Friday, September 11, 2009


There were two articles that I read yesterday that struck a cord with me. I've had to think on both of them, let them ferment, if you will, before being able to really put to words what my thoughts are.

The first was this article written last year by Dr. Clifford Wirth of Surviving Peak Oil - which is a really good source for great information.

I completely respect this blog author and the opinions he has developed based on his years of researching the Peak Oil phenomenon. Afterall, he is an expert in the field, and not some suburban housewife, like me, who's just read a couple of articles and formed an opinion based on what might actually be very one-sided information.

My concern comes from his description of the future, and how life here in the northeast may not be possible absent the inputs of cheap energy. He argues that "things wear out" and without cheap energy, there will be no replacement parts. Yes, it's true. All of it. All of the stuff he says about asphalt shingles and batteries and transportation needs. All true.

But what's also true is that asphalt shingles have an life expectancy of thirty years, which means I still have more than a quarter of a century to be thinking about what I'm going to do about my roof when the current materials wear too thin to be of use. And those people who might be building new structures twenty years from now might be encouraged to consider something other than asphalt.

What he says about how difficult it is to heat our homes in this part of the country and the fact that woodstoves wear out and how getting replacements might not be possible is all true.

But what's also true is that as people started moving from Europe to the "new world", the first places that were settled were areas in the northeast, and one of the major cities in the new world (and even four hundred years later) was Boston, Massachusetts, which is, in the northeast. If this part of the world were so inhospitable in a low energy world, I'm fairly certain that it wouldn't have been the seat of a new nation.

The second article was Jackie's Tips for Hardcore Homesteading, and like Dr. Wirth's article referenced above, I can not disagree with anything she says. For instance, I don't disagree that it is improbable that I could grow all of the food we'll need to eat on our quarter acre - even with "intensive gardening."

My concern with her article is not that I think she's misrepresenting anything, because I don't. My concern is that the average suburbanite will read that and think there is no hope, but to move out to an "acreage", and I don't believe that it is either possible or advisable to do that.

My concern is that the average suburbanite, having read that article, will just think, "Well, f*&k it then. If it can't be done, then why even try?"

And the answer is, because it doesn't have to be all or nothing. There are other options. I could probably grow all of the tomatoes my family will eat for an entire year. I could probably even grow enough to sell at the Farmer's Market.

But we will, probably, want more than just tomatoes to eat.

I can grow lots of tomatoes. My neighbor could grow lots of potatoes, and then, we could swap. That way, we both have all of the tomatoes and all of the potatoes we can use.

But I'd probably want more than just potatoes and tomatoes.

There's a neighbor across the way who has a nice, level lot. He could, easily, grow zuchinni. His neighbor could grow cabbage. Their neighbor could grow carrots ....

You get the picture. *I* don't have to do it all.

I can also walk four miles to the dairy farm for milk and beef, and while I'm there, I can visit the goat farm next door for cheese. I'm fairly certain there is something I could barter for those products, especially if I'm able to walk four miles (which I am).

Of course, my neighbors aren't growing potatoes right now, and it's unlikely that they will start in the very near future, which means, for the time being, I, kind of, do have to be self-sufficient, but I don't.

I have other options.

I live in a richly, diverse area, where we have a lot of food choices - wild food. The challenge is to be able to distinguish what I can eat, but what I'm discovering is that there are a lot more "can be eaten" things out there than there are "will kill you" things. So, while I'm waiting for my neighbors to start their potato field, I can grow a few potatoes, but I can also go out and gather acorns.

Both articles make some very important points, and the one piece of advice they both give that we all should heed is that there is a "too late to start" point, but there's never a "too early to begin."

Learning to grow something, anything, your family will eat is a good idea, right now, and doing the mental work necessary to consider lower energy alternatives should be a daily task, right now.

But most importantly, and what both articles seem to discount, or just fail to consider, is that few of us live alone on an island, and while my ultimate dream life would be to live completely self-sufficiently, I know that it's not going to happen - at least not in the foreseeable future. I've accepted that fact.

Jackie says that it's not possible to be a hardcore homesteader with less than an acre of land to cultivate. Dr. Wirth says that life in the northeast will become tenable in a low energy future.

I say, nothing's impossible. A hundred years ago flying from the east coast of the US to Europe wasn't possible, but, now, people do it every day.

I say that most of us aren't going to have the option of living someplace else, and that if we wish to survive in a world without abundance, it's never too early to start cultivating a skillset that will support a less energy-denpendent lifestyle.


  1. Interesting points. As for the "can't be a hardcore homesteader with >1 acre of land" claim, I have a couple of responses. The first one is that "hardcore homesteader" isn't very well defined. Maybe a family of 8 can't be self-sufficient on an acre in some parts of the US. But what is the actual claim being made here? No wood lot? No milk cow? Alright, but plenty - *plenty* - can be produced on less than an acre.

    What I know from my own experience on my 2/3 of an acre is that I produce a lot of food, and still haven't come anywhere near to maxing out the food that could be produced here. Partly that's because I haven't exploited every available square foot, partly because the fruit trees and other perennials we have are mostly not yet producing, and partly because I know that someone with more skill and a better work ethic could produce more. We haven't even added bees yet, which don't compete with humans for food, take up hardly any space at all, and produce a highly caloric food which needs almost no processing to store indefinitely. Oh, yeah. Then there's the large 3-car detached garage hogging up a significant chunk of our 2/3 acre. I know that if the choice came down to starving or finding a way to get rid of everything in that garage, we'd tear that sucker down.

