Americans are rediscovering the virtues of independence. Surviving, and thriving, in an uncertain world means having the right tools – and the confidence to use them. Could this offer some useful lessons for South Africans?
Turn on a light, drive a car, visit a shop, and you are instantly connected to thousands of people you’ve never met: coal miners, car workers, engineers, farmers, truck drivers – all the people who extract, invent, build, grow and deliver the myriad products we use each day.
That interdependence is one of the hallmarks of the modern world – no single person could make a pencil from scratch today, much less manufacture a microchip – but it also makes us nervous. What happens when the power goes out? What if the global supply chain that brings us imported oranges in December breaks down?
Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina remind us that the networks supplying power, food, water and communications are all fragile. And we can’t always rely on the government to save us when those systems go down. We are, to some extent, on our own. Then there are the slow-motion disasters: global epidemics, energy shortages, environmental degradation.
Whether they’re concerned with short-term threats or long-term challenges, more people are deciding to get their own homes in order. Having a good stock of food, water and survival basics is a start. But many of us are going further, installing wind and solar power, planting modern versions of the victory garden (check it out on Wikipedia) and lovingly restoring, rather than discarding, broken appliances around our homes. We are discovering that, in an age of plenty, it can be satisfying to do things for ourselves – and that many of the same steps needed to make a lifestyle more disaster-resistant also make it more sustainable.
The notion of self-reliance is hardly new. Henry David Thoreau advocated it; America’s western pioneers exemplifi ed it; and institutions like the Boy Scouts inculcated it into generations of young people. In this special issue, PM explores how the concept is gaining new currency today. We visit some of the modern pioneers who are fi nding new frontiers of independence – people living off the grid, building the next generation of solar homes and challenging our throwaway culture.
We also offer some advice on how to embrace the offthe- grid approach in your own life, from restoring old appliances to rigging an emergency cellphone charger. Of course, being self-reliant doesn’t mean giving up the tools and technologies of the modern world. Even the most hardcore DIYer wouldn’t be able to replicate a simple tool like the shifter pictured above (which my father bought in the late 1930s and used to help maintain the Panama Canal). But it does mean using those tools to build a smarter, safer, more sustainable life.
The new homesteaders
By James Vlahos
The phone rang when i was shoeless and only a couple of sips into my morning coffee. “Hi, it’s Novella Carpenter,” the caller said. “My goat is giving birth.” Twenty minutes
later, I was crouched in the hay at Ghost Town Farm, pushing away chickens and peering into the pen that housed the expectant mother, Bébé.
Her udder was so swollen she couldn’t get her hindquarters down. Bleating, she clawed at the dirt with her right front hoof as if searching for a stash of pain-killer. “Pass me the iodine,” Carpenter said. “We better wash up.”
Similar birthing scenes have unfolded countless times in America’s agrarian past, but none, I suspected, had the soundtrack of the Ghost Town neighbourhood in Oakland, California. As Bébé’s cries reached an apex, they were matched by the caterwauling of a police car siren on Martin Luther King Jr Way. Then came the intestine-undulating bass of hip-hop from a passing car.
Residents disagree on how Ghost Town got its name – for the isolation created when freeways cleft the neighbourhood from the rest of the city in the 1950s? For the appallingly high murder rate? For the coffin companies that used to be located here? More unanimously accepted is that Ghost Town is a singularly odd location for a homestead that hosts pigs, goats, geese, peaches, potatoes, spinach and bees.
Carpenter is living a version of the Little House on the Prairie fantasy all right, but hers is Little House in the ’Hood.
Carpenter, the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, is by her own admission “a bit nuts”. If so, she has company – similar farms have sprung up on city blocks in Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh and Detroit. And food is hardly the only commodity that people are producing for themselves these days. A small but growing number of American households generate all of their electricity using wind, solar or micro-hydro.
But off-the-grid living has come to mean something more nuanced than cutting all ties with utilities and society; for many, it’s about finding creative ways to produce and conserve resources at home. Hundreds of thousands of Americans capture rainwater in barrels, can food from their gardens, heat water with solar collectors and commute by bicycle. We may be nearly a decade into the 21st century, but the self-reliant spirit of an earlier era – that of homesteading pioneers – has returned with gusto.
