For the past couple of months we have been living with a tent pitched over our boat. It is what most people who live on boats in northern climates choose to do. When the weather starts turning cold, people erect frames, usually consisting of a ridge pole that runs the length of the boat, sloping fore and aft, supported by a few poles and a network of straps run out to the stanchions. Each boat requires a slightly different arrangement. Once the frame is ready, the shrink-wrap goes on, barn-raising style. The plastic is, trimmed, tucked under straps that run around the hull and welded to itself to make a single whole. Once the plastic is on securely, it is shrunk, creating a translucent dome over the entire boat. The welding and the shrinking are done using with a large propane-fired heat gun in one hand and a welding glove on the other. The effect is to cut heating bills more than in half, because during the day, even an overcast day, the greenhouse effect makes the temperature on deck quite comfortable, allowing people to turn off the heating, open hatches and air out the boat. Even on a frosty day it is usually warm enough to sit in the cockpit in shorts and a t-shirt. The dome also allows winter clothing, supplies and many other things to be stored on deck rather than in the cabin, freeing up scarce space down below. When the spring comes, the plastic is cut up and recycled, and the frame is dismantled.
Once the boat has been moved to its summer quarters, a different, much simpler task awaits: to put up the cockpit awning. This is a rather complicated piece of dark canvas, cut and stitched to fit the structure of the boat, that makes the cockpit bearable even on the hottest days. Its functions are to block the sunlight, to let in the breeze and to shed water when it rains. On sunny days it lowers the temperature in the cockpit by some 15-20 degrees by heating up in the sun and creating an updraft, which sucks in cooler air off the water. This is generally enough to stay comfortable without air conditioning. Our current cockpit cover has seen better days; it's been restitched a few times, and will need some patching before too long. At some point we will stitch together a new one, costing us somewhere around $150 in fabric and a day of labor.
These all strike me as supremely efficient adaptations: winters spent in a sheltered cove under a translucent dome; summers spent under an awning out in the harbor where the seabreeze is almost constant. What makes these adaptations possible is lack of a house. Technically, we might be considered homeless, although the idea strikes me as bizarre: our boat is very much our home. Rather, what we are is “houseless,” which, to me, seems like a blessing in disguise. You see, the median price of a single-family home in the US is around $200,000 while the median family income in the US is around $50,000. The basic rule of thumb is that spending on housing shouldn't exceed 30% of income, although half the renters in the US pay more. But taking 30% as a guide and doing the math will tell you that it takes the average US family 13 years to save up money to buy a house. Since they need a place to live in the meantime, they buy it on credit, and the interest can be easily double that, meaning that about a third of a family's productive years are squandered on securing a place to live!
Beyond the sheer inanity of this arrangement from an economic point of view there are numerous other problems. First of all, the house doesn't move. Now, for me it is always a thrill to move to a new place, even just a few miles, without having to pack or prepare in any way beyond taking off the sail covers, warming up the engine and undoing the dock lines. When people stay in one place for a long time, they go blind. Not literally blind—they can still see shapes and colors and recognize faces and avoid running into things, but that's about it—because looking at the same scene day after day makes it impossible to see it with a fresh eye, to observe how it changes over time, and to be able to see it for what it is. Just shifting back and forth between summer and winter quarters is enough to destroy this effect, making it possible to see how each place improves or deteriorates over time.
Secondly, houses are ill-suited for each and every purpose. They are cold in the winter, requiring lots of expensive heat. They are hot in the summer, requiring lots of expensive air conditioning. They are built along streets, exposing their residents to car exhaust. It is not possible to make the roof translucent in the winter and reflective in the summer, to knock down walls when the temperatures get hot or to throw up some extra insulation if the winter turns out to be colder than usual.
Lastly, houses are almost unique among civilization's artifacts in that they are conceived as being permanent. This means that houses stay up even after they outlive their stated purpose (such providing cheap housing for industrial workers) slowly degenerate into slums and ruins, and eventually cost a great deal of money to tear down. Architectural fashions change, but buildings do not. “Fashion is something so ugly we have to change it every six months,” Oscar Wilde once said. But one cannot burn an ugly building the way one can burn an ugly pair of shoes. With a few exceptions (hilltop towns in Tuscany spring to mind) houses destroy the landscape by crowding it with unfashionable ruins.
Doing away with the a fixed abode confers numerous advantages: you become free to move; you are prevented, by your circumstances, by accumulating consumerist crap; you get a chance to construct your own shelter to suit the situation; a third or more of your income is saved rather than squandered. These are all practical considerations, but there is more to being nomadic than being practical. Nomadism, you see, is not just a good adaptation for uncertain times. It is also godly and sublime.
Most people, when they hear the biblical phrase “the house of the Lord,” imagine a cathedral or a temple. Their fixed notion of a house is a large, permanent, immobile structure. What a surprise it is, then, to learn that the house of the Lord was, to begin with, most definitely a tent: Ancient Hebrew “beth” or Arabic “beyt” are both words that signify “tent.” The tension between the settled and the nomadic is present throughout the Bible. It is the tension between slavery and freedom, and the biblical account makes it clear that God, or Yahweh—originally a nomad god, the Bedouin god of flocks and herds—always sides with the nomads.
Let's look back at one of the world's great founding myths, the story of Abraham, who gave his name to the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, whose adherents account for more than half of the population of the Earth. In the story, Abraham and Lot, his nephew, leave the city and, with their herds, travel to Canaan and live there as nomads at the edge of the desert. But they quarrel, and Lot departs for Sodom and Gomorrah. Yahweh punishes him for his choice, destroying the cities, and turning his wife into a pillar of salt just for looking at the destruction, while Abraham stays pure and on the move, and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, live on to create the two great nomad tribes, the Arabs and the Jews.
