Got a lot of blackberries? Then check out this recipe for Blackberry Mojito Fruit Leather.

I'm not a huge fan of fruit leathers, but this turned out super good! And, really, you can't go wrong with blackberries, mint and rum.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Better Off Book Club - Section 1

Welcome to the first post of the Better Off Book Club! I'll be doing three book club summary and discussion posts, covering the three sections of the book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende.

Summary
In Section 1: Planting, the author explains a little of his background, going from MIT graduate student studying the effects of technology on humanity to taking the plunge and deciding to live among an Amish-like group with his new wife for 18 months.

Not satisfied with the loose interpretation taken by many modern Amish, Eric finds a community that is more strict than most Amish groups and even Mennonites. The community they settle on contains a mish-mash of locals as well as "foreigners" looking to live a technology-free life. This was the land of horse-drawn wagons, corn husked by hand, hay loaded by hand and firewood cut with bucksaws. There was no electricity, phones, cars or motors of any sort.

Eric and his wife, Mary, end up leasing the home of a local family (the Millers) who provide them with far more than just housing. Straight out of the gates, the Millers are loaning them not just furnishings for their house, but a kerosene range, a hand crank washing machine and other equipment. To top it off, the many talented and skilled Miller children provide guidance and support to help get their first farming season off the ground by planting their garden before they arrive and helping them with other chores like spreading manure and providing planting tips.

Eric quickly learns that they are ill equipped for the life they have chosen, not having the background and having a whole lot of naivete in spite of how much research they have done. Help from the neighbors is more than welcome and the Miller family also helps them build up their cash crops by loaning them space to grow pumpkins as well as sorghum for making molasses. While on one hand their neighbors were overly helpful and seemed to anticipate their needs before they did, they also came off as distant and hard to read.

The phrase "many hands make light work" was woven quite a bit into this tale and the concept of many people working together made the author forget or, at least, made the back-breaking jobs more bearable and, in some cases, turned it into a tolerable, if not pleasant, job instead.
Gradually, as you applied yourself to your task, the threads of friendship and conversation would grow and connect you to laborers around you. Then everything suddenly became inverted. You'd forget you were working and get caught up in the camaraderie, the sense of lightened effort. This surely must rank among the greatest of labor-savings secrets. Work folded into fun and disappeared. Friendship, conversation, exercise, fresh air, all melded together into a single act of mutual self-forgetting.
As the season wears on, the Millers drop off a milk cow for their use and they are reminded that their beans are getting too far along to be picked, that the weeds are taking over and they need to start collecting firewood for the winter. Keeping track of all the duties they needed to get done was difficult. Having the neighbors offering tips on one hand was extremely helpful but, on the other hand, Eric and his wife were somewhat embarrassed by their needing to have these things pointed out.

When the neighbors offer to provide running water to the house using a device called a "ram" (basically a water mill for pumping water), Eric felt that this mechanization was a little to close to breaking their technology-free rules. In looking at the technologies that the "Minimites" used - air tight combustion wood fired cooking, canning equipment, buggies and cultivators - Eric wondered where the line was drawn and also pondered the immense skills these people had to make up for the lack of technology.

The second to last chapter of this section revolved around the problems they ran into with their lack of refrigeration and the inconvenience of not being able to keep leftovers cool. This was problematic in that they had to make three meals a day from scratch rather than making larger meals for use on multiple days. They solved the problem by storing leftovers in large glass jars and submerging them in cool water from the cistern.

One thing that Eric and Mary discovered was that, without the distractions of modern life and technology, even with the extra work, they had a lot more time on their hands. They learned the difference between "fast time" and "slow time", with fast time referring to the modern convention of daylights savings time and slow time referring to the preservation of the natural markers of dawn, noon and dusk. In other words, "it was the Minimites acknowledgment of an entirely different structure in life, an entirely different pulse."

Discussion Questions
Feel free to answer some or all of the following questions (even if you haven't read the book). Or you can just comment on the first section as a whole.

1. Do you feel that you are knowledgeable enough about how to live technology-free if you had to? In other words, do you feel like you have the skills to do what they did or do you think you would fail at first and need a lot of help?

2. Do you think that using a ram to deliver water to their house is "cheating" or well within the "rules" they have placed on themselves?

3. Did you feel like their neighbors liked being helpful or were resentful for feeling like they had to help Eric and his wife through their ineptitude?

4. Would you be able to live without a refrigerator? Or electricity? Or running water? What would you miss the most?

5. What do you think Eric meant when referring to "slow time" as the concept that "leisure didn't end when work began, but pervaded every moment of the day"?

6. Do you feel rushed in "fast time" with all our distractions, TV, movies, Internet? Do you wish you could follow the rhythm of the sun and enjoy a more leisurely day without the fast paced distractions of set work and school schedules?

