Truly Green Investment

These few years in New Orleans have been really great, this place is as good as a city gets– charming old architecture steeped in history, a vitally important music and art scene, fabulous restaurants, a very un-American lack of prudishness, and whole seasons of jasmine and magnolia flowers. But, I am not a city girl. As our return to Alaska approaches I’m getting quite eager for our sleepy little hole in the wilderness where a Saturday drive ‘out the road’ yields adventures like this:

Just as much as the place, I am really yearning to be back in Our Own Home. This rental stuff is fine, but I have been realizing just how much my ‘work’ and my homeplace are intrinsically bonded. I can shop at the farmers’ market and grow a small garden anywhere, but that’s just treading water. To really move forward with the lifework I aim for, to climb the rungs of my chosen ‘career’ ladder, I need to stay in one place. One home which I can continually make more efficient, one chunk of land which I can build up towards my edible Eden, one particular ecosystem which I can come ever closer to knowing.

I have felt it here, the loss. The landscape so unfamiliar, the weather patterns confounding, the flora an almost complete blank (I am a wild plant buff in my home territory). Even eating confused me for a while– a responsible local diet here consists of things I had rarely let myself buy at home and didn’t know how to turn into mainstay meals; let alone that cooking itself is all wrong as a way to approach dinner when it’s 95 degrees in your kitchen. And unlike when I was young and resilient with energy to burn, I found it hard to rally myself for re-learning and re-building everything.

This homesteady lifestyle is all about investment and return. And I’m not talking metaphor. I have put 4 years of hard labor and hundreds of dollars worth of soil amendments into my Alaska garden. I built it up from a sorry looking lawn over a bare inch of topsoil with gravel fill substrate, to 160 square feet of luscious dirt in raised beds. In a town where you cannot, no matter how much you are willing to pay, order a truckload of dirt, those garden beds are pure gold. And they are only going to get better! After the very large up-front investment there is only so much work necessary every year to maintain the beds and build up fertility, but the return will continue to grow.

The garden is the best example, but really my entire lifework is wrapped around sticking to one place. Back in this now proverbial Home, I had also built a tight little chicken coop, put in a 20 foot long raspberry hedge to close off our yard, and spent years setting up an efficient kitchen (not to be underestimated!) Beyond the tangible accrual of humus and building projects, the knowledge of the area and the skills for using local resources grow slowly, over time. I had several years under my belt of ‘local university,’ learning which varieties of vegetables did best in our ridiculously rainy climate, how to process 35 whole sockeye salmon in two days, and creating an internal map of where all the best berries, wild mushrooms and edible plants grew in proliferation.

Very few of you have such an intensely localized tie to one place. Down here in rest of the 48 states, the most green responsible lifestyles are based of farming– whether you do it yourself or support someone else’s effort– and farming is at least recognizably similar throughout the temperate world. Even moving across country doesn’t shake everything you’ve ever known to the ground. Nevertheless, I think we all underestimate the profit to be realized from staying put.

The books always stress that “even renters can grow a garden,” and while that is true, I have built up and left behind a few times now, and I can tell you it is a certain kind of heartbreak. You don’t get to take your equity with you. No one else will recognize the value of your hard work, or care about the money you spent. When you leave, you leave it all behind.

I don’t mean to discourage those of you who do not own your own place, but rather to remind those of you who do how much it means. Don’t take your investments of time and money for granted. Just like in business, the ‘profit’ goes right back in as further investment for many years, which makes it hard to see. But so long as you manage to stay in place (a feat these days), you are building up for future dividends.

I can hardly wait to get back to my own double lot homestead and do some re-investing. My garden beds have been cover cropped for three years and I have a chicken coop full of aged manure. I’ll know what to plant, and when to do it. Times are going to be good.

Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?

I have been thinking a lot about sustainable living, and the so-called simple life lately. Dixiebelle wrote a self-flagellating post recently about her wicked fall into a fast food lunch, and in general about falling short of one’s ideals.

Oh sweetheart.

I’m not particularly old (33) but I came to this “green consciousness” early, I think. I’ve got 15 years of trying to find and live a sustainable, ethical life under my belt, and let me tell you, I’ve weathered many a storm myself. I’ve been up, I’ve been down, I’ve felt superior, I’ve felt like worthless shit. I’ve wasted entire days (back when my life allowed such luxuries) under the covers, bemoaning my own inevitable participation in such a hideous world.

And I did think the world in it’s present state was hideous (I do still when I stop to consider it, though having kids helps you to see beauty and have hope.) I think we have been informed into oblivion. I listen to NPR and am emotionally outraged when they follow “two protesters for human rights killed” with “name this top forty song.” All over the world, people suffer in factories, animals suffer in feed lots, wilderness suffers anywhere it still exists, so that we can have stuff for cheap. We keep our eyes on the prize and fuck everything else. Look out for number one.

When my eyes opened to the horrors of the world, I was young. I thought I could change, not the world exactly, but my part in it. Drastically. I would become independent from the system. What else could I do? How could I participate in something so egregiously wrong?

I spent a few years learning to live with truly minimal participation. I started out extreme, and discovered that the technical aspects of the simple life are more than possible. It was not exceptionally difficult to build a small shelter out of mostly scavenged material, to heat our modest home with foraged firewood cut with a handsaw, to grow and gather a majority of our food, to live well on a few thousand dollars a year. What was difficult, what proved the unravelling of my “simple life” was the extremity of change.

Are you prepared to live with feelings of complete isolation? Are you prepared to leave behind everything you grew up with? Are you prepared to give up all feelings of belonging to your own species?

I was not.

As fucked up as humanity may be, it’s my people. They are we. I am them. You can’t get away from yourself and the culture that’s woven throughout you.

My fall from grace is not remotely new. Every back-to-the-land movement throughout recent history has left a trail of disappointed, disillusioned, tail-tucked folks heading back to the city. Those who manage to stay find they have made huge compromises and reconcilliations. The fulfillment of their dream rarely looks like what they set out for. I have come to think that, apart from a very few remarkable people, most of us simply cannot make so much change in a single lifetime.

So, over the course of many years, I decided to cut myself some slack.

I looked towards those who have stayed, not at the very fray, but within shouting distance. Those good folks of my parents generation who have managed to walk the line. Not living as radically as they once dreamed, but not turning away either. Keeping at it.

They had cultivated flexibility, learned to accept less than the grandeur we’ve been taught to expect, and perhaps most importantly, kept a good sense of humor.

I am a realist. Perhaps that means I am a pessimist too. Perhaps I cast aside my dreams in a big sell out. But I saw my realistic options as continuing to try for hard-core and eventually burning out, or compromising for a middle ground that I could actually sustain.

And that’s when I realized the irony.

“Sustainablility” is such a buzzword now it’s easy to forget what it really means. If you’ve discovered the sad realities of the mainstream and want to carve out instead a sustainable life, congratulations on your clarity and courage. But make sure your changes are sustainable for you, and for your family.

And here’s one of the biggest sticking points. Those “remarkable people” I mentioned earlier? The ones capable of sustaining radical change? Pretty much never have kids. Rarely even manage to keep a spouse or partner. Like anyone who accomplishes extraordinary things within just one life, they have to guard their time, energy and motivations. Keep everything for themselves and their cause.

For the rest of us, we can keep our spirits up by remembering that extraordinary things can also come from the sum of many lives. We can allow ourselves flexibility, compromise and self-forgiveness. Rather than hanging our heads in shame for our transgressions, let’s celebrate our own and one another’s sustainable change.