Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Eating Cake in the Suburbs

I've been fascinated by the back-to-the-land movement, because it was the first widespread indication that people were getting fed-up with the over-consumptive lifestyle the dawn of the oil age allowed us to embrace. I'm fascinated by why they chose that lifestyle, but even more importantly, I'm eager to discover why most of them left.

Jean Hay-Bright's story, Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life, about living next door to both the infamous Nearings and the, now, equally famous Eliot Coleman, is a wonderful peek into that movement, and why, ultimately, it failed for most people.

The problem, for Hay-Bright and for some of those who traveled across the continent from California to Tennessee following Stephen Gaskin to the Farm, was that they had an idealized view of the simple life with very little experience in doing things like growing and preserving food, working with hand tools (like a shovel), or even doing laundry without machines. I think what they didn't realize is that living a more simple life is not about finding paradise. It is about empowerment and freedom. Or maybe they really did understand the freedom and empowerment, but didn't realize how much and how difficult was the work involved. Doing things by hand is hard ... yes, it certainly can be.

I know that some people who aren't really reading my book, or who skim my blog posts, or who only hear every other word of what I'm saying might be led to believe that I'm telling people that we should eschew all technology and embrace a completely handmade life, but that's not really true. It's not what I believe, and in fact, it's not even what I say. There is a whole day/chapter in my book that is devoted to electricity and ways that we can provide some for ourselves and even reasons why we should be investing in some sort of personal alternative energy system. I don't think that we should simply give up what we've worked so hard to gain, but neither should we have this sense that we're entitled to it ... or that we can't survive without it. Neither is true.

What I am saying is that we should not allow ourselves to be dependent on a system that WILL fail us. So, instead of advocating for the build-out of the nuclear power industry that generates gigawatts of electricity and could keep us all in lights and cold beers for decades, but creates a radioactive waste product that can not be safely stored or disposed of, I recommend that we reduce our consumption to what we could generate ourselves - and maybe we use a more primitive form of lights and keep our beers cold in a nearby stream so that we can save our electricity for other applications. My family went from 1000 kwh per month to 350 kwh per month by making some very simple changes to what we power and how we use electricity. We're still using a lot, but at one-third our former use, we are a lot closer to being able to afford a system that will allow us to generate some or all of the electricity we want/need.

I've also been accused of encouraging people to work "harder" rather than "smarter", and that too is unfair. I don't think using powered appliances or tools is necessarily the "smarter" way to work. In fact, there is significant research that shows the invention of things like vacuum cleaners actually make more work than using a broom. In general, carpeting requires a lot more attention and care than a wood floor. Even with the best vacuum cleaners, carpets will hold dust and dirt. They are easily stained, and to really clean them uses a great deal of water. They also wear out, which means they must be replaced, and worse, disposed of. By contrast, a wood floor might need painting, occasionally, and can be kept clean with a broom and a damp cloth. It is not harder, nor does it take longer, to sweep a floor than it does to vacuum a carpet, and it takes a whole lot LESS time to mop than it does to steam clean the carpets. And mopping and sweeping require a good deal less energy than their powered counterparts.

Of course, the specific criticism had to do with my discussion in my book about my family's decision not to use a gas-powered log-splitter, but rather to split the wood by hand. The critic claims that we're adding to our work load by splitting all of our wood over time, rather than devoting one day to doing it, but let's look at that for a minute.

What this critic believes is that my family should simply take some money and rent a log-splitter (and having failed to READ what I wrote, incorrectly assumes that we would have some family members share in the cost of the rental and the work of splitting the wood - neither of which is true), and then spend a WHOLE DAY chopping wood, rather than taking a few hours here and a few hours there to split a little as we have time.

There are two problems with that. First, the critic assumes that we have the money to rent a splitter - which wouldn't be incorrect, but the question is, do we want to spend our money that way? Further, there's the fact that to have money to rent a splitter means we have to have a job, and a job takes time. So, essentially, the critic believes that I should spend my time working so that I can make money so that I can pay to rent a splitter so that I can split my firewood more quickly, and to the critic, this is an example working "smarter" rather than "harder." But I still have to do both jobs, and in the end, I spend all of my time working.

