Peter Thomason

Peter Thomason
Ypsilanti, Michigan

Tottered on: 30 January 2007
Temperature: 23F
Ceiling: dark
Ground: freshly fallen snow
Wind: W at 12 mph

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TT with HD: Peter Thomason

[Ed. note: According to Chapter 107 of the Ann Arbor City Code:

9:38. Domestic animals and fowl.
(1) No person shall keep or house any animals or domestic fowl within the city except dogs, cats, rabbits, canaries or small animals commonly classified as pets which are customarily kept or housed inside dwellings as household pets.
(2) Subsection (1) shall not apply to animals or fowl that are kept or housed at city park facilities for exhibition.

Ypsilanti's relevant language reads:

Sec. 14-7. Restrictions on keeping certain animals.
(a) Pets. No owners shall keep or house any animals or domestic fowl within the city except dogs, cats, nonpoisonous insects, and captive-bred species of rodents, common cage birds, nonpoisonous aquarium reptiles, aquarium amphibians, and aquarium fish commonly classified as pets and which are customarily kept or housed inside dwellings as household pets.

Judge for yourself whether this kind of language prohibits chickens. Just bear in mind there's more to this conversation than chickens.]

HD: So as best I understand it, you would like to keep some chickens in your backyard?

PT: Right.

HD: And the city code of Ypsilanti seems to disallow that. Or, how do you read the city code?

PT: Well, when we first considered doing it, my thought was to check the code to see what was allowed and to check with the City Attorney. And I did that, read over the code, and came to the conclusion based on my reading of it at that time that they were not permitted. And, in fact, the City attorney, that was his interpretation of it at the time also. So I approached our representative, Lois Richardson, ...

HD: ... representative to City Council ...

PT: ... for our ward, yeah. And then with her, approached Trudy Swanson, who is the Mayor Pro Tem, because you need two representatives to present an amendment to the City Charter. So we approached Council and went through all the steps that the City Attorney and the City Manager spelled out for us. What we were proposing at the time was to set in place some guidelines--even an experimental approach to it--for the keeping of chickens. And the Mayor at that time, Cheryl Farmer, was not really willing to give it a hearing. So in my opinion, the thing was railroaded through as quickly as possible to shut it down. In fact, they didn't even follow their own guidelines and give us fair hearing when we presented it to Council. And it was a shock to Lois, how quickly it was railroaded through for a Nay vote.

HD: You feel like then, it was given short shrift as far as process?

PT: I do. We did not get due process as citizens presenting a completely legitimate request to attempt to amend the City Charter.

HD: Well, based on my understanding of how that played out--just from what I read in the popular press and online--it seemed like it foundered at the point where City staff was going to have to be directed by Council to devote time and resources to studying the issue. And people said, Well, there are other priorities more important than developing a poultry policy, and we can't afford the time and resources to undertake that study. And so they made a budgetary or economic argument that Ypsilanti, given its budgetary circumstances, could not afford the City resources to do that.

PT: That is an accurate assessment. But what's behind the scenes is that I have offered specifically to City Council and to the City attorney to provide them all the background information that they needed, along with language from other statues from other ordinances from other Michigan municipalities, and actually to fund the legal research for them. I got no response to that whatsoever. So yeah, probably budget constraints. But there was also a very quick supposed taking of the pulse of various neighborhood associations that went on, which was really almost insulting to us, because it consisted of some of the City Council people coming to neighborhood associations--pretty much unannounced and not with any kind of forewarning about what they were coming to ask questions about--and then upon getting there, asking a handful of citizens--which is usually what attends these neighborhood associate meetings without any kind of pre-announced event--and asking that handful how they felt about chickens. Without any kind of spelling out what we were proposing, without ...

HD: ... a broader context ...

PT: ... without any broader context. And then based on that supposed feeling of the pulse of the community, that was presented to Council at the June meeting, and then a vote taken, and it was deep-sixed, and that was it.

HD: So you mentioned some other statutes that might be used as models or examples in municipalities in Michigan. I wasn't able to find any actually in Michigan, but there's some fairly major American cities that have pretty progressive poultry policies: Seattle, Portland, Houston, ...

