The Sustainable Dream Home

I live in Colorado.  For years, I’ve wondered why we aren’t the leader in off-grid homes.   Because quite frankly, the areas of Colorado I have inhabited all have one thing in common:

If the sun ain’t shining, you can bet the wind is blowing like a banshee.   And often, they both do their best at the same time.

Since we have solar and wind-generated power technologies, why isn’t the whole durn eastern side of the state off-grid?   (I’ve never lived on the western slope, so I can’t speak on that)

In the ’80’s, my dad, a devout Mother Earth News and New Shelter subscriber (and a very informed member of the home construction trade) told me the cost of solar systems was out of the price range of most people.

Yet recently, I read that the innovation making solar panels affordable had also given new, extended life to the Technology Industry. (something about some thin filmy thingee – – I’m not a techie…..)  So apparently, it’s getting more affordable all the time.  (and in my cynicism, I forecast that it will become very affordable the instant  profits aren’t possible in the oil industry…but I could be wrong.)

Perhaps the cost has to do with the batteries used to store extra generated energy.   My local mechanic told me that to recoup the environmental losses created by producing the battery in the new hybrid cars, you need to drive your environment-friendly car at least 5 years.   Since my perspective is that we have been trained to want a new car every 2 years, I’m not sure how this is going to work out.

Course, this same source also told me that anyone who has a million dollars to invest in wind farm projects receives 14 million back via government grants, tax subsidies, etc., but that consistent 40 mph winds are needed before those big turbines even do what they are designed to do.    Haven’t been able to confirm or contradict that, as I don’t have a million dollars sitting around to invest.  But the story stuck in my head and I realized that if true, there will be loads of wind farms, whether they actually are doing all they tout or not.

A few years back, I heard, second-hand, about an off-grid home in the area where I live.   Seems those folks (as of 2002) had only had to turn on their generators once since owning their solar home (1980’s).   During the infamous October blizzard of ’97.   Three days of snowing/no sunshine.    But, I argue, if they had wind-generated power too, their system would have been deeply in the plus side.  (all you locals know of the phenomena of sideways snow.)

I inherited the cache of off-grid living magazines when my Dad passed away.   My brother got his set of Engineering encyclopedias.   I’m figuring if we both read our collections in their entirety and then put our brains together, we could probably build an off-grid home.   Maybe… I’m not as good with tools as he is.  Maybe I’ll just stupavise….


Over the years I’ve collected an array of books and articles –  “Life in a concrete dome home”, given to me by a neighbor almost 2 years ago, How to grow more vegetables….than you ever thought, The Four Season HarvestLasagna Gardening, 6 herb garden books, ten years worth of Farmer’s Almanacs, the same or more of New Shelter and Mother Earth News, the entire Foxfire Series….the list goes on and on.

I’ve been reading about the sustainable life for a long time.   The actual doing is, optimistically, 1/64th of the way there…

So here I sit  in my town-home, with its manicured lawns and no gardening spots (except for the pretty, non-edible/healing).   Where dandelions, the super spring-tonic food of our ancestors, are religiously destroyed every year.  (Bless their little pea-picking hearts, every spring they try once more.)

My container garden, scattered around, seated on decorative rock landscaping, looks, in places, vibrant and green and in others, dead empty save the soil I finally got properly mixed the 3rd time around.

Part of this story unfolds because I don’t have the cash money sitting around to go secretly build my dream compound and then invite hubby over and say, “See?  You can watch TV without having to unplug the refrigerator – I installed plenty of batteries…”

Part of it is because dreaming at my desk takes much less energy than actually searching through all the possible grants and loans available to see if I could get my dream home built and paid for just by carefully documenting and sharing the results of living such a way.

But the biggest part is my own hesitance.

I’ve been steeped in what I call ‘city-life’ for quite a few years now.   As the fantasy of my ‘dream home’ unfolds before my eyes, I truly question if my body can actually cash the checks my mind is writing.   Caring for other living things and designing your life to depend mainly upon your own efforts for your daily bread is a big gamble, given my daily life now.   And though I have the desire, I’m not completely sure if the Master Plan in my mind will actually work in the real world.

I’m well aware of how many things look good on paper and not-so-hot in reality.


