Going through old boxes I just found the plans to the house my parents built. My dad called it the Nautilus house, I never knew that until I found those old plans. Of course I knew it was snail shaped, I had watched them dig the foundations by hand to save the palo verdes and saguaros around it. (Here I am literally watching — I’m pretty sure holding that shovel is just for show, whereas Chewy has gone for picking up a rock).
I watched them build the walls. (Here’s Dad, piling adobes in what seems an unnecessarily risky way, but I’m sure he knew what he was doing):
I helped plaster them with mud, I still remember my hands full of it trying to make it stick to adobe bricks on the wall of what was going to be our room. I was five then I think. Some of my favourite memories are when the great flood of ’83 brought a lot of that plaster down again.
We’d been living in a 25-foot travel trailer, and I loved that trailer. Seven of us.
It’s hard now to even imagine how we fit there, though I remember my top bunk and dad sleeping low enough for us to sit my brother Dan on his head when he took too long to wake up. It was mom and dad, three of us kids and then Tristram was born to make four. Sophie lived there too, because she was finishing up at Pima College and her parents moved away.
Michael and Anne lived outside in tents for a while too, with daughters Ceci and Meghan when they had to leave one house and the next wasn’t ready yet. All of these people helped build the Nautilus house. Others helped too, like Geraldo (and the aforementioned Michael) when it came time to put up the vigas to make the roof.
More people helped than I can remember, like all the people from our church who came out to stucco the walls one weekend. Their generosity became part of our house, and it sat curled and humble above the wash like it was part of the hill, not big and brash and ugly and ecologically suicidal the way people on Mockingbird Lane have built their homes lately.
In my memory I go home to the land we lived on and face the sun as it set over the Tucson Mountains when the whole desert came alive with colour and the sound of the quail, before the stars came out to remind me just what a tiny, beautiful, living piece of the world I was. I am.
There’s a whole long story about how the man who owned the desert before us – acres and acres—had planned an expensive development of rich people and sued us when we didn’t fit that profile. You can’t live on land under dispute so we settled though we could have won and that got us into debt and after a decade of poverty and fighting and more lawsuits we lost it.
I’m still angry about that, I always will be. That is the world of land for profit not for living. I still don’t understand how such a man could think he owned and controlled this wild desert full of javelinas and coyotes and deer, snakes and lizards and insects being born, fighting for life, dying so other creatures might live. I want to name every creature, every plant, every place with meaning because they are wondrous and impossible to own. Impossible to own sunlight dancing and creosote breathing into the air and wildflowers blanketing the ground in spring. This land that we loved and walked and knew down to the stones. This land that was stolen long ago from people who loved and walked it also, who knew it far better than we ever did. The foundation of this land-as-money thinking lies there in the deaths of whole peoples, though I only have experienced it on the scale of the insults of the rich bastards who bargained down to the bone for our land and our home about to be taken by the bank. That feeling of loss I still carry with me.
For a long time I’ve been driven by that anger, it’s clean and cold and demanded by this world as it is. I write and think a lot about the structures of a society that seeks only profit from land and is willing to lie, cheat, steal, take up arms and commit genocide to get it. But I’ve been thinking lately about building the Nautilus house again. Since we lost dad. Since I found those plans. I’m thinking straw bale not adobe, UK not US, but I’m still thinking.
What I’ve finally been better about remembering though, is all the other things I learned from that house, from my amazing parents and everyone who helped build it. Land that cannot be owned, generosity that cannot be bought or measured, a home built into the landscape with thick walls that keep cool in summer and warm in winter and that bear the marks of our hands. This generosity and cooperative spirit, this desire to live well in the world and make it better, this understanding that we are here to take care of one another, have been threads connecting those I knew as a child, my mom and dad, and so many beautiful people I have been lucky enough to know and work with. As our world hurtles towards environmental destruction it is in such people, and the knowledge of another set of values, another way of living and building and being in the world, that I place my hope. I stopped thinking that not everyone can be lucky as I was to grow up like that, but rather, how can we work to create a world where that is possible?