Tuesday, January 14, 2014

In Praise of Nomads

Leah Giberson
For the past couple of months we have been living with a tent pitched over our boat. It is what most people who live on boats in northern climates choose to do. When the weather starts turning cold, people erect frames, usually consisting of a ridge pole that runs the length of the boat, sloping fore and aft, supported by a few poles and a network of straps run out to the stanchions. Each boat requires a slightly different arrangement. Once the frame is ready, the shrink-wrap goes on, barn-raising style. The plastic is, trimmed, tucked under straps that run around the hull and welded to itself to make a single whole. Once the plastic is on securely, it is shrunk, creating a translucent dome over the entire boat. The welding and the shrinking are done using with a large propane-fired heat gun in one hand and a welding glove on the other. The effect is to cut heating bills more than in half, because during the day, even an overcast day, the greenhouse effect makes the temperature on deck quite comfortable, allowing people to turn off the heating, open hatches and air out the boat. Even on a frosty day it is usually warm enough to sit in the cockpit in shorts and a t-shirt. The dome also allows winter clothing, supplies and many other things to be stored on deck rather than in the cabin, freeing up scarce space down below. When the spring comes, the plastic is cut up and recycled, and the frame is dismantled.

The act of putting up shrink-wrap may seem mundane, but it is strangely satisfying. It is architecture at its purest, from the Greek archi, “one who directs” and tectos, “weaving.” There is a lot of thought that goes into designing the structure; the goal is to produce the strongest, stiffest structure using the minimum number of structural elements, the least amount of material and the least amount of effort. Buckminster Fuller's concept of tensegrity comes into play: the structure is made self-supporting by carefully balancing tension and compression. The result is nontrivial: a strong, functional, weatherproof shelter able to stand up to a nor'easter is constructed in less than a day of work and less than $200 of materials by a single person (with some help from neighbors when it comes to lofting the plastic—thanks, Lee and Ray!). And when it's time for the boat to move again, it can be taken down just as easily: a couple of hours' work with a rigging knife, and no trace of it remains.

Once the boat has been moved to its summer quarters, a different, much simpler task awaits: to put up the cockpit awning. This is a rather complicated piece of dark canvas, cut and stitched to fit the structure of the boat, that makes the cockpit bearable even on the hottest days. Its functions are to block the sunlight, to let in the breeze and to shed water when it rains. On sunny days it lowers the temperature in the cockpit by some 15-20 degrees by heating up in the sun and creating an updraft, which sucks in cooler air off the water. This is generally enough to stay comfortable without air conditioning. Our current cockpit cover has seen better days; it's been restitched a few times, and will need some patching before too long. At some point we will stitch together a new one, costing us somewhere around $150 in fabric and a day of labor.

These all strike me as supremely efficient adaptations: winters spent in a sheltered cove under a translucent dome; summers spent under an awning out in the harbor where the seabreeze is almost constant. What makes these adaptations possible is lack of a house. Technically, we might be considered homeless, although the idea strikes me as bizarre: our boat is very much our home. Rather, what we are is “houseless,” which, to me, seems like a blessing in disguise. You see, the median price of a single-family home in the US is around $200,000 while the median family income in the US is around $50,000. The basic rule of thumb is that spending on housing shouldn't exceed 30% of income, although half the renters in the US pay more. But taking 30% as a guide and doing the math will tell you that it takes the average US family 13 years to save up money to buy a house. Since they need a place to live in the meantime, they buy it on credit, and the interest can be easily double that, meaning that about a third of a family's productive years are squandered on securing a place to live!

Beyond the sheer inanity of this arrangement from an economic point of view there are numerous other problems. First of all, the house doesn't move. Now, for me it is always a thrill to move to a new place, even just a few miles, without having to pack or prepare in any way beyond taking off the sail covers, warming up the engine and undoing the dock lines. When people stay in one place for a long time, they go blind. Not literally blind—they can still see shapes and colors and recognize faces and avoid running into things, but that's about it—because looking at the same scene day after day makes it impossible to see it with a fresh eye, to observe how it changes over time, and to be able to see it for what it is. Just shifting back and forth between summer and winter quarters is enough to destroy this effect, making it possible to see how each place improves or deteriorates over time.

Secondly, houses are ill-suited for each and every purpose. They are cold in the winter, requiring lots of expensive heat. They are hot in the summer, requiring lots of expensive air conditioning. They are built along streets, exposing their residents to car exhaust. It is not possible to make the roof translucent in the winter and reflective in the summer, to knock down walls when the temperatures get hot or to throw up some extra insulation if the winter turns out to be colder than usual.

