Built By Animals

I am currently reading an excellent book by Mike Hansell called ‘ Built by Animals’. Just the table of contents alone inspires me:
Chapter 1. The Builders.
Chapter 2. Builders Change the World.
Chapter 3. You Don’t Need Brains to be a Builder.
Chapter 4. Who’s in Charge Round Here?
Chapter 5. From one Nest to Another.
Chapter 6. Two Routes Lead to Trap Building.
Chapter 7. The Magic of the Tool Users
Chapter 8. Beautiful Bowers?

Love it. It sums up so much of the realm of human building in a nut shell. This book thrills me partly because I draw so much inspiration from the creatures around us that build such beautiful structures (starting with the innate abilities of spiders fresh from an egg sac spinning perfect webs from silk right from their bodies, to tiny termites making climate controlled ‘sky scrapers’ out of their saliva and mud, down to the tiniest of amoebas that can make an amazing artistic shell out of grains of sand to the ever creative orioles that I have seen make nests of our own detritus: fishing line and cigarette butts) and also because the chapter titles really exemplify how I feel about building and what motivates me as a builder.
Chapter 1. The Builders.
All I can see is the stereotyped image of a builder: brawny fellow with shirt sleeves rolled up and 5 o’clock shadow. When I first started in construction I was on a mission to find other women builders to learn from. I was living in Hawaii and went around calling all the construction companies in Honolulu. I got some hilarious responses to the question “ Do you know of any women carpenters?”. I was laughed at, accused of prank calling, scoffed at for my apparent sexually oriented questions (!?!?) and hung up on…Needless to say, I did not find any women in the phone book who worked in construction! In searching the internet 14 some years ago if you searched ‘Women’ anything, porn popped up. Today, a search for’ women in construction’ actually gives you images of real women in construction! Not the sexualized Makita babes of product pushing calendar fame. It seems that in this generation, not only are our images of what gender is associated with building, but also to spectrum is broadening to acknowledge the wonders of the rest of the animal world.
Just so you know, there is now a construction company called Wahine Builders. ‘Wahine’ means woman in Hawaiian.

Chapter 2. Builders Change the World.
Why, yes they do! In the book it is illustrated the interface between animal builders and their relationship to ecology and place. All you have to do is see a beaver dam to see how building can impact place. If only us humans could have the same info so readily available and instinctual! Honestly, in my own life, currently living at the end of the road- the further you are from a store by which to purchase building materials the more likely you are to fashion your own materials from what you have at hand. Lazy? Cheap? Ecological? Vernacular? Place Based? Label it what you will, but distance to materials makes a difference as does (speaking for the humans here) available materials. The straw bale movement started with the existence and access to baled straw. I change the forest I inhabit by using it as a building material. I can see the effects of my actions; it only costs me time and energy. The stuff I get from the store has no story other than what I make up and I have no idea what its impact is other than what I guess, but I can guess its not great even if it is come from the eco-groovy building supply store. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction and in this age of globalism (or neo colonialism- pick your descriptor!) I am finding it harder and harder to be as local as possible when money is a a part of the equation. Long story short: unless you have a solid and long term relationship with where your materials are coming from you are less and less informed as to the great story of money and material you are participating in. Like Lorenz’s butterfly effect, all our actions, choices, purchases (as our power has been supposedly reduced to financial!) ripple out in to a metaphorically meteorological maelstrom of unpredictable consequence or just the opposite. Whoo wee- just think of your self as a big frigg’n butterfly and consider how potent you are in your choices and actions. Something to think about!

Chapter 3. You Don’t Need Brains to be a Builder.
Hilarious! True! Worse still is the truth that you don’t even have to care about what you do, to be a builder! Oh, the tainted construction industry culture! In the book, it’s an examination of creatures without even a brainstem that can construct beautiful and effective structure and how in the world something like this evolves. Start thinking about it too much and the brain you do have might just explode! Luckily, this chapter provides plenty of evidence that you can still keep your day job, post explosion.
Case in point is Difflugia coronata, a single celled amoeba that constructs a rocket ship looking shell out of sand particles (it sort of looks like a Flinstones diatom). It takes them it to its cytoplasm and makes a shell out of it to make a long mysterious story short. No other amoeba does this.
For as ironic as the chapter title is, construction truly is just inherent in so many creatures, humans especially. Just the description that so many of us builders have chosen for ourselves as ‘Natural Builders’, it says so much. Yes we use ‘natural materials’, but perhaps a larger more subliminal part of that is our possibly genetic inclination to create from the materials at hand to take care of our most basic needs. I can’t think of a single human culture that didn’t alter its environment to create shelter. This is the beauty of what so many of us occupy our time with, doing what’s been in our cells for hundreds of thousands of years regardless of gender, age and economic status.

