Lately I have become fascinated with the idea that we humans seem to be the only mammals who do not have an innately preferred way to house ourselves. Perhaps all this business about the housing bubble got me going, or, the proliferation of what have come to be known as “McMansions”… I can’t really say. I can only state that for some reason I find it odd that something as basic as shelter has gotten us into such an economic pickle. I’m fascinated by the idea that humans have come to view their nests, if you will, as the primary way of displaying their status in the general pecking order to their fellow humans. Cathedral ceilings in “Gated Communities” where Palladium windows are a must and countertops of marble or granite, well, that goes without saying today doesn’t it? Like the magnificent plumage of a peacock’s tail our homes became the way we show our fitness, our taste and our place within the society we inhabit. Now, it all has gone bust and many find themselves asking the question, “How the hell could I have been that stupid?”
It’s an odd kettle of fish when you think about it and I have been thinking about it. Only humans do this. Squirrels don’t work their whole lives to build a nest. Rabbits don’t invest everything they have in their warrens. No other mammal invests more than the absolute minimum they can get away with in shelter and some don’t invest a damn thing at all. Hold on, beavers, I almost forgot about beavers who do in fact invest an enormous amount of time and effort in their housing arrangements. With the readers permission I am going to place beavers in a special category due to the fact that beavers are so specialized with regard to housing, as a result of their dietary habits, as to deserve to be considered an exception that perhaps, as they say, proves the rule. But even beavers don’t go trying to out do other beavers. They live, as all other mammals do, in the way that is the easiest and most comfortable for their “kind”.
The question I am interested in is this. Is there a home, a nest type, warren or den if you will, that your average human would innately feel the most comfortable in simply because of the way it is designed or built? If so, what would it be like and how could we go about making our lives better by promoting housing that makes us feel good rather than look good in the eyes of our fellow humans. Affordable substance rather than unaffordable fluff and nonsense that enriches bankers and mortgage brokers far more than it does the poor humans who reside within.
Now you may be asking yourself why I would think about things like this. Why I just wouldn’t accept the idea that humans are different from the rest of the mammals in many ways and one of them is in how much we like to display how great we are by living in homes as big (or bigger) than we can, or logically should, afford. Actually, it all goes back to a “feeling” I once had 37 years ago.
It was winter and I was in graduate school, living in the Mid-West. We were poor and perpetually on the lookout for free ways to have a good time on weekends. There was a big snow storm scheduled to hit and I was tangled up with characters who liked to winter camp, as I did myself. A suggestion was made that we take the liberty of bending the law and sneaking in to a nearby state park that was closed for the season. The previous summer we had visited the park in question and noticed that it contained a particularly beautiful cave, carved by an ancient river, in what was now the base of a small cliff. The idea was to spend the night of the big snow in the cave fortified with all the beer, red meat, onions, green peppers and I can’t swear to it, it being 37 years ago and all, but, there may have been a few joints involved.
To make a long story short we made it into the park and it did indeed snow more that two feet that night. We had a great fire and drank and ate ourselves into a very happy and contented place. Good friends, good food and a particularly beautiful winter night deep in the quiet woods. I remember at one point, late in the evening, leaving the cave and walking in the pitch dark down the hill in search of a place to relieve myself. When I had finished I turned around and noticed I could no longer see any sign of our home for the night. I followed my deep imprints in the snow up the hill. As I crested it I could see, through the falling snow, the fire-lit mouth of the cave and my companions within in the distance. That is when it hit me. A feeling I had never experienced before and never felt again since. It shook me to my core and I stood transfixed to the spot for how long I can’t say.
I wondered how many times over the untold thousands of years our ancestors have walked this earth, before McMansions, Cape Cods and condos were invented, someone crested a hill, rounded a corner or parted the foliage and saw what I saw and felt what I felt at that moment. It was home. It rang some kind of a genetic bell in me that I have never forgotten and never will. I search for a taste of it again to this very day.