Holly Dressel is one of our regular contributors. She is a well-known author, filmmaker, speaker, and researcher (see more on the about us page). The book reviewed, The Mudgirls Manifesto ($29.99), is available for preorder from New Society Publishers. The Mudgirls Collective can be found at their website, https://mudgirls.wordpress.com/. If you can get up to the Pacific Northwest, check out one of their workshops! All images on this page come from their website, unless otherwise cited.
Creating “a world we want to live in”; seldom have these words had as much importance as they do today, as we are daily buffeted by how the powerful are destabilizing our planet in every way imaginable, socially, economically, and especially environmentally. We stand by, feeling helpless, and that world we’d rather be in—compassionate, helpful, gender-equal, devoted to the future of children, natural system-friendly, valuing all these life-affirming principles far more than money—seems to be daily slipping out of our grasp, even out of our sight.
So it becomes not just personally comforting but socially vital to find ways of changing the current mainstream trajectory of everything around us, from the loss of meaningful work and community to the apparent universal triumph of a brutal economic system set up to literally value life-threatening garbage (think oil and plastics) more than it does planetary survival. I am extraordinarily pleased to announce, just when we need it most, that The Mudgirls Manifesto has arrived. This is the best how-to book (in every sense of the word) I’ve found in decades, and it literally does all of the above, as well as much more, so convincingly, not in terms of theoretical changes in social or economic structures (fat chance, as that would all require the cooperation of the entire world’s elite), but from a place of total pragmatism and practicality: the building of shelters, the organization of work life, as well as—not the “leadership” exactly—but definitely the full and overt organization by, and participation of, women. All this is laid out in order to help the reader achieve what most women (and good men) value the most: a hopeful, safe, and beautiful life for their children’s future.
This women’s building cooperative operating on the coastal islands off British Columbia, Canada, offers, first and foremost, every tool you need to build your own home, your own barn, your own shelter from what already exists around you, most of it for free: mudbrick, straw bale, corn cobs, stone. Due to having to dig into mud as their primary building material and also to being all-female, the group called themselves the Mudgirls Collective. They learned on the job, and the book very usefully showcases failures as well as successes. But what is most interesting is the way it lists not just good recipes for starch paste, lime plaster, and potato salad (for those seriously important lunch breaks). It provides recipes for how people can work together, nonhierarchically and while having a lot of fun, towards a shared goal.
That isn’t easy, and any survivor of collective work, whether in social activism or barn-raising, knows that the whole process is as important as the end result, especially in terms of whether you can ever bear to do it again. The book is organized into Guiding Principles, the social/earth goals that underlie all the mud and sweat and head up each chapter. But unlike most manifestos, this one does not sugar-coat the real problems that will besiege any group of humans living and working together. It provides the best advice I frankly have ever seen on how to deal with the inevitable hurt feelings, power struggles, and burnout that any worthwhile effort has to expect as part of the whole cooperative/creation gig.
There are intrinsic reasons why this is first and foremost a woman’s book: too often women, who are even today the most invested in the life of the home, have been left out of the act of physically creating it. That wasn’t true in the far distant past, say among most indigenous peoples; women literally sewed the teepees and constructed the brush and bark shelters. Mudgirls shows that when women do building, there is a remarkable shift, not just in the finished product, but in the entire work process. One reason this book is so useful is I believe even if you don’t need to build anything just now, these insights can be extrapolated to almost any other kind of group project (so long as it’s not supporting the patriarchy).
This book, like the women who wrote it, multitasks amazingly, weaving personal stories into the how-tos and frequent setbacks but on another level, everyone involved is quite aware of how what they’re doing interfaces with everything from capitalism and social hierarchy to the inescapable and incredibly necessary needs of all the ecosystems that support life on our planet. Lest men feel left out of this new way of working, I refer them to a section of Chapter 2, pp. 49–52: “We Love Dudes: And Dudes Love Us.”
This book was written collectively, and although I’m sure some of the eleven members pictured worked harder on the writing than others, the many case studies and slightly different voices demonstrate that fact to be true, despite a style that is remarkably harmonized and integrated. That’s the last point. This book is a joy to read, the pages just fly by; it is lavishly decorated with funny and charming as well as useful illustrations; the sense of humour is delightful; its practical uses are myriad; and the sense of hope—is simply beyond price. Anyone interested in Low Tech Institute principles simply has to read this book.