I got Sharon Astyk’s new book “Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place” this week for Christmas and I’m only a small way into it but already it has reinvigorated my thinking about the future and how we have a chance now to prepare and practice living a lower carbon existence before the realities are forced upon us.
Here is a portion of a reviewer of the book:
Making Home covers a wide range of skills that we’ll all want to have if and when things get a little rougher around the edges. Unlike most TEOTWAWKI books (The End Of The World As We Know It – a common survivalist/prepper phrase), Sharon takes a much more nuanced approach to decline, and talks as much about a four day power outage from an ice storm or a hurricane than total economic and government collapse. She covers urban, suburban and rural living, though her own experience is rural so that gets the most play. And instead of talking entirely about “beans, bullets and band-aids” she covers topics that no one else has thought much about: keeping your family together; preparing yourself for the brother-in-law who was recently made homeless; connecting with your neighbors, no matter what their political beliefs; and caring for the elderly or infirm. Astyk has a 12 year old son with severe autism, and also cared for her grandparents in their final years, inviting them into their home. Her advice on humbly making do where you are, with what you have, makes this book a valued resource.
I love Sharon’s upbeat style of writing and how, like me, she’s just part of an ordinary family trying to do her bit to slow down man made climate change and get her young family ready for the coming decades of global overpopulation, resource depletion, pollution, economic recession, interrupted supply chains and chaos. I also follow her blog so consider myself a fan and am influenced by her wisdom and experiences.
Although our family have been thinking ahead for some time now, the fact that we have made so many house moves in such a short space of time means that we are far from being as organised as we would like to be for various unforeseen or predictable outages in supply. Our tools are in a terrible state having been placed in a garage with a very leaky roof, we live in a modern house with no vegetable growing areas and we do not yet know any of our neighbours.
However Bealers and I have, over the past six years, taken active steps to prepare for the changes we anticipate will be coming our way as the planet’s human population grows and continues to warm. We’ve reduced our carbon consumption by travelling far less than we once did and using minimal fossil fuel heating but have a long way to go before we are in the same league as Sharon Astyk’s family’s 0.10 carbon usage of the average US citizen, we have started to ‘skill-up’ on practical skills such as carpentry, food growing, animal husbandry, built up modest stores of vital supplies for use in personal or more widespread crises, acquired some parcels of land for growing food and wood for fuel on, buy mainly second hand products that we need – buying new has become second best, explored communal living and possibly a few other things too.
We are very lucky not to live in parts of the world that are increasingly prone to ever more frequent natural disasters of forest fires, hurricanes or earthquakes but increasingly our small island is plagued by flooding and summertime droughts.
In 2007 when we lived in Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire we saw first hand how unexpected events (severe flooding in this instance) can have devastating effects on individuals, buildings and communities very rapidly. We knew many families who had to leave their homes quickly and were not able to return for nearly a year. As we were renting our home in the town and had no strong ties we made the decision to move elsewhere but very many people do not have the luxury of being able to up and leave a home.
Sharon’s latest book is based on the presumption that although many people may be considering moving elsewhere in preparation for the coming change of ways of living that may happen s-l-o-w-l-y or as sudden short sharp unexpected shocks a large number of people will remain where they are already. She has coined the phrase ‘Settling In Place’ to mean making do with what you’ve got where you are right now. She does point out that if you are living in an area that is prone to natural disasters, far from family/friends or is mechanically and artificially hydrated when it is naturally a desert area you may wish to strongly consider relocation now while houses in the area still sell.
Settling In Place is mainly about creating a pleasant working home which will be integrated within the local community, incorporates food growing and storage, possibly housing refugee family members, income creation, living without much heating or cooling but not in a crazy survivalist way but in a thought provoking academic way from a woman and her family who is pretty much being the change she wants to see in many of us.
I find it really comforting that another well educated woman is writing about these things in an upbeat way and is paving a path for those of us making our first tentative steps along a similar ways.
Personal crises can happen without warning or can be brewing up for some time before they occur but it makes so much sense to have done a bit of forward planning and preparation making to enable a smoother ride through stormy times. Whether a natural disaster, a sudden job loss, accident or illness many unforeseen things can mean that we may need to lean on our neighbours, stretch a dinner for unexpected house guests from our food reserves, access our first aid skills or medical supplies.
Ms Astyk’s new book which I am chomping though and her previous book ‘Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front‘ both make the strong case for spending a little money and effort in making back-up solutions to meet the most basic of needs before a power outage, a family bereavement, a power outage, a speedy evacuation or having to take family or friends into your home for many weeks while they are experiencing service disruption in their own lives.
Like Sharon and her husband, Bealers and I have started to make contingency preparations for a variety of situations but feel that we are far from doing all we can to feel ‘ready’ for the unexpected. We have yet to create a food growing garden at our new home, we do not, since purchasing the house, have much of a financial buffer to tide us over during economic downturns, we keep pet cats that currently depend on supplies of meat we do not raise ourselves and our own stores of food, water and other basic supplies have been poorly managed during several years of multiple house moves.
For that ready feeling, the author recommends that we have practice periods where we trial living as if there is a prolonged power outage in the middle of winter, or live only from food reserves stored in the home as a couple of example of readiness-drills and explains that the short term pain of finding out what you are missing in a pretend drill far outweighs the pain and possible deadly situation of not having what might be needed in a real life snow storm.
For such a drill or a real situation we would have several torches to hand (that would mean knowing where they were and being able to lay our hands on charged batteries for them too), solar powered lanterns for each member of the household to have, the ability to keep warm and heat food independent of electricity (for many this might mean a wood powered stove), ample supplies of food, water and creature comforts such as extra bedding for overnight visitors, entertainment which does not rely on electricity, stores of lavatory paper and medication.
