By E.O. Schaub
It’s been hot lately around here. And by hot, I mean you could fry an egg on my filing cabinet. Please don’t, though, my office is messy enough.
The chickens are hot. The dog is hot. The kids are the only ones with any energy left, and they’re pretty happy since all we seem to do anymore is go swimming and eat ice cream.
Not terribly much is getting done, what with all the talking about how hot it is, not to mention the performing of multiple applications of sunscreen, bug-spray, and round-the-clock, head-to-toe tick checks. Consequently there’s nothing to eat in the house, no clean clothes to wear and the sink is overflowing with dishes. That’s okay: nobody is hungry anyway, there’s a clean swimsuit around here somewhere, and maybe, if we wait long enough, the dishes will do themselves.
One of the most inevitable topics of conversation at this time of year is the availability of air conditioning- or lack thereof- in any given setting. My mother, for example, falls into the camp of people who feel that if heaven isn’t air conditioned, they’re not interested. In Vermont, there seem to be two kinds of people: those who feel that you only might really want it a handful of days out of the year anyway, so why bother?, and, those who look upon those poor, lost souls as obviously out of their deep-fried minds.
“Just wait,” my mother warns me when I cheerfully liken her house to an Alaskan meat locker, “When you get to be my age you’ll understand.”
Okay, so I’ve never had a hot flash, she’s got me there. But I have always had a love-hate relationship with A/C. When I was about eight my parents got me a window-unit for my room and I realized that, sure, I could sleep in frosty splendor- no more lying on the sheets and sweating, wondering if I’d ever fall asleep again- but it also turned my bedroom into a weird little hermetically-sealed icebox… no longer could I hear what was happening outside or in other parts of the house. Plus- that scrapy, dry-throat feeling never agreed with me in the morning. It was a little like being put in deep storage for the night.
And that was before I even knew there were other, more far-reaching consequences to worry about.
Lately I’ve been reading Up Tunket Road by local author Philip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at Green Mountain College who has homesteaded in Pawlet for about a decade. For him, homesteading translates into some pretty serious divergences from the mainstream, in the interest of a healthier planet, as well as a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling life- a tall order, to be sure.
There’s really nothing like reading about pooping in an outdoor bucket in the middle of a Vermont winter to make you realize what sissys the rest of us really are. I mean, Philip and his wife Erin have put three children through babyhood in cloth diapers with nary a washing machine in sight! (Personally, I’m not sure I would have survived the pre-potty period without my Diaper Genie at the ready, making nice, fresh-smelling, giant, non-degradible pearl necklaces out of our disposable unmentionables…)
Reading about Philip and Erin’s homestead and then looking around our own home, I began to feel that despite all our well-intended composting and recycling and local-voring, we are still hopelessly locked into a system that demands we consume and consume and consume, and dispose and dispose and dispose. Short of selling it all and starting over by building a cabin in the woods the way the Ackerman-Leist’s, or the Nearings or Thoreau did, short of that, what’s an eco-minded sissy like me to do? (Have I mentioned how much I suck at cabin building?)
Rather than throw in the organic-cotton towel in despair, I came to another idea. There had to be some middle path, some things we could do more of around here, in our lovely, big, old, utterly inefficient farmhouse, to reduce our electricity expenditure and impact on the earth. We may never, ever be a zero-impact household, but we can keep trying, anyway, to do a little bit better. And better.
A little research was helpful in this regard. One website’s chart made me acutely aware of the irony of running around unplugging the toaster and the blender, while still continuing to use some of our larger appliances which are the true energy vampires. The dryer seemed to be the logical first thing to go, (after all, who wants to turn on any appliance generating heat in this weather?) And so our outdoor clothesline has become my new favorite “appliance.” Sure, running out to hang everything outside can be a pain, the towels aren’t so baby-soft anymore, and having to occasionally rewash the sheets to remove raspberry bird poop isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, but there is just something I really like about hanging up the wash. It feels very… old-fashioned, in a good way.
It’s the same thing I like about making our bread, or picking cherries to freeze for pies and jam, or having chickens that produce our own eggs, or knitting to make myself a sweater… Could I do all of these things faster, cheaper, easier? Sure. Heck- I could probably buy bread, cherries, eggs and a sweater at Wal-Mart and be back before lunch. But making/picking/raising/doing them myself creates a different relationship with those things, a connection to those elements which sustain us and feed us and clothe us, not to mention a sense of quality and choice which Wal-Mart and like vendors by definition lack. It adds, as Philip describes so aptly in his book, a sense of meaningfulness that in modern life can be lacking. It’s a sense of quiet, of choosing a life that is slower, more deliberate and more thoughtful. The fact that- no matter what they ultimately choose to do themselves- my kids will grow up knowing how bread is made, where cherries and eggs come from, and how a sweater can be made, is yet another bonus.
Which brings me back to the fact that it’s hot. Did I mention that my freaking toothbrush is melting? Yes, it’s hot. And we’re sissys and we’re grumpy and right about now is when that big, honking A/C unit starts to look pretty good. Until I remember that nasty icebox-sore-throat feeling it gives me all summer, making me cold when I am supposed to be- after all- hot.
And then I remind myself, too, that air-conditioning units account for an average of 900 watts per hour of electricity and about 16% of the average household’s energy consumption. By comparison, the floor fans we’ve been using use about 100 watts per hour. So, am I crazy, or did we just eliminate roughly a quarter of our electricity expenditure, (14% dryer + 16% A/C unit) simply by boycotting the dryer and the A/C? It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely better.
Besides, according to conventional Vermont wisdom, we only need that electric-guzzling A/C a handful of days per summer anyway. If that’s true, after this many days of heat we ought to be practically done already, and the rest of the summer ought to be clear and cool sailing. Right? Um, right?
Oh, and just one other thing: if heaven doesn’t have a dishwasher? I’m not going.