Archive for March, 2009


Sharon March 30th, 2009

Spring doesn’t come easily in upstate New York - she wrestles with Old Man Winter for a long, long time before he gives up.  The first sign is the daffodils, up a small amount in February, giving false hope, but also inspiration - proof positive, as they weather layers of snow and ice that spring may come in the guise of a fresh girl, but she is one tough young lady.  But I have to remind myself - green stems do not mean spring.

Then comes the inevitable thaw, and the smell of wet earth, that scent that screams spring, but isn’t quite because you’ll have more frozen nights and wintry days yet.  The grass, uncovered, greens up faintly, but the dominant colors are dull grey and brown, and we hold our breath for the change that can’t come fast enough.  The crocuses bloom, and that is a small change, a step forward, but the real thing hasn’t come. 

The birds come back, new ones each day - first the robins, of course, still in winter, but a tiny flit of hope for an end.  Then the grackles come in waves (it is hard to be excited about grackles, but in winter, one can be happy about anything that prophecies its end).  Then a bright dash of red winged blackbird, and then a sudden burst of new birds each day.  But delightful though they are, the birds in themselves cannot carry spring.

Here, spring isn’t a color, and it isn’t a smell or a taste, and it doesn’t even have wings (although it might have feathers, a la Emily Dickinson).  Oh, spring has flavor - wild strawberries and overwintered spinach, dandelion greens and wild asparagus.  Spring has smells - warm wet earth and daffodils, hyacinths and grass, and colors - the clear pure yellow of daffodils, the purple of crocuses, that sweet gold-green that blushes trees and the reddish tint of buds that preceeds it, the vibrant green of new grass.  But it is none of those things. 

It is a sound, a single sound, the end of wintery silence when the Peepers wake up and begin to call to one another for love.  Peepers, for those of you who don’t live where they do, are tiny frogs, who make a sound not entirely unlike the sounds of katydids or crickets when heard from a distance, but different, wonderfully strange and sweet up close.  They are far too loud for their tiny size - standing next to a pond full of them, you would think you might go mad - except that after a long muffled winter of snow, you have to listen just a little longer. 

One year, just once, I heard them begin to sing.  We went to the wetlands on the edge of our property, walking along the road, and we stood in absolute silence and waited, and heard just one peeper take up the song,  for the first time or maybe it just seemed that way.  By that night, the whole watery area was in chorus, but just at the beginning, it was just one lonely peeper, hoping that somewhere, there was someone else for him.  It was strangely magical, and every year I try to duplicate it, to be there when they awaken, and spring truly begins. 

This year we went, day after day, long before it was really likely that we’d hear them, when there was still ice along the edges of the water and patches of snow in the woods, but we went.  And even Asher knew that when we got to the wetlands, we should stand, and be quiet and wait.  And we would, hearing new bird songs each day, until something disturbed us.  Yesterday, we got back late from the Greenmarket and errand running, and everyone was tired, so we did not walk out.  And at chore time, as I was cooking dinner, Eric came back in and told me that the peepers were calling.  We had already put the boys to bed, but ran upstairs, and opened the windows so that they could hear it too.

 I missed the moment spring came to my place, but I expect that, no matter how hard I try and duplicate a near-miracle. Mostly, you don’t see deep change happen, even though you know that it is occurring.  You go out in the garden after an absence of a few days, and wonder how those tiny seedlings became those deep-rooted plants, or you look at your daughter and wonder how it is that she’s lost the look of a toddler and become a child, with nobby knees and a galloping gait.  Mostly the biggest transitions pass us by, and it is enough to say that you didn’t miss anything important in its entirety.  They say on hot nights in July you can hear the corn growing, and just once, I did hear the peepers awaken, but mostly the greatest transitions pass you by and that is our lot in life.

