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THE PARKING BRAKE WAKE-UP CALL
As I watched my Subaru Legacy slide backward toward my new ranch’s studio outbuilding, the thought crossed my mind that if it kept going— and I didn’t see why it wouldn’t—at least I would be using less gasoline. A few days after I moved into the sprawling, crumbling, forty-one acre New Mexico spread that I had named the Funky Butte Ranch (it had a funky limestone butte on its east side where two great horned owls with an active love life nested), I neglected to firmly apply that last click to the parking brake on my aged fossil fuel–powered hatchback, the LOVEsubee.
This was a good thing. Really. The imminent demise of my ride, I rationalized, would help me with one of my four big goals for the next year, which were:
1. Use a lot less oil
2. Power my life by renewable energy
3. Eat as locally as possible
4. Don’t starve, electrocute myself, get eaten by the local mountain lions, get shot by my UN-fearing neighbors, or otherwise die in a way that would cause embarrassment if the obituary writer did his or her research
Epiphany in the desert Southwest is not subtle. Almost nothing in this stark, gorgeous ecosystem is. I moved several thousand miles from my place of birth in order to kick fossil fuels and live locally. Three days later, MY CAR WAS LITERALLY RUNNING AWAY FROM ME. This is how lessons are taught in a place where even sitting down means a possible impaling. I figured I would forge success from astonishing, seemingly irrevocable defeat, you know, like Al Gore.
I didn’t need the message hammered home so literally. The time was absolutely right for me personally to embark on this adventure in living green—other than having no electrical, plumbing, building, engine mechanical, horticultural, or animal husbandry skills at all, that is. After growing up on Dominoes Pizza in the New York suburbs, at age thirty-six I wanted to see if a regular guy who enjoyed his comforts could maintain them with a reduced-oil footprint. In concrete terms, this meant raising animals and crops for my food, figuring out some way besides unleaded to get anywhere, and making bank account–draining investments in solar power.
I’d lived and worked in extreme conditions on five continents since the beginning of my career as a journalist fifteen years ago, but time and again, after shivering in Alaska and dodging bullets in Tajikistan, I reaffirmed what I already knew: I like my Netflix, wireless e-mail, and booming subwoofers. In fact, I didn’t want to live without them. I just wanted to power them by the sun. If my ear- melting music could go solar, and still make my UN-fearing neighbors complain about bass lines interrupting their nightmares of Hillary Clinton, I’d consider this experiment a success. If I had reliable Internet and could download movies into my green world to boot, the feeling would be closer to “Eureka!” Especially if I was eating munchies I’d grown, raised, or at least bought locally.
Because as I saw things, global climate change, pollution, world wars, and human rights aside, the Oil Age has had a great run: fossil fuels turned the United States, for example, from a nation of farmers into the Jetsons. I largely welcome this. I know I sure dig my laptop. When else in history could I have listened to Malian drumming or Beatles outtakes (or some DJ mixing the two) all within three clicks? When else could I be that DJ? This really is the best time ever to be alive, if you’re fortunate enough to live in the West and not be in the armed forces. In short, I wanted to prove that green Digital Age living was possible, and I was psyched to get cracking.
Coincidentally, society seemed to be ready, too, or at least to have transformed from considering such an experiment radically subversive to simply radically unfeasible. By 2005, when I moved to New Mexico, even a marginally coherent man deemed president of the United States was struggling to pronounce “biofuels” at the State of the Union Address. Citigroup, the world’s largest company, announced in 2007 that it was investing $50 billion in green projects. Companies were marketing everything from “sustainable” mascara to green SUVs. What was next? Environmentally friendly gunpowder? Organic Raid roach spray? Nothing would surprise me at this point.
From Zambian government officials (who refused genetically modified organism seeds during a recent famine) to Russian spies (who continued to kill one another over their boss’s natural gas policy), it just felt like a critical mass had recognized that the fossil fuel– powered civilization that got us to this point was in big trouble. Maybe it has fifty years, maybe one hundred left in its life cycle. In addition to my personal reasons, to my “environmentally sensitive while comfortable” motivations, I saw adaptation as a matter of survival.