PT: ... New York City. One of my daughters lives in Brooklyn, they have chickens right down the street.

HD: Really! What part of Brooklyn does she live in?

PT: They're in the Fort Greene area, but they've moved recently. I am trying to remember the name of the area ...

HD: ... so how many chickens do they keep?

PT: They don't keep chickens, but their neighbors do.

HD: Oh, okay.

PT: But it's a standing policy, and it's not just Brooklyn. It's all of New York. So you're right, there are lots and lots of them. South Haven in Michigan--which is the one that I'm aware of--they have it as a policy which explicitly allows them.

HD: I think that's the difficulty with the language of the ordinances dealing with this kind of issue. I mean, the ordinance in Ann Arbor does not say, You can't keep chickens. It says, You can't keep any animals, except for these. And then it becomes a question of, Okay, I've got a candidate animal I'd like to keep, can I make it fit the description of the allowed animals? So it doesn't say, you're not allowed to keep chickens per se. You have to follow and apply the logic. So what is your reading currently of Ypsilanti ordinance? In one email you sent, you seemed to suggest that you now had a different take.

PT: I sort of let the whole thing rest for a while after the elections last fall--the primary and then the general election--to sort of re-group and see how to go forward with it. And actually your invitation prompted me to go back and re-look at things, and to ponder it and to look at it a little bit differently. And I did, because I knew I was going to continue to move on with it in one way or another. But as I spent some time just re-looking at the ordinance, and just putting aside prior assumptions, putting aside prior understandings, and prior interpretations both by myself and others, and just sitting there with the language and looking at it, I came to the conclusion that chickens are not prohibited.

HD: So you're making the case then based on the phrase 'common cage birds'?

PT: Two things. Common cage birds are one of the exceptions, and there is no legal or ornithological definition of a 'common cage bird'. There is simply a default definition of a bird commonly kept in a cage. And since chickens, number one, are common, they are commonly kept in cages, and they are birds, they fit the definition. They also very easily fit the definition of a pet. There are two way that pets are defined. One is that they are primarily for pleasure and not for utilitarian purposes. And two is that it's captive bred and dependent on human beings for both food and shelter. So chickens pass that with flying colors. So they meet the definition of a pet, and they meet the definition of being a common cage bird.

HD: I guess the potential problem I see with making the analysis turn on this phrase, 'cage birds' ... and by the way, I'm quite sympathetic to the idea of keeping chickens in backyards, in fact I've asked neighbors on both sides, What would you think of us keeping a couple of chickens in the backyard? And the response was--well, neither one said, Yes, I would really like you to do that, please do it right away--but neither one said, Absolutely not, I would move off the street if you started keeping chickens in the backyard ... but even though I am generally sympathetic to the idea, it seems to me that this phrase 'cage birds', it's one of those phrases where the meaning of the whole is different from just computing on the meaning of the parts. That it's not really fair to say the meaning of the phrase 'cage bird' can be computed mathematically from 'cage' and 'bird' as just 'any bird that's kept in a cage'. For example, there's these various cage bird clubs, and if you look at the kinds of birds they use as examples, then it's parrots and parakeets, and for cages it's these kinds of cages that are these classic, where-Tweety-Bird-lived from the cartoons, those kinds of examples that are more ready-to-hand than any kind of poultry. So do you think that's a fair point, that chickens aren't cage birds, because that's just not what a cage birds are? Everybody knows that, I mean, c'mon Peter!

PT: But, you know, social change is a matter of oftentimes pushing the envelope. So definitions of what a human being is have changed over time and centuries, and the same thing has happened in issues having to do with all kinds of things that are valuable and meaningful to society. So you can challenge that understanding, because number one, nobody on Council wrote that [ordinance]. Number two, you can refer to a 'common understanding' of something, without it being right--all the more reason to challenge it. Sometimes challenging these things is absolutely the best thing you can do in order to move positive and constructive change ahead.

HD: It almost sounds to me like you're prepared to go ahead a start keeping chickens and just see what happens?

PT: I am.

HD: Wow.