16 comments:

ruchi said...

Damn you Crunchy and your provocative book club discussions. You've piqued my interest. I'm just going to have to order the book.

So I haven't read it, but I <3 technology and you are all going to have to pry my computer out of my cold dead hands.

But that's okay because if we do end up in Camp TEOTWAWKI, I'll die pretty quickly as I have zero survival skills.

I think I could live without a fridge or electricity. I have no idea how I would live without running water although I have lived without running HOT water. But I wouldn't WANT to live without any of those things.

Fast time? Yes, I do feel constantly distracted from life by the internet, TV, etc. And I do sometimes feel like I need to set limits on my computer usage. But it's not easy to do.

ruchi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate said...

I read the book a few years back. Answers to your questions:

1. I think I have a handle on some skills, but I also think I don't know where all the gaps in my own knowledge are. I think I'd need help, just as the author did.

2. My recollection of the piped water was that it was really just a gravity fed, low pressure system. In any case, I would have certainly taken that advantage with no hesitations at all. But then, I don't hold the same convictions the author held. I'd like to retain as much technology as is sustainable and doesn't hurt the environment.

3. My read on the neighbors was that most of them were helpful either out of genuine friendliness or a feeling of charitable obligation. Sure, there was some subdued amusement with their ineptitude folded in there, but overall they seemed willing to accept Brende.

4. If I had to live without them, I would. That's life, so I'd deal. I'd probably miss the washing things the most - washing machine and dishwasher. I hate cleaning.

5. I think it has to do with setting one's own agenda and schedule, with knowing that everything you do, you do directly for your own benefit or your own purposes. There are no arbitrary deadlines. Nature has a schedule that must be reckoned with, certainly. That's very different from a boss's agenda and schedule. Agriculture/homesteading/horticulture is hard work, but it doesn't burn you out like office work.

6. I think I'm already living in slow time to a certain extent. I don't have much paid work outside the home. I can set my own schedule and agenda, which is nice. But it means having to motivate myself, and that there's no one to blame when stuff doesn't get done, or things don't turn out the way I'd like.

Greenpa said...

"Work folded into fun and disappeared. Friendship, conversation, exercise, fresh air, all melded together into a single act of mutual self-forgetting"

Yes indeed. It's really a big deal. It's also a skill, sometimes learned without knowing it.

What you have there is a main reason (I think) that Spouse left; and I later acquired Spice.

In spite of huge opportunity, and basic willingness; Spouse was never really able to reach the "not work" state. Her entire concepts of Work and Leisure/Play were mutually exclusive; you could not do both at the same time. She'd been brought up well-to-do; with a hard-working father who went to the office every day, came home, and reached for the martini as he stepped in the door. I'd been brought by parents who grew up on hard working farms; and I'd been slave labor in the family garden (unwillingly) as a kid.

After all the noise I'd made as a kid, my father was astonished when he visited and we had a food garden 4 times bigger than anything he'd ever rammed down our throats. Spouse was basically cheerful about it for some years- but- it was WORK; always. My attempts to make if fun also, were fiercely resented.

My sons both became serious singers in college. They learned to sing while we were harvesting. Spouse never joined in. "Get back to work" was her usual contribution.

CJ said...

1)That would depend on if I could choose the time of year to begin the new life. Growing up, my family raised about 90% of the food we ate – but we electricity and refrigeration. We did heat and cook entirely with wood. I’m going to be optimistic and say yes.

2)I had a hard time with Brende’s use of the phrase technology free and his thinking they were accomplishing this feat. I don’t think a water ram is more technology than a bucksaw or a blacksmith forge. A ram uses the force from the falling water to pump a portion of that water. I think the term he should have used appropriate technology.

3)I think overall they enjoyed helping. Everyone likes to show what they know. I also think Mr. Miller was protecting his investment. I didn’t feel the amount of “work” that Eric traded for his rent was anywhere near a fair trade.

4)I could live without all 3 as long as there was a source of clean water.

5)That some of the characteristics of leisure (chatting, visiting, camaraderie, etc carried over to the work that was being done.

6)Definitely, however I don’t watch very much TV to begin with. I do my chores before I go to work and then work another 3 or 4 hours after dinner around the property.

Kim from Milwaukee said...

1. Without actually going completely technology-free, I'd say I don't think I'd miss it all that much. I don't like to get on the computer at home since I'm on it all day at work, and I prefer the quiet, which is why I also tossed the microwave 6 yrs ago.

2. The author felt it was cheating to have running water, but I don't understand his thinking in this matter. It's self-sustaining and doesn't need maintenance, so I would definitely want this in my homestead if I could.