The second problem is that the critic assumes that devoting a WHOLE DAY to splitting and stacking wood is possible for us - and really, it's kind of not. We simply do not have a WHOLE DAY to devote to one project. There are a lot of demands on our time, both around our homestead and with outside commitments and projects (including jobs to make money).

We don't have a whole day, but we do have a few hours, spread over the course of the summer, to split wood. If we were to use the splitter within the time frame that we have, at only an hour a day (taking off ten minutes on each end of the hour for setting up and taking down the splitter - so really, it would only be forty minutes of actual wood splitting time), we'd need to rent the splitter for a couple of weeks, and then, we'd need to commit that hour each day to splitting wood for that entire several weeks, because the clock would be ticking and the rental bill would be mounting.

In the end, using the wood splitter instead of a maul results in a severe restriction in how we use both our time and our money, because we'd be committed to giving the owner of the woodsplitter a certain amount of money for each day that we had the woodsplitter, and we'd want to get the job done as quickly as possible to save money, which means we might have to choose between splitting wood and another activity we might wish or might need to do. Having the woodsplitter would actually be pretty stressful, if one understands the entire story, rather than making assumptions and passing judgments.

So, what was the benefit of the woodsplitter again? Oh, yeah, working "smarter" instead of "harder."

In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that we have used a woodsplitter before, and so, our decision to NOT use one is not based on some luddite fantasies about working by hand, but rather on our real-life experience of having been there, and done that. For us, doing the job of splitting wood by hand is better - and it's not due to any quasi-sanctimonious idealism, but a result of actual life experiences. I am, afterall, not an idealistic teenager who believes she knows best, but a mature adult woman who has had a variety of experiences, is very well-read, is fairly well-traveled, has a higher-than-average educational level, and has carefully thought through these changes and recommendations.

Using the splitter, as my critic suggests, would be a great idea IF we had a WHOLE DAY just to split and stack wood, but that's not our reality. Instead, after work, after a particularly stressful day, or just a day when Deus Ex Machina is feeling a little stiff and tight, he grabs the maul, and heads over to the to be split wood pile, and chops up a few logs, which he, then, stacks by the fence. After an hour, he has split about a third of a cord, and he's relaxed and enjoying those endorphins, and ready to come into the house for a nice dinner, which I was free to cook, because I wasn't busy outside helping him stack the wood.

I realize that I'm being a bit facetious, but the reality is that we, as a society, are so limited in our views of what is good, what is best, and so tied into the oil-economy, that we can't imagine why someone would not want to make use of all of these machines.

Contrary to the accusation, I am not a luddite. I enjoy technology. In fact, in many ways, I'm as dependent on it as the next person - for my job, for my comfort, for my well-being. But I believe that we should make the best use of the technologies we have available. I don't believe that ALL machines are superior to hand tools, and I think we need to be very clear about WHY we are choosing the ones we choose to use. I also don't think we should believe that we are entitled to use them all, just because they are available, and we really should pick those machines that most enrich our lives.

For the critic, it's a gasoline-powered woodsplitter, and I say, have at it! I won't (and don't) judge. For Deus Ex Machina and me, it's a maul. On the other hand, I have no interest or desire to hand wash all of my family's clothes. I have the tools to do it, but that I'm still using my electric washing machine should say something. What's that old saying about actions speaking with more volume than words? :) I've chosen the washing machine over the other option, because machine washing the clothes really does add value to my life, and it frees me to do other things. I can wash clothes AND sweep the floors. By contrast, using the woodsplitter would not free-up Deus Ex Machina to do something else. It would, in fact, tie him to the project with as sturdy a cord as using the maul.

If we're going to choose the best machines, the ones that will make our lives more enriched and easier, then we should pick the ones that will lighten our load, which is really the definition of working "smarter" rather than "harder."

The critic claims to have read my book, but some of the things she says about what she thinks I'm advocating really show that the reading was cursory, at best, with no real understanding of what I'm saying. I think she probably skipped the preface, which explains, among other things, that the book is based on a hypothetical situation in which we know something is going to happen in twenty-one days, something that will forever alter the very fabric of our society.

