Do you love what you do? Are you truly happy?

 In Blog, Student Post

2019 Student, Jules Marshall, writes about the student experience.

happiness is straw bale building

I know these are impertinent, uncomfortable questions to ask in a late-capitalist society of zero hour contracts, social conflict and growing income disparity, where most of us would have to answer honestly ‘no’ and ‘no’.

But I ask because we really do love what we’re doing and we really are happy, and I’ve been pondering why this is.

If I judge what we’re doing at the Hartwyn Build by society’s traditional metrics of what it takes to be happy – social status, good income, nice house and car, sense of agency in one’s life – then we have absolutely no right to be as deliriously contented as we are. We work hard, 40-hour weeks and earn nothing on a project none of us will ever get to use ourselves, have only the possessions we carried onto the site, we’re living in tents for four months, and eat what’s put in front of us, all while suffering relentless mosquito assault. On paper, we should be miserable.

So the secret to our physical and mental wellbeing is not just of academic interest; it’s potentially of huge societal importance.

German psychologist Dietrich Dörner has a theory that all animal behavior is driven by five basic needs: existence preservation (food, water, body integrity—avoidance of pain), species preservation (sexuality, reproduction), affiliation (need to belong to a group, social interaction), certainty (need to predict events and their consequences), and competence (capacity to master problems and tasks).

Our project fulfils four of those basic needs, and while the fifth is (to-date) met by our individual partners “out there” in the world, there is a casual intimacy and warmth between us that fills the gap for those of us not, ahem, currently working on species preservation.

Of course, we’re more than just animals; we’re sentient humans with complex social needs and strong individual egos, and it is this social bonding that offers the first clue to our happiness. From the very first night we met each other, we 14 strangers have rapidly formed a gang, a mini-tribe with an evolving set of customs and behaviours. There’s no hierarchy other than a natural deference to expertise as we learn new skills every day, and no cliques to speak of. We work together in pairs or small, fluid teams and learn from each other as much as from the expert guidance of our – what are they? Not bosses; teachers sounds too formal, mentors too corporate. Our Joe and Jeffrey, the Hartwyn core, unique and, tellingly, without an accurate title in English.

We work hard and at the end of the day play – not hard; quite gently, actually. After cycling 15 minutes to the lovely Suffolk coastline to plunge into a refreshing sea we come back to our field and eat together, after which we carve spoons meditatively, read, or update our journals. Live music jams break out, or Spotify lists are shared and we have weekly film nights, but otherwise little desire for media to fill our evenings. There’s a moderate drinking culture safely described as ‘lusty’; we’ve had some cracking nights around fires on the beach, at local pubs and occasional group outings to a festival or gig. But we’re always there, without exception, bang on 8.50 am to start the next day.

Another key ingredient of our enviously happy lives is that we trust each other. There are no keys or locks, we’re not competing for rewards or favours, there’s no jostling for alpha dominance or bitchy backbiting. Of course, we each bring a backstory with us, a previous life that if not actually abandoned has been put on hold for the 16-week duration of this experimental society of ours.

While from wildly varying backgrounds we were self-selecting to some extent in being able and eager to take the chance, united in our common belief that natural building is part of the solution to the burning questions of 21st Century existence.

Above all, there’s a warmth and support between us that is just wonderful to experience. There’s time to share our stories and insights on life and maybe even heal that which needed attention but that we perpetually distracted ourselves from facing. Personally, I feel more human, more me, more alive than I have done for many years.

So the social stuff is important, but in a sense we are just animals in an ecosystem and our home territory consists of oak and cherry trees, nettles and sycamore, lawn, hedge and the wildlife that we live amongst. We wake to the songs of birds, frogs are all over the place, bats come out at dusk; for a country boy who exiled himself to the city to pursue a profession it feels like a return to normality after more than nearly four decades of dislocation.

There are more than 200 or more than 400 species of invertebrate that make a home in our native oak tree, depending who you ask. This does not sound so romantically biodiverse when at least a dozen of them have moved into your tent.

