Alternative lifestyle (his part)
Extremely long post warning! (Sorry, tried to keep it short but comprehensive).
The following document is describing one particular lifestyle. It is not assumed that all of it will be useful for all people, far from it. However, the approach to finding and implementing an alternative lifestyle will probably be more general than the specific details. I will not deal with the ethical background here – the ‘why’ has been discussed elsewhere to great detail. I will try to be practical and specific, without boring the pants off of my readers.
I also want to emphasize that we never expected, nor did we reach perfection in achieving our goals. We were fully aware that in real life compromise is necessary and often we wrangled over these compromises at length. However, we are satisfied that we have done the best we could under our circumstances, while constantly looking for opportunities to improve upon it.
We do not always agree about the ‘taboos’, and we accepted our differences with good humour. I am somewhat of a ‘purist’ (for lack of better words) and decided against some personal conveniences to make me feel closer to my principles. Vera is more practical and she judges every compromise by the test of how much actual difference it makes out there. So, while we agree about most, nevertheless we retain the right for individual preferences.
We have also carved out areas of individual responsibilities and each of us is in full charge of our specific areas. We discuss them and make suggestions to each other, but the decision rests with the one in charge. So while Vera is in full charge of food, shopping, gardening, preserving, social activities and entertainment – my area of responsibility is income, heavy work, construction, energy, transportation and communication (computers). This division of labour and our respect for our individual differences keeps our marriage happy and healthy.
This document is the result of a cooperative effort between Vera and myself, so I can take credit only for part of it. I am sure you will recognize the difference in style, while reading it. She has been an equal partner through the whole project, and the only aspects of her participation I regret were those incidents when I did not listen to her.
Vera’s section where she describes her food, shopping and other areas of responsibility will follow mine, exactly as she has written it.
So, please take a deeeeeeeep breath and see if you find something useful or inspiring.
The main goal of the project was our quest for independence, self reliance, healthy and natural life style, beauty of nature and, most importantly, non-participation in, and non-contribution to, any kind of exploitation and pollution practiced by business and government.
I will list the specific goals we wanted to achieve, and describe briefly how we did it..
We are not independently wealthy, have minimal savings for emergencies, and need to work for our living. We don’t owe a penny to anyone, have no credit cards, investments, RRSP and we don’t deal with any of the banks. Whatever money we have, we keep it in a small local credit union we selected after the Harris government decided to sell the “Ontario Savings Office”. The $80,000 house and land we live on is fully paid from the equity of our property we sold in Toronto (where we used to live until about 15 years ago) and we share it with Vera’s mother who contributes to our expenses, our chores and our sharing of fun and frustrations.
We are vegetarians and grow some of our own food and it keeps the food budget down considerably. We use wood burning stoves for heating; solar panels for lighting and small appliances, so our energy bill is also minimal. We hardly drive the car, never fly anywhere, so our transportation cost is very small. With all the other savings we have achieved in our shopping and entertainment methods, the three of us can live very comfortably on about $8-9000 a year. Since we targeted our income level close to this figure, we don’t pay income tax and hardly any sales tax either.
The small amount of money we need are supplied by the income I derive from computer work for small businesses in the neighborhood. I develop web sites and small business accounting, invoicing, inventory, order processing and other custom applications. I do not spend more than a few months a year and a few hours a day doing it. I work in my own office at home and visit clients only when discussing the project and installing it on their computer. The rest of the time is mine to do with as my chores, my hobbies, rest and entertainment require.
We are in the process of starting a tutoring business for GED test and university admission preparation – between the two of us we cover all the GED subjects and there is a demand for this kind of service. We both have teaching experience and I infinitely prefer it to computer work, so I will phase that out as soon as the education business can provide the income we need. Then I won’t have to buy any more hardware (which is produced by slave labour oversees – one of the compromises I have had to make).
We selected the area to be far enough from a big city (200 kms from Toronto) but still as far south as we could manage for our garden. The nearest small village (about a hundred people) is about 4km’s away, the closest small city (20,000 people) is about half an hour drive. We are surrounded with beautiful rolling hills and a small cluster of rural houses, comfortably distant.
