The Direction of Dependence


We’ve been in the house for a bit over a week now, and are slowly figuring out how to inhabit it. Or maybe how it wants to be inhabited.

This is the second house we’ve built for ourselves, and I suspect it will be the last. But then, I thought that about the first house, so who knows. Truth is, I loved building this house. I mean, I freakin’ loved it. Way more than the first, and I had a pretty good time with that one. In part, I think it’s because this time around we had a much stronger sense of what we wanted; our vision was clearer and more established. Our skills are stronger, too, and that’s no small thing. Plus, we had amazing help. I know I wouldn’t have loved building this place half as much without that help. I guess what I’m saying is that I could actually imagine building another house, crazy as that sounds. The moving part I could do without, but another house? Absolutely.

Early on, we decided we wanted to do all the stuff we hired out on our old place. For instance, we installed the septic system. We developed the spring we found up in the woods, bubbling up from the base of a ledge-y outcropping. We ran the power and phone lines. And so on. Partly, we did these things because doing them saved us a lot of money. But we also did them because we wanted to better understand how these systems worked, if only so we’d know better how to fix them should they fail.

One of the unanticipated benefits of doing this work ourselves is that I now harbor very specific memories. For instance, when I open the tap at our kitchen faucet, I can picture the water running through the pipe my friend Jimmy and I unrolled into the four-foot-deep trench he dug with his excavator. It was a miserable day, raining like all get out, not just cats and dogs but lions and friggin’ wolves, maybe 45 degrees, and I was clambering in and out of the trench, head-to-toe with mud. Not quite shivering, but close, my hands all pruned up and tingly-cold. The roll of pipe was 1,000-feet long, and heavy as fuck, and it was all I could do to keep the damn thing turning. Jimmy spelled me for a bit, and because he is stronger and generally tougher than me, I was glad to see how hard he had to work for it, too.

Not long ago I was talking to one of my magazine editors on the phone. He lives in NYC, where most magazine editors live, and he expressed surprise that we were building our own place. “I didn’t think anyone did that anymore,” is what he said. I thought about it for a minute, and realized I couldn’t think of anyone we know who hasn’t built their own house, isn’t currently building their own house, or doesn’t plan to someday build their own house. Ok, so this is an exaggeration – of course we know people who haven’t built and have no plans to – but it’s not really that far off. Around here, it’s just sort of what you do, at least among the sort of riff-raff we hang with.

I sure don’t think everyone should build their own house, if only because I have a lot of friends in the building trades and I’d hate to see them out of work. But I do think everyone should have at least some idea of how to build a house, even if it’s only to understand the basic fundamentals of it all – how to square up a wall, frame a window opening, set a rafter, use a circular saw. Heck, you could teach this stuff in a week, maybe even less.

It seems to me as if somewhere along the way we decided our children didn’t actually need to learn the skills that are most essential to their survival. In one of his books, Daniel Quinn makes the point that even from the most revered institutions of higher learning in this nation, we are graduating helpless human beings who could no sooner put a roof over their heads than transplant their own heart. Could no sooner grow a carrot or slaughter a hog than fly to Mars, no sooner doctor their own flesh wound or make their own medicine than swim to the bottom of the ocean. Quinn’s larger point is that the loss of these fundamental life skills from our culture is in essence a form of oppression, for it only ensures our continued dependence on the industrialized economy.

I’m not sure where the proper balance lies – I mean, I can put a roof over my head, and I still can’t transplant my own heart, and if I ever do need a heart transplant, I sure as hell want the person on the other side of the scalpel to have graduated from one of those educations of higher learning where they didn’t learn a bloody damn thing ‘cept how to swap out funked-up tickers.

Still, I think Quinn’s right, and it’s not hard to see that how the scales are tipping ever more in the direction of dependence (it’s probably worth differentiating between healthy dependence on one’s family and community, and an unhealthy dependence on institutions that see solely through the lens of money). As I mentioned a while back , American teens now spend an average of nine hours each day on an electronic device, in addition to whatever time spent in school. This is not exactly a recipe for reclaiming essential life skills, though I’m sure there’ll be some swell apps to come of it.

As so happens in this space, I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, with no real conclusion. So here’s what I’ll do: I’ll leave you with this song, from the concert we saw a few weeks back (skip ahead to 1:30 if you want to miss the banter). It’s about a house. And it’s a real beauty.






36 thoughts on “The Direction of Dependence”

  1. As ever am going to have to read your post a few times to fully digest …so agree with what you are saying …not sure of the answers either …but sure as hell know capitalism has gone/going waaaay tooooo far …..the social divisions are HUGE not to mention environmental impacts ….feels pretty unsustainable and as fragile as a house of cards from where I’m sitting …but what the hell do I know:D:D:D

  2. Welcome back to writing, mr writer sir… Told ya… 😉

    Those memories you describe are, to me, the salt of life. They don’t need to be of big things as they are big things themselves. Big as in full of emotions, image, sense and senses.

