Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Small Presences

Some additions to the blog are forthcoming due to the vast intelligence of the friends I have surrounding me. Many of you know that I’m currently in grad school for documentary photography. It’s been a difficult and often frustrating year of school and a few days before I left to work on my thesis in Cape Cod, I gave my friend Tosh, who runs the darkroom at UCSC, the link to this blog. He wrote me back the next day, saying essentially: What are you doing? Why are you working so hard to make this other project fit when you have all the connections here in front of you? This is your project. Just the week before, my friend Mary Grace in Austin told me that she thought this blog could easily be adapted into a book and that I was doing true documentary work within it.

I thought it over and talked to other friends in SC and they seemed to be in agreement. Why not use my tiny house research as the starting point to a documentary? So, within a week, I had sent out emails to a few people involved in the tiny house movement, including Greg and Jay, previously mentioned, as well as Kent Griswold of Tinyhouseblog.com. I posted a request on the tinyhouse yahoo Group I’m on and sent out emails to a list of people Kent had sent me. I had no desire to abandon my original project I was planning to work on in the Cape, but why not try to find some tiny houses while I was there?

On Saturday, I drove to Byfield, Massachusetts to meet up with Elizabeth Turnbull, a grad student who spent her summer building a portable tiny house to live in at Yale. We talked about the ins and outs of the project, how she ended up building in this location and the intricacies of navigating zoning boards. Her little house is on a trailer, like the Tumbleweed Houses, but she developed the design herself. It has a shed roof and loft for sleeping.

She apologized for not having all the furniture in it (she had emptied it to take it to a weigh station and plans to move it empty down to Yale in the next week or two), but I didn’t mind. I’ll just have to go back. She will be using solar power and has one of the wall-mounted boat heaters, probably the exact model Tyson and I will get. The ceiling is covered in sails. I had a fantastic time and came away with a lot of good information.

One of the things that she stressed was that she absolutely couldn’t have built this place alone. Her friend Andy was there working with her and has been an integral part of the process all summer. She also said that she had building parties with family and friends which proved to be a great way to get chunks of work done. She was fortunate to have many materials donated to her by companies excited about what she was doing and wanting to help out, and even had a painter offer to do a decorative paint finish on the interior for her. She’s done the building at a boarding school she attended and has been able to use their maintenance and construction building that has table saws and other tools, bathroom, kitchen, internet, and the like. She also said that her training in making furniture has been a great tool and jumping-off point to home building (see photo below for some beautiful stools she made).

On Sunday, I continued north to New Hampshire to the residence of another tiny-houser. He lives on a deep and substantial tract that he purchased in the late ‘70s. The land was previously a farm that was split into four parts and sold to different people, though he has since purchased two of the other lots. As I was driving to his land, I passed lake after lake, multiple summer camps, and was absolutely floored by the beauty of the land. The driveway to his house is a long, narrow field, which my rental car positively bounded across. We set out for the tour, starting with the hydroelectric dam that he built.

Yeah, you heard me correctly. For several years, he cleared land and worked on constructing this dam, which he says produces enough energy to power 22 houses. He started with wind power on the property, but found this to be more efficient. The hydroelectricity provides him with a modest income on which to live. One thing that he said which struck me is that most people at some point have to choose what they want to have more of—time or money—and he chose time.

I really liked his setup. He uses the small building which houses the pipes, gauges, and controls (I’m sure there are better words for these but you get the gist) for his kitchen area. He has a freestanding outdoor shower close by and an outhouse with composting toilet maybe 30 yards from the “house.”

As all his appliances are spread to other buildings, the house is a small (about 100 square feet) free-standing room with shed roof, with room enough for a futon, single bed, desk, and heater.

He is currently working on building a bathhouse out of recycled insulated materials which is on a trailer and will contain a toilet and shower. He had it covered with a tarp to protect it from the elements, but was kind enough to let me peek inside.

The project I was originally in the Cape to photograph deals with the Wampanoag tribe, natives of what is now Massachusetts, and the tribe which had first contact with the pilgrims and English colonists at Plymouth. In some ways that story (which I call “The Absence of Presence”) seems so different from this one, but the more I research and talk with other tiny-house dwellers, the more they seem to have in common. My project on the Wampanoag deals with areas where they used to have a significant presence (though you can’t say “owned” as their ideas of ownership are very different from ours) but where most indicators of their presence now are pictures, symbols, or names. The town of Mashpee gets its name from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, but its current incarnation is dominated by a large shopping center made to mimic the layout and architecture of a New England town. Everywhere I photographed, I saw evidence of this so-called progress and its effect on this beautiful area. The only people I saw walking around shopping rowhouses of Mashpee Commons were white (and yes, I know I’m a part of that category).

At Corn Hill—the site where colonists landed just prior to Plymouth and stole natives’ winter food stores—I saw dead things everywhere. On the large paved parking lot leading to the beach, a dead horseshoe crab rested at the entrance. About 40 feet away I found probably 11 dead frogs, caked in mud. Beached on the shore, a large fish was being pecked at by seagulls. Do I know what actually caused all these little deaths? No, but they seemed appropriate symbols for documenting a once undeveloped land which is now almost exclusively a land of summer homes for wealthy New Yorkers.

At Plimoth Plantation, one of the native historical interpreters commented that people often wonder how natives survived in the times of pre-contact. She said that people shared, children were watched by neighbors, food was cooked for everyone, all people did some form of work to contribute to the community. She said that now, all people do is survive; back then they lived.

It seems to me that the people involved in the tiny house movement are primarily concerned with living. They live in these small places as a way to thrive.

1 comment:

lindsey said...

Wow, what an interesting article. I'm so glad to hear you'll be doing more of this documentation!