I was talking with someone the other day, I can’t remember with whom, and we were talking about mainstream education, standardization, norms, etc. And I was reminded of something Doris Lessing wrote in the introduction to The Golden Notebook, talking about critics and their inability to write what they really think and to consider works of literature in any other way than as in comparison to other works of literature. She expands what she says into a deeper criticism of the factory model of education and the competition and value judgments it encourages. She writes:
It is not possible for reviewers and critics to provide what they purport to provide — and for which writers so ridiculously and childishly yearn.
This is because critics are not educated for it; their training is in the opposite direction.
It starts when the child is as young as five or six, when he arrives at school. It starts with marks, rewards, “places,” streams,” stars — and still in many places, stripes. This horserace mentality, the victor and loser way of thinking, leads to “Writer X is, is not, a few paces ahead of Writer Y. Writer Y has fallen behind. In his last book Writer Z has shown himself to be a better writer than Writer A.” From the very beginning the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure. It is a weeding-out system; the weaker get discourages and fall out; a system designed to produce a few winners who are always in competition with each other. It is my belief — though this is not the place to develop this — that the talents every child has, regardless of his official “IQ,” could stay with him through life, to enrich him and everybody else, if these talents were not regarded as commodities with a value in the success-stakes.
The other thing taught from the start is to distrust one’s own judgement. Children are taught submission to authority, how to search for other people’s opinions and decisions, and how to quote and comply.
I’m in a reading mood this week more so than writing, which is slightly inconvenient because I’ve got an essay deadline on July 30 and another deadline for a project proposal at the end of this week. But I’m not overly worried about getting them done, so for today at least I’m going with the flow.
On my list are some old favorites that I feel a push to reread (again, for the tenth time):
The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov, Walter Benjamin
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
Free Time, Theodor Adorno (starting on p. 187)
When we left off, I was trying to figure out how to build a railing around the platform that I’d bolted (ouch) to the tree. This is how the railing started out:
And this is when I thought it was done (prior to paint):
Not the prettiest architectural detail known to man. But I thought it would work. And the kids were happy.
Their grandfather, however, was dubious. One day when I was up in the tree tinkering around with something or another, he appeared out of nowhere, silently, as he was wont to do, and nodded at me in greeting. He asked how it was going. I said things seemed to be going all right, and that I hoped to start painting soon. He nodded again, and said that it looked good, except that there was one thing that concerned him a bit. He walked over to the edge of the railing and shook it with one of his hands. The railing wobbled… a lot. That was a little embarrassing to say the least. I said that I’d noticed it wobbled but I figured that the kids wouldn’t be leaning hard up against it, that was common sense. He raised his eyebrows as one does at someone who apparently has no experience with small children (I didn’t). We discussed it and tried to brainstorm possible ways to make it sturdier without taking the whole thing apart, and in the meantime decided that the tree house for the time being would be off limits to kids without adult supervision…. which is kind of against the spirit of tree houses, so I knew I had to figure out something, and quickly.
Shortly thereafter I planned a weekend with Mas to go out and visit an art installation in the mountains built by a collective that includes a friend. We planned on hiking up from the valley, staying the night in the installation — which was livable, and at the time housed at least three members of the group that built it — and continue hiking the next day.
The hike up:
When we got to the top, after several wrong turns in the village, we finally came across our destination:
The installation was a massive wooden maze — think Swiss Family Robinson + The Baron in the Trees + a band of pirates — of corridors, ramps and rooms built on the roof of a chalet that had been scheduled for demolition. Workers in fact had already begun tearing out floorboards and walls in the chalet’s interior, and then stopped work for the five-month duration of the installation. Colonies of wasps moved into the chalet, and the artists lived atop it in the open air. None of the guys who worked to put it up were what most people would call building “professionals” — there were no architects, engineers, construction workers, or carpenters on the team. They had learned to build from experience and common sense. And it was solid and sturdy, though many of the visiting public (including architects, engineers, construction workers, and carpenters) couldn’t believe that a structure resembling a fistful of Pick-Up Sticks could possibly be safe, even as they were standing in it.
