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October 18, 2008 “Involuntary Simplicity”

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

When I first heard of “voluntary simplicity” several years ago, the movement comprised well-meaning, well-off people who were feeling burdened by their affluence. Their McMansions overflowed with toys, clothing, and appliances. SUVs, station wagons, motor homes, racing bikes and riding mowers spilled out of three-car garages. Every new object brought with it a responsibility (if only to find a place in which to store it) and between work and family duties, these people were too exhausted to enjoy the fruits of their toil. “We don\’t need all this stuff!” was the battle cry of the time. Occasionally a small voice could be heard murmuring, “and we\’re hurting the Earth by the way we live.”

That, less than a decade ago, was voluntary simplicity. Apparently we didn\’t do a good enough job of it, because here we are now, white- and blue-collar, democrat and republican, urban and rural dwellers, cringingly wading into the chilly waters of the new, involuntary simplicity. Foisted upon us by the economic catastrophe, simplicity, willy-nilly, is our future.

Thoreau must be delighted.

Already, signs of change are everywhere. Highway traffic is decreasing, and so are accident rates. The hardware stores around here are sold-out of outdoor clothes lines. My friends and I car-pool to book group and to art openings, and we\’re all talking about lowered thermostats for the coming winter. Laying hens are in short supply.

Granted, in Vermont these practices don\’t seem too exotic. Everyone grows a vegetable garden in summer, and in the fall we all play the north-country game of “the first one to fire up the furnace is a chicken.” But this year promises to be different, and battening down the hatches takes on real meaning even in our land-locked state.

I have noticed, however, that for those of us who are not in immediate danger of eviction or hunger, the challenges of the present situation are not without a certain exhilaration. It\’s hard not to feel excited by the sense of invulnerability that even a small measure of self-sufficiency affords. People are making extra large woodpiles in their yards. I grew winter squashes for the first time, for the chickens to eat when the real cold hits. A friend is experimenting with fermented foods, pickling cucumbers and cabbage to preserve them without need of electricity.

Involuntary simplicity is not without its delights. Witness my simple Saturday. I got up early and went to a nearby village\’s fabled fall rummage sale, where I bought, for less than two dollars apiece, a number of large wool sweaters that I plan to wear over my regular indoor winter clothes. This, I hope, will enable me to feel comfortable with the thermostat set at 65F, which is our plan for the next six months.

Then my husband and I went down our front field to the wild apple tree that has been loaded with fruit since summer. The apples are small, hard and sour, and we figured that they would make great chicken food. We didn\’t have to reach up for a single fruit: the ground under the tree was carpeted with apples. In just a few minutes we filled our tub with about sixty pounds of apples, and lugged them to the house.

I put a handful in a pan, covered them in water, and boiled them for a few minutes. They quickly turned soft, and smelled divine. I drained them and carried them to the chicken coop, where they were received quite favorably. I plan to boil the rest of the windfall, bit by bit, and store it in small bags in the freezer, then pop them in the microwave and serve them warm to the chickens on frigid January mornings. I wonder if the dogs too would like them?

At dusk, I picked the last of the broccoli—there was a hard freeze forecast for that night. I steamed it, then sauteed it for supper along with scrambled eggs and some grated cheddar. Soon I will pull up the broccoli plants and take them to the chickens, who will eat every leaf. The kale and chard will continue producing for a while. Then it will be trips to the basement freezer every night before supper.

I find a childish pleasure in all this. It\’s not unlike going camping and making do with what you have at hand. It\’s not unlike playing under the table as a kid, saying, “pretend this is our house, and this potato is a loaf of bread….” There are infinite sources of entertainment within the confines of our own yards, if we look closely. The trick to sanity and happiness in this new world is learning to want what we have. If we can manage that, we\’ll be richer than ever before.

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