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From Conspiracies to Colloquiums

By Matt Anderson and The Last StrawApril 9, 2023October 30th, 2023No Comments
a conversation with Matt Anderson about his Springs and Summers
Matt Anderson is the filmmaker behind Earth Lodge Studios, a production house that has released some fantastic films on building, farming, and living closer to the earth. All the studios films are free online, and highly worth the watch. The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Matt Anderson: Hey I’m going out into the orchard. I’m just letting my wife and child have a little quiet morning. I’m building a play structure for my daughter and we slept in the tent last night. 
The Last Straw: Oh that looks so beautiful. 
MA: Is the wifi working? It might be a little testy.
TLS: Yeah.
MA: Okay I should be in range now. Well, what did you wanna talk about?
TLS: I guess let’s start at the beginning. What sparked your interest in these topics like natural building and biointensive agriculture?
MA: Well, it began probably in 2011, or 2012. I was making this documentary, Fall And Winter, and the process was basically to go around and try to figure out what kind of crisis we were facing and why and where the crisis began. That was really my interest, to look at the scope of it, and I didn’t know where that would lead. The story got bigger and bigger and older and older. As we were getting further along in the process, I was really starting to understand where and what industrial civilization has cost us. Where we’ve gone wrong, you know, spiritually and environmentally. I then started getting into Fukuoka, organic farming, and small scale farming. And in conjunction with that, I kind of started bumping into this idea of natural building.
TLS: Ianto Evans plays a big role in your first film Fall And Winter, how did that relationship start? 
MA: A friend gave me his phone number. I called and he was very polite and very nice. He did his beautiful Ianto thing of really vetting me. He was like, ‘well, I get up at 5 AM. So if you want to talk tomorrow, I’ll have some time then, so call me at five and we’ll go from there.’ I was like, “okay.” So I got up, and called him at five in the morning. And he kind of put me through my paces, like, “what’s your story? What are you about, what do you do?” You know? So I told him my background. 
One thing that helped him realize where I was coming from was that, when I was seven years old, my mom and my stepdad and I moved to an island in Canada that was off grid. We drank rain water and had solar panels. It wasn’t a homestead life ‘cause we still were pretty dependent on the city, but we lived in wild nature and we were pretty, you know, off grid let’s say.
That’s where it began, I literally called him five, six times or something, and then he was finally like, “all right, well, come on.” And so we went to cob cottage company, and of course we were blown away by the magic of it. It really was a beautiful and inspiring place, as it was designed to be. We spent a couple days there, and I obviously became very fascinated by Ianto and Linda and their story, their perspective, and their work. So I kept circling back. This is a bit of a long-winded answer, but this is how it came to be that I sort of became an adopted child of the natural building community.
 By the time I finished filming everything for Fall And Winter, I had around 300 plus hours of interviews. It was just a crazy amount of stuff. I had to get my head around it and try to build out 10,000 years of human history. I asked Ianto if I could come back up there and just focus; have a place for two weeks to sit down and get my head around it. So he gave me a beautiful cabin to stay in and I went up there. It was during a time when all the interns were there, so it was really beautiful to be able to go and see the work done and then go back and do my work and kind of live in this way. It got me deeply interested in understanding the specifics of natural buildings. When the film was done, I went back and showed the film there to all the interns. At the same time, the same thing happened with John Jeavons and the biointensive crowd up here in Willits where I live now. 
Images from Fall And Winter
TLS:  Do you guys own a piece of land up there in Willits?
MA: Actually I should make a note here and say that maybe the most important natural building thing I ever read was a chapter in The Hand Sculpted House that Linda and Michael and Ianto wrote. It’s called creative financing or something like that. I think that’s kind of what’s underneath the surface of the aesthetics of Natural Building. Most of our mindsets are that you need all this money and this capital and savings and investment and all this stuff in order to begin your life. And it just offered me a view that that’s not true and that there are dozens of other situations that you can arrange and find. So that’s when we just started asking people who had land “can we do this here?” And so we found this beautiful place called Ridgewood Ranch. That’s a long story itself I won’t go into, but basically they hold 5,000 acres in Northern California in common. It’s not owned by one person; it was an intentional community set up more or less from the depression where poor people had put their money together and decided to work the land and be self-sufficient. And they were also looking for people to come ‘cause their community was dwindling. They were inviting young people. And that’s why John Jeavons and the biointensive people were here, farming the land and teaching people how to farm. They started another farm school, and they have a number of other production farms and things like that. So natural building was kind of this perfect fit. There was some negotiating and some figuring out, but we found a way to have a workshop here and build a house. So the whole time I was making Fall And Winter, I was sitting behind a computer, looking at the world collapsing and looking at all these people who had these amazing answers and was really hungry to do something like that.
