Nov 19, 2010

A View From the Tower

“As a craftsman, a journeyman artist, he is not without his guile; he has come to decide that if you would see the horizon from a forest, you must build a tower. If the horizon will reveal most of what is significant, an hour of examination can yet do the job – it is the tower which takes months to build.” - “The Armies of the Night” by Norman Mailer, 1967

I swept the floor, cleaned out the stove ash, rolled up the blankets and closed the door. I tied a leather strap through opposing eye hooks not knowing when this makeshift lock would be undone or who would do its undoing.

For the last five months I have lived in a building fondly dubbed The Tower. It’s not much of a tower but it is the tallest structure as far as the eye can see. The Tower was built as a play fort by a teenager some 15 years ago and has been largely unused for the majority of that time.

The Tower is part of a complex of homesteads built by Tom* in the 1970s. In the past 40 years, Tom has made a handful of homes on the Taos mesa and he generously invited us to rehabilitate and live for the summer in a cluster of these handmade structures. For the past five months, Tom’s homes have been our home and as both physical structures and testament to a lived philosophy of resistance, these homes have introduced us to some very real possibilities for alternative, off-the-grid living.

We founded PLAND (see as a way to better understand how the world works. We wanted to learn how to build things, how to live with extremely limited resources, how to insert ourselves into a community of intentional isolation, how to start a non-profit organization. While building our own house just over the sage-covered hill from Tom’s, we took refuge in his wood and earth structures.

Tom’s homestead is made of stacked lumber and mud plaster. Discarded windshields serve as windows that look out over the vast mesa. An underground cistern is filled with water, trucked in from town, and extracted through a hand pump as needed. Water is also collected from the roof in large barrels and an old bathtub; we use this water for bathing and to water the sunflowers. A wood-burning sauna, dug into the ground with a skylight looking out to the stars, affords the mesa’s most luxurious bathing and a way to stay warm. Two solar panels harness enough power to light each room through a string of car headlights; yet candles, lanterns and headlamps provide much of our daily lighting. Tom built the homestead a little bit at a time and each room, alive with character, represents a different moment in time when resources became available to Tom to house his family of five. He has spent much of his life well below the poverty line, bartering for and scavenging building materials throughout the years. The yard is covered with piles of tools, wood, cars, tires, bottles, and other treasures, collected over the years with a promise of one day proving useful.

Tom is a basket weaver and he wove shelters for his children to play in; his daughter spent many nights sleeping out, 100 yards from the main house in one such shelter. Similarly, Tom's son's Tower sits on the edge of the property, beyond the outhouse and the adobe pit.

When I first moved to Tom’s the Tower was a pack-rat palace, filled with a decade’s worth of rat shit and debris. My sister and I shoveled out the mess, washed the walls, and repaired the floor. The lower level of the tower is dug-out, with a tiny door and three steps down to the earthen floor. The room is octagonal and eight feet in diameter, with a tiny wood-burning stove in the center of the space and two small windows filling it with light. In this room, I built a bed. Upstairs is a similarly shaped space with tiny windows puncturing the walls. Here, I built a desk and a chair. I set up my shrine and unpacked some books.

Off the second floor of the tower, we built a small deck from which you can see the rock formations to the west, San Antonio Mountain to the north, the open desert that stretches to the west and south with the Sangre de Cristos creating a ring of peaks in the distance. The main thing visible from the Tower is sky. It was here, on the deck, that I learned to see the color variation of night-time clouds. It was here that I saw countless storms roll in, casting rainbows to the west and heavy fog on the horizon. It was here that I learned about the variation between the speeds of sound and light, that I witnessed the northern migration of the moon throughout the changing seasons. I marveled at traffic passing on the highway, reveled in the tone of silence, felt myself confronted with so much space.

Sometimes you need to leave your hometown to know where you're from. Sometimes you need to go without coffee to know its affect on you. Oftentimes it is necessary to create a space away, apart, without to really see the way things work and the value that they have in your life. For me, the Tower was this kind of space. After five months without running water, living 35 miles from the nearest amenities and with such an expansive view, I see more clearly the essentials of daily life.

As we move into town and back on the grid for the winter, I feel both relief and nostalgia. Like climbing down from a mighty tower, it feels good to be on familiar ground but I miss the great view from above. Life off-the-grid is both terrifying and meaningful. There was a time when we ran out of water. Another time, the coffee was used up. The wind blew so hard and so consistently that my sanity nearly flew away. Yet, I took pleasure in learning to wash my body with cups of water and sunshine. I felt the power of making our own electricity. Time became a multi-dimensional thing and money lost a bit of its currency. Every moment, every action, required a level of intentionality that took nothing for granted and infused everything with potential.

Our summer was spent building a tower – a structure for seeing our surroundings more clearly. The act of building continues to be a means of experiential truth by seeing things how they really are. We have spent those months cultivating a way of life that is sensitive to limited resources – from water to money, from time to personal motivation – yet open to big possibility. Over the year, PLAND has evolved and for us it has become about celebrating our unique vantage point. Life off-the-grid requires infrustructure and know-how, creative problem solving and loads of perserverance. The best moments of the summer occurred when we were able to share our vantage point with newcomers. “Look what is visible from here! Do you, too, see that another way is possible?”

Like Norman Mailer’s craftsman, we spent the summer creating a structure that would allow for an expansive and new point of view. There is still much work to be done on our proverbial tower; we are ambitious and these constructions take time. At PLAND, we are building a house, a community, a school, an art space, a garden, an electrical system; we are creating a way of life. This, we hope, will allow us to see the forest for the trees. And then the horizon beyond.

* names have been changed for sake of privacy

** photos by Molly Danti and Carrie Thompson