Thursday, October 27, 2011

Spinning Back the Clock as We Move Forward

To say that I'm a history buff would probably not be entirely accurate. I love historical fiction - always have (in fact, when I was a youngster one of my favorite novels was Calico Captive), but I don't study history for the sake of studying history, and I am not the very model of a modern Major-General and I do not know the Kings of England, nor can I quote the fights historical.

Of late, I've become fascinated even more with historical stories - not because I like living in the past, but rather because I am fascinated by how people lived. How did they manage to survive without grocery stores and cars? What did people do before there was Dancing with the Stars on television for entertainment?

Last week, my girls and I visited the York Museum in York, Maine. It is a restored 18th Century Tavern, and they demonstrated such skills as hearth cooking, sewing, and carding/spinning/weaving wool (and, now, Little Fire Faery wants spinning equipment for Christmas ;). They also showed us some 18th Century games (Nine Men Morris, which I actually mention in my book ;), and finally, we went out to the graveyard for story time.

What was fascinating (and revealing, if we let it be) is the fact that adults didn't really die young back in those days. The infant/child mortality rate was fairly high, and childhood - as we think of it today - was essentially non-existent, but as one of the museum personalities told us, if one lived to adolescence, the life expectancy was then pretty high, and if one looks at older gravestones, one sees that three out of five people lived to be older than 70. Because the life expectancy for a child under the age of twelve was so low, the overall life expectancy during that time seems low to us.

Today, most of us expect to live into our seventies, and most of us probably will, but I think a lot more adults are dying a lot younger than was true back in the 18th Century.

A few years ago, PBS aired a program called Colonial House. The goal of the experiment was to show what life was like back in colonial times starring people who were accustomed to 20th Century luxuries.

After the program aired, the houses the producers had built at their Maine location were dismantled and moved to Plimoth Plantation - which is a historic reproduction of a 17th Century Village in Massachusetts.

I haven't had the opportunity to visit Plimoth Plantation (yet), but looking at the pictures, I was struck by how similar that little village is ... to my modern suburb.

The houses were a little (okay, a LOT) less flashy and considerably smaller, and the furnishings are a lot more sparse and not so lavish, but the houses are built fairly close together with small "kitchen gardens" (where herbs and greens would have been grown - with the main food crops grown in a community garden just outside of the village proper). Small livestock, like chickens and pigs, would be closer to the homes, in the "yards", and larger livestock would be on communal pastures.

The colonists would have made good use of what nature provided, including what was in the ocean or nearby streams, or in the woods, and (at least in the beginning) they would have been heavily dependent on the local Natives for food and skill-building.

There were things about life back in those days that were, admittedly, difficult, and I'm not trying to romanticize what life was like. It was tough - cold and gritty are two words that come to mind.

My goal, therefore, is not to say that their life was better than the lives we have today, but rather to point out that it probably wasn't as bad as we think. Further, if we take some lessons from them, our chances of surviving into a future where we find ourselves with a lot fewer choices ... a lot LESS than we have ... are better.

We have something here in the suburbs that no civilization before us has had, and I don't think that most of us realize how incredible it is. For the first time, in history, we can all be "Lords", or landowners. We may only have this tiny piece of land, but it's ours, and never before has this been true.

We have, for the first time in human history, the opportunity to create communities in which we are all, by virtue of the fact that we are all landowners, equal.

But it's only possible, because of the suburbs.

As we slide further into resource depletion, one Peak Oil expert tells us that we have two options - find a way to purchase a rural parcel of land or live in an urban area, more likely than not, a slum.

I submit that we have a third option, the option most Peak Oilers want to discount, and that is, we stay in the suburbs and we make our suburbs like our colonial towns - (mostly) self-sufficient collections of interdependent homesteads.

My family and I are continuing to learn colonial, pioneer, homesteading (whatever you want to call them) skills. We do more by hand. We grow/raise and forage more of our food. In fact, my girls are now compiling their gift-giving lists for this year, and nothing on the list is a "bought" item, but rather they are planning what they can make.

I went to some friends' house the other day. They live in a very modern suburb and have a beautiful home. The yard was a gorgeous spanse of green grass - just begging for a couple of fruit or nut trees, and along the border of their yard, would be a perfect place for a split rail fence on which a grapevine would trail nicely, and there was still plenty of room for a couple of garden beds. Worstcase, their very long driveway was perfect for a few growing containers.

The huge, two-car garage could easily house a home business.

Inside, they had wide-pine flooring (I swooned!). Their fireplace had an honest-to-goodness hearth - perfect for cooking -, but they were already set-up with an efficient cooking system - a propane cooktop with an energy-efficient convection oven ... certainly not "low" energy, but lower in overall energy consumption than, perhaps, the average suburban range (and during a power-outage, assuming they had propane, they could still cook - even if it were too warm for a fire in the fireplace).

