May 24, 2018
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Former back-to-the-lander hoping for partial recovery

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

I was afraid I had fallen off the sustainability wagon, but I just finished a book that gives me hope for recovery.

Years ago, I moved to Maine to learn from the land and from the people who knew the land. My then husband had left a job as a computer systems engineer for IBM, never again to be reminded his sideburns were too long. We had spent two years as resident parents for the A Better Chance program in Concord, N.H., living with 14 college-bound black, Puerto Rican and Native American high school students from urban areas and the rural South. I was teaching English and journalism at Concord High School, serving as an advisor for the ABC students.

As our awareness of the effects of excessive consumption in our society deepened, we were inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing and other back-to-the-land pioneers to buy an abandoned farm in Aroostook County and learn what we needed to know to live with less.

“An economy based on continuous growth cannot exist forever,” we predicted, and when it crumbled, we wanted to be ready.

So we put our belongings in storage, left Concord and set about learning how to grow and preserve our own food, heat with wood, pump our water by hand, live without electricity or telephone and convert a deteriorating farmhouse into a home.

We took off the porch to let more light into the house and used the boards to build an outhouse with a lovely window and a door that opened onto a view of Madawaska Lake and the hills surrounding it. We laughed when the wind was just right and blew the toilet paper up over your head when you dropped it in the hole.

In the summer, we bathed in the lake and showered by dowsing each other with buckets of icy water pumped from the well. In the winter, bathing supplies were always in the car, should knowing friends and neighbors invite us to use their facilities. When the driveway filled with snow, we parked beside the road and snowshoed or skied to the house, toting what we couldn’t carry on a toboggan.

Gradually, our commitment to this lifestyle eroded. We could not continue to let neighbors snowshoe in with messages, so we got a telephone. We had to have electricity because we wanted to develop film and print photos. We still pumped water, though, and carried it up to the windowless darkroom that would become a bathroom. Plumbing came last, but a Clivus Multrum composting toilet made the concession to convenience more palatable.

I continued to garden after an amicable divorce left me alone on the farm. But the change from part-time work as a Bangor Daily News correspondent and substitute teacher to full-time at Caribou’s weekly newspaper and later in the district office of a Maine U.S. senator left less and less time for growing and harvesting vegetables.

When I took a job in Orono at the University of Maine, my gardening days ended. I began to buy things I once grew. I was seduced by a home warmed without splitting wood or building a fire — just touching a thermostat. Even worse, unable to wean myself from Aroostook County, I ended up traveling back and forth, increasing my carbon footprint exponentially to this day.

As the predicted collapse unfolded, along with unforeseen environmental changes, I was far from the alternative life envisioned in the 1970s.

Enter Jim Merkel, author of “Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth” and keynote speaker for the HOPE (Help Organize Peace Earthwide) Festival being held 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at the University of Maine Student Recreation and Fitness Center. After reading this book and talking to Jim, I am hopeful it is not too late to begin my own rehab program.

Founder of the Global Living Project and co-executive director of the Newforest Institute in Brooks, Maine, Merkel gives substance to the charge “think globally, act locally.”

For much of the last 22 years, he has lived on the global average income — $5,000 a year. He and his family thrive on fresh, local food and a bicycle is his preferred form of transportation. He speaks and conducts hundreds of workshops that, along with his book, give people the tools to calculate and reduce the amount of Earth required to support their lives.

“It is possible to live as a global citizen,” Merkel said in an interview. “Simpler lives help with societal changes.”

Merkel, a “recovering engineer,” was designing and selling top-secret military computer equipment to arms dealers worldwide when the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster startled him into a new life based on his awareness of the connection between oil and destructive consumption.

“I knew the truth: fossil fuels are part of every item I consume,” he wrote. “Of course the entire industrialized world stood indicted beside me . . . but in that moment, all I knew was that I, personally, needed to step forward and own up to the damage.”

He committed himself to shrinking his own ecological footprint and encouraging people like me to make the changes necessary to live in harmony with nature and with other cultures in the world.

“A lot of people want their lives to be part of making the world better,” he said. “The time was never better for deeper changes.”

Of course, I am one of those people, and my new garden plot is ready for the seeds I’ll buy this week.

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I am collecting stories about ice-out for my April 29 column. For example, Paul Marin writes in the 2010 Ste-Agathe Historical Society Newsletter that years ago on Long Lake “ice-out meant that by late March an accumulation of waste and garbage, canned goods, rotten potatoes, bare snow-tread tires, abandoned machinery, and whatever else was no longer needed or wanted was hauled out on the lake’s ice and ‘bid farewell.'” Can you top that one? Please send your ice-out tales to or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

* * * *

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday.

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