Archive for the 'adapting in place' Category

Adapting In Place Class!

admin April 1st, 2011

I still have space in the Adapting in Place Class that starts next week – the last one for some time, I suspect, given other projects (I have to write the book about Adapting in Place, for example ;-) ).

aron and I will be running our Adapting in Place Class online for six weeks beginning April 5. The class covers every element of adapting your life both for things to come and things that are now, from going inside the walls of your home or apartment to community, family and security issues, from the ordinary (laundry) to the extraordinary (handling life transitions).

This is our most fascinating and intense class, and for the very first time, Aaron and I are planning on offering a sequel, for people who have taken the AIP class and who would get something out of an advanced class to build on what you want to add. Not exactly sure when that will be, but there’s every chance that this will be the last Adapting in Place class before the advanced one – so if you’ve always wanted to take it, now’s the time. Cost of the class is $175, or equivalent barter. We also happily take donations of any size to make more free spots available (all scholarship spots are presently taken)  to those who need them – 100% of your donation goes to other participants. Email me at [email protected] with questions or to enroll!

Here’s the syllabus:

Week 1 – How to evaluate what you have. We’re going to concentrate on figuring out what the major concerns are for your place and your community. We’ll talk about your region and its climate, culture and resources, your house itself, your community and neighborhood – the challenges you forsee and maybe ones you haven’t thought about yet, and your personal circumstances – how much money, time and energy you have to deal with it. How does the definition of home change when we do this? We’ll also talk about when adapting in place is not an option, or when you should consider relocating, and what your options are if you do need to leave or move.

***BEFORE THIS CLASS – I’d ask everyone to send me a fairly detailed (2-4 pages) description of who you and your family are, your home, your neighborhood, your town/city and your region. I want to know as much as I can about things like your local climate, how much insulation you have, what kind of neighborhood you have, how you get along with the neighbors, what your goals are, what your concerns are. You have until the first day of class, although we’d prefer you do it earlier. Please do put in Caps – AIP SELF-EVALUATION in the header, though, especially if you send it early, so that it doesn’t get lost among other emails. Please send it both to [email protected] (me) and [email protected] (Aaron).

Week 2 – This week will focus on your house itself – we’ll talk primarily about low energy infrastructure for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, washing, etc… About costs and options and choices for both private homes and for communities. We will also cover some renewable, especially low cost options.

Week 3 – We’re going to go into the walls of your building and into other mysterious home infrastructure- water, plumbing and toileting, insulation, keeping warm and cool and all the other things that your shelter does or could do for you. We’ll also talk a bit about what’s in your soil and on your property (this won’t get heavy emphasis in this class since we teach a whole class, garden design, on just this subject).

Week 4 We’ll focus on Family Issues – Sharing resources with both immediate and extended family (and chosen family), dealing with people who aren’t on board, Building collective infrastructure, cannibalizing what you have, dealing with the brother-in-law on the couch, helping kids adapt, disability, aging, college

Week 5 – We’ll talk about Finances, money, employment, making do, getting along on a shoestring, thrift, subsistence labor, starting cottage industries and businesses and community economics. This is also when we’ll talk about transportation of all sorts. We’ll also begin discussing building a set of plans – 1 year, 5 year – to adapt to different scenarios.

Week 6 – We’ll talk about Community at every level, about how to build it, what to bring to it, how to get your neighbors to help, even if they are weird. How to get along with them even if you are weird ;-) , about models and ideas for bringing resilience and community to every level from the neighborhood to the state. We’ll also talk about security, dealing with unrest or violence, and try and get those plans finished.

Also, if you are in the area, on April 9 at 7pm, I’ll be at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, talking about food, energy and our future with a focus on our bioregion’s food future. This is part of an all-day event, a reskilling festival with a lot of cool stuff happening – I’ll be there on Saturday afternoon learning as well,.so definitely come by!

Happy Weekend!

Things Forthcoming

admin March 10th, 2011

I’m doing a bunch of stuff right now (I’m always doing a bunch of stuff, actually) that I thought I’d mention here.

First, on Monday March 21, at 5:30 I’ll be at the first Unitarian Universalist Society in Albany talking to Congressman Paul Tonko about peak oil, climate change and regional preparedness in an event put on by Capital District Transition. It ought to be interesting! Drop me an email if you have suggestions for questions you’d like me to put to Congressman Tonko.

Second, on April 9 at 7pm, I’ll be at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, talking about food, energy and our future. This is part of an all-day event, a reskilling festival with a lot of cool stuff happening – I’ll be there on Saturday afternoon learning as well,.so definitely come by!

