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Spring 2011 (May 6, 2011)

Living the Dream

By Laura Billings Coleman

Whether we’re inspired by the push to recycle, the puncture of the real estate bubble, or the growing popularity of green products, many Americans are reexamining what we really want from our homes and our lives, exploring alternatives that may lead to greener pastures—or just smaller carbon footprints. In this issue, nine Carleton alumni share the lessons of their own efforts to live more sustainably, finding fresh new ways to raise their food and their families, and working to remodel everything from their roofs to what it means to live in community.

Have Yurt, Will Travel

Bretwood “Hig” Higman ’99 and Erin McKittrick ’01
Seldovia, Alaska

Motivation: “For us it’s a question of balance. I enjoy the half of my life when I’m behind a computer screen, working within my profession and being paid for it—but I want to spend the other half digging in the garden or wandering around in the woods.” —Hig Higman

YurtThe New York Times Home and Garden section generally covers more expansive living quarters than the 450-square-foot yurt shared by Bretwood “Hig” Higman ’99 and Erin McKittrick ’01. The Carleton couple’s $14,000 Mongolian-style circular tent—set on a wooded slope of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula—was featured in a much-e-mailed story that ran in the Times in December 2009. 

“It’s basically just one big room, so you can’t accumulate junk,” says McKittrick, who adds that this central rule may explain why her yurt seems so appealing to those of us who have 30-year mortgages and overflowing attics and basements. “I think a lot of people feel trapped by their possessions.”

IMG_B002749.jpgPacking light is a priority for the couple who founded Ground Truth Trekking (www.groundtruthtrekking.org), a nonprofit that raises awareness of environmental issues in Alaska by exploring contested areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Chukchi Sea on foot, snowshoe, and packraft (a tiny, five-pound inflatable raft). During their longest journey—a 4,000-mile human-powered expedition from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands in 2007—they explored the possibility of moving to Higman’s hometown of Seldovia (population 300) to create a more balanced life than they could afford in Seattle, where McKittrick earned a master’s degree in molecular biology and Higman completed a PhD in geology at the University of Washington.

“When you’re traveling over that many miles, you have plenty of time to talk and think about other paths you could take,” says Higman. “There are stories our culture tells about how you build a life, and they usually revolve around a nine-to-five job. We wanted something that would allow us a little more flexibility and more time for adventures.”

With their son Katmai, now two, on the way, they moved onto property owned by Higman’s mother (who lives in a small cabin with no running water), set up a yurt, and started an educational nonprofit, combining that with a battery of freelance gigs from environmental consulting to photography assignments to jewelry-making to publishing (McKittrick’s account of their trip to the Aleutian Islands, A Long Trek Home, was released in 2009). They also made tough decisions about what they really needed (good Internet access) and what they could do without (running water and a flush toilet). 

IMG_060255.jpg“It’s interesting that more people don’t recognize that in a rural area, you can live well for little money,” says Higman. “By some metrics we’re probably living below the poverty line, but if you measure by what makes us happy, it looks very different.”

A documentary film about their 2007 trip, Journey on the Wild Coast, premiered at the Anchorage Film Festival in December. A few weeks later, the couple moved into a hotel in town near the hospital to await the birth of their daughter, Lituya Journey Higman. Born on January 1, 2011, Lituya will join her parents and her brother on an expedition this fall trekking along Alaska’s Malaspina Glacier, which has been shrinking over the past 30 years.

Though McKittrick envisions that there will come a day when the yurt is no longer suitable for raising two kids, she hopes the experience will make a lasting impression: “It will show our children that thinking outside the box is good.”

 

Raising a Roof, Reaching a Community

Dick Dawson ’57 and Ellie Dawson ’59
Kansas City, Missouri

Motivation: “A green roof costs more than a traditional
one . . . but we thought it might get people thinking about doing things differently.”—Ellie Dawson

When retired science teachers Ellie (Webster) Dawson ’59 and Dick Dawson ’57 put a sunroom on their Kansas City home, they decided to turn the addition’s 400-square-foot roof into a teachable moment. Longtime nature lovers who first met as members of Carleton’s Natural History Club, the Dawsons decided against the usual asphalt shingles in favor of a green roof—a roofing system made of specially mixed substrate and preplanted sedum, capable of providing both insulation and protection from the elements, but with a much smaller carbon footprint than more traditional options.

“It was a more expensive choice, but it seemed like an interesting experiment because it had never been tried in our climate,” says Dick, who is founding secretary and editor for the Missouri Prairie Foundation, an organization that advocates for statewide prairie protection, owns or manages nearly 4,000 acres of land, and produces a magazine on native grasslands. The $6,500 price tag for the Dawsons’ roof was nearly four times the $1,600 they paid to replace the same size area on their existing roof with asphalt shingles, “and we know it won’t return the extra cost in our lifetime,” says Dick.

