Friday, December 14, 2012

Living Sustainably in the City: Our Story

I was super encouraged when I opened the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Countryside Magazine and found that the story I wrote about our first year striving to live sustainably in the city had been published. If you are interested in any of these topics, this is a great magazine that I have been reading for years. You can read the current issue online, but not the submitted stories, so here is what I wrote. I am so looking forward to the Spring and the new year and new adventures!


Dear Countryside,

I have been reading Countryside for many years. Long before I married, or owned a house, or even understood what sustainability is. I learned many, many tings about off-grid living, canning, homesteading, housekeeping, etc. before I ever did any project of my own. The information has been invaluable and I return to those back issues now, more than ever as our life gets more involved in gardening and sustainability. It has been in my heart and mind the whole time, and as November approaches, I will take out the November/December magazines from the past and read all of the ideas for this time of year. Starting with the newest, which I read cover to cover, I then scan through past issues to mark stories that I would like to read again.  

When I first started reading Countryside, what I remember is the feeling in my gut, that instinctive knowing that I was supposed to be working in a garden somehow and that the sustainable lifestyle was something I wanted to live. Growing food, digging in the ground, chopping kindling, whatever it meant, I knew I would one day have a way to garden. I had the desire to move toward a simpler life, but I still had the impression that I would have to move to Vermont or somewhere similar to have the space to do many of the things that homesteading and off-grid living requires.

We decided to live sustainably in the city instead of moving. We started by asking ourselves what was attractive about living in a place like Vermont? It is a slower paced life - we can do that here by making better choices with our time. I want to be able to heat and cook with a wood stove - so we installed the Elmira wood stove. I want to grow our fruits and vegetables - we can do that in the city also, with a little creativity and patience. We want our commute and work day to be as simple as possible, so we bought a house near our jobs and can walk if needed, but currently take public buses and carpool to commute. My ideal would be to stay home and put my full day of effort into working in the garden, cooking, writing, and crafting and I am working toward that by paying off personal debt and saving.

I once thought that we would need a lot of space, but that simply is not true. We live in Worcester, Massachusetts - one of the biggest cities in New England and the lot we live on is only 100x50. Many people, when seeing our home, had the first response of "what a great starter home". However, the first time we walked through, I knew it was a perfect, workable size for a family of four and there was a big enough space to spend time in the yard, and have a garden one day. When we moved in, there was extra space, and as we lived, we accumulated more and more stuff, to the point of needing a dumpster every year to cear out enough to use the house again. It isn't dirty or verge on hoarding, but a small space filled up quickly with two growing teens at the time, and with a creative family. We simply had too much, but didn't understand that we were participating in a consumer-based lifestyle at that time.

We started our journey of learning to be sustainable by taking care of structural and foundational work: first we replaced the roof, then we fenced in the yard. We added garden beds, fruit and nut trees last year, along with rain barrels. We also installed an Elmira Cooktop Stove, so we could heat and cook with wood. I learned about the stove in Countryside and we found a local stove place to do the ordering and installation. We stopped using the air conditioners and had the extra appliances taken away. We bought a new, energy efficient and smaller refrigerator and a new washer that is energy efficient and easier on our clothes.

It sounds like so much in a list like this, but really, we did one project at a time and then paid it off. This year we took a big leap and got energy efficient windows. Last night was only 40 degrees outside and it was still 65 inside. I am looking forward to the Winter with the new windows and the wood heat. If the house holds heat like it seems to right now. we will not use all of the wood we have stacked in the yard.

Our garden this year was an experiment in planting as many different things as we could to see what would grow best here. We were able to can potatoes, corn and carrots. We had a small amount of sweet potatoes. We also grew amaranth, peas, cucumbers, pumpkins, butternut squash, sunchokes, sunflower seeds, peppers, beans for drying and several herbs. Oh, and lots of cherry tomatoes, a few each day that we enjoyed with dinner. We learned a lot from our experiments! We will plant fewer things next year and only what we will definitely eat, with a goal of having extra to share with family and friends.

We also planted 5 different apple trees, 3 pear trees, an almond, 2 hazelnut, grapevines, kiwi vines, and several different berry bushes. They all grew quite a bit this year, but we have to be patient to see what they will do next year or the year after.