I wake up when I do (have not heard an alarm clock for over a decade), step outside and look at ‘my’ hills, see only the roof of one house in the distance. The air is fresh and clean, the only sound is of the birds, no stink and noise of traffic to immerse myself in, for an hour, fighting my way to a job I hate.
We own a few acres ourselves and our backyard continues onto 2-300 acres of undeveloped land with a big pond and miles and miles of nature trails. We go walking, cross country skiing (in winter I put on my skies at the back door and ski right over the four-foot fence drifted over by snow). We can go swimming and canoeing on the lake, visit the beaver colony, say hello to the Canada geese and collect all the berries Vera uses for making jam, wine, vinegar and tea.
As I mentioned, we use wood stoves for heating, have a few propane appliances like fridge, cooking and hot water and we use solar panels for lighting, computer, TV, radio.
We use an electric washing machine, but no drier – cloths-lines for both summer and winter (for winter the line is under the glass roof of our 45’ long back porch).
The solar system (panels, batteries, controller, light fixtures and wiring) cost us about $3000 in parts, I did all the wiring.
You can save a lot of money if you do DC lighting rather than AC - you eliminate the inverter and the related power loss. Also, if you do the hookup and wiring yourself (very simple) it saves you money. With two 100W Siemens panels I provide lighting for my entire house.
I didn't replace the AC wiring but wired up a parallel DC solar system and I can switch from hydro to solar by turning on the DC light and turning off the AC one. Works like a charm and cut down on my hydro bill drastically.
Propane is a lot cleaner to use than electric, and since hydro doubled recently, it is half the price. In our 3000 liter tank there is enough reserve capacity to last us a year without refill, so we can wait for the price-dip to fill it up again. Propane is one of the compromises we have had to make considering our age and our mother’s convenience.
I used to fell my own trees for firewood in our woodlot, but recently I have been buying four foot logs, cut them up with chainsaw to 16” logs and split them with an ax (first time this winter I rented a splitter for half a day for $24). Our heating cost for the whole winter is about $300. Good insulation is an absolute must, we recently replaced all our windows (used to be single pane and leaking like a sieve). Plus, the front and back porches we built also add to the protection against sharp winter winds.
5./ Food, gardening
See at the end in Vera’s section. I have also completed my attached greenhouse (40' x 14') and am currently growing vegetables year around.
We bought a small, 4 cylinder pickup truck for $4000 about three years ago and I keep it in top shape. It runs at 48 miles per gallon and we use it on a regular basis only about once a week, driving about 50-60kms each time. Plus the occasional unexpected errands once in a while. Three-four times a year we go to Toronto, visiting family and a big bookstore, theatre or concert. So our transportation cost is minimal.
We have a local garage in a few minutes walk distance and the guys there are honest and competent. We drop off the car, walk home in summer or get a ride in winter or bad weather. They drop off our car in our driveway when ready, we pay them next time we go that way. We buy our used vehicles and gasoline from them and they always give us a good deal and look after us.
See at the end in Vera’s section.
We prefer to entertain ourselves in an active, rather than passive way. We both have many hobbies: Vera is a sculptor and a potter, she has written two and a half novels so far and she started making wine just recently. I play the violin, write short stories and poetry, do woodcarving and chainsaw carving and seriously consider learning to paint. I play in chamber music groups and, on occasion, in our local town’s symphony orchestra. We both read voraciously, both literature and non-fiction, plus I try to keep up with theoretical physics which is my passion and my original education and profession.
All these hobbies take up most of our days (after chores are done) and cost very little money. We often go to local shows, concerts, art exhibits and other cultural entertainments.
We have two dogs, four indoor and four outdoor (feral) cats. We love the companionship, the entertainment and the fact that they are living beings with clean, uncontaminated minds. They don’t know of evil, they are natural and spontaneous, loyal and trusting, and they take their responsibilities seriously. They know their place in the family and expect us to live up to the bargain. Much as we would like human beings to be out in the world (and many are, but, alas, a large number fall short one way or another). See more at the end in Vera’s section.
