Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Simple Living the Easy Way

Yeah, I know some of you who have commented on how much work we've been doing around here lately might be thinking, "Huh? What's easy?" Well, I've been thinking on this subject for quite some time with all the blog memes about what one would be willing or not willing to give up, and I'll tell you exactly what's "easy" about how I do things: my tools. And not all of those tools are manual. Many of them are electric, for which I am very grateful.

I work hard every single day, often from dawn to dusk it seems and even into the night as I try to catch up on the indoor work that needs to be done. As hard as I try to conserve water, electricity, gasoline, etc. and reduce our impact on this earth, there are lots of areas where I'm just not willing to cut back further at this point in time. Not, that is, until I have a few more pairs of hands other than my own helping me out with what needs doing in a day.

What folks often forget or simply don't know when they wax nostalgic about life before electricity and cheap oil is that even the lower classes had domestic help. All but the poorest of families often had some kind of labor, either day labor or live in, for help with all the work that needed to get done. Indentured servants, apprentices, extended family, itinerant workers, and, unfortunately, slaves all served the purpose of providing extra hands for the household. Those families that didn't have one of the above had their children, and those children weren't given the choice whether to help out.

I know, too, that there are people who feel rather nostalgic about children's responsibility as well, thinking that kids these days ought to be made to feel that same kind of responsibility—often packaged with a "sense of pride in helping out"—that kids did prior to the child-centered culture of today. This is not a sentiment that I share.

I don't think it's possible in the midst of our current culture to recapture that sense of pride in contribution because it's plainly arbitrary and enforced. No matter how noble our intentions of going back, to borrow Kunstler's title, to a world made by hand, the truth of the matter is that just next door the world is still made of electricity and oil, and little Johnny or Jenny knows that. There is no real or tangible sense that their forced manual labor contributes either to the family's survival or to the earth's health. The first is bogus and the second is far too abstract for any of us to really know for sure, even those of us choosing to power down.

But I digress....

... and in an effort to wrench this post away from rant and back towards my point, let me just quickly say that I don't require my kids to pitch in any more than they're comfortable and happy to because the principles I live by are just that: my principles. My kids are free to choose their own, just as Jim is free to choose his own principles, and honestly, they don't always include living as if it's the 17th century. This homesteading path we're on is one that I've lead them down, so I try to be mindful of that fact and not foist my choices on them any more than necessary. Luckily, they're a pretty amenable bunch.

All of this is, let's face it, a long-winded way of justifying my own continued reliance on certain tools. I'm the first to admit that I'm no purist.

Sure, I could make bread by hand, but that would require time, taking me away from other tasks that also need (knead?) my attention. Having a bread machine lets me take 5 minutes, tops, to make dough each day, after which I can simply turn on the oven and bake delicious bread at home. Having a stand mixer means I can make baked goods in a fraction of the time it would take to complete the same task with only a wire whisk and my own two hands. I'd be lost without my stand mixer and my oven, and at the moment, I'm no where close to willing to give those up.

Could I live without them? Sure I could, but that doesn't mean I should. There are plenty of things that I've foregone for the sake of conservation, but there are certain economies that come into play that don't simply involve energy—they also involve health, quality of life, and time. Being able to cut certain corners frees me to do other things like read and play with my kids, arguably important activities for a homeschooling mom.

More than that, there are some things, like my milk machine, that save my body. This machine means the difference between waking up multiple times at night with significant pain versus a good night's sleep that keeps me healthy, happy, and relatively pleasant to be around. That's worth running the machine for about 15 minutes a day to me. There are other tasks that don't have the same impact, so I choose to reduce on those terms.

Doing everything by hand takes a significant physical toll. I know because I do most things by hand, including my gardening, carrying feed bags and hauling water to my animals. I'd venture to guess that most Americans don't know what it's like to do a day's worth of manual labor. We're so used to using machines or paying others to do such tasks that we've lost touch with the bodily impact of hard work. (Heck, half the time Americans aren't even willing to take on this kind of work, so we turn to immigrants, legal or otherwise, to do it for us.) That's one reason life expectancies were so much lower—people simply worked themselves into the ground. There's a fine line between physical work that keeps one healthy and strong and so much work that it grinds a body down.

Machines replace human labor, and the two big questions when moving away from machines are how many people it will take to perform the same amount of work and how much time.

