Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a news release from some public relations firm touting their client’s latest ersatz Tuscan villas, or some decadent new cook stove for people with too much money. Nowadays these promotions arrive by the Internet instead of by mail, which no doubt saves those PR folks lots of money. Still, after a quick reading, most of them go straight into the digital garbage can.
The other day, however, I got a news release — actually, it still carried the old-fashioned heading “press release” — via the equally old-fashioned medium of a bulging manila envelope sent by mail. Inside I found the latest offering from Lloyd Kahn’s inimitable Bolinas, Calif.-based publishing house, Shelter Publications.
The new book was titled “Mongolian Cloud Houses: How to Make a Yurt and Live Comfortably.” It’s a revised and updated reprint of Dan Frank Kuehn’s 1980 how-to manual on building these nomadic circular houses out of bamboo, canvas and rubber bands cut from old inner tubes.
Kahn may be the only publisher in America who can pull off a title like that without veering into irony. His 1973 book, “Shelter,” has sold some 250,000 copies to date, and for the past 30-odd years, while the housing world has gone hurtling down the path of conspicuous consumption, heading for God-knows-what, Kahn has stuck fast to his convictions. In 2004, he released a sequel to “Shelter” called “Home Work.” It contains dozens of iconoclastic homes built of mud, straw, brick, boulders, branches and other natural materials, not one of them less than interesting, and some of them lyrically lovely.
So when Kahn’s press release informed me that “Mongolian Cloud Houses” (a title suggested by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti) is “by far the most comprehensive and current book available now on the subject of yurts,” my natural tendency to guffaw quickly faded, and I found myself once again admiring Kahn’s utterly unswerving dedication to the cause of earth-friendly domiciles.
There are no doubt hundreds of housing developers, ace purveyors of beaux-arts detail rendered in Styrofoam, who’d have a jolly good laugh on Kahn for even proffering such a handbook, assuming they were interested enough to be aware of it. But then, you know what they say about getting the last laugh.
There is, after all, that nagging possibility that someday the market for 4,000-square-foot tract homes aimed at two-person families may cool off a bit. I’m not suggesting that many Americans will be living in yurts, now or ever. Even Mongolia’s nomadic herders, who’ve been building the originals for millennia, probably aren’t cranking them out like they used to.
But neither is there much doubt in my mind that America’s runaway obsession with huge and ostentatious houses will eventually run its course, as all housing fashions do. Granted, when the backlash comes, it’s probably not going to put us into round houses built of Johnson grass and canvas. But just knowing that these, too, can do the job might give us a bit of perspective.