    I have never build my own house, but I helped my parents in law build there’s from the ground up with all the systems that came with it. It was one of those scandinavian loghouses and I can still remember very vividly after more than 16 years, how we did it, under what circumstances and above all why we did it. That house truly became a family house, as everyone pitched in, sharing blood, sweat, tears and above all joy and sense of accomplishment and satisfaction..

  3. So good to hear you’re settling in. I’ve moved around a bit in my time, and each house, or flat or bedsit (or once a boat) became a part of me or didn’t, just like an overcoat either sits well on the shoulders, or needs a bit of adjusting, or just won’t do at all. Painting and redecorating is as close as I’ve ever come to the whole building from scratch scenario, but it still gives me that feeling of putting down roots, integrating with my surroundings, merging with the neighbourhood. Don’t envy you laying that pipe mind, though much respect duly accorded! And you’re right – ‘This House’ is a corker!

  4. Nice to see you all fired up and proud of that baby!! I trust this will greatly inspire certain folks here who are ready build.
    In the second paragraph you list out: know what you want, have clear vision, practice the skills and enlist all the help you can get. That pretty much sums up the wisdom of life, whether building a home for your body or your soul.

  5. Thanks Ben. Yes the corporate need to create dependance. It is well known that they don’t want to create products any more but services so they can slug you ever more for them as they please. Look at power for example, others are much the same, since we cut back heavily on usage courtesy of wanting to save dollars, the clever advisors to powers of be decided to make power cheap but the service 400% dearer. Yes they did it over time so you and I didn’t notice but look at your bill and compare it to 5 or 10 years ago. No doubt the usage is a mere fraction of what it used to be and you are paying more and more how can this be…. service to the property or what ever yours call that fee. Same as the printer cartridges. Remember when buying a printer used to cost big bucks…I do my first dot matrix printer was a classic – colour ribbon too. Now I but a super advanced scanner, fax, printer for about the same price and the cartridges are about a quarter to half of it. Yes over a few years you will pay way way more in cartridges than what you paid for the printer unless you get clever and get refillable ones and do it your selves. Or unless you build your own house, run your own plumbing, capture your own water and generate your own power. Then you get freedom.

    Thank you for all the good words and the good works. The world needs people like you. PS I would still prefer the person behind the scalpel was a friend that I helped run their own power/water/whatever. Then I’d know their heart was in a good place.

  6. So we need to open up a trade school. People would come. They want to know. People don’t want to lose skills. They want to keep skills. They feel good when they have skills. Eat your food, Tina!

  7. My hope for my kids is that they know that they can LEARN, make, do, contribute, and not just be consumers. Whether that means being able to grow a carrot and build a house, or navigate the subway system and the landlord and tenant act – that’s a choice for them to make. Empowerment will look different for each of us :).

  8. almost certain i’m the only chimer-in from iguazu falls tonight, but lordy isn’t a genuine happiness to read you from this rainforesty hut just now and to know that all is right in the world when vermont exists and my nh exists and self-housebuilding is ongoing and my garden and cabbages and early arugula are waiting just eight more days and johnny’s seeds lord god in just eight or seven days i’ll be doing my johnny’s order, amen, and think of the white turnips, too, six or eight bunched and yo ben a really good one this time, ben, but for now it’s iguazu and maybe tomorrow a quick run over to brazil to see that side, the world being as it seems quite large, really large, seriously

  9. Great tune. Great voice and guitar too. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a live show, reminds me how much I like live music.
    I’m happy to see a frame picture. That section of the house looks a lot like the one I’m designing. I suppose your knee walls are balloon framed, to avoid a ridge beam?
    I really look forward to the actual building part of my project, even if it will be exhausting, dirty, or sweltering, or all three. Also that would mean I got my plans passed and have a building permit. :/

    1. Knee walls are balloon framed. I know it’s fallen out of fashion what with engineered trusses and all (and supposedly balloon-framed walls burn faster in the event of a fire), but I sure like the simplicity/sturdiness.

      We did still install collar ties, made them into nice little sleeping/storage lofts.


  10. There truly is a sense of empowerment that comes from learning and acquiring abilities. I’ll forever regret not having paid more attention to what my mother could have taught me. Skills that were born out of adversity. Honestly, I think the average American has just gotten lazy. And fat. Entitled. Addicted. Numb.

  11. Thank you for yet another reminder why we home school as a family. We want to be able to DO things not just talk/write/pontificate/debate/argue about them. Too much of that going on today from what I see. So good to read your thoughts, as always. Thank you!

