The Song Can’t Remain the Same

The Song Can’t Remain the Same

I expected some savings during the quarantine from not driving, going out to restaurants or ordering takeout. I expected an equally big bump in our grocery bill when Thing1 returned to the nest, but, even with two giants to feed (13-year-old Thing2 hit the six foot mark this week), thrift, apparently, is part of our new normal. It’s one of the few welcome surprises this month.

I thought about it as I came across a video about propagating root vegetables from cuttings from store-bought veggies. Always a sucker for a recycling project, I knew I’d need a place to keep my cuttings safe from cats looking to knock things over. Before the pandemic I might’ve stopped at the garden center on my way home from work. With every project and new recipe lately, however, I find myself going shopping in my attic or the recycle bin with an eye on repurposing items that might’ve been forgotten or even tossed.

Last year I, along with a plethora of other Americans got swept up in decluttering — removing things from the house that didn’t spark joy. I quit when I got to the book stage (might as well declutter cats or kids), but I was already fumbling during the closet clean-out. I was never going to get that perfect pink size 6 dress on again, and I’m sure it found a better home with a more dedicated dieter. There were plenty of items, however, that went to donation bins whose goals of redistributing old clothing, I later learned, may be doing more harm than good.

For environmental and economic reasons, we were off grid for over a decade. We obsessed over every watt we consumed, but this sparkling solitude has made me question my own material consumption.

A few days ago I stumbled on a wonderful movie on Netflix called “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind“. I highly recommend for anyone with kids — I even ordered bought the book for my middle schoolers for fall. The story takes place just at the time of the 9-11 attacks and follows a high schooler in Malawi named William along with his family as they endure flooding, drought and subsequent crop failures. The change in family fortunes force them to count every grain in every meal. For William, a born tinkerer who loves fixing things, the changes mean the end of school, but, consumed with a vision of wind-powered irrigation for the village, he sneaks into the library to conduct research on his own.

There are so many powerful themes throughout the movie — strength, family in all its complexity, perseverance, and the power of education – but, as I watched William rummage through the village landfill for scrap metal and used electronics to build his turbine, another, smaller, theme emerged. Education, not merely necessity, was the mother of William’s inspiration, but it was thrift and ingenuity that helped him use whatever was on hand to bring together his turbine and save the village.

Now, a year after my failed purges, I am rethinking every purchase and every creation in terms of its embodied energy and its impact on our budget. The purge got me thinking about what happens to those things when we’re ‘done’ with them. Watching a determined teenager cobble together a life-saving machine with recycled parts, however, provided a sober — and inspiring – new perspective that will make me consider much more carefully exactly when I’m ‘done’ with something and when it still has another life left in it.

Isn’t It Romantic

Isn’t It Romantic


We live well away from the madding crowd – such as it exists in rural Vermont (no, it’s not redundant). While we try to be as energy and resource independent as possible, the plot where our slice of life plays out is definitely a homestead – not a farm.
During summer months, we grow a fair amount of food, but my garden is as much about pleasure as it is necessity. We’ve had chickens for eggs, but also for company in the garden. When the fox raided our coop, we were sad but not scared – we knew there were fresh brown eggs for sale in the cooler at the end of our neighor’s driveway. We’ve made our own maple syrup, but most of the time we buy it from friends who are trying to build a working family farm.

Most days we’re so wrapped up in middle-class mundaneity that the solar panels and hot water on the roof and the amish wood cookstove that heat and power our life seem completely mainstream.

And then it snows. And snows. And snows. And we load a few more logs next to the woodstove and think how lovely it all looks. And, as much as I once romanticized the idea of being completely self-sufficient ,I’m glad we’ve picked the battle that lets us wait out the storms we’ve seen this winter without worry.

It is work – I hang every scrap of laundry and we monitor every watt we use – but it’s also a luxury, and we’re grateful for it each time the snow begins to fly.

 

Blessed Burdens

Blessed Burdens

Laundry peace

Living off-grid means every scrap of laundry gets hung on a line, but if you think because the clothes dry more slowly I would be able to stay ahead of the folding, you’d be wrong.  

I can wash and hang three hampers full of biohazard-quality laundry in a single day, but the to-be-folded pile only grows.  I usually tackle it before Google Earth registers it as a new land mass, and I rarely mind the activity.  The rhythm of the sorting always stimulates meditation.  

Last Saturday, it stimulated something else.

Hoping to disrupt the strange biorhythms that, only on weekends as soon as I sit down before dawn to write, rouse my children and send them searching for snuggles and cereal, I’ve fled to the nearby country store to work before heading to Hubbard Hall, to help with the tech side of a blogging class.  The class has provided plausible cover for my morning escapes, and each afternoon I’ve come home thinking I couldn’t be more thankful for anything else that day than I was for a little grown-up time.

This last Saturday I came home to a different kind of grown-up time. A neighbor phoned looking for computer help.  I glanced around our kitchen/great room and at the laundry pile and said, “Come on over!”  He would be here in a few hours.  

Folding sessions usually occur after bedtime (the biorhythms only manifest when Mom is doing something fun), but  with impending company, I made an exception and began my folding dance, aided by my iPod and earbuds.  

The couch and table were soon dotted with neat multi-colored piles.  My antics immediately drove thirteen-year-old Jack to his room to study.  Seven-year-old Thing2, however, remained, quietly dancing over from the TV area.  

I sorted and thought about writing and chores.  I didn’t really think about the folding aside from which things should go to Goodwill.  Thing2 interrupted my ruminations, wrapping his arms around my waist as I was in mid-fold.

“Mommy, can I help?”  he asked.

“You really want to fold clothes?”  I asked.  

