Tess Hamilton grew up on a cooperative in rural New Hampshire. Her parents and two other couples converted an old post-and-beam farm, set on 40 acres of forests and fields in Deering, into a home for six adults and three children.
Although not biologically related, the other kids in the cooperative were like Hamilton’s siblings. Hamilton could also turn to any one of the cooperative’s adults for different bits of knowledge — about birds, or herbs, or how to cook meals from fresh ingredients (her father, in this case), and how to use tools to build stuff (her mother).
“My room was originally the chicken coop,” Hamitlon recalled, adding that she can’t remember when there wasn’t scaffolding around. “I knew that I wanted to keep up and help out so I learned to quickly adapt and use my hands either in the garden or on the house,” she said.
The cooperative broke up when Hamilton was eight. But it left her with a lasting curiosity about intentional communities, as well as with a predisposition to picking up carpentry skills.
These skills and curiosity will guide her next year as she roams the world. Hamilton has won a fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, which gives new college graduates a $30,000 stipend to travel for 12 months to pursue an independent study. The grant stipulates that recipients don’t return to the United States for a year.
Hamilton plans to explore the ways people create homes in different environments. “I’ll be looking at how people around the world make home in harmony with the surrounding landscape and community,” she explained.
She will start her year by visiting Iceland, Scotland and Portugal, where she will work with communities where “people have bonded together around shared ideas of what they want a community to be,” she said. “People are coming to these places because they want to live differently.”
She’ll then move on to Mongolia and Tanzania, where she’ll study ancient homebuilding traditions, ones that have persisted despite being threatened by an encroaching modern world.
Tess Hamilton ’16 has been apprenticing with local boatbuilder Dick Pulsifer ’62 for the year, helping him build a 20-foot Pulsifer Hampton. Her carpentry skills will come in handy next year as she travels the world with a Watson Fellowship, studying how homes are imagined and constructed in different environments.
Her first stop will be Sólheimar Ecovillage in Iceland, a community of about 100 who use driftwood for walls, sod for roofs, sheep wool for insulation, and geothermal energy. The community welcomes those others might shun, including mentally and physically disabled people, former prisoners and long-term patients. Sólheimer was founded in 1930, making it a respectable age for an intentional community. Hamilton said she wants to know how the community has endured when so many others like it have broken apart. “Have they adapted to change?” she wondered, “or stuck to strong principles that have kept them viable?”
In Scotland, Hamilton will stay at Findhorn, a community that builds “ecological architecture” from materials such as local stone and straw bales, interweaving the structures with gardens. It emphasizes a sustainable model by creating low-impact, super-insulated, timber-frame buildings, using renewable, locally generated electricity, and treating sewage with an ecological wastewater system.
In Portugal, she’ll stay at Tamera, an intentional community devoted to giving more people access to green housing, renewable energy, and clean water by making these systems affordable. “Tamera is located in an arid and sunny landscape, similar to many locations around the world that experience extreme poverty,” Hamilton said. The community uses straw bales, clay, grass and other inexpensive building materials, and builds solar installations and water purification systems. “It is important to me that the model of home is not dependent on wealth,” she added.
When Hamilton moves on to Mongolia, she’ll change her focus a bit. While many nomadic people in Mongolia are transitioning to a sedentary, urban lifestyle, Hamilton will seek out a young couple, recently married, who plan to live a more traditional lifestyle. Families of new couples build the young people their own ger, a specific type of yurt made of felt and wood. Hamilton would like to observe this process and discover the differences in lifestyles it fashions. She says her perception of home, however unique after growing up in a cooperative, is influenced by American constructs of a permanent structure with walls, roofs and separate rooms. “What does it mean to share one single room, and to have a house you can pack up and take with you?” she questioned.
Hamilton’s last stop, in Tanzania, will take her to Ng’iresi village, where she wants to see how the local Wa-arusha people rebuild their reed structures, or bombas. After the rainy season is over, the community shares the duty of re-thatching roofs and re-plastering walls. “I look forward to participating in this re-building process and observing how this communal effort and lack of emphasis on personal possessions manifests itself in the livelihood of this community,” she said.
Hamilton will document her travels by journaling, sketching, painting and photographing. At each site, she plans on learning how to make different crafts and how to build with new materials. She dreams of constructing her own home one day, one that is connected to nature yet set within a vibrant community. “This trip will broaden my pallet,” she noted.
After she finishes her travels, Hamilton says her plans are wide open. A visual arts and earth and oceanographic science major, she has wide-ranging interests. “I am interested in a lot of of possible careers, whether it’s teaching, painting, building tiny homes, carpentry, or being a chiropractor,” she said. She’s also interested in studying architecture and environmental anthropology. She said she is less concerned with a particular career, emphasizing, “What’s most important to me is how I live.”