The roof, which has been in place for three years, requires occasional watering during dry summers and an application of soil after heavy rains, but the Dawsons have already gotten the payoff they hoped for: an absorbing home project and increased publicity for the green roof concept. “We know we can’t take credit for the buildings in downtown Kansas City that are starting to install green roofs,” says Dick. “But we want our roof to get people talking and to spark their interest enough that it might get them thinking about positive changes they could make, too.”

Says Ellie, “Now when our neighbors say hello, the second thing out of their mouths is always, ‘How’s your roof?’ ”

 

Simple Living 101

Emily LeVine ’05
Sandpoint, Idaho

Motivation: “Some choose to educate themselves in literature or in math. I choose to educate myself in the earth and its natural processes. It is an intensely satisfying learning experience, perhaps because it is intrinsically so simple, yet it would take a lifetime to get through Earth 101.” —Emily LeVine

emily-and-peas.jpgWhen Emily LeVine ’05 got her first glimpse of the century-old cabin that would serve as intern housing while she worked on an Idaho farm five miles away, “I thought I’d be lucky to make it through the summer,” she says.

Five years later, that 14-by-18-foot cabin, with a wood stove and no indoor plumbing, is her home and the office for Red Wheelbarrow Produce, a sustainable farm LeVine founded with her boyfriend, now in its third season of cultivation. “Living here has been a huge lesson in the difference between wants and needs. To work with the space you’ve got is one of the skills I think we’ve lost,” says LeVine, who adds that paring things down to essentials is an important principle in gardening as well: “Start small. Plant too much of anything and you’ll be sorry.”

emily-and-brad-in-greenhouse.jpgLeVine, who majored in geology and environmental and technology studies at Carleton, got interested in the local food movement while she was living at Carleton’s Farm House. Her passion grew after graduation when she began working on a home garden initiative with the White Earth Land Recovery Project in northern Minnesota.

To learn more, she took an internship at a farm in Sandpoint, Idaho. She then leased the 40 acres that her cabin stands on, and last year she cultivated two-thirds of an acre for her own crops. She sells the majority of her produce at a farmers market in Sandpoint, and she also sells through Six Rivers Market, an online cooperative that provides a year-round market for local products.

While she grows everything from beets to zucchini to flowers, LeVine’s special niche is head lettuce, a crop that requires her to plant more than 300 tiny seeds in soil trays every Monday, transplanting the same number of larger plants into the ground to ensure a continual supply. “There’s no way my dad would have sent me to Carleton if he thought I’d grow up to be a farmer,” LeVine says with a grin, adding that she now enlists him to help her with the weeding during his summer visits.

jana-and-garlic.jpgHer commitment to sustainable growing practices means extra tending and occasional late nights wearing a headlamp so she can see to pull pests off plants, but she doesn’t complain. “It’s not necessarily about being ‘green,’ although it may have started that way,” LeVine says. “It’s about becoming intimately connected with the basics, about learning through experience what it takes to sustain life as we know it in this country.”

Although LeVine plans to double her operation to an acre and a half this year, she’s not quite ready to be a full-time farmer. She also works for a handyman in town, applying many of the tricks of his trade to her own business.

emily-in-greenhouse.jpg“We built an outdoor shower for use during the summer,” says LeVine, noting that the ability to shower is a critical perk for her first intern, Simone Childs-Walker ’12 (Seattle), and the other Carleton students she hopes to recruit to work in her garden in seasons to come. Interns stay in a wall tent or in a cabin, which LeVine and her boyfriend built mostly from recycled materials, and have access to an outdoor kitchen. They work three days a week and get full meals on workdays, produce for their own use, and a small weekly stipend.

“Getting your hands dirty and being part of the whole growing process from beginning to end is an invaluable experience,” says LeVine. “I highly recommend it.”

 

Making the Most of Sunny Days

Peter Gunn ’92 and Fillard Spring-Rhyne ’91
Portland, Oregon

Motivation: “Putting up solar panels felt like the right thing to do. And with three layers of government removing obstacles from our path, the right thing became the obvious thing.” —Peter Gunn

With an average of 222 cloudy days a year, Portland, Oregon, may never compete with Miami Beach for spring break, but it is earning a national reputation as a hot spot for solar energy. In fact, Peter Gunn ’92 and Fillard Spring-Rhyne ’91 recently joined the wave of homeowners there who have added photovoltaic panels to their roofs thanks to Solarize Portland, a neighborhood program (funded by the city of Portland) that uses the power of community purchasing to bring the start-up costs of solar power within reach for more residents.

