The following piece is definitely a success story – still incomplete in places, but clearly on the plus side. To fully appreciate it, though, it helps to know that in a statistical sense – in terms of an income-based standard of living – the Myers are a failure. Having been educated to have well paying jobs, their present cash income puts them in the poverty bracket. They live on a small farm in southwest Washington across the Columbia River from Astoria, Oregon.
I SOMETIMES FEEL that I am living out a romantic fantasy or dream. I live in gorgeous seclusion, surrounded by beautiful trees, baking bread, growing a garden, making and selling pottery for a living. A very humane economic package, definitely oriented to the human scale, to the rhythms of the person, to the season, to the place. But it didn’t come easily, it didn’t happen overnight, and sometimes I feel that I still don’t really have it quite all together.
My work is my life, my life is my work. I feel a deep sense of connectedness with many of my daily activities. Having both a pottery business, and a very active and vigorous home economy, provides a sense of wholeness, of seeing many processes through from the beginning to the end. The quality and timeliness of my efforts are directly reflected in the outcome of my endeavor. I have the satisfaction of a beautiful pot to use or sell when I do all the steps right, and an ugly or useless one if I lack focus or attention at any one of the steps along the line. When I plant my lettuce seeds at just the right time in the spring, I am rewarded with a delicious salad. The wrong time means rotted plants, wasted seed, or a longer wait for those first crunchy bites.
I live with my husband, David, on a small piece of land, at the end of the road, in the rain forest. Over the years, we have developed a very flexible economic package. We each have our own money machines, and are able to shift our time and energy where the opportunity is available. If he has a large printing order in the darkroom, I might take over the home economy in the kitchen for a few days. If I have a big push for a special fair or sale, he might help me load the kiln or pack the car.
When visitors find their way out to our place for the first time, they often ask “How did you end up way out here?” And our answer is “Like most of the folks that end up on the edge of nowhere, cheap land.” Cheap land means low overhead, and low overhead means that we can have a low cash flow, when we so choose. Working for reasons other than money has allowed us to explore and experiment with many aspects of our lives. It has bought us time to learn skills, especially skills valuable in the home economy like gardening, cooking, home repairs and automobile geriatrics. It allows us a great deal of time together to grow in our relationship. We have time to do community and political work that pays poorly or not at all.
Having a whole business to myself creates an opportunity for problem solving at a higher level of awareness. Being a professional means doing the job well even when one does not feel like it. My alter-ego employer sets goals and deadlines to get the alter-ego employee performing quality production. Having the entire package under my responsibility, I have more opportunity for integrated change, change that affects the whole process.
To make the pottery business a part-time business, and allow myself the time for other activities, I try to minimize the fixed expenses in the business. By having my studio in our mortgage-free home (or, as we sometimes say, living in the factory), I pay no additional business rent. Our land taxes are low (not much value to land that has to absorb 120 inches of rain a year.) The value of equipment in a small scale pottery business is quite modest, and my insurance payments are low. Most important, I conduct my business on a pay-as-I-go basis, without large loans to pay off at high interest rates. This is often called the “bootstrap” approach, although sometimes we feel more like a moldy shoelace operation.
Low capital and low fixed costs means that when my business activity stops, I don’t get eaten up by continuing expenses. I can take time off for other important activities in my life, like planting peas on a warm day in February, baking bread on a rainy day, or visiting craftsworkers in Japan.
On the other hand, low capital sometimes means doing something the long way around. Sometimes the “free” solution can become very expensive. I wanted a propane fired kiln, but the insulating brick was relatively expensive. A friend offered me free hard brick salvaged from an industrial boiler. I got my kiln, but it used a lot of propane. Working hard for a couple of years while I watched the price of propane triple, I managed to save enough for the soft brick. The new kiln has more than paid for itself in the saved fuel costs.
Living and working in the same place has some additional benefits. Avoided commuting time to the nearest town, Cathlamet, adds about one work day of time to my week. I can also integrate my business time with my home economy, like pruning the raspberries while I fire the kiln, or packing pots while the bread rises.
There are some very special qualities of this place that make it a romantic myth made real. It is a protected, south facing bowl on its own little valley, with lots of trees and two year round streams, clean air, and a very quiet atmosphere. There are also qualities that make it very hard for me to see spending the rest of my life here. The biggest negative aspect is the personal isolation of living so far out in the country. In a sparsely populated area, we end up spending a lot of time in the car to run the simplest errands. This was a hidden cost of our cheap land we did not figure on. We now have well organized lists and an excellent relationship with the local UPS driver, but there is still a lot of driving to visit with our friends in the area. There is virtually no public transportation to take the load off the personal vehicle. A bicycle works pretty well for the 12 mile round trip to the store, but is not too appealing for the 50 and 100 mile trips.