Too often in discussions of the energy crisis I notice a kind of draconian split between the Luddites, who want to return to a pastoral age blissfully free of noisy machines, on the one hand, and the "alternative technologies will save us" folks on the other. I have to admit that I'm kinda on the fence of that little dichotomy. My ears certainly long for the peace and quiet of the first, but my practical side remains firmly rooted in the reality that I like a little help now and then, and I'm not too keen on moving back to the slave economy that supported Western life before the cotton gin, steam engine, and the decades it took for American culture to let go of the direct exploitation and ownership of human beings.

Folks need to start considering what it would take to move away from industrial agriculture. Those big ol' tractors and machines perform the work of 100 people in a fraction of the time. In large part, the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution enabled the move away from a culture of slavery, though that certainly didn't happen instantly or cleanly or even quickly, as opportunists double-dipped into both systems for greatest profit, increasing slave trade during the transition.

Ultimately, however, by transferring our work load from human bodies to machines, Americans stepped into the modern age with the noble delusion of freedom firmly rooted in industrialism and capitalism. The question becomes then, in my mind, not so much whether we're either slaveholders of people or slaves to our machines, which so many modern critics have claimed, but rather what is the balance point between manual and machine labor?

Or maybe not even a balance point at all, but a completely different way of relating to the world and labor, a different kind of lifestyle that is more self-reliant, thus eliminating the blind dependence on either the labor of others or the labor of machines. Is there a space where we can move outside of a capitalist or industrial paradigm that looks outside ourselves for subsistence and, instead, turns inward, looking towards the self as responsible for its own subsistence? Isn't this a more honest definition of freedom and liberty? Self-Reliance, or preferable to Emerson's privileged self, perhaps Thoreau's vision of deliberate living in the woods but with certain well-chosen tools. (Though let's face it, even he was dependent on Emerson's money and privilege, which doesn't always come through when reading his idealistic treatise.)

Or does this hope entail yet another privileged, Romantic version of life that seeks to erase or at least hide our messy dependence upon the exploitation of machine, people, animals, land, etc. Is it even possible for humans to live on this earth in a way that doesn't depend upon exploitation? Can we come to a place of symbiosis and what would that look like? Can we even begin to imagine it from this place where we now stand?

Those are some pretty tough questions, and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. I have some thoughts, the beginnings of some ponderings though. I think the path forward is one that looks a bit like Thoreau's Walden but with a full and humbled acknowledgment of our privileged dependence. Perhaps it is through recognizing and taking responsibility for the paradoxical dependence on others to enable our own self-reliance that we achieve freedom without delusion, that we enter into autonomous rather than exploitative relations. Maybe.

Me? I'm going out to milk my cow with a machine, both of which I'm damn grateful to have.


Lewru said...

Wow, what a wonderful, thoughtful post. I think there are third options to the Luddite v. Techno dichotomy, which you explored. But

I also think there are so many unknowns, so many variables that will impact what happens and how. I think creativity and mental flexibility will be paramount. We'll get to see who can think on their feet, make due, repurpose, go without, find an alternative.

Staying the same, or at least trying to, being afraid of change, etc. does not bode well for a physical or mental transition.

Great post.

CG said...

I daresay, as a hand milker, that it would be faster to milk one cow by hand than to clean up the machine.

Danielle said...

Lewru, I agree—many unknowns and the attempt to preserve rather than adapt will be a major pitfall folks face. Just look at the desperate attempt to renew off-shore drilling.

No doubt CG, but for me it's an issue of pain and productivity, not time. If I start hand-milking that cow, I'm going to be miserable, miserable to be around, and unable to perform other important tasks.

Does that mean I shouldn't have a cow? I don't think so. It means that I make certain choices so that I can have one—choices that ripple out and affect other choices that I make. I think everyone has their priorities; it's just a question of what they are and why they seem justifiable to the individual.

el said...

Interesting, your take on the homesteading thing as your vision and everyone else at your home can define their own. Here, it's very much "my way or the highway." :)

I still go over the whole either/or thing regarding machines. My puzzlement with using them is, is it simpler to plug something in/fill something with gas and turn it on, then undo all that to put the machine away, than just grabbing a handtool? I usually opt for the handtool for speed alone.

