Oct 262011

Some good friends of ours spent several of their formative years (late teens/early twenties) living on a commune in Southwest Oregon. I pretty much missed that era when young people congregated in the woods, dropping out, dropping acid, smoking pot and testing community life.

My own experience during this time period (Baptist college, USAF, moving to a suburb, corporate life) seems quite drab by comparison when I visualize a huge garden staffed by naked youth or lazy swimming holes on a mountain river. So, I’ve made these friends tell us their stories over and over. It is the stuff of fiction and better than Drop City, a favorite book, or Commune, an interesting film about a hippie enclave in Northern California during the same period.

For years we’ve talked about a visit and recently we made it driving from Ashland towards Cave Junction to visit the survivors of this particular back to the land experiment. The group in question assembled on a lovely and unusual piece of land around 1971. They were squatters living in teepees and tree houses and a two level shack of redwood boards. A shack (pictured on the left) where seventeen young people spent the winter crowded around a wood stove and living off food stamps. This small house still stands and is in pretty good shape a testimony to the usefulness of redwood as a building material. Yet, it is astounding that seventeen kids could spend the winter there corralled  in that small space, cooking quinoa and pooping in the woods. More surprising is that four people from those early days, two couples, are still on this land—two hundred acres of very interesting geography and geology that has morphed from a place of trespass to individually owned, to a trust and now to a non-profit corporation with a conservation easement in favor of the local land conservation organization.

And, here we come to the point of writing about this place and its relevance to the subject of transition, sustainability and self-reliance: two couples, a partnership of four, now all sixtyish in age, have lived here, off the grid for forty years, making a nice life for themselves in these woods and meadows and hillsides and along the river. For years they had to wade the river or drive miles on a circuitous route through the hills to bring supplies. In later years they managed an ingenious footbridge and have found ways to even get a cement truck onto the property. Today, they live in attractive and comfortable hand-built homes. They have solar and hydroelectric power. Their gardens are extensive with nearly three acres fenced for cultivation. Their harvest of blueberries alone is “several hundred pounds.” Fruit trees are protected from bears by ingenious, solar powered electrified wires. There’s a great barn and a wonderfully designed green house attached to a twelve foot concrete wall which extends the growing season. They have been experimenting with grain and displayed two five gallon buckets full of wheat and a loaf of bread for lunch from flour ground on the property. It was a garden of eatin’ with grapes from the vine and cider pressed on the spot.

On a warm October day it was idyllic and exceeded my expectation, inspirational to see what had been accomplished and to know that it is possible, with ingenuity and sweat, to build and live in the modern age the way the earlier Oregon settlers had done. This former commune is a living laboratory for the future using old and new technology to create sustainability and comfort. A case study for the homesteading crowd, for preppers and survivalists.

We had parked the car and crossed the footbridge and were warmly greeted by one the couples. The woman had been a high school classmate of our good friend. These two young women had left the East Coast in 1970 to drive west seeking adventure. They arrived at this spot, had paired up with their men and continued their stories, one staying in the woods and one eventually moving back to the city. Although they don’t see each other much anymore the connection is still obviously strong.

We walked up the hill and into a large meadow and then past the site of a recently fallen tree, an enormous oak tree probably three hundred years old or more that had sheared off in a winter storm. It was being sawed and milled and split. This tree had watched it all, from Indian times to the hydraulic gold mining that had taken place below it to the hippies running amok. Over time the kids grew older organized themselves and learning to live with the land. Like the oak tree everything has its time. Nothing goes on forever and although the two couples have stayed to steward this large property and created the legal framework to protect it, they will need some younger energy to perpetuate what they’ve started. It seems inconceivable to me that with “back to the land” gaining steam again that they won’t find a young couple or two or more to join with them.

I envy our friends and these couples and their stories and the experience they had which seems to me so delicious. What they had then was better than a college education. What they have now is the know how that all of us might need in the near future.


  10 Responses to “Forty Years Off the Grid”

  1. What a great story of sustainable living. Somebody should write a book about these guys and document everything they’ve learned. We might all be living like them someday.

  2. 58 years on the grid! I remember well the year we connected to the new power lines on North Nugent, across from the Grange Hall. It was 1953. A year with many memorable events that summer. I remember listening on my Dad’s battery powered radio, about the ending of the Korean War. But the really big deal, was getting electricity in my grandparents cabin! Previously, our source of night time light, was a beautiful coal oil crystal chandelier above the dinner table, and two pump-up white gas lanterns, with white milk glass shades, hanging from ceiling hooks in the living room, and a plain kerosene lamp in the kitchen. We heated our water in a blackened kettle that hung from a metal hook in the fireplace. A favorite evening pastime was putting popcorn in the long handled popcorn popper, with a sliding screen top, and popping it over the fire in the fireplace, while listening to the soft whishing sound made by the gas lanterns above. My parents would be busy putting together a jigsaw puzzle, under the chandelier. There had been electricity on the island long before we got it. I believe Mac Granger (Dorothy Hanson’s Dad) and several other island men had formed a co-op years before, and installed a diesel generator over in Legoe Bay, to supply many of the chicken and dairy farmers on the island. But by 1953 the cable had been laid from the mainland, and the power company made it very attractive to hook up to the system. We were only present on the island during the month of August, so there had never been a strong need to have full time electricity. But now, it was just too convenient to pass up. So we became electrified!