PT: And I'm going to. And I'm encouraging others to do the same. The Council is a legislative body, it's not a judicial body, and it may come down to requiring a judicial interpretation of the Charter, or it may come to the point of amending the Charter, which would then open the conversation again to the public, rather than having it just be shut down by Council, which is what they did. It was by fiat, they just said, No, we're not even interested in really having a discussion about it. Regardless of the fact that I'm a tax-paying citizen of the city, and have been for 20 years. So 'short shrift' as you said earlier, is definitely the feeling that we came away from it with. At least two of the other candidates for mayor at the time were willing to re-open the discussion. Mayor Schreiber has said that he's willing to listen to some conversation, but sometimes you just need to do an end-run. Sometimes you need to put things on the table and say well, This is our understanding, that may be your understanding, but it's not our understanding. And therefore, if you feel it needs interpretation by a judicial court, then fine, go right ahead.

HD: So have you talked to neighbors on all sides of your property about that? I mean, are you on good terms with them, they're aware ...

PT: ... yeah. And interestingly enough, when we presented the amendment, or when we started to present the amendment to Charter, we were absolutely willing to put in all kinds of guidelines--including permission from neighbors, so many square feet of yard, enclosed cages, no-roosters--all those things were part of what we were proposing. But by cutting off the conversation, it's now put me in the position of saying, Oh, well there really aren't any restrictions, if you follow my interpretation, which I consider to be a perfectly valid interpretation.

HD: Yeah, one of the common themes of ordinances I've found looking online for examples is that there's almost always restrictions about the distance from dwellings. And no-roosters is a very common theme as well. Those are basically the two crucial elements, it seems to me: whether there's a rooster or not, and how far away, and, oh, the number. So in general, three seems to be a popular number. So you've kept chickens in the past, right, so you know something about chickens?

PT: When I was younger, yeah. My wife and I both did, yes.

HD: So from what I've read, they have some sort of social structure that makes keeping a solo chicken not so advisable?

PT: They're really communal animals.

HD: So three seems to be a number that's just enough so that they can have some sort of social hierarchy?

PT: Yeah, and personally I'm in favor of having a couple dozen, you know, but we'll see.

HD: So if you were to assess my backyard as a potential habitat, is there enough space to keep three chickens, would you say?

PT: Oh yeah. People in New York, there are people in Manhattan who will keep them in their apartments and on their balconies. The space requirements are not what you might think they are.

HD: Well, just as an exercise, in the event that this spring there is a community dialogue--either over in Ypsilanti or here in Ann Arbor--about developing an explicit policy for poultry inside the city limits, I tried to come up with reasons against allowing the keeping of chickens. Just thinking about it from the point of view that in general, you should be able to do what you want, unless there's a really good reason to prohibit it. So it's useful to consider the potential objections. So what are the objections that people might raise? One would be noise. And I think what people are thinking of primarily is the crowing of roosters. If you prohibit just the roosters, that aspect of the objection is met. But how noisy are hens? I mean, they do make some noise, don't they?

PT: Very little. And certainly much less than barking dogs.

HD: That's a fair point.

PT: Or howling cats.

HD: Okay, what about smell?

PT: It's all a matter of how well you manage it. I mean, I know people who have thirty cats and they live in the city of Ypsilanti and are dealing with a lot more fecal matter than you're dealing with with chickens. It's just a matter of management and good housekeeping.

HD: So in terms of management, are you planning to compost it right there on site?

PT: Yeah, we've done fairly large-scale composting on our site. I compost literally everything--bones, meat, vegetables, paper. And the chicken manure would go right into the same.

HD: Okay, disease. I can just anticipate that people are going to say, What about bird flu?

PT: They do. And my response to that is that it's a bit of a red herring. Because the threat of E. coli from stockyard raising of cattle in the United States far, far surpasses the public health threat of avian flu.

HD: So is that something there's an inoculation against? Is it possible to inoculate chickens against avian flu?

PT: Maybe you can, I don't know. I haven't done that much research into that.

HD: Something I would sort of like to explore is that, as best I can tell, it's not that you're somehow obsessed with chickens per se, it's that chickens factor into this broader context of sustainable living, and even that has a much broader context of stemming from a Christian belief system that includes stewardship of the environment as an important component of your faith.

