Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Self-reliant Living

My mother recently gave us a stack of Mother Earth News from this past year and it has been having funny effects on me. On the one hand, I am lusting after the whole back-to-the-earth lifestyle found in the pages of Mother Earth. On the other hand, my life couldn’t be farther from the life of a homesteader and I like it that way.

I just finished reading an article on simple living in a city (“Simple Ideas for Sustainable Living” from Dec 07/Jan 08). The article itself got me thinking about my own choices in urban living, but I was really most struck by the ad at the back of the article to share your stories of the “self-reliant life.” Is it possible for a life in the city to be “self-reliant?” Would I even want a self-reliant life?

Living in the city we cannot be self-reliant. My family relies on city and state services throughout each day. We have city water, city sewer, and city garbage and recycling pickup. We use public transportation. We have no yard at all (our greenspace is a strip a couple of feet wide on two sides of our house), so we can’t grow vast amounts of produce on our land or raise livestock. We live in a small 3-unit condo building, so creating our own electricity is complicated by the amount of coordination that would be needed.

On the other hand, we share resources to an extent that would not be possible in suburban or rural areas. Most obviously, almost all of our rides in vehicles are shared. The bus and subway systems allow us to share rides with the whole greater Boston area (and we share the use of a car through the Zipcar network). We live on a short private drive and share a number of things with our neighbors. In the summertime we share our neighbor’s bike trailer (which was passed onto them from another neighbor). H has received a number of hand-me-down toys and clothes through our neighbors. In the winter our neighbor with a snow blower makes a dent in all the snow. This Halloween we gathered with our neighbors at the end of our drive to share some cider and give out candy together. We share green space with our whole neighborhood in a park that is a social hub for families with young children in the summer months. We share produce with other city residents through our CSA and local farmers’ markets.

In terms of sustainable living, it is hard for me to imagine that I could be more sustainable in a rural area than I can be right here. I don’t own a car. I live in a 650 square foot condo with two other people. I don’t waste energy mowing a lawn. I don’t have many excess possessions simply because I don’t have space for them. I work less than a mile from my home and most of my transportation is done self-reliantly by foot or bicycle.

On the other hand, living in the city costs us quite a lot. We pay $1500 in our mortgage and condo fees each month, which represents over half of my own take-home pay. We pay $225 each week for our daughter to be in part-time daycare. We pay $10 per hour on the rare occasions that we actually need a car. We also pay the price in terms of our lack of connection to nature. I can’t remember the last time I saw stars. I rarely find myself in quiet woods. The animals I interact with the most are dogs and squirrels and mosquitoes.

Despite my happiness with the city lifestyle, I think you can sense my defensiveness and my desire to continue to lighten my footprint on the earth and increase my sustainability. So what more can I do, aside from moving to a hippy commune? I’ve thought of some things that I might do to increase my sustainability even here in the city, but I have to decide what I have the time and energy for.
  • Growing food. We have an under-utilized and very sunny porch on the front of our house. It is an unheated space but tends to get quite warm during the day even in the winter due to the sun exposure. We’d like to clear out this space and use it for growing some food in containers in the winter. We also do have a very small strip of land around two sides of the house, but it is entirely in shade. Still, perhaps we could do some container plants there that would do well in shade. One problem I have is that when I look at books or websites devoted to urban agriculture all of the projects seem too large for our space and too difficult. So if you have ideas for me, please leave a comment. I’d like to find some baby steps I could take on the path to growing more food.
  • Composting. Our neighbors are experimenting with composting right now, and we may be able to share their composting bin some day in the future (or we could start our own compost bin). We already reuse many of our vegetable scraps in creating broth.
  • Eating more locally throughout the year. We have a CSA during the summer months, and if we were to can or freeze more of this food we could eat it throughout the year. We did some canning with some friends this year and it was fun – I’d like to do more.
  • Spending more time in the outdoor areas in Cambridge and the surrounding areas. We don’t have many natural areas, but we do have some and I don’t visit them nearly often enough. I’ll put that on my list for next summer.


Kelly from Almost Frugal said...

I'm not sure how helpful this is for you, because they seem to have big gardens, but I bet you would enjoy the blog Little House in the Suburbs- it's a lot of fun! http://www.littlehouseinthesuburbs.com/

Anonymous said...

Try growing things like tomatoes in pots next summer on your porch, it has a nice low learning curve. And try to compost, it is so easy if you have the space for the bin and you garbage will decrease in size and smell.

Kiashu said...

For composting in places with small or no yards, check out "worm farms" and "bokashi". It should be enough to deal with kitchen scraps.

simplesavvy said...

I live just north of Boston, and I also can't remember the last time I saw stars. Some days it gets to me more than others.

But I love reading about your biking adventures. That seems pretty self-reliant to me! I think the important part is to just do what you can, when you can. You all seem to be doing an excellent job.