I didn’t know if the current green rage was just another trend—a fad until oil prices came down a little. But what if $2.29 gas prices weren’t coming back? What if $3.29 oil prices weren’t coming back? What started out as a cute whim for me quickly became a much more personal journey.
Whether I needed the lesson or not, the LOVEsubee was gathering a head of steam. I recall the instant I discovered that I had a parking brake issue on my hands. Perhaps three quarters of a second earlier, halfway between my car and house, I caught the hint of something moving in my peripheral vision. I had just returned from what would become my weekly, monumental supply run to the town of Silver City, twenty-three miles away. In my possession were five store-bought, organic, box-ripened tomatoes, “grown” eight hundred miles away in California and shipped to the crunchy Silver City co-op via roughly a hundred twenty gallons of fossil fuels.
Life had been idyllic for a brief moment that July afternoon. Two green Rufous hummingbirds ignored FAA altitude requirements around my head, and I had an unfamiliar proprietary sense about them and everything on the ranch. I was going to be here for a while, and there was evidence everywhere. For instance, I had already bought an actual non–thrift store bed. An expensive, four-figure one, following an extensive test in the furniture showroom that nearly got me evicted from the store. For a thousand bucks, I thought the mattress should hold up to every kind of rigor.
The Funky Butte Ranch being the first property I had ever owned, I was kind of sauntering through the postclosing honeymoon phase in a haze of bliss, excessive capital outflow, and plans. In fact, I don’t know why they call that nightmare at the title company a “closing.” It should be called an “opening.”
An opening to new projects, loves, entire worldviews. I found I was already becoming much more of a fiscal conservative, now that I owed property taxes for the first time. Small government suddenly seemed the way to go.
Alone on my new property, my mind was also wandering. Wandering in the way a healthy guy’s mind wanders when he’s got time to think—and not just because of all the mattress testing. I was freshly single again, after a long and spiritually unsatisfying relationship. My body was still adjusting. In my first few days at the Funky Butte Ranch, in fact, I kept censoring conversations between my pituitary and my cerebrum that went along these lines:
Pituitary: Why don’t we take a little break from repairing the goat pen to find out if the ol’ Sweetheart wants to take a little break from whatever she’s doing?
Cerebrum: The ol’ ex-Sweetheart isn’t in our life anymore. She lives in a McMansion two hundred fifty miles away.
Pituitary: Fine. I’m sure you can provide a substitute.
Cerebrum: Look, we can’t bring home the goats and get started on this local living project if we don’t secure the goat pen from predators. Did you not see the mountain lion teeth marks on that deer carcass in the creek bed? There are other things in life besides sex.
Pituitary: You think so? Try and think about anything else while you’re working on that cow pen.
Cerebrum: Goat pen.
But there was no time for daydreaming. I turned my head and there it was, my car of twelve years (and crash pad from time to time), gliding furiously in reverse, and, it should be pointed out, not on fossil fuels, across my irises and down the hill toward the beautiful stone building I planned to use as a writing and dance studio. It all happened so fast. Before I even had time to say “Come back, LOVEsubee!” a one-hundred-year-old live oak, like a last defender on a long kickoff run-back, knocked the vehicle off its trajectory. It miraculously came to rest against a ten-foot yucca, a variety featuring spears that would suffice for medieval combat.
“Firmly apply the parking brake” is the message I was getting as I moronically waved my vine of nonlocal tomatoes at the LOVEsubee. “To your unsustainable life. To petroleum in your very food and coal in your hot water. To relationships based on lust. The whole thing.”
As a person raised on the East Coast of the United States, I bring a healthy skepticism to anything that sounds too Whoo Whoo (and New Mexico is perhaps the World Capital of Whoo Whoo gurus, diets, left- and right-wing conspiracies, and alien sightings). But I couldn’t even park my car at my new ranch without the world screaming “Less Oil. More Heart.”
From the Hardcover edition.