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Musings of an Energy Nerd

An Old Homesteader Looks Back

Most of my predictions were spectacularly wrong

Onions, tomatoes, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli. The author in the mid 1970s. [Photo courtesy of Jean Grosbach]

I’ve always had an optimistic approach to human and environmental problems. My attitude probably reflects the influence of the social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s—the trends which shaped my youth. Faced with a problem or a new idea, my usual philosophy is, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and my usual approach is “Just do it.”

Now that I’ve retired, I can look back on my youth with an elder’s perspective. Since few readers have any patience for recitations of old people’s memories, I’ll try to avoid the usual traps that accompany this type of retrospective—but readers may have to forgive a few sentimental lapses.

Back-to-the-land enthusiasm

Our generation was going to end war and racial prejudice, restore our injured environment, and usher in a new era based on love. Rejecting the ways of our elders, we set out to create a new society.

Attempting to separate ourselves from the corporate economy, many of us sought to become self-sufficient. When I moved to Vermont in 1974, I slept in a tent. That summer, I was part of a group—a mix of family and friends—that built a one-room cabin in the woods.

Over the next few years, I met other like-minded homesteaders who were building cabins and homes in the woods nearby. Most of our homes were off the grid.

We were ambitious. We cleared trees, dug stumps, and removed rocks from the stony ground—usually with hand tools. We built outhouses, sheds, barns, and homes. We learned to notch logs, develop springs, and build roads. Some of us kept hens; some had goats or cows; some had pigs or turkeys. We all had big vegetable gardens. In the fall, we made apple cider, canned tomatoes, and filled…

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  1. Joshua_Elliott | | #1

    A few sentimental lapses be damned this was a great read!

    Any of the friends with corporate jobs buy their way in? The spectrum between corporate income earner playing folk farmer on the weekends and honest-to-goodness hippy living as folk farmer full time is an interesting one. Brings up questions on the authenticity of experience.

    The current pandemic reaction also makes we think about the same reaction people had a decade ago to the great recession as suddenly many things previously solid were uncertain. DIY renewable energy and electric vehicles are a couple fields that suddenly had way more hobbyist interest, as well as off grid living and various levels of disaster prepping. While I think for most people the only long term results were worse personal economics and a more risk averse retirement plan, the current times seem a bit different.

  2. Expert Member
    Peter Engle | | #2

    I wouldn't beat up your generation too badly about failure to protect the environment. When I was growing up, our local river was more sewer than sanitary and the air in many cities was plainly unfit to breathe. Acid rain was killing fish all over the northeast. Rivers in coal and oil country were catching fire. Things got really ugly for a while, and it was the activism of environmentalists that changed all that. I lived in the LA basin for just about a decade in the 1980's. When I first arrived, smog alert days were the rule, not the exception. By the time I left, local universities were having trouble studying the effects of smog because there wasn't enough to measure most of the time. There have been dramatic quality of life improvements made due to the improved environmental conditions in rural and urban areas, not to mention the recovery of forests, watersheds and endangered species. There is certainly more work to do, and once in a while we backslide a bit.

    Yes, we all missed the elephant that was walking in the front door, and many of us still can't see or smell it. But many more of us can. Many of us are seeing the stars for the first time as Covid shuts down the factories, and many of us like what we see. Environmental scientists have been able to measure the effects of reducing fossil fueled transportation by a factor of 10 in some regions, and the benefits are even greater than promised. I think there are a lot of people who are not going to want to go back to the bad old ways, and the promise provided by Electrifying Everything will be enough of an attraction to really start turning the ship. All is not lost on that front - it can't be.

    As for me, I aspire to be one of those city-folk become hippy farmers carving his oasis in the backwoods of Vermont. The land clearing starts next spring.....

  3. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #3

    Sorry your goal to become a carrot baron did not work out. Sounds like you created a nice, if tiring, life for yourself.

  4. ERIC WHETZEL | | #4

    Really enjoyed this, Martin.

    Made me think of the Gramsci quote:

    “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

    You deserve a lot of credit for your willingness to step outside the mainstream and try something new and different. Not an easy thing to do.

    There are hopeful signs. For one, there is Joel Salatin who's trying to reimagine what agriculture might look like in this century:

    Or his precursors, like Fukouka and Holzer:

    If sticking to just construction/housing, then there are any number of compelling solutions if the political will can be mustered to do something, whether at the federal or local level:

    In addition, I know for our build we took a lot of inspiration from sites like GBA --- an invaluable resource for those willing and able to try something different from conventional construction practices.

    I think the Passive House model of conservation first, of aggressively reducing energy demand before a single switch gets turned on or the first solar panel gets added is probably the best approach, but not easily realized for most people.

    It certainly feels like we're in a period of transition, much like the late 1960's, which reminds me of another Gramsci quote:

    "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

    Change is never easy, so a fundamental move away from fossil fuels was always going to be rife with all sorts of conflict. Never mind a whole host of other social issues that clearly need addressing.

    When all else fails, we can still take some solace in Candide's advice: "...we must cultivate our garden."

    Thanks again for all your contributions here on GBA, and I hope you're enjoying your retirement --- especially the blueberries!

  5. maine_tyler | | #5

    Gandhi wearing Nike's.

    Nice piece of writing Martin.

  6. charlie_sullivan | | #6

    You might be selling yourself short with the comparison to 1400s Italian peasants. They would have had a hard time making it through a Vermont winter.

