By the Light of the Sun:
by Duncan Sprattmoran
In November we put up our second windmill, replacing the first which had
sat atop a wooden derrick down in the bottom of the valley where it caught
the wind funnelled between the ridges. This one, however, sits on a steel
tower raised on the knob behind the house, and so catches the winds from
the four directions.
In the four directions I find the weather's blessing and because of this
I am far more aware of the weather as a factor truly fashioning my life
than I was when I pulled my juice from the grid: flipping a switch, never
thinking about the long chain of interrelationship of which I was a part.
Now when the wind blows, power flows into my house, and when it is still,
I know the time has come to conserve.
In January, with real winter, we are beginning to get days of full sun and
wind, and so the mill spins and the solar panels down on the bottom terrace
of the garden dance with the excitement of photons reflecting off snow.
These simple pleasures make me reflect upon the intentional aspects of my
life. I have chosen to live this way after all, to remain independent of
the power grid, to connect the devices, component by component, which power
my life. And this choice has brought me a tenuous independence which I value
in these days when multinational corporations lay off thousands in their
rush to downsize. I have truly downsized my life to a conservative center
in which I can be more independent than most Americans.
I ask myself what it means to live intentionally, to live simply, to make
choices as if each choice I make has repercussions that ripple far beyond
me, affecting the lives of women and children across the lake or halfway
around the world. Primarily, living intentionally means I ask myself to
incorporate the Buddhist principles of Right Action and Right Thought with
the AmerIndian concept of the seventh generation, the idea that each action
will have consequences which will affect my children's children's children.
In the face of these concepts I must face my own cultural programming. As
a product of my society, I am compelled to consume: every day I am faced
with a plethora of products to buy (even living on this isolated peninsula
my mailbox is daily filled with one catalog or another). And so I ask myself
to face these expectations and realign them with a greater sensibility than
that given me by the glossy photographs in the catalogs. I look back to
an American tradition of mindful independence which unfortunately never
makes it into the textbooks or the myths. I ask questions of my Quaker and
Shaker ancestors, my Jeffersonian democratic forebears, the Transcendentalist
intellectual men and women who early in the American experience voiced these
ideas. I remember that there is a rich stock of true independence which
springs from the American soil, one that doesn't feel the need to boast
its bravado with weaponry and bellicosity, one that asks always that conscience
guide the way.
Perhaps this reliance on conscience is harder today than at any other time
in our history, harder because our communities have been so purposefully
dismantled over the past fifty years, harder because our individual sense
of worth has been subsumed by a corporate/media culture that suggests that
conspicuous lifestyles are worth attaining; harder, too, because we really
have such a tenuous understanding of our interdependence with the very forces
that sustain life on this planet. We are all the products of a century of
social engineering, the deliberate machinations of government and corporations
to create a population of consumer/producers who, finding contentment in
the material artifacts this economy generates, willingly abdicate our purposive
When faced with the opportunity of living in a house which uses a minimum
of conventional power, the choice seemed evident to us. Owning one's own
home is the keystone of the American Dream, so why not truly own as much
of the home as possible, not just the mortar and wood but the very electricity
that flows through the walls. Since the electrical current is used only
once, it made sense that we should own the means of production, the generators
themselves. So, piece by piece, panel by panel, we purchased our energy
independence, and now we have what is called in the parlance of the solar
industry a "stand alone home."
Yet our house with all its quirky components, its 12 volt pumps, inverters,
batteries, and windmills, connected me with a dynamic community of others
who value energy independence as much as I do. Right here in this snowbound
peninsula which gets socked in by cloud at least four months a year, there
are nearly a score of houses such as ours. And if you multiply this across
the country to those locales which get sun over three hundred days a year,
one reaches a population in the five digits who have chosen to live each
Like any other ideological stance, our presumption of independence is fraught
with potential contradictions and fallacies. After all, the very components
themselves, though they harness the earth's energy in the most direct ways
imaginable, with the least site-specific pollution, are products of our
industrial age and thus larded with the ecological onus of most of our belongings.
Batteries contain lead. All of that copper wiring needed to balance line
loss must be mined and smelted somewhere. The casing on the windmill is
aluminum, and the silicon crystals which are the very being of the solar
panels require gallons of solvents to wash them clean enough to conduct.
My optimism is not a blind pride in my own sacrifice and heroic action--though
there are times when we all in this eccentric community tend to be hectoring,
pompous, and bombastic--but rather an informed position taken with the understanding
that to be an active participant in my greater community I must compromise
and mitigate the deleterious consequences of my own culpability. We try
to act with the knowledge that my home economy is inextricably interwoven
with my local ecology, the watershed of the valley, as well as the global
ecology that generates the winds we tap.
So when we hoisted the windmill atop the tower behind the house and waited
for the first strong winds to blow across the lake, we knew that the proverbial
winds of change can power revolutions far more powerful than our own. And
yet, living in small house in a small rural community, it seems that the
most rewarding revolutions are those small ones which begin at home.
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