By Amy Knight

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


The contributions I make in my job, and in my day to day life, are almost always in the form of what I think, write, and say. I don’t accomplish things by physically moving stuff around, or by making changes to the concrete world around me.

I have never been particularly adept at spatial and physical tasks. I can’t draw. If you need someone to cut in a straight line for your craft project, I’m not the one you want. I can get my curtains hung up on the wall but I can’t promise the screws will be installed exactly the way they’re meant to be, and if I’m helping you put together your Ikea furniture, it’s best if you give me discrete tasks that are impossible to screw up. I’m much more comfortable with words and ideas. That’s what I’m good at.

So I was way out of my comfort zone when, this weekend, I went with the Watershed Management Group to help install rainwater harvesting earthworks and plants at someone’s home nearby here in Tucson. WMG operates a co-op program, where if you volunteer enough hours helping to build projects at other people’s homes, they will come and build at your home—all with volunteer labor. I signed up, and went, by myself, to join a group of about 20 strangers digging basins, doing rockwork, and planting native plants.

Aside from my social anxiety at being in a group of strangers and needing to talk to them, I was also suddenly being asked to use tools I’d never used (a tamper?) and aim for goals I understood in theory but couldn’t quite grasp in reality. The workshop leader, for instance, could see a slight slope to the ground that I couldn’t grasp no matter how long I stared at it. I spent a decent amount of time looking for something I could do that would actually be helpful, rather than my just being in the way and looking like a lazy person who would prefer to stand around and watch other people work.

Owning a house is a much more hands-on proposition than renting one, and owning a house with unique systems that’s very connected to its environment will no doubt be even more hands-on than dealing with other houses I’ve had. I will surely have lots to learn—some of it, about the yard and the landscaping, like what I started to learn over the weekend, and much of it about the building, the plumbing, the mechanical systems. You can’t just call the local repairman for the water filtration system. I’m going to have to get used to this discomfort of being unskilled and ignorant, and work slowly toward changing that rather than hiding in my embarrassment. Like most people, I enjoy doing what I’m good at, and I don’t like being told I’m doing things incorrectly. (Really? I was using the rake wrong?)    

I learned some specific practical skills, especially around using rocks to control erosion and direct flow, and around planting things. But the most important part of my weekend experience was getting my hands (and the rest of me) thoroughly dirty, despite my inclinations. I just have to be okay with being a beginner. Hopefully next time will be a little bit easier, and the time after that, easier still.



Amy KnightAmy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at [email protected] or leave a comment here. Visit her website, or follow her on twitter @amypknight.

Photo of spines courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Amy Knight by Richard Whitmer.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.