An Ending

Hayrake, dreaming of summer days

With the old year coming to a close, our farm, like many of your farms and towns, is in the grip of an extended cold spell. While we are not forecast to get above freezing until next weekend, I’m sure for many of you it will be much longer. So, I’ll leave you today with one from the “winter” archives, When the Master Comes Home.

Hoping everyone has a safe New Year’s Eve. Thank you for allowing me to share my weekly rambles with you this year. I look forward to sharing more musings and to hearing from you in the coming year.

Cheers,

Brian

The initial thrill that comes with an ice storm and a loss of power faded a bit the morning the temperature bottomed out at 3 degrees. Delores the sow had dragged the heater out of her water trough for the fifth time, the pond ice for the cattle and horse had to be broken every few hours, and a young ewe and her newborn had to be rescued after lambing in a far corner of the wind-blown sheep pasture and relocated to the shelter of a barn stall. Still, the domestic pleasure of coming into a cozy house heated by a woodstove to sip a hot cup of tea is not to be dismissed.

Traditionally we built our houses to meet the demands of our climates, a grass hut if you lived on a tropical isle or a house with connected barn if you lived in New England. Older houses in Louisiana, when I was growing up, were typically built a couple of feet off the ground. It was a good model for a warm climate. The open space underneath kept the house cooler in the warmer months (most of the year), and the elevation protected against the occasional flooding. Freezes, like the big one in 1940 my dad recalled, were rare. And given that most plumbing was limited to the kitchen, freeze damage to the house was minimal.

Infrastructure was on my mind this past week here in East Tennessee. After a week of temperatures barely budging above freezing, we had an ice storm. The storm caused our farm to lose power. Then the temperatures plummeted to low single digits. Thankfully, we had a generator to run the refrigerator, well pump and a few essential electrical circuits. A Jotul woodstove helped keep the house a comfortable 60 degrees. Another generator at the barn kept a variety of water tanks heated for the sheep, chickens, goose, cattle and horse.

Today, our houses are designed to accommodate the additional “essentials” that just a generation ago were not needed nor even available. The electricity to keep the modern house functioning is a relatively new concept in human culture. The boundary line of what is essential has shifted. Shelter, heat, food and water now share demand with internet, smartphone, cable TV and microwave.

Older forms of infrastructure had built-in resilience: barns carefully constructed to hold heat, with hay mows above to ease the feeding of livestock in poor weather; deep in-ground cisterns to provide fresh water for the farm; houses designed to facilitate warmth in the winter or coolness in the summer—smart, low-tech designs that we have pushed aside with the assumption that the power grid will now take care of us.

Over the years Cindy and I have discussed converting our farm to an off-the-grid power system. Each time, though, we found the costs to be prohibitive. But this week, after a few days without power, as we scrambled to keep up with our needs, it occurred to me: off-the-grid is easy; it is our modern needs that are complicated, the prohibitive factor, the stumbling block, the real expense.

Those old houses in south Louisiana worked year in, year out because they had very little modern infrastructure to protect. Working under the house insulating each individual pipe before the ice storm, I was overwhelmed by how much plumbing is needed in our small house just to furnish us water on demand. Hot and cold pipes to the kitchen and the two bathrooms, the hot water heater and the washer/dryer—a complexity of plumbing requiring protection from the elements, so that it might protect us from the elements.

Driving into town late in the week, I saw dozens of downed trees, limbs still balancing on utility lines, brush pushed to the edges of the road. As I looked at the miles of power lines and telephone lines, our true vulnerability was evident. It was not the loss of electrical power that we feared but the loss of a certain status that comes with our modern life, a status of predictability.

Off-the-grid literature is typically geared towards finding ways around the commercial power source, yet retaining the modern conveniences. As we watered and fed our sheep, as lambs were born this week without regard to the temperature or the state of our utilities, I thought about the Amish. While many of us were without power, were they concerned with an inability to update their Facebook pages, charge their cell phones, keep their freezers going, stay warm with their electric furnaces? Did they feel powerless? Somehow I doubt it.

