Ten Life Lessons from Ten+ Years Living Off Grid

I lived without utility supplied electricity, water, or sanitation for over a decade. Was it all romance, extensive fanfare, and free living? Not a chance. It was time consuming, high maintenance work requiring constant presence. Living off grid means you are a chief maintenance person, head of parts, repairs and the main author and chief responder in the complaints department. Monitor and adjust you must, the deep-cycle batteries, the climate control for electronic inverter, the daily rodent entry attempts, and many, many more things.

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My Bergey 850W wind turbine and the first pair of solar panels on the battery and inverter shed. Together, with a backup generator (diesel) these formed the hybrid power system for the little cabin that was 300m away, in the edge of the woods. Pelee Island, ON, Canada.

I nevertheless had a golden experience, feeling almost like I was a part of a new renaissance. The metaphors for life in general wrought in the constant struggle were akin to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Ripe for the ages – climate change, species loss, bio-regionalism, permaculture – my noble and yet extremely humbling experience ‘off gridding’ thumped me in the nogggin more than a few times enough to impart some key insights.

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The little (13′ x 23′ or 4 x 7.5m x 2 floors) cabin powered by wind and sun, equipped with a composting toilet, a wood burning stove and apparatuses for water collection. The stone chimney took a pal and me just under two weeks to complete, rising at a rate of 1/2m(2′)/day.

  1. Divvy up. If you’re on your own, you have no choice of being your own hero 24-7. But if you’re with a family or in a group living setup, being a Jill (or Jack) of All Trades is by far the worst approach.  Our houses and the world needs fewer Die Hard Heros, and more collaborative, group-powered successes.
  2. Know when to plug in/consume power. Just because we can use power, or in our era, engaging in smart phones, or laptops, don’t do it. Off grid, when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, one does laundry, uses the computer, and/or has a few lights on. When it’s cloudy and calm, we power down. It becomes time to write in a journal, bask in silence, or chop some wood. In either life style, mindlessly switching into power usage mode not only costs electricity, but our inefficiency from either employing ‘nose to the grind stone’ or ‘distraction mode mentality’ costs us our own personal energy reserves, robbing us from our core brilliance.
  3. Positive charges vs. energy sinks.  Off the grid, things with motors or those that create heat, like toasters, are major energy hogs that can drain a daily electricity budget in a few minutes. What or whom empowers you? What drains you? When we’re present to the subtleties of energy in our bodies, we notice what tasks, or people drain us or give us energy.
  4. Lovingly adopt appropriate technology. If you can do it by hand, do it by hand. High tech items that may appear to save time, money and energy often have hidden costs to the individual, the family, and the environment. Many appliances used by Mennonites or the Amish include hand cranks, foot petals or other contraptions that don’t use electricity and rarely break down. Buying a gadget for every aspect of life enslaves us to driving, electrical consumption, landfills, and loss of free exercise!
  5. Know your daily life cycle. If a battery is used up early in the day, at best you are trickle charging until nightfall. This means the battery just becomes a conduit for energy transfer instead of a vessel for storage. This is sub-optimal at best. If you have to extend yourself when you feel empty, ensure there is a full recharge waiting for you in the form of rest or an energy gaining event.
  6. Make your trips count. Buy your life needs as though you are on a remote island; you can’t just hop in the car and go and buy another ‘one.’ Short, repetitive trips in a car hurt our bodies (excessive sitting), add stress, and are far more polluting to the atmosphere than longer, planned ones. The same is true for the small tasks in our work day. They eat away at us, leaving the big and important tasks incomplete or starving for more quality attention.
  7. Hold, plan and be your own system. When you live off the grid, it’s call an ‘independent home’ because it is self reliant. The minute you stop ‘feeling your system’ and knowing it intimately, and if it happens to break down you are problem solving in the dark. If you fail to hold, plan and be the ultimate you for your family members, irreplaceable missed opportunities amass, loved ones feel less connected to you and seek other friends or devices to meet their attachment needs.
  8. Managing human waste as a daily recipe for life. Off the grid, managing waste is put into our own hands. Composting toilets must be coddled with clear presence and awareness or decomposition is hampered and there’s a nasty mess to contend with, costing much time. What would we do with the extra billions of dollars saved if we all made the choice to stop sending toxins, excessive paper waste, and loads of lint (biggest problem of all) down our drains every day?  We would surely bask and play in a rejuvenated environment.
  9. Water wisdom cultivates more aqua for all. Living off the grid slams home the notion that water is to be treasured, conserved and kept pollution free. After collecting rainwater, I used to hang a 1 gal blag water bag in the sun and then use it for showers in two consecutive days. If you’ve slipped into complacency, remember how difficult water is to cleanse, desalinize and purify? Try going on a highly reduced water budget for a day or two to remember the gift of Earth’s life blood. Like a food fast helps us really value food, absence of anything reunites us with gratitude.
  10. Let conservation become second nature. Turn a light on, turn it off. Lather in between runs of showering water. Turn your heat down at night, draw shades at the appropriate times when it’s hot out. This isn’t to train you in thinking in lack mentality; the world is indeed abundant. However, conservation alone can meet our energy needs without drilling for any more oil, building any more nuclear plants, or erecting any more mega wind turbines, or fields of solar panels.