In a purely practical sense, were you looking at my mud-colored landscape, you might wonder what changed, why I say that spring came.  We still have more mud than green, things are still changing only incrementally, the daffodils still aren’t yet open, although the purple crocuses brighten each morning.  Things still squelch, and I know better than to plant out today - the peas I put in today will, as usual, sit waiting for dryer and more settled weather and end up being harvested at precisely the same time as the peas I plant out in two weeks - so why bother, except, of course, that I am chomping at the bit to plant anything outside.  Seedlings are great, but they are not sufficient to sustain me.

All I can say is that I know this is it because it is - not very useful, I suppose, but I know that now no snowfall, no late frost, no burst of winter will make a difference in the consistent forward motion of energetic spring.  So I wait to plant,  the waiting is made easier by the singing of tiny frogs, frogs I almost never see, whose presence I would not suspect were it not for those short weeks in which their music dwarfs the birds and my noisy family, and shakes the foundations of winter.  He’s done for. 

Spring has won, again.  The rest will come slowly, achingly, and then it will burst upon us, and some people, looking at the flowers, the grass, the budding trees, will nod and say “spring is here.”  And we will smile at them and agree that it certainly is, and hold quietly the fact that we heard spring happen, and were there, if not for the golden moment, just after life returned anew.

Happy Spring, 


Far Past Our Father's Land - What Are You Seeing?

Sharon March 27th, 2009

I haven’t mentioned it in a while, but Aaron and I are still collecting stories (and images) of the New Depression for a book/website/video - who knows.  If you haven’t seen my account of this project, you can check it out here:

 So tell me (or put in a link to your blog) - what are you seeing in your neck of the woods?  How are events unfolding?  What is life like for you and your neighbors now?  What has changed?  What’s still the same?

Thank you for sharing, 


How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

Sharon March 26th, 2009

The old punchline “Practice, practice, practice” applies to more than musical performance. It applies to the project of coming to terms with our new circumstances, and perhaps embracing our new lives.

Ideally, I feel like my last post in the Adapting In Place series (at least until I run the class again in the fall) ought to be something rousing and inspiring. But at the moment, I think the quiet exhortation to simply keep practicing at your life might be more to the point.

All works of art have two pieces - the obvious, occasionally transcendent product, and the whole body of work that preceeds them that makes them possible.  A lot of that work, even to create the purest, most elevated art is dirty, sweaty, smelly, hard and exhausting. 

Writers write and write, they screw up, they expose and humiliate themselves, they get carpal tunnel, bursitis and back injuries, they fail, they burn out their anger and frustration at their own inadequacies, they work and then throw days of hard work in the recycle bin, and they get up and do it again. 

Dancers endure injuries, strained muscles, bleeding feet, they sweat, they get filthy and sore and they try the same motion over and over again until their mind is numb with frustration and boredom and they wonder why bother - and they get up and do it again and again. 

Musicians see their fingers rubbed raw by strings and their muscles cramped holding their instruments, they play the same passage over and over and see where they fail, they can hear the right notes in their but they cannot make them, they play in public and screw up and they get up and do it again.  Do you sense a theme?

A graceful life, lived with as few non-renewable resources as possible, and as adapted to changing and shifting conditions as possible is a thing of artfulness and beauty.  The extraction of every drop of happiness and comfort from the resources you do leave you at the end with a life well lived - and what better art form is there? 

But just as with music, dance, literature, sculpture, behind the art is failure, many mistakes, frustration, repetition, imperfection, and practice, practice, practice.  It is not enough to say “Ok, I read Sharon’s blog, I know I’ll need a garden someday, and look, I’ve got the seens vacuum packed here.”  I can’t teach anyone anything about gardening that will not be completely dwarfed by a single season in the dirt trying to grow food.  The same is true with every single endeavor - you can know what you need to do to go without any electric tool, to live without a car - but until you have done it, and done it enough times to know what happens when seasons and circumstances changed, you will not know.