As for the layout of their home, they could easily close off access to the upstairs bedrooms in the winter to conserve heat, especially if they ended up having to sleep near the fireplace.

Retrofitting the suburbs to a lower energy future is really no more complicated than thinking beyond what they are to what they can become. When I look at pictures of colonial villages, I see a suburb, and when I look at pictures of our modern suburbs with the huge houses and wide expanses of grassy lawn, I see a future village.


  1. I've made much the same observations about the suburbs in the past, and call what you're talking about "repurposing." Suburban developments are often (perhaps unconsciously by now) patterned on English villages; the only thing missing are the gardens local businesses. And as you point out, yards and houses could be retrofitted without much effort.

    A lot of my doomer friends subscribe to a fast-crash "zombie apocalypse" scenario, or "Mad Max" as they like to put it. I don't see events playing out that way, the least of which is the thought that entitled suburbanites will march out to the hinterlands and demand to be taken care of. (Most of those types can barely walk across a parking lot, they don't have proper hiking gear or survival skills, and somehow they're going to hike 30 miles and force themselves on people who know the lay of the land and are often armed?)

  2. Actually, I think the kind of people you describe wouldn't think to go out to the hinterlands, but would, rather, flock to the cities.

    I didn't realize that the sburubs were modeled after English villages, but looking at them, it a does make sense.

    Now, just to get people accustomed to the idea of seeing a cow on the lawn instead of an ATV ;).

  3. I agree totally Wendy. We just need to add some local business to the burb's with a local food supply, and they would look like a village. By the way, I am really enjoying your book!


  4. @ Gavih - the nice thing about the suburbs is that most of us have these big houses that would allow for a small business.

    A few years ago, I learned that the people next door used to have a mobile "store", of sorts. Way back thirty years or so ago, there were only a few houses between the main road and our town (six miles or so) and the lady who lived next door had a little cart she'd wheel out to the road every day. She sold snacks and soda to the tourists who drove by ;). It's not the sort of business, perhaps, that the suburbs need today or will need in the future, but it's that sort of entrepreneurial spirit, that I believe, is alive and well in the 'burbs that will help us transition - if we are willing to take the initiative.

  5. I love Colonial House, but my favorite was Frontier House, I watch that at least once per year...perhaps because I like all the conflict between the families. I'm most interested in all the cooking that the women did. I feel like I do quite a lot of cooking myself, but I'm not sure how I would feel without some way to take care of leftovers so I don't have to cook 3 meals/day everyday, which it seems all of these house shows did. Although, since it has become quite chilly outside at this point...I'm sure I could just set a cooler on my porch and call it good :-)

  6. I love the PBS "House" series! With the Brits they made one for just about every historical period, from "Colonial" to "1940s House" (set in London during the war). My personal favorite was "Regency House Party." There were also at least two Canadian ones in the same vein - one on homesteading on the Manitoba prairies and one on being a york boater/voyageur - but not affiliated with the "House" series. Your local library may have copies or you could request them. I haven't watched PBS lately, but they occasionally play reruns or they might be available online.

    As for the landowner thing - that's been around in American since the first settlements. The trading companies technically owned the land, but once you get into the 1700s and the trading companies get charters revoked or go out of business, people start to divide up the land and settle it. The whole impetus for may European emigrants was the search for suitable farm land and for my Scandinavian ancestors, it was the first real farmland many of them had owned (well, anything more than a few acres, anyway). So the opportunity to be "lords" of one's own household/farm was actually probably more common in the 19th century than it is today.

    And the suburbs? Less about owning land and far more about escaping the squalor and industrial pollution of 19th and 20th century cities.

    That being said, I'd still rather own a house, but right now that's not financially responsible for us, so we'll settle for long-term rent in an adorable little house with a very large, secluded yard.

  7. You are right about the life expectancy, my father has been quoting that statistic to me for years. More anecdotal is my mothers family who were raised in Northern Ontario, no electricity until 1945 and no indoor plumbing until the late 60's. I grew up hearing her tell me that we didn't know how to have fun. She always said when she was growing up they knew how to have fun. The life expectancy in her family in the early to mid 1900's was at least into the 90's. Several family members lived to be well over 100 and still active. They lived a hard life, but they played hard too. Since leaving the North half her siblings (there was 11) have died in their 60's and the rest are sickly. Best times in my life were spent up North listening to drunk aunts and uncles tell stories with French accents and singing songs with Irish ones. I have no worries that if we had to live without electricity we would do alright.