Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Dryer, the Chain Saw, and the Laptop

The title for this essay was inspired by The Starship and the Canoe, Ken Brower’s 1978 biography of scientist Freeman Dyson and his rebellious son, George: a study in contrasting values and lifestyles.

In reflecting on how affordability and self-reliance intersect with my life, it occurred to me that my answer depends a great deal on what part of the elephant you’re touching, and it seemed apropos to compare and contrast choices, just as Brower did with the Dysons 35 years ago.

I’ve been leading a homesteading life at Sandhill Farm, an agricultural income-sharing commune, for the past 38 years. While my intention all along has been a life that was an experiment in simple living, my relationship to self-reliance has rarely been simple. Let me walk you through three examples that illuminate the complexities…

The Dryer
Sandhill’s founding group was two couples: Ed & Wendy plus Annie & me. When we first arrived in 1974, our property had one small livable house that featured one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, plus a back pantry and a tiny bathroom. We arrived in May, and the couples took turns: one month in the bedroom, and the next in a tent. Meanwhile, we committed ourselves to a 16’x30’ expansion of the house so that by the time it was too cold to sleep outdoors we’d have two more bedrooms (plus a house that was better insulated, rewired, reroofed, and with an expanded bathroom).

For washing clothes we relied on an old Maytag wringer washer (complete with mangle) and a clothesline. I can still recall my sister visiting in our third summer and not understanding how we could choose to live without a clothes dryer. To be fair to her, she had two small children at the time and was probably thinking about managing diapers with a husband who worked all day, leaving domestic chores solely in her hands. To be fair to us, we’ve raised many babies at Sandhill—all of them in cloth diapers—and have never owned a clothes dryer.

While it’s true that my sister had to cope with laundry for a family of four on her own, and at Sandhill the number of adults capable of washing clothes has always outnumbered the quantity of small children dirtying them, it’s also true that at Sandhill we’ve always had a strong commitment to being aware of the ecological consequences of our choices. When it comes to clothes drying, the sun works just fine. Yes, it takes longer and the sun isn’t always conveniently available when you’d like to do a batch of laundry, but we have indoor clothes racks and it always works out.

How much difference does not having a dryer make? According to US Department of Energy statistics, Sandhill is among the less than four percent of American households with a washing machine but no clothes dryer. They estimate that the average household will use about $100 worth of energy per year running a clothes dryer (interestingly, though gas dryers are twice as efficient as electric dryers, they’ve captured only 20 percent of the US market). Given that we’re a community of 7-10 adults (depending on whether or not it’s intern season), I reckon we do twice as many loads of wash as the typical American household, which means we’ve been saving $200 annually by air drying. If you throw in the cost of the dryer itself and figure we’d at least be on our third one by now, our savings are in the vicinity of $10,000. Note that this does not put any price tag on how our choice has beneficially slowed demand for the next power plant.

Just this month I was installing a submersible water pump in Ma'ikwe's cistern at Dancing Rabbit (a neighboring community, just three miles from Sandhill) and needed to make a watertight splice to power the pump, as the connection was going to sit in several feet of water. From an electrical supply house I bought a heat shrink tube that you slide over the splice and then seal by applying heat. Well, we had the devil’s own time trying to find a hair dryer or a heat gun in either community. Who needs ‘em? (We finally made do with a propane torch, used gingerly, and the resultant connection is indeed waterproof. Whew.)

So when it comes to dryers, we mostly do without. It isn’t worth the money to buy one, and it certainly isn’t worth the energy to run one.

The Chain Saw
The first outdoor construction project that we tackled at Sandhill was building a barnyard fence. We inherited an old barn (that lasted for another 20 years or so), but needed a fence around it if we wanted to keep our chickens separated from raccoons and dogs. Never having used a chain saw before, we decided to experiment with building the fence by hand. The barnyard encloses about seven-tenths of an acre, so this was not a trivial matter.

Using axes and a two-person crosscut saw, Annie and I felled black locusts growing on the property to yield all the fence posts. For the larger segments, I split them into halves or quarters using a maul and wedges. We dug all the postholes by hand, and stretched the woven wire employing a wooden clamp, log chains, and a hi-lift jack. For the barbed wire used at the top and bottom, we relied on a hand-held fence stretcher that produces a mechanical advantage through ropes and pulleys.

In short, I have a very good idea how much faster it is to cut wood with a chain saw. Though they’re noisy (you’re an idiot if you don’t wear ear protection), smelly (two-cycle engines spew out all manner of exhaust), and dangerous, you can accomplish an incredible amount of work with one. Given that Sandhill owns and actively manages 60 acres of trees, there is no question in my mind but that we’re better off operating a couple chain saws—one for dropping trees of 16-inch girth or more, and the other for limbing and trimming. (Also, if you own two, the second one can be used to free up the first one if you read wrong the stresses on a log and pinch the bar part way through your cut.) 