The complexity of this modern life, the infrastructure that maintains it, is hardwired for disruption. Our system and our expectations for what it must provide are such that losing power is a form of powerlessness. That in itself seems a form of slavery. Which is why there is, for me, always that bit of anarchic joy in an emergency, an unshackling from the system. Though that uncertain joy is accompanied by relief when the master comes home and power is restored.

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Reading this weekend: seed catalogs!

11 thoughts on “An Ending

  1. Yes, it makes us powerless in many ways and vulnerable to evil forces. So much of our delivery system is dependent on computers. We would have no food, gas, or other necessities if our enemies just shut down our internet.

    • Thanks, Jean, good to hear from you. Give my best to Paul.

      I’d add that our planet might just see us as the enemy, the real threat. I’m less concerned with external enemies and more concerned with our own culpability in destroying the opportunity for all life.

  2. Brian,
    We had a power outage awhile ago, but since our home has solar panels with back up batteries we didn’t notice the power was out until we walked the dogs and saw our neighbor’s lights off. Yes, you are right about it being a large investment, but It gives us a lot of comfort knowing the geothermal furnace will keep running during the single digit temperatures we are currently experiencing.

    I agree with you about how older homes were built. It seems to me that the modern lifestyle and conveniences we’ve adopted might have once sounded nice have become a crutch we can’t imagine living without. I can still recall as a kid how most fathers knew how to do most of the home maintenance and small repairs. We have lost the skills to be self reliant instead working hard to earn enough money to pay someone else to fix things for us. One of these days I hope to see people enjoy the process of fixing their own stuff, buying well made tools and simple machines that we prefer to repair rather than throw away.
    Happy New Year,
    Jody

    • And, a Happy New Year to you as well. Indeed, we have lost so much in our drive to become mere consumers. Though, it sounds like you are covering some of the bases to achieve a degree of self-reliance, at least on the power front.
      Cheers,

      • We’ve made good progress on many fronts. For the past 15 years our goal was to reduce energy use and resource consumption, to switch to renewable energy, and to eat food supplied by kitchen gardens, wild-crafted sources, and local food supply. We met many of those goals. We live in an all electric earth sheltered home. Our furnace is a ground source heat pump so with enough solar panels providing electricity we have greatly reduced our carbon foot print. We have a large central double sided fireplace that heat’s the core of the house. We have vegetable gardens and a deep pantry. I cook from scratch with a lot of whole simple food. I’ve been studying and using herbal medicines, wild edible and medicinal foods. I believe it is important we are able to take care of our basic health using plants we can grow and collect. I’ve also been establishing native plantings in my yard and woods, watching nature slowly come back and re-balance.

        When the kids were growing up we had chickens and dairy goats but I gave up the livestock when we moved into our current home. We have 5.5 acres much of which is lovely old woods that supply us with much beauty in addition to all the firewood we need. I also own and operate a local composting business where I make a wonderful products for organic, raised bed vegetable gardens. I get involved in local community gardens, teach gardening and cooking classes, topics that fall under the label permaculture.

        We’ve been living this way for so long now that it just feels “normal” to us, nothing unique about it anymore, just good simple living. Perhaps my biggest disappointment is the few people in our community that are trying to change their lifestyle. Some days I lose hope that my efforts are having any positive impact. Then I read the thoughtful words of other like minded people such as yourself and I feel a lightness of heart that gives me strength to continue. I may have started down this path believing I could save the world, now I know I was really saving my soul.

        Stay warm. I really feel for those poor ewes about to lamb the farmer that must tend them!
        Jody

        • PS. I would like to purchase one of your newly butchered lambs. Do you ship to Indiana and what do you think it would cost for meat and shipping?

          • It sure sounds like you have structured your life to be both beneficial and sustainable. I had a chance to check out your soil building website for your business, most impressive and important. Also, I’m looking forward to looking over your blog as well (didn’t connect the name from the solstice piece I read on Resilience. We too fill the house with greenery for the holiday period).

            And, thanks for the interest in a lamb. Unfortunately, with the vagaries of Federal law, lack of USDA inspection facilities, and the odd thing about state lines, it would be both prohibitive and prohibited to ship the meat. You go find a deserving local lamb farmer and support him. But, I thank you for the kind nod towards our bottom line. Talk with you later.