Like I said, we’d planned on stopping by, staying the night, and then continuing on with our hike the next day. But then Sunday came and went and we wound up leaving Monday afternoon, and then only because I had to work for the next day. Climbing back down to solid ground was a shock to my inner clock as well as to my body. One of the building rules for the installation was that none of the planks were to be vertically or horizontally placed. The effect was that you were forced to walk always on sharply angled floors, which was really jarring at first to my sense of equilibrium, but after a few hours I got used to it and was bounding around like a squirrel on tree branches. Leaving to go back to Geneva felt like disembarking from a boat. Mas and I practically had to hold on to each other in order to walk straight. The mental effect was the same, which I’ll go into in a bit.
I spent three days back at my bookshop job in Geneva, and as soon as I busted free at 6:30 on the third day I went straight back to the mountains with the backpack I’d packed beforehand in preparation. The rest of the month of August went pretty much like that — luckily my schedule at work was pretty light that month, but even so I wound up switching with two of my coworkers so once I had nine straight days of freedom to spend hanging out at the installation, reading, writing, and learning more about how it had been built. (And actually, how it was continuing to be built, because that was a thing too — the building of it kept going throughout its entire lifetime and would continue until the last day, when the joke was that one of the guys would drill a screw into the wood and then immediately reverse the direction of the power screwdriver to remove the screw he’d just put in and then turn around and carry on with dismantling the rest.)
The building of it, they told me, had started with a ramp on the roof that led up to the chimney. Around the chimney they built a large wooden octagonal table (the Stammtisch) with a hole in the middle for a small firepit, which worked as the common area for everyone to hang out. From there it grew organically and every which way — ramps and stairs leading to bedrooms, an outdoor shower, a kitchen area, and a slide leading into the chalet via a window (the only part built inside the house) where they could go in case of thunderstorms and torrential downpour (and on at least one occasion, massive hail). The ramp that started on the roof was extended and turned into a tunnel that went in one window, out another, and down to the ground. The opening of the tunnel on the ground was where visitors were expected to enter: when they came for the first time (there were plenty of repeat visitors) there was always a look of confusion until finally they called up to someone on the roof “How do we get up?” The answer was always “Through the tunnel at the side of the house. Down on all fours.” (Unless the visitor was eight months pregnant, like my friend Hannah was at the time — she got helped up the secret way.) There was a delay of a couple of minutes and plenty of giggling and shrieking (the tunnel got pretty narrow at one point, and it was unlit) until the visitor tumbled out onto the first ramp on the roof. The look on their faces was always the same, no matter what their age was, and that was a look of pure, giddy joy.
A picture gallery is in order here.
Needless to say this was the most fun summer I’ve ever had in my entire life. I basically lived on a pirate ship for a month. And while a lot of it was fun and games, I learned so, so much that to be quite honest I’m still wrapping my head around it all nearly two years later. Some of the learning was building related, but the majority of it was learning how to deal with a different rhythm of time. My research was pretty existential to begin with, but this experience multiplied that. I spent a lot of time reading and writing there, especially during one week when the guys had to go off to check out the site for one of their upcoming projects and asked me to hold down the fort. One of the books I read was Sylvain Tesson’s Dans les forêts de Siberie (The Consolations of the Forest, now translated in English). As a (true) story I found it to be a little Eat Pray Loveish if Eat Pray Love had been fueled by vodka and written on the taiga by an anticapitalist, but there were several passages that made me think about what I was living at that moment … albeit Tesson isolated himself in a lakeside cabin, his nearest neighbors a good 100 kilometers away, and I was hanging out in a trippy tree house with three to four other people, a steady stream of visitors, and a village down below where I could go buy groceries and use the Internet. But I’m telling you, I felt camaraderie.
