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Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.
When we purchased our home in the mid-1980s, it was one of the most dilapidated places in the neighborhood. Clearly we had work ahead of us. A duplex rental with a distant owner and careless tenants, the building had been sorely neglected. Yet we were glad to discover as those first weeks and months went by that the damages due to neglect were mostly cosmetic or easily repaired.
There were no serious problems with the building's structure, apart from a leaky roof, which we replaced as soon as we could afford to. The water pressure could be better, which would mean replacing some of the pipes. And the electrical system, though surely fine for the 1950s, would need to be modernized.
But our need to make these improvements gave us an opportunity to reconsider our priorities for the house in light of our longer-term goals. We wanted our various projects to steer us in the direction of self-reliance—even in an urban setting—and in the direction of living our lives lightly. All this we proposed to do within a modest budget on a city lot in Los Angeles.
The interior of the building was generally shabby, and the back section especially was very run-down. We retiled the front kitchen and bathroom and painted all the walls in the front section of the duplex so that we could rent it.
We removed the garbage disposals from both kitchens and put them in the city's recycling bin. These costly and noisy appliances aren't necessary and cause endless plumbing problems. Plus, think about it: What are we doing when we use a garbage disposal? Using extra water and extra electricity to grind up "garbage" so it can pass down the sewer lines and end up eventually in the ocean. Our choice is to give our food scraps to our animals.
We also removed the automatic dishwashers from each kitchen. We've heard interesting debates about whether these modern devices use more or less water than simply washing dishes by hand. Usually electrical use is not factored into such debates, and besides, we find that the quiet times spent washing dishes, looking out the window toward the chicken coop, is a waking meditation. We salvaged whatever hardware we could from the dishwashers and sent the rest to the recycling center.
Although the house came with two natural-gas wall heaters, one was dangerously corroded and we had it disabled. The other we have used only when necessary. Eventually we installed a fireplace in the back, unheated section. Many people have been surprised, even shocked, to learn that we do not have "modern" heating, but our merino wool sweaters and our fireplace are usually adequate during the Southern California winters.
Nor do we have "central cooling." In the summer, however, we discovered that this location has very still air, and we didn't get much of a breeze through the house. Partly this was due to the fact that we closed and locked our doors at night. Over the years, we replaced regular screen doors with steel security screens, so as to be able to leave the doors open to the air all night without worrying about a break-in. This has made a terrific difference, allowing cooler air to flow through the house.
We mentioned the old roof, which leaked terribly during winter rains, but we couldn't afford the expense of a new roof right away, though we were convinced that the existing dark brown roofing would keep the house much hotter in summer than it had to be. We researched the many "liquid rubber" products on the market. For a few hundred dollars, we painted the whole roof with a coat of white Roofer's Best, which is sold primarily for use on trailers to help keep down solar-heat absorption, and not as a roof sealant, though it did seal most (not all) of our leaks. Its main value has been to keep the house 15 to 20 degrees cooler during the summer than it had been with the dark roof. It is amazing to be inside a cool house, with no air conditioner, when outside summer temperatures are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, we are simply using natural principles—in this case, the reflective properties of a white roof. Eventually we had our roof professionally reshingled in the lightest color available.
Keep in mind that we live within the boundaries of a major metropolitan area. We are not living out in the country, nor are we living off-the-grid, supplying all our household power with solar, or going without electricity altogether. Yet we feel that all too many city dwellers have used an urban home as their excuse not to adopt some of the methods practiced by country people, thereby missing all kinds of opportunities for special learning and savings. Even given the constraints of urban life, we have tried to grow as much of our food and provide as much of our own oxygen as possible, recycling whatever we can, collecting rainwater, and living our lives with no excessive use of resources.
While the house wasn't in dire shape, the yard was a wasteland. The previous residents had used the front yard alongside the driveway to park and work on their cars, resulting in soil as hard-packed as adobe. Some weeds and crabgrass had managed to pop up here and there after rains, but otherwise it was barren.
The garage door was broken and falling off and had been propped up with a two-by-four. One of our first projects was to have an aluminum garage door installed, which is lighter, easier to operate, and needs no maintenance. Instantly we had another usable enclosed space.
The front courtyard was a hodgepodge of introduced ornamental plants. A stand of banana trees in a planter had never been thinned, and the expanding roots were breaking the container. We had to thin the bananas and rebuild the brickwork.
