Saturday, February 27, 2010

Initial Mindset

At the moment, I live in the Ecovillage Training Center’s eco-hostel on the Farm, a long-standing intentional community in Summertown, Tennessee. The eco-hostel is a two story farmhouse with an attached greenhouse. Doors on both the first and second floor of the south face of the house open on to an attached greenhouse. The two second story doors lead out onto a wooden balcony called “the Beach.”

Day and night I feed the wood-burning stove in the basement which heats the eco-hostel, and if I’m diligent about it, the house stays in the mid 50s (Fahrenheit) throughout the day, but by mid-afternoon, it will be in the 80’s up on the Beach. Strangely, I spend very little time up there.

This morning I woke up to a cold house. I went down to the basement to discover that the fire had completely died. The house was 41 degrees. It was 21 outside. Usually, even when the logs in the stove have burned, a bed of hot ashes and glowing embers remains in the bottom of the stove, and if I just put some small pieces of wood on top of them I can get the fire going again without matches or kindling. Not this morning. It was completely done. I squatted by that metal stove in the cold basement for several minutes working with long matches, glossy pages from a catalog, and little scraps of wood to get it going again. I’ll need to go check it here in a bit.

After I’ve had my coffee and it’s gotten a bit warmer outside, I’m going to go out to carry and stack newly cut firewood that needs to cure before it can be burned, and then I’ll be hauling cured wood in a wheel barrow down to the entrance to the furnace room in the basement where I will split it with a maul (a cross between a sledgehammer and an axe) and stack it in the covered rack outside the basement so that it will be there when I need it.

Please don’t think that I’m complaining. The physical exercise does me good, and this really is the kiddie pool compared to what people living in suburbia would have to do (will have to do) to stay warm when the power goes out or the trucks stop delivering the heating oil which keeps their automagic furnaces in operation.

The ETC is in the woods, and there are plenty of downed trees around here which could be scavenged for firewood if need be, but I didn’t have to do that. A man in a truck brought logs, and Cliff, the ETC gardener, sized them with a chainsaw and split a good many of them with a maul. Most of the work has been done for me, but compared to the lifestyle to which my body has adapted itself in recent years, the piddling little physical exertion required of me at the very end of the process feels like work.

I’m grateful for this opportunity to ease into the process of chopping and carrying wood. At this point in time, I don’t have to carry water, and I probably never will here at the ETC. Many of the buildings here harvest rooftop rainwater, and there is a large cistern up the hill.

The ETC has solar power though it is also on the gird. It has a large garden, greenhouses, a series of lagoons for gray water reclamation, a cob henhouse, a propane-fueled on-demand water heater for the eco-hostel and solar showers elsewhere on the grounds. It has composting toilets, a root cellar, and the nearest neighbor has a sauna. All in all, not a bad place to ride out a storm.

Not a bad place to ride out a storm except for the fact that the Farm’s non-hippy neighbors hold a cultural grudge against the Farm and its inhabitants, and while my contact with the locals has been minimal and mostly congenial, they scare me. And I’ve got a leg up on other would-be pre-emptive refugees. I was born in Arkansas, and while I didn’t grow up there, I spent summers there throughout my childhood, and while I can’t pass for a local here in rural Tennessee, I can, when in need, put on a dialect that will provide me with some camouflage.

At this point, I should be working around to some sort of conclusion, but the obvious conclusion seems vacuous to me. Either you already recognize a need to prepare for transition and you’re taking steps, or you see it coming but think that whatever wiggle room your current situation allows will only permit you to make token efforts which only serve to highlight your consciousness of the need to prepare yourself and of the inadequacy of your efforts thus far. (If you think that business as usual is tenable for the foreseeable future or that god-like artificial intelligence with save the day, I doubt you’ve read this far.)

If you’ve tried gardening, you know that a home garden on anything but a grand scale cannot replace your regular supermarket. My own solo gardening efforts have been therapeutic, at best. Unless you own your home, you probably don’t have permission to install a composting toilet or modify your roof to harvest rainwater or replace your front yard with a vegetable garden. If you have a full time job and a long commute, you likely don’t have the time or mental energy do much of anything, and if you don’t have a full time job, you probably feel too broke to do what is necessary to extricate yourself from the vast but floundering life-support system upon which you depend.

My situation, while incredibly privileged from a transition point of view, does not point toward an obviously viable strategy for you. I didn’t build this place. I was invited in. And my situation still feels quite tenuous. I don’t have paid work here, and the money economy still makes demands upon me. Most importantly, my children are not here, and my ex-wife would offer up this essay as proof of my madness and lack of parental fitness.

While I don’t have the exact quote at hand, Albert K. Bates, my host and benefactor here at the Ecovillage Training Center has said something to the effect that the major stumbling block when it comes to ecovillages is that most people who feel called to ecovillage living try to start their own rather than join an existing community. I think that’s probably right.

I mentioned that my solo gardening effort provided mainly therapeutic benefits. I did apprentice under an organic market gardener for a season, and under his direction, my efforts helped produce a considerable quantity of high quality food. And I had a great time doing it.

Someone near you has some skill that you could learn from them that will move you in a helpful direction. The Internet might facilitate initial contact, but the most gratifying and useful interaction you have with that person will not be via email, instant message, or telephone. It will be face to face. You probably already know who that person is and where to find them.

As for the job that eats up the bulk of your time and energy…