It seems that my karma of this time in this place is solitude, an abundance of solitude. A lifetime supply in just 12 years. When we moved here, it was with another couple with the ambition of setting up an intentional community. We did not plan to live here alone. For various reasons, the community did not work out and the other couple soon left. For a while, the solitude in my studio was a positive force. I could devote my full attention to developing my own style, shapes and ideas. However, the aloneness in my work, and much of my life, means having to self-start, always. Good discipline, but a bit tiring in the extreme. It can be very stimulating to have another person around for sharing energy and ideas. For a few years I was active in the Oregon Designer-Craftsmen’s Guild, and sold regularly at several craft fairs. This provided me with some valuable and stimulating interaction with other craftsworkers, but it also involved a lot of travel time and expense. I wanted something closer, and on a more continuous basis.
An obvious solution to my sense of studio isolation would be an apprentice or studio assistant. I had a taste of this possibility a year ago, and with the right person, I loved it. A pottery newsletter listed a notice by a young woman who wanted to work hard, make pots, and learn the business in exchange for room and board. I offered her beans, rice, fruit and vegetables from the garden, and a “room” in an old VW camper bus I had bought for a “guest cottage”. She worked for me in the morning, and had the rest of the time for her own projects. She came very well trained, with a high level of ambition and self-direction. After years in school studios, she enjoyed working in a private studio where no one would mess up the glazes or break the greenware. I gained a lot of momentum by having someone standing in my studio saying “What would you like me to do next?” It was great. She said she learned a lot, and I felt I got a lot of help. But then the fall rains started, the bus became unbearably damp, and she departed for the high, dry air of Denver. Her spirit lingers in my studio. She was such a positive experience I want to build a real cottage for the next assistant. I could borrow money to build the cottage right away, and commit myself to a certain level of production to pay off the debt. I prefer to commit myself to a certain level of production to save the money to build the cottage. I feel I have more flexibility in my life that way.
I have a vision that the intentional community we originally planned may yet become a reality. There are potential resources here to provide an outwardly simple but inwardly rich Right Livelihood for a planetary tribe of 6 to 10 people. Our land has two or three excellent building sites. We have tools and equipment for more production than just two people can put out. One way for more people to become involved in small business, to have part-time work that allows time for other productive, creative efforts, is for people like myself to create a job or two in our already going enterprises. All it takes is the vision, hard work, and the creation of capital. In an industrial society, it takes something in the order of $25,000 of capital to create a job. With more part-time work, and sharing of the tools of production we might be able to make a Right Livelihood for more like $5-10,000. My grandfather-in-law, in wishing us the best for our lives, hoped that one day we would have a factory. At that time I thought ugh– a factory and creativity are opposite poles. However, with a new image of shared resources, a cooperative venture, and flexibility in work time, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Recently, we have become involved with a cooperatively run non-profit crafts and arts gallery in a city about 50 miles away. The continuing companionship of the other gallery associates is stimulating both professionally and spiritually. With cooperation, perseverance, and responsibility, we have created a gallery which has been well received and supported by the community. I take my turn tending the gallery two days a month, and enjoy the regular, direct connection with my customers. I like explaining the creative process, and the materials I use. The customers provide input to my imagination by telling me what shapes and forms they are looking for.
When we started out here, one of the biggest gaps in our economic package was the low level of our skills necessary to carry through our various projects. I was terribly naive about what it took to be an income producing potter. I could make pots, very lovely pots, but my work went too slowly, with too many mistakes and things that had to be fixed up or done over. One of my biggest challenges has been to become more efficient in my production techniques. Achieving that efficiency has involved making my work into a meditative experience. To throw a pot quickly, and beautifully, every motion must count. Not only count, but be exactly the right motion for the effect that I want to achieve. It is as if a form is choreographed, and I dance the shape. My mind must not be filled with distracting chatter, thoughts about tonight’s dinner, the next firing, or the lettuce that is ready to transplant. Just total, quiet attention to the task at hand, doing each motion exactly right the first time. To quiet my mind of that distracting chatter I name or count the steps of the process. As my motions become smoother, the words become more of an internal rhythm or pulse. Making lots and lots of mugs or bowls becomes very satisfying as my motions become more and more accurate. A pot thrown with an economy of motion tends to have more life and vigor, not all worried and worked to death. I feel I have to make a form 100 times before I really begin to feel the dance. People ask me if that doesn’t get dull and boring. Quite the contrary. There is the constant physical and mental challenge of making every stroke count. Doing it right, over and over, can be very fulfilling.
