Sunday, May 23, 2010

Things I Don't Need

When I was just getting serious about simple living a few years ago I read an article about self-reliance which really stuck with me. The author said that the biggest mistake people make when starting out is thinking that in order to become self-reliant they have to go out and buy a bunch of stuff. I remember thinking that was kind of funny--what kind of self-reliance is that? Self-reliance is really more about skill-building than it is about tool-getting, but in the early stages it's easy to believe all you need are the right tools (or at least to believe that the right tools will get you a very long way).

Tools of course are important, and when we're first adopting a simpler and more resilient lifestyle it might become very obvious, very quickly that all the tools and gadgets and gizmos we've acquired over the years are precisely all the wrong tools and gadgets and gizmos needed for self-reliance. Riding lawn mowers, microwave ovens, GPS navigation, bread machines, rototillers, dishwashers...not so important. Root cellars, chicken coops, grain mills, spades, shovels, buckets, jars...very important tools.

Part of the reason the article really stuck with me is that I've been guilty of this very thing (yeah, I know, I laughed but the joke was on me). All along I've maintained a long list of things I need to acquire in order to increase my self-reliance. Here's just the top part of my list: more canning jars and lids, grain mill, grain roller, auger juicer, meat grinder, pressure canner, carboys, herbal still, bottles, capper, bushel and peck baskets, sauerkraut and pickle crocks, jugs and gallon jars, food storage buckets, attachments for the food strainer (berry, salsa, pumpkin, and grape screens), more soaker hoses, camping stove and fuel, food dehydrator, yogurt maker, pasta roller...and the list goes on (and on). You may look at the list and think those are pretty reasonable needs. Few of us are interested in going back to a cave man existence and you have to admit many of the tools we've created over the ensuing millenia are legitimately very helpful. So what's the problem with me going out and getting all of this stuff in order to be more self-reliant?

It's not a problem as long as I don't just mindlessly run out and buy it all. Making the list and thinking about what I legitimately need is a great first step. But the next step isn't running out to the store or placing a huge online order. The next step is sitting with that list as I continue to learn and as I continue to evolve out of the consumer paradigm and into this more self-reliant paradigm. Shifting from one paradigm to another is a huge process. Until you really delve into the process you don't realize how absolutely insidious the consumer culture is or how it has subconsciously affected your thoughts and beliefs and perceived "needs". It takes quite a while to be able to one-by-one recognize the ways you've been indoctrinated into that culture and to slowly shed those erroneous beliefs.

I've been serious about this for five years now and it's still catching me by surprise when I realize--oh, I don't need this after all--about one thing or another. My real needs keep dwindling, and my real self-reliance keeps growing.

My self-reliance is growing not because I made a list and bought a bunch of tools. My self-reliance is growing because I've gotten out there and started doing the work. I've started acquiring the skills. It's one thing initially to think about what you might need in order to be self-reliant, but it's another thing entirely to learn-through-doing what you really need. By getting out there and doing all I can, I see what works and what doesn't and I see what tools would be legitimately useful.

For the longest time I've wanted a pressure canner, but now I've struck that off the list. Not necessary. How did I come to that realization? By growing a garden, by learning everything I could about food storage, by trying out different methods, and by figuring out that pressure canning is the most fuel-intensive, nutrient-destructive method of food preservation there is. It should be a technique of last resort, if even used at all. What can I do instead? Use the root cellar and in-ground storage for certain crops; extend the season in the garden using coldframes, hot beds, and rowcovers, so I can have fresh vegetables as long as possible each year; store dry beans and grains and only cook them as needed; use old-world techniques such as preserving with sugar, brines, alcohol, pickling, fermenting, dehydrating, etc. As a last resort I use my waterbath canner. It uses a lot of fuel and destroys nutrients but not to the extent that a pressure canner does. I find it indispensable for preserving the tomato harvest (although I do sun-dry some tomatoes as well).

Another silly idea of mine was a pasta roller. I thought it was a reasonable desire, especially since I didn't want one of those fancy electric gizmos, just a lowly hand-cranked one--and my son loves pasta--so why not? Why not? Because there's an even more elegant solution. It's called a rolling pin, and it works beautifully. The rolling pin is also a wonderful device for making flour and corn tortillas so I don't need one of those tortilla presses either (that made it onto my list at one point too).