“No,” he said.  “But I want to help.”  He released me and spun around the living room.  Then he returned for another hug.  “Maybe I can play some music for you,” he suggested.  He sat down at the nearby piano and plunked out “Do-Re-Mi”.  

I took out my earphones so I could listen.  I kept folding, but there was no rhythm now.  Thing2 sang softly with the piano.  Too small items rotated out of inventory, sometimes taking with them a last tangible souvenir of this family vacation or that event.  Jack’s old shirts went into Thing2’s piles.  The piles grew and so did the memories.  

Well before the to-fold pile was gone and the folded clothes packed into baskets, the task ceased being a burden.  It was a reminder of the things that make a life worthwhile.  And, for once, I didn’t just make the best of the laundry pile. I was thankful for it.

it is NOT Cold

it is NOT Cold

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At this time of year, the big challenge of living off-grid in an earth-sheltered (read: 3 feet of insulation on 3 sides) is to remind yourself 69 on the thermostat would be T-shirt weather if it were describing the temperature outdoors, but when the only thing reflecting light back at you as you let the cat in at 5AM for his morning nap is the frost coating the world outside your door, it’s hard to remember that it’s too early in the year to light a fire. 

Homework

Homework

Going Green

It’s 5:00 AM, and I’m just sitting down to work.  It’s going to snow today, so I opened the vents on our big black wood cookstove to get the embers from last night’s fire heating again.  The running of the stove has become a rhythm that’s as comforting as the heat itself, but it getting to this point has been an education.

A friend of mine is the co-owner of one of Vermont’s finest country stores.  On any given weekday morning, a thick circle of pickup trucks and cars surround it as contractors and carpoolers stop in for pastries, beverages and – if they have the time – some steaming hot politics.  Weekends are just as crowded, especially during ski and foliage seasons, and you can always hear the store’s owners giving directions as first time visitors absorb the atmosphere.  They chuckle at the jauntily decorated mannequin by the register and the plastic sign that reads, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”  The owners manage to keep the place constantly smelling off fresh cookies or fried foods, and wide creaking wood floors complete the ambience.

The store’s welcoming atmosphere is why so many tourists, wandering the aisles, find themselves suddenly contemplating a move to Vermont.  They’ll start asking the locals and the proprietress about real estate or schools.  She always answers them honestly and good-naturedly, but she ends every Q&A with the same admonition, “Just do your homework.”

I was lucky enough to join a writing group with this woman and a few of her friends, and she and they became my first close friends in Vermont.  She was one of my many sounding boards as we began considering and then building an earth-sheltered, off-grid house.  She listened to our idea and my excitement, and, after encouraging me, put her hand on my arm and said very solemnly, “Just do your homework.”  So we did.

As we designed and planned and sub-contracted, I got to know every off-grid site on the web.  I acquired a three-foot high stack of magazines and books on everything from ‘High Thermal Mass Construction’ to ‘Heating Your Water with Your Woodstove.’  We had every issue of Back Home Magazine (a periodical for do-it-yourself off-gridders), and every time I met someone who was using solar hot water or solar panels, I ambushed them with a barrage of questions.

Almost a year after we broke ground, we moved in.  The walls were primer-ed and the rudimentary kitchen (which I later added to with tag sale cabinets) had only the bare necessities.  We had a pantry with no shelves, and were sweeping and mopping up dust for the first three weeks.  But the first day in the new house was a glorious, sunny June day, and we were overjoyed to see what we had hoped to see.  Our solar panels were charging the new batteries beautifully – even with our appliances plugged in.  We figured we had made our energy calculations accurately, and hugged each other.  Then the sun went down.

Suddenly the fridge we had brought from our old house made its presence known.  We watched the energy meter numbers plummet from the 30s to the minus 20s.  It didn’t take much calculating to realize that at this rate, our batteries would be sucked dry by morning.   We knew we didn’t want to keep our old fridge, but finances had kept us from buying the ultra-efficient one we wanted right away.  We also knew, however, the key to our success would be keeping our consumption low.  So it was off to the appliance store where we bought the least-consumptive fridge we could find. It was also the smallest fridge that could still be called a fridge, but it did the trick.

Again, we congratulated ourselves on our research and problem-solving, but we had just begun to scale the learning curve – and it was about to get steep.

One of the key components of our winter off-grid plan was our wood cookstove.  We had purchased it from a store that catered to the Amish community in Montana, and our plumber had installed water jackets in it for us.  These jackets would circulate water from our domestic tank to the stove using only the heat in the jacket water to propel it up and around the circuit.  The first day it was cold enough to have a fire without turning the house into a sauna, we lit one.  What we got was not a sauna, but a swimming pool.

About an hour into the first fire, we heard a roar from the back of the stove.  When the my husband (a.k.a the Big Guy) and I recovered from our shock, we went over to see what had happened and, as we stepped in a massive puddle, realized that the stove’s pressure safety valve had gone off, releasing the gallons of water that had heated to the boiling point.

This was not supposed to happen.  We had researched this thoroughly – we thought.  The Big Guy has an engineering background and, working with the plumber, quickly realized that our original calculations missed a variable when deciding where to put the stove.  Several weeks of cold showers later (we had to stop the water flowing to the stove) they re-installed the welded jackets and a small motor to propel the water.  The stove has given us a toasty house and piping hot showers for almost seven winters now.

Over the years, off-grid living has taught us a lot, but mostly it has taught us about ourselves.  Naturally, we have learned – as our friend still advises – to do our homework.  We have learned about the necessity of finding the delicate balance between principle and practicality.  We have learned how to make do and to do without.  We have learned patience.  But we have also learned that  the most fundamental education comes when you take the test, and while Life is pass or fail, as long as you’re still trying, you’re passing.  In any other venue we might be getting a strong C, but it’s a score we’re proud to post on our new super-efficient fridge.