10./ Social work
We like our neighbors - our community is rich in arts and crafts. There is a lot going on here: theatre, painting, sculpture, music, woodwork and lots and lots of gossip. We have been active in the local Art Gallery, been on the local Studio Tour for three years, played music in local jams. We get most of our socializing from one form of voluntary social work or another. We both have been doing voluntary teaching, Art Gallery sitting, I designed a few web sites for free for non-profit organizations and we are forever looking for new opportunities to get involved with our community. We are active in our local barter group, we go on peace marches, we successfully fought Rogers when they wanted to erect a communication tower right on top of us. We are currently involved in a battle against a local developer wanting to siphon off our ground water for his bottling business.
There are a few taboos we set for ourselves and keep to them to the best of our abilities. These taboos are the following: dealing with banks, investment of any kind, paying or collecting interest, shopping at Walmart, Zellers, Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Fast-food joints etc., flying on airplanes (extremely destructive environmentally), buying new clothes, eating meat, fish or poultry, buying supermarket eggs, working for destructive companies, using chemicals in our gardening, using cosmetic products for ourselves. I don’t drink coffee or tea, we don’t buy imported fruit and anything overpackaged can stay on the shelves.
12./ Future plans:
We started making our own wine, we are looking for alternative source for low-fat dairy products, I want to expand our solar system (money permitting) add a wind generator and replace the electric freezer with propane powered. We want to expand our pet-food making system to replace all commercial products with home-made. Once our financial targets are met, we want to offer free tutoring to poor kids in our community.
Alternative lifestyle (her part)
I go into town only once a week, so I co-ordinate all the errands and plan the most efficient route. Credit Union, community thrift store, library, post office, drugstore, insurance company, LCBO (box wine), hardware store, Food Basics (staples and dairy) and the bulk food store. Bulk food isn't cheaper, but you control the amount and it's not overpackaged.
Maybe a stop on the way home at the video rental place in the nearest village. Library has some, but I’d have to make another trip in three days to return them.
I always carry a bunch of cotton shopping bags (from the LCBO, bookstore, thrift store) and stop clerks when they want to put a bottle of aspirin or a tiny plastic bag of screws into another tiny plastic bag.
Other food sources:
Roadside stands in season, especially for corn and apples; farmers' market in summer (usually Saturday morning); the Organic Growers' Association outlet for grains and beans; pick-your-own farms and orchards; food co-op. One local orchard has a lay-away plan for apples: you pay in advance and pick them up when you're ready. Apples are difficult to store in quantity: they have the facilities to do it well. A local organic farm sells family memberships: every week, you collect whatever is in season, as much as your family can eat. I buy free-range eggs at a little farm up the road - they're fresher, cheaper and more wholesome. Honey also comes directly from a local beekeeper. Both stops are good for a little gossip.
What I can grow is limited by the short growing season and poor soil. I can help the first by making a small plastic tent for peppers and tomatoes and starting seedlings in the front - west-facing - porch. There is a local herb fair in the first week of June, where I get bedding plants not readily available at the nurseries. The soil is improving slowly, with much spade-work and compost and mulching. Mulch is the gardener's best friend.
I preserve practically everything.
Canning isn't all that difficult. There are some excellent books on it. I do small batches on an evening, after the dishes are done. The hot, filled jars of cherries, pickles or whatever go into a 5-gallon plastic pail, nestled in crumpled newspaper, then I cover the bin with an old quilt and leave overnight to cool slowly.
Drying is even easier. I used to have an electric dehydrator which worked fine, but I’ve replaced it with a low-tech one: a round bamboo vegetable steamer. Get two or three and stack them in an airy, dry place. For very small things, like currants, which would fall through the slats, I cut a circle of nylon mosquito-netting for the bottom. You need to spread the fruit or herbs quite thinly and rotate them at least once a day. This is fairly slow, so you can't dehydrate large quantities of apple, for instance.
