I live right smack dab in the middle of a city. Not just any city…one of the most expensive cities to live and buy property in the world. Why? I have asked myself this question many times…and each time I conveniently soothe this wandering mind and frugal body by listing to myself the multitude of amazing reasons that would bring one to live in San Francisco. And affordability is not one of them. My personal reasons skirt along the themes of people, culture, diversity, acceptance and beauty. Then, of course, there is my excellent job that offers the agency and flexibility that is somewhat dream-like to a mountain wanderer, gardener, writer, musician, rebel-rouser, acrobatic…and many other fantastic breeds.
Ironically, my time in the city gives me full ownership over my intimacy with the very largest piece of me: being and living outdoors. This crowded expensive concrete jungle borderlines claustrophobia. A rare, inspiring-type of claustrophobia, but slightly suffocating nonetheless. I wonder when the day will come when I’ll be ready and/or able to make or buy a house, invest in some land, or plop a funky-style livable trailer next to a beautiful river somewhere. My house dreams do not include this city, despite my love for it’s muraled walls, fantastic coffee, and quirky neighbors. I like peacefulness and dirt….the occasional deer that roams through, and a colorful garden. I want the responsibility of having things to fix rather than dealing with a completely insane landlord that hires someone to rip out an entire garden on behalf of pest-control (yes, this happened to us). I like the idea of hauling dirt, wood, and other big-projecty things from the back of my truck into a spacious yard.
One of the things that sparked my interest the most from my visit to Vermillionville a few months ago, was learning more about how Cajuns built their houses long ago. I chatted with a fella who has managed to make a business out of refurbishing old Cajun-style homes. The building technique is called bousillage. I was captivated by this style of building. They start with a process of curing moss. It begins a light green color and once cured, the moss turns black and develops a strength similar to that of dental floss. It’s then mixed with clay, dropped between cypress slats and plastered to form a smooth wall.
The new-age marketing lingo classifies this style of building as earth architecture. It’s not particularly ‘new’ but rather a simple, practical housing solution. These structures began with Indian tribes such as the Chitimacha and Atakapa. When the French peasants began to move into Louisiana territory, they incorporated these building techniques largely due to the weather and conditions of the area. The architecture was shared and became accessible for anyone willing to put in the time, creativity, and labor. They built structures that didn’t cost an arm and leg…but rather demanded a lot of joint time and labor. Building a house takes time. Time that is now-a-days so quickly defined as money. I hold, value, and appreciate time just as much as the next person…but wonder how our actions would change if money wasn’t so quickly attached to our minutes.
The phrase ‘that was then…this is now’ holds a valid excuse. It’s true, everyday life has changed dramatically. If I ever want to afford a home in San Francisco, I will somehow have to strike luck at the lottery, make myself into the will of a rich person on their death bed, or schmooze my way to the top of the corporate ladder. Ok, maybe there are some other less-dramatic options out there…but with the way things are going in my frugal, stubborn, free-spirited, adventure-seeking life, I doubt my cents will ever be able to hold up a piece of property here. And that’s ok. I’ll be a host for my parasitic landlord for as long as I need to…then make a break for it. I’ll keep throwing quarters in a jar and wait until they become a jet plane.
I’ve wondered what it could look like to build a house with the help of friends. Then I remember that I already am. I’m actually building the foundation as I ramble along…and most likely, if you are reading this…you are a part of the process. We give and inadvertently, we get. It’s been happening for centuries….just like that. We start off little and helpless then we bust out of the clothes that were put on us. We make decisions and then we choose what decisions to make. And if we’re smart, we buy old as new…then wash and repeat. No matter how much life changes and shifts, we’ll always need each other. You can have the fanciest house in the fanciest place in the fanciest world, and it still feels good to be helped along.
Those of you who know me, might agree that I would probably go for the mossy-clay- insulated-cypress- structure. And actually, you’re probably right. But more than the idea of living in something earthy, simple, and practical…I like the fact that it’s created with the help of others in exchange for the help of others. It’s easy on the earth and the pocket book. I appreciate the fact that I wouldn’t have to sell my soul for a shelter…I would just need to climb some trees and dig some holes down by the river bank. I like the idea of building a house with my hands by replicating the beautiful structures and friendships created by my ancestors. It somehow connects me to something that was…or can be. Without seemingly romanticizing a time that most likely contained a long list of hardships, I do think there is something inherently valuable in remembering how we met our needs of the past. Structures and systems are built with with flaws…some flaws that we may or may not feel in our life or lifetime…but it can’t hurt to remember how our ancestors may have built their houses. I’d like to know.