    Coincidentally, the New York Times just published an opinion piece arguing that businesses like small grist mills are the future of the US economy. I'm not sure whether carrot barons are part of their vision.

  7. carsonb | | #7

    So subsistence farming didn't work out. This site, however, seems like a pretty good legacy to be proud of- it's often at the top of search results for technical questions about building a home and that should be a very surprising feat given just how enormous this industry is (and how little information seems to flow within it compared to others). Anecdotally, I have also seen a huge ideological push for subsistence farming (or some to sell to very expensive restaurants) in my own generation, often in the form of hydroponics . So far, I have yet to see any of them work out. Farming is hard work.

  8. fwsolar | | #8

    Thanks for this, Martin. As I see myself walking a parallel (but by no means coincident) path some 25 years behind, I really appreciate your perspective. A few thoughts for your consideration:

    Humans are social animals, and we are all products of our culture to some extent. By my lights, you've done the best you can within our cultural constraints. So while it's fair to say we have all been part of the problem, I think it's also fair to say you've been tirelessly lifting our average with your individual efforts.

    You weren't wrong that carrots, dry firewood, and clean water are true wealth. These things are the very foundation of human life, upon which we've built the giant hydrocarbon-based edifice we call contemporary civilization. But as we have excavated a huge surplus of energy, we've made a (Faustian) social pact that wealth will instead be defined by various kinds of currency which can be traded for the spoils of the energy surplus.

    Perhaps you were wrong about the fragility of the edifice these past decades; or perhaps you were just early. But in the meantime you have led by example, and showed (ever more publicly) what it looks like to live much closer to those sources of true wealth. When the time comes, I believe your example will be a shining light for people seeking a better way to live. And I think that process is already in its infancy, although fits and starts are to be expected. I dearly hope, for your sake and mine, that you get to see such an awakening gather pace in your lifetime.

    I subscribe to the idea that all life is interconnected: in the final analysis, we cannot throw something away because there is no "away." Actions which harm life also harm the individual, and vice-versa, even though the effect may be delayed or transformed. You have led a life in service of life, and demonstrated that it works even within a culture that lost its way. You have earned the right to choose hope.

  9. sspatz | | #9

    A life (to-date) well lived and a life perspective well-earned. The life that you have lived is a life of value and merit and take solace in knowing that it is a life that is emulated, albeit with some modern adjustments by a generation that is the spawn that came from the obnoxious opulence of the 80's and 90's. Being in my mid-40's and having now lived in VT for the past 21 years myself, my spouse and I have followed a similar path of reckoning with the "expectations" of our modern world and a desire to live a more connected and impactful (hopefully) life.

    The bond I have with the land I live on and that we have cultivated to be productive for our own sustenance of needs for food, shelter, and a reliable source of heat has created a bond with this place that we are now instilling in our children who will grow up here. In our 17 years of living on and cultivating this land to high in the hills of central VT we have seen the growth of a strong sustaining local economy of farms, food and community. There is a valuable future in this model and this is a future that grows from the efforts and experiences of your generation Martin that made the jump to reconnect with a more hands-on approach to living.

    The information that you have gathered and shared as a writer and as building scientist over this most recent chapter of your evolution has certainly made its impact on a younger (sorry to bring that up...) generation of people in the building trades that believe that more can be done and be done better. Certainly impacted me in my evolution. Congratulations on your retirement from the daily grind and keep coming back to us with more insights as your next chapter unfolds.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #11

      Thanks for your kind words. One small point: I'm not a building scientist -- merely a college drop-out.

      Good luck with your Vermont homestead. I know that many of us still maintain at least some part of the back-to-the land dream.

      1. AAC_NC | | #13

        Sorry, no. I am a scientist in life and by schooling. The latter is not what makes me a scientist, though it does help me be one. Scientist is how you think, e.g. Michael Faraday, and you are due the respect that comes with having paid attention for all your years

    2. Robert Opaluch | | #14

      To echo Steve, writers and educators don't realize the impact that they have on others. Think about the hundreds or thousands of people who have read GBA articles and benefitted from GBA Q&A. That has had an impact on the homes and buildings they built, renovated, and improved. Which in turn may have impacted others who saw, copied, learned from and lived in those homes. You've planted ideas as well as carrots and blueberries! Communicated building science ideas and practical construction details. Personally I don't know how anyone could respond to the diverse problems that you personally addressed on Q&A. It must have been frustrating, exhausting, or just a LOT of work on your part. Not to mention your prolific writing of articles. I wouldn't discount those college years studying French lit and whatever else. I wish I could say I've had the impact that you have.

  10. AAC_NC | | #10

    Sounds like a life well-lived to me. I think we can say that you served as an example of how life *should* be lived. Making easy money is in some ways the easy way out. Anyone who was prescient enough to see where we'd be in 2020 - I will buy their book. We all do the best we can, but your fruitful land is a legacy. Please pass it along to someone who will love & nurture it. And continue passing along your wisdom to the rest of us.

  11. dankolbert | | #12

    Having had the pleasure of visiting your homestead, I can attest to the nice life you created. In spite of yourself!

  12. CCM_CONSTRUCTION | | #15

    Well done ...Very inspiring and truthful article !

  13. SierraWayfarer | | #16

    I am late joining GBA and reading this but I think you have remained uncommonly true to your early beliefs. As one reader said, this site is your legacy.

    Thanks Martin

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