And yogurt maker...what a ridiculous idea. Just pop it in a warm place...a preheated oven, a haybox, an insulated cooler. Why complicate life with all of these unnecessary gadgets? A camping stove? I wanted that in case the power goes out. But how about I build a rocket stove and a solar cooker instead? Then I won't be dependent on buying fuel canisters, but instead can rely on twigs and the sun, both of which are locally abundant. In my last post I mentioned that something as seemingly critical as a drilled well isn't even necessary--just catch and store rainwater.

So bit by bit my list is dwindling. It's to the point now where the only electrically-operated wishes on the wish list are tools I would need to eventually build my cabin (plugged into a gas-powered generator--another item on the list). Well, there is the small matter of the heat mat for starting my pepper seedlings--that's electric too. But if I hold off on that until I move to the desert it won't even be necessary.

I love this process. It's gratifying to find myself becoming increasingly skillful and at the same time less dependent on the system to provide for me. The gadgets I need from the system now are elegantly simple ones--a rolling pin, a shovel, a dutch oven, a jar, an ax. I love it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Water, Deserts, and Homesteading

Well, this post is going to be full of irony, considering that in my last post I talked about how humans don't really belong in drought-prone areas--and now I'm thinking I want to move to the desert. I've been doing a lot of research lately and I'm starting to believe we can actually live sustainably in desert regions and perhaps even have a restorative impact on the land. Not, obviously, the way we currently live in deserts--gobbling up fossil-water, overgrazing the land (and otherwise exacerbating erosion), and living far more densely than the land can support. To live sustainably in arid regions requires us to live simply--most would claim primitively--by first and foremost practicing extreme water conservation.

What do I mean by extreme? I mean not drilling wells. I mean surviving on rainfall--yes, in the desert, I know! All my calculations tell me this is actually quite reasonable as long as you build adequate water catchment systems. A 3000 square foot metal roof can capture almost 18,000 gallons of rain per year in a place where there's only 10 inches of annual precipitation. Okay, 18,000 gallons is nothing if you're living the standard resource-guzzling lifestyle. I'm sure there are families out there consuming 18,000 gallons of water a month, particularly if they have large lawns that are dependent on irrigation. But 18,000 gallons is a lot of water if you live simply. If you have a sawdust toilet. If you soap up before you turn on the water and (gasp!) if you don't necessarily shower everyday. If you drip irrigate and/or use dryland techniques on your gardens. If you only wash clothes when they're dirty. If you don't have a lawn. If you don't wash your car. If you filter your graywater to reuse on your orchard.

I really like the idea of being so dependent on Mother Nature. Sure, it's incredibly risky. What if you get two or three years of no rainfall whatsoever? Desert precipitation is notoriously unpredictable. My current home is in what's considered high desert. Our region averages about 12 inches of precipitation per year. Yet that's not a consistent 12 inches. Last year we had 17.42 inches of rain. In '02 we had 3.74 inches. In '97 we had 18.18 inches. In '06 we had 6.32 inches. Fortunately here the bad years have tended to be surrounded on both ends by good years, but that won't be the case everywhere or always. To successfully live in the desert you need to be able to store several years' worth of water and still be prepared to move on if the rains never come. I like that! Something about that extreme dependency on nature thrills me. How much respect and reverence we would have for the natural world if we lived so dependently. And the truth is, we are dependent anyway, even those of us totally immersed in resource-guzzling lifestyles. We just cling to our various life-support systems and never acknowledge that the natural world even exists--so we certainly don't acknowledge our dependence on it. To allow ourselves to be utterly dependent on nature to provide our water--think how attuned we would become to the natural world. We would learn to pay attention--to the shifting clouds and winds, to the building thunderheads, to the peculiar smell of water. We would regain a sense of reverence and respect for nature and understand our puny place in the scheme of life. There would be no more hubris, but humility and awe instead. That kind of visceral existence is what I desperately crave.

I'm not sure why I'm feeling so pulled to the desert lately (and by desert I mean true desert--like the Sonoran or Chihuahuan desert). I guess I'm sensing the desert would have a lot to teach me. It would keep me on my toes. But another realization I've had in exploring this is just how much more sustainably we could be living anywhere. Shouldn't we all be harvesting rainwater wherever we are--even where precipitation is abundant--instead of drawing down the aquifers? Shouldn't we all be treating water with reverence? One-third of the land mass worldwide is desert and it continues to spread. Water is increasingly a major concern worldwide, yet we continue to use water extravagantly and wastefully. There aren't many of us who couldn't dramatically reduce our water usage even without adopting the primitive lifestyle I'm envisioning.