 

Remember Climbing Trees? People Are Taking to the Trees Again

The act is natural, refreshing and fun. Do you realize that tree climbing can help save your sanity, tone your muscles, quiet your mind, and create strong leadership sorely needed for this generation and those to follow? Climbing itself builds balance, confidence, wherewithal, and courage. It allows us to toy with our playful selves, stretching boundaries, and to lead as role models. To rise up in a tree, we must measure every step and hand hold with presence, use the tree as a gateway, a friend, and a playful obstacle to a healthy Earthly escape.

I climbed a lot as a kid and teen. And now? Entering my late 40s, I’m climbing more than ever. I’m seeing more unseen things than ever. I don’t care so much about how high I go, or getting too many photos up there. I climb in my Forest Bathing practice, often helping others up. I drag my kids out to climb. I’m thinking of ways to get seniors up there too. In short, I can’t get into trees enough.

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Getting into the canopy of a Manitoba Maple. At 10 years old, she took 15 minutes to decide to make the 7m (20′) climb. After that, she was up and down like a squirrel. The Coves, between German Canadian Club main soccer and practice fields, London, Ontario, Canada.

Every so often we recognize an idea, a program, or a publication of something that we have held strongly in our own hearts for years and years. For me it is a recently released book on tree climbing by Jack Cooke. What an ultimate gift it was to come across someone as crazy as me and diligent enough to write an amazing account of a life partly lived, rising up and down the trees of London.

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Someone has finally gone out on a limb and created an excellent read on tree climbing! I sincerely hope you buy this book and help inspire lots and lots of people to start climbing again. Cooke, Jack, 2016. Tree Climbers Guide. Harper Collins.

Cooke’s book, “The Tree Climbing Guide” is almost a lament of simpler eras gone by. Thanks to a lot of research, great drawings, and a wonderful perspective, this book is so much more. It’s a reminder of our youth. It’s somewhat of a how to. It’s a poetic, almost self-‘helpian’ statement; how we can rise above our lives to give our heads a shake, or in the very least, re-calibrate our beingness to a new perspective on the casual inaneness of fossorial living. For anyone remotely nostalgic or still into hoisting their physical (and spiritual) matter(s) above the Earth’s surface into the welcoming limbs of a tree, you simply must add this book to the treasured section of your library.

Cooke makes notice to the significance of our childhood’s first climb. For me, it was a quartet of Silver Maples growing between our farmhouse and the horse bard. Spaced out enough, they were daily multi-limbed climbing invitations. Planted a few years before I was born, these trees now in their 50s are massive, accessible to all ‘climbers.’

What was your first date with a tree climb (comment below). How old were you? Where was the tree and do you know what kind it might have been? Is it still there?

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A barefooted, fall climb on Grandmother Sycamore of the East Coves Oxbow Pond (you can’t miss this tree even from the small bridge at Coves Road and parking lot of German Canadian Club). The hollowed out base of this tree is my sit spot. Occasionally, I force her old and weathered bones to hold another 200 or so pounds above the water. London, Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy of Cassie Dugsin-Porchuk.

Cooke describes and lists a bunch of great trees to climb in his London (England). In the absence of a publicly accessible book in which to promote my own familiar trees, I use the photos scattered through this post to highlight some arboreal buddies upon which great climbs can be had in Southern Ontario (and a bit beyond). Again, please send along any stories, photos and locations of great climbing trees you know of.