Behind this blog, which very occasionally has its artful moments, are literally thousands of failures - time spent writing papers for classes and arguing ideas on the internet in which I did not speak clearly, I did not make my ideas clear, I was boring or missed the point or wasted my own time and others.  There are plenty of posts on this blog in that genre ;-) .

Behind Sharon-as-writer is an acre of red pen on papers, and kind and harsh replies to my foolishness, screw ups and mistakes that seemed irremediable but weren’t, and lots of time doing dull, frustrating rewrites.  And what I learned was to (sometimes) do it mostly right the first time, to mostly be able to make myself clear, or for others to understand me.  If there are moments when this is good it is only because of the sweat and sleeplessness and the failures behind it that made it possible for me not to screw up every single time.  If I avoid some mistakes it is only because I already made them…and made them and made them.

I say this because there may come a time (or we may be there now for some of you) when you cannot afford to experiment, to make too many mistakes, when you may have to do it right the very first time to keep your life together.  And the only way to avoid many of the worst mistakes is to make them early while there’s still time.  Now is the time to screw up.

And that means you have to try adapting in place, as though you really needed to.  Try for a week to give up the car.  Try for a weekend to turn off the breakers and the gas and live without fossil fuels.  Set a limit on your kilowatt hours or you consumption of gasoline for the month, and stick to it. Don’t make it an easy one - push your limits.  Cut your budget to the bone and then cut some more, as though you had no choice - and see how you do.  Even your mistakes will teach you something about what you need. 

Dmitry Orlov often observes that living through tough times is a little like falling out a window - you want to fall out the lowest possible window, not the highest.  The lower you are prepared to go in your resource use, the more you are able to adapt to tough things, because the distance between what how you need to live now and what you’ve already experienced is small, the better off and more secure you and and your loved ones will be.

Over the spring and summer, I’m going to do a series of practice challenges, and of course, there are a lot of other wonderful people on the web doing ones.  Perhaps the weekend with all the breakers turned off or the “how low can you go” spending practice will help you get just a little lower.  But you don’t have to wait for me.   It is time to start practicing - because Carnegie Hall, and our big public performance may be closer than we think.


Garden Advice from the Woods Boys to Sasha and Malia Obama

Sharon March 26th, 2009

Ok, this is almost too cutesy to post here, but I did think it might inspire some other kids to do the same thing.  And the kids really, really did want to let Sasha and Malia know about their garden after we talked about the new White House Vegetable Garden.  A lot of the emphasis has been on the Obama adults - but the White House garden may be one of the best tools for bringing kids into the garden. 

Originally the proposed plan was to enclose some home preserved food from the garden that the kids wanted to send, but Mom persuaded them that seeds would be much less likely to be thrown out by the Secret Service.  Mom helped with the grammar, neatness and some editing, but the content is theirs.

Dear Sasha and Malia,

 Hi! We’re four brothers from New York.  Eli is 9, Simon is 7, Isaiah is 5 and Asher is 3.  We heard your family has a new garden.  Our family has a garden too.  We live on a farm with goats, chickens and angora rabbits, and sometimes turkeys, sheep and a donkey named Xote.

We like to eat out of our garden.  Eli, Simon and Isaiah all like the tomatoes best, especially the cherry tomatoes.  Asher likes the melons.

We help plant seeds, pull weeds, make compost and harvest the food.  We like to make rainbow salads with lots of greens like chard, sorrel, kale and mint, and with edible flowers like johnny-jump ups and daylilies.

This year we’re turning our whole front yard into a big garden. Some special kid things we’re doing include a bean tent for us to hide in and a flower maze.  Isaiah wants a water garden to attract toads and frogs, and for carnivorous plants that eat bugs.  Our yard also has fairy houses that we buit, but we haven’t seen any fairies yet.  Does your garden have kid stuff in it?

We think you are lucky to have a garden in the White House.  We bet you’ll get lots of yummy things to eat like we do.  Just look out for the bugs - don’t eat them!

