We have lived in our home in the woods since 1991 without electricity, running water or telephone. It has been an exciting experience. It has taught us a lot about what is important for a life and given us a better understanding about the sources and nature of poverty.
Living off the grid requires juggling a number of overlapping, interlocking infrastructures. It requires some adaptation. These infrastructures do not really have a hierarchy; some seem more important at a given moment, but all are necessary.
Access is an often unconsidered infrastructure. Most people in this country go out their front door and there is a good, paved road close by. We only have access to our place all times of the year by foot. When the road back to our place (3/4 of a mile from the hard road and mailbox) is dry, we are able to drive back in a vehicle with good ground clearance like a four-wheel-drive truck. In 2001 we were able to purchase an ATV (all terrain vehicle) which makes getting in and out possible when the road is muddy, especially important when we have groceries or metal stock for Mollys shop. Access is still tenuous; a heavy snow still means getting in and out by foot. The road is dry enough for truck access only part of the year, so we have to plan ahead for moving materials like lumber for building or coal for Mollys shop. Problems with access are rife in third world countries.
The next three infrastructures have to do with human survival: housing and heat, water, and waste. For heat, we use a wood stove. We have a passive solar system with a large number of windows in our house facing south. When the leaves fall off the trees, we have a 5-10 degree solar gain during the day. There is a period from about mid-December through mid-January when, because of pine trees to the south of us, the low winter sun gives us no solar gain. The trees that shade our buildings in the summer provide cooling. The temperatures back in the woods are always much, much cooler than out in the open, or in town. This is important for us since we work using coal-fired forges in Mollys shop. It can be 10 degrees or so warmer in the forge area than outside.
We collect water off our roofs. We have recently put in a cistern and have a pipe running from it to a hand pump in the kitchen. Before that, we collected the rainwater in barrels. We are able to get a lot of water from a moderate rain using a building roof as a catchement. We do not purify the water, instead we work hard to keep the roof area, gutters and barrel or cistern clean. We have not had a problem with parasites since this is a closed system without contact with the ground (as with a spring fed system). We use very little water. Use in periods of drought is about 2 gallons a day for both of us. Normal use is still less than about five gallons a day.
Waste takes two forms in our household. There is our garbage that we collect each week and take out to the road for pick up. That, for us, is usually a bag or so a week. We compost organic matter. When we carried our trash out by hand (before the ATV), it seemed like a lot, until we compared our amount of trash to our neighbors. Human waste is dealt with simply. We have a privy where urine and fecal matter are kept separate. There is almost no odor near the privy except in the hottest time of the year. Urine is dumped periodically onto large leaf piles where it helps accelerate decomposition. Fecal matter is buried under smaller leaf piles. It decomposes more slowly, taking two years or so. We then use the compost in the garden for non-food crops. In the privy, wood ashes from our wood stove are dumped in the bucket after use. The ashes help diminish odor and when mixed with our heavy clay soil help give it better texture.
Other necessities, for us, are lighting at night and a cook stove for food preparation. We have kerosene lamps which we find adequate for reading. The lamps do not cast a large or bright light so chores that require much light are done during the day. It is nice, after a busy day in the blacksmith shop, to be able to come in at night, have a nice meal and relax with a book. While we have a wood stove for heat, we use a propane gas stove for cooking and heating water for our cups of tea and hot chocolate. We love our gas stove. In the winter, we are able to take advantage of cooler temperatures to refrigerate food. In the summer, we do not have that option. Since we are both vegetarians, a refrigerator was not necessary until Viva needed insulin for her diabetes. We currently use a small refrigerator powered by propane like the stove.
In the 1990s we purchased a small generator to run the grinder in Mollys shop. It is very economical with gas, which is important when one has to haul anything back to our place. Recently, we also started using it to power a vacuum cleaner for the house. Weekly usage is still only about one to 1.5 hours total.
A relative, Georges mother, Mary, lives about 1.5 miles away from us. We use Marys freezer to store bread and other foods. In addition, we use Marys electricity and telephone to run the computer that we use for internet access and creating this web site. The computer was originally purchased because we could see several uses for it. Mary wanted to finish her BA and found a computer useful (she did finish her BA doing her coursework online). A computer makes some of the bookkeeping and other paperwork tasks that are done for Mollys shop easier. Georges Caxton Project required special software and a computer. We believe that shared resources like this make sense.
While we live off the grid, we are not independent of it. We still use fossil fuels, propane and gasoline, for cooking and transportation. We still depend on electricity. Our use and dependence is considered, not taken as a matter of fact.
What has our way of living taught us about poverty? We have learned that poverty often comes from a lack of infrastructure or an inability to manage or maintain infrastructure. A communitys lack of infrastructure, roads for example, is a problem beyond solving by a single or a small number of individuals. Managing or maintaining infrastructure, such as housing, is not beyond the capabilities of an individual or small group unless there are systemic barriers. Barriers range from lack of education (for example: in a family group this may mean no background in how to use and maintain tools; in a community this can result from class, cultural or racial bias) to legal hurdles (zoning in some areas in this country requires a minimum house size).
is a quick look at some of our cat buddies over the years.
Photographs of the Shack, Shop and House as they were built.
The Christmas Truck
Molly wrote this story in 2000.
The Mystery Jar
We take a look at the Mystery Jar, is the label or the contents more important?