The cabin, realm of simplification. Under the cover of pines, life reduces itself to vital gestures. Time torn from daily duties is spent at rest, in contemplation and for small pleasures. The range of things to accomplish is reduced. Reading, pumping water, cutting wood, writing, and pouring tea become rites. In the city, every act is carried out to the detriment of a thousand others. The forest pulls together what the city spreads apart. (p. 6 in the French, my translation)
This is where I felt a connection. On my days back in Geneva I couldn’t believe how hard it was for me to readjust, and I felt immense frustration over the fact that I was spending hours upon hours doing things from which I felt distanced, even alienated, but which nevertheless I did because that’s just how life is when you live in a city in the 21st century. I know I probably sound like anyone else who’s ever gone on vacation to a remote locale, but for me the simplification of the day, combined with never really knowing what time it was, combined with the physicality of where I was living, plus the fact that I was outside all day, every day and through the night, plus the fact that I knew this experience was a one-time deal (it was taken down in late September) — all this made for a wakening up of my senses that I’d never felt before in the same way.
It made me think above all of idleness, and of how idleness is such a dirty word for so many people. There’s an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson that I love, “An Apology for Idlers,” in which he writes that idleness does not consist “in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class.”
That idea has informed much of my research for some time, and especially in conjunction with my experience on the pirate ship. Because I was doing a lot: reading, gardening, writing, thinking, meeting and talking with people, learning some building skills and baking bread:
What is idle about any of that? What end purpose does it serve? What is it producing?
For me it reinforced a passion for my work and helped push for a change in my way of thinking about how I spend my time and for what and for whom, which has all contributed toward making me a happier person than I’ve ever been. Not a bad investment of a month of my life.
And with that, I’ll leave you with a little Thoreau to take with you on the rest of your day:
I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without ginger-bread work, which shall still consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head, — useful to keep off rain and snow; where the king and queen posts stand out to receive your homage, when you have done reverence to the prostrate Saturn of an older dynasty on stepping over the sill; a cavernous house, wherein you must reach up a torch upon a pole to see the roof; where some may live in the fire-place, some in the recesses of a window, and some on settles, some at the end of one hall, some at another, and some aloft on rafters with the spiders, if they choose; a house which you have got into when you have opened the outside door, and the ceremony is over; where the weary traveller may wash, and eat, and converse, and sleep, without further journey; such a shelter as you would be glad to reach in a tempestuous night, containing all the essentials of a house, and nothing for house-keeping; where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view, and every thing hangs upon its peg that a man should use; at once kitchen, pantry, parlor, chamber, store-house, and garret; where you can see so necessary a thing as a barrel or a ladder, so convenient a thing as a cupboard, and hear the pot boil, and pay your respects to the fire that cooks your dinner and the oven that bakes your bread, and the necessary furniture and utensils are the chief ornaments; here the washing is not put out, nor the fire, nor the mistress, and perhaps you are sometimes requested to move from off the trap-door, when the cook would descend into the cellar, and so learn whether the ground is solid or hollow beneath you without stamping. A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird’s nest, and you cannot go in at the front door and out at the back without seeing some of its inhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there, — in solitary confinement. Nowadays the host does not admit you to his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourself somewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance. There is as much secrecy about the cooking as if he had a design to poison you. I am aware that I have been on many a man’s premises, and might have been legally ordered off, but I am not aware that I have been in many men’s houses. I might visit in my old clothes a king and queen who lived simply in such a house as I have described, if I were going there way; but backing out of a modern palace will be all that I shall desire to learn, if ever I am caught in one. (Walden, p. 157-158 in the Dover Thrift edition.)
PS: Since I mentioned I did a bit of reading during that month, I’ll share with you my list in case you want to discover or rediscover any of it:
- Thoreau, Walden (read for what I think was the 200th time)
- Sylvain Tesson, Dans les forêts de Siberie / The Consolations of the Forest (He brought several boxes of books with him for his six months of isolation, and includes a list of all of them early on in the book. He had some odd reading choices that I don’t know I would take the time to read, but a lot of good ones that I’ve already read or want to some day.)
- “L’homme qui plantait des arbres” (“The Man Who Planted Trees,” novella, you can read it online here, and/or see the animated short here)
- Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life”
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
- Emerson, Self Reliance and Other Essays
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
(photo courtesy of my friend Janis and his WWII era camera)
Oh the memories…
As requested, here’s a bit about the first tree house I built, summer 2012. It’s interesting for me to think about it again since I’m in the beginning stages of planning another one and there are for sure plenty of things that I did with the first one that I would not do again.