We are sending you some seeds we saved from our garden.  We are sending you pumpkins and peas, two of our favorites.  Do you like pumpkin pie?  We all do, and sometimes we have pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon.  Yum!

We hope you have fun in the White House and in your garden.  You’ll be the most famous garden kids in the world.  We wish we could visit, but at least our seeds can come to your house.

Your friends,

 Eli, Simon, Isaiah and Asher 


Honest Evaluation of Costs and Benefits, Profit and Loss

Sharon March 26th, 2009

No, this one actually isn’t about the economy.  This post came out of a question that was asked at the end of my talk at the New York State Museum last week, a question I get a lot, and always feel inadequate answering - how do we deal with our sense of loss, with what we don’t get in a world where we either by necessity or because it is the moral things to do choose to live with less, choose to make hard choices about what we can have

I don’t want to deny that people really do endure substantial costs here - they truly do.  I believe that much about the low impact, adaptive life is good and valuable, but there are things that are inconvenient, and if events make things necessary, that will be a heck of a lot more than inconvenient, and by virtue of time invested, my situation may be easier than most. I do not mean to understate loss.

And yet, I think it very important that we consider seriously how we look at and evaluate the costs of our new lifestyle, in order to really understand them.  Because one of the insidious things about our society - probably any society - is that we are accustomed to paying certain prices for the society we live in, so accustomed that we understate these costs, and rarely fully acknowledge them.  Unfamiliar costs and negatives, we tend to overstate.  This plays out in nearly every area of our thinking about the future, and distorts our reasoning.  To some degree this distortion may be inevitable, but I think it is worth trying to balance it as clearly as possible.

 What do I mean by this?  Well, one easy example would the costs of a car-rich vs. car-free society.  I think when many of us (perhaps not so much my blog readers, but most people more embedded in the culture) think about life without a car, early on we leap to a scenario in which we cannot rush our desperately ill or injured family member to the hospital.  And this is, in fact, a concern.  There is no doubt that in a society without private cars, where one has to rely on public ambulances, some people who might not otherwise die or be seriously harmed would die or be seriously harmed. 

But what we don’t think first off is “Oh, thank heavens - that means that the million people per year who die in car crashes and the 7 million per year worldwide who are maimed by them will mostly not die or be maimed.”  That is, we are so used to the cost of having cars in our society - even when it means death and suffering - that we find it very hard to recognize that cost and look at it objectively.  Now I truly cannot say whether more people would benefit or lose because of the absence of cars - but I doubt most of the rest of us can.  Our instinctive tendency to overstate the consequences of the unfamiliar and understate the consequences of the familiar undermines our conversation.

This is really true across the board - for example, I often run into people who spend a lot of time deploring the drudgery of domestic or agricultural labor - even though there is considerable evidence that most agrarian societies work fewer hours than we do, or manifestly, that many of our jobs involve a heck of a lot of things that some people would call drudgery.  It isn’t self-evident to me that inputting data or writing reports is less mind-numbing than tending young children or hoeing crops - or even that it is dramatically less physically demanding, because I know how stiff and sore I am after rising from a day in front of a computer.  If we calculated in the extra weight many of us carry, the health consequences of the lack of exercise - what would be the end result in an honest calculation of which work is better for us?  I don’t claim to know - but I do think that we understate the costs of the unfamiliar, or of things that industrial society trains us very carefully to devalue.

Time calculations work this way in a host of areas - often people do X or Y thing because it saves them time, without fully bothering to calculate whether the time required to earn the money for the labor saving device, to clean and repair the labor saving device, etc… is actually sufficient to justify it.  We assume from familiarity that labor savings are a given - that powered equipment reduces human labor.  Sometimes it truly does - and sometimes it does not.  For example, I find that with good knife skills, I rarely bother with my food processor, which takes some time to set up and clean afterwards - I really have to be cutting a lot of vegetables at a time in order to justify the actual time.  But I only figured this out by actually doing the strange thing of sitting down and timing it several times.  The power of the assumption of the familiar claims of labor reduction are so great that the unfamiliar claims of human power receed.  I know someone who routinely packs his two children into their carseats to drive 15 minutes to their nearest fast food restaurant for dinner and back - in the 45 minutes this takes him, including herding children, getting everyone clothed, shod and buckled, drive time, ordering, etc.., he could easily make any number of simple meals - and yet he perceives fast food as “easier and quicker.”