If you do have large quantities, build frames of 2x1" lumber and staple mosquito netting on one side. Stack as many as you like, leaving the top one empty. Remember to rotate the frames and shake up the contents every day. Herbs and greens can be dried in mesh bags, hung up in the pantry or woodshed.
Easiest of all is freezing. I have a large freezer and it's full all the time. For most fruit and vegetables, all you need it to clean and chop, then put in zipper-bags of various size: they can be stacked flat for best use of
Salvation Army thrift store. We're lucky to have a very good one in town. Most of my clothes and shoes come from there (and some go back, when I grow tired of them); kitchen gadgets, glasses, tablecloths, preserving jars, casseroles and pots; sheets and curtains*, craft supplies*, costumes*, gift items*. They have lots of toys* and children's clothing, which we mostly don't need. We have bought good furniture and appliances there, including a refrigerator and stove that we are using now.
* -The curtains were sheer nylon: I use them as mosquito barrier in an open door in summer - with metal washers sewn in the bottom corners; cut up into 1' squares, as sieves and dish-covers, or, sewn into bags with draw-strings, to dry herbs.
- My curtains are sheets. Stapled one end of each, rucked and overlapping about 6", to the top of the window-frame; put a long wood-screw with a nice wooden bead on the end, at an up/out angle, sticking out about 2", in each side of the frame. To open curtain, twist the sheet a couple of times and hang on the screw; to close curtain, release. Entire curtain cost $2 and 30 minutes' work. Sheets are also good for large table-cloths, bandages, lint-free rags, wine-filters, handkerchiefs... and sheets.
* Craft supplies. I buy dresses and skirts (bad idea for wearing, especially if ugly) when they are on sale for $.50 or $.25 for the fabric. Sometimes they have bags of yarn, spools of ribbon, candles, wooden boxes, picture-frames, lampshades, paint, wallpaper - all kinds of cool stuff.
*Costumes. When my kids were younger, all their Halloween costumes came from Sally Ann.
* Gift items. People get handbags, vases, gadgets, candle-holders, mugs, trays, spice-racks, planters - even original, signed pottery - that they don't like. They hide it in the closet for a couple of years and then donate it to the Sally Ann - sometimes without even removing the cellophane.
*Toys. Mountains of toys. Some of them, especially plush animals, little cars, and dolls, very good. The plastic crap that fast-food outlets sucker parents into buying on the way out, and the kids get bored with in about two days, ends up in landfill or at the thrift stores. A bag of assorted Disney crap goes for $1. Pick up a couple of bags and mete out the contents, one at a time, over a year of whines.
Charity bazaars and community craft fairs. A good source of hand-made sweaters and children's clothes, yarn, alternative home remedies and decorative items. You can also stock up on the whole year's supply of herbs and preserves at some of these events. The jams and jellies and marmalades may be more expensive (not that much more) than in the supermarket, but they're much better, and you're supporting an independent maker in the neighbourhood, not an importer. (The ladies who make jam would like to get the jars back and may give you a discount.)
In summer, there are yard sales and flea-markets every weekend, and they're worth stopping at, or even making a whole special day-trip. Excellent source of tools, containers, lamps, home-furnishings, and books.
Three or four times a year, we attend the barter group's market day, where members bring whatever they have to sell. There is always produce from several organic growers. People bring books and videotapes, clothing and blankets, dishes and glassware and tools, and their own handcrafted items. It's a lot of fun, and we pay one another in trading-credits rather than federal funds.
I have three categories of clothing.
Special occasion clothes. They last a long time, because very little is demanded of them. They are kept between sheets of tissue paper, in a plastic bin with a tight lid, or in zippered hanging bags.
Town clothes. Kept handy, in normal closet and dresser space. Take them off the second you get in the door and hang them in a well-ventilated place.
Chore clothes: the terminally stained. They live in the bedroom closet in three boxes: pants, tee-shirts and warm tops.