Older friends who have spent years gardening get quite a chuckle out of me.   I’ve read numerous books in the past 3 years.   I built a database to efficiently collect and retrieve data concerning companion planting, proper crop rotation, separate annuals from perennials, who likes full sun and who does not, what is a heavy feeder and what is a heavy giver, proper planting by the moon, how much water each plant needs to thrive, and the inherent dangers from pests and how to take care of them without chemical fallout.

Instead of recycling empty plastic jugs, I carefully washed and saved all of them, to use for water wicking systems.

I started a worm-composting bin.  (Which was going fine, with 3 worms carefully removed from a house plant my mother gave me.   Yes, I ignored the caution to only use worms designed expressly for this purpose.   I figured they’ve been surviving in a small houseplant container, why not roomy digs with lots of newspaper and veggie scraps?   But then I left on sabbatical and forgot to tell hubby the worms needed watered.    I came home to find the horror of worms who had escaped their waterless home only to die on the cold concrete of my garage floor.    Three deaths lay at the doorstep of my own neglect.   I still feel bad.)

I spent a lot of time the year of 2008/2009 making the rounds and asking the old timers about companion planting, raised beds, sub-surface watering systems, etc.    They just shook their heads and pointed to their flat, tilled, planted in rows, garden spaces and said, “That’s how I do it.”

Granted, they eat out of their garden every year and share with neighbors, but how they do it is in complete disagreement with most of the books I read.   Many a time, I thought, “Quit reading about organic, sustainable and just start out the way they do it.”

But I didn’t want to give up just quite yet.

This spring, I finally got around to actually ‘doing’.   Even with my planning, knowledge and best efforts, it’s July and I might have some leaf lettuce ready to eat sometime in September.   Improper mixing of container soils, too much water, not enough sunlight while indoors, hail, local bird population that feasted on my re-plantings and lord knows what else I did wrong, has resulted in greenery in my back yard, but not much hope that I will be harvesting loads for our supper table unless the growing season extends well past what it historically does and nothing else goes wrong.

(When I was a waitress at the local sale barn, I dubbed the majority of my customers as ‘crusty old farts’.   Now I know why they have the personality they do.  I’ve become one.)

The bright side of this whole story is my brother is happy.   As I related my disappointments and four, count them four, plantings between March and May, he said, “Well, I would have been pissed if you had just jumped in your first year and everything went perfect.  I’ve been farming for years and it still doesn’t always go right.”

Secretly, I’m tired of disappointment.   He told me to appreciate the wealth of knowledge I gain from every failure.   He also reminded me that in the planning and doing, all that information now resides in my brain, ready for retrieval in the years to come.  He’s been a farmer for going on almost 20 years now.   He’s learned to be patient and roll with the punches.

“But I wanted to eat out of my own garden this summer….” I whine.


If all my planning, reading and learning failed so miserably in a little ole container garden, do I truly want to place my whole life in the hands of my master planned home?

Not so sure anymore.

My family is a big fan of, “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.”

So I figure, if everything collapses and my family’s survival depends on me learning how to be self-sufficient, then I’ll either succeed or I won’t.  Baptism by fire if you will.   At least I will have locked into my brain some of the basics about what is poisonous and what isn’t of my local fauna.

If everything doesn’t collapse anytime soon, then I have plenty of time to learn by trial and error what works and what doesn’t.   I can waste growing seasons trying out new combinations of gardening ideas – secure that I can at least go buy food if my experiments fail.

I can also keep reading and bit-by-bit add new ideas into the floor plan of my dream home.

(Did you know you can build a solar cooker right into a south facing kitchen wall?  A useful bay window…)

Getting Social Heirarchy Correct

Okay – quick history lesson.

In order for civilization to rise, an adequate and dependable supply of food is needed.

Once we learned how to successfully feed ourselves while staying in one place, we had the motivation to build more permanent structures.  Once we got really good at it, we found ways for those who didn’t really want to farm, hunt or harvest the chance to pursue other activities – philosophy, writing, the arts, music, theology, etc., etc.

Ahhh….this is grand.    We are so prosperous, we don’t all have to earn our keep by providing food for ourselves and the tribe.  We can now concentrate on other activities.

And the moment we hit that level of prosperity, a funny thing happens.

