Making a new life: trial by fire and earth

When you have lemons, make lemonaide; when you have earth and fire, make houses.

by Alice Martinez
ver thought of chucking it all? When life isn't working and the daily pressures - money, work, relationships, etc. - become too much, who hasn't thought of giving it all up, taking a different path, creating a new life. But how many consider it when life is comfortable and success has given you all our society has to offer? Probably very few. And fewer still take action with the complete dedication as a man known simply as Joseph.
Joseph grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a rough neighborhood close to Harlem. After attending a local college, he served a tour in Viet Nam. Upon his discharge, he moved to San Diego and began building a successful construction company. "I started out laying bricks, then building patios, then laying foundations, then building houses, then building spec houses," Joseph explains.
His business quickly prospered. "I was ready to start building tract homes," he continued. "I had a good $2 million stash and unlimited credit. I was very wealthy. I was ready to go build a Scripps Ranch or Tierrasanta."
What happened next is one of those unpredictable events that changes everything. Joseph bought a beautiful piece of land to build his own home on. The plot was untouched, with trees, natural vegetation and abundant birds and wildlife. A devotee of Thoreau, he developed a deep relationship with the land. "I fell in love with all of nature, " he affirms.
Of course, to build a house you have to clear the land. "When I saw them bulldozing it, I felt sick inside," he relates. The effect couldn't have been more complete. "I decided, 'This is the last thing I do.' That's when I stopped. I walked away from it all. I didn't want anything to do with it - I didn't want money or attachments. I had to stop and figure out where I needed to go with this, with the talent I have."
He began a critical reexamination of his life, his work and the values of his society. What developed was a profound sense of connection with the earth and a deep spirituality. While the outward signs were of a withdrawal from the world, what Joseph was up to was re-creation: creating a way of life that is in harmony with nature and the earth. This is manifested in the way he lives his life, in the work he has since pursued, and in his vision of a new society based on community.

Recycled houses

Being a builder, looking for a new way of providing housing was a natural first step. "If I'm a master carpenter, why can't I use my skill to my benefit and build myself a master house - for free if I can do it? he asks. "If the birds have the tree and the fish have the sea, why do we get stuck with 30 year mortgages and slavery all our lives? It doesn't make any sense. I am not going to enslave my sons, my daughters, my children with that."
His first serious efforts were to try building with scrap and recycled wood, obtained from construction and demolition sites. "I was a carpenter and I had my tools, so I was looking into wood," he relates. "But I didn't want to buy it. I found old wood. Old wood is better than new wood - the trees were better. So I started collecting wood and building recycled wooden houses.
"I've got cabinets from La Jolla. I've got floorboards from all the best and richest houses. This won't go to waste - there's a place for it, but not in such a grand scale."
I had the pleasure of spending time in one of Joseph's recycled wooden houses - a tree house in Dehesa. About 15 feet off the ground, this one-room structure was warm and inviting, with many windows and a light, airy feeling. The recycled wood, of varying lengths and assorted textures, provided a decidedly hand-made appearance that was a feast for the eye. The treehouse felt rock solid, although even the nails and other fasteners were reused, and not a single spike was driven into the tree. The master carpenter's craft was evident.
While working with wood was familiar, it ultimately requires cutting down trees - there is only so much processed wood to recycle. "That bothered me," he notes. "I don't want to kill a tree to build a house - it's a contradiction, you don't have to."

Joseph's hand-crafted treehouse is made entirely from recycled and scrap wood; even the fasteners and windows are reused. Not a single spike was driven into the tree to keep this solid structure in place.

Houses from earth

He started investigating the possibility of building houses out of the earth itself: fired clay. "In the process of trying to do it a different way, I discovered clay and the power of fire," he explains. "Using fire instead of nails, steel and glue as a substance to bond together, I had to go to the fire makers - the masters of fire - which were the Chinese. I discovered the amagami kiln, a technique of fire underground, using tunnels underground."
This Chinese technique utilizes a fire built in an enclosure at the foot of a hill. An underground tunnel conducts the hot gasses part way up the hill to the first kiln where the ceramics are fired. The exhaust gasses from this kiln again enter a tunnel and are conducted further up the hill to a second kiln, and so forth, ultimately ending in an open chimney at the top of the hill. The elevation provides a strong convection draft required to pull the hot gasses through the subterranean passages. The hot gasses can fire many more pieces than would be practical in a single large kiln.
Joseph's adaptation of this thousand-year-old technique is to build a domed structure - the house itself - of clay bricks. Just outside one end of the house is a fire pit with a tunnel leading into the house itself. At the other end is a tower with an open top that serves as a chimney. When a fire is lit in the pit, the natural draft draws the hot gasses through the interior, baking the clay house into a solid ceramic.
This technique allows for several innovations. Since the house itself becomes a kiln, other useful clay objects can be fired at the same time: cups, plates, pots, etc. This also allows the inclusion of numerous "built-ins": cupboards, shelves, steps, tables, planters, floor tiles and other features fashioned from clay are made a solid part of the permanent structure. While the firing is not sufficiently controlled to allow the use of glazes, the clay wall surfaces themselves can be incised with designs.
While the technique is promising, it is still at the prototype stage. Only a few of the fired houses have been created, and each one has provided important lessons for the next. Like the development of any new technology, the research and development must continue. The two fired structures I visited in Dehesa were solid and demonstrate all the basic features, but are still too rough for common use.
However, the potential benefits stand out. Other than labor, the structure itself cost nothing to build - the clay came directly out of the ground, and the firewood was all recycled scrap. The construction requires no manufactured items, making it ultimately resource efficient. It is completely free of the toxins exuded, sometimes for years, by many finishes, adhesives, preservatives and other substances used in conventional homes. When the structure has reached the end of its useful life, it can be returned to the earth with no toxic waste or recycling problems. Dust to dust, more or less.