Never throw clothing in the garbage while it can still be used for something. Outgrown children's (or adults') clothes should go to a swap meet or charity. Town clothes are demoted to chore status as they fade, stretch or meet with accident. Ripped and worn-out chore clothes become rags for washing floor, car, face and everything (sweatshirts make the best wash-cloths). I spend an evening about once per winter, removing buttons and cutting off collars and cuffs (even these are useful: wipe up one cat vomit or jam spill and then toss - old socks are handy for this, too). I don't need paper towels.
Sunday best goes to the cleaner's every couple of years, or just before a wedding. Office clothes are washed (I read labels: buy nothing that isn't washable and avoid anything that needs to be ironed) when they're visibly dirty. Chore clothes get washed when they're sticky or I can't stand the smell.
Underwear and socks are changed every second day; pajamas (actually, mine are long-johns - very comfortable), about once a week; home-wear shirts, three or four days; home-wear pants and sweat-shirts, a week to ten days; jackets, once at the end of the season. Bed-sheets and towels get changed at irregular intervals, as needed; the hand-towel needs it often.
I do use a washing machine, but not the dryer. In summer, an outdoor clothesline is best; in winter, a line on the porch or a folding contraption in the bathroom.
More gift ideas
- Recycle. When you get something you don't want, immediately write on who it's from and store carefully. Someone else will love it.
- Keep your eyes open, all the time, for neat stuff at craft fairs, church bazaars, yard sales, book bins: shop all year and stash.
- Hand-made gifts. You have to start in January, to knit, crochet, embroider, paint, refinish or build things during the long winter evenings. (Make a set of building blocks out of scrap lumber picked up free at a construction site; cut into interesting shapes, sand, stain with vegetable dye or rub with cooking oil.)
- gift-baskets: plenty of nice ones are available at thrift shops; fill them with (recycled) tissue paper and a collection of small items: kitchen gadgets, body-care products, food, toys, jokes, candles...
- plants that you started from cuttings or seeds
- preserves, candy, dried fruit, vinegars, etc are fall projects; baking is last couple of weeks before Christmas... but then, who says you can't give cookies for a birthday in June?
- Gift certificates for services: babysitting, catering, window or car-washing, yard-work, garage cleaning, rides, alterations, home-repairs, painting - whatever you are good at and they need
- dessert-of-the-month (to be made by you) or membership in a food co-op
- subscription to the local newspaper or a magazine
- an outing: dinner, the zoo, a play or concert, farmers' market; whatever the recipient would enjoy, later in the year.
- No wrapping paper! Tablecloths, scarves, cookie tins, baskets, tote-bags, cotton shopping bags, pillow-cases and a lot of other things make excellent containers for gifts: all you need is a ribbon or cord (or coloured electric tape) and a pine bough.
Most of the expensive products on the drugstore shelf do absolutely nothing.
- A $2 lanolin cream performs the same function as the $32 moisturizing lotion, except you need a lot less of it; none of them will prevent aging.
- The more stuff you put on your hair, the more you need to wash out. The $2/L shampoo (or dishwashing liquid, for that matter) gets your hair exactly as clean as the expensive ones, and most people don't need a conditioner. A vinegar rinse makes hair shine.
- The more you wash, the more oil you have to replace. Buy organic handmade soap, particularly if made with edible oils - lots of good ones are available, including a quite decent line at the bulk-food store. These may be a little more expensive than the brand name ones, but they're better for you and come from an independent small maker.
- All the astringents and acne preparations can be replaced with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
- Skin does not need defoliating: it does that by itself.
- We shower about once a week, generally without soap (shampoo, leathered up with a facecloth, is good for other body parts, too). Nightly face-wash and spot-wash is usually sufficient. Clean sweat only requires a brisk rub with a towel. Paint or car grease can be removed from hands with a rag soaked in cooking oil, or vaseline jelly (which, of course, has to be washed off with soap, but you need a lot less and do less damage to your skin).
- The best insect-bite remedy is plain ammonia, followed by aloe vera. For mild sunburn, heat-rash, superficial scratches and irritants, I like a wash of dandelion tea (pour boiling water on dandelions, let cool, strain out the flowers; keep the liquid in a covered pail and use for a week or more.)