Those who feed the tribe lose status.

The laborers and farmers go straight to the bottom of the heap.

Those who have had plenty of free time to spend their days thinking about where we come from, what our purpose is and how we should live in order to fulfill that purpose rise to the top.   They become the leaders along with those who think it is their job to oversee the distribution of the labor of a few.

If you don’t believe me, read about any civilization, including our own.

So if you are not a food producer, please take steps to do your part in honoring and providing for those who toil  that you may live and not spend your days with dirt under your nails.

If you are a food producer, thanks for feeding me, so I can sit on my arse and write about history and the lessons we shouldn’t forget.

Sustainable Home Decor

Last Christmas I was in Hobby Lobby, desperately trying to find something that was:

  • Blue and white to match my mother’s kitchen decor
  • Either a rooster or a rooster design, also to match said kitchen
  • Useful (does something more than collect dust)

As usual, I wondered just how much profit is made by items which I consider to be pure wastes of money.   “Please, let it be pretty AND useful”, is my fervent prayer.  As I wandered through the store, my inner committee was once again debating:

Miss Math: “Well, it HAS to be 300% or more profit, because they always have something marked down by 40%, 50% or 60%.   They can’t do that all the time and stay in business.”

Mr. Grumpy: “Who the heck buys all this useless stuff anyways?”


Granted, I’m not what you would call a good home decorator or even a passable shopper.   Put me in the farmer’s market, a nursery or second-hand bookstore and I can outshop Paris Hilton.   (She shops, right?   I have to be careful – because there are a lot of current events I’m clueless about – she looks like she spends a lot of time shopping…. and Paris, if you’re reading this, please understand I don’t personally begrudge you your lifestyle and choices – I just needed some point of reference and I thought you would be a good one…)


Back to my original story.   I did find a blue and white rooster.   That just sat there.   Didn’t hold cream, sugar, salt, tea or recipe cards.   Just sat there and collected dust.   $36 for something that doesn’t do anything except cause more work.

Understand I’m on a time-crunch.   Responsible people give great gifts, on time and Christmas is only days away.   The rooster recipe box I wanted to order online is out of stock until sometime AFTER christmas and by then, what’s the point?   I can’t show up with a gift-wrapped, printed screen capture of the item and it’s “Out of Stock” label; as a good daughter,  I’m not going to make my mom wait til February to have Christmas – Trying to be good and responsible in a culture that places value on the unnecessary can create a lot of stress…

(Oh, I know what’s afoot – they just want me to spend twice what I planned on – my civic duty in keeping our economy going…buy something now and then buy what I really wanted later. Two prices paid for one goal.)

It’s not that I’m against Christmas.   I just think we need to restructure it some.   I tried to talk my family into getting together, sharing a meal and spending the day together.   And then taking the money we would have spent on each other and gift wrap and going shopping at the after-holiday, before inventory counting sales instead.    That way, everyone gets what they really want/need, at a good price, there’s no hurt feelings when someone finds out you either exchanged what you got, or heaven forbid, the ‘perfect gift’ you found Uncle Tom is produced as the white elephant gift next year…..

It would solve a lot of problems, plus, it would give me back what I love about the holidays the most – food, laughter, family stories and the chance to be together, having fun.  I have been unsuccessful so far, but I’m thinking economic troubles may add credence to my plan…

Sorry – back, again, to the story –

In my wanderings around what has become more of a home decorating emporium and less a place for crafters, I saw a beautiful large bound book covered with maps and old time ships.  Aha!   Perfect for my brother.  And it’s on the sale rack.   I pick it up and about throw it through the roof.   Quite a bit lighter than I expected.  Turns out it’s made of material just a shade heavier than poster board.  I turn it over to peek at the price tag.   I’m sure you won’t believe me (I hardly believed it) but here’s what it said:

Made In China

If they marked it down to 99% off, I might have been tempted to purchase.   I mean it did have cool graphics.  As it was, there was no way it was worth $40, $20 (sale price) or even $5, at least not to me.  If something has been invented to clean the dust off of poster board that doesn’t stain or ruin it, I’m not aware of it.   And yet, here sits a poster board fake book, at the unbelievable sales price of $20.

I could get a real book about ships at my local bookstore for that.