I am sharing this because I believe that we can all do something to be a little more sustainable and contribute. Rather than taking and using resources, how great it would be if we each could do just a little bit for ourselves! With each of the changes we have made, our energy usage has dropped and although it has created more work for us physically to copy wood, gather kindling, and care for the garden, the work is so rewarding.

Our city is currently working toward allowing chickens in the backyard here again REC Worcester is working for getting the approval in place. At the same time the Mass local food movement is growing. There are so many amazing pieces of conservation land that offer hiking, etc. One small place is near our home, so we became volunteer Rangers and help out that way by preserving the habitats near us. This gives us that experience of the open spaces of Vermont, while we tay right in our own neighborhood and city.

I don't believe that my backyard garden will change very much on any big scale of food growing or consumption, but I know what it has done for my mental well-being and the encouragement of our family. It is so exciting to see wild life in our yard (toads, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, possums, many different birds, butterflies, bats, etc.) It has changed our world to be able to walk into the back yard and pick a tomato that we planted. If everyone could do just one little thing like that, I do believe that individual lives would be greatly changed. And if enough individuals are changed, then who knows what the outcome and effect could be in the world?

I am very interested in the Tiny House movement (imagine the smile on my face when I realized that I already live in a small home). I am also reading a lot about Minimalism and Simplifying my life, and at the ocre of it, for me, is the necessity to need less and have fewer requirements. I still have and use the technology that I enjoy and am currently donating extra clothing, household items, etc. to three different organizations that will get it to families that are really in need.

For me, I see that less things to care for gives me more time to spend with family and friends, more time to meet neighbors and be involved in the community and more time to garden.

I would love to talk with anyone who is interested in urban farming, sustainability, living simply and returning to the simpler way of life. Our story is here

and I am here: 
Michele Couture
34 Pilgrim Ave.
Worcester, MA  01604

Thank you!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Small Treasures: Being Prepared

In the past few weeks, we have had Hurricane Sandy, winter storm Athena and yesterday around noon a water main broke that resulted in water for the whole city of Worcester being shut off last night while they worked on it. 

Amazingly, they worked through the night and it is fixed!

With each of these events, we gathered our “emergency” supplies together and checked flashlights, etc., charged everything up to 100% and waited. We were fortunate with the hurricane and the winter storm. The worst thing that happened was a long wait and a walk for me to get home from work. The city had so many accidents that schedules were off and some buses didn’t run.

The most noticeable change, for me personally, was a sense of security in knowing that we were prepared for most anything that could happen. We have some extra bottled water and food that is easy to prepare. I have a routine that is pretty quick when the news of an impending storm breaks, so I can have things together without much effort and not be stressed. We have wood for the stove, so we will be warm and can cook and none of us works far from home, so walking if needed isn’t an issue. If we had to leave home for an evacuation or disaster situation, our paperwork and “Go Bags” are ready with a few days of necessities.

At one time I would have thought that all of this preparation wasn’t necessary, as many people in New England also thought before these last couple of years. I find the comfort of being clear minded and ready for most any situation keeps the panic, impulsiveness, and fear of last minute chaos away.

I am not a “doomsday prepper”, I don’t have any thoughts of doom at all in what we are doing. We are just prepared in case we need to be. A couple of extra cans of soup or a case of water here and there when we shop for groceries is not inconvenient and we will use it should an emergency not arise, or a job is lost, or pay is reduced while I am out of work unexpectedly for 7 weeks (as I was this past Summer).

What I value most about these situations is the ability to keep as close to a normal day as possible without stress and having the calmness to prevent injury or accident that can sometimes happen in a hasty scramble at the last minute. We have all seen the tragic effects of Katrina, Irene, Sandy and the many other tornadoes, etc. of the past few years and I think it is just smart to gather important photos and documents together in a safe place (digital files too, if possible) and be able to continue on with life in the midst of an emergency. Honestly, it’s good to have the information together anyway, because everyday situations come up that require it.

One of the most helpful ideas I have ever read – was to think through and prepare for the worst case scenario – which for us would be evacuation and having to leave our home. If you prepare at that level and have a plan, paperwork, photos, small treasures, in order. Then when a storm comes, it’s just a matter of keeping a positive attitude. There isn’t any additional work needed. It’s already done.  