    If things reverse, and reality dictates going off the grid, will I be devastated? I’m not sure. Perhaps I’ll put some popcorn in the popper, and think about it, as my mind takes me back to simpler times.

  3. There’s a fellow I’ve met who lives near Bow who has never been on the grid in his life, nor owned a vehicle. He made his house with canvas, rebar, and concrete, using a technique developed in India as a low-cost construction method. He diverted a small runoff creek from his neighbor’s property (with permission, of course), has a friend who put a small Pelton wheel on a car generator (not alternator), and uses that to generate hydropower. He has a solar water heater. He has a home built composting toilet. He uses LED lights, and heats with a woodstove. He’s used lots of other techniques to make a comfortable–and relatively normal–lifestyle. He has a computer, a washing machine, and other amenities.

    His name is Chris Soler. He used to teach courses through the Free Universtiy. I signed up for a day long class one time, and no one else showed up. I offered to leave, but instead Chris said he had nothing else scheduled and gave me a detailed tour and answered my multitude of questions. It was a fascinating day!

  4. Those were the days of that legendary compendium of off the grid resources: “The Whole Earth Catalogue.” Now available as a collector item on Ebay.

  5. You have a nice way with words.
    What a wonderful time that was. I sampled the back- to- the- land life traveling, with two friends, to South America where we thought we could afford to buy land. Purchasing land and living in S. America proved to be too much for us. I went back to school, toyed with communal living, raising goats, chickens, geese etc, but they kept the dream whole, married, and now live near Tonasket on 400 acres. They are surrounded by 60 somethings who never waivered from their visions. They are off the grid with solar, wind and water powering their music and lights. I sure respect their tenacity but I have no complaints about my life choices. Though it is kinda fun at this stage of life to wonder “what if”.

  6. Like everyone else on the Island, I began getting PSE’s ‘Home Energy Report’ every other month. It shows how my house is doing each month throughout the year, compared to similiar houses in the neighborhood and my efficient neighbors average consumption.
    I just got another several days ago and was mortified how much more power I consume than both my neighbors and my efficient neighbors. I feel like someone knocked the wind out of me, after trying so hard the last several months to be Mr & Mrs Green.
    So, I’m curious what others consumption is. I used 12,500 kWh’s (+/- a little), between Jan-Sep of both 2010 and 2011 as shown on page two. How are you doing? This seems like a lot of power for a 2BR,2bath 1,500 SF house.

  7. mike, after putting in sixteen 130 watt panels and feeling pretty good about my energy scene; a couple days with the kiln set me back $50 bucks. love the pottery, hate the bill. I run about 8 kw a day minus the clay

  8. Mike, I seem to get the same “bad boy” notice from PSE every month. I assumed it was because my neighbors are never here. But, perhaps we are just enjoying the grid to excess.

  9. Yes, I think the 50/50 ratio of part timers to full times really screw up the algorithm for PSE’s little charting program.
    I started to flesh this out this morning and ran out of time, but in the state of WA, the average home energy consumption (elect,gas,wood,etc) is 75 MBtu per person per year. You have to back out your use of wood or propane to get electric consumption for a family of two.
    In my case it was simpler, as we don’t use propane. Just electric and about a cord of wood a year.
    Based on all that, I came up with normal annual consumption of about 40,000 Kwh’s for our all-electric house for the two of us. PSE says were using about 1/3 of that, so unless I did something really screwy (very possible), we’re doing OK.
    I’m really interested in finding out how much power and how much propane arrives onto Lummi Is each year. Finding a source of info is going to be hard, but that’s the basis for 1:1 replacement IF either ever gets shut off.
    Another post for another long winter day. Time to Garden!

  10. Hi Ruth,

    Thanks for checking in with us islanders. Interesting to hear of your past adventures. I can recall the beginning of your hippie period and also remember your disdain of my working for the big insurance company. Things do change, don’t they? Wonder if any of your friends are featured in this documentary that I’m trying to get through Netflix http://backtothegardenfilm.com/. Supposedly, the folks interviewed are in Eastern Washington. I would enjoy hearing more about your S. American adventures.

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