When the West was still raw and untamed, a house was of the earth on which it stood. It was built from the skins of animals who chanced to live nearby or from the trees which were cleared to make way for it or from the ancient sod itself.

Now look at how we do it. At the mass-housing development here where I worked for the last three months, we used lumber trucked in from Idaho, windows prehung in Virginia, bathtubs sent from Kilgore, Tex., closet rods from Taylorsville, Miss, furnance dusts make in Indiana - and that wasn't the half of it.

The light switches came from New York, the light sockets from New Bedford, the circuit breakers from St. Paul and the fuses from St. Louis.

The baseboard heaters came from Tennessee, the water heaters from Kankakee.

An all-American house indeed. The door locks came from Anaheim and the scaffolding from Berkeley. The fiberglass insulation came from Valley Forge.

The tiny plugs of putty in the nail holes - those came from Dayton.

Our job site by at the foot of the front range of the great Rocky Mountains, and yet the pine trees were imported from a nursery in Nebraska. The silver maples came from Oklahoma. The peat moss came all the way from Banff, Alberta. And the fertilizer, for Godsakes, was shipped over here from Marysville, Ohio.

Such are the inexplicable ways of mass production. We are told it is the most efficient system of manufacture in the history of the world.

There were handsome semidetached homes, with open ceilings and skylights and rugged beams and cedar siding - like the houses being built in many similar developments across the country.

Buildozers shoved the land around to fit the plan. All rocks were seized from the soil to become retaining walls. The earth was being bullied into rearrangement. Working there was like putting together an incredible model train layout.

And the work was being done, for the most part, not by your sturdy career craftsmen of yesterday, but by a motley variety of dropouts, deserters, drifters and dreamers, who had also come from all over creation.

There was Jacques, the assistant labor foreman, who had quit the life of a sea captain to come out here and study Buddhism . . . John, the interior-trim carpenter, who lived in his truck and, one day, left in it . . . Terry, the painter with the Mickey Mouse hat, who used to be a computer engineer, and Oates, the laborer, who once tried chemical engineering . . . Dick used to be a teacher of handicapped children, and his carpentry partner, Mike, sported degrees in psychology and architecture.

Oh, there were dumb ones, too - deadbeats and dullards and drunkards, hippies come in every size and shape. There were also 10 or 12 women on this job - landscaper, laborers, a roofer, a painter.

Yet an anthropologist, if he were to visit a modern American job site such as this one, might detect one fairly common behavioral idiosyncrasy among these random new-age construction workers. They seemed to enjoy a predilection toward the smoking of marijuana.

SCENE: The basement of an unfinished house - a scene of bare, gray concrete and loose trash. It is morning break time, 10:15, and the landscape crew is huddled around the open casement window, passing a reefer. The smoke curls out the window, out of harm's way. Now the crew returns to work. They enjoy, especially, driving those big bulldozers and steam shovels around.

I HAPPENED to be a member of the paint crew. I had presumed that meant working with a brush and roller, but on my first day the foreman asked: "Ever done any production painting?"

And here's what he meant:

The painter of today moves into a new house as soon as the drywall is up on the frame. And he comes carrying a gun. The gun is attached to a long hose, which is equipped to suck flat-white latex out of five-gallon buckets. The painter first makes sure the house is empty of all humans and other precious materials, then he puts a hood over his head and straps a chemical respirator to his face. He turns on the spraygun - and everything goes white. The walls get white, the ceilings and floors white, the windows white, the painter's clothes white, his sneakers . . . the paint that sticks to the walls and ceiling is what counts.

Meantime, another painter is outside with another gun. This gun is sucking up wood stain and shooting it at hundreds and hundreds of feet of raw baseboard laid across sawhorses. Clouds of stain fly away with the wind.

Next step: As soon as the carpenters have put the doors on th hinges, the painters come back in the house, take the doors off and march them down to the basement, which has been draped in black plastic. The doors are lined up against the wall. Now the gunman straps on his respirator. In the shadowless light of the black plastic chember, he looks like some monstrous ant, or a Martian. He picks up the gun and he shoots the doors.

And so it went. I developed a quick proficiceny in the few hand-painting skills that remained, but mostly it was the gun that spoke for the paint crew.

In some cases, 60 or 80 per cent of the stain or lacquer was lost into the air - what we called "overspray." But that didn't matter. In the economics of mass production, materials are cheaper than manpower, so we used the machines and wasted the resources. Just so long as we got the job done fast. That's what production painting was all about: Speed.

It made for a job that was boring and dirty and probably dangerous to the health. But that's what the assembly line has always done to proud occupations - flattens them out and grinds them down.

SCENE: The hillside leading up from the artificial lake. It is 12:30, end of luchtime, and workers are trudging up the hillside and coming back to work. Laborers, landscpers, painters, a few carpenters - they're coming out of the weeds, boys and girls alike, out of the tree nursery, from behind the imported pines . . . They're got illegal smiles on their faces. They scatter to their various jobs, switch on their radios, and the job site is once again jumping to rock 'n' roll.

The few oldtimers around say that the building business just isn't what it used to be.

TAKE CARPENTRY: Back when my grandfather was a carpenter, a man could see a house through from start to finish, from the framing to the final trimming: he could feel a wholeness between himself, his work and his product, and perhaps he left friendly ghosts of toil in the rafters.

Today the work's all cut up into specialties. A team of two interior-trim carpenters comes into a house they've never seen before, and in a day and a half they've got the woodwork up and they're out of there. They never get a feel of the place. I remember Bill, the trim carpenter with the curly hair, hoping he'd get a chance to work on a big custom house that was going up. "Maybe I could stay in there for three whole weeks," he said.