3. No, it seemed the neighbors wanted to help them get started, unobtrusively, quietly, without making them feel inept.

4. I'm not sure if I could totally live without running water, although with a rainbarrel it would just take some getting used to hauling it into the house. Heating it would be another matter...chopping wood is very hard work. Electricity can be had with solar power, so I'd probably air-dry my hair, and washing clothes would become an all-day job, so my life would change drastically. I think I'd miss the electricity the most if I couldn't obtain it.

5. It was interesting reading these musings of his...I feel that 'lulls' in my workday are very important..mental breaks keep me from getting stressed, and I really envy someone who gets to do that outside in the fresh air and sunshine.

6. I purposefully avoid computers at home, but I do like to watch movies. On the weekends I make myself only turn the tv on once the sun goes down, though. During the day I prefer to read if I'm relaxing. However, you'd have to pry my phone out of my cold dead hands!

Annie said...

I really love this book. I've actually read it twice in the past few years and I'm sure I'll read it again soon.

1. I think we know a whole lot about living lower tech. At this point we have most of the bare basic skills we'd need to survive. But beyond survival we've still got some things to learn.

2. I think no. 2 is really the most important question. You know that expression "rules are just there to make you think before you break them"? That is exactly what the rules "against" certain kinds of technology are all about. The point is that they require people to be very deliberate in their engagement with technology. The folks the Brende's live amongst think long and hard and debate before they decide to accept or decline something and of course they have careful exceptions... they can use the English neighbor's phone in an emergency, etc. It's not that the phone, for example, is unclean or forbidden it's just that by choosing not to have it in their community, they've chosen to think carefully before they use it.

In our house we don't have a TV. As someone who grew up in a house with TV I know we spent a lot of time engaging with the TV without thinking about it. Now, I can still watch movies or shows on my computer but because it's slower, more work, less convenient and not instant (you can't turn it on and channel surf) I am deliberate in how I use it. So our "rule" against TV isn't in place because we abhor visual media but because we want to think before we engage.

3. I don't think the neighbors were resentful at all. Their whole community operates on the idea that many hands make light work.

4. We'd definitely be able to live without a fridge, electricity, and running water. I'd miss running water most (I haul water for chickens every day... I would not want to haul water for us as well). Other than my computer and my attic fan I'd miss electricity not at all. Refrigeration would be harder, particularly because I live in coastal Texas, but we could make it work by changing our diet.

5. I think he means that they really lived their lives during every moment. Leisure, work, play were not untangled and separate like they are for most of us. No one went to work and wished it would go by quickly so they could go home. They didn't compartmentalize work so much that it became loathsome. Instead they enjoy the labor of life.

6. I actually live a life closer to slow time than most people do. I wish my husband could live like me (and I think he will be in the next few years) but while he goes to work to pay our bills (because we're still tied into a modern life), I stay at home to grow the vegetables, raise the chickens, do the repairs, make things we need, preserve and cook. My days are full of the labor of life and I enjoy doing it. I have only the distractions I want, no work or school schedule (except the schedule the chickens and the plants impose). I am so incredibly lucky.

Leta said...

Gah! I can't get my stuff to show up!

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Yeah, it ate mine too. Too long I guess...

Crunchy Chicken said...

Testing by resubmitting Kate's comment. Please ignore, I'll be deleting if this goes through...

I read the book a few years back. Answers to your questions:

1. I think I have a handle on some skills, but I also think I don't know where all the gaps in my own knowledge are. I think I'd need help, just as the author did.

2. My recollection of the piped water was that it was really just a gravity fed, low pressure system. In any case, I would have certainly taken that advantage with no hesitations at all. But then, I don't hold the same convictions the author held. I'd like to retain as much technology as is sustainable and doesn't hurt the environment.

3. My read on the neighbors was that most of them were helpful either out of genuine friendliness or a feeling of charitable obligation. Sure, there was some subdued amusement with their ineptitude folded in there, but overall they seemed willing to accept Brende.

4. If I had to live without them, I would. That's life, so I'd deal. I'd probably miss the washing things the most - washing machine and dishwasher. I hate cleaning.

5. I think it has to do with setting one's own agenda and schedule, with knowing that everything you do, you do directly for your own benefit or your own purposes. There are no arbitrary deadlines. Nature has a schedule that must be reckoned with, certainly. That's very different from a boss's agenda and schedule. Agriculture/homesteading/horticulture is hard work, but it doesn't burn you out like office work.

6. I think I'm already living in slow time to a certain extent. I don't have much paid work outside the home. I can set my own schedule and agenda, which is nice. But it means having to motivate myself, and that there's no one to blame when stuff doesn't get done, or things don't turn out the way I'd like.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Not sure what's going on, but it worked with my test comment...

Anna Clark (and occasionally Casey Hook) said...

1. Do you feel that you are knowledgeable enough about how to live technology-free if you had to? In other words, do you feel like you have the skills to do what they did or do you think you would fail at first and need a lot of help?

