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DIY Dirtbags: Earthbag Building and the Punk Rock Ethos

“You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee.”

Mary Jane’s dad basically told me that we were committing suicide. He said, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” In late 2008 we had purchased three acres of steep land in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. We had told our friends and family that our plan was to move there and to build our own earthbag house. After Mary’s Dad’s dire prediction, I replied, “But there’s a grocery store less than five miles away and we have a car–we aren’t going to die.” Turns out I was right. 

Today I was working on our larger, earthship-inspired earthbag house and it dawned on me where a lot of my self-reliance came from. Recently I watched Three Days, a documentary about Jane’s Addiction from the early 2000s. This stoked my curiosity about them so I started reading the book, Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Janes Addiction. In the late ‘ 80s and early ‘ 90s, I was a YOOJ fan. I was also swept up in the spirit of the times. I remember you could go out and see incredible genre-bending bands on almost any night of the week. Punk spirit and attitude had swept through the youth of the United States and it felt like we were getting away from the sugar-coated, soul-numbing stagnation of the 80’s. I also had bands through all of this period, Bedlam, Double Unthink, and Psychic Sludge. By the time I was in Double Unthink with my close friends Tai and Liaum, Jane’s Addiction was an immense influence on us and our music.

I finished up 8th grade as “the student of the year.” They paraded me up on stage and gave me a medal in front of everyone. Apparently, I was going places. Fast forward a couple of years into high school and I had started playing music and partying a lot. I won’t say that I fully dropped out–I graduated high school when I was supposed to, but I wasn’t really interested in it at all. Music became my muse. Bass guitar was my thing. My dad is the one who convinced me to pick it up. He said, “You’ll always have a place in a band,” and he was right. 

My heroes at the time included metal bands like Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Iron Maiden and, a little later, punk bands like Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, The Dead Kennedys, and Suicidal Tendencies. That whole scene was a movement by young people, for young people. Labels like SST and Alternative Tentacles were truly independent and being DIY was the way they (and we) got things done. We didn’t wait for an invitation to begin playing music: we taught ourselves. At first, we recorded our own albums on cassette 4-track recorders then, when the technology improved, we released our own CDs. I did the cover art, designed the logos, burned the CDs, got T-shirts printed, photocopied the cover art, and put them in plastic sleeves. It was a blast and I loved every damn second of it. The goal was never to make money or get rich. My friends and I couldn’t have been less interested in that. We were just swept up in the passion of making and sharing music. Over the past 15 months I’ve been working on a tabletop RPG, Multidimensional Dungeons. My approach to this project has also been completely DIY. I’ve done everything including the art, rules, and design, all by my lonesome. Once again, it’s a labor of love and even if it never makes a cent, I’ve had a great time creating it. Below is a link to my latest album. It isn’t hard to detect the punk influences.

I had bands through the late 2000s. El RobotNim SumLesbian SeagullSleeve of Wizzard, to name some of them. El Robot got pretty big in Gainesville, FL. Our first gig was a crazy warehouse show with a bunch of other bands and we made lots of friends and fans. Nim Sum was a math-rock band and we had a small but dedicated fanbase of endearing geeks. Good times!

My first exposure to alternative building was coming across Earthship 1 at the public library in Gainesville. I was floored and blown away. The idea that you could turn trash into a beautiful, self-sustaining palace through the application of elbow grease greatly appealed to me. It was exciting. It was daring. It was PUNK!

In 2006, I met Mary Jane. She was (is) an ultra-cool hippy chick and we both knew we wanting to do something different. In 2007, we went to California and worked in one of the parks at Big Sur. Cute side story–one day while working the entrance of the park, MJ saw Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers come through. She said that Flea just kind of twinkled and winked knowingly. Those guys were also big musical heroes of mine.

While living in Big Sur, I began researching types of natural and alternative building. Eventually this led me to earthbag building. My intention was for us to eventually build something. Mary was all in. We were checking out the West Coast, to see if we wanted to take up permanent residence out there, but my Mom, Peggy (RIP), got really sick with “Parkinsonism” and we had to cut our trip short. 

In 2008 we built our first structure, a yurt, on MJ’s Mom’s property. A big rain came while we were briefly away and caved the roof tarp in. Before we built the yurt again, on our own piece of mountain land, I had to modify the design a bit. I used a laminate bowl as the cap of the central post and reinforced it with bamboo poles. DIY strikes again!

Our transition to the off-grid homesteading life wasn’t painless. After three dry, beautiful, days of building the yurt, monsoonal rains set upon us. Our mountain turned into a slip and slide. As we drove down the driveway to find respite at her Mom’s place, we started sliding on the soaked, treacherous earth. We came dangerously close to the drop off at the edge of the mountain a few times. By the time we reached the bottom and a paved road, we were stunned into silence. 

I knew her ford focus wasn’t up to getting back up that mountain with all of our stuff so I spent my life savings, ($1500, at that time) on an old, used 4WD Ford truck that overheated and “popped” on it’s first time up the driveway. Oh the catastrophe! 

We lived basic AF in those early years. We collected rainwater off a shed roof and would watch movies at night with an inverter attached to the car battery. Needless to say, that battery died a lot.

What a learning curve there was to that new life of ours! I think MJ is still kind of traumatized by the whole affair but we survived, dammit! We decided what we wanted and we weren’t going to let anyone tell us that we couldn’t do it. Just like Sinatra, we did it our way, consequences and nay-sayers be damned. Only now do I realize how influenced this whole move was by the DIY punk rock ethos I was infused with as a kid. I’m thankful to have the spirit of punk rock in my soul, it’s made for an unconventional and exciting life.

I dedicate this post to everyone who has a passion and is too brave, crazy, and/or stupid to be dissuaded from it. Keep on living the dream! Morgan.

Mary Jane and Morgan Circa 2009.
Mary Jane and I in Late 2009, in Our Freshly Built Empire of Dirt.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Melissa Sue

    Love hearing yall’s story! 🙂 very inspiring. Very punk rock!

  2. Suzanne

    Very inspiring! New to your blog, I’m so glad I found you! My fiance and I are desperate to find like climate builds for information and results to building earthbag. I’m desperate for my own house but I’ve always been a “screw authority” person. Let’s just say I’m not paying for stick and frame in this economy and I want to live dirty, as I’m a Potter anyways, it is the way I live. Your blog is now going to be combed over by us and can’t wait to read more!

    1. Hola Suzanne! Cool! Those same ideas are a lot of what inspired us in the beginning. The “cheap” housing option used to be mobile homes – expensive boxes full of hazardous materials that are toxic to the inhabitants. That’s why I think building with earth is such a great idea. It makes better, stronger houses at a fraction of the cost. Good luck on your journey! Morgan.

  3. Ioanna

    I just clicked the link out of curiosity and found your blog. Your story is awesomely inspiring and your creations overwhelmingly so. I love your work. Like Rumi said, ” It’s love made visible.” Your example is a light on a road less travelled for all punks and non-punks. Keep up the love and we’ll keep on following…the light…

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