In Praise of Small Houses (And Less Stuff)

Trip Start Jun 25, 2008
Trip End Aug 02, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Montana
Friday, July 18, 2008

Before I extol the virtues of this small house, I will announce - one phase of our trip ends tomorrow. Joe has just delivered the concert he so carefully, and with such dedication, organized, promoted and played in. Tomorrow morning we pick up a rental car and head to Bozeman and Billings to see friends. We will end our family's longest-ever car-free streak at 20 days. I am ambivalent. Today we hired a river tubing shuttle service to take us up the Blackfoot (a story in and of itself, but one that shall have to wait). It was so nice to get out of town to a place where we saw nothing but crystal clear water and ponderosa-covered hills. It doesn't seem right that an internal combustion engine should be required for people to appreciate people-free places in person. (An oxymoron all around, I suppose.) Missoula is probably one of the most shining first-world examples of a city that works, for all the reasons I outlined in an earlier entry (and no doubt many more). Yet its inhabitants, who by and large exhibit such a great appreciation of the wild, still rely on cars to get into the wilderness. Does it have to be that way?

But on to houses. Daniel Quinn, in Beyond Civilization, quotes statistics (I know not where from, or how reliable) saying that hunter-gatherer individuals spend (spent? Are any left?) on average 400 Calories a day to get their 2000. We modern industrialized folks spend 1000 - and I doubt that total includes all the fossil-fuel energy in our modern food system; it simply measures how many Calories one person burns daily to get the resources (whether food directly or the money to buy it) to feed him or herself. Our culture seems to be swimming in Calories, trying to cut them wherever possible, but still - when it comes to basic survival, it really is a Calories in/Calories out equation.

What does this have to do with houses? Well, the one we're living in now is awfully small by modern American standards. I'd estimate it at about 1000 square feet, being generous: two nice-sized bedrooms, a tiny bath, spacious (really!) living area and a cute kitchen. Someone else lives in the basement, so this floor is it. I am struck with how easy it is to clean, and I began to wonder - how many Calories do Joe and I burn a week just cleaning our 2000 square foot house? This place is a cinch. First of all, there are hardly any horizontal surfaces to dust, and most that there are don't need much dusting - chairs, kitchen tables, counters. I've only found two dressers and a table that collect any dust worth mentioning. The bathroom can get pretty dirty, four of us using one - but there's only one sink, toilet and tub to clean - how long can it take? No rugs mean no vacuuming, just a simple sweep now and then while kids are playing quietly, and a biweekly mop. At home, though I haven't calculated it all out, I'm sure that between us two parents we must spend a few hundred Calories a day just battling dirt and clutter. What's the problem, you say? Sounds like a good way to get some exercise! Ah, but I'd much rather burn those Calories chasing balls with my kids, or going for a jog through lovely woods, or. . . you get the picture.

So living simply this summer has been about more than foregoing the automobile. It's also seeing a new possibility for living with less. There are times that this house feels empty, or I wish we had more furniture, more toys, more something to make it feel like home. When it comes down to it though, as I wrote earlier, home isn't about the stuff. If this were our real house, we could make it feel like ours without filling it completely with objects. And since it is not, I doubt that all the accoutrements we could muster would make it feel totally as if it were.

I don't know what this will mean when we head home again. You aren't likely to see me defenestrating easy chairs to lessen the clutter. Joe and I have discussed finding a renter, so we could share our spacious place (and its cleanup duties) with more people. I always told myself I didn't want a house too big for me to clean without hired help, and I've already failed on that account. (Our cleaner comes only once a month, and I still do all the bathrooms myself, but it's a slippery slope.) Maybe, for now, it's enough to remember that I have had firsthand experience with a small and sparse house, and I can truly appreciate that less is more.
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