2005 Renewable Energy Fair highlights: Voluntary simplicity

At this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy & Sustainable Living Fair Aug. 13-14 in Oregon, Birgit Wolff, former director of the National Center for Vehicle Emission Control at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, spoke on voluntary simplicity. She and her husband, a retired professor from Colorado State, chose early retirement to follow other interests. They both love the outdoors—he as a hunter, fisherman and active outdoor enthusiast; she from the perspective of an artist, trying to make a living as one. They both enjoy hiking, biking and canoeing, also known as the silent recreations.

During the environmental movement of the 1960s, they contemplated joining the back-to-the-land movement. They bought a small cabin and a 10-acre parcel of timber in northern Wisconsin near Ashland. They spent summers there admiring young couples who built their own homes and lived frugal lives gardening, hunting, fishing and working at odd jobs for cash incomes. After witnessing the struggles of their friends, they settled into professional lives and raised two children.

They chose to retain property in Wisconsin, and limited their professional advancements by spending summers there enjoying the lives they longed for. They lived frugally in Colorado, but also enjoyed personal pleasures including good clothes, hobbies, dinners out and professional travels to foreign lands.

Their holdings in Wisconsin include a turn-of-the-century farm house and 80 acres of land. The home was uninsulated, without indoor toilet facilities and heated by a wood cook stove and barrel stove. Rather than build a new home, they chose to remodel the old one while retaining most of the original features.

They added two inches of insulation over the exterior siding and covered it with locally cut rough pine boards. They replaced the old windows with double-paned, argon-filled windows and covered the old roof with a layer of insulation and metal roofing. While they still heat with wood, they have a small wall-mounted energy-efficient gas heater in the kitchen to keep the central area warm. They close off heat to rooms they have no need for in winter. They wear wool sweaters and wool booties in the house to limit heating bills.

They brought the electrical service up to code and added a composting toilet to avoid the chill of outhouse use during winter. They purchased a dorm-sized refrigerator, which forces them to limit food purchases to fit its space. Since they have no garbage service, they carry their own shopping bags and minimize purchasing elaborate packaged food.

They cook over a counter top electric range and occasionally use the oven in the wood stove for special holiday meals. In summer, they cook on a screened porch to limit heat buildup in the house. They wash dishes by hand and expect guests to wash their own. While they have a washer and dryer, they limit dryer use to cold winter spells to add heat and filtered moisture to the home. They hang laundry on dryer racks or on a line outside.

They garden and compare the price of their home-raised produce to that of organic produce at the supermarket. They raise chickens for eggs, which remain edible without refrigeration for up to three weeks if not washed until just before using. They hunt and fish for meat and tap sugar maple trees for sweeteners and gifts for family, friends and relatives.

They drive a used 1996 Saturn and have it serviced regularly. They plan their shopping, dental and medical trips carefully. If necessary, they rent a car for extended trips or visits.

Their comfortable but somewhat austere lifestyle is one they chose to live. It comes from environmental values, the avoidance of materialism and the recognition that money and possessions do not lead to fulfillment. For them, the joys in life come from values within themselves rather than exterior rewards.

From the Oct. 5-11, 2005, issue

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