The Moral Superiority of Work; Its Veneer

DFx26tBSb9xbqNZd.jpgAt some point along the way, it became obvious that we weren’t really building a camp in the woods, but rather a second home.

Maybe it was the bill for the sewer permit. (We can’t not be on sewer. Yes, we could use a composting toilet, but it is illegal where we are to run grey water waste out directly.) Maybe it was the cost of getting electricity in. Most likely it was the intrusion of clearing the right-of-way and dumping and grading gravel to create a drive.

NzMr3B8pon1Iv0yn.jpgWhen we first began, this was raw land. Not truly raw in the sense of virgin forest, but at least uncleared. It was shaggy in the way that eastern forests can become – particularly after a cut or two. Rotten timber, tangles of fir, three distinct tiers of tree-growth combined with old efforts to analyze the land through test-pits and the shallow gulch of run-off (the “stream”) to make the place seem if not primordial at least primitive. Rough.

After taking a chainsaw to it and tearing the place open to construct a home, conceding the requirement of sewer and power, it’s clear that this isn’t a soft-footed touch on the landscape but an outpost – among other human fortresses – that partakes of the trappings of nature without honoring the obstacle that the land once presented. It is, in some ways, a farce.

IMG_1418So where is the virtue?

When we first confronted our next-door neighbor (the one with the concern about the right of way), it was tetchy. She called the cops (or, rather, the cop) about trespassers. Jamie tried to mollify her, saying, “We’re good people.” Later I said that everyone thinks they’re good people and it doesn’t carry much water to say so. So, we do. We think we’re good – or at the very least, not bad.

But what is this? It’s a second home in a world where many people haven’t got one. It’s a new construction built mostly of new materials where there are plenty of reclaimable, reuseable stuffs to be found. It’s a re-clearing of trees in a place where the forest has clawed back some of itself.

There was a time, barely three hundred years ago, when a squirrel could travel tree to tree from Maine to the Mississippi without touching the ground. Today’s northern (industrial) forest would appear a biological desert in comparison to the variety of tree species that once grew there.

The only virtue I can see is that we’re doing this ourselves. That we’re building the building with our own hands, rather than hiring the work. It seems a rather thin line, put that way.

We don’t buy eggs anymore. We have six chickens now, and all but one are laying eggs. When we returned from a two day visit to Portland, there were nine eggs waiting for us.

Are they better eggs than “The Farmer’s Cow” eggs we’ve been buying?

I’m not sure. We built the henhouse this spring. We buy a limited amount of grain to feed these gals; they free-range much of the time (much of the time in the neighbor’s yard). The yolks are so golden they’re nearly orange; our hens snatch up all manner of ground-life and help themselves to the birdseed the chickadees, sparrows, nuthatches, goldfinches, purple finches, and jays scatter beneath the feeders.

Coop under construction -- i like the profile

Coop under construction — i like the profile

IMG_1309IMG_1316But I find I really enjoy having chickens. I’d enjoy it more if they spent more time in our yard, but still. Especially the ones we raised from chicks. There’s a pleasant symbiosis to the relationship: We feed them, they lay eggs, we eat the eggs, we feed them.

(By the way, laying eggs is really a remarkable thing when you consider the size of the egg relative to the chicken.)

There’s an element of the $64 Tomato here. But each egg is less expensive than the last one. They’ll never be totally free, but soon we’ll have paid out the expense associated with having our own hens and we’ll be ahead of the game.

But the financial calculus is a trap. Economists are eternally incapable of following their own rules, but they’ve coined a very useful term: “externalities.” An externality is any cost that is not accounted for by the market equation. For example, when you buy a burger at McDonald’s, the price does not take into account the environmental degradation created by the vast feedlot the cattle are herded into and stored in prior to slaughtering. If you live in Ohio, the cost of your electricity does not include the asthma caused in New Hampshire when the wind is right.

I could go on until you fall asleep (if you haven’t already). Our failure to monetize the costs associated with the American way of life is what has made it possible for that life to exist under the current economic system (our cottage included).

The fact is, the eggs taste better because they come from our hens who live in a coop we built and eat stuff in our yard (including the hydrangeas).

I hope that same calculus applies to our cottage: It’s a place we’re building. My labor and Jamie’s labor – and Donn’s and Matt’s and anyone who comes to help – are the value built into the home. And beyond whatever we might gain from that is the satisfaction of having laid our own floor, dug our own piers, raised our own roof, and sitting warm by a fire, safe inside four walls we lifted against the cold with our own hands – in that cold, thinking of the cloistered nights to come.



I like to think that’s a value I won’t realize if we ever sell. Because if a price can be put upon it, then it’s really no better than the market, no warmer than a receipt. I like to think that there’s a satisfaction in my calluses and a certain salvation in my cold toes that enriches beyond price.

But I’m dogged by the thought that these are the fantasies by which someone who cannot afford the alternative warms his fingers. If I could pay someone to build this, would I? If I could buy it outright, would I? If I won the lottery tomorrow, would I finish the job?

Maybe. But only maybe.

Our eggs; The Farmer's Cow eggs.

Our eggs; The Farmer’s Cow eggs.

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