic tradition, especially that of the Benedictine monks. Our own culture is more secular than Puritan Massachusetts in the eighteenth century, but we’ve taken up the imperative to subdue the land with a vengeance. We’ve subdued many of the species that inhabit the land right out of existence and we seem determined to finish the grim work of subduing them all until there’s not much left but the species we eat or find valuable for some other reason.

A couple items in the local papers in the past few weeks frame the issue nicely. Some of the state’s sport hunters have been calling for a more aggressive program of trapping and killing coyotes in the state, since they claim that the coyotes are responsible for a reduced deer population. I’ve been reading some of the hunters’ letters and editorials recently, and the kindest thing I can think of to say about them is that their ignorance of biology is no greater than their ignorance of history. Coyotes are predators, like wolves whose ecological niche they occupied after the wolves were exterminated in New England by farmers intent on protecting their livestock. They do eat deer, though studies of wolf predation and hunting success have shown almost no correlation between the presence of wolves and hunters’ success in killing deer. Knowledge of history confirms this. Early English settlers such as William Wood and John Josselyn wrote about the large number of wolves in New England. Yet the natives hunted deer as part of their seasonal subsistence food cycle. In other words they relied on killing deer for survival, not for sport. But there’s no record that they ever attempted to eliminate the wolves, or felt that it would benefit their hunting success. Maybe they were just confident in their abilities as hunters.

The other news item was an article about the most expensive home in Maine, which is being built one peninsula over. The article mentioned that the house would cost 30 million dollars, that it was 9,000 square feet, and that it would be the owner’s fourth house. Those facts offer an interesting glimpse into the ways we’ve chosen to arrange our economy, distribute wealth, and use the finite natural resources that are the only source of that wealth.

The first and most obvious fact about the house is that it is unnecessary. And so all the fossil energy burned, all the trees killed, all the cement poured, all the copper and iron mined, all the carbon released into the atmosphere, every single resource used is wasted. Some of it might be recovered at some future date, but most of it will not be. The house will create jobs, but the work is a waste because the end product has no reasonable value. In fact it has a negative value, since it will require ongoing resources to maintain it. The best it will do is satisfy one man’s, or one family’s, vanity and greed. But it won’t even do that, for it seems clear that by the time anyone gets to building their fourth house that neither their vanity nor greed can be satisfied.

For the same amount of money, which means for the same amount of labor and resources, 150 modest houses could be built instead. These would employ the same carpenters and craftsmen, but in the useful and necessary work of building houses that are needed to provide shelter, rather than to advertise a multi-millionaire’s affluence, which is the first purpose of any vanity palace.

I don’t envy the owner of the most expensive house in Maine. I wouldn’t know what to do in one 9000-square-foot house, and I certainly wouldn’t want four. In fact I feel a little sorry for him, though my pity is tempered by disgust and anger at his own contempt for the planet and the future. But I feel sorry for him because he lives in at least four places, and so he doesn’t belong anywhere. Maybe he belongs to a computer screen, or a conference room, or a corporate jet. But his experience of the world is necessarily shallow. His experience of the world is of scenery, which is probably why he chose the coast of Maine for his fourth house—a pretty view for a few months of the year. He’s an exile with the means to spend a lot of time and energy shopping, no more, no less. If it weren’t for the damage he and others who share his values were doing to the world and to the things we care about, I wouldn’t bother to write about him at all; he’s null and void.

I don’t believe we’ll be able to change our basic economic relationships until we change the ways we get our food and shelter. And I don’t think we’ll be able to change those until we change the stories we tell about our place in the world. Our start here has been to see how much of our food we can get from the native forest ecology while at the same time working to restore that ecology, and to build and advocate for modest, durable houses designed to minimize demands for future resources. These are expressions of one basic idea: we belong to the land, we are part of a community of life, and our relations with that community are reciprocal. I’m optimistic: I don’t think it will take many people telling this story to change our culture. The roots of the stories we tell now—everything belongs to us, I want more—only grow in impoverished soil. I think they’re dying as I write.

For thousands of years the native people who called this place home, the Wabanaki, believed that everything in the world—trees, rocks, sun, stars, animals—was imbued with a living spirit. Manitou, they called it. They didn’t believe you could own the land, only that you had a right to use it, and then only if you used it with reverence and respect. The land was sacred. They believed they held it in trust for their children and for their children’s children. How can our culture’s practices of exploitation, extraction and contempt for the people of the future compete with that idea? I don’t believe they can.

Further reading:

The information on deer and wolf predation is from Richard Nelson’s beautiful book Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America.

Michael Williams analyzes medieval European practices and theories of land clearing in Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis.

The essay “Turmoil on the Wabanaki Frontier, 1525-1678” by ethnohistorian Harald E.L. Prins in Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present gives a short description of Manitou and Wabanaki ideas about their relationship to the land.

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