Sunday, August 16, 2009

Simple, But Not Easy

Work, to many in our society, is a four letter word. It is dirty, exhausting, and something to be avoided at most any cost. In many respects, the idea pushed to children is that you put in your time so that in the end you won't have to work anymore. You either study your way out of it with college and a larger salary, or you labor your way out of it in a job you dislike so that you can retire. Things like chopping wood, culturing milk, or hanging wash are directly worse than flipping on the furnace, buying dairy products at Walmart, and using the dryer. Somehow, it has become that the idea of many activities I now participate in most every week are thought of to be gruelingly laborious. The funniest part of all this is that when I ask many of the people who voice these concerns to me, they have never participated in anything other than furnace switches, store bought food, and dryers. "So how would you know?" is my first thought, though I don't say it.

The fact is, turning on the furnace is much easier than chopping and splitting wood. However, I would like to argue it isn't simpler. I have no idea how my furnace works. I wouldn't have a clue how to fix it and legally cannot fix many of the processes that go into getting the power to my furnace. However, the schematics I have seen and the small amount which has been explained to me clearly shows that the steps of creating the electricity (hydro power here), storing the electricity, wiring it to my house, then the furnace, and finally somehow conducting it into heat is not simple. In fact, it is incredibly diverse and complicated. Now, the person who just has to flip that switch may never know any of the background of how their house magically becomes warm (never did), but ignorance does not make something simple.

I know how a tree grows. I know how it stores its electricity in the form of densely laid carbon molecules. I know the difference between a ceder, a hemlock, and a Douglas fir; why they burn differently; and what conditions they need to grow. Part of this is because I am/was and environmental studies major, but much of it is also because I participate in the process of these cycles and the natural systems of their creation, destruction, and the succession which follows. This is in no way easy (though it really isn't as hard as many seem to think), but it is incredibly simple.

The last time Jules and I went to go chop wood, he pointed out the immense sense of personal connection which comes from knowing where our wood came from. We have seen the home the tree once had which will heat our spaces this winter. We have intimate contact with the life it once lived and thus a reverence for all it will give us to continue our lives.

The garden is very similar. There is no commercial production filled with large industrial equipment, no pesticide or chemical development which had to go into our food. There is no way I could begin to describe the chemical complexity of pesticide or what it does to the soil structure and the biogeochemistry of a watershed. Not to mention the multitude of high-tech gadgetry which now constitutes large scale farming. Our garden is literally as simple as seed, soil, and water. By creating and spreading our own compost we are reminded of our waste in ways we won't see for many years with pesticide production. We have collected the rain water, transferred, harvested, and dispersed it even as it fell from the sky all over us. We planted the seeds, watched their development, and have begun collecting the seed to have the cycle come full circle. Yes, it means more labor from building boxes, hand planting, weeding, and such, but it also means I know everything that goes into my food. It is simply food.

When I watch our sour cream and cottage cheese culture, or our butter transform from cream, I am personally taking part in the processes of our food. There are no industrial food plants, no long transportation stops from one venue to the next, no commercial advertising and packaging steps involved. It is as simple as the dairy products which go into it.

So many of these thoughts have been culminating in not only my brain, but also Jules'. It wasn't until our recent trip to Georgia that many of them found the common ground to all fit cohesively together. Jules' long time mentor and friend, Jeff Hanson, owns The Book Nook and recommended Eric Brende's Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. It is the story of Eric's adventure with is wife living in an Amish-style community for a year and a half.

Now we are not going anywhere near as hardcore as they were. They had no running motors, no electricity, no running water, the works. We are reasonably happy with our small scale simplicity. However, what struck me as so wonderful about the book was the way Eric described the culture of the people whom he lived with and around. Work and labor are the functions which kept the society going. The central focus of their social interactions and their community is combined labor to survive. You help your neighbors for the sheer factor that they need help and will then reciprocate the help later. This is just as much a cultural currency and nothing was expected in return for helping. "Many hands make light work," was a common saying and practice. This communal helping, communal work, made the tasks so much easier in that it provided social interactions and shared knowledge. The community was bound together by shared labor, experience, and all the interconnections which come with the two.

There were many times when reading that Jules and I found ourselves silently nodding and relating to the life Eric and his wife were sharing. We have experienced many of the same struggles, culture shock, and learning curve which they did. The largest example came just recently, however. With canning season in full swing, there was much to be done around our kitchen. As the cans all began to pile up, it became apparent we had no where left to put them. The Hole wasn't finished, and with so much time being spent canning there was not time to finish it. If we stopped the canning to finish The Hole, the short season for fruit would be over. If we didn't finish The Hole, we would have no where to place the cans from the fruit season. We were rather stuck.

Until one day I came home from work to find Jules' head poking out of The Hole, covered in dirt. Up until this point, The Hole had primarily been my task with occasional help from The Barracuda. In true supportive fashion, Jules had jump started my lack luster feelings about the work involved in finishing our root cellar. He approached the entire process in a completely different way with large scale excavation and then later finishing work. This monumental moving of dirt helped re-energize me into doing whatever finishing work needed and the hole was completed in over one long weekend. Together, the daunting task was significantly more manageable and actually kinda fun. Without us joining forces, and his different approach, The Hole still wouldn't be done.

With the dirt removed it was time for shelves and I was once again removed from The Hole, only to watch from the entrance. With such close quarters and large shelving, it would be virtually impossible for two people to have completed the task without a head wound. Being accident prone and not very visual, it would have been me with the head would. So Jules grumbled, man-handled, cursed a bit, and eventually constructed three sturdy, significant shelves for all our cans to sit through the winter.

The enormous task of moving all our cans down into the completed root cellar was more than I thought it would be, but now I don't know how we have managed without it. It will still take a bit more excavation for us to be able to store all of our bins of dry goods in the most ideal places, and still a bit more when our apple tree, pumpkins, potatoes, and carrots begin producing enough to warrant storage in containers other than cans, but for now we've completed one of the most major projects for our home. I know Jules thought I was crazy when I proposed the idea. I know my father (an architect) thought I had completely lost it when I had him come look at the space to discuss how to structurally pull it off. But, in the end, hand digging the root cellar with only a five gallon bucket or two was pretty cool.

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