Creativity-wise, too, going the path of machine-free definitely has made me more creative in trying to achieve a similar or the same outcome. I am challenging myself in July to not use the stove/oven at all, mainly because it's canning season and my hours over it are going to be plentiful anyway. So dinner for that month will be over the fire, over the barbecue, in the solar cooker or rocket stove. Yes, takes more time. But this way the husband can do it too.

Privileged dependence, exploitation, etc. Nice noodles to untangle. Machines are gifts, if used in the right way (your milking machine, your bread machine) and for the right reason (to avoid pain and save time). It's the blind dependence that is the tougher nut to crack.

CG said...

I'm not saying you shouldn't have a cow, or a milking machine for that matter, what I'm saying is that machines are, by and large, not the conveniences people convince themselves they are.

But then people who rely on chainsaws rarely believe us when we witness that it is easier and faster to cut all our wood with hand tools. Not that they've ever tried it mind you. Tools are vital. Hand tools are almost always superior if all costs and benefits are figured into the picture.

I'd also trifle with you on the perspective of the kids helping out. Our kids know their contributions are vital, not bogus. But then our adventure involves all of us being on the same path.

Now, to go start bread mixing in the bread machine. I'm no purist either.

Jess said...

Thanks for your thoughtfulness. It is refreshing to hear a perspective different from the usual (that we should all be green and stop using technology). I appreciate a critical, balanced, historical approach. You've given me food for thought.

I have to say, what you said about machines and humans living together sure does remind me of The Matrix... ;)

Nita said...

Very good post as usual Danielle, your right, we all have to find the path that we can follow, I like to milk by hand, but I wouldn't want to give up my tractor or chainsaw. Too much of what I do has to be done by hand. If I can save time with a machine and live with the results I use it. My biggest timesaver, my electric oven in summer. I use recipes that I can leave for an hour and not worry about. That's not sustainable by any means, but it keeps me from being a raving **&^% and that's more important to my family.

Tim said...

I for one would have no guilt from having machines to help me conserve time, especially if I was able to get off the national electrical grid. I read an article in the Tractor Supply Company's free magazine, "Out Here", about a woman in central California who powered her house with solar and wind power and has not payed an electrical bill for something like 25 years.

With enough solar panels, a wind machine, and a couple good banks of batteries, you could get off the grid and rid yourself of any guilt you might be feeling. If you do all that and stay hooked up, any excess power you feed back into the grid the electric company has to, by law, pay you! What a great day that would be for me to actually see a check from the ole power company! Now that is independence!

Madeline said...

What a full post. It hits on so many things I've been thinking about this month - exploitation, industrial farming, the fact that it isn't all so black and white - everything has to be determined on a case by case basis, as you so clearly detailed. I think the way we allow our children to choose how much they contribute to the farming, and the fact that we often pay them for their work, allows them to take pride and joy in their time farming. As you said, they didn't choose this path, we did.

Country Girl said...

I enjoyed your post. I am amazed and inspired by all you do and agree with utilizing the tools we have available to make life a little easier. I cannot imagine not.
I do not make my children participate in farm activities although I do encourage that they help out. They have a chore board and the more they do, the more mola they make. I want the kids to learn from our adventures and to be happy living this farm-life, so far this approach has worked for us.
Lastly, any chance you would share any of your bread machine recipes. I have done several white breads but I've yet to find something I really like and I am interested in using more whole wheat.


The Purloined Letter said...

What an important issue, and your answers are so thoughtful. The part I needed to read the most was the part about allowing other members of our families to make their own choices and follow their own paths. Thank you.

Sarah said...

Great post.

I'm reading a book right now called 'White Cargo' that puts the 'indentured servant' of years past squarely in the 'slave' camp. It's a really interesting book.

My kids are much younger, only four and two, but they both - even the two year old - can be a big help when they choose to be. If I don't push their help, but simply welcome it as it's offered, then I hope that they'll stay open to helping. If they don't, that's ok too - this homesteading thing is my idea, not theirs...and certainly not my husband's. lol

But in the meantime, I'll welcome any help I can get catching chickens, measuring out feed for the animals, and planting.

I handmilk my goats, but I'm thinking that next year I'll be looking for an inexpensive machine to help me out. I'll be up to seven milkers then.

Gina said...

I battled with the same guilt over bread machine bread vs. hand kneading. I work fulltime and also have been seeking the homesteading life for quite a few years. This means time is a scarce commodity for me (and I am the one leading my family down a similar path).

