September 26, 2012
I’ve been writing this blog now for almost seven years. For a time, green and simple living, and a certain DIY ethic was the edge of my growth curve. I read books and blogs about these topics and dreamed of a chicken-less urban homestead. And of course I blogged about these things.
I didn’t build a blog around these subjects because my life and interests are more diverse than that. But for a time I spent more energy than I do now, writing about our "green" lifestyle choices.
As most of you know, my life has changed a whole bunch in the past year and some of these green living initiatives have changed along with it. I felt it was only fair and honest to provide an update to some of these practices, especially since these greener living posts garner some of the most search engine generated traffic here at FIMBY.
Haven’t you all wondered if your favorite bloggers still practice some of what they preach? I have.
I’m here to spill the beans on what I still do and don’t still do in terms of homemade soap, garbage, recycling and compost (yes, I’ve written about all of these at FIMBY), gardening and homesteading type activities and other DIY and "sustainable" living practices.
Let’s draw back the curtain shall we?
For years now I have been making soap. What started as a "let's make some Christmas presents" turned into a crafty hobby of mine that eventually became just one of my regular homemaking chores. For a while we even used my homemade soap for washing dishes. That changed with our move but soapmaking as a homemaking activity for me has not changed.
One of my most popular search engine posts, Beautiful Hair Care ~ Chemical-free, no longer totally applies since Céline has started using a regular shampoo in her hair. You can read all about that on the post itself. I have an update at the bottom.
The rest of us continue to use my handmade soap for all our body cleaning needs, including washing our hair. We use whatever soap happens to be in the soap dish. This summer, in the upheaval of moving and traveling I started using a storebought laundry soap. When it's gone I'm not sure if I'll switch back to my homemade recipe.
As for soap in general, it's time to make some more. I made a huge batch this past spring which is now thoroughly exhausted. We’re “living” off some gift soap from my mom and my Simple Soap cleaning bars till I am able to make some next month. I’ve learned I like making large batches a couple times a year - spring and fall seems to be a good rhythm.
We still hand wash our dishes and this works for us, for the same reasons I laid out in that original post. But our chalet kitchen has a nice new dishwasher, which we happily use when we feed guests or for a lazy Friday night clean up.
We didn’t own a dryer for our last six years in Maine so we hang-dried all our laundry. (Line-dried sounds nicer but for 1/2 the year the clothes hung inside on racks, not lines, so line-dried would be inaccurate.) Last summer while living with my parents we used their dryer from time to time but mostly hung the wash to dry.
In our tiny chalet last winter we used the dryer almost exclusively. There was no space to hang laundry anywhere. I’m happy to be back in place where there is no working dryer and space to hang. We have two heavy duty, large, wooden racks we pull out on the sunny deck or keep indoors if it rains. Maybe next summer we’ll actually put up a line.
I'm so happy to not be cold anymore in the winter. When we lived in Maine we kept our house chil-ly to use less energy. Here, the climate is cold but heat is cheap. Electricity is inexpensive and wood is plentiful. Welcome to Québec. We will be heating mostly with wood this winter. (We’ll set up our clothes racks in front of this to dry our laundry.)
I’m not going to debate how "green" wood heating is. I love its warmth and aesthetic. And where we live, wood heat is totally sustainable in terms of forest growth. But I don’t like the particles that get in the air, especially in your home.
Once upon a time our family generated very little waste, I even wrote a trash report. (Can you believe it?) We had an urban compost system, we didn't even line individual garbage containers with plastic, there was no need.
Then we renovated. Renovating produces waste, shameful amounts.
Then we moved. Moving generates waste also. Also those do-dads that you downsize, that can't be sold or given away, in the landfill they go.
We’re back to minimal amounts of waste. We burn our paper and cardboard “recycling” but we also live in a newly renovated space where lots of waste was taken out and disposed of, not by us. This doesn’t remove the responsibility from our shoulders. I’m not sure how to live in our society without generating waste.
Even though we don’t eat much packaged foods and use re-usable bags (this seems like the bare minimum someone can do) there is still a lot of plastic that cycles through our home. Especially shipping materials - we buy a lot online. This plastic waste bothers me, but I’m not sure how to change that, short of drastically changing our standard of living - something we’re not prepared to do.