In the case of a large disaster like what has happened in New Jersey and New York with Hurricane Sandy…the Go Bag and getting your family to safety really is the only thing you can do. This is an individual decision and there are many different guidelines online if you need help planning a bag.  However, if in that bag you have important paperwork like birth certificates, marriage certificates, passports, financial information, etc. and you have copies of your favorite photos, some toiletries, a change of clothing, and some food and water, it won’t make the difficulty go away, but it will give you some comfort and strength in knowing that everything else can be replaced and what matters most is by your side. We each have a water proof bag with a few things in it that will get us through.

One thing that I thought of in planning is the small treasures that accumulate in our lives. One example for me is a little necklace I won for a story I wrote in 2nd grade. It isn’t valuable to anyone but me, but I would take that with me. Photos of our family growing up would also be irreplaceable. Everyone’s small treasures are different. Something like this is a talisman to memories….which really are the treasures you keep with you. For children, a favorite blanket and toy keep something familiar, And for pets, a copy of rabies certificates and tags, as well as the things that will comfort them in a new place or during a power outage, etc. If you are prepared, once you and your family are safe, a little bit of home to comfort you will be necessary to gather the strength to rebuild.

The tie in, for me, to minimalism, living simply and with less, so loudly speaks to me here. I could easily gather the things of value to me and leave if I had to.  Once my family and dog are safe, there would be no thing in that house that I would die for.

Again, I find myself faced with the question of whether or not I want to work my whole life to just have more possessions when it seems that in the big picture of life, only the small treasures really matter...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Letting Go of Chaos

We’ve all been there…we go shopping and get home, only to find that the thing that was so perfect in the store isn’t right for us at all.

I’ve gone shopping with an idea of the type of bag I needed for work, travel, etc. and settled on something less than ideal or what I was looking for, only to find it basically useless and not solving the problem it was intended to solve, and not fulfilling any purpose - eventually tossed in a closet or in the basement storage.

I know some people would say “It’s just a bag – throw your stuff inside and get to the bus stop”. The problem here is more involved than it would seem. Because we walk or take the bus everywhere, I need a bag that is durable, but I also am not strong enough to carry around a ton of weight right now. In my mind is an image that I am literally carrying around the excess that I am working on simplifying.

With the choices I have made in the past, I have a stack of bags that are basically useless and don’t suit me at all.  I needed a new plan…I needed to simplify my morning and my day a great deal.  The solution? Let go and donate the pile of bags and buy something that actually works for this new, simpler approach.

To begin to simplify, for me, is to need to carry less. I leave in the morning like a pack mule headed for a long trip. I am going to be out of the house for awhile, but I can’t even carry what I think I need for the day.

I have one purse now that I actually use. It’s a cute little Vera Bradley bag that I have wanted forever, but couldn’t justify the price. I found it practically new at Good Will for $9.99. It fits everything I need if I am going out and is a reasonable weight for me to carry. I love the simplicity of some of the bags on What's in Your Bag? and this is all I need with me most of the time. 

iPod, wallet, glasses, flashlight, keys, bus pass/work id,
Nikon,  phone, etc.

I also found a leather satchel that is a perfect size. It was not inexpensive, but the price was reasonable with a lifetime guarantee of repair. It fits my iPad, journal, reading book, small pouch and on work days I have a set of small metal containers that fit nicely in it to carry food for work.

This brings me to the next simplification of my day….lunch. It sounds a little crazy to say - but the truth is that food should not be as complicated as it is. I have to eat, but I know I need to simplify food and the time spent on it in my day.

It is stressful to me to have to make, pack, remember to bring and carry food for the day.  The solution in the past was to just grab some chips at the vending machine or coffee & bagel at the corner shop and then lunch at a local sandwich shop. Too much money wasted and not healthy enough to feel satisfied and not sick from eating. While I was home for 7 weeks with my sprained ankle, I got out of that habit and saw how ridiculous the spending was and also how my body doesn’t gain any quality nutrition from that routine.  My mind also does not gain anything from the stress of cooking a lunch and bringing it with me every day and the chaotic morning that I usually have…so I needed a different idea. 

