A Comfortable Truth
Things have improved considerably since. Our solar photovoltaic system now comprises 1,800 watts and is supplemented by a 900-watt wind turbine that rides atop a 65-foot mast at the height of our land. Along the south-facing gable end of our Cape-style farmhouse, we’ve mounted a pair of solar hot-water collectors. During the long, sunny days of summer, they produce more than 90 percent of our domestic hot water at such high temperatures we’ve had to install a mixing valve to actually cool the output. The water collectors dump hot water into a “preheat” tank, which then flows into our propane-fired water heater. With this design, we never lack for hot water; when the collectors aren’t producing enough, our propane tank picks up the slack. The technology–simple as it is–saves us about 300 gallons of propane each year.
We never really intended to be off-grid greenies; it just sort of happened. We ended up with solar power because we couldn’t afford to install power along our driveway; we heat our home with wood because we’re too cheap to buy heating oil, and because once you’ve known the pleasure of sitting beside a hot woodstove on a January night, no other heat will do. We have huge gardens because, let’s face it, it’s fun to dig in the dirt. And even more fun to pick a salad five minutes before dinner.
To be sure, there are innumerable contradictions running through our lives. We operate a small farm, and every farmer needs a pickup, so I drive a one-ton Chevy that gets maybe 10 mpg … downhill … with a tailwind. My work requires maybe a half-dozen plane trips per year, and I’ve never bought a carbon offset. Probably never will, either.
We’re not dogmatic. We try not to preach. We do what we do because it feels right and makes sense to us. Some of these decisions minimize our impact. Some don’t. And sometimes, to be honest, I’m a little sheepish about the wholesomeness of our place. Maybe it’s my pragmatic rural Vermont upbringing. Or maybe it’s because I can smell the sense of righteousness that’s attached to the green movement. Call it “Al Gore syndrome.”
But the fact remains that our climate is changing. The fact remains that within my life, the dozen sugar-maple trees we tap each spring with our two young boys might die, victims of a warming Northeast. And what will happen to the mountains I so dearly love to ski? Could they soon be snow-bare but for the occasional cold front sweeping down across interior Canada? They could. They very well could.
I’m glad that circumstances led us to this life, and over time, I’ve become grateful to have learned to live comfortably on 15 percent as much electricity as my average countryman. That doesn’t make me better than they; it doesn’t mean I care more, or more deeply. Because, let’s face it, to be alive in 2011 is to be unsustainable. That’s the comfortable truth we all live with, and I say “comfortable” because it’s the ease and convenience of modern life that make it unsustainable. Whether or not that’s a good deal depends on the scope of your view; in the short term, it’s a pretty sweet ride.
But there are times–and they seem to occur at the most unlikely moments, like when I’m scraping ice from the solar panels in zero-degree wind chill–when it occurs to me that ease and convenience are highly overrated. The environmentally conscious life–like New England’s craggy, unapologetic hills and capricious weather–demands something of a person. And I like it that way.
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