In an instant,  I could see the business lunch where it all began played out before my mind’s eye:

Foreign CEO1 – “See?  It’s perfect.  Not only are they raised to expect a higher standard of living, but they are convinced that to have a ‘nice home’ you must decorate it.    Extensively.   And you should re-decorate every season or so.   And put out extra decorations for holidays.   And in their culture, it’s a sign of prosperity and abundance if you have lots of expensive useless things sitting around, waiting to be dusted.   If we make them out of posterboard or lightweight ceramics, they will deteriorate or break easily – so they’ll have to be replaced often.  We will make a fortune!”

Foreign CEO2 – “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this opportunity.  What do you think?”

US Politician (who owns controlling stock in an advertising agency and a popular magazine on Lifestyle): “Wellll, it will take some groundwork, but I’m sure we can convince people they really need these things.  If we make regulations and taxes stiff enough at home, they’ll have to be manufactured abroad.  Yes, I think we can make it happen.”


Okay, I’ll admit, that’s probably not the way it really all came about.    But I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind.

I left without purchasing a single thing.

Back in the car,  I monologued to my husband my disappointment in a craft store becoming a home decor store,  the ever increasing space given to over-priced, non-locally produced junk, which just proves how many people buy this @#!$ because if no one was buying, they wouldn’t keep stocking more of it.   I ranted on about this being an example of why things in this country are going to you-know-where in a handbasket.

This was all received with eye-rolling and the ever-patient commentary, “Why do you let these things upset you?”

Bless his heart for sticking with me and my soapbox.

(Bless mine for not pounding his head with a baseball bat while yelling, “This kind of obliviousness is WHY we’re in a mess….”)


But that epiphany changed me.   I really got, at a deep cellular level, how much of the idealized American way of life is steeped in the constant consumption of the non-necessities.   Of how our culture of prosperity is, at it’s roots, the accumulation of the not needed.


I’ve put off doing ‘home decorating’ most of my adult life, for the simple fact that my early attempts proved it’s not one of my natural talents, as well as the fact that while I enjoy pleasant surroundings, I’ve always thought  non-utilitarian goods were way overpriced.

Once married, it got delayed even further, given I’m a native-american-cowboy-wildlife-wood fan and Hubby is a rock-n-roll-technology-black-and-chrome fan.   A visit to our house will show you the initial blending of our two households with very few changes.   AC/DC and Chris LeDoux in concert together,  if you will…  I’m not willing to dust a lot of black household items and not selfish enough to just do it all the way I want it.

But I’m ready now.   I’m going to decorate my house in plants.   The only additional furniture I need buy is perhaps some more shelving units.  Quick, easy, multi-purpose and available from local suppliers.

I can grow the colorful, the edible and the healing.    I can benefit from their air cleaning abilities and they get the benefits of turning from an annual into a perennial.

I can pretend I’m sleeping in nature without enduring the discomforts of no toilet, bear attacks or exposure.  They get to live where they needn’t overcome the trauma of hail damage.

And if it’s really successful, I’m going to start dressing with plants too.   (I think I can weave a mini-skirt out of the potato stalks dead via hail stones….)

If I’m lucky and perform my activities correctly, I shall always have new plants or seeds to replace those who live out their cycle and return to dirt.   I needn’t worry whether they are in style, have re-sale value or need to be upgraded in 6 months or so.  Dusting them is worthwhile because it’s Health Care and Maintenance, not a useless activity designed to make something look good.

I’ll be closer and more aware of  the cycle of life and maybe not so overwhelmed with shock when something dies.

Yup, I’m thinking living in a green house is just the thing to do.

If I find a plant that comes in black and functions as a wireless router, I’m sure Hubby will be on board with my plan too…

Why Buy Locally?

We are all aware of the wide variation between plans that look good on paper vs. their real usefulness once they manifest in the world.   Communism, the 2010 Census and the master plans for my home-made solar cooker are all good examples.

There are those in my circle who scratch their heads, sigh or do eye-rolling when I share my thoughts on local community exchange currency, shopping locally, eating in season and organically, etc., etc.   But I will share with you a manifestation of the results of Not Buying Locally and what happens when we continue to do business as if gas is cheap, oil never-ending and getting the lowest price, always, makes you a savvy and responsible citizen.