TLS: I love that idea of what’s underneath the surface of the aesthetic of natural building, because there is so much there. Is that part of your intention with the way that you tell the story of natural building?
MA: Yes, specifically with the movie I made, What’s a Colloquium?, which is about natural building. All I was trying to do was to be a conduit for this great information that all these natural builders were spreading. And what was a highlight for me and what I was trying to help communicate was exactly that concept, which is: we are so burdened by a system that milks us for all of the human energy that we’re capable of. That, in and of itself, is an impediment to living a life that’s aligned with many of our values. And this is just such a simple way in which to find the offramp, to find a way into a different and better life. So, to me, that’s the ultimate appeal and in a way, kind of the secret. Michael explains it as a gateway drug. Not necessarily as a funny term, but this idea that it’s like a catalyzing mode or modality or medium or something. That there’s something that helps you find a deeper connection to the earth and to yourself maybe most importantly.
The historical context of this that’s so interesting to me is we had this extremely beautiful and kind of elegant way of life that we constructed in the village system and in doing artisanal crafts and doing things as small groups of two hundred people and a hundred people. This human engine that we built was human scale. And we completely got torn apart and shredded and thrown into the industrial process. So this is one of the ways in which we retrieve that. And this is who will have ancestors, people who find ways to live closer to the earth. You look at any culture that’s been around for thousands of years, they live simply, closer to the earth. They use what they need and not much more. They have very skillful, creative and in-tune ways with which to work with the natural environment and the forces and rhythms that operate there. Those that go against that are, like the Titanic, you know?
And so I’m ranting, but the idea is that I think we have this very achievable, simple way of life that we can touch and build and be a part of once again, really easily.
Images from What’s A Colloquium
TLS: With Earth Lodge Studios you’ve made two feature length films Fall And Winter, about the collapse of civilization, and What’s a Colloquium? about natural building, and you’ve made a bunch of short films, most recently the series En Nuestras Manos about ecological farming all over the world. Do you see a throughline for the work that you’ve made so far?
MA: Basically Fall And Winter was concerned with the shadow. The things that we don’t look at and don’t study, problems we’ve caused and created, the dark side of humanity and of our industrial civilization. When I was on the tour with the film my running joke was that I couldn’t give away that it ends in spring, you know, it’s Fall And Winter (and Spring). And that got me thinking about, well, “I wanna make Spring And Summer. I want to make the counterpart to this and balance it.” I just never found the funding. But I did get this invitation to go and do the natural building colloquium. And then I got a grant from Patagonia to start En Nuestras Manos, “In Our Hands,” which is a nine part series I did on biointensive agriculture. And so, piece by piece, I have now sort of realized that I’m actually creating Spring And Summer, and it’s just coming in the form of these other films. I’m finishing the third film of that series now, which should be done by the end of the year.
When I was on the tour for Fall And Winter, I was on a panel with one of the subjects of the film, Bill Kötke who wrote The Collapse of Civilization. Someone was really freaked out by the film, they were very worried and they were like, “well, what in the hell do we do if this whole thing’s coming down?” And Bill was very colloquial and calm and sweet. He was like, “well, you just have to think about water, food, shelter, and community. And in that order. If you figure those things out, you’ll be alright.” And I remember that really stuck with me. So I’m realizing that in a way instead of Spring And Summer, I’m doing my Food, Shelter, Community trilogy. Food being the biointensive one, shelter being natural building with colloquium, and then this last one is actually about community.
TLS: How did you originally get into documentary filmmaking?
MA: I didn’t wanna be a documentary filmmaker until I was in my twenties, but I was very into researching films and going to Kim’s Video in New York every day and renting stacks of tapes. I remember getting into Werner Herzog and then realizing half his films are documentaries and being like, “oh yeah.” And it got me at least interested in that other, dark side of filming. I didn’t really think I would. I didn’t set my course. Now I’m a documentarian, but basically I got dragged into the whole thing. 
I can remember sitting down with my first boss in New York and saying, “I really wanna make a documentary about conspiracy theorists,” because I was really interested in it as a folk mythology. I thought that the people who talked about this–and remember this was like 2003 or something, before QAnon and the internet went insane–but I was very curious about that old guard, what it was still like on the fringes of talking about JFK and aliens and stuff. And I just thought that it would be a really interesting documentary to do a character study of the people involved in this.