We have got someway towards being power outage ready but definitely not ready enough. I don’t for example have a good supply of batteries for our torches although I do have the torches and I do know where at least four of them are right now. I have a supply of candles, toilet roll, and a pantry store which has just a few weeks worth of dried lentils, beans, vegetables and tinned foodstuffs too. I have stockpiled extra duvets, blankets and even spare coats, wellies, hats and gloves in case we need them and we have a big log pile thanks to the efforts of my lovely husband. I have some vintage hand laundering equipment which sits gathering dust next to the washing machine but I do feel so very happy to have it as once for a prolonged spell we were unable to wash clothes when the pipe to our washing machine froze for long before I acquired the mangle and washing dolly. Nowadays I would be able to get clothes and bedding cleaned in a bath and dry them on our usual airers on the landing above the room with the woodstove. We are very used to crispy air dried towels and like them that way.
A big FAIL moment happened a few weeks ago when our beloved woodstove was finally installed into the house for hopefully its permanent position. The lovely guys who installed it had a very horrible job of making an aperture large enough for it in the slate and concrete chimney breast. Days and days of heavy duty drilling and sawing and chipping and rendering later it was finally in but our secondary requirement of being able to fit my cast iron casserole dish and kettle on top had been forgotten – it was just a little too low to fit either.
I wept with frustration and irritation as just a few more inches higher and both vital tools could have been in use daily when the fire is lit as they were at the last house which meant we could have hot water and cooked food without a secondary power source or cooking tool. It clearly didn’t seem like a big deal to the guys who installed the stove but for us it was so very crux for part of our longer term weaning off fossil fuels.
The stove installation was our first job on the house where we had inched towards better self-reliance but at present although we have been able to leave the gas powered central heating turned off since lighting the woodstove we are still very much reliant on the electric kettle, gas hob and electric oven in the kitchen for any kind of food prep. We will have to consider saving more money to have the problem rectified, to have a wood fired range installed in the kitchen OR (and to me this is not one of the options) considering not having off-grid cooking facilities inside for the wintr. A lesson learned was to ensure that all requirements with any external tradesperson are spelled out in writing before the job starts.
My thoughts for the year ahead are towards being able to produce more of what we consume as a household. We consume fuel in the form of wood, electricity and hot water so hope to plant many trees, install systems which capture solar energy for hot water and electricity. We eat food (obviously) and so plan to design, build and plant growing areas in the garden, prune the neglected fruit trees so they come back into production and start to keep bees for honey and rabbits for meat for the cats and ourselves.
We need to begin to design an off-grid water supply which I know simply nothing about. We have a large roofed house which drains all rainwater down to the large pond in the bottom of the garden. I do not know how to safely store or filter rainwater for household consumption nor do I know the first thing about well digging. I do know from my permaculture design course that it makes a lot of sense to capture water high up in ones’ landscape until it is needed and also to capture it as soon after it has left the rain clouds.
I got out of the habit of buying bulk food and supplies when we stopped living in precarious isolation in the relative wilds of Mid Wales. Whilst there I would periodically order 25kg of bread flour, 25kg sugar, 20 litres of Ecover laundry detergent, 5 litres each of shampoo and conditioner as well as supplies of dried fruits, beans, yeast, tinned tomatoes and so on. I would like to get back into these habits but I would also very much like to grow my own beans for drying, build and use a food dehydrator on fruits we have grown and learn to live without flour.
We already keep a medium sized flock of hens for their eggs and when we have had surplus cockrels from the chicks we incubated and hatched we have raised them as ‘table birds’ and have learned how to humanely slaughter and butcher them at 6 months. The whole family has enjoyed and appreciated the effort expended in order to have one tasty meal of coq-au-vin.
The main focus of our efforts for the coming year must really be for those most basic of needs: water, food, heat, sanitation and community.
We have yet to build a compost toilet system which will be useful outside even while it continues to be normal to pollute thousands of gallons of drinking water each week with human excrement. When such systems become unavailable – either temporarily or sporadically or permanently it will be so much better to have a pleasant covered structure we are all used to using than having to make do with a shovel or a bucket in the cold or lashing rain.
This family has only recently landed in this small market town and we do not yet have strong ties with our neighbours. I started wondering how to address this on Christmas Eve and immediately picked up the phone to the manager of the retirement housing community located over our garden wall. Several of the residents there had helped me round up frightened hens when they had escaped a savage attack from a bad dog in our garden but I had never followed up by thanking them properly. I went round with a basket of eggs and explained to the neighbours in the communal kitchen that I sometimes had a small surplus and would be happy to sell them to anyone who enjoyed having fresh free range eggs. On my way home I knocked at the door of our immediate next door neighbours at the end of our drive. They had been friendly enough to wave and exchange pleasantries since we had moved in but I wanted to get to know them well enough to give them a spare key to my house and car in case it was ever needed. I invited them to come and join us for a cup of tea which they are doing next week.
So for the coming year I do hope to organise our family enough so we are more ready for the times ahead which are less ‘business-as’usual’ than our smooth running modern fossil fueled ones are at present. I shall enjoy documenting our efforts, our successes and failures with you here.
Since starting this post I have finished ‘”Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place‘ and loved it. I have dug out another of Sharon Astyk’s previous books: ‘Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation‘ as I want to prioritise creating a well managed food store as well as preserving food we grow this year.
I have also made really nice friendships with our next door neighbours who are retired farmers and already keen to help out with looking after our hens when we go away, letting us know about a planning application to build four storey houses at the end of our garden and showing us where the best place in our garden to grow vegetables might be…