My brother owns a sod farm.   He also harvests hay.   He’s splitting his ‘business bets’ between luxury, ecological  repair and food items.   I pointed out with very little change to his operations, he could maybe get some business from the Wheat Grass Juicing Health Food Craze.   (Insert eye rolling here.)

My brother loves what he does.   And he’s very good at it.   When he first took over operations, he already knew what his plan was to not only lower his production costs but also run his business in a more water conservation-friendly way.   He is realizing his plans.

If the economy had persevered, he would be in ‘tall cotton’ right about now.   Instead, he’s happy that all his work is going to make it possible for his farm to ride out this downturn, instead of going bankrupt.

Now, the economy immediately around him is doing okay.   There is a need for his product and he could easily sell it.    But the economy located approximately 2 1/2 hours away from him is not.   The sod farms there are trucking their salesmen and product over large distances and cutting their rates drastically, all in an effort to have some sales and keep from going under.

And as people love a good deal, my brother’s neighbors buy the lower-cost, non-local product – hey, they’re watching their pennies carefully too.

This last visit, he reported there were fencing companies traveling  almost 300 miles in order to under-bid the local companies.   No, they can’t afford to really do that , long term – but slowly spending more than you are taking in delays the starvation you have when you aren’t working at all and it will work for another reason – operating costs are tax-deductible.   Operating costs include vehicles and gas consumption.

For those of you familiar with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, you will realize these scenarios echo the example she so eloquently illustrated via buying local organic lettuce or corporate farm, non-local lettuce.    Yes, the big farm can grow it, harvest it, ship it and sell it to you for .97/head.   The local farmer wants $1.97.  “I can’t afford to eat locally/organically” you wail –

But that .97 lettuce is not REALLY that low price.  You have paid the same or more than you would for the local lettuce, but You Don’t Know that you have, because the savings comes out of tax subsidies – meaning, you are subsidizing that big farm with your tax dollars – but since you lose those tax dollars whether you buy local or not, it’s not really apparent to you just how much you are paying for the .97 lettuce.

Buying locally is also environmentally and economically advantageous.   Since I don’t believe I can be more succinct or eloquent, I’ll share a quote from Steven L. Hopp regarding this:

“A quick way to improve food-related fuel economy would be to buy a quart of motor oil and drink it.  More palatable options are available.  If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels.” (Read full  “Oily Food” commentary here)

The other obvious but often disregarded truth regarding supporting local businesses – If they aren’t supported enough to survive – they are gone.   I wonder how low these traveling sod and fence salesmen will lower their prices when the market is good and they know their customers no longer have an option of buying locally?   Do you think they will reward their far-flung customers with low prices as a thank you for buying from them when times were hard?   Me thinks they will take advantage of their position and get all the money they can.

Because our current system is built on thriving through careful mining of profits through supply and demand mathematics.   Undercutting and driving out of business the smaller local operations during hard times is a great way to have an open field for charging whatever price you want when demand increases.


While we’re on the subject of cutting off the short-term nose to spite our long-term face, let’s discuss layoffs.

About a year ago I was visiting with a fourth generation family member of a local well-works business.    He related how his great-grandad had handled the employee side of the business during the Depression.   All hands were assembled and he told them bluntly, “We have a choice.   We can all go to fewer hours, work with each other regarding scheduling so we cover what work we do have here and enable all of us to seek work in other ways too, or I can lay off all but two of you and the two left will have steady, full-time work.”

They chose for all to take less and work with each other to help meet everyone’s needs.

And when the Depression had faded away and work was once again plentiful, this man had a trained, experienced crew that was happy to return to full-time work.

When I read about bonus and dividend checks handed out to CEO’s and investors right on the heels of layoff announcements, I remember this story.    And I’m sure you know which course of action finds favor in my eyes.


I probably haven’t shared with you anything you don’t already know.   And you may be rolling your eyes and thanking me for wasting your time telling you this.

But as we continue to face stimulus packages spent to expand regulatory agencies, (not on getting the average working American back to work, producing needed items and services) and we all realize we can’t just consume forever in expansionist mode, it pays to remember that salvation is often in the daily details.

