In April of 2017 I was asked to speak at a permaculture dinner about my journey in developing the property. Not being much of a public speaker, this forced me to write down some comments in preparation. What follows are those comments, with a later addendum half-way down.
From the moment I left my parents’ house as an 18-year-old, my intuition told me to establish a low-cost, modest, PAID-FOR home, so that life energy could be freed up for things more rewarding than the pursuit of money. I couldn’t see the wisdom of paying three times the purchase price of a house by following the 30 year mortgage route. Long story short, I lost touch with that inner voice, got sucked into the trap, built up equity in the heady housing bubble days, and then lost it all with a dream house that went terribly wrong at the worst moment.
Toward the end of this 35 year period, a handful of things crept up on me.
I awakened to the realization that for three decades, despite the outward appearance of middle-class prosperity, I had been only a few paychecks away from homelessness.
I became uneasy with the disconnect I had with the source of my food, and needed to know if I would be able to consume animal products if I had to do the killing and processing myself. I wanted to take steps “backward,” toward the self-sufficiency, resilience and healthier food of my grandparents and previous generations.
“It is better to run towards positive things than to run away from negative things.” ~Chris Martenson
I developed a growing appreciation for the predicaments we as a society find ourselves entering in the realms of energy, environment and economics. I realized that continued years of sustainable employment and stable supply chains are not a given.
So the voice of reason returned. I decided to find a small property in the country and build a structure that amounted to a parachute. The initial idea was that if a job loss or other economic hardship occurred, I would at least have a place to put all of my stuff and camp out if needed, and grow some food, without finding myself on the street or a burden to others.
I found five acres in the hills of Jefferson County, just north of Lawrence, where I had felt an intuitive longing to live since moving to Lawrence 35 years prior. I took funds from an IRA for the down payment. I took out a 5-year note on the property and embarked on my path of resilience, naming it Brushy Run after a favorite Kentucky old-time fiddle tune.
I had designed and built many things in my career and hobbies, but not something as large as a living structure. I was inspired by a Mother Earth News article written by a woman who had built her own pole barn late in her life. Her message was, “If *I* can do it, you can too.” I designed a structure with this consideration in mind regarding the size: It should be large enough to contain my stuff, but small enough that I would be able to afford it and physically able to complete it before burn-out set in.
I settled on a 20×40 footprint, with workshop space on the ground floor and a loft above. I studied various buildings for construction guidance. Ten telephone poles were scrounged from various sources. An old, worn-out tractor was purchased from a friend, and it was used to auger the holes in the ground. Friends were enlisted to help stand the poles up and pack dirt around them. For the next three years I spent every available dollar and free moment adding one board or sheet of plywood at a time, providing 99% of the labor and learning a great deal about myself in the process.
My desire to have a personal connection with the production of healthy food naturally led to an interest in permaculture, and I’ve been very blessed to receive abundant assistance from this community. Swales and fruit and nut trees were added early on, and a small food forest was planted. Since the first task of modern farming is growing soil, biomass is brought in from off-site sources, and on-site “waste” streams are retained and utilized as much as possible. Additional garden beds have been built for vegetable production. Chickens have been recently introduced as a “gateway” livestock, and in order to produce healthy, free-range eggs and meat as well as receive the soil-enhancing benefits of their scratching and natural fertilizing.
Community and traditional music/dance have always been important to me, and Brushy Run has been developed with that in mind. A covered pavilion was added to the barn, featuring a dance floor optimized for contra and square dancing. For years I have been a proponent of getting barn dances out of gymnasiums and into more suitable settings, and now I host occasional dances and one big permaculture-and-music-themed party every summer. The space is used more and more to host community-building potlucks, workshops, concerts and other events.
With the completion of a county-sanctioned living space in the loft, I was thrilled to officially make the barn my full-time residence late in 2015.
How interesting it is to find that when one focuses on living as inexpensively as possible, one’s ecological footprint naturally shrinks along with it. Cutting the cost of living to the bare minimum, for me, has meant things like a compost toilet instead of flush toilets with their attendant 1,000 gallon septic tank. The compost toilet handily supports the permaculture principle of turning “waste” into a valuable asset, it prevents the wasting and despoiling of potable water, and prevents the pumping of turds all over the landscape to some remote location for treatment and then having to purify the water all over again.