Also, less locally, Aaron and I will be running our Adapting in Place Class, online for six weeks beginning April 5. The class covers every element of adapting your life both for things to come and things that are now, from going inside the walls of your home or apartment to community, family and security issues, from the ordinary (laundry) to the extraordinary (handling life transitions). This is our most fascinating and intense class, and for the very first time, Aaron and I are planning on offering a sequel, for people who have taken the AIP class and who would get something out of an advanced class to build on what you want to add. Not exactly sure when that will be, but there’s every chance that this will be the last Adapting in Place class before the advanced one – so if you’ve always wanted to take it, now’s the time. Cost of the class is $175, and I do have five scholarship spots for low income participants available. We also happily take donations of any size to make more free spots available to those who need them – 100% of your donation goes to other participants. Email me at [email protected] with questions or to enroll!

Finally, Memorial Day Weekend (May 27-29) our family will be having a family-friendly apprentice weekend. That means bring your kids (mine will be roaming around) and come to our place – learn scything, herbalism, goat milking and animal care, and a whole list of other skills. We have room for several additional families, and you can either stay with us, stay locally at one of several bed and breakfasts, or camp on the property or at the nearby state park. Meals are potluck and collective, payment is by donation, the weekend will be lots of fun! Email to join us!

Wow, that’s enough, right? Oh, one other thing – I get a lot of speaking invitations that I have to turn down for various reasons. This year, because we are expecting to add children to our family through adoption/fostering this summer, I’m not accepting anything from July 1 to at least September 1, and maybe longer. So if you were thinking of inviting me to come speak, either get me before the end of June, or let’s think late fall! I have a feeling I’m going to have my hands full in the interim!



Staying Put

admin September 23rd, 2010

I wrote this piece in 2006, and it is interesting for me to revisit it now, after our flirtation with moving. In the end we stayed for all the reasons I write about here – I think I hit on something true, but I don’t know if I really understood how hard it is to simply accept the limitations of one place until I actually did it.  Yeah, I know, physician, heal thyself ;-) .

It really doesn’t matter what you believe is the central crisis of our present society, whether you are focused on economic instability, peak oil, climate change, poverty and inequity or all of them together. When you filter out the details and get down to brass tacks, the answers to all of the above problems are the same.

Go home. Stay there. Cook your dinner instead of getting it out. Donate what you save. Talk to your neighbors. Buy local. Grow your own. Go to your town meeting, neighborhood council, or other public forum, and try and improve things. Vote.  Show up.  Make things instead of buying them. Share. Help those in need in your own neighborhood. Walk instead of driving. Play with you kids instead of buying them stuff. Turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Chase your kids or play soccer with your neighbors instead of going to the gym. Talk instead of watching tv. Plant trees. Learn permaculture. Barter. Raise some money for a good cause. Pare down. Live simply. Garden. Go home. Stay there.

Now the first and the last clauses here represent something of a problem for a lot of Americans – because you cannot build community, or develop a local society, or have an orchard, or depend on others for the things that you need, unless you actually stop moving around and stay somewhere. And most of us are not very good at that last – the average American moves every 5 years.

That’s not enough time to pay off the mortgage, or see that standard apple tree grow to fruition, or get to know the local issues well enough to have an impact on your town. In five years, you can get a carpool together, and get some bartering going, but you’ll have to leave just as things get good. It gives you just enough time to begin acquiring that wonderful quality, “known-ness” in which you know your neighbors, and you understand how they are connected to other people (that the postman is the BIL of the woman in the third house down, and that the woman in the green house is worried about her mother, whose health is failing), and how you fit in (you are the weird one who composts and has chickens, right?). 

Then, most likely, you move – for the best of reasons – because this was a starter house and you need something bigger, or to get closer to your dream house, or to build your own passive solar place, to be closer to your elderly parents, or so the kids can walk to school, to be nearer a new job or in a safer neighborhood, or to downsize now that the kids are gone. And you start again with a new garden, and new soil, new trees and new neighbors, new friends for the kids and new everything.

Now I have a lot of natural sympathy for people who move a lot. I would be one of them, but I can’t be. My husband, Eric, feels about moving much the way I feel about toxic chemicals, only not so positively. If it were left to him, we would probably still be living in an apartment in Somerville. But now that he’s here, it has taken him the better part of nine years to get used to being here, and he’s happy, so he’s never, ever moving. Add to that that this is the house we lived in with his beloved grandparents, and we’re here forever.