It means spending the extra $1 on your weekly head of lettuce to keep your local farmer in business and waiting awhile for that new Xbox game or designer shoes.

If you are a business owner,  it means offering a reasonable schedule to your now part-time employees, so they have a chance in hell of getting another part-time job to supplement what they lost by staying loyal to you, instead of saying, “Take it or leave it, there are thousands that would just jump at the chance to work for minimum wage at whatever schedule or tasks I give ’em”.

(I have an acquaintance who now works 6 days a week, 2 or 3 hours at a time after commuting 15 miles, just to keep the job she does have.  Her schedule is posted weekly and can change at any time.   Her employers want full-time loyalty for a part-time position.    She sheepishly confesses, “Yeah, I’m looking for another position, but any work is better than unemployment or welfare.”   Her attitude is a noble one, and a prime example of how the idiotic and selfish take advantage of the honorable.)

It also means being very proactive in supporting the businesses that you really want to see still in business a day, month or year from now.    Putting food, shelter, healthcare should be the top of your list.   And if you have some extra to spend on the luxurious and beautiful, maybe something from a local artist or entertainer?    They may not be deemed as necessary to your survival, but if they choose to buy local too, then you are getting your quality of life via an expenditure that will also be spent in keeping your local food producer in business.

I’m not trying to be simplistic or naive.   Just buying locally and cutting back on non-necessities produced from outside your community is not all that’s needed.   But it is something that is completely within your control; action that does not have to wait for the next election, a new law to be passed, or dependent upon your government officials approving or supporting.   It’s ‘hunkering down’ not only with your family and friends, but your immediate neighbors too.

And, since I’m a control freak (according to some) I like plans of action that depend on nothing more than me choosing.

Census Update III

I thought Census Update II was the end of the matter – but news came to me today I couldn’t resist sharing. (Note some minor details have been changed or omitted to protect the privacy of the innocent and prevent the identification of the lazy, misled or deluded – I do try to be fair while touting my perspective.  Sorry, government, agencies,  no sense in trying to rename you, because everyone knows who is in charge of the Census and any allusions would be a waste of time…)

Your tax dollars (and mine) paid for the following census drama at my friend’s house:

  • A mailed postcard announcing  her census will be coming soon.
  • Hand delivery of census to her doorstep by temporary census employee. (which was filled out and mailed in.)
  • A follow-up visit by census personnel, because apparently hers wasn’t received either. (That makes 2 lost from households located approximately 4 miles from each other.  On the flip side, I know people who received 2 and others who received none.) Since she wasn’t at home at the time,  a card was left, requesting a phone call from my friend between the hours of 9 and 3 on Thursday or Friday. (Which, she could not do, because Hey!  she’s one of the lucky ones who still has a job and is at work for her employer at that time.)

She called the number on Monday,  and said she was happy to ‘comply with the request for information’ but was working during the hours listed.  Could the interview be done now?

And here’s the response:

“Oh, I’ve been moved to work another district – I’ll pass on the information to my supervisor, but probably, by now, you can just never mind.”

Now, it’s important to my friend to be counted – she takes her civic duty seriously.  Even 0ver-zealous, personal door-to-door delivery, collection and confirmation has not prevented piss-poor mail delivery, Census Headquarters mail room sorting snafu’s,  mismanaged data entry (or retrieval) or some combination of the aforementioned – which all results in her household not being counted this go-around.

This grieves her.   (For those of you who don’t follow my blog, this friend is Ms. Capricorn-Bookkeeper.  Translation: All i’s and t’s are consistently dotted, crossed and completed in a responsible and cost-effective manner.    Our recent census  endeavor has violated many of her firm beliefs on how to properly get a project done.)

(I will add that overall, I’ve always been pleased with our Postal Service – however, counting my census, this incident and a letter that never made it’s destination in May, I’ve had close experience with ‘lost mail’ 3 times in the past months.   Strange, but true.)


The preceding production brought to you by folks who want you to believe they can:

  • Design, Implement and Maintain a system to track all domestic animals and quickly isolate and destroy those who are diseased. (NAIS)
  • Design , Implement and Maintain a nationwide medical history database AND health care program.

Sorry, but you can’t even successfully or efficiently oversee a counting program.   Think I’ll wait for something better.

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