My solution is to get up a little earlier and eat a heartier, healthier, slower paced breakfast and just bring small snacks or sandwich for during the day. This eliminates the ice pack, lunch bag, and bigger insulated bag I was carrying it all in that always seemed to fill up with yet more stuff…

What I know from this process of simplicity and minimalism, is that this one thing – the bag I carry to work – is just a symptom of the habits and mindset that I am changing. Needing less, slowing down, participating in events – rather than just reacting to the world around me - all of this is leading to a simpler life with a lot less possessions, and I am left with quality, meaningful, useful things that serve a variety of purposes. In the bigger picture, I would say that my possessions in the house are a lot like the wrong sized bag - just because there is room, stuff accumulates and overwhelms. We already live in a small house, it's only 900 sq. ft. - so with each closet and drawer I tackle and clean out, the space is very noticeable. 

Ideally, this process of reducing debt, needing less, donating excess and really evaluating the quality of life each day...will one day lead to not needing to work at a conventional job. It is my dream to be able to spend the day working at home on writing, gardening, crafting and cooking and eliminate the chaotic schedule completely. But this is not realistic right now, so I want to use this schedule I have and learn how to be calm within it. This is the perfect situation to evaluate and change habits while amidst the chaos. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Warm Hearth in Winter

With the end of Summer we found ourselves ready to purchase two cords of wood for the Elmira Cooktop and there wasn't room in the driveway to have it delivered or stack it, so we worked for a couple of weekends - Rob cleared the larger logs and moved them down to where they would be split, and I worked on the pile of branches and leaves and prepared the kindling. We filled two Rubbermaid buckets with kindling to dry out, and have several more buckets worth of sticks stacked and waiting.

Piles of sticks/leaves and wood gathered during the past few months

When we were all finished with the work, there was much more room for the cords to be delivered. The buckets are filled with kindling and the rest of the wood is sorted by when it was gathered - the shed also has some wood that has been seasoning since last October's crazy storm.
sticks sorted and barrels of kindling ready / leaves in compost pile

miscellaneous piles of wood sorted

2 cords delivered and ready to be stacked

When I see this pile of wood, I find myself dreaming of sitting in the kitchen near the fire and baking for the holidays. I also feel safe and secure that we will have a warm place to be this Winter. I know that everyone does not have this security and I feel very grateful.

Grateful for our small home that is easy to heat, for the ability to purchase the wood we need, and grateful for the comfort of knowing that with a little work, we will be ready for whatever Winter has in store. I feel a little like the chipmunks and squirrels in our yard - busily gathering and preparing for the cold...

The heart of our home

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mental Sustainability

I spent four hours Sunday stripping leaves off branches and cutting branches into kindling.

Why? Because I could!

After spending week after week sitting still and not able to do anything in the yard or garden, I worked slowly, at a task that would not hurt me, at an enjoyable pace, and I discovered something about myself: this is what I could do every day.  Gardening, yard work, housekeeping, cooking, canning, all of it.  Every day.

In the past, when I thought of being sustainable – I would think of the basics: food, clothing, shelter, water, safety, etc.  When I sat for a while – I discovered that there is another aspect to sustainability that I didn’t fully understand:  Mental sustainability. There are things that are individual to each of us that we require to have a mental wellness.  For me:  the relationships around me of family, friends, neighbors, gardening and nature, contributing to a community, cultivating beauty and creativity, writing, music, seeing a value in the day to day work that I do and playing games and having fun.

For example, there is a happiness that occurs when I complete a task I enjoy:  huge stick pile + empty bucket + stripping the leaves and cutting up sticks = full bucket. Full bucket of kindling + Winter weather = fire starter for cooking and heat. The value of the small amounts of work equal a greater value in the end and result in comfort, heat and food for family and friends and a warm shelter during the storms, as well as a mental comfort and warmth that recharges me and helps me deal with the harshness that sometimes occurs in the world. There is something magical that happens around a hearth.

