“We live just like the white folks,” permaculturist Arvo Thomson comically replies, when I ask if he has enough power in his off-grid home for basic necessities like refrigeration. I hang up the phone smiling, knowing that my search has ended. I’ve been looking through the Willing Workers on Organic Farms guide (a network that hooks up volunteers with organic farming opportunities) for an off-grid work opportunity. Having learned that 36 percent of energy use comes from the home, I’ve felt the need to explore the off-grid lifestyle as a viable housing alternative for the masses—an alternative that offers relatively the same standard of living as a typical home in the city but with the opportunity to connect closely to nature.
Despite arriving at night, Thomson is eager to give me a tour of his rural New Mexico home, a home that represents his main focus in life—permaculture. I get a glimpse into his life by seeing the multiple green technology systems in place: methane digester, graywater irrigation, solar electric and hot water heating, passive solar design, ultra-efficient Energy Star rated appliances. As he explains the intricacies of his solar radiant heating system, his eagerness to divulge the secrets of his self-sustaining home’s operation become clear—his home is an extension of who he is. Like a druid living on the fat of the land through an intimate knowledge of every edible plant, so Thomson lives in his eco-utopia through his knowledge of permaculture design and greenhouse growing. Thomson explodes with verbal energy when he talks, sometimes speaking non-stop for spurts of twenty minutes or more. With hair that naturally stands up straight and curious eyes that constantly dart around, he looks like the eccentric scientist type. His science: living sustainably. His project: his home.
Thomson‘s home, named Solar Ark, has 1200 square feet of living space and over 3000 square feet of greenhouse space—enough to grow food to feed five people. He does most of his growing in greenhouses, which allows him to produce quite a diversity of food. One crop I’m surprised to see growing at this high desert altitude of 7000’ are lemons, typically a warm climate crop. Though he does employ agricultural permaculture techniques, Thomson’s main interests in sustainability lie on the technology side. Touring through his home excites and inspires me. As long as the weather cooperates (it usually does in the sunny desert) his home fully sustains itself. Electricity comes from solar panels. Heat comes from passive solar home construction (with walls built from adobe materials that store and release heat) and solar radiant heating systems. He harvests enough water from the rain to enjoy triple-filtered carbonated rainwater on a daily basis and to provide plumbing for his standard flush toilets. Solar Ark’s intelligent graywater irrigation system reuses its water input by irrigating his outdoor plants. I’m surprised to find that the home and its systems cost him only about $100,000. Though he did build much of it himself, and did labor exchanges with other trades people, the low price tag demonstrates that this is an attainable lifestyle for most home buyers.
Being a guest at Solar Ark, like at most off-grid homes, takes some adjustment. The first few days are filled with plenty of reminders of all the little things I’d been doing wrong: leaving the door open to the guest quarters at night (heat generated by the solar radiant floor heating escapes from this part of the house) or closed during the day (heat from the adjacent greenhouse can be used to warm up the guest wing); using more water in the kettle to boil than is necessary; forgetting to unplug appliances rather than just turning them off (an idle current runs through most appliances even when turned off). I’m finding the first few days somewhat nerve wracking. Just when I thought I’d been quite an energy conscious person, I’m finding out that really, under this system at least, I’m not. Staying in a home where energy is limited is quite a lesson in conservation. I don’t find this lifestyle any more difficult, just different. Instead of blindly filling up the kettle with more water than necessary, I’m finding myself filling up my cup with water then dumping it in the kettle. Another adjustment involves using the electric skillet on sunny days and the methane gas stove at night and on cloudy days, because as Thomson says, “you take what the land gives you.” Living in this house is like living in tune with the cycles of nature. Though what Thomson said on the phone about having all the necessary amenities of a modern house is true, I’m finding that their use is not unlimited. That is a good thing, however. Being in a situation where I’m forced to pay close attention to conservation is really making me think beyond oil conservation, but to think hard about all forms of energy consumption—thoughts often neglected in the minds of those born in energy abundant North America.
