Saturday, July 21, 2012

I wrote an article the other day.

It was published in the Summer 2012 Kids Can Make a Difference Newsletter. Check them out here:

Going off the grid: A big city girl goes rural
By Alisa Gragert

I grew up on the system. Yes, a Manhattan apartment with all the modern conveniences. Potable drinking water gushed from the faucet lights switched on and off appropriately, gas hissed from the burners and expertly heated the oven to pizza-sizzling temperatures, neatly tied garbage bags were whisked away, and the toilet flushed down all unwanted wastes.  My parents simply paid monthly for these services, and I never gave it a second thought. Until now. When my friend, Guillermo, bought a two hectare piece of land in a small dustyroad Argentinian town, we were elated with the prospect of living in the midst of trees, soil, and prickly vegetation. The land was wild, as in it had no human-made structure. The sun was our alarm clock, the dried leaves provided the crunchy carpet, and the birds sang the soundtrack of a wonderfully peaceful wilderness. Bliss. 

But reality kicked in. No more modern comforts of living in a sturdy four-walled structure. No electricity. No water. No garbage removal service. Our own wellbeing was in our hands and certain sacrifices had to be met. It was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work!

Liberating oneself from dependence on the system is no easy feat. Going cold turkey off of the grid requires knowledge, commitment, and a certain degree of creative problem solving skills. That said, steps of all different sizes can be taken to slowly make this project become a reality. 

We've made tremendous progress. I can't say that we're completely off the grid or that we will ever be, but we are a whole of a lot closer than I've ever been. There is a certain satisfying independence knowing that you are responsible for your own life. It's been tough at times, but step by step we're reducing our dependence on outside resources. Among our projects are resolving the lack of electricity, water, food, and waste disposal.

Electricity serves many useful purposes in modern daily life. We use it to heat, to cool, to cook, to illuminate, to entertain, to communicate, to charge, to preserve, to shred, and to direct traffic. If a blackout struck your living situation right now, how would you be affected? Perhaps most of us would mention our TV or internet or music-playing device or a word-processing apparatus on which to write an off-the-grid kind of article. Perhaps we'd be affected by our refrigerator ceasing to refrigerate. Perhaps our oven and stove are electric. Perhaps our heating. Our air conditioning. What do you plug in? What would you miss the most? And... what can you actually live without? 

Yes, certainly no electricity means no internet (gasp), no TV, no i-gadgets. Whew. I say, Thank goodness. I have all the entertainment I need, thank you very much. Large iguanas stroll leisurely through the kitchen. The hungry neighborhood cat looks for an opportunity to grab a chunk of bread. The ants march in and steal everything. The stinkbugs enjoy making us cringe. The neighbor's rooster keeps our clock ticking to the rise and fall of the sun. The parakeets squawk in early morning light. Friends pop over for afternoon lemonade or a chat. And there are always plenty of chores to do. 

However, I decided that although I was okay with not having internet at home, I do need to communicate to my family every so often. I go to a friend's house or an ice-cream shop with WIFI and connect. Yes, as long as I'm living in another country, I will still remain (albeit rarely) plugged in to the online community. And I'm okay with that. And I take the opportunity to plug in my cell phone at the same time, just in case I decide to use it. 

With the installation of solar panels a few months ago, I'm happily typing away this article plugged into a power source that isn't entirely ecofriendly because it requires certain imported, commercially produced plastic structures and a toxic battery that needs to be replaced every few years. But we're experimenting, we're learning, and much like everything in life, it's a process. 

Water. The last time I checked, water is water is water, and is necessary for survival. If you decide to dig a well, you get as much water as you can from underground pools, usually using electric pumps. When the well runs dry, you dig a little deeper. If you decide to connect to the town's water grid, expect to pay less than 10 US dollars a month and get unlimited water. Knowing that water is such a scarce and precious resource, our approach was to try to use as little water as possible, and then reuse that water as many times as we could. 

Great, but where does OUR water come from? We have a water tank that holds 850 liters. Our neighbor is connected to the town's water supply. We ask him to fill up the tank every so often. Does that make us off-the-grid? Not at all, technically. But when I think of off-the-grid, I think of the philosophy behind the itself. Using one's resources wisely and responsibly is the backbone of the philosophy. Using, reusing, and then perhaps returning water to the earth in a constructive and considerate manner. So, even though our water originally comes from the town's water grid, it goes through a few different uses before we're done with it. 

Dishwashing water gets collected into a bucket, that bucket is used to water the garden, the food compost, the forest, and the dry-toilet compost. Rainwater is collected and used for watering as well, or for washing clothes. We use neutral soap that does not add extra perfumes or colors or bleaching agents into the plants. I prefer for my tomato to not smell like artificial lavender. We shower outdoors under a hose. The water runs to the plants and into the ground. It's a little breezy, but it's an indescribable experience to shower among the trees, under the magnificent blue sky, graced by the radiant smiling sun. Rad.

