My box house

Fixing the Hole Where the Rain Gets In, Part II

One of the most unique aspects of the culture of Shum, one that expresses and incorporates its values in concrete form is its approach to shelter. While the importance of the owner-built home has received much press over the years, the tenacity, motivation and creativity of the original back-to-the-landers in managing to survive the cold, rainy winters with whatever was at hand has not received, in my view, its proper recognition.

Owner built homeThe house pictured here, in fact, was not built by back-to-the-landers and is now part of a public park, but it nevertheless illustrates what many owner-builders have aimed for. It would be considered quite a mansion by many a Shummian who managed to stay in Shum only by living in a refurbished chicken coop, tool shed or barn or tent attached to rotting 10-foot trailer.

Shown below is a former temporary logging office built with sheets of plywood onto the bed of a flatbed truck. After what was probably a long period of such use, it landed in the junkyard of Burrill Keating, along with several such structures. They were then purchased by Shummians with land but no home, hauled into various remote locations and used as toolsheds or hopefully temporary residences. This particular one, located on a former logging flat, was my second home in Shum, the first a rental on Briceland Road. Between its use as a logging office and my residence, it served as a storage shed.

I lived in it with my toddler for about three years in this location and a second one to which I moved it with the aid of a winch and a flat bed truck and, their owner. A screen porch about the same size as this structure, which I called The Box, was added at the second location. In order to convert it from a storage shed into something I could live in, I hauled out all the rotting material stored in it, got someone with a chain saw to hack out a third of the back wall for a window, covered the window with transparent plastic and covered the roof with two layers of black plastic sheeting held down with bricks.

My box houseIt is shown here as it was before I nailed a rug over the doorhole. I later built a very flimsy door and hung it with real hinges. My cooking facilities were located outside, a three-burner propane hot plate sitting on a large tightly closed wooden crate in which I stored food. I also could cook on my “tin wonder” wood heating stove inside.
It measured 12 feet by 7 feet and was just under 6 feet tall. There was just room for the woodstove, my antique rocking chair and the baby’s crib. Additional items were stored in an old tent outside during the winter, until that tent was ripped by a friend trying to flick ice off of it. Most of my belongings were in storage at that time.

Inside the BoxMy clothes and the baby’s clothes lived in my car. The batik fabric and hanging candle attest to my aspirations to interior decoration. Since the baby was with her father half the time, I rigged a half-door with hinges and chains to fold out from the wall to use as a desk and table when she was not there.

Bathing was accomplished either at the homes of land partners, of which I had two living in owner-built homes of dubious quality but with bathtubs, or by means of water heated in a canner on the woodstove. I did have cold water running to The Box from the water lines going to the land partner’s houses, coming ultimately, by gravity flow from a reliable uphill spring.

The first winter, one of the worst El Nino years in the area in history, was no picnic, but the alternative for me was an ignominious return to urban poverty in Berkeley. I stuck it out on the mere hope that I would someday have a more substantial home, and I did. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I will confess that, after receiving a very depressed letter from me in the middle of that extra-rainy winter, a good friend from Berkeley got in her car and drove 200 miles to get me and the baby and I did stay in Berkeley for about two weeks.

One of the ongoing banes of the existence of Shummians struggling with housing is the Humboldt County Building Department, which would occasionally just drive down a dirt road red-tagging everything they saw that looked like someone was living in it. The red tag was a notice to tear it down, since it did not have a building permit. In my entire tenure in Shum, however, I never knew anyone who actually had to tear down their home because of this. The tags would go up, people would either go into the Garberville office and talk to the staffers or do nothing about it and then nothing would happen.

The Box, in its second location fell victim to this procedure and the person whose land it was moved to told me the following story. Her house having been red-tagged along with every house on Perry Meadow Road, including The Box, she went into town to assess the situation. As she stood waiting at the counter to be served, one of the inspectors came out of his office with a photo, dropped it on another inspector’s desk in the front office, exclaiming, “Oh boy, you’re never going to believe this one.” My friend leaned over the counter to see the photo and, lo, it was The Box. All present, including her, had a good laugh and then she got another good laugh with me when she told me the story. Shummians would never have made it without a sense of humor.

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