Someone finally commented about the "no knead" bread and I tried it with great success. Now I mix the ingredients together in the morning before I leave for work and when I return I barely knead it, let it rest and bake it up. One night I was too tired to finish it and put it in the bread pan inthe frige and decided if it was still good I'd bake it in the morning. It was perfect and baked beautifully. I finally let go of my bread machine.

You probably have thought of this-I was slow to catch on, LOL!

Hayden said...

I really enjoyed this post, very thoughtful treatment of important issues. I spent some of my early growing-up years doing farm work (in the mid 50's) and I remember very clearly how hard my family worked, and what a toll it can take. I did, though, pride myself on working hard along side my parents, picking apples and cherrys and the like when I was 4 - 9 yrs old, and the sense of pride and unity it gave me.

Ren said...

I really loved this post! Great stuff to think about. Having utilized only hand tools to build in the past, I can say I believe the power tools are absolutely awesome. I love my compound miter saw for building garden beds and I see of no way the hand tools could do it better or faster. Talk about pain the hands..oy!

We've cut wood both ways and I adore our chain saw, but after this last round of repairing it Bleu might just decide hand tools are indeed better.:)

You know I agree fervently about trusting the children to make their own choices...part of my inclination to that view is my own father,who could not get away from the farm fast enough when he was grown. He hated it. Wanted nothing to do with a farming life because of the way he was raised with all of it being expected. He never has had any longing for the farm like I do....but he does an amazing garden.

So maybe some of it stuck.

Tall Kate said...

I read your blog all the time but haven't commented before --

just wanted to say what an interesting, thoughtful post. I particularly like your philosophy on your children's role (fellow unschooler, don't you know).


Danielle said...

Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments.

I, too, welcome all the help that's offered, and I'm often surprised how much really is offered when it's not expected. Interestingly, though, the kids haven't wanted to work for money recently, even though it's always an option for them.

My goal is for them to enjoy the farm and to love coming back here. I don't want them to look on it as drudgery or run away as fast as they can in the other direction.

CG, I think part of the difference you point out is that your kids are on the same path, so it's not a forced participation.

The point I'm getting at, though, is that survival in this particular way is clearly a choice, not a necessity. One could choose to go get a job at the local Piggly-Wiggly, or Walmart for that matter and buy plastic packaged food and also call that survival.

I've a few more ideas rattling around in my brain that I'm going to try to pull out into another post soon.

CG said...

Danielle -- I just came to catch up on these comments after commenting myself on your newer "easy way" post.

Concerning "survival", what you say was true, I think, and might be true now but barely. I don't think it will be at all true in the future. I personally think a lot of people are going to die. I'm working on it not being me and my family. I'm encouraging everyone I can to do for themselves because I don't think it is only going to be "good for the planet" as it were, but necessary for survival.

Danielle said...

Hmmm, CG...

I think we are in the midst of interesting times and a significant downward turn, and I agree that the Walmart lifestyle might very quickly become a thing of the past. I go back and forth about whether lots of people will die, whether the change we're facing will be gloom and doom or just challenging and hard.

I try to be pretty open with my thoughts with my kids, without scaring them. I want them to see and appreciate the beauty in this world and not fear it. So too, do I want to acknowledge the fact that I could be wrong about the changes the world is facing. We—as a human race—might handle those changes far more gracefully than I think we will.

Ultimately, I think, as lewru pointed out, that flexibility, creativity, adaptivity, resourcefulness, etc. will be paramount for whatever materializes.

Anonymous said...

Could you please elaborate on the milk machine? My husbands hands are killing him from milking, but we were told all milk machines need external vaccuum sytems that are pricy ( by the local dairy farmers) Do you have a all in one unit meant for a cow or 2? How does it work? What is it called?

CG said...

Danielle, I do think a lot of people are going to die, and it might get scary here, but I never think of it as a scary time. I get most scared thinking about people I love who will not prepare but I never think it is scary for us. But it is about survival -- straight up survival but also survival of a decent way of life which Wal-Mart survival by and large is not.

Danielle said...

Mommymommy, I purchased my milker through ebay from portablemilkers.com. It's been an absolute lifesaver.

It's a used DeLaval bucket milker system for a single cow. It came with all the necessary parts, including the vacuum pump, and was about half or less of what you'd pay for a new set up.

I'm quite pleased with it so far. It saves my wrists and helps prevent mastitis by milking out completely and efficiently.