Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Better Off Book Club: Section 1 (redux)

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.

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?


Kate said...

I answered your questions the first time you ran this post, so I won't repeat myself. But, a propos of slow time:

If this sort of thinking is making its way into media as mainstream as NPR, maybe there's a quiet groundswell happening that portends a revolution.

free templates said...

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Annie Jones said...

1. It wouldn't be without challenges, but I think we could survive. However, I think help would be most appreciated.

2. I think that a ram is within the rules. My understanding of such communities is not that they eschew all technology, but rather that they want to remain off-grid and not dependent on the outside world. A water ram is basically a self-contained form of technology. Even a mule-drawn plow was high-technology at one point in time.

3. I thought the neighbors enjoyed helping, but didn't like the idea of letting their pleasure show. It seems as if they took all homesteading work seriously and rarely let their joy in the work shine through.

4. Would I be ABLE TO LIVE without electricity, refrigeration, running water? Sure. Those things are not necessary for survival. Would I enjoy it? Not all of the time, but I think there would be times when I did. Assuming I could use a propane range and didn't have to learn to cook on a wood stove, then the modern convenience I'd miss most would probably be running water. Even having just cold water available inside the house would be better than having to haul water.

5. I think that most people, when faced with free time, rush to find something to fill it as quickly as possible. To me, this is "quick time" and is often a result of technology making our "work" easier and faster. Slow time is when we do the work that needs to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of the time on the clock. During slow time, we live more deliberately in the moment, and find the pleasure in the task at hand rather than racing to be finished so we can do something else. Slow time makes work about the "doing", not just about the "getting done".

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?

I absolutely do. A couple of winters ago, my husband was laid off for a few weeks. Cold and snow, coupled with Christmas vacation, meant no school for about three weeks straight. We had food in the pantry and freezers, we had no where we needed to go, and no schedule that had to be followed. We slept, ate, played games, did housework, read, and enjoyed hobbies, all whenever we liked. While we did leave the house a couple of times, there were stretches of 5 or more days when we didn't go anywhere. Those were some of the most relaxed (and relaxing) weeks of my life.

Granted, we had the TV and computer during that time, but by choice, I don't watch more than an hour of TV a day, and have often taken voluntarily extended breaks from the computer. I find I get too stressed out if I don't break away occasionally.

Greenpa said...

To quote one of my favorite movies, "The Gods Must Be Crazy", "ai, yi yi, yi yi."

I have to say that "having rules", in an endeavor like this, is basically silly, and not a great idea. When you're trying to get out of the box you're in- it's a pretty strange idea to immediately put yourself inside a different box.

You wind up with things like allowing a kerosene stove- but not a hydraulic ram???? From the "simple living" perspective, I'd find the need to endlessly purchase fossil fuel vastly more counter- trend than the extremely simple and clean ram.

I do think "rules" are fine for stuff like a week long, or month long "challenge"; but for a year of living, even as a "trial" - too much box for me.

Not touching the refrigerator stuff! :-) Except to say- it looks like they had a serious lack of understanding of microbiology; and it's way simpler than that.

Terra said...

I agree with Greenpa - I thought the question of rejecting the water ram was pretty asinine.

1. Probably not all by myself, but as a couple with my husband, yes.

2. Nope. Not cheating. And I still can't understand how that would be cheating but all the driving around they did was alright? Even the Miller's daughters laughed at their water set-up.

3. Hmm. I wouldn't say resentful - I'd say they were probably being what they considered dutiful and neighborly. But I think they gave way more than they got back, it probably niggled somewhat.

4. As someone else said, of course I could live without these things. Do I want to? Not particularly, though I'd love to do a no-fridge experiment. The one thing I'd really miss would be running water.

5. I think this concept really takes place outside most people's normal work lives. If ALL of your work revolves around you, then you can allow leisure to "pervade your day." When you work for a company, where you clock in, where people are waiting for your piece of the puzzle, it's fast time - it's not your time, it's someone (or many someones) elses time.

6. I hate feeling rushed, and I do think technology has a lot to do with it. Though for my life personally, as a WAHM and homeschooling our kids, we are living a more slow life, albeit without the one family member who does go out to work.

Athyn said...

Ive been living without a fridge for over 2 years now since our one broke and we cant afford a new one..