How much difference does having a chain saw make? Chain saws last us about five years. Given that we didn’t start using two until the ‘90s, we’ve owned 10 in our history. At an average purchase price of $300 a pop, plus annual operating and maintenance costs of $100 per machine, we’ve sunk around $8000 in that technology. Have we gotten our money’s worth?

In addition to the time saved by not cutting wood by hand, all of our space heating is accomplished by burning wood (which translates into no additional heating costs), we cook all of our sorghum with wood (from which we typically earn $20,000/year), we cut our own wood for fencing, rely primary on home grown wood for construction and trim, and we cut our own oak logs for shiitake production. In recent years we’ve established a steady market for some of our surplus black locust at Dancing Rabbit, where it’s in demand for post and beam construction. Taken altogether, I figure conservatively that we’ve saved or earned at least 10 times what we’ve spent on chain saws.

It’s still dangerous (or perhaps I should say Stihl dangerous, as that’s our preferred brand), but it’s definitely a positive cost/benefit ratio.

The Laptop
Sandhill was slower than many groups to embrace computers. What’s a foregone conclusion today appeared as an explosion of indiscriminate information just a generation ago, and it was by no means obvious at the time whether computers were more intrusive or instructive. When a friend sent me a free cast-off desktop computer in the late 1980s my community was so skittish about letting the genie out of the bottle that I was not allowed to even open the box. Instead we transshipped it sight unseen to a sister community that was more ready to embrace the brave new world.

A few years later, in 1990, my close friend Geoph Kozeny took up residence at Sandhill for several months to work on the FIC’s first edition Communities Directory. During that visit I had daily contact with his Mac Plus desktop and got my first glimpse of what was possible when regularly immersed in the information candy store that is the world wide web. While it wasn’t all that fast—modem speeds were slow enough that you could actually read email messages as they downloaded—and you didn’t dare send images (it took eight hours to transmit a single photo back then, and cost $100), it still seemed like magic to me.

By 1995 the mood had shifted enough at home that I was allowed to take receipt of a used laptop when Geoph upgraded (I got his old Outback—a Mac clone), and my world has not been the same since. Today I spend an average of three hours a day in front of a computer screen, and it simply wouldn’t be possible to function as the administrator of a continental nonprofit or to work nationally as a process consultant without a computer.

At first, I simply relied on Geoph to be my supplier. Whenever he got a new one, I got his old one. That strategy lasted until 2006, when I experienced a mother board meltdown at the start of a two-day train ride, and I freaked out realizing how dependent I was upon what I stored in my laptop and my having ready access to it. In addition to getting religion about backing up records, I realized that relying on used computers was not the same as buying used cars (where you could avoid first-year depreciation by never owning something less than a year old).

In fact, much of my work life depends so much on my having a dependable computer that I changed strategies and started buying new machines, trading them out every three years when the extended warranty expired. When I buy a new laptop. I don’t need extra memory, I don’t need an extra large screen, and I don’t need a titanium case. I just get the basic machine, which already comes bundled with more bells and whistles than I’ll ever ring or toot. At this point I doubt if I use more than one percent of my laptop’s capacity, but that’s good enough for me.

Being partial to Macs, I always get a white one (or whatever color is least expensive). It’s hard to imagine people who are willing to pay an additional $400 to make a fashion statement with the color of their computer case, but you know they wouldn’t offer that option if people weren’t buying it.

How much difference does having a computer make? Today Sandhill has three laptops and one desktop. Two of them are for the dedicated use of members who regularly work off-site (Stan & me), and another two are for general use in our office. It’s rare to not have a computer available when you want one. Does it mean members are no longer as connected to one another (because they’re so connected to the internet)? No. Community, at its roots, is about relationships and we’ve kept our eyes on that prize.

Even as my time at a keyboard has gone up, my time on the phone and writing letters (remember typewriters?) has steadily declined. I can stay in touch with many more friends than before (even without Facebook), and I don’t spend more time doing it. Amortized over three years I’m paying about $300 annually for my laptop. Last year I earned 100 times that as FIC Executive Secretary and as a process consultant. It’s a tool of my trades and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s worth it.
• • •
In summary, we try to make choices with our eyes open, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the technology door is wide open. Sometimes it’s better to do without; sometimes it’s better to have it as an option, and sometimes it makes sense to use it every day. While we can effect simple repairs and perform normal maintenance on chain saws and laptops, when it comes right down to it, we couldn't manufacture either if our lives depended on it. If those technologies become too expensive or unavailable, then we'll have to adapt. 

While the impact of that adaptation may be profound, I've no worry about whether we'll figure it out. It will merely be another chapter in our experiment with simple living and self-reliance.

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