Lastly, houses are almost unique among civilization's artifacts in that they are conceived as being permanent. This means that houses stay up even after they outlive their stated purpose (such providing cheap housing for industrial workers) slowly degenerate into slums and ruins, and eventually cost a great deal of money to tear down. Architectural fashions change, but buildings do not. “Fashion is something so ugly we have to change it every six months,” Oscar Wilde once said. But one cannot burn an ugly building the way one can burn an ugly pair of shoes. With a few exceptions (hilltop towns in Tuscany spring to mind) houses destroy the landscape by crowding it with unfashionable ruins.

Doing away with the a fixed abode confers numerous advantages: you become free to move; you are prevented, by your circumstances, by accumulating consumerist crap; you get a chance to construct your own shelter to suit the situation; a third or more of your income is saved rather than squandered. These are all practical considerations, but there is more to being nomadic than being practical. Nomadism, you see, is not just a good adaptation for uncertain times. It is also godly and sublime.

Most people, when they hear the biblical phrase “the house of the Lord,” imagine a cathedral or a temple. Their fixed notion of a house is a large, permanent, immobile structure. What a surprise it is, then, to learn that the house of the Lord was, to begin with, most definitely a tent: Ancient Hebrew “beth” or Arabic “beyt” are both words that signify “tent.” The tension between the settled and the nomadic is present throughout the Bible. It is the tension between slavery and freedom, and the biblical account makes it clear that God, or Yahweh—originally a nomad god, the Bedouin god of flocks and herds—always sides with the nomads.

Let's look back at one of the world's great founding myths, the story of Abraham, who gave his name to the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, whose adherents account for more than half of the population of the Earth. In the story, Abraham and Lot, his nephew, leave the city and, with their herds, travel to Canaan and live there as nomads at the edge of the desert. But they quarrel, and Lot departs for Sodom and Gomorrah. Yahweh punishes him for his choice, destroying the cities, and turning his wife into a pillar of salt just for looking at the destruction, while Abraham stays pure and on the move, and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, live on to create the two great nomad tribes, the Arabs and the Jews.

Although nomadism is the ideal, the tension between the nomadic and the settled is ever-present. Droughts, famines, and political oppression often force nomads to take refuge among the settled. If they stay long enough, they may lose their nomad ways and become stranded. Even Abraham was driven by famine to leave Canaan and take refuge in Egypt for a time, but was quick to escape as soon as conditions improved. Later, another famine forced his descendants back into Egypt and a life of servitude, but here their sojourn lasted long enough for them to lose their nomadic skills, condemning them to slavery. But they managed to produce a visionary—Moses—who married a Bedouin woman. This woman turned out to be the key cultural transplant that allowed the Jews to escape into the wilderness and regain their freedom.

Nomadism is culturally and technologically advanced, involving such elements as portable shelter, a relationship with animals that borders on symbiosis, ability to self-organize in groups large and small, to survive in a harsh and nearly barren terrain and to control and defend a large and ever-changing territory. In all nomadic cultures more than half of this cultural and technological DNA is the explicit domain of women, for it is the women who create and maintain the tent. Men practice animal husbandry, make tools, hunt, fish, fight, make tent poles, but it is the women who spin, weave and stitch. The tent is typically part of the dowry and remains the possession of the woman, hers to keep in case of divorce.

Walk into the tent of any nomad, and you will find the same separation of concerns reflected in the interior layout. To the left of the entrance is the women's side. Here, stacked along the walls you will find everything needed for preparing food, for working with leather and fabric, and for taking care of children. To the right is the men's side. Here, stacked along the walls you will find tools, weapons, saddles and harnesses. In the middle is the hearth; to the back of the hearth is the sacred place, with an altar. Before the altar is the seat of honor. In case of the Arabs, the separation is enforced using a curtain, called the qata, while in the tipi of a North American Indian the separation is implicit, but it is always there—a nomadic cultural universal. This is an evolved trait that makes perfect sense: the life of the nomad is so complex and requires such competence that a separation of concerns between men and women is essential to survival. A lone male can lead a nomadic existence, but for nomadism to exist as a civilization requires a woman-nomad, with woman-nomad knowhow.

Women tend to be more conservative than men (politics aside) in that they tend to pass on their skills to their daughters more or less unchanged. Thus we find, in nomadic architecture, incredible stability of forms. The black tend described in the Bible, under which the Israelites camped in the Canaan, are to be found along a desert belt stretching from Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way to Tibet (where they use belly hair of the yak for the fabric). It is a rectangular piece of goat-hair fabric, stitched together out of wide woven strips and erected using a few poles and stretched using long lines secured to pegs. It keeps the interior cool by blocking sunlight and creating an updraft and pulling air up through its loose weave, but when it rains the goat hair fibers swell up and create a waterproof surface that sheds water.