For a time this past winter and early summer we weren’t able to compost. We filled the compost heap at our old chalet to overflowing and then some. We outgrew the space, you could say. One of the first things I did when we moved to our new chalet is buy a big black composter and set it up in the gravel pit also called our yard. I have no idea if we’ll ever use this compost since gardening is not in the plans for this rental. But I feel better not throwing all those food scraps in the garbage.
Which brings me to gardening. I used to actively garden. I wrote a lot about that at one time. I am a gardener (a person who loves to dig in the dirt and grow things) but I currently don’t garden. We are in non-permanent rental on a rocky mountainside. This is not my life season for backyard gardening. However, I am scheming a way I could work at a farm next summer in exchange for a share of the harvest. We’ll see if that comes to be.
Living in Maine I grew accustomed to a strong local food movement. Maine is home of The Common Ground Country Fair, hundreds of csa farms and a strong local ethic and economy. Since moving I’ve realized not everyone enjoys living in a place like Maine: The Way Life Should Be.
The Gaspé peninsula has a great local food movement but the growing season is markedly shorter. (Wrap your head around that, Maine friends.) I am not able to buy as much locally as I used to, at least not at first glance. The longer I live here the more I’m tapping into the local food economy. I buy produce year round from local farms. A weekly farm share in the summer and stored roots, cabbage and frozen berries in the winter. But this is just a supplement to our weekly grocery store purchases.
I have helped start a buying club in my community and my Québec food purchases are increasing because of that. Yeah! But we will never eat completely local, short of the peak-oil apocalypse that some back-to-landers feel is eminent. And who am I to argue with them? I have no idea what the future holds but I do think buying locally is a worthy and important goal, and it’s one we continue to work towards as much as possible.
We are still plant-based eaters and I know this has environmental benefits, though this isn't the main reason we eat this way. We choose this diet for health and well being which is why we don't eat only local, we need fresh produce all year round and we don't live in the Mediterranean or California. Nor do we only eat organic food, because of the cost.
So, I'm not sure that our food habits are all that green in the end, what with shipping our food and the dependence on petroleum in conventional agriculture. But I do think that eating a conventional, shipped plant-based diet is greener than a conventional, shipped animals product diet. It just takes so much energy and resources to raise animals. But the ideal would be organic and local and we're not there. Not by a long shot.
I never wrote about switching to cloth napkins, that’s what we’ve always used since we were first married. Using cloth napkins seems like such a small thing so whenever I used to read blog post titles like “going paperless in the kitchen” I always thought they literally meant “paper”-less. Like, no recipes written on paper.
Incidentially, this is where I’m at right now, going totally paper-less in my kitchen, using my laptop and a computer software to store recipes instead of bulky, awkward binders. I’m not doing this to save trees so much as I’m doing it to reduce clutter in my life.
I also never wrote about using cloth diapers because I wasn’t blogging when my children were babes but I did cloth diaper those adorable bums with a hodge podge of homemade, hand-me-down and e-bay finds. Ah, but that was a long time ago now.
More recently, ok a few years ago already, I switched to cloth menstrual pads and re-useable cups. After experimenting with a couple cups I’m mostly happy with the Diva cup. I have not been able to get a totally leak-free fit but it’s good enough with a cloth pad back up on the first and second day of my period. After that, it’s smooth sailing with just the cup. I’m still using the same cloth pads I bought nearly five years ago.
There is a certain green ethic to doing it yourself. And in some cases we do this. This summer Damien made beds for the girls. There is no IKEA where we live, no cheap furniture store and we don’t want cheap quality anyway. It worked with our schedule and we had access to a bunch of power tools so Damien was able to design and construct beds.
But this is not usually the case in our lives. We are writers and technology workers (we’re technology DIY-ists). Yes, we can work with our hands - cooking, cleaning, occasional sewing, preparing backpacking gear, fixing minor stuff around the house - but our livelihood is currently earned with our ideas and expertise.
In exchange, we pay people in our community to fix our car, do our taxes, and grow our organic vegetables. And we pay people the world over to make our clothes, grow the bulk of our food, provide our internet connection, etc. Whenever possible we choose fair-trade and sustainable products but there is so much we buy that doesn't fit into that mold (eg: all our computer hardware). Damien and I are not homesteaders, we’re adventurers and we’re not trying to create a DIY sustainable off-the-grid life. (I do miss Damien’s sewing phase. I loved the clothes he made for our family. Maybe he’ll do that again one day.)