“Basically, it’s a bulk buying program,” says Spring-Rhyne, an actuarial research analyst for Oregon’s Medicaid program. Neighborhood associations find residents who are interested in signing up and choose a single contractor, which cuts the average cost of buying and installing photovoltaic panels by nearly a third. Combine that with tax incentives and renewable energy discounts, and the net cost of $20,000 worth of solar panels—a typical solution for a Portland bungalow—can drop to less than $4,000.

Going in on big purchases with the neighbors is familiar terrain for Gunn and Spring-Rhyne, friends since childhood who together own a 1950s side-by-side duplex. Gunn and his wife, Lee-Anne Flandreau, live in one unit; Spring-Rhyne and his wife, Heather Spring-Emert, live in the other. The arrangement lowered their housing costs in Portland’s pricey real estate market, reduces the costs of shared improvements like the roof, and allows the two couples to share all sorts of things from the broadband Internet bill to the proverbial cup of sugar.

Each couple paid for their own solar panel system so they could reap all of the tax credits and other incentives, as well as the direct benefit of seeing how the panels cut their individual energy usage. Gunn estimates that the panels will cover about two-thirds of his total energy use. Spring-Rhyne installed a smaller system.

“I wouldn’t call what we’re doing ‘an alternative lifestyle,’ ” says Gunn, a technology services manager for the University of Oregon. “Rather, I’d say that we’re an indicator that living more sustainably is becoming part of the mainstream.”

 

Communities Based on Common Values

Laird Schaub ’71 and Ma’ikwe Schaub Ludwig ’92
Rutledge, Missouri

Motivation: “It’s incredible how much you don’t have to own if you share.”—Laird Schaub

bedroom.jpgThe compromises that come with dorm life drive many students to their first efficiency apartment, but for Laird Schaub ’71, living in close quarters with like-minded people was one of the things he missed when he graduated from Carleton with a major in mathematics and began a job at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

“The combination of stimulation and support that you get in that kind of community was precious to me,” says Schaub, who decided that the two-step process followed by most college graduates (get a job, then find a place to live and people to live with) just wasn’t working for him. “I realized, wait, I’ve done this all backwards. So I reversed it and decided to concentrate first on who I’m with, and then decide what we’re going to do second.”

tea.jpgToday Schaub is executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, an online network (ic.org) for the estimated 100,000 Americans who live in ecovillages, cohousing communities, co-ops, communes, and other communal living situations such as Sandhill, the egalitarian organic farm in northeast Missouri that Schaub helped found in 1974 with his then-partner Ann Shrader ’72, Ed Pultz ’71, and Pultz’s partner. The other founders have moved on, but Schaub still lives on Sandhill Farm, where the seven adult residents share their income and divide up the work it takes to grow 80 percent of their own food.

Just a bike ride away, Schaub’s wife, Ma’ikwe (née Victoria) Schaub Ludwig ’92, lives in one of more than a dozen houses built with straw bales and other sustainable materials at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, a larger community that is focused on developing a sustainable human environment and culture, including green building, energy, and food. “The emphasis of our two communities is a little different, but highly compatible,” says Schaub.

coop.jpgThey get a significant part of their couple time during the several months they spend on the road every year, providing group process training and consulting to cooperative groups of all stripes. While their main work is with intentional communities, they also work with neighborhood associations, nonprofits, schools, and any group interested in learning how to function more cooperatively and authentically. It’s Schaub’s view that intentional communities “are the world’s research and development centers for what it takes to successfully live in cooperation.”

Ludwig, author of a book on eco-activism titled Passion as Big as a Planet, notes that while many people are drawn to community living because of a “back to the land” sensibility, she’s found something deeply modern—and surprisingly sane—in sharing meals, chores, wisdom, and three cars with the 50 adults and children who live at Dancing Rabbit. “My 13-year-old [from a previous relationship] has lived in community his whole life,” and because of the shared child care that comes from community living, “I never had to choose between having a career or having a family life,” she says.

solar.jpgWhile she and Schaub are the first to say communal living is not for everyone, they do notice a growing interest in the environmental and even emotional benefits of living in intentional communities. “Our Web site gets more than 5 million page views a year, and it goes up about 10 percent annually,” Schaub says. “I think it’s because we humans are hardwired to be herd animals and we crave each other’s kind, but our culture doesn’t teach us how to do that. We’re trying to create a different kind of model for living, where ultimate security lies not in our bank accounts, but in our relationships.”

 

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