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Few trees can rival the ease, comfort and reassuring feeling imparted by an open grown Norway Spruce. Here in the Forest Therapy Invitation, “Introduce Yourself to a Tree”, a participant chooses to ascend to great heights. Look for the open grassy meadow lined by several giant conifers at Medway Creek Heritage Forest, London, Ontario, Canada (I call this special place, “The Council of Conifers.”)

I’ve never before encountered fellow humans in a tree. However, Cooke mentions a few memorable encounters, especially dismounting the lowest branches and crashing a group of unsuspecting picnic’ers….quite the riot ensued!

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When all is said and done, you still don’t have to climb a tree to enjoy it. However…inspiration just may present itself when you least expect it! Norway Spruce, Medway Creek Heritage Forest, London, Ontario, Canada.

Anyone spending time up in trees gets their share of unique encounters with wild animals. Recently, while only 2m up a Sugar Maple, I witnessed a bizarre exchange  as a Red-bellied Woodpecker attempted to peck a meal out of a dying Green Ash. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird moved in and appeared to have mistaken the red breast of the woodpecker for a flower. Seemingly seeking nectar, the hummingbird moved in. The woodpecker responded by comically hobbling 180′ around to the opposite side of the tree. Not letting up on a potential source of nutrition, the hummingbird responded accordingly by flying around after the woodpecker. Of course, the woodpecker repeat countered, as did the hummingbird. After a few rounds, having enough of it, the woodpecker bolted, deciding to fly the 10m or so over to the tree upon which I was now hugging extra tightly. I suppose that since I had been so silent and motionless that the woodpecker didn’t notice me until the last possible moment. The primary feathers of her left wing wisped my left cheek as she realized she couldn’t land on my face. Yes, it was exhilarating and due cherished.

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Looking downward at climbing companion, Paul, in a Norway Spruce. I think we could fit 50 or more people on this tree at once and ‘she’ wouldn’t sneeze at it! Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Many other times I’ve looked up, as I suspect you likely may have, in awe of the straight trees rising branchless to the canopy. Serving as inspiration, many have considered the ascension to these natural cathedrals unattainable. While you can use ropes, harnesses and spend lots of money to get you there, I treat these more mature woods as places for other more naturally adept animals to scale these domains.

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Views like this have created a yearning in many to somehow get to the canopy without tools, external energy sources or anything but our one’s own will, hands, feet and full presence. American Beech, Meadowlily Woods, London, Ontario, Canada.

Professionally, as a wildlife biologist a few memorable arboreal experiences occurred that I’d never recommend to anyone. Rare, fast and extremely agitated, Blue Racer Snakes numbered as few as a couple of hundred in all of Canada. My colleague and I had startled a large male in the grass at the edge of a field. The dash was one. Thrashing through and across the big tufts of grass thatch like a slalom water skier flying across one wake of the boat to the other, the near two-metre long animal fled for the nearest escape; a Cockspur Hawthorn. We sprinted following behind to the small tree. At only 4.5m (18′) tall, many low branches and piercing 5cm (2 inch) thorns awaited our perseverance. With ease, the large reptile whipped from one side of the tree to the other. For every small branch we scaled, descended and then scaled again in pursuit of our moving target, a good half-dozen or so thorns etched our skin with consequence, slowly painting the surface with our own blood. Finally cornering the tiring serpent, he made one last getaway attempt. Using leverage, gravity and the flexibility of the branch, he flung his thick body in a coordinated pulse to jump from the tree to the grass, but we caught him, almost in mid air!

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A Blue Racer Snake. They take to the trees with ease! Some hawthorns may be possible to climb, but Cockspur is highly recommended to avoid. Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada.

Taking stalk afterwards we were thankful the snake wasn’t injured and that all four of our eyes were fully functional. We weighed, measured and tagged the snake, and then let him go, watching him slip into a nearby hole in the ground. “Why didn’t he go there in the first place?” we had thought, wondering if the snake had been looking to give us a run for his pure enjoyment. Looking back at the tree we remarked how it would be one of the last trees in the world that we’d ever consider climbing.

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A view in Autumn from 20m (65′) up a Norway Spruce looking at a 25m (85′) White Pine in the distance. Having climbed this day alone, I had to take a photo to share what I was bathing in. Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Very few of us get the experience of being a wildlife biologist that sometimes brings such excitement. This is far from the point. Naturally kid-like, climbing trees is a really fun and healthful pastime. While being in nature is a great experience in itself, challenging yourself physically and encountering some edges are great ways to build balance, strength and confidence.