North of the black tent belt lies the yurt belt. Yurts use a freestanding frame that consists of a barrel-shaped latticework at the base, a tension band at the top of the latticework, a crown, sometimes supported by center poles, and poles which are mortised into the crown and hooked onto the tops of the latticework. Over this frame is pulled a covering of felt, its thickness in proportion to the coldness of the climate. A fair percentage of the population of Mongolia lives in yurts to this day, and yurt-dwelling Mongols once made it as far west as the gates of Vienna. Buckminster Fullers dymaxion house was essentially a yurt—fabricated out of aluminum, which is an unfortunate choice of material, since aluminum doesn't grow on trees or on sheep.

North of the yurt zone and throughout the circumpolar region we find two basic shapes: the cone tent and the dome tent, covered either with skins and hides or with steamed birch bark. Inside, we often find the same layout: hearth in the middle, women to the left, men to the right, altar in the back. The Koryak-Chukchi yaranga is particularly notable. These tribes, which inhabit the very farthest north of Siberia, use a tent within a tent, called polog, to keep warm in spite of temperatures that are often colder than -40 below. The inevitable condensation is dealt with by taking the polog out during the day, allowing the condensation to freeze solid and beating it out with a stick.

Nomadism is an innovation, requiring a great deal of advanced technology and knowhow. It is relatively recent, and in many places its advent coincided with the domestication of various animals. It is the symbiosis with these animals that gave the nomads their speed, range, and ability to sustain themselves in places where a stationary population would quickly perish of hunger and thirst. The desert, black tent nomads rely on the camel and, in the case of Tibet, the yak; the yurt nomads of the plains rely on the horse; the circumpolar tribes rely on the reindeer in Eurasia and its undomesticated cousin the caribou in North America. Prior to the advent of nomadism most of the places where nomads could survive remained uninhabited.

Of course, there are places in the world where not even a nomadic tribe can survive, but, when they see circumstances change, at least they have the option of moving. A settled population relies on a stable climate to be able to bring in crops from the same patch of land season after season. Over the past 11,000 years this was possible in many more places on Earth because during this period of time the climate was particularly stable and benign, but it appears that this period is now over, and the Earth has entered a period of climate upheaval, in which the regular patterns of nature on which agriculture relies can no longer be taken for granted.

Although the cultural preference in many parts of the world has been to disrespect the nomad, it is likely to turn out, for more and more people, that their choice lies between turning nomadic (if they can) or perishing in place. And it bears repeating that being nomadic requires a much higher-level of set skills than just staying in one place—one that can't be learned in a single generation, and perhaps not even in a single lifetime.


Anonymous said...

Excellent blog, I was unaware of the similarities between nomadic cultures.

Thank you, Dmitry.

Villager said...

Absolutely fascinating account! I'm a stay in one place kind of guy but you do make a strong case for moving around. If I could stand the taste of fish I might be tempted to chuck it all for a boat.

I was wondering how you handle internet access. Do you have a satellite connection or do you rely on Verizon and its ilk?

It's interesting to realize that we each have the capacity if not the desire to toss our reins and create a new world should we choose and be willing to suffer the "little death" that accompanies such changes. Often enough it's the "little death" of an even smaller life so the price can be considered fair.

BonRobi said...

This dovetails with advice from anarcho-capitalist investment guru Doug Casey, who counsels that during this period of devolving global monetary system meltdown that one should be light on their feet and ready to "dodge and weave the predations of the nation states" as they wind down. At his quite well capitalized level he advises multiple dwellings in multiple countries and we're not talking a skinned dome in his case, bud! But, for the more numerous shoestringers how wonderful to have a simple van or boat or trailer or yurt for much the same purpose. I was curious what atheists might use that rear space for though?

Dmitry Orlov said...

My advice to Casey is that the only way to avoid getting robbed is to have nothing worth the risk of trying to take it. In an unstable environment rich people should be avoided because they attract social predators. As far as multiple houses in muiple locations, there is no need because nomads have something called hospitality, which no amount of money can buy.

Kevin said...

Great post. I love that you mentioned Bucky Fuller's work, which has always fascinated me.

Since reading Ray Jason's guest post here I've (a) started taking sailing lessons and (b) developed an interest in acquiring or building a cruising catamaran for my own dwelling and nomadic purposes. I'm familiar with your arguments against catamarans (and those of many others), but I've become obsessed with them and am impervious to reason on this point.

However I well remember your warnings Dmitry about the dangers of dwelling aboard a too-desirable boat, because one is likely to be robbed of it by predators, official or otherwise. Most cruising cats are luxury yachts and hence make far too juicy a target (as well as being way too expensive for moi, even on the used market). Fortunately, I've recently discovered a notable exception.