I’ve adopted a live-and-let live approach to my adopted ecosystem – I’m in their space after all, uninvited. The assorted beetles, moths, flying things and spiders can stay as long as they adhere to the simple House Rules: no scuttling over the airbed before lights out, no landing on my face, checkout by noon on Sunday when the place is swept. No blood suckers, no exceptions.

Further away from my tent I’ve massively enjoyed the weeks spent in the Suffolk countryside, seeing for the first time in decades barn owls, swallows, house martins, pied wagtails, yellowhammers, newts in the small wood a short stroll down the road. On rare forays into the rural road system there are rabbits, weasels, pheasants and deer to slow down and not hit.

Of course there are challenges to overcome, most obviously the physical – strength and endurance in the first two weeks but increasingly, hand-eye coordination as the build progresses. Cutting a bevel with a chop saw, laying bricks in a straight line, dismantling and re-erecting a scaffold tower safely, scuttling across a roof of batons and rafters, periodic movement of tons of material by hand, barrow-load after barrow-load in the hottest of weathers.

earth floor dancing
Dancing the earth floor down!

But also mental challenges – subtracting 31.5 from 90; working out if plinth A is 1.8 cm higher than plinth B as measured with an aqua level (a long, clear tube with water in it), whether to make beam X that’s going to sit on it 1.8 cm longer or shorter than beam Y on plinth B so the cross beam that will sit on them will be level. Every day requires creative problem solving and reaction to unanticipated gaps between plan and reality.

I anticipated these and for the most part have been up to the respective challenges. What I feared most was the overnight switch from my life in the isolated bubble of a writer who’s strayed long over a deadline, to living in intimate proximity with 13 strangers for 4 months. In a goddamn field. There have been explosive reality shows made on less challenging premises.

The primary thing about building, with any material, natural or otherwise, is the confrontation with reality. A wall cares nothing for the politics, gender or philosophical leanings of the person who built it; it stands or falls according to the natural inclinations of its chemistry and mass, as acted upon by gravity, weather, etc. Limecrete sets or doesn’t, plaster sticks to a wall or doesn’t, you can’t guilt trip it into sticking or accuse it of being wallophobic.

I’ve long pondered the depressingly high failure rate of the Utopian hippie communes of the 60s and 70s, many from economic naivety but often too due to social implosion. The jealousies, hierarchy and clique formation, degeneration into cults, problems with freeloading and substance abuse. Or worse, the Communist experiments that descended into mass slaughter. Why, why is it so hard to live decent, honourable, fair lives?

It was apparent from the first week that we were going to be okay. More than that, as the weeks pass we are more convinced than ever that we are supposed to live like this! In a loving community surrounded by nature, eating good food, creating something tangible and real with daily progress and immense pride in our efforts as we work towards a shared goal, with passion.

Contrary to what we have been conditioned to expect, there’s an immense feeling of freedom in our experimental classless, near-cashless, well-functioning micro-topia. I’d love to think there are lessons to be learned we will take back with us and use in whatever fields we make our ways in. Perhaps there are even messages for wider society.

Is working and living like this scalable? Could it work in an urban environment? Over a longer term? In industries other than building? It’s questions like these that should excite anyone looking for answers to the crises of our civilization, that offer pointers to a possible post-capitalist, or anti-capitalist, or even just a reformed, non-crony capitalism. We don’t have to burn everything to the ground and start again.

So Boris and Donald and Vladimir, when you read this, get in touch. We’ve got lots to talk about. We can be happy and fulfilled and productive and respectful of nature – just ask us; the Hartwyn Build is living proof.

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  • Emma

    Yes! so good to discuss the potential political impact of the temporary cultures we set up on our building sites and apprenticeship schemes in green building.
    I’d be really interested to take this a step deeper to look at why people who are marginalised within our society are not able to access these opportunities and is there anything we can do to change that. There is an important discussion to be had about who is not here. And what does that mean when we are discussing a new utopian society. How can we base the experiment in reality and make an enquiry into the systemic racism and classism in our society and how this inevitably comes up in our networks too.

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