Over time, we gradually replanted vegetation in the front yard and courtyard, including several fruit and nut trees. There was a large pine tree in a very tight spot by the corner of the house. Severely malformed, it grew at a 30-degree angle into the neighbor's yard. We don't ordinarily approve of cutting down trees, but we made an exception in this case because we saw no way to right the tree. So we felled, split, and dried it, and eventually it became firewood.
As we cleaned up around the back of the house, we discovered that the porch area had a patio of bricks that had been completely covered with dead grass and soil.
The back yard was mostly bare except for some grasses in the lower area. There was only one tree, a grapefruit, growing in the back yard, and we often wished aloud that we'd inherited any other kind of fruit tree. After all, grapefruits were way down on our list of desirable fruits. And yet a couple of years after moving here, we finally juiced the tree's fruit and found ourselves enjoying one of the best juices we've ever had.
In the more than fifteen years since we have moved here, we've planted many more trees in the back yard.
One of our first building projects out back was a compost pit and worm farm, because we don't believe in tossing out recyclable garbage for the city workers to take to the dump. We also made a vegetable garden, and a coop and yard for our chickens and potbellied pig. We placed our rabbit hutch directly over the compost pit so that urine and droppings continued to feed the earthworms, and we rarely had to clean out the hutch.
We regard our small urban homestead as a research station. Here we are able to try out many gardening, recycling, and building ideas to see if they will really work or if they need refining. We have endeavored to let our living home laboratory be truly an extension of our values and our thinking.
We also realize that one's home is much more than the physical structure and that one can improve upon and elevate mundane physicality by thinking more broadly and more clearly. This we strive to do in little ways and big ways, as we'll relate in the chapters that follow. We are aware that how we do things is as important (if not more important) than what we do.
When we have the income to do so, we sometimes get outside assistance to do various projects, as when Mike Butler installed our solar water heater. But we are also very interested in doing whatever we can ourselves, using recycled materials, for as little money as possible, in as natural a way as possible.
This is an ongoing adventure and experiment in living lightly on the earth—in the city. We'll tell you how we proceeded, step by step. Please join us.CHAPTER 2
A nation that destroys its soil stuff destroys its soul stuff.
When we first moved into our home, the front yard was ugly—barren and oily.
Out front, the previous residents had used the yard to park their cars. It is about 35 feet by 15 feet. Just a bit of crabgrass grew around the edges. The inner front yard, which we now call the courtyard, was almost as barren, though there were a few trees there.
One of our first improvements, once we had removed bits of old metal, wood scraps, logs, and an old shack, was to very heavily mulch the barren yard and the neglected courtyard areas. Mulch consists of natural materials such as wood chips, leaves, grass clippings—organic matter that can be spread on the ground to hold in moisture. As the mulch decomposes, it helps to increase the soil's fertility.
While driving home one day, we saw a yard that was covered with fall leaves. We had our rakes and bags with us, so we pulled over and knocked on the door.
"May we rake up your front yard and take the leaves with us?" we asked the elderly man who came to the door.
He was silent for a moment, uncertain what we had said, or perhaps suspicious of our intentions. We repeated our request.
"We'd like to rake up your yard. We don't want to charge you. We just want the leaves to use for mulch."
By now his wife had come to the door and we had to repeat the request again. They seemed to realize that we were sincere, and agreed.
As we raked, they began to laugh at their good fortune with sheepish smiles—someone had actually knocked on their door requesting to do something for free that they usually had to pay for.
"Take all you want!" the man told us, cheerfully and loudly.
We busied ourselves filling up about four large trash bags of the yellow leaves, and they watched us from their window with large grins. We laughed to ourselves, too, and wondered if they would be telling and retelling this curious story to their friends and grandchildren.
When we got home, we scattered all those leaves around the needy front and courtyard areas. We knew that we'd have to add more and more organic matter before the soil would be fertile enough to grow plants, so we collected leaves from other sources as well and spread them in our yard.
Neighbors watched our leaf mulch project curiously. One weekend we had a strong windstorm and all the added leaves blew into our neighbor's yard. Not wanting to confirm any suspicions that our project was going to be a problem, we quickly grabbed our leaf blower and blew all the leaves back home.
We contacted an acquaintance who runs a tree-pruning service. This man and his crew prune trees and then chip up the prunings, and when their dump truck is full of chips, they take it to the local landfill and pay to unload the chips. In response to our invitation, they were happy to bring one load to our place instead and dump it in a huge pile onto our front yard.
The huge pile covered most of the front yard, and the central peak was nearly five feet tall. We knew the pile would get smaller over time as the chips decomposed. In fact, the pile had sunk down about a foot after the first week, and we spread the chips out on each side so we'd have a mulch that uniformly covered the entire area.