No wonder workers suck on little handmade cigarettes for stimulation nowadays.

MOST OF THE finishing work on our project - the tile and linoleum, the carpeting, the oak flooring - was done by subcontractors, and these men were set apart from the 40-hour-a-week crews who worked for the development company.

The subcontractors were of another generation in the construction business - back from a time when a guy invested his life in a trade and didn't give it a second thought; when a man was measured by the work he did and didn't have notions of being somehow bigger or better than the job at hand; before you had girls prancing around and teenage music blasting out and apprentices who left with the first stiff wind.

The difference in attitude was enormous.

SCENE: The Tile Man is laying ceramic tile on the bathroom wall of an empty house. Sitting on the edge of the bathtub, he laws the tiles on the freshly cemented wall - klik, klik, klik - with the amazing swift grace of a man who has done it for 20 years. Suddenly, from around the doorway, a disheveled painter crawls into view on his elbows and knees, a brush in his hand. The painter's blue jeans are encrusted with paint, and he has a red bandana tied around his head to keep his hair from flopping into his eyes.

Tile Man: "Have they still got you staining door-jambs?"

Painter: "Yep."

Tile Man: "When're you gonna get promoted?"

Painter: "I don't want to be promoted. Then I'd be down in the basement with the gun and the mask - getting stained. This is a good job up here."

Tile Man (with a snort): "Good job!"

Painter: "You just have to follow the straight lines. It gives you time to, you know, think."

Tile Man: "Crawling around getting covered with crud all day? - that's no job."

Painter: "There's no pressure down here. It gives you space."

It was very strange for a man to find himself, day in and day out, wandering through the shells of unborn hous es, and bumping into other souls stalking the same hollow spaces . . . Tile Man, perhaps . . . and nodding briefly and passing one. The empty houses served as echo chambers of the world outside, and were spooked already, by our own pasts.

THE PAINT FOREMAN was a banty rooster of a guy with red hair - let's just call him Red Rooster. He was still in his early 20s, but he worked like a madman was after him. We could always tell when it was Red Rooster coming up the stairs, because he came running two steps at a time. Red Rooster was a workaholic at a tender age; he bragged about how he'd had only five weekends off in the last year. Red Rooster would start us off on our assignments at 7:30 in the morning with the hearty command: "Go like hell!" For a doper, he was a real go-getter.

But he was too young to be a boss. He thought a boss was someone who hung over people's shoulders, found something wrong and nagged them about it. He didn't understand that people work best when they're given a little room for their pride to come out. He stayed firmly in control, dispensing all criticisms, all punishments and favors. When he fired one of us, he made a public display of it and, I guess, he enjoyed it.

Even Tile Man agreed that Red Rooster was leaning on us too hard. We painters responded to the whip by acting like children, or slaves. We snickered at de massa behin' his back.

There was another guy on the crew, Mike, who was an old high school chum of Red Rooster's. Mike was just one of the gang - he was the clown and had a particular propensity for leaping up to second-floor balconies like an ape. He was one of the gang, that is, until Red Rooster pulled a dirty trick on him. He asked Mike to be the assistant foreman.

Immediately, Mike started hanging over people's shoulders, searching for something wrong and nagging them about it.

THE CARPENTERS would complain that the houses were crooked. These were $55,000 to $110,000 homes, but you'd hear them grumbling that the doorways were out of plumb, or the corners weren't 90-degree angles or the walls might be leaning a bit.

It was a consequence, I think, not of the workers being stoned, but of mass production. People cared only about their own narrow tasks.

A carpenter explained to me: "The concrete guys lay the foundation a little off, and the framers come in and they say, 'That's not our problem,' so they put up the frame and don't correct it. The drywallers come in and the frame is a little off, and they say, 'That's not our problem,' so they pass along the error, too. It goes along like this until the trim carpenters come in - and they're supposed to make it all look right."

Our housing project was a perfect metaphor for what's going on all over America: Nobody cared. The developer jammed the houses together to make a bigger profit; he hired cheap, inexperienced labor; the lumber was often comically warped; the workers were mostly short-termers with better things on their minds . . . I don't think anybody cared.

And what the hell. If the buyer didn't like the house, he could unload it in a couple of years for a $20,000 profit. So maybe he wouldn't care either.

The main idea was to finish the houses on schedule. It was all push, push, push. The places were sold and the people moved in before the landscaping and exterior painting were done, so that for weeks Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner lived with workers grubbing about their yard and hanging from ladders at their bedroom windows.

Sometimes the moving men would come with the furniture, and the carpenters would be nailing in the baseboard. Or the plumbing wouldn't be hooked up. I remember hearing the superintendent shout one day: "The lady in Lot 22's been there two day, and, dammit, she wants to take a bath tonight!"

WHEN THE FARM weather came in May, it seemed like everybody was getting ready to quit. Terry, the touch-up painter, after a month of staring at white walls and making them whiter, was trying to return to the computer business. Sky, the girl painter (who got paid $3 an hour while the guys were getting $4), was looking for a waitress job. Even Red Rooster - who had been on the payroll for a year, longer than any of the 100 or so hourly workers - even the boss was talking about leaving. He was heard to say, "They don't pay me enough to be a bastard."

It was quitting, too. It was summer and time to outdoors instead of on an assembly line. Just when the workers were nicely suntanned and ready to enjoy their rightful leisure as Americans of the 1970s, the company was cracking down on overextended lunch hours. Who cared if the workers didn't like it? Let them quit, because there was a steady stream of hippies arriving in Boulder every day, hungry for work.