On the other hand, if three months have passed since we moved here that I haven’t looked over the local real estate listings, I’d be shocked. Me, I’m a grass-is-greener kind of person. I’ve never been anywhere that I didn’t think (however briefly) “could I live here?” And often, when I’m most frustrated with my life, my first reaction is “we should move to where we could be carfree/have more land/be nearer X relative/be further away from other people/have a smaller house/build green/etc…”

It has been a long, long struggle for me to realize that I am staying here forever, if possible. I still fight against that reality sometimes. I do love my house, but like many of the people I love, I’m not always sure that I actually want to live with it. If you were to describe the ideal post-peak house, I suspect you would not choose a 3000+ square foot rambly, under-insulated farmhouse with a bat collector (er, cupola space). It is a pain in the ass to keep clean (and we’re not the tidiest people in the world), drafty, too big even for our four kids (we had hoped Eric’s grandparents would be with us much longer), because of its size, the taxes run high, and has a host of other things that make it much more difficult and annoying to make efficient than would a new, green-built home. It doesn’t come with an ocean (I grew up near the sea, and that bugs me), and it is in every way imperfect, even when I like it.

And in that sense, it is perfect, isn’t it? Because I’m going to bet that most of you live in the wrong house too. And in fact, no matter how hard we try, we’re not going to replace our 90 million dwellings with brand new, perfectly designed ones. We can’t, and think of what we’d waste in doing so.

A few people will build new, green houses, but most of us will make do with what we’ve got, or, as most of us do, buy another house and another house, trying always to get to the point at which our house will fulfill its dream functions for us. But we never quite succeed. I once read that people who build their dream houses only live in them an average of 7 years. Because in 7 years, dreams change, I guess, and we get frustrated by the fact that houses, no matter how wonderful, are in the end, only houses, and go looking for the magic house that will be more.

And all that moving around exacts a price. First of all, there’s the economic price – the cost of realtors fees, and advertising, moving costs and buying new things at the other end – we lose an average of between 6 and 8% of the purchase price on each house. In a bubble market like the one we once had, that’s no big deal – we get it back. But that’s not the norm, and we all know those days are over. So moving costs us economically. 

It also sets us back on every goal we have in creating local economies, local communities, local cultures. Every time we pick up and move, we lose a year or two of high quality work – because while we’re adapting to a new place, meeting people, finding out about local resources, getting used the new job, seeing where the sun falls in the yard and testing the soil, we’re spending time that could be gardening and working at the shelter and bartering with the neighbors. It also costs energy – moving our crap, buying new stuff, flying on airplanes, renting trucks, these are not low energy input activities. They raise our personal energy footprint.

Now sometimes we’re going to have to move – and not every home has a future, particularly given climate change.. But over the coming decades, a lot more of us are
going to have to stay put. We are going to have to change to a foot economy, and relocalize.

 You cannot fully relocalize if you are dreaming of the day you will move to your perfect house, that you will find the perfect community of people just like you. We can’t wait until we can all afford the perfect place. And some, perhaps many, of the places we’re in are going to have to become perfect because they are ours. With the crash of the housing market, it isn’t going to be economically feasible to trade up all the time. No matter how good your R value, the building materials in your perfect house come with a big energy footprint. No matter how annoying your neighbors, maybe it is time to share with them, rather than dreaming of the perfect community. Even if the house is too small, or too big, doesn’t have the garden space you dream of or is down the street from weird people, it might be the best place for you.

So I’m trying. When we invest in our house, we do it in ways that will serve us for a lifetime. Last night I looked out at the stars and I tried to imagine that this, with its benefits and limitations, is our permanent world, the place where we will always live. The only home my children will know. We are renovating the house to make ourselves more self-sufficient, and to set things up so that we can live comfortably without electricity or other fossil fuel inputs. I am trying to make it more beautiful, to pare down what we don’t need, and to make things prettier. And I am trying to believe that here is where I am supposed to be.   I’m not always successful – but I’m trying.


Reconsidering Cities

Sharon January 12th, 2010

I get a lot of emails from people who want to get out of the city.   Sometimes the reasons are really good ones – they don’t like cities or the ones they live in, but were drawn there by the promise of salaries and jobs, but now see other options opening up in rural areas or small towns.  Maybe they always dreamed of land and space to be self-sufficient, or maybe it was a new dream – but now they want to explore it.  Maybe they want lower cost of living and stronger community ties and think a rural small town is the way to get it.  Maybe they want cleaner air and more green spaces, or to go home to a place they loved.  Maybe they believed the idea that it was too hard to grow your own and make your own, but they’ve stopped believing this.  To which I say - great!

But not all the people I hear from have these reasons.  Sometimes people think they should get out of the city because they’ve been told they have to, or they’ve seen too many apocalyptic movies.  Sometimes people read about peak oil and climate change and their first reaction is “I’ve got to get out of the city” - but their family is there, and their home and their work.  Sometimes people really like cities, and don’t want to leave, but feel like they have to to be safe.  Sometimes what is burgeoning under the surface is a real fear of crime, and sometimes it is a nebulous fear of the alien and strange.  And sometimes there’s a racist and classist element to this – a fear of “them” who will “riot.”  Sometimes there are concerns that cities are unadaptable – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly.  Sometimes people just haven’t given much thought to what is possible in the city and they don’t realize that many of their dreams might be fulfillable in the city. 