Chapter 4. Who’s in Charge Here?
Who IS in charge? When you break it down to decision makers we can keep looking up the pyramid of power. In our so called ‘democracy’, the folks who make the vast majority of decisions that fundamentally shape the patterns of our lives are: city planners, architects and engineers to name a few. How traffic flows, where food markets are located and what they are made out of, as well as residences and their required maximum and minimum sizes are not necessarily voted on by the people to be affected by them. It becomes instituted and then enculturated. The grid of the cityscape, the freeway system, ‘universal’ building codes, these are all top down decisions that affect our daily lives and shape our daily patterns. The places we may have the economic privilege to visit for a cultural experience are woven out of a history of ever evolving democratic social architecture. The Taos pueblo, the Mesa Verda cliff dwellings, mud villages of Mali, to stone villages of the Celts, these are all sustaining examples of place based democratic building.

Chapter 5. From One Nest to Another.
The average American moves every 2 to 7 years. As an army brat, I can attest to this! We live in a highly mobile culture and with it comes the ecological and social consequences of constant consumptive mobility. From the conventional standpoint of someone who makes their living building houses- this is great for an economy that requires constant growth. While inner cities crumble and suburbs sprawl, the construction industry can act like a piston in the every churning economic engine of growth. Obviously, this has consequences. If the warbler nesting on our electrical building was to emulate our pattern it would be living in a nest made of foreign and energy intensive, non-biodegradable materials that is thousands of times larger than its needs. It would spend the vast majority of its time gathering resources to maintain that nest’s over extended energy requirements. It would likely not really own the nest, nor have built it! Its babies would likely be under nourished in competition with the nests energy needs and it seems likely that all would perish, or the warbler might consider the benefits of down sizing to a smaller nest of maybe it would quit making payments on the house in order to survive. Sound familiar?
We are the only creatures who have distanced our selves from the realities of nature in our abilities to store energy in forms other than cached food or body fat. Without those tricks we’ve learned we are in the same seamless boat of finite energy.

Chapter 6. Two Routes Lead to Trap Building
In the book Hansell is illustrating the tools and techniques that some species use to capture prey (which at times involve constructing traps out of various materials, either to lure or to disguise the predator) and the art of trap building by various insects to capture prey. It seems to me that this title is analogous to the various ways folks end up interested in natural building; survivalist, minimalist, ecologist, feminist, anarchist, etc..Or I could change the chapter to read: Two Routes Lead to Crap Building and that would be financial stinginess or bottom line building and/or disrespect for the inhabitants which are sadly the two basic premises that seem to permeate the conventional construction realm as we know it.

Chapter 7. The Magic of Tool Users.
Tools are magic. Magic from the construction perspective in that they allow us to do more and open up worlds to us. Just the axe alone is capable of making so much possible! Try making cob with out a wheel barrow, a shovel or a tarp! The magic of being a tool user is the ability to transform the world with their skills! Be those tools the simplest of hands and feet constructing mud structures of various gorgeous sizes and shapes across the globe, to the skilled and well tooled wood and stone workers who craft beauty in to buildings and visa versa. Then there is the magic of learning to use tools, from teaching children building skills be they cob or carpentry and having an adult world open up to them, to teaching women how to use power tools and see the confidence change and the once closed field of construction open up to them with these new keys of ability. More than magic is the access to possibility tools provide.

Chapter 8. Beautiful Bowers?
Oh the beautiful Bower bird, who builds an alluring and highly decorated stage in which to allure a mate. Of all the descriptions of how life operates to conserve energy, these birds are off the charts in what they do that would be considered ‘excess’ by evolutionary energy conservation standards. I love the phrase ‘Beauty is a Duty’ (despite its original intention as coined by the less than savory, Art Linkletter), as it inspires my work to be beyond just functional or a reflection of the materials at hand. This concept of beauty is a trait inherent in humans and possibly all sensory creatures to be mesmerized and awestruck by objects, moments, and exhibitors of beauty for what ever that might be to which ever individual. Seduction and attraction are such motivators in nature it makes sense that they are defining aspects of how we desire to shape worlds we inhabit. It is an ever evolving aspect of our role as natural builders to incorporate this unequivocal piece in our work, ideally, never at the expense of the ecological web, but as a tribute to it.

Thank you Mike Hansell for writing such a facinating book! It is work like that that makes me fall in love with the heaven that is earth over and over again and inspires me to learn from my fellow non homo sapiens builders what it really means to be a natural builder.