Seeking a good place to start this book in 1993, I began along the road inland from my place in Caspar, where a spring of legendary sweetness and stability issues from the hill above the road. In nearby clearings there is evidence that for hundreds of years the native Yuki Indians stopped here on their annual trek from their protected inland valley to the coast in summer and again on their way back. Local folks come and park their pickups beside the spring and fill jugs from the crystalline flow. As recently as 1984, they also brought their garbage along, and while their jugs filled with sweet water, they heaved their trash -- batteries, paint thinner, tires, disposable diapers, garden clippings, rotten meat, innumerable shreds and kinds of plastic -- over the downhill side into the swale where the spring's overflow has trickled for millennia down to the river and the sea.
I offered this story as proof that amazing leaps of consciousness can take place in a decade, the time it took our entire community to stop dumping, and then clean up this toxic midden. It may be decades before animals will drink from the spring's overflow below the road, but we somehow changed our collective minds by understanding: We must not dump where we drink!
For me, this small event glows as an emblem of a greater awakening: the urge to return to the home place. At the heart of this epiphany, our sense of and ability for Community shines.
In six years since the Independent Home was born, this community of awareness has grown. During the time between this book's writing and revision, a growing number of conscious builders and enlightened homesteaders have joined what in 1993 seemed a romantic minority. There was no sign that the juggernaut of America's globalized housing industry, proud manufacturer of dwellings perfectly disconnected from their environment, the needs of their inhabitants, and any true connection with the home-place, would change. During half the Twentieth Century, and even as we enter the new millennium, precious land is still being polluted with cookie-cutter houses full of resource-gobbling conveniences. These excresences benefit subdividers and builders, but make ill use of sun, wind, storm, and whatever natural magnificence might be found. In the last half-decade, sick building syndrome, environmental illnesses, and widespread social malaise has become a national concern, and more home-buyers insist on quality shelter in a healthy, neighborly environment.
This book combines stories told by energy heroes and pioneering searchers with the ideas that make their stories important. Stories about earth-friendly houses and the systems that power them are scattered along a trail of ideas beginning with the rudimentary elements of our best modern comforts -- flowing electrons, pure water and air, light, food and shelter -- and ways we can reduce energy dependency in any residence. Later stories mingle with techniques for designing and building truly independent homes and the more complicated mysteries of learning, work, and community. Finally, the last stories and the book's end explore the way we will reshape our communal and ecological structures in the coming Solar Age.
Pioneers may well remember their hardships, but neglect to tell us the full extent of unknown territory they traversed, often with great difficulty, before finally settling on a home. Their stories guide us over the terrain. Between stories I review concepts that may have been forgotten and bring you up to date on the technology and marketplace of energy independence. My method is to peel back complexity until the simplest elements are visible, and so in coming chapters we pursue electrons, think like water molecules, and deconstruct and re-examine the components required to make us feel at home. Unlike a good story, this book's topic, the Independent Home, is more globular than linear, and so you will find concepts in the book's early chapters that will not make complete sense until you find more about them in later chapters. For example, you may emerge from the Introduction wondering what, precisely, does Dennis Weaver mean when he calls his home an earthship? The full truth will not be revealed, in this book anyway, until you reach chapters 8 and 13.
This book bristles with unfamiliar terms, because its topic crosses many interdisciplinary boundaries where experts mark their territory with jargon. The editors and I had a good time trying to include every uncommon term in the extensive glossary and index to be found among the resources at the back of the book.
Out of Darkness
In the United States, we officially started our national scramble to live well without despoiling our land's richness in 1970 with the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency. In thirty years we reformed much of the industrial dark side of delivering pure water, electricity, fuel for heating and cooking, and all the stuff of graceful living. New England's lakes and rivers, once sacrifice zones for Ohio's and Indiana's coal burners and local industry, are reviving. Chesapeake Bay, Cancer Alley along the lower Mississippi, and indeed most near-shore oceanic and riverine zones around the planet, are still poisoned with heavy metals, endocrine disruptors, and bio-hazards, but we know enough not to build our homes on toxic landfills, or downstream from hazards, and we are striving to clean up our messes. Many of us, including the financiers, designers, and operators of polluting facilities, went to school at a time when we were taught that our planet was infinitely giving and forgiving, its rivers, oceans, all its crucial bounty, were boundless and magically regenerative. Now coming of age, we are surprised to find, again and again, that efficient design and careful processing can eliminate waste and pollution while improving profitability. As the millenium changes, we are no longer willing to accept "barely legal" standards, but insist on to coming home to purity, authenticity, comfort, and efficiency.
A century from now, as our great grandchildren change their calendars to 2100, America's energy habits in the late 1900s may be regarded as unbelievably wasteful, as ridiculous and mannered as the Victorians, as profligate as the Romans, as extreme as the Inquisition, a regrettable and sadly irreversible episode cited as a caution to builders and planners in training. Historians will explain that humankind during this brief moment thought itself to be the absolute ruler and shaper of the planetary domain. The explosive development of global consumerism, the replacement of nature by technology, and the headlong quest for wealth through disposability and obsolescence transfixed whole generations, deadening them to the rhythms, powers, and glories of our planetary partners, all other lifeforms, the grand community we call Nature.