We moved here to the country a few months before 9/11, and I can’t count the number of people who called up and said “you have the right idea, get out of the cities!”  In vain did we protest that we hadn’t left Lowell and Boston to escape terrorism, nameless violence and scary people but because we wanted to grow things and raise animals.    I don’t blame folks who instinctively reacted that way, but I do think that if we’re leaving the cities, we should go for the right reasons – because we love the country, not because we fear the city.  Moreover, I feel that many cities have a future – and a rich and complicated and probably quite wonderful (and difficult) ones.  Nor is it self-evident to me that the countryside will always be better off than the city.  So let’s talk about why people should revisit the idea of cities.

I think it is important also to distinguish between several kinds of cities. Just as I’ve written before that there are suburbs and suburbs, there are cities and cities.  There are cities I think have little or no future in the face of climate change and energy depletion, and ones I think have quite a bright future.  How do you know which kind of city yours is?  Well, there are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. Was this a major city before 1900?  This is an important question if you are interested in your city’s future.  As a general rule, the best way to evaluate a city’s long term future in the face of depletion and the ability to produce less carbon is to ask “Back when we used less energy, did people want to live here?  If so, why? If not, why not?”  If, for example, your city is a major port city, or connected by waterway to a major port city, your city probably has a future.  The age of water transport is hardly over – it is just beginning again, and ports will be needed.  If your city was a mill city with lots of hydropower – that’s another good sign.  Or a major rail hub – we know that rail is much more efficient than private cars.  On the other hand, if not very many people lived there until air conditioning or until we stole water from somewhere else, that might not be so good. 

2. What are the best projections for its future in climate change?  The exception to the rule that you should use the past to predict the future is climate change.  If your city is expected to be underwater and subject to increasingly violent storm surges, you might not want to stay – even if you imagine you won’t be alive for the worst consequences, you might consider asking yourself “When I’m 70, will I want to evacuate every hurricane season?”  Or if increasing heatwaves and drought are the projection, you should honestly ask whether you are prepared to deal with them.    Cities with no good reliable supply of water will probably do very badly indeed.

3. What kind of local food and energy infrastructure have you got?  Cities that didn’t develop hugely in the last decades that still have farmland around them will be at an advantage – not an insurmountable ones if they have natural transportation lines, but still, this is a powerful advantage.  Smaller cities of 1 million or less may do better than bigger ones – the biggest cities will probably have to get smaller, particularly if they are built up for many miles outside their limits, have a lot of high rises or other major disadvantages.  That said, even a big city that has to get smaller will have some particularly well developed people who do very well there

4. Finally, what’s the culture of your city/neighborhood within it?  Are you surrounded by immigrants who are growing gardens in every spare inch?  Awesome.  Are you surrounded by affluent neighbors who don’t like to see undies out on the line?  Not so great.  Is your city in decline with a high violent crime rate?  Not so good.  Does your city have an active and powerful community organizing presence that helps keep people safe?  Good.  Is your municipality actively preparing for the future?  Terrific.  Are they not helping but not hindering much?  Pretty good. 

Moreover, the country will have some disadvantages over cities in difficult times – this is almost certain to happen.  It is important to be prepared for those difficulties, and many city people aren’t – given that they will be facing challenges in either place, it may be better to face challenges that are more familiar, in a place where you have ties, than to try and face totally unfamiliar ones in a new place.

What are the disadvantages of the countryside?  Here are a few:

1. Fewer jobs, more poverty, at least at first.  While in the longer term, rural areas may do better, in early transitional periods, the odds are that they will do worse, because they have fewer jobs to begin with.  In an economic crisis, many people in rural areas become very poor and areas become severely depressed.  If you are thinking that we will have an instant apocalypse where everyone moves out to the countryside looking for food, you probably should give some thought to a slow grind, where there’s plenty of food but no money to buy it.

2. Shortages of goods and higher prices for things not made locally.  Many rural areas have few stores and are at thee nd of shipping lines.  If gas gets expensive or resources get constrained, outer perimeter stores will be serviced last, and at higher cost.   Few rural dwellers make everything they use or even grow all their own food – it may cost you a lot more to get things and you may be the first to see shortages.

3. Tight knit and conservative communities can be alienating to people who are different or simply outsiders.  While I know, for example, many gay and lesbian people living in rural areas, I know others who were driven out by small mindedness and hostility.  Plenty of people move out our way and complain that if you aren’t related to someone, there’s no social life, and it is hard to integrate.  The reality is you may be an outsider for a long time.