PT: And it's more than stewardship of the environment. It's what I think of as building a whole culture of life. The late John Paul II was excellent at re-presenting traditional themes in new language, so he sort of coined the idea of building a civilization of love as a way of talking about building the kingdom of God, which was a more traditional Christian way of talking about it. He talked about building a culture of life, and building a civilization of love. The components of that--certainly stewardship of the environment is a component--but also economics as if people mattered. And that is something that was largely talked about in my generation, among people that I grew up with because of the work of E.F. Schumacher. Small is Beautiful was a rallying cry for a whole generation of people I grew up with, the other two books in the trilogy being Good Work, and A Guide for the Perplexed. And from his perspective on sustainable economics, that what you can do in your own yard--in a cottage industry, what you can do to not just be a unit of consumption, but a unit of production, even in your own urban neighborhood--then counters so many of the negative and depersonalizing aspects of, if you will, a money-based economy, and makes economics human again. It's no longer just the exchange of money, it's the exchange of goods and services between people who've learned to trust each other and give people things of value. So there is a bigger discussion that, in my mind, that all of this is part of. But what it comes down to practical things that one can do--keeping chickens, or using worms under your sink to help compost organic material--it sort of brings it home. Chickens are in one sense emblematic of being somewhat independent, but they're also pragmatic. They're also a very real way in which you can make your own home economy sustainable. Not only are they pets, but they give back to you, you know? Your dog might be a pet, which you enjoy, but your dog may also guard your house. You may enjoy your cats, but your cats might take care of the mice that are a problem. Well, chickens also give you back food. And they eat compost, and they eat kitchen scraps, so they're more than just symbols. They are ...

HD: ... good examples.

PT: They're good examples. They're good citizens [laugh]. They give enjoyment and they give food back. So they really fit nicely into the idea of the home economy being a producing economy, not just a consuming economy. And to me, all of that is a big part of building a civilization of love, and replacing the impersonal exchange of goods and services for money. I mean, what's money? It's just a dead thing, it represents something. It's replacing it with real exchange of things that are of value and meaningful to people, because they've invested their time, their labor, and their love in them. So a money-less economy is not just something that communists or Marxists have a right to talk about, but people who have a Christian world-view, and who believe that it is possible to build a civilization of love.

HD: So this then, is the broader context that was missing from the presentations to the neighborhood association group meetings.

PT: Well, there are people who are very interested in sustainable economics and sustainable urban living ...

HD: ... for reasons having nothing to do with wanting to build a civilization based on love ...

PT: ... well, I would say in general terms, there are many people who do subscribe to Schumacher's world view, but perhaps don't see it quite as completely as I do from a faith perspective. It's unfortunate, because that was very much a central tenet of Schumacher's belief and understanding and world view: the Christian context that he saw it within. There are many who have adopted components of his world view in terms of his emphasis on environmental stewardship. And the ecological movement really can be attributed a great deal to his work. So there are many people who pick the pieces that appeal to them, not necessarily seeing everything that he was talking about. And in terms of the neighborhood associations, I think that there's only so much you can talk about in a very short period of time. Sometimes you have to put an idea out there and get people talking about it in order to have the conversation develop and be able to explore the greater significance of it.

HD: So what is the book about that you're writing?

PT: It's really a book about my own life and about the context I grew up in, which was a secular humanist household. Then my own conversion at age 16 and then our decision to get married and have a large family and live in an urban inner-city neighborhood and do the things that we've tried to do over the last several decades. So it's a lot of stories about our family and about experiences influences that have shaped us and who we are.

HD: So part of your family is a daughter living in western Michigan, you're helping her build a house now?

PT: One of our older daughters and her husband and their new baby live up in Oceana County, which is north of Muskegon--traditional Michigan fruit-growing and asparagus-growing area. Charlie, my son-in-law, had bought roughly forty acres up there before he met my daughter, always with the intention of starting a small organic farm up there and building an off-the-grid house. So the two them are there now, and the house is almost complete at this point. In fact, they just moved in.