Although nomadism is the ideal, the tension between the nomadic and the settled is ever-present. Droughts, famines, and political oppression often force nomads to take refuge among the settled. If they stay long enough, they may lose their nomad ways and become stranded. Even Abraham was driven by famine to leave Canaan and take refuge in Egypt for a time, but was quick to escape as soon as conditions improved. Later, another famine forced his descendants back into Egypt and a life of servitude, but here their sojourn lasted long enough for them to lose their nomadic skills, condemning them to slavery. But they managed to produce a visionary—Moses—who married a Bedouin woman. This woman turned out to be the key cultural transplant that allowed the Jews to escape into the wilderness and regain their freedom.
Nomadism is culturally and technologically advanced, involving such elements as portable shelter, a relationship with animals that borders on symbiosis, ability to self-organize in groups large and small, to survive in a harsh and nearly barren terrain and to control and defend a large and ever-changing territory. In all nomadic cultures more than half of this cultural and technological DNA is the explicit domain of women, for it is the women who create and maintain the tent. Men practice animal husbandry, make tools, hunt, fish, fight, make tent poles, but it is the women who spin, weave and stitch. The tent is typically part of the dowry and remains the possession of the woman, hers to keep in case of divorce.
Walk into the tent of any nomad, and you will find the same separation of concerns reflected in the interior layout. To the left of the entrance is the women's side. Here, stacked along the walls you will find everything needed for preparing food, for working with leather and fabric, and for taking care of children. To the right is the men's side. Here, stacked along the walls you will find tools, weapons, saddles and harnesses. In the middle is the hearth; to the back of the hearth is the sacred place, with an altar. Before the altar is the seat of honor. In case of the Arabs, the separation is enforced using a curtain, called the qata, while in the tipi of a North American Indian the separation is implicit, but it is always there—a nomadic cultural universal. This is an evolved trait that makes perfect sense: the life of the nomad is so complex and requires such competence that a separation of concerns between men and women is essential to survival. A lone male can lead a nomadic existence, but for nomadism to exist as a civilization requires a woman-nomad, with woman-nomad knowhow.
Women tend to be more conservative than men (politics aside) in that they tend to pass on their skills to their daughters more or less unchanged. Thus we find, in nomadic architecture, incredible stability of forms. The black tend described in the Bible, under which the Israelites camped in the Canaan, are to be found along a desert belt stretching from Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way to Tibet (where they use belly hair of the yak for the fabric). It is a rectangular piece of goat-hair fabric, stitched together out of wide woven strips and erected using a few poles and stretched using long lines secured to pegs. It keeps the interior cool by blocking sunlight and creating an updraft and pulling air up through its loose weave, but when it rains the goat hair fibers swell up and create a waterproof surface that sheds water.
North of the black tent belt lies the yurt belt. Yurts use a freestanding frame that consists of a barrel-shaped latticework at the base, a tension band at the top of the latticework, a crown, sometimes supported by center poles, and poles which are mortised into the crown and hooked onto the tops of the latticework. Over this frame is pulled a covering of felt, its thickness in proportion to the coldness of the climate. A fair percentage of the population of Mongolia lives in yurts to this day, and yurt-dwelling Mongols once made it as far west as the gates of Vienna. Buckminster Fullers dymaxion house was essentially a yurt—fabricated out of aluminum, which is an unfortunate choice of material, since aluminum doesn't grow on trees or on sheep.
North of the yurt zone and throughout the circumpolar region we find two basic shapes: the cone tent and the dome tent, covered either with skins and hides or with steamed birch bark. Inside, we often find the same layout: hearth in the middle, women to the left, men to the right, altar in the back. The Koryak-Chukchi yaranga is particularly notable. These tribes, which inhabit the very farthest north of Siberia, use a tent within a tent, called polog, to keep warm in spite of temperatures that are often colder than -40 below. The inevitable condensation is dealt with by taking the polog out during the day, allowing the condensation to freeze solid and beating it out with a stick.
Nomadism is an innovation, requiring a great deal of advanced technology and knowhow. It is relatively recent, and in many places its advent coincided with the domestication of various animals. It is the symbiosis with these animals that gave the nomads their speed, range, and ability to sustain themselves in places where a stationary population would quickly perish of hunger and thirst. The desert, black tent nomads rely on the camel and, in the case of Tibet, the yak; the yurt nomads of the plains rely on the horse; the circumpolar tribes rely on the reindeer in Eurasia and its undomesticated cousin the caribou in North America. Prior to the advent of nomadism most of the places where nomads could survive remained uninhabited.
Of course, there are places in the world where not even a nomadic tribe can survive, but, when they see circumstances change, at least they have the option of moving. A settled population relies on a stable climate to be able to bring in crops from the same patch of land season after season. Over the past 11,000 years this was possible in many more places on Earth because during this period of time the climate was particularly stable and benign, but it appears that this period is now over, and the Earth has entered a period of climate upheaval, in which the regular patterns of nature on which agriculture relies can no longer be taken for granted.
Although the cultural preference in many parts of the world has been to disrespect the nomad, it is likely to turn out, for more and more people, that their choice lies between turning nomadic (if they can) or perishing in place. And it bears repeating that being nomadic requires a much higher-level of set skills than just staying in one place—one that can't be learned in a single generation, and perhaps not even in a single lifetime.