4. It can be far away from family and friends if they are tied to the city.  Life in the country also requires that you live differently – fewer formal activities for the kids, more just playing, maybe multiple sources of part time income instead of one steady job.

5. Lack of services – as economic consequences get greater, small towns with small tax bases either need to raise taxes (a tough sell) or they need to cut services.  When oil prices spiked in 2008 schools cut back to 4 days a week, got rid of staff, plowing was cut back, garbage collection abandoned and town courts closed.  The consequences are worse in the city when services do shut down because of population density, but cities are less likely to get hit as early.

Now I love the country, and I love my life, but it would be wrong to imply that everyone should live here.  In fact, everyone shouldn’t – first of all, there’s not enough land in the world for everyone to live at the population density that I do.  Some people have to – otherwise we wouldn’t have farms, but our present population means that some people also have to live in apartments and dense housing so that there’s farmland left.  Moreover, unlike some rural folk, I don’t dislike cities – I lived in them for much of my life, and I’m fond of them.  If I could bring my livestock back to the city, heck, I might consider it ;-) .

Plus, there are some real advantages to living sustainably in the city – some things are a lot easier.  These include transportation, getting to shopping, scavenging stuff, building diverse communities, meeting cultural needs for people who are different in some way or need to be close to religious or ethnic communities, more bodies to keep you warm, access to trade goods, educational opportunities and others.  Cities have existed for a very, very long time, and they aren’t going to  go away.  Trade has been happening for centuries, and climate change is not going to make Ottumwa, Iowa a center of international trade anytime soon. 

Moreover, some cities may thrive with the resumption of local manufacturing – when oil prices spiked in 2008, overwhelmingly the costs of globalization began to be realized.  When shipping costs rise, we will have incentive to bring manufacturing back in many areas.  For people who don’t want to be farmers, meeting new needs for efficient heating, garden tools, sturdy clothing, etc… will be important work.  Even Aaron Newton and I never did suggest that everyone was going to be a farmer ;-)

Sometimes people email me saying that they desperately need to get out of the city because they want to grow a garden, because they need to get their hands into dirt.  But this, I think, is the deepest misconception created by energy depletion and climate change – that there’s only dirt in the country, or that it only “counts” when there’s a lot of it.  But the reality, as I say as often as I can think of, is that there’s dirt under everyone’s feet.  It may be hard to find – sometimes you have to go look at community gardens or borrow a neighbor’s yard or do so guerilla gardening.  But we need people to grow food most of all where people live now. 

Because reducing energy and shipping costs is essential, we need gardeners in the city and small livestock in the city as much as we need farmers in the countryside.  In 1943, for example, the city of Baltimore had more than 14,000 community gardens, producing enough food to meet all the produce needs of the city.  In 1944, all the victory gardens in the US produced the same amount of produce as all the vegetable farms in the US put together.  In the 19th century, urban Paris was exporting food from 3600 acres of intensively farmed land that produce more vegetables than the city could consume.

Underestimating the power of urban agriculture is one of the deepest flaws in reasoning.  Most nations of the global south produce substantial portions of meat and vegetables within city limits – Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, both produce more than 20% of their meat and vegetables within the city limits.  In 2002 with more than 6 million people, Hong Kong was producing 33% of their produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and 20% of the farmed fish eaten in the city limits, much the animale being rased on 160,000 tons annually of food waste that was recycled into meat and eggs.  Will cities grow all their own food?  No, but they don’t necessarily have to.  A substantial portion can be enough, as long as they also build ties to surrounding rural areas.

What about people’s fears about crime and violence?  Are they misplaced?  No, they aren’t – they are very real.  But it is important to keep them in perspective – often we’re so terrified of crime that we give it a bigger place in our lives psychologically than it deserves.  There are some cities that have undergone major crises and become violent, unliveable places but most often because of war.  In many other places, the countryside has also experience violence – violence that was worse because of isolation from neighbors.

My bet is that if you could live in the worst neighborhood in your city right now then you would be ok.  Now many of us wouldn’t choose to do that – but we should remember that the crime we’re facing in the cities is probably on the same order of the crime and difficulty that we expect the poor to endure in our cities right now.  Right now there are people operating in your city without utilities – either squatters or people who have been shut off for non-payment.  Right now there are people who are facing high crime rates, who can’t get police protection or who have reasons to be afraid of the police.  Right now there are people who are facing rising infant mortality, lack of access to health care and good food. 

What’s likely to happen in the longer term is that many of us are likely to live in cities much as the poor live in them now.  But at the same time, the same strategies that have helped poor urban dwellers make a decent life for themselves are available to us – organize, organize, organize.  That is, when the neighborhood isn’t safe and the cops aren’t responsive, get together and talk to the police and the people who police the police.  Organize watches.  Get the dealers out.  Make spaces that are safe.  Enlist help from the community to clean things up and make things safer.  It isn’t a magic bullet, but it works.

