Book Review: No Impact Man

I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw the documentary, which made me laugh and fear for our environmental future in equal measure.

I’m not sure what I expected from the book. I knew that Beavan and his family spent a year trying not to generate waste, use fossil fuels, or buy new products. I was also well aware that Colin Beavan’s No Impact experiment was excoriated by the New York Times, which wrote

Living abstemiously on Lower Fifth Avenue, in what used to be Edith Wharton country, with early-21st-century accouterments like creamy, calf-high Chloe boots, may seem at best like a scene from an old-fashioned situation comedy and, at worst, an ethically murky exercise in self-promotion.

Beavan, author Penelope Green concludes, is a shameless self-promoter more interested in benefitting himself than the environment. A self-aggrandizing poseur. Takes one to know one, as my Grandma Becca relished saying, regarding the name-calling we grandchildren engaged in. Beavan alleges that all writers are megalomaniacs. Green certainly portrays Beavan this way. But I think there is something genuine and compelling about his experiment. His No Impact year took place from 2006 to 2007, but the project continues through his book, documentary, and blog. Here is what I found redeeming about Beavan’s experiment:

  • he maintained a sense of humor about himself.
  • he set an extreme and measurable goal (no negative environmental impact by the end of one year), and stood firm even when he was ridiculed for it.
  • he was bracingly honest about his cheats, his failings, his own misgivings
  • his wife was along for the ride, talking sense to him when he got carried away (Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, is the best part of the documentary. She’s game for the experiment, for the most part, but never misses a chance to call him out and keep him honest).
  • he provided some real suggestions about ways to reduce our own environmental impact. I have no intention of giving up toilet paper or electricity, true, but I did try going for a semester with no car after watching the documentary. I have taken many of the leaps I find most reasonable, such as composting, getting most of our food from the farmer’s market, and buying my clothes secondhand.
  • He wrote not only about planetary health but about emotional health, and how this experiment ultimately helped his family live happier, healthier lives.

Project Minify sometimes feels to me like it falls woefully short of the mark. I set a soft goal – live smaller and happier, give up the things I didn’t need, the ones that weren’t contributing to my happiness or wellbeing anyway. Yet those small steps have had some big impacts, on our waistlines, our household carbon footprint, and yes, our happiness. I’m just about due for a year-in-review post about how all of that has worked out for us. That’ll happen by August. I feel comfortable saying at this time that I’m not convinced that you have to give up elevators, toilet paper or balsamic vinegar in order to change the world. I’m not going to ridicule Beavan for doing so, either. He found a way to make a living by benefitting rather than harming the environment. That’s not shameless self promotion. That’s the kind of work a lot of us would love to be doing!

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Book Review: Farewell, My Subaru

I’ve been reading a lot of books about alternative and sustainable living lately. Doug Fine’s Farewell, My Subaru is far and away the funniest I’ve read yet. He’s got Bill Bryson’s sense of humor and Annie Dillard’s flair for description, and describes a genuine effort to reduce his carbon footprint by growing his own food, making his own fuel, and installing solar panels to power his home.

Fine freely confesses that he lacks most of the skills necessary for these endeavors, so what he describes is a series of misadventures and hard-learned lessons, but he keeps his sense of humor and desire to do better. It’s a book for those of us who want to change our lives but are beginners when it comes to technology like solar powered water heaters, or animal husbandry along the lines of raising goats (picture having a pair of new puppies, but puppies drawn to headbutting and eating rose bushes and capable of jumping over any fence). He peppers the story with a number of political jabs and some of the highlights of his romantic life during his sustainability adventure – the book is funny and not at all G rated, more of a personal narrative than a how-to guide.

Among his efforts to live green? Abandoning his trusty old Subaru in favor of a vegetable oil powered ROAT (ridiculously oversized American truck) which backfires constantly and smells like Kung Pao Chicken. Using solar power to run his electricity and hot water. Making his own organic, local goat’s milk icecream. Starting a small flock of chickens, while trying to protect them from every predator in the American Southwest.