The “ideal” of off-grid living and family farm DIY type sustainability is a trend in trend in some circles and I follow a few blogs along these themes. But I think it’s best to be very honest (mostly with ourselves) about who we are, what our strengths are, and where we want to go. For some people growing their own food and diy living are core values. For us, they’re not.
I’ve written about all these “initiatives” on a horizontal plane, i.e.: I haven’t organized them in any hierarchy. But if I were to do that, I think local eating would take more precedence than say, using cloth napkins.
There are a bunch of small things we can do to “green” our living and then there are the bigger things that make a more significant impact. Unfortunately, the bigger things are harder to implement. Less house and less vehicle are two of the biggies that come to mind when I think of how we are trying to significantly green our lives.
We were doing really well on the small scale living front last winter. We rented a 750 sq ft cabin. Our footprint was small, but it wasn’t realistic or sustainable (nor was intended to be a long term arrangement). We still had belongings stored in our black trailer that would never have fit in such a small space, with no storage.
Years ago, Damien and I decided that our 1,400 sq ft. house in Maine was the largest we ever wanted to own and live in. We’ve been on a journey since that time to downscale our lives, buying ourselves more freedom in terms of time.
Our current home is approximately the same size as our house was in Maine. We are happy to have space once again for guests (starting next month we’ve got quite the line up fall and winter guests) but our dream remains a smaller home. The smaller the house the less time and money you need to invest in it. The more freedom you have to travel and adventure and go where you feel called to go. That’s our goal. Small and flexible.
What we’ve learned since living in a small cabin is that to live small with five creative people requires very good design. (I qualify that: to live small with certain aesthetic standards requires good design. I don’t want to live in a shack.) Most North American small houses are not designed for active, work and school at home, family living. In order for us to go small, and still have space for creative living, we’d have to have a say in the design. Our long term dream is still a yurt, with attached storage and a guest yurt for guests or young adult children who need more space.
For nearly our whole married lives, sixteen years, we’ve had one car. There was a couple years we had a work car, supplied by Damien’s employer for work related travel. But mostly it’s been one car.
Because our goal all along was to only have one car we made a bunch of decisions along the way that supported this. It became a positive feedback loop. You decide to live with one car so you automatically discount a whole bunch of options from your life that require two cars. This in turn keeps you closer together as a family (it’s inevitable because you can’t be running every which way).
You spend less on car purchases, car maintenance and gas. Therefore you need to earn less or you can use those earnings for other goals and dreams. Which moves you forward in other directions and you circle round and round. So now we’re in a place where we work from home and use the car a few days a week to get groceries, take kids to Taekwondo, go hiking and of course for taking longer trips. But part of the reason we got where we are is because we never wanted more than one car and we limited our options in making that choice. But it wasn't limiting after all, it bought us more freedom in the end. We just don’t want a significant amount of our time or earnings to be spent on a vehicle. We have other values.
If you’ve gotten this far, you might be wondering - why bother writing about all this? Who cares?
I don’t anticipate writing much more in the near future about green living practices, at least not directly, and therefore I’d like to officially close this chapter of my blogging journey. I’m like that. I like neat boxes, finished stories, and closure. I also value honesty and truth telling.
At one time, I thought I wanted to be a hard-core crunchy granola type. But now I’m not so sure. (By most standards I’m pretty crunchy, but I am nowhere near living off-grid and buying all local food.)
It doesn’t mean I care less now about the environment. Hardly. Living as I do surrounded by nature I’m probably more concerned about keeping the earth beautiful and livable for my children and their children than I have been in the past.
I still live many of the things I’ve written about and researched in the past. I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it anymore. Any major green living changes we could make at this point in our lives would be pretty drastic. Going car-less. Growing all our own food. Building a yurt with a composting toilet. Ok, that we would like to do. But that’s in the dream-future.
We have big plans on the horizon for our family. Not homesteading. Not living without a car. Not growing all our own food. But other adventures. And I need to prepare the space both here and in my head for those new chapters in our life.
After publishing this I have the irrational fear that I have mis-represented myself. I still plan to write about my soapmaking adventures (and mis-haps), downsizing our lives, and one day gardening again. It's just that I think I will be writing about all of that (and more) from a "this is our life" perspective not "these are our green living practices". See the difference?
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