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.