Now I mentioned the dry bathroom. Yes, my newest favorite addition to my life. My existence and excrement have been forever altered. I love my dry bathroom. I cannot, and will not, go back to generic, boring, unnecessary, smelly, wasteful, indoor flush toilets. Not in your life. Not for a million dollars. Not for anything in the world. Except, perhaps in temporary moments of necessity. 

The idea of flushing our human-made organic products down the drain using one to four gallons of potable drinking water as a questionable act was introduced to me at a young age. But in the city, many other options don't exist. It wasn't until I moved to a small town and read the thoroughly enjoyable and informative The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins that I learned that a super alternative existed. It wasn't difficult; it wasn't smelly. It was responsible; it was healthy; and it made a whole lot of sense. Our excrement is a product of our body. It is organic. It should be composted. Properly. Period. If you don't trust your own excrement, you probably should not trust what you're eating.

I won't go into detail, but I assure you that it is a very simple process. I thoroughly enjoy using my dry toilet in its outdoor splendor, tossing some sawdust to cover my daily donation, and then every so often contribute to the larger dry toilet compost. I'm completely converted. I love it. 

One of my passions is cooking. And lately, I've been trying to get back to the basics, meaning, learning how to make the simple things we usually take for granted. Breads, pastas, jams, sweets, soup stocks, sauces. I guess I'm steering away from more and more complicated recipes that require imported ingredients in favor of simplicity. In other words, I don't want to depend on the supermarket for anything I can make at home and get from my backyard or neighbors. Eating locally and seasonally is one of the most responsible things we can do as global citizens. And so much fun! I love being in the garden, identifying edible wild plants and supporting/bartering with neighbors for local produce. Food production using local resources and local distribution supports the local economy and promotes an irreplaceable sense of community. 

There is no garbage collection service that comes by the house. And even if there was, I don't think we'd use it. I've been to the town's garbage dump and I've decided that I want no part in its expansion. And besides, why should someone else have to deal with my trash? If I create it, consume it, or procure it, I should have to be responsible for it. So, everything is reused, burned or buried. Wine bottles are great as barriers for my garden beds. Plastics can be used and reused as homes for seedlings. Paper can start fires or get composted. Glass and metal of all kinds can adopt a new use. And anything, and I mean anything, can be painted and strung together to make shiny mobiles to scare the birds away from the garden. You just have to open your mind to let the creative juices flow.

Every day is an adventure. Future plans focus on including more animals into daily life. Chickens, goats and bees have been approved and are awaiting the final preparations. The garden is an ever-evolving challenge. As I become more familiar with the local flora and fauna, I become better equipped to defend my vegetables against ants, birds, and other predatory plants and animals. 

Knowledge is power; know your environment. Observe where the sun rises and sets. Where does the cold wind blow from? Is the land sloped? How can I use that to my advantage? 

Although my hippy-obsessed-with-sustainability-living-in-nature project is a bit on the extreme side of the environmentalist spectrum, I am learning skills that I will carry with me for a lifetime. I am cultivating a consciousness, an understanding, and awareness. When I leave my small town, I am confident that I will still be able to live without compromising my beliefs. While composting toilets may not be feasible in a large urban environment, vermicomposting (using worms to compost your organic scraps) certainly is! Window boxes (and rooftops) with fresh herbs, lettuces, and even veggies are a great way to eat local! Get in touch with your local farms; many of the things you need can be produced locally. And it's a great way to reach out to your community. Bike more! Many cities are showing their support for cyclists by adding bike lanes. Turn off lights, unplug gadgets, and use energy-efficient appliances. Even though we don't necessarily see it, electricity is not often produced in a super sustainable way. Fix leaky faucets. Use dishwater to nourish plants (soil bacteria love the organic stuff we wash off plates, just make sure your soap is neutral). And on and on and on...

But for the meanwhile, here I am, a big city girl rolling up her sleeves, getting dirt under her nails, talking to plants, slowing down life and loving every minute of it. In an age where everything moves faster, bigger, better, I'm turning around and dedicating myself to live slowly, deliberately and passionately. Making choices that respect the environment I live in and the people I share the Earth with, is perhaps the most responsible thing I've ever done. Although I don't live completely off the grid, we're making a noble effort, learning exponentially, and having fun. And if that's not what life is all about, I don't know what is.

Alisa Gragert is on a lifelong mission to learn absolutely everything. As a selfdescribed, citizen of the world, she speaks three and a half languages, immerses herself in a country like a true culture chameleon, and is vehemently anti-tourism.  She never turns down a good strong coffee, a promise of a good adventure, or a genuine hug. She currently lives in Argentina, founded her own goat-milk yogurt and bike repair business, and gets excited every time she learns something new about self-sustainability. She may be contacted at

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