For dogs: dog biscuits and skim milk in the morning; for supper, dry kibble (the cheapest one: they're all made of soy-meal and corn-meal anyway) plus a little cooked rice, topped with soup. Usually pork liver or chicken, but I’ll use any meat on quick sale. Cook in plenty of water until soft, debone, chop fine or grind in the food-processor, put a cup or so in washed plastic containers, fill with the liquid, freeze. I have not yet made a popular dog biscuit or kibble, though I’ve tried various recipes.
For cats: kibble (a mix of three or four different kinds) available all the time; soup several times a day. Their soup is the same as the dogs, except I put in more meat and leave it more chunky. I keep a supply of small plastic bowls ($.05 each at the thrift store) under their table, so there is always a clean one at feeding time.
Cat litter is two parts wood-shavings (from a local furniture-maker) and one part clay litter, when I can't get clean sand. It stays drier than straight littler; easy to change, can go in the long-term compost - but they do carry it around the house on their feet and fur.
Reuse everything possible.
Cottage cheese and yogurt containers are fine for freezing dogfood, leftovers, emergency meals, mushrooms (cleaned and sautéed in a little oil), spaghetti sauce, beans (It takes 3 hours to cook beans, so I do a big pot and divide it into meal-sized portions - a 750ml yogurt container is enough for soup; 2 or 3 of the half-liter ones - different beans, maybe chick-peas - will make a big batch of chili - fast.)
Juice and water bottles have many uses; I refill one to keep in the car. A small water bottle serves as wine cooler: fill from the box and keep in the fridge. Big juice jugs are good for watering the plants, mixing and dispensing cat kibble, mouse-proof birdseed containers, sidewalk salt and sand dispensers; cut off the bottom and use them as protective cloches for young plants in the garden; cut a hole in the side, make two holes to stick bamboo perches in and hang for a bird-feeder that stays dry inside.
Grocery bags are, too, okay for garbage. So are kibble bags. The thin vegetable bags (turn them inside out to dry) are extra protection when freezing bread or meat or anything. I carry one in my hand-bag, in case of leftovers in a restaurant (no matter how little: the gulls are always grateful, and it's not going in the garbage). Zipper-bags also get rinsed, dried and reused many times. When I buy spinach, beets, kohlrabi or kale, I sort, stem and wash the leaves right away; blanch, squeeze out the water and freeze the little ball of ready-to use greens in zipper-bags.
Egg cartons go back to the farm for refilling, and so do honey containers.
- The 5L buckets in which I buy pitted cherries at the end of the season (which I preserved or froze), ice-cream bins and other large, lidded plastic containers are good for storing dry food: beans, grains, rice, powdered milk, flour; each has its own 1/2-cup scoop inside. Two of them are compost buckets: one in use, one outside, drying. In a couple of big plastic pails I mix potting soil; two more have recently been scrubbed and disinfected for wine fermenting.
- Pickle and jam jars make good storage containers for bulk food: brown sugar, sunflower seed, yeast, poppy seed, etc; baby food jars are great for spices and dried herbs. The small soy-sauce bottles with squirting-spout are refilled from a large jug; they're also good for home-made salad dressing, liquid hand-soap, hair rinse, window- or hand-washing liquid to keep in the car.
- Tinfoil is folded up and replaced in the drawer for several more stints of service, the last one usually the wrapping of baked potatoes or barbequed corn.
- The little juice lemons (one thing I don't buy in large quantity, because it goes off) make dandy Christmas ornaments - fun for children to decorate.
Keep your eyes and ears open. Talk to other people and share ideas.
- Carry a notebook, so you don't forget when you see a bargain, read a notice, or hear of a good source.
- Pick up a copy of the pick-your-own listings and craft fair schedule in your area.
- Find recycled lumber and building materials; used furniture and tools. Look in the Buy&Sell, supermarket bulletin board, local paper.
- Use the library! There are many books on conservation and self-reliance.
'The Formula Book' by Norman Stark
'Down Home Ways' by J.M. Johnson (this one is very good)