What is shelter?

Windows are done!

Old English hus “dwelling, shelter, house,” from Proto-Germanic *husan (cognates: Old Norse, Old Frisian hus, Dutch huis, German Haus), of unknown origin, perhaps connected to the root of hide (v.) [OED]. Hide “skin of a large animal,” Old English hyd “hide, skin,” from Proto-Germanic *hudiz (cognates: Old Norse huð, Old Frisian hed, Middle Dutch huut, Dutch huid, Old High German hut, German Haut “skin”), related to Old English verb hydan “to hide,” the common notion being of “covering.” In Gothic only in gudhûs “temple,” literally “god-house;” the usual word for “house” in Gothic being razn.

Billy here. The etymology of the word house suggests an old relationship with shelter as a  sacred, living thing. A skin as shelter not only connects us to the animal world but reminds us that a house is a living layer of ourselves. For nomadic people this could mean that we shed our skins often!

In the modern world, it is easy to forget this relationship not only to a place, but to the very material of our house. Often houses once were reeds, boughs or literally hides of animals, now they are composites of phenol formaldehyde resins, glass-reinforced plastic, vinyls, petroleum products and milled wood trucked in from miles away. There is a heavy distillation process to make these types of houses that removes us from our relationship to our place.

Since I was a kid, I wanted to make a house out of the natural materials of my local environment, to eat the food that was available in the natural world around me and to foster this relationship with my home: the world I live in. So at this juncture in time, this means converting a shed to a salvage cabin in our friends backyard and eating the eggs and veggies raised by the local urban farmers as much as possible. I’m not there yet, but every day is a process in learning. We have been hunting for secondhand house tools, such as a typewriter, writing desk and piano. It is interesting to me to adopt these things, a whole lifetime that may have been spent on the antique Remington typewriter, for example, whose spirit we are inheriting. How much more rich, like befriending a human with an equally complex past, to get to know these old things with which to write and play?

It seems that the city of Portland is becoming gentrified more rapidly than ever. The other day at work several people I talked to in depth were upset about not being able to afford rent anymore. Houses all over the east side are being demolished to make way for double condos, some only blocks away from us. Let me be clear, when I first moved to town I stayed in a punk collective house with at least six other people. I’ve lived in basements behind water heaters, transitional housing with shared bathrooms and even in my car. So I’ve never really been one to afford rent even before it cost upwards of $500 for just a room in a house with four others, but neither do I want to spend that much money on rent. It’s a kind of capitalistic feudalism I refuse to play too much into. But I don’t mind sharing the cost of living in a space with friends, of returning to a kind of gift exchange economy. I hesitate to even call it economy. So in a sense, where we live becomes a part of not just the place, but the family we adopt when we share a space together, canning food and sharing stories. They say home is where the heart is, but as Rilke said, I would like to step out of my heart and into the sky, to expand my heart until it is the whole world.

Spencer here: Walnut, maple, pine and cedar trees. I find myself among them all day, outside, working on our shelter. Although the trees next to me have not provided the wood to build our home, they are one and the same–kin. I don’t forget that. The rain comes and goes, luckily. It seems the last few years have been an intensive building/repairing time for me. While we were in New Mexico, I had the opportunity to build and fix much–sheds, outhouses, bikes, cars, furniture, fences, compost bins, trailers, solar electricity and plumbing. I enjoy the feeling of “getting ready for winter”. I didn’t realize that was what it was, until we lived rurally and we really had to do that.  We stocked up on groceries, hauled water, chopped wood, worked on insulating windows and doors, bought or repaired warm boots and clothes.  We had to decide what would be okay if it froze, or was left out during the monsoon season. I like this preparation. I think I would like to get involved in more of it–canning, food dehydrating and cellar preparations. However, I feel like we are sort of back in it. As much as I complain, I really love it. The reasons are plenty–but most of all I feel useful, hardworking and occupied. There is a lot to ponder. The rains will come and stay here for several months. How is our roof? What can we do about the dampness? How can we insulate? What will we do for heat? I like to think about these basic needs instead of money money money.

Always, we are on a budget. I figured we could fix up the “cabana” for about $500 in materials. We are close to that now, having spent at least $400. The good news is we are close to moving in. Today was a very productive day. We are ready to frame our door, and most of the rest of the house is enclosed. I look forward to making coffee, or sipping warmed up wine, in our little cabin, with the windows open, watching it rain, as we retreat–write, play music and be.

“Housed everywhere, but nowhere shut in.” Gaston Bachelard. That is the moniker for our blog these days. It is not a coincidence we have chosen this quote. We have spent a lot of time thinking about what we want our life space to feel like, look like, and how its systems operate–a place which feels natural and doesn’t require a ton of resources or upkeep. As part of our goal, it will be worth it here in Portland, living in a 10ft by 14ft house, without having to resort to working overtime at jobs that make money, but don’t necessarily “pay well.” (I consider writing, music and painting to pay well in other life ways.) Before we left New Mexico, we created a collage together of all the things we wanted in our ideal home and land. I struggle sometimes, worrying if we are on the right path, moving back to the city. Sometimes it seems like it will take so long for us to finally be “home” on our own property, building our own dwellings in accordance with the sun, the moon and the four directions. This isn’t just Feng Shui, this is a calling we have both listened deeply to, which is something we want to manifest. However, there is much to learn and we are learning it day by day. Practical skills, how we work together, how our ideas can flow and what designs are appealing to us more or less each time we complete a project. All important, but also I need not forget, it is important to be present in the moment, and be at home within each other. This is what we are learning the most and I have all the patience in the world for this lesson.

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