If you've ever been around a big compost pile, you know how it generates lots of heat as the contents decompose. We noticed our pile steaming in about two weeks, and we also watered it a few times to help the decomposition process.
One morning, a neighbor from next door yelled, "Your front yard's on fire!" We ran out expecting to see flames somewhere but saw only the steaming chip pile. We reassured our neighbor that everything was fine.
In two years, after two big truckloads of wood chips, we were able to sink our hand down into the soil in the front yard, and wild plants had begun to thrive.
We added four citrus trees in front, a line of rosebushes bordering the sidewalk, and some herbs including lavender, epazote, and white sage. In time, other volunteer plants found this a likable environment, and soon the front yard was carpeted with a miscellany of nasturtium, tradescantia, and Peruvian mint.
The nasturtium actually washed down the hill from our northern neighbor's property, and the plants have thrived in our front yard, reseeding themselves year after year. This was a very welcome "volunteer," because all tender parts of nasturtiums, including the flowers, are delicious in soups and salads. The tradescantia (also called "wandering Jew") seemed to appear on its own and thrived, as it tends to do, wherever it takes root. The Peruvian mint came from some of the cuttings we were then cultivating and selling at local farmers' markets. Though not a true mint, it is a succulent that can be used as you'd use regular mint, plus it gives off a pleasant fragrance if you gently press a leaf.
The two of us have talked about the problem of "lawns" many times. In some neighborhoods, a perfect green lawn seems to be a requirement, and the neighborhood association will jump all over you if you allow your lawn to fall into a more natural state of "disrepair," claiming that your sloppy grass will lower the property values or attract pests.
We've heard it said that the idea of a lawn harks back to our ancestral homelands in Africa, Asia, and the Great Plains, where fires and grazing animals created great grasslands with random clusters of trees. Is that explanation supposed to mean that urban folks need a tiny, postage-stamp-size savanna beside their homes, as if to symbolize a carefree, primeval existence? It's an interesting theory, but think of all the labor, tools, gasoline, water, and fertilizers that urban dwellers use to maintain that little patch of green. And for what? Unless we actually play lawn games on the grass with our families, we do all that work, mow the lawn, then typically throw away the "crop." Yet another of the many urban counterproductive activities that millions of us consider normal.
This is unfortunate, especially in the drier areas of the United States. We have seen vast fields that once were desert—with all the cacti, snakes and reptiles, and wildflowers characteristic of unique desert ecosystems—leveled by developers. The land is bulldozed, hundreds of clone houses are installed, and every one of these has that patch of suburban green that is so totally out of place in a desert environment. Water, and more water, is required to maintain that pointless patch of green. As Pogo would say, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
We cringe every time we see the television commercials for lawn herbicides that are guaranteed to kill just about anything that lives. These ads show a gardener using poisons to kill dandelions in lawns—but dandelions are one of nature's most nutritious plants! Whatever you do, don't kill your dandelions. Leave them alone, or learn how to use them.
And did you know that the annual amount of energy, water, and fertilizer required for the average acre of lawn is more than double what is required for an acre of corn? In addition, there is the pollution caused by runoff containing lawn fertilizers going into the water table. Some of the chemical treatments designed to "green up" your lawn contain chemicals such as 2-4-D, which has been proved to cause illness in people. And some people even plant "organic" vegetable gardens that are surrounded by toxic lawns!
Far better for all involved, and for the planet, is to discover the principles that govern all facets of the natural world and then strive to live our lives in harmony with those principles. Considering the high cost of food and fuel, as well as the problems of overflowing landfills, water shortages, and the harmful side effects of herbicides and lawn mower exhaust, why don't we do away with superfluous lawns and convert these areas to productive uses, like the Victory Gardens of World War II? That is the decision we made, and we have never regretted it.
We're also glad that we don't live in the sort of neighborhood where tidy grass lawns are expected. To some eyes our yard would probably appear disheveled, though we see it as filled with a diversity of active living things.
During our early years here, we planted vegetables on the "parkway," that narrow strip of ground between the sidewalk and the street. One year, we had corn, tomatoes, New Zealand spinach, squash, and herbs growing out there. Several neighbors came to help in the preparation of the soil and the planting, and that project had the great additional benefit of bringing neighbors together.
Excerpted from Extreme Simplicity by Christopher Nyerges, Dolores Lynn Nyerges. Copyright © 2013 Christopher Nyerges. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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