From mid 2005 to 2008 I lived in a half built house in the woods with no electricity, no running water and no plumbing. Learning to live unplugged is an experience I think everyone should have at least once, and preferably for a couple of full cycles of the seasons.
I felt vividly alive swinging my feet from the tailgate of a pickup truck parked in the back field. I learned things with a hot coffee warming my fingers and coyote songs raising the hair on the back of my neck that they don’t teach in books.
Modern life is built around electricity. We use it to cook and clean, to charge our gadgets, to run our wifi, computers, televisions and cordless phones. We rely on electricity for entertainment, convenience and comfort. People lose count of the number of appliances that are plugged in and standing by at any given moment. Nobody notices the humming of the refrigerator. We take these luxuries for granted, and then we complain that we feel disconnected from the natural world.
When there is no fridge to keep your perishables from perishing and a hand pump is required to get water from the well, you invent all kinds of new ways to manage day to day necessities. Tasks like cooking, bathing, laundry, food handling and dish washing are no longer simple affairs. There is no time to sit around. This lifestyle requires work, and when the work is done it requires maintenance.
Life doesn’t happen the same way when you live in a shack in the woods without modern conveniences. There is no hot water tank in a house without electricity. There is a wood stove in the winter, the sun or a cook fire in the summer. Tooth brushing is not as simple as turning a tap. Making coffee involves pumping water out of the well, heating it by whichever means is available and drinking it or pouring it into a thermos to keep warm. Breakfast doesn’t come from a toaster. It comes from a chicken, or a garden, or a handful of oatmeal on the wood stove.
The food you eat is less processed when you don’t have a microwave or a freezer. Learning to shop for foods that store well and can be prepared in a variety of ways becomes very important. Growing and raising as much of your food as possible makes sense.
Contrary to popular belief, it is easier to live without electricity in the winter, when cold storage is found on the back step or in a snow bank and the wood stove that warms your house is always available to heat food or water.
Something happens. It’s not all heavy lifting and hard work. You get in touch with the seasons. You become more aware of sunrise and sunset – and if you are like me, you take twenty minutes in the morning and at night to watch them happen. You begin to pay attention to the temperatures, not the weather network. You actually notice the signs of a big frost in the days leading up to it, rather than being told. Extending the growing season becomes a matter of survival and common sense, instead of idealistic puttering and relaxation.
It makes sense to go to sleep a little while after the sun goes down. The light is gone. The day has been exhausting and rewarding. It’s time to climb into bed and rest. When you wake up the sky will be starting to turn a dark sapphire blue. It’s a colour that only happens right before the sun begins to rise. It’s the signal that a new day is fast approaching and there is work to be done.
I live in a different house now. It’s a modern house, on the grid. I enjoy my luxuries as much as the next girl and I understand the impact they have on my life. I still do a lot of the things I did when I didn’t have electricity. I enjoy a lot of the same hobbies and I still grow a lot of my food. Spending time outside and watching the weather and temperatures are high priorities for me.
Since living in the woods I pay more attention to what is plugged in and why. I understand how noisy a house is when you have electricity and appliances plugged in and what a quiet house sounds like. Every once in a while when the power goes out and the incessant white noise stops I close my eyes and hear coyotes.
Katie P is writer, reader, drummer and certifiable nature nut. She lives rural New Brunswick, where she spends far too much time frolicking in the bulrushes. She also blogs at Wyldwomyn.ca