The project came about at the end of the first year of my master’s program, when I announced during my final presentation of the year my intentions to build a hut in the woods. My research was (and still is) about a reconsideration of what we consider to be useful skills and about creating human-scale economies of production. This all took off when I attended a workshop by an artist obsessed with apocalyptic themes, and I found myself drowning in boredom during the talk so my mind started to wander into thinking about what people do to prepare for the coming fall of civilization, and what they perceive to be important skills for the rebuilding of society. I was sitting in the back of the room next to a computer so I started reading a bunch of the websites floating around out there where survivalists and preppers converge to discuss closed-loop agriculture systems, the stockpiling of canned goods, etc. It got me thinking about what sorts of skills I had that would contribute to my community’s survival, and also the sorts of skills my friends and acquaintances had. I sent out a mass text message to about 40 people, no prefacing context given, asking: “If civilization comes tumbling down tomorrow and we’re forced to rebuild a community, what skills and/or knowledge and/or material would you contribute to the effort?”
The replies were varied:
- knowledge of growing food
- construction skills (wood and metal both)
- reconsideration of the time dedicated to work
- a copy of Barjavel’s Ravage
- skills in facilitating group work and consensus-based decision making
- a Kindle and raclette grill (didn’t understand that one — where would we plug them in?)
- crocheted clothing to protect from the elements
- ability to identify wild edibles and hallucinogenic mushrooms
So some of the answers were jokes, but most of them were serious, and I was surprised and impressed to discover that many of the people I knew had some sort of hidden talent that I hadn’t known they possessed. Then when I considered what I would contribute to the post-apocalyptic community of my imagination, I came up with: text editing and yoga teacher. And I could tell stories. However, I had little to nothing in the way of knowledge or skills toward the direct production of most of life’s necessities. Thus began my obsession with all things DIY (or rather DIYT – Do It Yourself Together).
In the beginning I was dangerously toeing the line of falling into the whole individualist mentality of the lone frontiersman doing it all himself — I had an exaggerated list of things that I decided I would learn, which today makes me laugh. Hunting? Seriously? Did I seriously think I would be capable of shooting bambi with a bow and arrow? That initial frenzy to learn it all now calmed down and I settled into three areas of skill acquisition: bread (for sustenance), woodworking (for shelter), and music (to keep up our spirits). Since then I’ve added clothing. When I worked for a newspaper in upstate New York I covered (ha) a regional nudist convention, and thanks to that I understand the allure of running around naked in the woods, but I’ve got Irish skin that burns easily so I prefer to cover up.
At first I imagined constructing a wooden shelter on the ground, but one afternoon/evening we were all sitting around Parc Bastion drinking cheap wine —
(oh the memories)
— when a group of young proselytizers, like so many heathen-seeking missiles, came over to our neck of the park and started asking people to fill out a questionnaire about Jesus. A guy sitting in another circle of people drinking cheap wine got up and came over to sit with us so as to avoid the conversation that was starting to get heated where he was. It turned out that this guy knew a bit about tree houses and, wouldn’t you know it, my friends and I were talking about that exact subject. He and I got into a lengthy discussion about tree house construction, and I took copious, illegible notes:
I eventually went home, psyched about this new project but without a tree in which to build it. Help came in the form of my friend Steph, who lives a bit outside of Geneva in her childhood home, which is surrounded by a big yard with lots of trees. And her dad lives on the bottom floor of the house, and he just happens to be an artist who works with metal and wood and therefore has a huge collection of pretty much any tool you can imagine and was happy to lend it all to me.
First I visited the tree for an afternoon and took what I figured were all the necessary measurements:
and then I went home and built a meticulous scale model of it (which wasn’t really necessary but it was an excuse to play with clay):
Then one day in July, I started work. Luckily, since I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, Steph (who was also one of the people who had responded to my survey with a serious answer) helped get me started.
And here’s where we get into things I would do differently now. Because, yes, we did it: we bolted the support beams to the tree branches. Ouch. In our defense, the tree was very old and her dad was planning to cut it down in a few years, so from the start we knew the tree house and the tree would not be around for very long — but still, I’m embarrassed now that I didn’t take the time to become more informed about less invasive ways of fixing support beams to a tree that don’t involve drilling holes into the poor thing. Lesson learned, I won’t do that again.