At Ghost Town Farm, Carpenter cleared the head-high weeds from a 418 m² plot and started planting. She didn’t ask permission. When the plot’s owner discovered the squat garden, he warned that he would soon develop the real estate – that was five years ago. Now the plot is verdant with lavender, sage and thyme; lime, rhubarb and raspberries; artichoke, collard greens and avocado.
Strolling through the garden, I became overwhelmed by a feeling that could only be described as vegetable lust. But something deeper than my appetite had been stimulated, too. My grandfather once worked a small mountain farm in Greece. He emigrated to California’s Central Valley in his 20s, opened a produce stand and then a grocery store, but he never totally severed his connection to the land.
I remember strolling through fruit-laden trees in his back yard as a boy. Now, I was gearing up for major changes myself – the arrival of my first child, the purchase of my own home – and I had been thinking about what sort of sanctuary I could create for my own family. The house I envisioned was solar-powered and garden-ringed, a little safer, smarter and more productive than the wasteful world around it. I was deeply curious about the experiments of modern homesteaders because I wondered just how self-sufficient I could be, too.
In the pen, Bébé continued to push and, with a little gentle guidance from Carpenter, the newborn’s head crowned. Then the front legs were out. Bébé gave a final, anguished cry and the kid was born, a female, soon to be named Hedwig. Twenty minutes later, she had a brother, Eeyore. The two Nigerian dwarf goats wobbled about on untested legs and, undistracted by a car alarm that had started to blare, tried to find their mother’s teats.
America is dotted with remote, off-the-grid homesteads. Certain regions – including western Texas around Big Bend National Park; the mesas outside of Taos, New Mexico, and pockets of the Sierra Nevada northeast of Lake Tahoe – host whole mini-communities. The Surprise Valley of north-easternmost California supports another. There, where skyscrapers of light slant from the heavens to the mirror-flat floor of the desert, I was crouched on a mattress attached to a rope.
The other end of the rope was hitched to a Ford F-350. The tyres spun and soon I was hooky bobbing – surfing at nearly 50 km/h, a roostertail of dust in my wake. I felt as gleeful as the Road Runner with Wile E Coyote giving futile chase. The truck stopped after a few minutes and, as I spat dirt clods from my mouth, a pretty young woman in a red plaid shirt and a white cowboy hat emerged from the cab. “You’re lucky you’re just visiting,” Tierra Hodge said. “If you lived here, we would have set the mattress on fire.”
I’d been introduced to Tierra through a tortuous chain of connections – my wife’s cousin’s father’s friend’s daughter, or something like that. She grew up off the grid on land near here, and had agreed to guide me around a place I never knew existed and introduce me to people who didn’t necessarily want to be found.
The first stop was welcoming enough: a mountain homestead replete with mud, solar panels, semi-clothed children, and chickens. Then we had lunch in the town of Eagleville with Ed and Wendi Lutz, trompe l’oeil painters who’d retired to build an off-the-grid retreat. Tierra said the place was beautiful – circular, with deep wooden sills and colourful bottles embedded in the walls – but the Lutzes refused to disclose its exact location.
I’d told them I was a journalist and might as well have said One World Government Spy. “We have come to value our privacy,” Wendi said, eyeing me warily. That afternoon, we drove past a doomsday retreat, complete with its own private airstrip, belonging to a wealthy Bay Area businessman. “He’s preparing for the end of the world as we know it,” Tierra said with an enigmatic smile. I couldn’t tell if she was mocking him or applauding his foresight.
New farmer’s almanac
In a 418 m² plot in Oakland, California, Novella Carpentergrows broccoli and lettuce right next to fig trees andgranadilla vines. Included in her annual crop:
1 095 eggs,
90 kg of tomatoes,
15 litres of honey,
40 rabbits and 200 litres of goat’s milk.
In the US, more than 4 800 farmers’ markets and 2 500 Community Supported Agriculture farms supply locally grown food. Studies have shown that organic methods, such as those Carpenter uses, can help soil store 450-plus kilograms of carbon for every 4 000 m². Other approaches can cause carbon loss.
