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.
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.
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.
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.
No one stays off the grid for very long without embracing mindfulness in a big way.
Motherhood comes with its own mindfulness. Are lunches made? Is homework done? Are there enough pop tarts for the morning? Was that scream serious or silly?
But the questions and the questioning don’t end when the kids go to bed.
It’s 9:20 PM. Thing 2 is finally snoring, and I’m trying to retune in my schedule so there is more time to work tonight after work, homework, dishes, laundry, dinners, and that. Winter is coming, albeit hesitantly, and I am trying to find a better time of day to wash my hair so I can find more wick at one end of my candle.
It should be a simple thing. Sadly, however, the hairdryer is the homemade energy grid’s natural enemy, and cold mornings make wet hair not just bad style such a bad idea. So I make a plan to move a morning ritual to the evening.
I head toward the bathroom and turn on the faucet, looking forward to a wood-fired scalding. I shiver for a few minutes as I wait for the hot water to come in, but it doesn’t. As goosebumps form, I am suddenly mindful of the dishwasher I ran earlier, but the wood stove I let sit cold on this cloudy day because the temperature outside failed to penetrate our sheltered walls. I think of the solar hot water heater that probably sat quiet under the cloud cover, and I think of the gallons hot water I wasted during an unusually long hot shower the night before. And I am suddenly mindful of the reality that not thinking about the impact of my actions (and inaction) ahead of time is going to make for a very cold shower tonight.