  12. Hey Ben. I just came across your blog. Love what you’ve written here. I actually just started homeschooling my four kids this year and wholeheartedly believe that we as a society are robbing our children of real skills in the name of formal education. I hope to impart some real practical life skills (and wisdom ?) to our children along with the usual basics. Which will be interesting because we live in the ‘burbs in the SF Bay Area. Can’t wait to read more of your blog. Thanks!

    1. Seems to me that practical skills are in large part defined by life circumstances, including where you live. So I bet you’ll find plenty to work with.

      Thanks for reading.


  13. You and Quinn are channeling Wendell Berry. That’s a plus in my book.

    Your experience as an owner-builder (as they used to call it) evokes all the same feelings we had living and working on our own place. After 40 years it still seems as right to me as it does to you.

    Keep on truckin.

  14. My 26 year old son just bought his first house- a real fixer upper. It took all his cash to make the purchase and this place needs a lot of help before it is livable. He is getting very creative=recycling, reusing and going without. He has thus far gutted a room and put in a new wood ceiling with all old, existing wood that was already there, sheet rocked, textured, painted the walls and created his own wainscoting. That is turning out to be a very time consuming project. Next he will put in a new floor. Prior to the purchase of his home, he built his own coffee table from scrap wood, a huge bookcase and an entertainment unit. He is learning so many skills. Last night he was learning all about patience and persistence as he was trying to install wainscoting in a corner that was not level or plumb in anyway. I am happy to say he survived the experience and is wiser for it. He is confident in his skill set for the inside but a little overwhelmed at all the outdoor projects. He is learning about installing retaining walls and French drains and would love to put in an orchard and garden. As his mom, I am very happy to know he can take care of himself and has the skills to help out others. He made a coffee table for his buddy with his leftover scraps in exchange for some beer- those skills come in handy!

    Ben, just wanted you to know there are a few younger guys out there learning valuable skills and putting them to good use. Of course none of his friends can understand why he would want to take on such a project-why not just live with your parents until you have enough money to buy a “real” house?

    He is willing to make the necessary sacrifices to pay his own way. At this point- he is planning to use an ice chest until he can find a good deal on a used refrigerator. I think this is fine for a single guy but his friends cannot imagine living like that for even a day!

    I can’t wait to see what he has done with his place five years from now.

    Proud Mom

    1. Great story, thanks, Kim.

      We used an old chest freezer as a fridge once, by bypassing the internal thermostat. Now that it’s winter, we’re just sticking stuff in our unheated mudroom. Not sure what we’ll do come summer.

      Wish your son good luck for me, ok?


  15. Ben, love the post, wholeheartedly agree re. doing things yourself–we live the same way. And I *totally* loved the song. Keep on keeping on, can’t wait to read your next post, as I appreciate your perspective!

  16. Well……when’s the workshop coming for building a house? You’ve taught us about food, making stuff, how to eat….how to speak eloquently while still using the F word (I’m still struggling with that one). Building workshop please! I know, probably not. Is it sad that I have to beg a stranger on the internet to teach these life skills? YES. Great thoughts in this post as usual. I build houses in my mind every day 😦

    1. Funny you should ask… I’m planning a hands-on “building from the land” workshop for later in ’16. Focus will be on building inexpensive-but-well-constructed shelters for beasts of all persuasions, from porcine to human. Use of local/repurposed/oddlot materials will be emphasized!


      1. Neat!! Like an old toilet seat re-purposed for a chicken door I saw on Facebook. The instructor at my cheese class used paper clip for thermometer holder on the pot. Sometimes those simplest ideas, the ‘grandma ingenuity’ are the best shortcuts and encourages us to challenge ourselves to see more than one way to solve a challenge. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and skills!

    1. I’m pretty comfortable with it. It’s all untraveled (i.e., not plowed) and even a couple of inches of snow a good bit of insulation. Four feet is pretty much the standard around here for untravelled.


  17. Ben,

    I would agree that many kids can hardly identify a tool, much less use one, but that extends to a lot of urban and suburban dwellers who are in their fifties.

    My good friend, Andy, is a Dartmouth grad x2. He “dropped out” of the mainstream, bureaucratic, world, went back to building houses for a living and is much happier. He and his wonderful wife, Susan, raise chickens, goats, and sheep and grow a large garden each year. They live a much more bucolic existence.than most Americans and, due to less stress, will probably live longer than most.

    Read your email when you have a chance.

  18. Hello, Ben – I came across your site today via artofmaliness.com, and you’ve sparked SO many glorious memories for me. I grew up in East Texas (yes, we capitalize those words here) on a 40-acre ranch that held the camphouse and the main house, both of which my grandfather built. I’m in a large city now, and I long for the days I was on that ranch. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, right?

    This is a great site, and you and your family give a good message. Keep it going!

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