Last week I diverted my eyes from my iPhone long enough to attend two readings hosted by Point Reyes Books at the Presbyterian church. Lloyd Kahn, a whiskered Marin original, has spent a lifetime cataloguing an imaginative D.I.Y. building movement and is likely the world’s most perfect grandfather. He took us through his photographs of nomadic, downscaled living from the recent book, “Tiny Homes on the Move,” sharing his own evident wonder at the sometimes colorful and elaborately carved houseboats, wagons, modified camper shells and converted school buses.
Kahn was grounded, worldly and warm, his wry commentary bearing traces of an early career as an insurance broker: “People sometimes seem threatened by these homes, saying they could never live in something that small. Well, it’s not for everybody, it’s just something that works for these people,” he said.
A few nights later, Lucy Lippard, a writer whose scholarship was key in the emergence of conceptual and feminist art, read from her critical work on the changing Western landscape, “Undermining.” She lamented the ruinous, unseen “wholesale infrastructure of our retail lives”—enormous gravel pits, coal mines, mountain top removal—and how our purchasing habits and whims result in the unregulated ruin of the land. It’s an aesthetic approach to political activism that, like much that’s rooted in academia, can come off to the uninitiated as compelling but cold.
Lippard invited the photographer Michael Light to join her. His pictures of an obscenely scaled Las Vegas development, aborted in 2008, reveal a landscape scarred by wealth and hubris. At one point, Light suggested that we support his work by purchasing the book for cheap on Amazon. The room erupted in a mild riot of boos and groans, not least because the evening was sponsored by the local bookstore.
But I welcomed this delightful mishap, which woke the room up from its concurring murmurs. In the midst of a discussion about the evils of extractive corporations and thoughtless consumption, someone suggested making a purchase from what Kate Levinson, a co-owner of Point Reyes Books, reminded us was also an extractive corporation—one that sells books for less and ships them fast. “We’ll also have the book,” she said in a moving plea at the end of the night. “You’ll pay more,” she admitted.
Light left me with a question that often goes unasked: what are the plausible, scalable alternatives to things like Amazon, fracking and gravel pits when there is demand for cheap books, abundant energy and whatever people want gravel for? And do the decisions that result in these violations of the landscape come from a lack of consciousness or a lack of choice?
It’s a problem I have plenty of time to mull over while commuting two hours a day to pay a car payment necessitated by that commute. How did that happen? While I may have fewer options than Lloyd Kahn enjoyed in the open country of 1960s Marin, his celebration of how people like me adapt to the rising cost of living with ingenious and affordable architecture left me brimming with visions of a life built by hand and in debt to no one.
Meanwhile, my friend Ann Marie Scuderi is the 29-year-old C.O.O. of a green energy start up, Urban Electric Power, that introduced a low-cost solution to the problem of energy storage with a modular battery system free of toxic chemicals from geopolitically problematic sources. The batteries can make renewable energy cost-effective, and could help power water pumps in rural Indian villages and reduce peak electricity usage in New York skyscrapers.
Whether building batteries or houseboats, it’s clear we need more than knee-jerk reactions to consumerism and
Here at home, Point Reyes Books has a clever “bookstore C.S.A.” that injects its cash flow with community buy-in and gives discounts to locals. To put our ideals to work, we must find ways to make ethical and responsible choices as inclusive, accessible and affordable as any other. Like every sustained societal effort, it begins with the kind of dialogue stimulated by these books, and I’m grateful to a great bookstore for making it possible.
Jordan Bowen, an Inverness resident, is a native of Texas who recently migrated from New York City to West Marin. He studied European literature and film at Columbia and currently coordinates marketing and operations at Osmosis Day Spa in Freestone.