One woman’s eco-evolution, from off the grid to on the clock
In Chimacum, on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, there are probably more dairy cows than humans. It is a place where it’s common to see a 1972 Ford F-100 hard at work, way past its expiration date. Where those who own a patch of ground extend their hospitality to friends to park a trailer/bus/boat and live a while until they find a job/squeeze/studio space. Where the pie is from scratch and serving bad coffee is a sin. In Chimacum, not everyone bothers to replace their missing teeth, and that is perfectly acceptable.
It is also the place where I became a hardwired environmentalist — not because it was chic or because of yuppie guilt, but because it was a matter of survival.
I was introduced to Chimacum as a 12-year-old seventh-grader, fresh from a scholarship at a New York all-girls’ school where diplomats and old-money families sent their daughters. My father moved us back to Washington for several reasons; being closer to his family and giving us a non-urban alternative topped the list.
I never quite fit into either culture, and I split back to the city in the middle of 11th grade, feeling as if I had outgrown the country. I went on to work many jobs, in offices and restaurants and newsrooms, in New York and New Mexico. But Chimacum had seeped into my DNA. The smell of fertilizer and the close-knit community called. I returned in the early ’90s to be closer to my family, and because I couldn’t figure out where else to go.
Places like Chimacum are rich in characters and scenery, but they are not rich in jobs, so I concocted a living during my mid-20s hawking my various talents: freelance writing, PR, waiting tables, running a dating service. (I also can sing “Home on the Range” in Yiddish, but no one has ever offered to pay me for that.) When I was broke, broken up, and needing a place to live in 1995, Berry Hill Lane became the obvious answer.
I managed to scrape together a down payment on a $25,000 piece of property a mile up the rutty, rocky lane: Five forested acres that housed three tiny cabins, fashioned from reclaimed lumber and windows that used to be part of a nearby hotel. The main one, 400 square feet with a loft bedroom, a makeshift kitchen, and a rusty old woodstove, would become my home. The octagonal cabin that I packed with my children’s books and dubbed the “Regression Room” served as my office; most of my nonessential belongings ended up molding away in the third outbuilding. (Who knew ice skates could grow mold?) My monthly mortgage payment was the equivalent of what I pay for a haircut now.
It was more than enough space for me and my beagley mutt, Lucy, to dream our dreams of woods and poetry. And it was a serious education in self-reliance. There was no well on the property, and each drop of water had to be hauled in or collected from the roof. I had to pack out any garbage I created — and pay to dump it. No Berry Hill Lane resident ever received a bill from the electric company — we were off the grid. The juice that ran anything came from batteries charged by solar panels and gas generators. Forget about a toilet or bathtub or washing machine.
I traded chartreuse silk pumps for black leather Timberlands and figured out how to yield that satisfying crack-and-split from firewood rounds. Berry Hill’s resident solar-power expert, Michael “Dr. Sparks” Bittman, guided me through the process of buying and installing two panels on my roof. And my lifestyle became more a reflection of the earth’s desires than my own: The first winter, all those plants that had thrived in my last home froze into black, slimy messes because I’d let the fire die out for too long. When ice made the road too slick for driving one Christmas Eve, my truck nearly ended up in a ditch full of refrigerators abandoned by my neighbor. One time, a bear let himself in and took a big shit on my coffee table.
Ecology became personal, a matter of keeping warm, dry, safe, and clean. I stopped buying paper towels and used dishtowels and sponges instead. Propane-powered lights were on only when necessary — the more gas I used, the sooner I’d have to truck the tank to town for a refill. My “septic system” involved an outhouse, a plastic bucket with holes in the bottom, and ashes from the fireplace.
Despite the aches and worries, I loved my life. But I still felt the urban tug. Eventually, I took a job in Seattle and then, in 2005, moved to Los Angeles — a city with, among other things, an abundance of smog and a shocking lack of recycling.
In L.A., my environmentalism has shifted to a macro level. Every day, I urge millions of people to save energy.
I had come to California with thoughts of using my creative talents in the entertainment business, but that didn’t look so hot after I saw what my hardworking, poorly paid friends in the “biz” went through. So six months ago, I went to work in the corporate communications department of one of the country’s largest investor-owned utilities.
Friends were shocked that I’d taken a straight job after six years of freelancing, and that said employment was in a decidedly “unsexy” industry. I think I shocked myself even more — how could a once-blissful homesteader become a utility employee?
I wondered if I was selling out. My personal jury will always be out about nuclear power, and my new company owns an interest in the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, near San Diego. I don’t like that a lot of our portfolio comes from dirty old coal. On the other hand, I was warmed when I learned that our company’s chair was a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
I soon realized I’d be an operative working from the inside: I am paid to convince people to not buy so much of our product, to get them to conserve energy and save money.
I created a forum on our website in which customers can share ways they save energy. I’m in charge of the inserts customers receive in the mail, and it’s my mission to make energy efficiency interesting and approachable — especially for those angry and baffled by their bills. I tell them how they can earn cash when they buy an Energy Star-rated fridge or freezer, plus an extra $35 to $50 to haul away the old one. I tell them how, if each California household swapped out one regular, high-use bulb for a compact fluorescent, the total savings would be $75 million over a year. And I tell them that last year, my company purchased more than 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity generated by wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable sources — more than any other utility in the country.
The business rationale for urging conservation, besides greater good, is that the more electricity customers use, the more strain it puts on the infrastructure, and the more we need to maintain and create new lines, poles, generation methods, and the like. The California Public Utilities Commission sets rates, and we can’t charge more than what it costs us to procure and deliver energy. So it makes sense to work with and improve existing infrastructure, and convince people that saving money is a win-win situation.
I’ve come to realize that change comes in particles that make waves. Decisions each of us make every moment — should I bring my own cup to the coffee shop? wait the half hour for my carpool buddy, or go it alone? look for local grapes? — affect the larger picture. My intent is to help the good people of Southern California make the small, eco-friendly choices that really can change their lives.
My own life has changed a great deal since the days spent in my tiny cabin — at least on the surface. I now live in a 1947 condo with hardwood floors (and ultra-efficient light bulbs). I’m probably over my days of peeing in a tomato can on a night when it’s too cold to go to the outhouse, and I’ll be damned if I ever lose a vintage beaded dress to mold again. But I still give up a silent thanks for every bubble bath I take, for every time I blow-dry my spazzy curls into sleek submission. Now I know just how much work it takes for the earth to give me those things.
I never meant to become a professional tree-hugger. I hung on to that tree because I had nothing else — I would have slipped into the void. But once I had my arms around a tree of my own, my options opened, and I couldn’t let go.