And so I went to a conspiracy convention, I got a small amount of funding–a few grand to go and start investigating–and then I basically went through the rabbit hole of what most people are involved in on the internet now and came out the other side. I remember someone saying “you have to confront and literally dismantle your entire worldview of the society that was imprinted in you before you can ever hope to begin a journey of any deep progress spiritually.” Putting that in the context of  conspiracies, I think it’s kind of like a vortex that you can get stuck in and never get out of. But if you can actually survive the storm of freeing your thinking and putting a lot of “what ifs” and a lot of fluidity to your thinking about these things and dismantle the myth of progress and all these other things you’re inculcated with, I think you can come out the other side of conspiratorial thinking at least a little more free if you don’t arrive at any conclusion. I think you have to watch out for that. I remember thinking, “well, the real conspiracy is what we’re not really talking about. It’s the collapse of civilization. It’s the collapse of this way of life we’ve created.” And that’s the constructive part of what this process did for me – was to start a documentary about that subject, which led me on this path. So I think as long as you’re asking questions and moving forward you’ll end up somewhere better and different than where you started, you know?
TLS: Just out of curiosity, does Earth Lodge Studios pay the bills?
MA: It’s basically just the starving artist routine to be honest. Well, it is connected to this work because I don’t have a massive mortgage because I moved to the country. I realized that the only way that I can make my art possible is to just literally tear the seats out of the Cessna, you know, have nothing in the plane so we can fly as low overhead as possible. That means when times are lean I’m still okay. And I’ve just been very lucky that the universe is this beautiful serendipitous network of information and communication. People find their way.
TLS: We got to see your house in the country for a little at the beginning of the call, you were saying it started out by running a class or workshop? 
MA: Yeah, that was what Michael Smith suggested. And I’m so glad we did it that way. There are so many benefits to it. It’s a lot of hard work, just the workshop itself, separate from the construction. But the benefits for that are insane. So many people who took our workshop changed their lives and we became, I wouldn’t say professional, we became competent, in the process of doing this ourselves. And so it’s not just a monetary thing, but you can kind of bootstrap it in that way too, because the money that people are paying for their education pays for the workshop itself and the instructor’s time. And then there’s this unpaid gang labor to do big operations. So it’s a great model for that. I think many people involved in natural building recognize it’s not gonna be the answer to building a million homes for people but it’s a great way to make examples where dozens of people can learn at once. I mean, we estimated 50 or 100 people worked on our house. Nobody was paid, and everybody took something from that and gave something for that. And I think that that’s really a beautiful way to look at it. At the end of the day, it meant that my wife and I could have a place to live very cheaply without any looming debt and without any huge responsibility. 
So in seven months we had gone from a Blackberry patch to a standing structure that was enclosed and dry and warm with a stove. It had plywood floors and a mud pit for a kitchen, but we moved in. We had 10 or 12 days to rest and then our daughter was born at home. I remember I was so exhausted, just dead inside ‘cause I had to really take it the rest of the way and finish it after everyone else had left. I remember the last thing was my wife was like nine months pregnant, trying to get onto this mattress on the floor, up in our loft and she was like, “I need a bed. Can you please get us a bed frame?” So I remember the last thing I did was I went to the woodshop and I was in a daze and I built a bed frame and put it on blocks so she could get in and out of the bed and then we both collapsed into the bed and slept for a few days.
And our beautiful daughter was born here at home in our living room on plywood floors. And then I slowly built the place. 
Images from workshops to build Matt and Renata’s house in Willits
TLS: Are you pretty handy? Or did you have any experience with construction before doing this? 
MA: No, I had barely ever swung a hammer. Growing up on the island really helped. Just getting into a boat to go to school and stuff like that. I was used to tying knots but I certainly wasn’t handy.
TLS: What are some of the natural building methods you ended up using to build the house?
MA: Maybe…can you see the house?
TLS: Yeah.
MA: On the left, that curved wall, all the way up is cob and then the flat wall is straw bale. So the north and west walls are straw bale, except for that cob. And then the east and south walls are stud frame. They use a variety of light straw, clay, and other things. The south wall is all light straw clay, and then the east wall is wood chip and slip. We did lava rock and we did all these experiments. There’s even a cordwood wall inside. We tried everything just so we could experience it all. We had five different workshops and each workshop had different building techniques in it. So it became a good series for everybody. 
TLS: That’s awesome. It’s really beautiful from what we can see. 
MA: Yeah, totally. I mean it’s a beautiful house, and we’re just in a beautiful place.
TLS: Well, thanks so much for the conversation. 
MA: Yeah. Thank you guys. No one ever asks me this stuff, so it’s nice to spout off about it for a little bit.
All of Earth Lodge Studios films are available for free at www.earthlodgestudio.com and look out for Forces and Rhythms Matt’s upcoming feature film and what might be the end of his series of films on natural building and biointensive farming. 



THE LAST STRAW
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