With my abundance of solitude, I do a certain amount of musing on the sustainability of this particular economic enterprise. My kiln burns non- renewable propane. Wood fuel, however, involves an enormous amount of hard physical labor, labor I choose to put into my garden instead. I am gradually moving towards glazes that use common, abundant materials, like red clay, limestone, wood ash, volcanic ash, feldspar and dolomite. My waste water will be safe enough to go on the garden. It certainly can’t go down the drain, as it would fill up the septic tank, and I feel slightly guilty hauling stuff off to the county dump. I am also developing a new palette of glazes which work well when fired to a lower temperature. A lower temperature means less fuel for the same production. While clay is constantly being formed by the weathering action of rain and water, we are probably using it up much faster than it is being formed. However, I think the planet will run out of a lot of other materials before we run out of clay. There is also a question of sustainability on a personal level. Making pots is hard on the body. The dust is hard on my lungs. Moving lots of heavy materials around is hard on my back, and there is a lot of abrasive action on my hand skin. I like structuring my life to minimize my exposure to these health hazards, and increase my time in the garden.
My personal focus on a sustainable future becomes most manifest in the garden. We live in an unusually cool, damp climate, with rather poor soil. In spite of these handicaps, I think this area can take advantage of the very mild maritime climate to produce a majority of its fruits and vegetables. Sustainable agriculture is based on producing more calories than are consumed in the process, and building up the soil instead of allowing it to erode and become depleted of humus and nutrients. Spading the soil, turning a compost pile, or hoeing the weeds are some of my favorite aerobic exercises. If I am going to burn up all those calories, I want to get some productivity out of the process. Concentrating on using the vegetables when each is in season eliminates the energy necessary for canning, freezing or drying. During the winter months, squash, cabbage, and root vegetables which can be stored without processing are the mainstay of our diet. The garden moves to the kitchen where we sprout peas, beans and other seeds for salads. Outside, kale, chard, parsley, and leeks keep as if in a giant refrigerator.
I usually have some kind of experiment going in the garden. What is the fastest way to warm the soil in the spring? What variety of lettuce winters over the best? Which is the slowest to bolt in the spring? What variety of radish do we like the best? What cultivation method of strawberries gives the biggest yield of berries per hour of my time? By keeping accurate records of my experiences year after year, I am able to be more and more efficient with my energy in the garden.
Just as capital invested in my pottery business increases my productivity and efficiency, capital invested in tools for the kitchen and the garden increases my productivity in our home economy. Scott Burns, in The Household Economy, has an excellent analysis of capital, tools and productivity in the home. Along with increased productivity often comes increased quality. For a couple of years we ground our flour with a hand mill. The work was slow, and hard. The flour was rather coarse, and had to be sifted for many of our baking needs. With the investment in an electric mill, the flour is fine enough to be used in all our baking, and I have the time and energy to keep the weeds in the garden under better control. With the right tools, there are many foods I can make from scratch, and “earn” the equivalent of $5 per hour for my efforts compared with buying the food already prepared – $5 per hour that is not subject to income, sales, or social security taxes. Yogurt, whole wheat pasta, bread, kefir, and soymilk are foods I often make. If I don’t make $5 per hour, I usually go ahead and buy the processed product, like tofu. Figuring this $5 per hour out is a rather complex, and somewhat intuitive process. What value do I put on freshness or the use of organically grown ingredients? How long would it take me to go to the store to get it ready-made, compared with the time it takes for preparation? It is hard to put a dollar value on the sense of wholeness and satisfaction that comes from using one’s own creations.
In my seeking and sorting out of paths through our personal integrated economy, several sources stand out as being particularly influential. The books by Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life, and Continuing the Good Life, provide an excellent example of an integrated personal economy. While I do not choose all the same paths they do, the level of intentionality, self-discipline and efficient, joyful productivity in their lives has been a guiding light in my own growth. The Incredible Secret Money Machine, by Don Lancaster, reinforced many of my own business experiences, and gave me the courage to pursue a very diverse economic package instead of becoming a highly specialized potter. The various workshops and gatherings I have attended in both pottery and living lightly skills have been stimulating learning experiences, often consolidating diverse skills and ideas, and lifting me to a new plateau. Finally, our friends and families are an integral and important part of this successful economic package. They have taught us essential survival skills, and lent us moral and financial support when the going was rough. This spirit of generous sharing is fundamental to making life and work whole together, and to the creation of a humane and sustainable future. With gentle perseverance, this integrated economy can grow into a sustainable present for a planetary clan.