This is an owner-built wooden cruising cat fitted out with a "biplane" junk rig. I love this design because it's so weird. Also, the junk rig is easy to reef quickly, an important safety feature. But what really makes me think I've hit pay dirt is the following comment by the owner:

"Once, in a quiet anchorage, I was sitting down below minding my own business when a beautiful varnished classic yacht slowly circled me. I overheard the skipper remark to his mate, 'If they gave it to me, I'd burn it!' "

It could hardly be better than this.

Incidentally, there's a really sweet variation on this theme, an owner-built mini-cruiser called Miss Cindy:


Sails just fine, according to the owner, who has coast-hopped in it from California to the Carribean.

I'm also considering building a couple of small geodesic tree houses that would probably fit nicely into the crotch of an oak or some other similarly structured tree. Those and gypsy wagons are the terms in which I'm thinking.

Keep on posting!

Glenn said...


I think you have the gender linked tent arrangements backwards, at least for Mongols and Navajos. Or is your descriptive point of view from the back of the tent VS entering from the door? In Mongolia one enters, and turns left, going around the inside of the Ger clockwise; the door faces South, the men's and male guests side is on the West, Women's and female guests on the East. The altar is in back to the North. And nothing is ever passed between the Baghan poles from the fire to the table, but always handed around clockwise.

The Navajo arrangement is similar, but the door faces East, with all the relationships shifted a quarter turn as appropriate.


BonRobi said...

Love the cross hatching community of the web and this blog too. Kevin: I was fortunate this summer to befriend the owner of the biplane rigged cat you mentioned, Gary Lepak.A wonderful guy. I also am interested in owning/building a biplane junk rigged cat and have owned two vessels with junk rig already. Please note my blog post on junk rigged cats here: http://extranoboogie.blogspot.mx/2013/02/junk-rigged-cats-rock-personal-evidence.html and feel free to chat me up. On another note I might add that from last summer to now my wife and I have been nomads, in two different road rigs, and have been shown immense hospitality on the road and have made many new friends of other nomads. Road nomads show much the same kinship as sailors, even if they are unrepentant petro-gobblers. Now, In mexico, it has just gotten better. A lifestyle not for everyone, but, for us delightful so far.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

Dmitry, I am confused on whether you are describing a wintery cover for when the boat is still in the water or when it has been taken out for storage. The only pictures I could find, trying various search parameters, where of boats out of the water.

Do you have any pictures of either your boat in this set up or of others, so I can better understand the preparation you are describing?

Cheers, the "other" Kevin

Anonymous said...

Very perspective-shifting post, Dmitry, in a "don't fear, rather welcome, a return to the human norm," kind of way. I really appreciated the comments regarding the tension in the Bible between nomadism and "civilization." In this regard, Matthew 6:24-33 ("Consider the lillies . . . they neither toil nor spin"), as well as other statements by JC about not making promises, focusing on the day to day, etc., strongly suggests an anti-farming/civilization approach to life.

However, there won't be real (land-based) nomads supporting themselves via nomadism (rather than by relying on the fruits of stay-in-place farmers) until the land title/property legal regime collapses. Until then, the option for the current captives of this system is closer to an opportunistic "free-floating" along the property regime edges and its collapsing enforcement resources.
In this regard, there are already people who live by squatting in abandoned buildings.
See, e.g., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLugXY3NahE
If /when forced out, they find another one. As the economy further collapses, we will likely see more and more of this thing. It's certainly one way to avoid the high cost of paying for the (legal) privlege of simply being somewhere, freeing up limited monetary resources for other things.

Juan Wilson said...

Actually, it was not Bucky Fuller who came up with the tensegrity structure... it was one of his students, Kenneth Snelson, in 1947.

What Bucky did was name it.

Snelson has spent decades building tensegrities up to the scale of multi-story buildings.

The trick with tensegrities is that no compression member touches another compression member - only tensions members.

Thus I doubt the boat cover structures you have built were tensegrities. They are more likely a variation of post and beam covered with a structural diaphragm.

More like one of Bucky's real inventions - the geodesic dome (less the great arcs).

Juat saying.

Juan Wilson

Gene Kodadek said...

Siggghhh... you realize that in the modern world the nomadic life is limited to people who do not have kids. There is no way to live nomadically in the US without running the risk of getting your kids kidnapped by the state. Still waiting for someone to suggest a workable low-cost living arrangement for people with young children and no money to invest... I personally have been looking for a couple of years.

Kevin said...

Hi Gomez. Thanks for mentioning about Gary Lepak. I've tried to respond on your blog, but it looks like Blogspot have killed it. I did get a chance to read the entry you linked before they did so. Naturally I'd like to learn all I can about Gary's experiences with Dragon Wings, and any advice he might have for one contemplating a similar vessel. If you or he feel like giving me a holler, here's my email addy: kevin_2050(at)yahoo(dot)com.