When there’s no good local food infrastructure, people start it. When there’s no clinic, people agitate for one, or start one themselves.  The beauty of cities is the tremendous people power that cities have – the capacity to organize, resist and make safe.

There are things about large, dense cities that are potentially quite dangerous. The things that worry me most are fire infrastructure in the case of disasters, water contamination and disease outbreaks due to water contamination.  These are real issues.  Again, they can be handled by leaving and going someplace less populous – but you do only change one set of problems for another.  If your house catches fire while you are trying to keep warm in the city, you could burn down a whole neighborhood, so you need to handle heating safely and collectively.  If your house catches fire in the country, nobody else will burn – but no one may show up to put it out, either, if things get tough enough.   Managing human wastes in the city is challenging – but in the country you may run into people who are accustomed to just dumping as they like.

Generally speaking, cities require a high degree of cooperation – living successfully in close proximity to others requires that people be accomodating of others.  People who can’t do this or don’t want to may want their own space and land.  It can be frustrating, particularly when the regulations are inflexible and strictly enforced – getting that livestock into the city will take a lot of advocacy in some cases.  And yet, that cooperation is also a gift – it means that the infrastructure of management can be invoked and used in tough times.  Rural areas without close ties – and many of the traditional neighborly ties have been set aside as people replace cooperation with fossil fuels – may be tough to work together.

The people who should most seriously consider staying in the city are those with strong community and family ties there.  Difficult times may make it impossible to commute back and forth.  If you are a member of an ethnic, religious or minority community and that identity is important to you, you may find yourself painfully isolated somewhere away from them.  Much of our collective fears about the cities have to do with their diversity – I’m not at all claiming that everyone with worries about cities has a secret fear of non-white folk, but some of them quite explicitly do.  Often our fears about cities are fears about race, class and cultures that are alien to us.  That doesn’t mean that sometimes our fears aren’t legitimate – but we need to be very careful about identifying which ones are real and which ones aren’t.  Moreover, conversations about “them” forget that a lot of us are “thems” of various sorts – and have strong reasons to want to be near our communities.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to persuade anyone to go city or country mouse.  What concerns me is that people instinctively reject both choices for the wrong reasons. It may well be a good idea for you to leave the city – but maybe not too.  What it should be is a rational choice, not one based on an instinctive panic or a set of false assumptions.

If you are going to reconsider the question of the city, here are some books to get you started:

_Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer_ by Novella Carpenter.  I can’t say enough good things about this book!  Carpenter isn’t writing in some affluent neighborhood – she’s farming a slum in Oakland and doing a damned fine job of it.

_The Toolbox for Sustainable City Living_ Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew worked their ideas for reclaiming industrial spaces through permaculture out in Austin, but now they are doing them in Albany, to my delight!  This is a wonderful book of practical, low cost tools for real urbanites who want to have a future.

_The Integral Urban House_ by The Farallones Institute – this book is out of print, but still deeply valuable. Published in 1979 by a branch of the Sierra Club, it is _The Encyclopedia of Country Living_ for the urbanite, covering everything from insulation to greywater, mitigating soil contamination to managing wastes of all kinds. 


Finding My Place: How We Got Here Part II

Sharon January 5th, 2010

In my previous post on this subject over at science blogs, I detailed how we decided to move and narrowed our range of possibilities down – and how it got narrowed down for us.  At the point I left off, we’ve more or less decided we prefer Washington County NY, so much so that we conceived Simon there ;-) .  Despite some significant objections to the region, we’ve decided to move there.  But the best laid plans of mice and farmgirls gang aft agley…

The Washington County option got pulled out from under our feet.  The small college that expressed an interest in Eric turned out not to be interested in Eric, and the college over the VT border that was hiring decided not to hire.  The commute to Albany would have been prohibitive, so that was that – we were committed to the greater Schoharie County.

In retrospect, I’m grateful. Yes, Washington County would have been closer to family and we liked the landscape more.  But I’ve come to love the landscape here, and the commuter, religious and other issues were probably insurmountable. If I had a major flaw in this it was that I was capable of convincing myself, against my instincts, that something would be ok.  In retrospect, I’m grateful I didn’t get the opportunity.