Another realization came to me this week.  Although there are some projects that need to be done around the house and garden, I need nothing. I was surprised to find that the mental wish list of random things has disappeared. I have enough.  I am not excluding the dream of one day owning more land and being able to have animals and a much larger garden. That is a family dream. For me, personally, I’m done. I have everything I need and, in fact, actually need less than I have.  The few things I do plan to buy in the next year are related to living with less and being sustainable. (bike, hiking shoes, some plants and gardening supplies, and books. Books to read and learn and pass on.)  In the past, when October hit, I would start the frenzy of holiday wish lists and shopping. I really love to give gifts and encourage people, but a lot of the time it seems to just add to a pile of things they already don’t have the time to use. I really enjoy giving and receiving gifts of consumable such as candles, wine, a meal, traveling together, something handmade. Something to create a memory and show another person they are remembered and loved. I am looking forward to being creative with these new ideas for the holidays this year. If we could only change our minds and habits, and instead give of ourselves and our time.

As I rode the bus to work today, I overheard a conversation between an older man and a younger mom with her child. Their discussion was about where they would be sleeping tonight. He would be behind a dumpster downtown, in a friend’s hallway, maybe a shelter, and the woman had a hotel room that she and her child were staying in for a little while to keep them off the streets.  Neither knew what they would be doing for the winter.

This conversation brought what matters most into very clear focus. The chaos of 8-5, which really means 7:15 -5:45 some days with the bus commute, traffic screaming around school buses, around corners and everything screaming around me, the pushing around of papers for 8 hours and the same chaotic trip home. Time passes quickly, without much meaning in a failing economy and goals that can’t be met.  I like my job and most of the people I work with, but at the end of the day – where is the full bucket? I am grateful to have work, when so many people don’t, but where is the cultivation of beauty and creativity?  The money I make is useful for providing for our family and things we need…but what if we just didn’t need all those things anymore? In the evenings I walk or sit in the garden and wish for a day of hard work that contributes to the world to make it better. We’re all in this together and we need each other and in the evenings I am often too tired to spend time the way I would choose. I do my best to make the experience of my job useful to the accounts I deal with and I believe that I get paid to contribute something of value to the company every day. I do this for myself, so I can look at myself in a mirror and be satisfied that – even if I am not living what I dream  – I am giving my best to this day and what I am doing now. I know now that this way is not mentally or physically sustainable for me.

However, the wind is changing, the fog is lifting, and my mind is clearer than it has ever been.

There is something in motion here that will take me to a new place. It already has begun to change me. I don’t know the exact path or where it will lead, but the direction I am facing now looks very different and it feels like home...

and home is a great place to be...

A Small Harvest

Monday, September 17, 2012

One Woman's Story

There are so many websites and blogs that I regularly visit and read. One of my favorites is  My first introduction to Tammy Strobel was while watching an episode of  Peak Moment where she and her husband Logan were interviewed because they had downsized their lives, sold their cars, and were living more simply with a dream of building and living in a Tiny House. 

In the year since I first watched that episode - I have watched every episode of Peak Moment and have been introduced to a world of people living deliberately, making greener choices, being aware of the cause and effect of every action we take in life. A community of people that I can relate to even if I am not geographically near them.

Also, I found that Tammy’s name came up in many of the places I visited on-line, and that the story continued after that video and they had built their Tiny House. This week her new book comes out “You Can Buy Happiness –And It’s Cheap”. I ordered it early and have already read through once and I loved it!  When I read it, I could hear her speaking in the calm and confident voice that I have heard so many times in the past year. I am reading it through a second time now and doing the micro exercises and journaling at the end of each chapter. 

We have had a Winter with our Wood Cooktop, many experiments  growing different plants and flowers in our garden and when I sprained my ankle and was out of work for 7 weeks, I read everything I could find on-line. Several things resulted from my stay at home.  I changed. What I want from life, what I value, my perspective and my needs.  Everything changed or came into clearer focus. I will be sharing more about these things in later posts.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with debt, career, keeping track of and maintaining your stuff, or feel like you are on a treadmill and you can’t get off – I would recommend reading this book.

The whole cycle and excess of consuming and spending isn’t necessary and that there is a way out. Even if I can't see the end of the paring down, donating and living with less just yet, I am working toward a simpler life filled only with what I need and more time and energy for the people and activities that add value to my life and to the world around me.

What I know after reading this book – is that there is hope, space and peace to be found.
And I can make small changes every day toward that end. 

Thank you, Tammy, for your story and for sharing the journey.