HD: So it is in fact off-the-grid, there's no ...

PT: ... right, they have a well, which is solar powered. They have plenty of access to wood ...

HD: ... so that's how they heat and cook, with wood?

PT: Currently, they use a small wood stove. Next year, we're going to be building what is traditionally known as either a Finnish or Russian masonry heater, which is ...

HD: ... is this the thing that goes under the bed? [Ed. note: HD was thinking of the cave houses of northern Shaanxi Province in China.]

PT: No, this is a centrally located masonry construct, which essentially has a small fire that burns at a very high temperature. Then a whole series of baffles in the structure extract all of the BTU's from the smoke, rather than sending it right up out the chimney, so what ends up going out the chimney is cool smoke. So by doing this, you're storing all these BTU's in the masonry structure and then it radiates out over a long period of time. It's a technology that was present in northern Europe for many years prior to what is known as the First Great Energy Crisis, which is considered to have been from 1500 to 1800 in Europe, where there was an overall decline in average temperature of 8 or 9 degrees for a period of about 300 years. During that time the technology advanced enormously for utilizing the wood that was available.

HD: So it sounds to me like one of the challenges would be to keep that baffle system clean and free of whatever it's called that ...

PT: ... creosote. And the way that happens, creosote actually is the byproduct of a fire that is burning at a low temperature rather than a high temperature. So when you burn wood at a very high temperature--1500 to 1800 degrees--which you can, because the heat is not leaving the firebox rapidly the way it does in a metal wood stove. There's not a rapid dissipation of the heat through the metal. With the masonry and the firebrick, the heat is retained much longer and the fire is able to get much hotter.

HD: So the super heat of the fire is a function purely of the masonry structure as opposed to having a like bellows or some ...

PT: ... right. And it's a very specific type of design and construction. But it's the hot burning of the fire that eliminates the creosote. Essentially you get virtually one-hundred-percent burn of the gases and the solids, which you don't get with a traditional metal wood stove. The pollution factor from that type of wood stove is virtually nil.

HD: What kind of laundry system do they have?

PT: Currently they go to neighbors [laugh].

HD: [laugh] Okay.

PT: But they will have their own in-house laundry and then just dry their clothes in the basement.

HD: Just hang dry them, then.

PT: Hang dry them during the winter and then outside in the summer.

HD: I've become--I wouldn't say an expert--but I've developed quite a bit of expertise in the area of human-powered clothes washing.

PT: Um hmm?

HD: I'd been using a washing machine I bought from an Amish hardware store for a really long time--for about 15 years. It's hand-cranked. And recently I upgraded the water extraction system so I no longer have to crank each piece of clothing through the wringer. I've got a pedal-powered device--it's basically an old recycled washing machine--where I just spin the tub and it spins the water out, and it gets the clothes a lot drier than wringing them. And I think I'm able to turn higher rpm's than that machine was originally designed for, so I think I'm getting more water extraction than with an automated washer. This jacket I'm wearing right now, this Carhartt, I washed yesterday and in the space of 18 hours, it's basically dry. Now, part of that is the really dry indoor winter air. But if your daughter has any questions about laundry, feel free to steer her my direction. I'm happy to share any insights I might have about getting clothes clean.

PT: I'll let her know!

HD: But you know, I was sharing this frustration with one of my previous totter guests, that when people say, But, Dave, you spend hours and hours washing clothes for heaven sakes, that's just not very efficient! And I'm not sure what I have to say in response other than, Well, I like it. But it seems to me that some of the writings of Schumacher might give me a rubric with which to talk about why it's a good thing, about why it's not such a terrible thing to not be efficient about how you get your clothes clean.