            Cheers,

  3. Hi Brian. Thank you for reposting this. It resonates with our experience on multiple levels. Starting from scratch on our land, we were full of ideas about how we could set up the infrastructure in a way that matched our values for a climate-appropriate and gentle-on-the-earth home. Some of the elements of our vision were possible (for example, designing a very modest-sized home, using a lot of our own lumber for building, dense-packed cellulose insulation and good windows allowing us to be very comfortable with our soapstone woodstove). Other elements such as off-grid power, cistern, root cellar, and graywater/composting for waste treatment had to be compromised due to lack of funds, zoning issues, or mortgage loan minimum requirements, as well as our own limits as far as skills and hours in the day. So we have electricity, a septic field, and traditional plumbing. Electric baseboard heat (a bank requirement, and acceptable since it seems like a sensible backup to have once one has plumbing…and okay, I admit it, I use the bathroom heater briefly on cold mornings). Chest freezers in our tiny basement (along with canned goods and potatoes). A generator to keep things running if the power goes out.

    At the same time, Rick has built up the soil in our large vegetable garden and is producing a lot of food each year. Our orchard and berry plantings are producing now and the products may well bring in income next year. The nut trees are starting to look like trees instead of sticks. We have home-grown protein via our hens, and selling eggs helps pay their keep. We delight in watching the wild bees all season long, in our own plantings and the wild areas we have set aside. We are gradually becoming a part of this pocket of a sparsely-populated rural township, and learning how to live here. We plan for our shopping and other travel needs, and don’t drive long distances at the drop of a hat.

    I fondly remember the simplicity of living without water or electricity, as I did for a while back in the late ’70s. Of course, I was much younger then! And I feel a bit of nostalgia for the first year in our current house, when we had electricity, and a well (w/electric pump) outside the kitchen door, but no plumbing in the house. I do appreciate running hot & cold water–especially in the kitchen–but having a water softener, water heater, septic system, and water lines adds complexity that takes money and mental energy that could be used elsewhere. There’s also the knowledge of the resources that went into the manufacture of the appliances, and a shadow of guilt about that.

    It can be frustrating at times to know how much “better” we could be doing things, if money were no object, if we were 30 years younger, if we had more people involved in our project, etc., etc. At the same time, we can look at where we are and the things we continue to work toward (Rick is now plotting a way to repurpose electric car batteries for solar power storage, for example) and feel grateful for what we have accomplished and for our life as it is right now.

    It’s -3 degrees here at this writing, wind chill -20 or so. Right now I’m feeling very grateful for the sun coming in the south windows and the fire in the stove.

    Best wishes from wintry Wisconsin!

    Sarah

  4. Well, you Wisconsin-ites are certainly made of sterner stuff than we southerners. And, by the way, considering Rick’s (and, yours) close association with sweet tree sap, you were kind not to take offence in my previous post on Steen’s Cane syrup.

    Reading your response, I kept nodding my head, particularly about the expense. We too couldn’t afford the expense of a basement for a root cellar, among so many other things. Although, when we first built our house, our county did not have any building codes of significance. Your house, your risk. Since that noble era, they have adopted a stringent code borrowed from a wealthier coastal region of the country. The net result, in a poor backwoods county, is no one builds custom anymore. Now, like mushrooms after a rain, manufactured housing springs up in all its particle board glory.

    Shadow of guilt, love that phrase, better than my usual “culpability”. We spend a lot of time agonizing over the choices. Like Jody and you, we do what we can, learn from others.

    Stay toasty,

  5. Ah – a new header photo. Nicely done. We are noticing a preponderance of Berry volumes, but unless our eyes deceive there is an absent recent acquisition – The Art of Loading Brush. So it must reside upon the current reading table – or at the end of the desk…

    • Astute, as always, Clem. That is a slightly dated picture. If a new one was snapped today the shelf would contain both the latest and another examination of Berry, called Wendell Berry and the Given Life, by Ragan Sutterfield. an examination of the spiritual side of Berry’s work.

Any thoughts or questions?