In March, we went back to Schoharie County.  Eric had the tentative promise of a job from two different places, both within reasonable distance, and we’d settled on the area.  We couldn’t afford much time off, and we were committed to moving that summer, so we needed to find a house.  This was to be our buying trip.  We contacted multiple realtors – our rural area had (and to an extent still has) a completely unconnected real estate system – while some realtors were on the web, others weren’t, and it was damned hard to find them all.  Most houses weren’t on the MLS and you had to find each place’s listings to know what was available.  We were coming to the area for four days, and I had a list of about 40 properties over a broad region that we wanted to consider, through five realtors.  I had them mail us the specs on each property, did a ton more research on the towns involved, and narrowed it down to 11 properties, which we would see over 3 days.  We made the appointments, packed the child and stopped by the side of the road for me to throw up regularly (I was now 6 weeks pregnant and throwing up 20 or so times a day), and planned to pick a house.  Our goal was to decide this weekend.

We saw all 11 properties.  They ranged from FARMS to farms to houses with acreage.  All met our basic parameters.  Acreage ran from 15 to 180.  Most were in our approximate price range.  Several were duplexes or already had a second house on it.  Most were eliminated immediately.

The first house was a dairy farm that literally had a rotting dead cow in the front yard.  The barn was great, the house was ugly, and we weren’t able to see the apartment below.  We passed.  The second one was a possibility - an elderly Polish farmer with 70 flat, beautiful acres and two huge barns.  The price was right, and it had a gorgeous apartment for Eric’s grandparents.  The problem was that the apartment above, where we would live was tiny, dark and cramped and it would have been difficult to add on.  One of the barns was crammed full of old equipment and the farmer announced that he planned to leave it for us to sort through, which seemed cool, but overwhelming.  He didn’t seem interested in negotiating on price.  We held it out as a possibility, but reluctantly.

The third house was a disaster – there was obvious roof and foundation damage, we said no way.  The fourth was an ugly new house on a steep hillside that we learned was being sold because of septic issues, and whose trees had just been logged, giving us a beautiful view of the billboard on the road below - we passed.  The fifth was newly under agreement, although beautiful, and on a fast moving main road.  We were getting depressed. 

On day two, we saw the first house we seriously considered. It was a beautiful 150 year old farmhouse, with multiple barns and miles of fencing.  The young couple of were running it were moving closer to his family.  It was a little isolated, even by our standards, but the neighbors seemed nice.  The real negative was that the owners had designed and built a huge freestall cow barn to go with it – and it was a total eyesore.  It was brand new, so taking it down seemed unfair, but we couldn’t imagine living with that big honking yellow horror in our front yard.  In retrospect, I think we could have dealt with it, and it might have been a good property for us, but every time we tried to love the place, we were confronted with that school-bus yellow monstrosity practically blocking out the house.  We also suspected Eric’s grandparents would never go for it.

The next house was a real possibility as well – a beautiful, huge old farmhouse with gorgeous barns.  It even had a tenant house in the yard. It was on the outer edge of our price range, but a good deal, with 80 acres, mostly level and beautiful, and with good timber.  The major disadvantage was that the son was considering buying out his Dad, and another son wanted to keep a legal right of way through the timber.  We could probably live with the right of way, although we worried about conflicts, but the son didn’t seem to be making up his mind soon, and nothing could be done until he decided.  Also, this house was fairly far from doctors and shopping – Eric’s grandmother was a bad driver who refused to give up her car, we didn’t want her travelling really long distances.  We left it open, but suspected it wouldn’t work out.  In retrospect, this is the house I wanted, though – and it would have been a good choice.

The next house was falling down, and we couldn’t even get to it through the unplowed snow on the seasonal road.  The one after that caused Eric and I our first real fight of the trip.  It was above the Mohawk river in an area populated by Amish folk, and was, in fact, an Amish house.  It was the least expensive house on our list – we might actually have been able to buy it outright with luck, at 20K. It was a five year old Amish house with three small bedrooms and a large public area.  It had a new pole barn, five fenced acres and five acres of woods.  It even had an existing, improved garden spot.  We both thought it was beautiful, and I fell deeply in love.  Eric refused, because it had no electricity or running water. I argued that there was time to add these things, that we could camp over the summer while adding them.  Eric countered with the fact that there was no freakin’ way his grandparents would consider living in a house without electricity and running water.  I argued that if they knew they would be there by the time they got there… Eric argued that he wouldn’t consider living in such a house, and that I’d get lonely without him.  He won. 

The last two houses were serious contenders.  The first was a horse farm with 30 rolling acres, beautiful streams and ponds, the most beautiful barn I’ve ever seen and if it weren’t for the house, I’d be living there now.  But despite the fact that the road was extremely rural, the house itself was bang up against it’s neighbor – you could see in the next-door windows.  I wasn’t moving to the country to live that close to anyone, but I really wanted the place – the house was nice, it needed work but had real potential.  The neighbors were absentee who rarely visited.  The barn..did I mention the barn.  The land was gorgeous.  It was cheap.  It went on the list, and I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t *that* close to the other house.  But it was.

