Artificial Angst

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Timber Framing Detail

For the last six and a half years, my husband and I have been dreaming up a home.

When we started, he wasn’t my husband. We weren’t even engaged. Also it wasn’t a home.

ARTIFICIAL. "Craftmanship, art, craftiness" (Latin, artifex; from ars "skill" + facere "do, make").
ANGST. "Anxiety, remorse" (German, angst); "anger" (Old High German, angust).

It was a library.

Images of a globe and a spiral staircase. The scent of leather binding and ancient pages. A hearth. Deep chairs and high, stained-glass windows. A secret turning bookcase. While I wouldn’t say the idea of a library is what brought us together, I can say it’s about as old as our relationship, and once we decided to get married it morphed into a house.

Typically, when you talk “dream house,” you’re talking conventional building: stick frame, sheet rock. But the conventional model isn’t our cup of tea, and we're pretty passionate about tea.

For one thing, the conventional houses of our age are kind of soulless. They're too empty. I’ve always been compelled by smaller spaces. Newlyweds in our first apartment, we slept in the walk-in closet because to me, it felt like a lair. This childhood instinct for coziness and secrecy has never gone away, and aside from the closets, I see nothing in the conventional house that speaks to it.

Then, what about the squirrels? In the book Root Cellaring, Mike and Nancy Bubel open with these words from Jerry Minnich:

Our children ... should enter adulthood with a basic knowledge of how to store food over winter without the cooperation of a nuclear power plant a hundred miles away. Every animal in the forest is taught this skill; we owe our children no less.”

I say the same about home-building. Every other animal in the world is reared with some knowledge of what to do for shelter, each according to its needs. More importantly, each knows how to do it for themselves.

That's not true of most of us. In the woods tonight, would you know what to do? But let’s not be unfair: wilderness isn't our primary environment. Any animal would struggle to survive if you randomly switched out its environment. Let’s choose a more likely starting place, then. In a subdivision, next summer, would you be able to manifest a house? The majority of us, even if tools were provided, would lack the engineering experience, strength, skills or design background to create shelter anything like the one we’re currently living in.

Think about that. Shelter is one of the basics, yet most of us would not be able to make a livable home of our own. Another thing that sets humans apart from, say, beavers.


So, who cares? Well. Even if it doesn’t seem absurd or chilling to anyone else, I feel uncomfortable about this. Creating shelter is a basic human heritage, right up there with feeding yourself through the winter. It belongs to us, or it should.

So my hypothesis. It must be possible to build my house, my shelter, for myself, in a reasonable manner, at a reasonable cost. Shouldn't that be possible? For any other species, it's not even close to radical.

But if it’s not possible – if the home we’ve dreamt up can’t be accomplished by people like us without a lot of artificial props and the expertise of specialists and engineers — then maybe what we’ve accepted as normal is really quite bizarre.

Maybe we should let it go.

Maybe there's something else that would make more sense.