The spectres of financial crisis, climate change, uncertain energy reserves and a fragile food supply loom large for the new generation of survivalists – and although I don’t share their apocalyptic mindset, I find myself relating to the urge to run for cover.
In April this year, the top-selling action and adventure book on Amazon.com was Patriots: Surviving the Coming Collapse, a work described to me by its author, James Wesley Rawles, as a “survival manual dressed as fiction”. Its plot appeals to those on the political right, who fear a too-powerful government – and the anarchy to come in the wake of its inevitable collapse.
Leftie off-the-gridders gravitate more to the “grow local” approach championed by author Michael Pollan. “We’re using up the world’s resources more quickly than you could imagine,” says Ruby Blume of the Institute of Urban Homesteading. “I think we need to be prepared.”
Lately, homesteaders of all political stripes have settled upon a common concern: globalisation. The shock waves of any crisis – for instance, the subprime meltdown – now spread far, fast and wide. Many doubt that major institutions can be counted upon to save the day.
“You’re on your own, your job is at risk, and a lot of the commodities you rely upon are vulnerable to disruption,” says John Robb, author of Brave New War, which describes how terrorists could exploit global systems. To my ear, such statements straddle the line between reasonable advice and hyperventilated threat. One day you’re sipping a frappuccino. The next you’re using a pitchfork to fend off rioting mobs.
But even if I don’t fully agree with the dystopian diagnosis, I like Robb’s proposed cure: “You’re going to have to start doing more for yourself.” The beauty of the DIY solution is that the exact problem doesn’t matter; greater self-sufficiency makes sense to survivalists and eco-utopians alike.
In the early 1970s, Tierra’s parents established their own fully off-the-grid homestead in Mendocino, and later in Surprise Valley, with the thought that “when society crumbles, we’ll be able to raise our children in a safe environment”, Tierra says. She and her sister, Celesta, grew up in a tepee; her mom, Tina, and dad, Bill, supported the family by breeding llamas and selling medicinal herbs. Instead of sitting in a classroom, the Hodge girls were home-schooled, usually outdoors. Instead of playing video games, they explored the mountains on horseback.
Growing up in the wild was idyllic but not always easy. When Tierra was 15, a boy braved the long dirt road to the homestead to pick her up for a date to the county fair. He emerged from the car looking spiffy in an all-white outfit, only to have the Hodges’ pet raccoon pounce with muddy paws. Then one of the llamas zapped him with a wad of saliva. Tina, always on the lookout for free meals fowildlife she rehabilitates, shouted after the couple, “Goodbye, honey, have fun, and don’t forget to look for roadkill!”
“I just about died,” Tierra recalls. But in spite of their upbringing – or because of it – the girls turned out fine. Tierra went to college and Celesta moved almost directly from the tepee to a penthouse in New York, gracing the cover of Cosmopolitan as a fashion model.
The day after hooky bobbing, I found myself standing ankle-deep in llama poop with a shovel. My job was to ferry wheelbarrows of the stuff up a hill to a garden, dump the smelly payload and then do it again. And again, ad infinitum, until it got dark or my blisters burst.
It was raining, so I was damp, and the sodden manure was getting heavy. Then the clouds broke, and the sun beamed down on the Hodges’ secluded mountain – 65 hectares surrounded by protected wildlands. The air was pine-scented and pulsing with the sound of a creek.
Just as my back began to give out, Bill mercifully invited me to tour the family’s airy, three-bedroom house. It was built earth-berm style, dug into the mountainside and covered by a living roof of soil and vegetation. The ground temperature stays close to 14 degrees year round, which makes the house extremely energy efficient. A small solar array provides enough electricity for lights, a refrigerator and a stereo.
Bill crouched beside an unfinished section of wall, where he pointed out a grid of 10 mm rebar (steel reinforcing bar) layered with steel mesh. He had painstakingly covered the rest of the grid with a mixture of sand, cement and water – ferro-cement construction that was affordable, fire- and pest-resistant, and exceptionally tough. Bill bent the rebar before applying the mortar, which resulted in strong, gracefully curving walls. The house had taken him more than two decades to complete – and should be there for a thousand more, he says.