    Another response would be to point out that John Jeavons' biointensive methods allowed (in actual practice) one year's caloric requirements for an adult to be produced on an astonishingly small piece of land. If I'm not mistaken, it was something like 700 square feet. Probably wasn't the most exciting diet in the world, but the calories and nutrients were there.

    So yeah, there's not much room to let suburbanites completely off the hook here. Even if that suburban family of four can only lay claim to those 700 square feet, that's probably more than 1/4 of their caloric needs right there. And the "developments" where I live all require one acre minimum lots anyway, so...

  2. First, Kate, I would look at your garage and think Barn. But maybe because I have salvaged a barn and it would save a ton of work to build a barn.

    I think the myth of "self-sufficiency" is that you could provide ALL of your needs. When actually I think it is exploiting all of you abilities and skills; which may be in some folks case, really good interpersonal skills. There is a lot to be said for" plays well with others". Subsistence Farming communities are just that communities.

    The idea of the lone survivalist hiding out in the middle of nowhere may work for some. But for how long? Tools break, you need another pair of hands for a project, it is nice to celebrate the harvest with others.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion that 'it's never too early to start cultivating a skillset that will support a less energy-dependent lifestyle.' Being able to do "some" things will put you in a better position to barter, if necessary.

    Since I've been on-and-off been seeing something about Surviving Peak Oil on a couple of blogs, it's time for me to investigate. When you talked of the east coast not doing well without an oil-based energy source, it gave me food for thought.

    It also reminded me of when I moved to Minnesota. Everyone thought I was crazy because "it's sooo cold there." Yes, it's freezing during the long winter, but my answer was this: "The Pioneers lived there, survived, and had families with far fewer conveniences than I." Everyone must adapt to survive. I think some folks have just become too soft.

    Great post once again, Wendy. You always give me something worth thinking about.

  4. ... there's not much room to let suburbanites completely off the hook here. Dang. Guess I need to get to work, then *grin* ;).

    The idea of the lone survivalist hiding out in the middle of nowhere may work for some.

    I think the idea is appealing to a lot of people - especially in these times, but there are very *very* few people who can put it to pratice and make it work. Most people do need those extra hands. Humans are, afterall, "pack" animals ;). The irony is that the folks who want to run off into the woods with their pickles and ammo are often the people who are most expressive on the online forums ;). I mean, it's not a community like, you know, a community, but it's still sharing ideas with other humans, which would be missing for the lone survivor in the middle of nowhere.

  5. Well, I think that the east coast has an advantage of many other regions. WE have water. We may have had a little too much water this years and there have been periods of drought but not nearly as harsh as other regions of the country.

  6. Connie - Exactly. There were people living all over this continent for a very long time before we became dependent on cheap energy.

    And thank you. I'm glad you find something useful in my ramblings ;).

    Fleecenik - It's funny you say that. Of all of the conservation efforts I've made the one area where I seem to fail miserably is conserving water, because there's just so much of it. In fact, we almost never have to even consider watering the garden, because there's usually enough rainfall to keep everything green.

  7. And water here is a concern at least in the summer. We get a lot in the spring but then it won't rain for 2 months. I have a big cistern and am going to get another. I figure I'll capture it in the spring and hopefully it will last for most of the dry period.

  8. I remember around the turn of the century (what a funny turn of phrase) the state of Maine was in a drought for a long while. Many folks had wells that dried up, fire danger was really high, and well drillers were digging deeper. It was a real concern for many. But with so much water around it was hard to comprehend, until you looked at the banks of many rivers and lakes and saw the water mark many feet above the level of the water.

  9. You make some good points. I think a combination of doing as much as you can with the land you have, combined with barter and working together with a few good friends/neighbors, will be a good way to work toward sustainable living in the future

  10. there are still so many things in our life that require cheap energy. i keep pecking away at them. it seems that all of our advances toward sustainability still require rudimentary input. things like grain for the milk cow, pigs and chickens and gasoline for my chainsaw continually loom over my head. we will likely try to grow sugar beets for winter cattle feed and wood-lot/pasture our pigs. the chickens can sustain on their own during the summer months.

    i get lost in these tangents and continue to try to address them. although, i know that in a doom situation we'd be better off than most. being in this situation closing in on lowering our carbon footprint only makes me realize how far we still have to go.

  11. This was the first year I tried to vegetable garden "seriously", up until this year it's just been the occasional salad. And thanks to a lot of wonky weather? Garden was a disaster.

    Don't care. Doing it all (and probably more) next year. I am convinced that, in my lifetime, these are skills I will need. But you have no idea how glad I am that I don't need them THIS year, lol!

  12. Wendy, I thought I read awhile back on here that you were doing a herbal medicine course. Am I remembering right? I'd like to take one online or by correspondence and am looking for input.

  13. Christy - the course I was (supposed to be) taking was offered by The Blessed Maine Herb Farm.

    I think it's a reasonable course with regard to price, and I think it will do exactly what it's designed to do, which is teach the skills necessary to understand plant medicine. It's a good course. I just got ... off course ;). Heh!

    I still have the materials, and someday, I hope to get back on track with it. It's good knowledge to have, and something I think I will benefit from in the future.