I know I can do a good share of it- I already milk goats, garden, cook from scratch, etc. I think the hardest part for me would be the cash crops- how much to grow, how to market, etc. I also haven't plowed so that would probably be a mess at first. I also don't think it's entirely technology free (especially by wikipedia's definition)- but I would love to exchange my technologies - cars, computers, refrigerators, etc, for theirs: wood stoves, plowing, etc.


2. Do you think that using a ram to deliver water to their house is "cheating" or well within the "rules" they have placed on themselves?

I think it's within the rules as it's smart thinking, not using electricity and big loud disruptive motors to move the water- but then, it is taking a way some of that work.

3. Did you feel like their neighbors liked being helpful or were resentful for feeling like they had to help Eric and his wife through their ineptitude?

I enjoy helping others, and there is that whole thing about giving gifts benefits the gifter more than the giftee, but I also know some people resent having to help, depending on the situation. Probably most of them were glad to help.

4. Would you be able to live without a refrigerator? Or electricity? Or running water? What would you miss the most?

Yes- I yearn to give up much of the technology I have. I would gladly give up the fridge, electricity and my car if I could. I'd probably install one of those hand pumps at the kitchen sink they were talking about if I had too. Really, the only things I would miss would be hot running water and my computer and phone.

5. What do you think Eric meant when referring to "slow time" as the concept that "leisure didn't end when work began, but pervaded every moment of the day"?

Taking the time to enjoy your time and your effort instead of rushing around everywhere to do everything.

6. Do you feel rushed in "fast time" with all our distractions, TV, movies, Internet? Do you wish you could follow the rhythm of the sun and enjoy a more leisurely day without the fast paced distractions of set work and school schedules?

God, yes.

Sandy said...

Great book, Crunchy!

1. I know enough, but not enough. I've always had electricity and running water. That would be a challenge.

2. I think the ram is just good sense; no motors or electricity. I'd go for it.

3. The book often mentions the reserved hints of smiles and good nature of the neighbors. I'm certain their help was offered genuinely; the new folks were probably a little amusing to them, as well.

4. I would really miss my refrigerator. I could carry water or carry myself to it; I've done that before, and even though it's intense, it's doable. And electricity...there are other methods (apart from the fridge!!!). I could handle reading by a gas lamp, and heating with wood. Did both of those, too. But the FRIDGE!!! Summers would be challenging, though I imagine it would improve my diet if I ate more raw, fresh fruits and veggies.

5. I think he meant that even hard work, if savored, became a pleasure. I do manual work with goats at a farm every day after teaching. It's a pleasure to me. I get it.

6. Absolutely. Several years ago, I asked an artist friend of mine when he got up in the mornings. He said "I guess I get up when the sun does". I was taken aback...how wonderful that would be. Now,I know farmers' days start before dawn, but I also know that time is different in concert with animals and plants, if you don't have the outside world distracting you. That sounds just like heaven to me.

Zonnah said...

1. I would need a bit of help. I love learning, so don't feel that it would be a horrible thing. I am slowly learning new skills that would help if I had to live with no technology.

2. I think it was fine. They used other sophisticated technology like the swing handle washing machine and it was fine. It would also have required hardly any maintenance if it had worked. I think there is a fine line that they worked hard to keep in tact.

3. I think they were just leery, not knowing if they would be serious about it or if they would end up being flakes.

4. I, like a lot of other people, would miss the running water the most.

5. I feel that when you do things for your survival and not just because that is what your boss tells you to do, brings a whole new meaning to work. Also, knowing that if you don't do the work it just won't get done. Like with their garden getting taken over by weeds. Once you realize all that stuff leisure time automatically starts to get incorporated into work and you find ways to enjoy it.

6. Yes and yes! After reading this book I have been analyzing all the things that take my time and figuring out if they are important or not. Like in the book they analyzed any new technology that came up to see if they would use it and that is what I am going to try to do.

lelaynia said...

I'm a bit late to the thread, and I haven't read the book, but I have to comment on the running water/water ram issue.

I think that the definition of "technology" that they are using is a bit odd. I say this because running water is not a recent invention. The Romans were famous for their baths over 2000 years ago. Then there is the use of windmills to pump water and grind grain.

I don't have much else or more of a point, just saying that the view they have of technology seems a bit short sighted.

Dmarie said...

enjoyed the book...thanks for the recommend, Crunchy.
1. I would probably be the first voted off the no-tech island, because my only skills are cooking & being fine doing without, if need be. Hubby has enough skills for the both of us tho'.
2. not cheating--they get to make their own "rules"
3. w/o tv and other easy entertainment, what could be more fun than watching/helping/hanging with the neighbors?
4. running water, hands down. an ice house, cold cellar, wood burning stove and sun oven would help with the other losses.

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