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Tree climbing gives us new vantage points, opens most hearts to joy and playfulness and reconnects us to the values of measuring every step in life as though it is our last. Black Maple at the first large group camp site, Albion Hills Conservation Area, Caledon, Ontario, Canada.

Being playful with friends and family in the branches creates lasting memories and tight bonds between people and the natural world. With more and more pulls to interesting electronics, grand gizmos, seductive fashions, and dazzling events, any reverse tug back to nature is something more than welcome in our era of high distraction and often unhealthy escapism.

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It is not necessary to get high up a tree to get a fresh perspective. Many trees, alive or passed on can facilitate peace, playful giddiness and unique perspectives. Eastern Hemlock, Sunnybrook Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Of course, all of the inventions in our era are for the most part great additions to our lives. Some features and designs, however, that intentionally lead us to obsessive use or extreme behaviours (e.g. social media, staying ‘connected’, fear of getting dirty, etc.) cross the line and rob us other great experiences that we truly need.

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Not too high up an entry level climbing tree is a great place for a little ‘zoned out’ meditative reflection. Norway Spruce, Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Very few of us can get away with lecturing others to make change (thank God!). We need to live by example and show each other (especially our children) that we don’t need to be plugged in 24-7, and that we are not defined by our cell phones, our bank accounts, our popularity or anything else than our true personalities. And – we have to demonstrate that seemingly immature or ‘young things’ like tree climbing, are ‘cool’ for all ages.

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Tree climbing is far, far from a male or ‘boy thing’ or a young person thing. Sometimes getting up to the first (lowest limb) is the biggest hurdle for either of the sexes, for any age. Knowing this, those with more experience, confidence and physical strength can serve as humble, non-judgmental guides. London Plane Tree, Hebert Arboretum, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA.

If you have been sold on the idea, go out with a friend or two, or find an event in which others may be going (see this offering for example in the London (Canada) area). Pick up a copy of The Tree Climber’s Guide. While this book is somewhat specific to trees of the London, England area, there is much great advice within if you don’t have anyone experienced to accompany you.

Wonder for Water…

Water is a wonder in my life.

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I visualize amazing, purified water in ponds, streams, lakes and oceans. I watch the beauty with my mind’s eye, as water purifies, all of her dependents breathe deeply with a sigh of relief.

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I love water in any state. Wherever I go, whatever water I interact with, whether it be a polluted puddle, a picturesque pond, an ocean filled with plastic, or a seemingly perfect stream, I send all bodies of water love with my thoughts, spoken words, and heartfelt intentions.

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I drink water often. After a meal, I ponder water making peace with the acid in my stomach, helping sort through nutrients and roughage. I listen to water directing this traffic inside of me. I feel water bring energy and connection back to me. I carry extra water with me for times when someone may be in need….

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I observe water. I watch it in a stream, in a lake, I wonder at its immense presence in an ocean or the individuality of a single drop in a roaring storm of rain.

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I shower with presence of the true power of water. I experience the massaging touch, the movement of molecules on and off my body. I glow in the presence and power of water’s flow over me.

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I share water. I mindfully give it to plants inside and outside. I watch as water sustains life, giving back fruits and other offerings in the cycle of sharing.

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I swim in water, maybe in a tub, possibly in a stream, dangerously in a public puddle, or freely in a deep sea. I feel the body of water lessening gravity’s tug on my bones and muscles. I cherish how water holds my full body with ease and strength.

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I play with water. I try a water slide. I dive in head first to a pond-pool. I play with water’s energy just above its surface. I squeeze water in my hand, squirting it playfully at a friend, at my lover, or with uncanny accuracy into the parched, open mouth of my enemy.

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I go for a skate on some frozen water. I feel the supportive surface pushing up on my skates. I visualize the liquid created between the fine line of my blades and the cold hard surface of the ice. This tiny amount of water moves me. I imagine the spot I skate on during the hottest day of the summer. A fish swims under the ice, following my every move, trying to make the puck hop off my hockey stick and onto the girl’s who is catching up behind me.

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I talk to water. I tell water how beautiful she is. I thank her for being so abundant in my life. I practice saying words of beauty and wonder to the water in my life.

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I wonder for water.