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Salt and Batteries

February 18, 2012

When it comes right down to it, the modern rustic movement can be summed up in one question: how long can I go between trips to the grocery store?

The present-day pioneer has a tendency to view the past as a romantic age of natural purity, an idealized time to be hearkened back to. They wish to ‘get off the grid’ by using solar energy and farming organically. After all, people lived without modern luxuries for thousands of years. We have the advantage of their lessons plus the best alternative technology has to offer. Why can’t we do it now?

But even Pa Ingalls had to make trips to town. And while his list was primarily staples like sugar and salt, those needs haven’t changed. In fact they’ve grown. Solar panels and water catchment systems might last forever and gardens can provide for many needs, but sooner or later the batteries are going to wear out. Or the salt reserve. One can invest as much money as imaginable  – which is in itself a battery of sorts – to get off the grid, but eventually entropy is going to catch up with you.

To live at a standard American level of comfort requires a connection to the system. We can reduce our dependence but self-reliance is impossible without a drastically revamped lifestyle.

And that’s not going to happen voluntarily. Some days ago I suggested to my wife that we shut off the electricity for a week to see what it would be like to live in the 19th century. I’d been thinking of lighting some candles and doing without Netflix, but Ann’s look said ‘who’s this maniac I married?’ Then she began listing the things we’d miss.

First came the oven. I suggested cooking over the wood-burning stove and got another look. Haven’t people been cooking over fires for hundreds of years? Why is it so revolutionary to do it in the living room? Next was the water heater. We could boil water for dishes. Bathing would be at a minimum and laundry could wait. Then, how would I write without a computer? Oh yes – with a pen and a notebook. Which left the refrigerator.

As soon as Ann mentioned it I knew my experiment was doomed. The thing was, five years ago we landed on the Big Island in a rustic living situation. Solar power and running water were available but there wasn’t enough electricity for a fridge. We had to go to the grocery store every two days for ice and our food still went bad. That, more than the mosquitoes and the rats and the wild pigs and the humanure, chased her back to the mainland.

The electric refrigerator has been around for about 100 years. It’s relatively new technology, but from a practical point of view technology becomes ‘old’ as soon as no one can remember living without it. That’s certainly the case in America. The fridge makes it so easy to keep store-bought food fresh that we’ve forgotten how to can and dry and otherwise preserve our own harvest to last through the winter.

The modern lifestyle assumes that salt and batteries (and electricity and running water and heat and all the conveniences of grocery stores) will always be available. The modern rustic wants to be prepared in case they aren’t.

 

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