But the beauty of the People's building is not found only in the simple elegance of its practicality; the process of creating it all has been an integral component of its appeal and success. Throughout the renovation and up to the present, people who visit the store have had the opportunity to observe, ask questions, and -- best of all -- participate themselves. For the past few days, people have been working on finishing the cob benches in front of the store. Working with earthy materials, patience, and a light touch, volunteers and staff have been putting a colorful smooth coating over the firm cob. The community and sustainability expressed in this project is only the latest illustration of the uniqueness that People's brings to the neighborhood and the city, a quality that could never be reproduced sincerely by a larger, corporate store such as the one that's threatening to move onto a site just a few blocks away. |
The gateway made by the two pillars and canvas roof at the corner of the open space in front of the store is not just a physical entryway; it is also a visual and psychic one. Without presenting a barrier or blocking anyone's way, it offers definition of the space in an enclosing but invitational way, and does so with shapes that evoke the geography and ecosystem of Cascadia: the pillars are tree-trunks, the backs and seats of the benches emerge from articulations of the tree's roots, and the bases grow mushroom-like from native stones that are uncut and fitted by hand. I've seen shapes like this by streams in the forest, where younger trees are springing out of fallen older ones and a dappled shade is provided by a canopy of low branches. These benches are one of my favorite places to sit in the city. They were made comfortable by volunteers who sat in them while the cob was still pliable, so they would form to a human body. I was quite happy when I saw a couple days ago that the benches were finally going to be completed.
The gold coating is a mixture of kayolin clay, water, sand, paper pulp, unbleached wheat flour, and iron oxide pigment (a combination of yellow, red and black). After spraying down the cob surface of the benches, one globs on some of it and smoothes it down with a hand and a flexible plastic disk trimmed from an orphaned yogurt lid. This layer takes hours to dry and longer to fully season itself to the surface. Afterwards, a coat of linseed oil or beeswax will be applied. (Go see the information kiosk outside the Red and Black Cafe for an example of a totally finished cob structure.)
On Tuesday the 29th, from 10:30 to around 6:00, people will be working on these benches again, and anyone who is interested in learning and trying it out is invited to come. This type of work is not merely an arts-and-crafts activity; it is an example of sustainable building that can be used to construct entire buildings. In England, cob houses have been standing for centuries. The materials are easy to come by -- in fact, you can dig most of them up in your backyard. For the final touches some investment is necessary, but if you have other skills you might be able to trade with someone who has some of the materials. In any case, the basics are easy to learn, the formula is age-old and tested, and the results are pleasing to the eye that loves beauty and the back that wants rest out of the elements. The City of Portland is still figuring out how to issue permits for these types of projects, but cob structures could also be built out on the land somewhere, away from zoning and regulations. In the difficult days that are coming, practical skills like this will be useful.
And the difficult days are, for better or worse, on their way. The global demand for oil will be exceeding the available supply sometime in the next 5-10 years, and the price hikes and panics that ensue will bring about devastating hardship. Climate change from the burning of fossil fuels might also be rapid and dramatic and bring famine and widespread social disolution. The current system of consumption and infinite growth is headed for disaster, in other words. It's not a question of whether or not business-as-usual can continue; it simply won't. Knowing that this is the road we're on, we must do everything we can to get off it. A system of electoral politics that adjusts the steering wheel a little to the right or left is not going to do it. Though it might seem Sysiphean, the only way to save ourselves is by restructuring our society by changing our lives. Sustainability must be our watchword and our guide.
This mindset, which is destroying life on earth, asserts that a New Seasons grocery store has the "right" to move in on People's territory and squash it (see "Southeast Portland residents launch campaign to keep New Seasons out of their neighborhood"). Places like People's that are putting different models into practice are invaluable resources, and our survival as individuals and as a species is tied up in them. Conversely, our death is tied up in corporate economics that puts profit over people. Places like People's build community among fellow experimenters by providing a place (both physical and mental) where people can meet, exchange ideas, launch projects, and find support. Places like People's are not the final solution to saving our skins, but they are vital incubators for nurturing the ideas and practices that will. This is what People's offers that New Seasons never could and it is because their modes of operation are fundamentally different. People's motto is, "Food for people, not for profit." New Seasons' model is the opposite.
"Think globally, act locally," we are advised, and here is the perfect opportunity to put those wise words into practice. Corporate globalization happens block by block and street by street, and it's happening in Southeast Portland right now, and in thousands of other places around the country and the world. Everytime a 7-11 drives out a mom-and-pop convenience store, or Starbucks takes out a neighborhood coffee shop, or a big whole food store mows under a community co-op, the empire of capital grows bigger, and each of us as individuals become a little more powerless. With each victory of profit over people, no matter how small, the air gets a little harder to breath. We are already choking in a thickening pollution of greed, but somehow many well-meaning people still live in denial. "Oh, it won't be that bad. What's one more? It won't really hurt." These are the sentiments of addiction, and we must all help each other break those viscous cycles before we self-destruct.
So this is a call to action; a call to stop New Seasons, a call to liberate ourselves from the chains of capital, a call to finish cob benches.
Stop. Stretch. Breathe.
Step away from the machine.
Root yourself in the earth, not the system.
Really start living, and spread the good word.