PT: And he talks about that because efficiency is not the highest priority in what he calls meta-economics. Meta-economics--the byline is 'economics as if people mattered'--puts a priority on work being something that is meaningful to people. Which is why I'm not ashamed to say that I'm a philosopher-carpenter. It's a line of work that I intentionally entered into, though I had many other options available to me. But to me, manual labor--whether you're washing clothes, or baking bread, or farming, or being a carpenter--all provide an opportunity for--and what I really prefer really--for silence. It drives me crazy to go on a work site and the carpenters all have music blaring. To me, you're losing the opportunity to have something that you're occupying your hands with, but also giving you opportunity for spiritual growth, and for mediation, and for silence. Efficiency is overrated, but it doesn't mean you want to do things inefficiently, you know, that's kind of silly, too. But efficiency has its place. But it isn't in some sense how much money this thing makes you, or how much money you save doing it, there is value in work other than the monetary value that is traditionally ascribed to it. In our money society and our money economics and so we tend to lose sight of that. I've got to give Zingerman's a lot of credit for bringing some of these ideas back into the marketplace. Their idea of the three bottom lines is something that people are talking a lot about more than they ever did before.

HD: And what are those three?

PT: The three bottom lines for them are: great service, great products, and a great place to work. A number of our kids have worked there. They have re-introduced that whole part of the discussion into some of the economics of small business, and it's a very important part of the discussion. The question is what is the value of time or what is the value of efficiency? The human value or the human appreciation of things being made, and the process, and the time invested and the love that goes into things that are of great value is not monetary. Unfortunately, we substitute a monetary value for something which a far different kind of human value.

HD: So you mentioned this phrase, 'philosopher-carpenter', which you embrace as a description of yourself. Would you say that'd be a fair caption to put under your picture for the website?

PT: [laugh]

HD: Well, in doing the background preparation, I thought, Man, this is going to be hard.

PT: It's kind of hard to quantify.

HD: Well, I didn't want to make it a whole laundry list, so when you said philosopher-carpenter, I thought, Hmm, maybe that'll work to sum it up, that would be fitting. Just philosopher-carpenter.

PT: It works. It does work. I should tell you what my latest project is, which is building coffins.

HD: Really?!

PT: Yeah, another part of the whole sustainable living.

HD: You know it's interesting, just last night on Jay Leno--you know he has this bit where it's headlines or articles that are weird or strange and they make a joke out of them. And he had this ad for a pine box that you can use as a bookcase when you're alive and as a coffin when you're dead, and he didn't try to make a joke out of it, that was the joke itself. And I thought to myself, Whaa, I've seen that before, it's a real thing, there's a whole philosophy behind engaging in the activity of building the container you'll use for your own body and having it around in your daily life. And I thought, Man, that deserved a little better than what Jay Leno gave it. But he's not in that business, of course [laugh]. So are you building coffins for other people?

PT: Well, I built my own the other day, and it's sitting in the dining room. And we're spending some time looking at it, trying it out, seeing if there's some ways to improve the design.

HD: Now when you say, 'trying it out' you mean actually getting in it and lying down?

PT: Oh yeah. Now, you mentioned that there's old tradition of this, and it is actually an old tradition among Christian monks to build their own coffins, and have them around. The traditional Latin expression was memento mori--remember death--it comes for us all. It also harkens back to the Psalm that says, Teach me to number my days, O God, that I may gain a heart of wisdom. Because it's in pondering--not in a fatalistic or macabre sort of way--our death, but the simple reality is that it's the end for all of us. For me as a Christian, human beings are mortal, we're all going to die. But the good news of the Gospel is the possibility of more. There's a possibility of eternal life and the eternal life is, I believe, what I was created for, and that is my high destiny. The ultimate life that I can enjoy is one of union with God and with all of what we call the communion of the Saints. The alternative is to just be buried and to return to the dust from which I came. So the coffin serves as this meditative reminder--some people used to keep a skull on their desk as a way, Shakespeare talks about that. So there's ...

HD: ... so will your coffin have removable shelves so that ...

PT: ... now I've thought about doing that. I've had one person say she's ready to commission me to build one for her. And it would be designed in such a way that it would look almost exactly like the cabinet you have in your front hall that I saw.

HD: So it's not a canonical coffin shape.

PT: No, actually very much a cabinet shape with feet and even a crown molding around it that can be left on or taken off.

HD: Crown molding, is hard isn't it, from a carpentry perspective?

PT: On a cabinet like that, it's not hard to do. In a room, it can be really challenging. It's not Carpentry 101.