In 2100, the history of our Petroleum Era will include tales of heroic guides, pioneers, and settlers who showed humanity how to get back to the land. Some of their stories are told for the first time in these pages. As one of the early adopters of the Solar Return, the idea of writing a book began with my successful search for a like-minded community. Half a dozen years later, I am happy to report that our "green minority" is growing and more at home than ever. Having noticed our disconnectedness from nature, yearning for comfortable, self-sustaining living space, right livelihood, and a cordial and cooperative relationship with our biological community, we rebelled and invested our whole lives in reinventing what should be the most natural thing in the world: home.
Come along on my personal voyage of discovery and reinvention, looking for others who are moving toward a home place where we can all enjoy the best of modern life without taking our comfort at the price of another's misery, where we can rejoin the cycles that rule all life on our planet, and where we can extend our vision to include all other life on this wondrous globe.
The study of the ecosystem, Ecology, comes from the Greek "oikos", meaning home. This book explores homely science, the study of the systems we expect to find in places we call home. Look deeply, and we discover that in the home as in the greater living community, all terrestrial systems are closed: What we consume today will not be available tomorrow (depletion) and what we discard today will come back to plague us tomorrow (persistence). By the geologic clock, human civilization has risen so explosively that its spatters and blight have taken down most of the planet's ancient forests in a century and covered half its agricultural lands in a generation. By applying closed-system global logic to the locale of the home, we approach an old frontier with a new toolbox and a comprehensive awareness of our impact. Rather than settling in haste like locusts (or tract developers) whose slash-and-burn tactics lay the land to waste, solar pioneers settle gently, with regard for the land's secrets and time-honored wisdom. Rather than polluting and encumbering the land, we enrich it. Where previous inhabitants -- trees, plants, animals great and small -- already thrive, we seek to conserve diversity. As long as all systems interact smoothly -- including those we introduce -- Nature's equilibrium remains intact. Out of a heavy-handed method of hasty domination accomplished through ruthless elimition of competitive diversity, we are evolving a stewardly, cooperative style.
A Short Note on Methodology
Whatever truth and usefulness is found in this book is a gift to me from hundreds of conversations with friends, builders, and stewards, more than 150 questionnaires, 100 formal interviews with energy-conscious informants, and 50 follow-up interviews. Any group of Americans, and certainly a group as critically aware as my subjects, presents diverse and divergent opinions, and on any particular point my own conclusions will differ from those of many of my informants. I have tried to stay within the spectrum of broadly conceived consensus, but my enthusiasm for my topic leads me, at times, into outrageous, and even crackpot opinionatedness. In this book few of the ideas, but all of the errors, are mine alone.
To gather information for the book I traveled thirty thousand miles (by fuel-efficient mass transit whenever possible) to satisfy myself that this movement back toward nature and self-sufficiency is happening everywhere. I spent hundreds more hours traveling electronically by telephone and computer network. Everywhere I found extraordinary people. Many were so intent on perfecting their relationship to their home planet and reducing their energy use that they were surprised and gratified to discover they were not alone. In the six years since this book appeared, I have traveled more widely, retraced many of my steps, and have determined that 1993's tentative tendrils of solar culture are now weaving themselves into a strong, flexible network. The verging awareness of our shared strength and burgeoning influence has floresced. Like Dennis Weaver, many innovators and explorers, stewards and architects, visionaries and rainmakers, were generous with their time and patient in their explanations. I found myself most comfortable writing myself out of their stories, recording instead the voices and ideas of the storytellers as authentically as I could. Each storyteller understood this book's mission, and every one had the opportunity to read and correct the words attributed in this book. Each tries to convey what she or he believes is most important for you to know about independent homesteading. In addition to a glossary that I hope every reader will find illuminating, there is a bibliography and resource list to help readers locate the liveliest nodes of the growing community network of renewably energized home-makers that can help them take control of the energy systems in their lives. Here at the book's website
you will find an up-to-date glossary. Since energy self-sufficiency is ever-changing and rapidly evolving, the website reflects, as no printed book can, the current state of renewable energy and independent living.
About Independent Living
The term "independent living" is proudly used by adults who overcome dire handicaps to live on their own, and I mean to show them no disrespect by borrowing their term. The substance dependence problems that characterize modern American homes may in time be recognized as denaturalizing handicaps to humanity, but until then I want to acknowledge the debt that we TABs (Temporarily Able Bodied) owe to the differently-abled. As we move hesitantly toward independent living, we find ourselves questioning and redefining every task in accordance with our self-imposed limitations and newfound abilities to use non-polluting, renewable energy sources. At first, our efforts may make us feel feeble and clumsy, because we are trying to use unfamiliar means to attain a standard of comfort and convenience taken for granted by the energy-careless majority. We and our families may risk mockery and condescension in ways that barely shadow the exposure that our differently abled brothers and sisters experience. If and when this happens, I urge you to take a moment to internalize the experience, remembering that you have chosen this way, and give some thought to others who do not have the good fortune to choose.