That first day we got all three support beams up, much to the excitement of her kids.
And on day two I put in flooring.
Which meant that by day two the kids were already starting to move in.
If you’ve never tried to build something with three kids under 10 running around you, I don’t recommend it. (“NELSON PUT DOWN THE POWER SAW!”)
Once the platform was up, it was all exhilaration followed by… what next. Because by that point I had started to rethink the design a little, realizing that some things I’d planned were not going to work. So in the meantime I built a bookshelf. First things first.
I’d imagined a hanging bookshelf like in The Baron in the Trees: “To keep his books Cosimo constructed a kind of hanging bookcase, sheltered as best he could from rain and nibbling mouths. But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered books as rather like birds and it saddened him to see them caged or still” (p. 102).
After the bookshelf, it was necessary to install some sort of railing. This turned out to be more complicated than I’d first thought but luckily in the midst of this project I met some people who had built their own tree house (of sorts), considerably bigger than mine, and I spent enough time with them and their project to be able to learn a few important construction techniques.
But right now I need to head down to the garden to get some planting done. To be continued.
This is something like round six of sourdough starter cultivation. I had a nice one going last summer and fall, but after doing a workshop with it, which entailed weeks of bread baking in advance to better my sourdough skills (I’m a novice after all, but novices can share knowledge, too), I couldn’t stomach another round of sponges and rising times so I decided to let the starter sleep for a while in the fridge. Then I forgot to feed it for quite a long time (… months….) and so of course it died. Since then I’ve started a starter several times but each time life called me elsewhere and I didn’t follow up on it, and thus another one would buy the farm.
The last death was an epic one — I had trucked my starter to the workshop Mas and I did the other week, along with a few other DIY projects I had hanging around the apartment, plus a load of books having to do with our subject. After we’d finished up at the end of day 3, Mas and I went to another meeting for a different project we have going on, and after that meeting a group of us went out for a beer, which turned into going to Pachinko, and in case you had any doubts, no, sourdough starters do not like going to hipster dive bars. Because, yes, I was that stupid to pack up my starter AND not only my starter, but a dozen or so books, too, and take them out on the town with me. In my defense I hadn’t anticipated moving around as much as we did. I had packed up the books so as to avoid having to lug them all back after the last day of the workshop, and had taken along my starter as well because I feared for its safety. I clearly didn’t fear for its safety all that much, though, or at least not enough to verify that the lid to the jar was screwed on securely. I think we all know how this is going to end…
Sourdough starter all over my coat:
The stupidity of carrying a jar of starter in the same bag as some of your most prized books:
Including library books… about bread:
No, I’m not slitting my wrists in despair there — Alvaro suggested letting the starter dry a bit and then shaving it off with razor blades.
It sort of worked, but since starter is wet there are a few books with permanently damaged covers or pages. Including one library book (Le Pain) which I’ve now got to replace. Stupid, stupid.
After a brief mourning period, I began a new starter. Here it is this morning, day eight or so:
Tonight I’m going to make a sponge, tomorrow I’ll be organizing my day around rising times for the dough, and with luck we’ll have fresh sourdough for tomorrow night’s dinner. I’ve got high hopes for this starter, by far the most lively I’ve ever managed to cultivate. I’m guessing it’s the flour (organic, 95% whole wheat, recently ground).
I feel a renewed motivation to be a better caretaker (and not only because I’m doing another workshop in three weeks, coughcough) — maybe it’s the coming springtime making me think of growing things. Who knows. It’s probably also because I feel more direction in the bread part of my research, and am starting to lay out more of a methodology and thinking about how to present it. I feel kind of wary of having a fixed idea in mind of what I’m going to produce, because that can steer the research process and cause me to miss out on a path that might not be the obvious one but which might lead me toward something interesting. But at the same time, having an image of what I’m working toward helps me stay more focused and I feel more confident in what I’m doing if I have an idea of the route. I guess I’m more tree than rhizome.