Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 7, 2008
My wife thinks I’ve gone nuts with my “new system” of washing dishes with hot water from a caldron heated on our wood stove. Instead of scrubbing dishes in the sink the “old-fashioned” way, I’m doing it the “old-old-fashioned way.” It’s all part of my commitment to “hut living.”
Ski trips to local huts have, over the years, taught me the pioneer virtue of frugality through conservation of electricity, wood and water. Hut living has become my model for adapting to Peak Oil, financial collapse and a world of growing scarcity. We’re all pioneers in this grave new world, so I’m reverting to frontier techniques.
Despite a temporary drop in prices at the pump, fossil fuel prices will trend higher. But even if fossil fuels were cheap and plentiful, I would be frugal because it feels right. We heat our house with wood and solar, and I wash dishes the old, old way because it’s rewarding to see how small we can make our family carbon footprint.
A hut trip is a good model for living because it starts with an appreciation for shelter. When you ski to a hut in the winter, a snug, efficient cabin is a blessing. Since our homes shelter us in the same way, making them as efficient as possible is a natural extension of the hut ethic.
At a hut, wood burning is the primary heat source. There is a wood room stacked with spruce and fir that is full in December and nearly empty by spring. Firewood is a tangible heating fuel, with weight and heft, so you feel each BTU as you load the stove. Extend that ethic to your home and you’ve got the essence of conservation. Every unit of energy should be as tangible as that piece of firewood.
At a hut, water comes from snowmelt. You load snow into a caldron on top of the stove, melt it with the heat of the fire, and use it as you need. Wasting water is not an option because you have only so much. Back home, however, water is an undervalued resource due to a failed perception of its value. Water that flows effortlessly from the tap should be as important as the water in the hut caldron.
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Ski huts are equipped with solar panels and batteries. Turning off unnecessary lights ensures that there will be lights when they’re needed. Realizing that a finite supply of electrons provides comfortable living is another spur to conservation. Back at home, however, the waste of electricity is hardly considered. Phantom loads from “sleeping” appliances burn juice, and lights are left on as if we’re all afraid of the dark.
A mountain hut can be an ideal setting for peace and quiet. Many hut trippers seek solace away from TVs, stereos and phones. They find the experience rejuvenating. By contrast, most of our homes are buzzing with electronic gadgets, droning with background TV, or thumping with the bass line of a stereo cranked up to fill the dread silence of our thoughts.
A hut trip is about being physically active when you ski six miles with a backpack, chop firewood, haul snow and shovel the deck. A similar physicality can take place at home, resulting in better health, strength and a sense of independence. Physical labor is an easy and gratifying choice.
The finest nuance of a hut trip is social economy. Hut conversations often are more meaningful when gathered in the kitchen or around the heat stove with a small group of friends. A home with the right atmosphere can provide the same level of intimacy. It’s all a matter of how we choose to define our domestic lives.
I like hut living because it feels right to me, so I will continue to split my firewood with an ax, shovel my driveway by hand, sweep my solar panels clear of snow, keep the noise down, nurture meaningful social interactions, and wash my dishes economically, the old, old way.
There’s some discipline required, but not for long. It soon becomes a pleasant habit that makes you feel like you have a choice in the way you live. This was behind the “purposeful living” Thoreau discovered at Walden when he set the tone for a world view that makes more and more sense today.