HD: So this one that you've built for yourself, will people who know you well be able to look at that coffin and be able to see aspects of you? Will they say, Oh, that's the way he would make that join, or That's the way he would apply the finish? Have you left your personal touch on it?

PT: Not yet. Because I just put, if you will, the 'carcass' together ...

HD: ... [laugh] oh jeez ...

PT: ... I just put that together a few days ago, so I haven't finished it. But the whole idea of it--and it may sound odd to some people--but it's part of the whole sustainable economy. Why should our money for caskets go to Louisiana to one of the monopoly casket companies who build factory-made caskets, which are generic and have no personal connection to you, rather than having them built by a local artisan or carpenter who can make it for you personally?

HD: Or do it yourself.

PT: And there are do-it-yourself kits online for making them.

HD: Nailing some wood together into a box in some crude fashion, I'm sure a lot of people could pull that off, but are there regulations and specifications they have to meet?

PT: There really aren't. Because the health departments for counties prescribe that a grave has to have a vault. It's a concrete vault that the casket goes it. And what happens in most situations is that the casket goes into this vault and both of them contain the remains. So really, you know it's almost like double-wrapping something.

HD: Belt and suspenders.

PT: Yeah, belt and suspenders. The simple fact is the vault is there to prevent contamination of ground water and obviously the potential for pathogens to escape from it. But the coffin itself, the big issue is not so much whether it meets health requirements, but whether you're given the option of that when you go to a funeral home. Because funeral homes, by and large, have their own line of caskets, which are quite profitable for them. I don't begrudge it being profitable, but many people feel like they have very few choices when they come to that time in their life. The premise of the funeral home being, This is one more way we can make it easier for you. How this particular current project fits into the home economy is, for centuries when a person would pass away, they'd be laid out in their parlor or their living room. Family would come over and pay their respects and their remains would be there with you until they were buried. It's just another way in which we've compartmentalized death. We've compartmentalized the growing of food, so that kids growing up think that food comes from the grocery store. So death is something that is over there, is not part of the normal activity of life. Friends of mine and I over the last 20 years, when friends, family members of theirs have died, have gotten into the habit of physically doing the burying of the casket, whereas ...

HD: ... you mean actually with a pick and shovel digging the grave?

PT: No, not digging the grave, but at the graveside, making arrangements with the cemetery folks to allow us to physically re-fill in the hole after the casket's gone in. And it's a very cathartic experience for family members and friends, because instead of isolating this and separating it and saying, No, you take care of that part of things and we are just going to go to the graveside service and then you're going to bury it, you walk away from a casket that still sitting there above ground. You never experience the reality of, It's in the ground now, it's the end. A friend of mine died last winter and we did this at his burial. Up until then his children had not starting grieving. It was that moment when it really started to come home to them. It was a very, very powerful and moving experience. To me, it's a part of taking back from the commercialization of food, and the commercialization of death, the commercialization of so many things in our lives and making them more human again. And at the same time, it's being able to experience in them the spiritual sense about a lot of these things that we lose or that we forfeit by commercializing them.

HD: You have anything else on your mind today?

PT: We've covered a lot of territory [laugh].

HD: Indeed. I didn't expect to cover coffins. Just out of curiosity, what kind of wood did you use?

PT: The wood I used--for this prototype, really--is pine. My goal, actually, is to be building them from Michigan lumber. That particular lumber came from somewhere else.

HD: So are you doing fancy joins, some dovetail ...

PT: ... well, my goal is, there would be a range of types available. Obviously the simpler ones would be the less expensive ones. Something unique would be dovetail joints on all the corners, which we can do with the equipment that we have fairly easily, but for the average person--for the average handyman or homeowner--that would be a real challenge,. But they would have a variety of options available.

HD: So is it possible that we might see coffin-slash-bookcases show up at the Farmer's Market over here in Ann Arbor or over in Ypsilanti?

PT: My family is discouraging that. It's more likely that you'll see advertisements for all-wood coffins. But part of what I want to promote is that the materials are local they're not imported from somewhere else. We want to use some of our Michigan resources and local labor and make it all a part of a sustainable local economy, too.

HD: Alright. We'll let that be the final word.

PT: The end!