These are all good efforts, changes I hope to make in my own life (at least the chickens and the solar power. I’m not so sure about the ROAT!) But they’re not what makes the story worth reading. Stunt journalism pieces about spending a year living green/frugal/local abound, and Fine isn’t doing anything spectacularly innovative in terms of the way he incorporates sustainability into his day-to-day life. He’s doing the things that everyone can (and perhaps should) do, and sharing all of his mistakes and witty observations as he transitions to alternative, renewable energy sources and local foods. I didn’t learn many new ideas from the book, although it did deepen my desire to have dairy goats at some point:

This little fellow was one of the highlights of a recent tour we took of a goat farm in Western NC.

What I got from Farewell, My Subaru was a really good laugh and a sense of solidarity with all the other people doing their best to live a little bit more green. Doug Fine is very, very funny, and genuine in his desire to change his life – and that’s what makes this book such a worthwhile read.

Book Review: Made From Scratch

I just finished another book I very much enjoyed. I only put it down once, when I was overcome by the urge to try the butter bread recipe in the baking chapter – reading it inspired in me the overwhelming need to bake right then. I finished the book yesterday and am now trying out another recipe – the three egg quiche, which is smelling delicious! Both recipes are, like the title of the book, made from scratch!

The book is Jenna Woginrich’s Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, from Storey Press. Over the course of the story, Woginrich moves to a rental “homestead” in Idaho and learns to tend her own flock of chickens, plants a garden and grows her own food, teaches herself the fiddle, and aquires a hive of bees. She also learns to bake from scratch, sew and knit and make her own yarn, raise angora rabbits, and build community in the form of neighbors, and fellow “homesteaders” and musicians.

There are points where the story feels like playing house, pretending to be a pioneer in the cold West. The part where she teaches her huskies to pull a sled and a cart is the gleeful realization of a childhood dream, rather than an entirely pragmatic life skill, and Woginrich isn’t pretending otherwise; she openly acknowledges her childhood iditarod fantasies. But I can relate. I very much want my own chickens, not because I think it will save me money or make me a bonafide farmer but because I have always wanted chickens. If I ever get any they’ll be nothing more than vaguely useful pets (more useful by far than my cats, who have caught exactly one mouse in five years…my husband has long claimed that one died of cold in our cabin and the cats just pretended to have killed it after the fact). And in my urban-chicken-fantasy, we will build our own coop, and raise rare birds, and bake wonderful quiches every night…and the chickens will look like this:

(Blue Laced Red Wyandottes. Photo courtesy of Murray McMurray Hatchery

I’m also partial to these little chickens: Mille Fleur Bantams. I find them simultaneously silly and adorable, but the hens are supposed to be great mothers, as Woginrich points out when she chooses bantams for her first flock:

(photo courtesy of My Pet Chicken)

Throughout Made from Scratch, Woginrich’s tone is sometimes folksy, often hilarious, always engaging. I intend to try out more of her recipes and have the strong impulse to start some seeds in peat pots (she teaches the art of the homemade, recycled greenhouse in the appendix section). The chickens will have to wait, and I don’t think I’ll be teaching our dog to pull a cart anytime soon. His only accessory for the time being will remain the lampshade collar he’s wearing to keep him from irritating a hip injury. Woginrich isn’t espousing anything I haven’t already embraced. She advocates buying your stuff used and your food local, making your own entertainment instead of sitting in front of a screen, and participating in your community. It’s nice to know that there are others around the country doing some of the same stuff I’m interested in, like baking their own bread, and often for very different reasons. For Woginrich it seems to be more of a back-to-the-farm ideology than a sustainability interest that drives her initial interest in homesteading. But she makes the skills accessible. She narrates her failures and heartbreaks as well as her successes. Her chapter on chickens had me laughing, loudly, in the doctor’s office. People were staring. I didn’t care. The chapter was that funny.

It was an honest, funny, relatable read, and I enjoyed it…enough that I’m subscribing to her blog. She’s in New York instead of Idaho these days, and she’s expanded her homestead to include more rabbits, sheep, goats and ducks. You can find her at Cold Antler Farm. Enjoy! I know I did!