The Care and Feeding of Stuff
Don’t Buy These Myths
My Not-So-Simple Resume
Born February 28, 1947
Rochester, New York
- 1965: Graduate, Brighton High School, Rochester, New York.
- 1968: B.A. Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, in Romance languages and literature.
- 1969: M.A. Cornell University in medieval studies.
- 1972: Ph.D. Cornell University in medieval literature and philology.
- I join the glut of new Ph.D.’s vying for a minuscule number of tenure-track openings at American colleges and universities. By the skin of my teeth, I get a position as assistant professor at a college no one’s ever heard of. The good news: I get to live in New Hampshire.
- 1974: The college goes bankrupt. Watergate bursts open. The Arab oil crisis hits home, and I can’t pay my oil bill. With my good friend Kal, the dean of students, I decide to drop out, do physical labor, earn my keep on this planet for a change. I barter my labor on a farm for cordwood, cow’s milk, maple syrup, old canning jars. I will never need money again– or ‘good clothes,’ or anything made of plastic, or lightbulbs, extension cords, ice cube trays, books that aren’t ‘how-to’ manuals. Good-bye to all that. Kal and I live in a one-room hand-built cabin in the woods. We eat from wooden bowls, drink from stoneware mugs, use chopsticks. Nothing metal or plastic or china will ever touch our lips again. No alarm clocks or radios. No newspapers except to start the cookstove. We eat beans and rice, vegetables, yogurt, whole wheat bread. The seasons rule us.
- 1975: I marry my companion. I chop wood and carry water. He operates a lathe from 9 to 5 at a factory in town and comes home grey.
- 1976: We travel to Appalachia, swayed by The Mother Earth News into believing that we’ll find a farmhouse and land where we can be happy homesteaders. In six months, we’re back in New Hampshire, living in a motel and looking for jobs. We find them, and a small rented house with a garden. We raise our own food, save all our money, and start looking for land where there’s plenty of winter.
- 1977: We buy 75 acres in Maine and build our own house, plant a garden. We use only h and tools, including the two-person crosscut saw that nearly destroys but ultimately improves our marriage.
- 1979: I am pregnant. The nurse says I m ust drink milk, eat liver and fish once a week. I have no refrigerator and don’t want to break my vows of simplicity, but disregarding her fills me with doubt. So I follow her advice as best I can. Two weeks before delivery, I go into a discount store and stand , bewildered, in front of rows of con sumer products?Kleenex, baby wipes, ointments. I spend $20 on things not made by hand. The baby comes, hospital-delivered. I change his cloth diapers by flashlight at night; I lug a bushel basket of diapers to the laundromat every week; I haul water while baby sleeps; I grind grain for his pabulum, and cook it on a woodstove. I’m exhausted. I want my mother, or canned soup, or baseboard heat. Or do I? At least if I could switch on a light when baby cries at 2 a.m., not fumble with a kerosene lamp while milk leaks down my chest and baby howls. At least if I didn’t have to go down to the cellar every time he wants apple juice. At least if I had a drain, so I didn’t have to lug water in and out. At least if my mother could come and I didn’t have to write her a manual for how to boil water on the woodstove for a cup of tea. I’m so tired.
- 1981: I go back to work as a professor, part time. Dressed in my new work clothes, I haul water in the morning, trying not to perspire or spill water on my stockings. Our dirt road is the last in town to get plowed, so I leave extra early in snow, then mud, to make the hour commute. I read student papers by the light of an Aladdin lamp. At the college I feel like a creature from another planet, until I find out my colleague in the next office, who had me fooled with his three-piece suit, lives in a log cabin and skis out to his car in the dark each morning. I begin to see how funny it all is.
- 1983: We build an addition?a bedroom for our son, a study for me. We install photovoltaics to power lights and a water pump, put in a drain, get a 12-inch black-and-white TV. Our friends are shocked. They think we are the last ‘pure’ homesteaders; they want us to to die for their sins. But we want to live, not just subsist. I begin to write again, using the time saved by not hauling water and filling lamps.
- 1987: Ten years on the land, and I still have a garden and cook home-grown food on a woodstove. But I do buy bananas and an occasional fresh broccoli in winter. I eat from my same wooden bowl, but I do like wine in a stemmed glass and setting the table with my grandmother’s china once in a while. Now I drive a recent-model four-wheel-drive Toyota, no longer an old Volks. I like to watch my son, Noah, growing up close to nature, but I do cook him hot dogs and let him buy gum sometimes. I don’t want to make my own Grape-Nuts. I’ve stopped reading magazines that extol the ‘simple life.’ There’s work to do ‘out there,’ human-to-human work, and if I’m home hauling water uphill from my spring and eking out a living from the soil, how can I serve the world? After all, even wood smoke from my two stoves is an air pollutant, and my solar electric panels are made from silicone, copper, plastic, rubber. I’ll never be pure unless I go live in a cave and wear animal skins. But then I’d have to kill animals, wouldn’t I? I’ve come to believe in compromise. I’ve learned that trying to keep up with the Nearings is just another form of rat race. So watch out: As soon as we’ve saved enough money, we’re getting hot water.
- 1988: We got it, hot water, and a kitchen cookstove that burns wood or propane, and one last addition: a dining room with a glass door. This is as modern as we’ll ever get, we say.
- 1990: Until we buy the leather couch. Now we approach the postmodern primitive, living with animal skins in a comfortable cave ‘off the grid.’ Our cave now has a color TV and a computer in it, run by solar electricity. Photovoltaics cost money, don’t think they don’t, almost as much as the 17 acres across the road that we grab from developers by taking out our very first bank loan. This is more modern than we ever wanted to get.
- 1993: We haven’t moved, but town is getting closer. The trip to the high school takes half an hour each way, and that’s where our son spends most of his time. A major corporation moves in and pushes the town into ‘the ’90s,’ making balsamic vinaigrette and sourdough bread easily available where 10 years ago there was scarcely a bagel. A good old Bean Supper gets harder to find, but the best one still happens at the grange in our town. People who can’t afford the booming real estate prices on the coast start buying land out here. There are now nine families living on this one-lane dirt road.
- 1995: We add two more solar panels to our photovoltaic array, bringing us to 18. Now we have two computers and three phones. But don’t worry: no answering machine. Home remains the cave where we can hold ‘the world’ out, sort of. We still produce a cellar full of food and prefer to stay home and eat it.
- 1998: Home now contains my publishing business, too, and I need to put ‘the world’ on hold while I’m out working in the garden. So we finally get an answering machine–but no fax! A new century looms as our son goes off to college.
FromCarrying Water as a Way of Life
(About Time Press, 1050 Guinea Ridge Rd., Appleton, ME 04862).