Wednesday, August 21, 2013
The Good Life Lab
Wendy Jehanara Tremayne's new book, The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living is part memoir and part how-to manual. I had heard Wendy's story before, and it's remarkable and inspiring, so I was pleased to read it again. She writes just like how she sounds in person: warm, wise, humourous, generous, empowering. The story of how she and her partner Mikey Sklar came to their urban homestead in New Mexico is quite thrilling for anyone who has wanted to get escape the soul-destroying drudgery of day jobs and city life, and I think it's the strongest part of the book. It gives testament to the belief that anyone can become more self-reliant and have a richer, more fulfilling life out of the mainstream of consumerism.
Having lived such a life myself, in the lush Pacific Northwest where you'd have to be a complete idiot to starve, even with no money, I can't help but compare the challenges that Wendy's and my completely different environments present to us. The first chapter of the book opens with her peeing into a bucket so that the (diluted) nitrogen rich urine can be used to fertilize the garden. This might be a shocker for the daintier souls amongst us, but is customary on small islands with limited septic systems. For more on this topic, see Doug Hamilton's definitive guide How to Shyte on Lasqueti.
But living in the arid desert presents a completely different array of challenges from B.C.'s rain forest. Wendy and Mikey need to build shade to protect themselves and their garden from the powerful sun and can run multiple appliances on their solar system, while Lasquetians struggle to make do with the 150 watts their micro hydro generates in the winter, and don't see the sun for months. Every person who takes on the responsibility of living more sustainably will have different circumstances to deal with, and so the Good Life Lab serves more as inspiration than a precise recipe. The key, wherever you live, is to do research, talk as much as you can with long-time members of the community, and not be afraid to experiment.
Wendy and Mikey have, between them, a vast array of skills, both inherent and learned. They are young, smart and strong, and able to take on everything from physical projects such as building with papercrete or more domestic crafts such as cheesemaking. I am reminded of the cautionary advice given to every newcomer who dreams of living on Lasqueti: "It takes at least three solid days a week of work here just to maintain the (solar, water, and heating) systems, manage your garden, and feed yourself. A regular job feels like a luxury in comparison."
The recipes for herbal remedies, all kinds of fermented goodies, and biofuel are a good starting point for those who might want to adapt them to what their own region offers. There's lots of solid references suggested, too. And I particularly appreciated Wendy's spiritual and philosophical take on this approach to creating a life. This book is definitely worth a read, and will share a place on my shelf with Sharon Astyk's books on a similar theme, Making Home, Depletion and Abundance, and Independence Days.