That kind of work – the kind that results in dirt under fingernails – is back in vogue. Not everybody builds his own home, of course, but people with office jobs are raising hens, bees and wind turbines, learning to weld and taking up quilting. My blistered palms reminded me that manual work is still work, and tasks such as shovelling manure can be just as mind-numbing as data entry. But I couldn’t deny the appeal of creating something tangible and unique.
After the tour, Bill and I plopped chairs down outside and popped the tops off a couple of beers. Purplish mesas fl anked the horizon to the east. To the west rose the snowtopped Warner Mountains. He admitted that living off the grid on 65 hectares was “a utopian thing” not many people could emulate.
As for Tierra, she moved back to Surprise Valley after several years away. She started a fencing company and has built a small off-the-grid place of her own. It has three tiny rooms that she shares with Sienna, her 4-year-old daughter from a recent marriage. The house has only enough solar power for a refrigerator, a few light bulbs and a boom box, but the desert view surpasses that of most million-dollar vacation homes.
Tierra is confl icted about her future and considering a move to the Bay Area. After getting a taste of her life for the past few days, I had more than an inkling why: it is lonely to live this far out of the mainstream. I couldn’t do it myself, no matter how dazzling the mountain scenery. And yet Tierra is proud of what she has achieved. “There’s a resourcefulness to living this way,” she says. “You know that if all else fails in the world, you’ll still be okay.”
Efficiency from the land
Tina and Bill Hodge built their home right into the Warner Mountains of California. The curving 32 mm-thick walls – made of 10 mm steel reinforcing bars covered with six layers of 13 mm steel mesh and cement – are roughly as strong as 25 mm of steel. As a result, the roof can support 60 cm of wet earth – plus a tractor. There are now 295 431 m² of green roofs in the United States. Research has shown that such roofs can reduce heat gain by 95 per cent, heat loss by 26 per cent and stormwater run-off by 54 per cent.
Power generation doesn’t have to be a DIY enterprise. Witness Oregon’s Three Rivers community, a subdivision with 250 solar- and wind-powered homes, or Villages at Heritage Springs in southern California, where 500 solar homes are planned. Other all-solar Other all-solar real estate developments are in the works in Florida, Iowa and Colorado. Clayton Homes, America’s largest maker of mobile and prefabricated houses, has introduced the i-House, which includes solar panels and energy-efficient appliances, for little more than R750 000.
Satellite Internet services have enabled people to stay connected even in remote areas. Nick Rosen, who runs the Web site Offgrid.net, spends several months each year living off the grid in the mountains of Majorca, Spain, but seamlessly continues his work as a writer and technology consultant.
The notion that painful sacrifices are mandatory has been toppled, he says. Modern energy technologies, well-insulated homes and power-sipping appliances mean “you can live a fantastic, comfortable time off-grid”.
Curious to see how much luxury is possible, an architect in Estes Park, Colorado. Beck got his start in residential work before he hit puberty, building multi-storey treehouses complete with trapdoors and fireman’s poles. He began studying environmental design in 1973, just as the OPEC oil embargo hit, and attended the National Solar Energy Conference the following year. “I realised then that oil was a finite resource, but the Sun’s going to be around for, what, 96 billion more years?” Beck says.
Yet it wasn’t until recently that he built his magnum opus: a 539 m² home with a 270-degree view of Rocky Mountain National Park. “When most people think about an off-the- grid house, I don’t think they’d picture this,” Beck said when I arrived. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts style of architecture, Beck used wood beams, stone and stucco to create multiple wings fanning out under long diagonal rooflines.
We passed through the front door, elaborately carved from standing dead hardwoods, and proceeded to the Great Room – a cavernous space with a flat-screen television, a dining table long enough for 16 and a baby grand piano. Beams recycled from a century-old railroad trestle support the lofty ceiling. In the kitchen, granite countertops could land a small plane.