Our sense of our own suffering and trauma sometimes works this way as well.  In _Depletion and Abundance_ I tell the story of talking to my husband’s grandmother about washing cloth diapers.  She was horrified that I’d taken on this project, and said “Oh, dear, I remember boiling them on the stove.”  I asked her, “Was that awful?”  And she stopped, and thought for a moment, and said no, it really wasn’t - she had a pot dedicated to it, and while she had to feed the stove, the diapers just needed the occasional stir.  But it seemed so strange to her through the lens of 50 years of washing machines, and was so strange to everyone who had not done it that she got into the habit of treating it as though it were unbearable.  I’ve done the same thing - now with a washing machine I can remember the burden of hauling my laundry a quarter mile to the laundromat on my back.  But at the time, I found it only mildly annoying, a chore I’d just as soon have skipped, but not one that even registered in my quality of life.

So does our sense of things we value, like freedom and justice.  For example, many of us praise the success of industrial feminism - the fact that women are now free to do many things they were not.  And there are some real merits to this.  But it is also the case that in our newly “equitable” society, most women are not free to, say, stay out of the industrial labor force long enough to fully establish good breastfeeding, or even stay home for the period of their nursing.  We have been freed from constraints that prevented women from equitable education and participation in the public economy, but the price of that is that women have been freed from the right to *not* participate in the public economy - the net effect of moving women into the industrial economy has meant that few households, particularly low income ones, can afford to stay out of the industrial economy.  It is not self-evident to me that women are freer when they work for AIG than they are when they work for their families at home.  As a society, we call the chance to work for a boss in an office “freedom” and we call the chance to work at home in the subsistence economy backwards and repressed - and yet, it isn’t at all clear to me that we’ve done a full calculation of what freedom really means in this situation.

It is very easy then to look at the work we’d have to do in a lower energy world, the time that it would take, and not see the fact that unfamiliar jobs become familiar quickly, and get integrated into routines, that we can find time by not doing other things - by spending less time shopping (6 hours per week), watching television (3+ hours per day) and other things not necessary if we give up some of the elements of industrial life. 

Of course, the problem is that not all of us can give up many or most of the ingredients of industrial life - that is, we’re trying to pile our preparedness activities on top of our other life, and that makes the whole thing look undoable.  And some parts of it may be - or it may be necessary to struggle to reach an aggregate point at which you can afford to reduce working hours, say, because the subsistence activities and reduction in need opens time - and for some people that will never happen.  But even our sense of our own exhaustion tends to include time for familiar activities, but not unfamiliar ones.  That is, we can spend the weekend running the half marathon, resealing the deck or going to the kids’ games because these are activities we are familiar enough with and comfortable enough with to categorize them as pleasure.  But with practice and time, we can become equally familiar with growing, building, cooking, sewing - and while not all of these will be favorite activities, many are for enough people - that is, they are considered hobbies by a big chunk of the population - that we can say that it is mostly lack of familiarity and comfort that is preventing us from seeing them not as a burden on our strained time resources, but as a pleasure we might take up in our limited leisure time.

I honestly do not know how the balance sheets of profit and loss will end up - I suspect the answer is different for all of us.  But what I do demand is that alongside dealing with our true sense of loss at the future we’d imagined, we do a genuine accounting, and one that adjusts for our tendency to exaggerate the misery, fear and hardship of an unfamiliar future and to elide the existence of any price paid for our present way of life.


Next »