Living a low-cost lifestyle means rainwater catchment instead of a $6500 connection to the rural water grid and a monthly bill, with the side-benefit of delicious, chlorine and fluoride-free water. A well would be another option — as well as really good redundancy — but too expensive for the budget to date.
Living a low-cost lifestyle means solar panels for the production of the majority of the electricity used. I did finally relent and have electrical service installed, but it is mainly used for powering a window air-conditioner on hot days. The solar panels provide most of the rest of my electrical needs, which are kept very low by LED lights, efficient appliances, and of course mindfulness (turning lights off when not being used and eliminating phantom loads).
Living a low-cost lifestyle means using wood for heat. So far the deadfall in the 3 wooded acres, plus contributions from neighbors needing some thinning, has provided all the wood needed to heat the barn. With zero insulation in the bottom floor, and a well-insulated loft, the workshop stays comfortable and the loft is quite warm and cozy on the coldest days.
Cheap, energy-dense fossil fuels have conditioned us as a society to believe that we should be able to do anything we want, whenever we want. This leads to systemic overkill and the wasting of precious resources. Too many problems are “solved” by applying ever-increasing amounts of energy, instead of employing a realistic, efficiency-based mindset. Living with a modest energy budget, or a modest amount of fresh water, however, provides a lot of valuable teaching moments and insights.
Every time a faucet is turned on, for example, one is mindful of where the water comes from, about how much remains in the holding tank, and what the likely prospects are for renewal. Water is frequently used more than once before it is discarded, and sometimes discarding actually means nourishing the ground around something living. Washing dishes becomes a meditation on gratefulness, appreciation and efficiency. (It should be noted that this mindset need only apply during exceptionally long winter freezes or summer drought… in recent years there has been plenty of rain to keep the water storage containers full at all times.)
There is no water heater at Brushy Run — living without one at first made me realize how little need I actually have for one. Water for cooking and washing is heated on-demand on the kitchen stove, and water for bathing is heated directly in the metal stock tank that serves as a cozy bathtub. In cold weather, heated water is not drained from the tub or from the kitchen sink until its heat has been released into the house interior.
(Fall 2020 update: Brushy Run now has not one, but TWO on-demand water heaters! The first was installed in the new bathhouse/spa down in the woods for filling the clawfoot tub with steaming, gravity-fed lavender rainwater. Then, when the cold season began threatening the viability of outdoor baths, this installation inspired me to put one in the barn as well for the indoor bathtub. The original burner-under-the-tub concept was awesome, but burned/rusted through the floor of the tub in just a few years.)
The small photovoltaic (solar) power system generates a modest amount of electricity each day, but it was the sole source of energy for building the barn! When the power would occasionally get low and prevent the continuation of a project in the workshop, instead of being seen as a life-disrupting inconvenience, it might lead to the mindset of something like “Oh, ok, I guess I’ll resume this project tomorrow and maybe read a book or meditate tonight.” In countless ways, I find that living with modest resources makes one more mindful and appreciative of the realities of living on a finite planet, instead of being annoyed by feelings of scarcity or entitlement.
This writing is a work in progress. The main thing I would like to convey is that it is possible and not that difficult to provide for one’s own needs and live comfortably on a meager energy budget — and how gratifying the change can be. We have been conditioned to believe that our major needs (electricity, gas, water, sanitation, shelter) must all be purchased a la carte from the “experts,” and that sizable monthly payments for said services are an inescapable fact of life. I have to admit, it took significant time and effort on my part to disabuse myself of this notion. More on this another day…
Other web sites by Doug:
Blogging about homespun aerial endeavors, before blogging was cool
Studio-quality artworks from lifecast molds taken directly off the human body
Aircraft flight-testing, engineering, consulting and certification
Aircraft builder assistance, prototyping, mods/repair, avionics, ferrying and exporting