9/17/2006

The Vermont Report



True to its name, Vermont is both mountainous and green. Well, for part of the year, anyway. Early September defines the nick of time for catching the very first of it: one flickering flame poetically painted onto the thick green of the mountainside. From afar, the changing leaves look like they’ve been laid onto the green canvas by spongeprint. If the child artist within Mother Nature is anything like the child artist within me (the one that really loved cutting Barbie's hair) she will admire the lone red tree for a while, knowing somewhere in her consciousness that it’s perfect in its minimalist simplicity. But then she will add one more, and, okay, just ONE more. And then it’s all over. Before you know it, Barbie’s got hair plugs and the mountainside is completely ablaze.

Here is where the comparison fizzles, though, because while Barbie loses all her garage sale resale value, Mother Nature gets it right in all of her zealousness. And that’s why I’m here at Yestermorrow, nestled within the Mad River Valley, still on my quest to learn from the Big Mama’s righteous ways.

What I didn’t know when I signed up for this gig is that the Mad River Valley (great name, eh?) is a complete hot bed for architects. More architects per capita than anywhere else in the world, they say. The story goes that back in the late sixties, a guy named David Sellers got disgruntled with the theoretical nature of his architecture training at Yale, and dropped out to come to Vermont (the land of liberal politics and few building codes) and build wacked-out things. He invited all his crazy architect friends to drop out of school and come join him in a design-build binge. Many of them did, and as a result there’s a huge number of amazing experimental homes and studios scattered throughout the valley, mostly on one hill called Prickly Mountain. A half a generation later, a young architect named John Connell followed the legend and ended up founding Yestermorrow, for the purpose of teaching architects how to build. To this day, the school draws a broad range of people to teach them a plethora of things in a hands-on fashion. Sustainability is a strong vibe here, but it’s not the founding principle (more on that later).

Hanging out with the interns is fun. Though we haven’t visited any dumpsters yet, we’ve had a couple of community cook-a-thons. Last night we got brave and fired up the cob oven to make some pizzas. Not bad for the first time, but we learned there is true skill involved, which we’ve yet to acquire.

I have to hold my tongue sometimes for fear of earning myself the tag of “This-One-Time-at-Ecosa-Girl,” but the experience does beg comparison. Whereas Ecosa brought together a group of young people with varied backgrounds, bound by the thread of wanting to save the world through sustainable design; the tie that binds the Yestermorrow crew is the great affinity for fine craft. Sustainability, though still a strong vibe, comes in a stark second to creating really cool things. Don’t get me wrong – they grow their own veggies, build strawbale structures, a solar shower, composting toilet, cob oven and the whole bit. I’ll also mention “The Punch Bowl,” the swimming hole at the nudist colony across the road. Leave your clothes at the door and jump in – hey, sounds like a motto to me! Alas, I digress - back to Yestermorrow and sustainability: the point is, you can bet your Yurt these are the nicest damn solar shower and composting toilet you’ve ever seen.

After gaining some exposure to Eco-communities of various sorts, I can really appreciate Yestermorrow’s approach to building and refuse. While most of this blog is dedicated to the virtues of salvaging waste (and I’m definitely FOR it), I’m also for recognizing that there is a point that shit is just shit, and needs to be tossed. Many eco communities and craft schools quickly come to resemble junkyards as years-old models and sketches adorn shelves and walls. If they’re not to be considered enduring art by all, surely Someone-Someday-Somewhere will find their soul alight at the potential of the parts of said model, disassembled. Same goes with the heaps of old trailers, appliances, retired vehicles, what have you, that the same Someone-Somewhere-Someday will find innovative use for. And before you know it, your studio, your garden, and your whole grounds are a growed-up version of a preschool playroom (http://www.thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=irule) Okay, so this site has limited relevance to the topic at hand, but it’s hands-down the funniest thing on the web. Really, what your grounds look like when you stop believing in getting rid of anything (under any circumstances) resembles the result of combining a landfill and the large-scale explosive of your choice (Fuckin’ hippies!).

Maybe it’s Vermont state law that would forbid such an eye-sore among the serene green, or maybe it’s that sustainability isn’t in the driver's seat. You can be sure it occupies every other seat in the bio-fueled car, though. I’ve got much yet to experience, but from what I’ve seen, Yestermorrow’s got a good thing going. And now, off to the Warren Woods and Forestry Festival...