The book is hypothetical, but the reality is that our world is changing, and we are all going to be affected by those changes on some level. Unemployment is still pretty high and, depending on whose figures one believes, is currently between 8% and 20%. Gasoline prices are right at $4/gallon. The cost may go back down again, but I don't think we'll ever see sub-$1/gallon prices again ... or if we do, things will be so bad that even at that rate, most people won't be able to afford it. Our goverment is over a TRILLION DOLLARS in debt, which means the easy credit cash flow that has gotten us out of this same sort of mess in the past (the 1930's depression, the 1970's oil crisis, the 1980's recession - all resolved with 'stimulus money') is not going to save us this time. So, perhaps, my critic is correct that there will always be fuel available to operate small machinery, but perhaps, her assumption that I could afford or wish to invest my few dollars into that machinery when doing it by hand works just as well, is misguided.

I don't think we should all follow the Nearings and the Colemans and Stephen Gaskin into the wilderness, give up everything that is "modern", take a vow of poverty, and live a vegetarian lifestyle completely off the land. For most of us, that's not a reasonable or even a desirable lifestyle. What I do believe, though, is that whether we want to do so or not, we're going to be forced into a less consumptive lifestyle, either because we end up without a job, or because the cost of goods and services becomes too expensive for the average person to afford, or because the value of our money is degraded to the point of worthlessness. Any one of those can (and will more likely than not) happen.

I think we have the opportunity, right now, to make changes that will ensure when one or all of those things come to pass, we won't be so negatively impacted. That's the point of my silly little book - not to say that we should adopt an austere philosophy and do it all by hand, but rather that for too many of us, we will have no choice.

Right now, though, we do have a choice. We can choose to continue to cling to the remnants of our society as it falters and dies around us, or we can loosen our grip on life as we know it and make some different choices for ourselves.

For my family, the choice (after having experienced both ways) is to handsplit firewood for our woodstove that we use as our sole heat source, rather than using a gas-powered machine. For you, it may be something different. The point is to make the choice, make it consciously rather than doing it by rote because that's the way it's done, and know why you're making that choice.

Unlike the Nearings and the Colemans and the commune people, I'm not suggesting that we give it all up and start from scratch. That's the sort of mindset that causes the problems we have now - the idea that we have to "build" from the ground up, that development, that "progress" is measured in terms of physical gains. For those of us in the suburbs, we already have all of the tools we need to survive the rest of our lives, either stored in the dark corners of our homes or at the storage facility down the road. The challenge is to learn to use or to learn to repurpose these things that we have. We're not starting from a position of poverty and hoping for abundance. We're starting from a position of abundance, and we don't have to sink into impoverishment (which is more about our state of mind than it is our state of being). Rather than an up-down motion, I say we can have a side-ways motion, and continue to live a life of abundance ... just, perhaps, with a slightly modified definition of what "abundance" means.

I guess, in the end, what I hope we can all discover is that simplifying one's life is not about "giving up" anything. My family still has all of the things your family has. We still eat great food - and as much of it as we want. We still enjoy music and movies. We still have clean clothes and hot showers. We still have very modern and active lives that include all of the things that we modern folk believe makes life good. We just have them different. Our food is mostly local. Our music and movies are on the computer rather than a television (or music we're playing ourselves or live plays we're often acting in). Our clothes are machine washed, but line-dried, and for hot showers our water is from an on-demand, less energy consuming system rather than the typical tank heater.

My family hasn't given up anything, but we have made very conscious choices, and in a worst case scenario, when the price of oil skyrockets or the cost of food leaves a gaping hole in the roof or the electricity goes out for a day or a week or a month, we'll still have most of those things. That's the ultimate in self-sufficiency, the realization that life as we know it, will mostly go on, as we know it - regardless of what happens in the wider world.

And, maybe I'm misguided, but I like to imagine that, perhaps, when people were rushing back-to-the-land, what they really wanted was their cake and a fork to eat it. Here in my home, where we split wood by hand and line-dry our clothes and don't have a television set, we still have time for baking ... and I could even supply a fork and a plate for that cake.


