Christopher on the job
Christopher Chemsak has been working with us this semester as part of his degree work in Environmental Studies at UNC Asheville. He’s worked two days a week on the construction site of the Nauhaus prototype, done research, and played lead guitar in our thrash metal band “Sustainable Suicide”…..okay, that last part isn’t true; he’s a folkie all the way. Here’s something he wrote about his experiences with us for a class assignment. If you want to know what he really thinks, you may have to interview him “off the record”.
(By the way, anyone looking for a serious (sorry, unpaid) internship on our Nauhaus prototype project, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Though working on the Nauhaus prototype project this semester did not provide me with very many opportunities to flex my tree identification muscles or exercise my policy memo writing abilities, the impact of my education in Environmental Studies became apparent to me as I realized what I had to chosen to represent by working with the Nauhaus Institute.
Since freshman year, nearly every class I have taken in the Environmental Studies department (both at UNCA and at my study-away school, Southern Oregon University) have touched on, if not focused on, the relationship between humans and the environment, and generally, in regards to the human-induced aspects of climate change. Naturally, this has increased my awareness of human attempts to reduce/reverse our negative impacts, which, in turn, has inspired me to learn as much as I can about what I can do and what other people are doing to change the way we relate to our surrounding ecosystems.
In retrospect, it is undeniable that the lectures, readings, and conversations with professors and classmates in the Environmental Studies department were often the primary stimulators of the many shifts in my ecological perspective over the past few years. And because of that, I would say that I have a more-than-fundamental understanding of how “well” our country as a whole is doing in terms of reducing our negative impact (a.k.a. carbon footprint). While, overall, the United States is doing much less than we can/should be, there are a lot of good starts on both the national and the individual citizen levels. However, I have heard of nothing that can really compare to the directness of the Nauhaus Institute’s endeavors.
The Nauhaus prototype is the epitome of manifesting the paradigm shift that is necessary for a carbon neutral future. I am amazed to be a part of this project, and really quite grateful for all the direct and indirect motivations provided by my studies in ecology and environmental sciences, but in this case I find it difficult to reference specific courses or professors for many of the connections that I was able to make during my internship. I have come to appreciate the process of learning more as a sequence of personal growth-stimulating experiences and less as a cataloging of specific facts and data. I am able to say, however, that my understanding of physical ecological interactions was much more simplified when I was freshman compared to now. So, obviously, that increase of knowledge has greatly increased my awareness regarding the way I perceive my daily ecological interactions, which is part of the reason why I was so interested in working at the Nauhaus.
To be honest, I was (and still am) overwhelmed with all the technical engineering details of the prototype house, and I often find it difficult to even know where to begin when explaining the systems of the house. For me, the important thing was realizing the significance of both the way we build and the way we perceive our home-space—our habitat. This realization led to much research, contemplations, and revelations. The Nauhaus Institute promotes the idea that, like the field of ecology, building practices should be based in systems thinking—seeing the big picture. Having such a background in ecology allowed me to see the Nauhaus prototype as a house that was built on the premise of creating a sustainable future.
In regards to any feelings of being ill-equipped for my internship, I will say that it would have been nice to have had some training in green building or general construction prior to my work with the Nauhaus, but that is not something that I feel should have been taught to me at UNCA. I would be lying if I said that I did not know of any college where a student majoring in Environmental Studies has the opportunity to learn about green/natural building techniques, but I chose UNCA over Warren Wilson College knowingly; so, it would be unfair of me to blame the department here at UNCA for my personal incompetency in carpentry. In fact, I would rather express gratitude to the Environmental Studies department for accepting my internship with The Nauhaus Institute as relevant to my degree.
Not only did this experience help me to understand the potential we have to make the paradigm shift happen now, but it also enabled me to focus my interests and create an individualized concentration in Human Ecology. Working on a project that is promoting a new way of viewing the way that we interact with our ecological surroundings at the individual household level has helped me find a lot of the missing pieces to the puzzle that has been in my head for the past couple years. With my new concentration, I intend to reroute the objectivism and subjugation of nature that I find to often be implicit in the field of ecology and bridge the gap between it and a more contemplative view of existence, resulting in a perspective similar to the one represented by the Nauhaus Institute.
The idea of bridging the gap between disciplines stems from the impression UNCA’s mission statement had on my experience as a freshman. That year—particularly Spring semester 2008—I took classes like Humanities 124 and an Honors Readings course on Henry David Thoreau that enabled me to see the world in the light of Taoism and transcendentalism simultaneously, which naturally enabled me to see the connectedness of all existence. Those two classes were just the beginning of my spree of connections as I went on to take classes in Oregon on Native American traditions, Chinese Medicine, Plant Ecology, and Forest Ecology, just to name a few that also all seemed to equally and simultaneously play a role in my “coming of age”. These classes undoubtedly affected my choice to work with the Nauhaus, which was only a furthering of the idea that all is one—that everything is related and interacts with each other. The systems thinking approach to building espoused by the Nauhaus is clear in its relationship to Taoism and the fundamental definition of ecology. Through this internship, liberal arts thinking styles enabled me to comprehend why it was important to, among other things, have an understanding of ecology and an awareness of our spiritual connection to the Earth in order to build a sustainable house.
The true value of a liberal arts education became real to me one day this past semester when I was thinking about the idea behind an unpaid internship. I remember realizing suddenly that an internship is meant to be a chance to obtain the kind of field experience that is not available in a classroom for the sake of future employment. It seems obvious, but I really had not previously considered the fact that I might be more likely to get a job in a certain field if I can say that I have some experience to go along with my degree and my good manners. Having been educated in the liberal arts, I feel that I might find myself working in a wider range of disciplines than a typical non-liberal-arts graduate because of the way I have learned to make connections and constantly open my mind to new ways of thinking.
I do not believe that I will follow any specific career path in architecture or construction, but I can already see that the skills that I learned at the Nauhaus will be helpful to my future as a homesteader. I enjoy working with my hands and someday, I hope to own a farm and help build my house. After working on the Nauhaus, I no longer aspire to build my house alone, but now, at least, I will have had experience performing some tasks and a lot of insight on what to consider for a sustainable design that promotes good health for the residents.
As I have mentioned in other writings, this experience has been humbling for me in that I have learned that working on someone else’s project is a lot different than working on something that was the brainchild of primarily my own ideas. I think it’s all a part of a learning process—and learning was in fact my number one goal for this experience—but I realized that when it comes to hands-on projects, I have a totally different work ethic when I am working for someone than when I am working for myself or as a part of a very small collaboration. Some may say that this is something that I just need to get over or I’ll never get anywhere in life, but I feel that having this awareness will be helpful in choosing work in my future.
This opportunity to be a student outside doing physical labor instead of being inside in a classroom or in front of a computer has confirmed my goals to stay outside as much as possible as I continue on my educational/career path. It also has helped me to establish a new desire to work doing something that involves a perpetual learning process. I would like to eventually have some mastery of something, but I would not mind having to always remain open to new ways of doing that something, whatever it may be.
Because I found my internship to be a generally fruitful experience, I would definitely like to tell future UNCA interns to try to get the coolest internship they can get, regardless of pay. My situation was ideal because as a part-time student, I really did not have much else to worry about. An internship is such a separate learning experience than typical classes, and I wish every student could have the kind of time to devote to their internship to the point where it becomes a temporary job.