Yet Beck’s only utility bill is for gas. Outdoors, above a wood-fired hot tub, rise two wind turbines that can produce 800 watts of electricity. Integrated photovoltaic cells on the roof contribute another kilowatt. A few dozen yards from the front door stands the power house: an array of solar panels on top generates 1,44 kilowatts and, inside, three inverters charge lead-acid batteries – 32 in all. Three banks of evacuatedtube solar thermal collectors heat water for both domestic use and the 5,6 km of radiant floor tubing that warms the house.
Beck stepped out to meet a client and encouraged me to explore the house on my own. I went downstairs, where a lap pool with 37 800 litres of solar-heated water acts as a thermal reservoir to help stabilise the home’s temperature. I was tempted to go for a quick swim – but then chickened out. The whole place, in fact, screamed “look but don’t touch”, and I wondered what it might say about the broader movement for sustainability.
This eco-mansion took copious amounts of natural resources to construct. I would love to live here. But, environmentally, it seemed a bit like a bio-diesel-powered Hummer. While an impressive showcase for off-the-grid tech, Beck’s luxurious spread appeared no more realistic – for me anyway – than the Hodges’ bare-bones retreat.
The dream of living more independently from civilisation is almost as old as civilisation itself. When Rome fell 1 500 years ago, city dwellers fled to the countryside, becoming some of the world’s first back-tothe- landers. The Diggers of 17th-century England and Depression-era Americans similarly tried to provide for themselves locally.
By the late 1960s and early 70s, as many as one million Americans, decrying consumerism and Vietnam, set out for what they thought would be a purer life in the countryside. For inspiration, they read Aldo Leopold and Henry David Thoreau; for practical advice on everything from carpentry to compost, they clutched issues of the Whole Earth Catalog. However well-armed with information, though, most of the would-be pioneers lacked practical experience and abandoned small-farm living after learning that it was – as Novella Carpenter indelicately put it to me – “a s—load of work”.
Carpenter knows first hand about the travails of the back-to-the-landers. She spent her early childhood on a rural retreat in Idaho. Directly emulating her parents horrified her, but the apple fell only so far from the tree. “I recognised that if my parents were Utopia 8.5 with their hippie farm in Idaho, I was merely Utopia version 9.0 with my urban farm in the ghetto,” she wrote in Farm City.
A few weeks after the goats were born, Carpenter and I strolled past a graffitied warehouse across from the farm, then turned left on Martin Luther King Jr Way. Carpenter said that, instead of tumbleweeds, she sometimes spotted “tumbleweaves” – the lost hairpieces of prostitutes – blowing down the block. When we stopped in a small park to pick pellitory, a nettle-like plant that the chickens love, Carpenter recounted a shooting she’d witnessed there.
I really admired Carpenter, but I thought she was more than a little crazy. What made her urban version of utopia any better than the rural approach of her parents?
“I find the country incredibly lonely,” she said as we headed back. Ghost Town was diverse and intriguing; the menace of thugs was tempered by the support of the community.
We strolled past a bodega whose owner, a goatherd in Yemen before he emigrated to the US, had taught her how to slaughter livestock. And Carpenter pointed out a monastery occupied by Vietnamese monks, one of whom had helped her chase down a runaway pig.
Carpenter’s urban farm is doubtless an extreme case study. But it also seems to me the most tenable future for self-sufficient, environmentally sustainable living. Homesteading, to be sure, needs the sense of hardy independence that I’d found in Surprise Valley. And I certainly appreciated the appeal of some eco-luxury à la Beck. But for homesteading to truly transcend niche status – for it to have any appreciable impact on the world – it must embrace the community spirit of Carpenter’s urban experiment.
Maybe I’d drunk too much organic goat milk. But after seeing everybody else, I knew that it is Carpenter’s city setup I want to draw from to create my own family’s future home – minus the gun-toting teens and the tumbleweaves, of course.
“People are always like, ‘I know where I’m going to go when the s— hits the fan, Novella – to your house!’,” Carpenter says. “And my response to that is, if it hits the fan, it’s going to hit the fan for all of us.” We left the street and walked behind her house, where she scattered sawdust on the ground to cloak the livestock odours. We tossed out the pellitory, and the chickens scrambled to gobble it down