This was the very last house we saw.  We had almost chosen not to see it, because it was one of the few that wasn’t a double or hadn’t been a two family before.  But the realtor convinced us it had everything else we wanted, an the large field was a seperate lot, so we’d have no trouble building a small house there if we wanted.  Our house is in between two steep hills, and as we came over the hill and saw the house through the trees, I remember saying to Eric that if this was it, it was beautiful.

And it was – it had everything we wanted.  125 years old, it had 27.9 acres, most of it wooded, but with 3 open acres around the house and a large 9 acre field. It had a newer stable built for the present owner’s horses, and a creek.  The living room addition had been built a 100 years before with the beams from an old Quaker barn, and those ancient beams held up the ceiling while an enormous stone fireplace divided the room from the dining room.  The public areas were large, the private ones small, which suited us fine.

It had no neighbors in view, but was closer to Eric’s probable job, and to synagogue and shopping than any of the other likely candidates.  The woman who owned it showed us around, and they had made useful improvements.  It needed some work – the upstairs bath was defunct, the roof would eventually need repairs, but they were willing to drop the price accordingly.  The owners were friendly with many neighbors and new a lot about the local food infrastructure and were in fact, moving only up the road to build their own place.  The neighbors we talked to were enthusiastic about the area.

We went back to the hotel and argued for a while.  I tried again at the Amish house, but it was doomed.  We considered several of the other farms, finally, on price grounds dropping it down to three – the house with the wonderful barn and neighbors right there, the yellow monstrosity barn and the white house between the hills.  Ultimately, I wish I could say that reason won out, but I think beauty did – the other two had some great flaw in their beauty.  This house was lovely from every angle. Beauty hadn’t been on our list, but it turned out to be enormously important – it was the one thing we couldn’t talk our way around.

What I didn’t know is that the soil in this place would suck.  The ground was frozen solid and there were three feet of snow on it, so I didn’t take soil samples. I asked about soil at each place, and the owners reassured us that this had been a working dairy farm for many years.  This is true – but we only later learned that it was a sod farm for the last 10 of those years – that is, what fertility and topsoil there was was stripped off to sell sod to people who wanted perfect lawns.  I also didn’t realize that the drainage would be bad.  I knew enough to ask, but they reassured me that everything drained into the creek.  I forgot to ask how long the water stopped before it got around to draining ;-) .

In retrospect, for the kind of farming I wanted to do, it would have been smarter to buy one of the other farms.  The farm with the uncertain son did eventually go on the market, and given what we spent to build the addition onto this place, it would have been in our price range.  If we hadn’t felt we had to buy that weekend, we might have made a better choice.  The small stable was rapidly outgrown, and my desire to do vegetable farming would have worked better on flatter land.  But given someone who had had all her gardens on postage stamp urban backyards and balconies, all this dirt was an embarrassment of riches. 

If we were doing this now, Eric would have lived with the Amish farm, or we would have explained the temperature issues to Eric’s grandparents.  If we were doing it now I’d have gotten soil tests and a bigger barn.  But then again, the reality is that you can only do things when you do them.  The house needed more work than we knew, but that probably would have been true of all the old houses.  In the end, I’m not sure things didn’t work out for the best.

There are things that I would change now, but there are also things we didn’t know to look for that we’ve come to love.  We knew the neighbors seemed like likeable folk, but we didn’t know how lucky we’d be, especially with George and Sandy, with whom we bartered and borrowed and shared everything from childcare to a car, and with Angel up the road who was always so helpful.  We didn’t realize what a vital and wonderful local food infrastructure we were entering into, or how much we’d value the privacy and quiet of our farm.  We also weren’t yet attached to a religious community, and our children were babies or in-utero, so we had no idea how much, when the years of Hebrew school and trying to figure out how to balance our religious culture and the rural one, how much every mile away from a Jewish community would matter – this was closer than most.

There are still things I don’t love about this house – I’m going to write a piece about the addition and improvements we’ve made on the house next week, but one of the things that bothers me most is that it is far too large for us.  We built the addition on for Eric’s grandparents, and while we knew that Cyril was fading, Eric’s grandmother was 12 years younger than he, and her own mother had lived into her 90s.  We’d hoped to be an extended family for 10 years or more.  Instead, they lived here less than 2 years, and we were left in one family with a house meant for two.  I dream of another family of friends or like-minded people to live with – that’s the only thing I can imagine moving me, if I can’t eventually find it here.  But we’re looking.

I can’t regret anything, though. Our story isn’t a story of finding the perfect place, but rather of making it as best we could, out of what we had.  And that’s enough – we’re happy and we love our home.  Every time I walk across my land, I am stunned that this place belongs to me – we are coming up on 9 years here, and for all its flaws and imperfections – and my flaws at seeing how to deal with them – it has become home.


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