This domed house in Dehesa was built entirely with clay from the area and fired using a thousand-year-old Chinese tehnique and scrap wood. Other than Joseph's labor, this domed house cost nothing to build. (That's Joseph on the roof)

A bigger picture

For Joseph, this quest to develop housing in harmony with the earth is only one expression of his deeper commitment to a new way of life. He has made his life an experiment in synthesizing spiritual values and the wisdom of ancient cultures with the positive elements of the modern world, while rejecting forces that are destructive to the earth and diminish the individual. One is reminded of R. Buckminster Fuller, except that Joseph's life is more dedicated to "Mother Earth" than "Spaceship Earth."
"The roots of my work stem from Egypt, China, Africa, Europe, Mexico, South America," he relates. "It has masculine and feminine, entails heaven and earth, entails divine and human, the whole and the part, the visible and the invisible, the body and the mind. The spirit and the heart are reconciled, integrated and made whole. When all is said and done, it's a healing.
"The earth - the mother - gives you the tools. If you go to the mother like you're supposed to, the mother takes care of you. But if you don't respect your parents, they won't take care of you. If you don't respect your friends, they won't take care of you.
"Our system is brainwashing us into a lifestyle that's not conducive to good health. Look at the lifestyle. Our houses are toxic waste dumps. They secrete chemicals. People have to become aware of what's going on. The capitalist system controls people, has taken faith out of life. Materialism is bread on fear, not faith. Spiritualism thrives on faith."

The wall decorations and other "built-ins," like planters, shelves, floor tiles and steps, are fired into the clay and become a permanent part of the structure. Other useful objects, like pots and cups, can be fired at the same time.

In a community.

Joseph envisions the creation of a new form of community living as a way to preserve the earth and live a good life. The community would be designed to be largely self-sufficient. It would consist of a relatively small number of families. People would be engaged in craftsmanship - working with their hands on projects that benefit themselves and the community directly. For example, instead of working for decades at a job to buy a house, they would work for 6 months in a supportive environment building one for themselves. Sharing of scarce resources is a key element.
"We're not taught how to live in communities," he explains. "We're brained with capitalism. With capitalism, the more you have, the more you need; the more you need, the more you want. We're taught to take. Kids are taught, 'mine, mine, mine.' It's got to change.
"The planet cannot support the habits we've created here. We can change that and start learning how to give. In order for us to rebuild the planet, to put it back on course, we have to start changing our ways - develop new habits. Part of those habits must be learning how to save. Save water. Save wood.
"Instead of you have a video and I have a video, we have one video we share, so there's only one piece of plastic. We can have plastic. We can have electricity. The communities will have a video and computers - shared. We'll have community transportation. Everybody will have a chance to use an electric car - but not everyone needs to have one. We have to become more focused, instead of just wasting things."
Size is an important aspect to making this type of community, based on personal relationship, work - it breaks down if there are too many people. So, instead of growing without limit, another community would be started. The end result would be a network of small, interlocking communities instead of the monolithic cities we are used to.
Joseph acknowledges that changes this profound can't happen quickly; he's in it for the long haul. "We have to disarm this war machine we've created, this destructive machine. How do we do it?" he asks. "By not supporting it. How do we stop supporting it? By abandoning it. How do you abandon it? By building new alternatives. Slowly, people will abandon the inner cities. These homes, including the one we're sitting in, are compost for the new age."

A new beginning

Last month, Joseph moved to Northern California to begin developing a new community on a piece of donated land. At the end of a long road, his life's work is about to be put to the test. "It's going to take time," he admits. "There's no instant gratification. One brick at a time. We have to start somewhere. I like to reach out with my words, to one at a time. We have a network we didn't have before. The housing is giving, the lifestyle is more giving to the earth. The people will become more giving. New ideas for a new age."
Ultimately, what Joseph is offering is a way to share the profound and fundamental transformation he has experienced. "I want to send you to a new school," he declares. "I want to give you a vacation. I want to make you born again, make you a baby again. Remember when you woke up in the morning and you couldn't wait to get out of bed because you were so happy you wanted to play? Life is supposed to stay that way all the way through to the end. They kill it off unless you keep that baby spirit alive."
If you speak with Joseph, you know he has the spirit. His eyes shine and his enthusiasm is infectious. No spouter of new age mumbo-jumbo, he has few possessions but is solidly in the world. "I'm still the powerful businessman I was before," he attests. "I'm still that powerful, creative person - only I'm doing it in a different way. I'm still successful." While looking to the past and present, Joseph is moving to create a new future.

For more information or to obtain a video of Joseph's work, write to: Joseph, c/o Brother John, Three Springs, P.O. Box 710, North Fork, CA 93643-0710, or call 209-877-7113 (farm), 209-877-7889 or 800-382-5363 (office).