The only adjustment that I found somewhat disconcerting was having to limit energy consumption when the skies were very cloudy. According to Thomson, four days of straight clouds is trouble because battery storage won’t last that long, but in these parts that almost never happens. When it does, he has backup wood burning stoves to heat the air and water. When he cooks a meal, he proudly tells his guests it’s cooked with chicken shit, thanks to his chicken manure powered methane digester (another system that runs independent of the weather). For a 5000 square-foot home (including greenhouse space), his 1300W solar array seems miniscule. These challenges of energy consumption and storage on cloudy days can be easily remedied by upping the system’s solar generation and storage capacity. However, Thomson doesn’t see it as a problem, just a reality of off-grid life. For him weather patterns are a natural cycle that affects his home’s energy harvesting. Just like a farm having some productive years and some less productive, so does his home have good runs and bad. It’s all part of nature.
It takes me a few days to consistently remember all the energy conservation methods necessary to live at Solar Ark. While on par with most guests, it appears I’m a little slower to catch on than Carlos, the wild raven turned pet that lives part-time in Thomson’s home. Thomson built a “nest” for Carlos, a corner room raised from the main level, complete with a solar-powered automatic door to the outside, allowing the bird complete freedom to fly in and out of the house on a whim. Thomson points out on my first day there that Carlos learned how to open his electric door on the first day it was installed. If a bird can be trained to peck a button, surely I too can learn the ways of off-grid life by remembering to open the door at mid-morning and close it in the early evening.
One morning, after opening my door and removing the thermal insulation from the windows, I sit down to rest in one of the spacious greenhouse rooms, underneath a canopy of grape vines filled with fruit. According to Thomson, everything a permaculturist designs serves at least two or more purposes. In this case the grapes aren’t just to eat, their leaves provide shade in the summer for cooling and fall in the winter to let in heat. As I sit contemplating this permaculture design principle, a mechanical sound revs up as the sunlight pours through the grape leaves. Whirrrrr. Stop. Whirrrrrrrrrr. The house is alive. I can feel it harvesting solar energy every time the sun peeks out from the clouds. Just as the solar energy powers my pen to paper through its inspiring warmth and light, it truly powers every word you read as I switch over to my notebook computer to type.
The challenges of growing food in a high desert climate are staggering. With frosts that can be counted on coming in June and September, there’s only a three month window to grow food. That’s why Thomson grows his food almost entirely in greenhouses. He points out that greenhouses only make sense when they’re attached to a building to insulate them from the north. After all, why build a greenhouse with four glass walls when you have to heat it at night and cool it during the day? Instead, you build them along the entire south face of the house, bypassing the need to heat or cool. The greenhouses self-regulate their temperature (and that of the house) by retaining the day’s heat in the adobe walls and releasing that heat at night. These greenhouses are as much a part of his home as his kitchen or living room. I happily find myself there at all times of the day—harvesting vegetables, plucking seeds or washing windows during the day and hanging out on the couch bathed by the bright moonlight in the evening.
At dusk, Thomson and I get into a discussion about energy conservation, a popular topic at his house. We talk about frugality as an optional principle of the permaculturist lifestyle. Despite accepting his frugality, Thomson adamantly contends that there’s a difference between the wise use of resources and frugality. Thomson believes that resources should never be wasted, but that it’s fine to use them when needed. As the light wears away in my room, I see only a figure standing near the doorway talking in the dark, positioned right beside the light switch. I stop myself from asking the obvious question, waiting to see what he’s going to do. At one point in the discussion he turns on the light to make a point, then turns it back off. I ask him why he just turned it off when we were now speaking in the dark. He points out that he’s now being frugal. After staying in a highly resource conscious environment for a few days I agree with Thomson on the necessity of wisely using resources. I don’t mind being reminded when I forget to unplug the computer at the outlet rather than just turning it off. In no case should resources be wasted, but it’s fine to use them when needed. By taking that extra effort to conserve energy in every way possible it makes us better appreciate the times we do use energy.
The lifestyle changes demanded by living at Thomson’s home were minor. I really have come to appreciate the changes living here elicit—a conscious response to the environment, a more tuned way of living in touch with the land and its resources. Living in an environment where basic necessities are not taken for granted fosters a real sense of humility. I now see the god-like power we’ve been given to flick lights on and off as a luxury. By using appropriate technology, Arvo Thomson has successfully created a house that lives and breathes in tune with nature. As I see Carlos the raven flying from the house it seems this home represents more than just an environmentally-friendly place to live. It’s also a sanctuary. A place where nature feels safe and respected. A place where nature can heal the wounds imposed on it by humankind. A place where we can become One with nature.