Cheating Ourselves

Yesterday as I steered my bicycle in to the shopping plaza where the driver’s license office is (I needed to get my driver’s license updated), I beheld the treeless forlorn parking lot and the charmless architecture of the mall buildings. And a thought struck me: that our USAmerican culture is an experiment in what happens when a whole country decides that beauty and practicality don’t mix, and that the latter must always take precedence.

Voilà! We get utterly desolate landscapes that often, adding insult to injury, end up being impractical as well as ugly! (The design of the place made it really hard to see what stores were in there. And, the parking lot with its many different car-paths perpendicular to one another looked like a massive fender-bender festival waiting to happen.)

I will nonetheless be a regular visitor to this shopping mall from now on, because I found this utterly charming and adorable little Russian food shop inside the mall next to the license office. The proprietors have managed to create great beauty amid a desolate setting!

Speaking of beauty and the built environment …

My friend’s son is a carpenter in Japan. Here’s a rammed-earth construction project he is/was working on.

I have done a teeny bit of natural building (helping on other people’s projects), and one thing that always moves me is the beauty of working with quiet hand-tools and in close connection with other people. The reverence for materials & process, and for every set of hands.

What if every building had to be built by hand with non-fossil-powered tools? How different would our buildings look and feel — how much more human-scaled and beautiful?

How much quieter and less jarring would the whole world and rhythm of our days feel? I have come to feel that the default settings of “mainstream business-as-usual” USA have been cheating ourselves of great beauty and meaning, while at the same time trashing the planet. We all deserve better, don’t you think?

But to get it, we have to believe it’s possible. And one way to start is by seeing the beauty of the built environment in other parts of the world. All of our ancestors came from places where beauty and sustainability and integrity went hand-in-hand with function.

On the subject of scale … In the Natural Building module of a 6-month permaculture-based course called Earth-Based Vocations that I took in New Mexico back in 2006 (unfortunately the program is no longer in existence), I joked that we learned the most important principle of natural building as soon as we picked up a shovel or pushed a wheelbarrel: BUILD AS SMALL AS POSSIBLE! How many big ugly buildings could we avoid if we had to build them all by hand?