  1. Yes, yes, and yes. It is too easy to get caught up in the mindset that it is an either/or choice. We can make different choices, and still live wonderful lives. We don't have to give up what we enjoy to make a difference. What we DO need to to is change the way we think. We need to change the idea that bigger-better-faster-more is... well, bigger, better, faster and more. We need to decide what really does matter, and focus on THAT...

  2. I think you hit it on the head there. (Haven't read your book yet, it's on my list but the budget hasn't loosened enough for new books yet...)

    I think your most important point is about our power to choose. If you want unlimited hot water, create a system that gives you that (right now most of us work several hours a day for the privilage, but we never associate the cost with the privilage.) Producing your own, or considering things in that light lets you weigh the costs. It would change a lot of behavior if bills came with labor hours rather than $ owed. We'd be less willing to make that extra trip to town if we knew it cost us an extra hour of work (of our life, doing a job most of us tolorate rather than love...) Hope the budget frees up soon, I'd love to read your book.

  3. Forgive me, but I have a migraine and just couldn't read though more than a paragraph of your post before having to turn my head. But I wanted to post a link to you that my hubby found, thought it would interest you.

    I'll read through the post and comment when I feel better, I promise.

  4. My experience is that most wood can be split by hand using a maul, but there are knots and so forth that *I* certainly can't manage to break into appropriate-size chunks. For that, there's the splitter. I discovered the trick of hitting a big piece of wood along the edge to split off slabs, and that turned many otherwise unmanageable pieces into a reasonable do-by-hand task. If there's ways to deal with those knotty problems, I'd love to hear about them…

  5. I would add that chopping all that wood by hand (plus all the other "by hand" things you guys do) saves you money in another area - you guys certainly have no need to pay for a yearly gym membership!

  6. I'm pretty new to your blog and haven't read your book or all of your posts yet. I still am not confused by your message of choice. I never got the impression that you were a Luddite either. I don't live exactly as your family does, but close enough.
    We choose things in our lives very carefully because we don't have the monetary resources to spare. Amazing what job loss does to your quality of life! We are happier and healthier.We are also free.
    Our personal model has been an Amish family we befriended. We are gradually working our way back to that level of existance. They rely on some fossil fuels, but they conserve their portion of the supply very carefully ( and wisely). That journey is our choice, but we are not jumping in head first either.

  7. Wow...that migraine must have been pretty bad for me to try to post a link to you, and fail. ~shakes head~ sorry about that! Here's the link:


  8. What's so interesting about this post is that it sounds like many of the critics are coming from a standpoint of the theoretical, not having prioritized their own daily tasks from a like perspective or any real perceived need. AS much as Jack and I have said how these changes we're trying to slowly incorporate would have been SO much easier when we were younger, I'm not sure I'd trade youth for wisdom (except to have more years with my man :)). NECESSITY determines a lot of things for us, and being older "starters" means we've husbanded our resources carefully with an eye for the future, for our future frailties and vulnerabilities, and for the best simple life to ENJOY. There will always be work, tasks, and the fulfillment that comes from tending a full life...and the feeling there is always something else waiting to be done. I LOVE that your emphasis is bettering our lives from a perspective rooted in abundance, with simplicity as an array of choices that ADD to our lives and don't have to mimic anyone else's. Those who get so obsessed in mimicing a mentor lose a good bit of their own individuality. It's sort of like gardening...just because we CAN grow a bunch of things doesnt mean that every one of them are something we'll actually enjoy eating for the longterm. I'll always be a "back to the land" person, but not in a sanctimonious way and not at all like those who make it their religion. And if I ever start leaning that direction, smack me around a bit till I regain some sense, ha! Still havent read your wonderful book, and still looking forward to it!


  9. I find that many people feel uncomfortable with their own choices when I talk about my life choices, as though my lifestyle is meant as an indictment of theirs. For instance, I frequently get sentences starting with "I know I should....but...." Sometimes, the comments become alittle more agressive, criticizing my choices as illogical, likely in order to console themselves.

    One added bonus of hand splitting is that it can be picked up for as little as ten minutes at a time. My husband, though still a smoker despite my fervent hoping he'll quit, goes to split wood while he is taking a cigarette break. Additionally, it is easy clean up.