Simple Living in the Southwest

We’ve discovered the wonders of solar power, desert gardening and living on less.
Mother Earth News.  April/May, 2007, ©2007 The Mother Earth News

By Susan Lahey
I never thought I’d ask my children this question, but here it was: “Would you rather have a house with land or indoor plumbing?”

My children, ages 9, 11 and 13, didn’t hesitate: “Land,” they said. That settled it. After months of combing the internet for houses in northern New Mexico, I had finally found one with everything we’d said we wanted. It was near the mountains; it had trees; it was only 30 minutes from Taos; and even though it sat on five acres, it was still within my meager budget. The house was also located in a gorgeous spot, with one set of mountains looming large to the east, and a charming valley stretching away to the west, bordered by ethereal ranges of mountains beyond.

On the other hand, it was a 500-square-foot, one-room cabin. The only electricity was one solar panel that pumped just enough juice to draw wa-ter from the cistern and run a low-watt-age light for an hour or two. In lieu of a bathroom, it had a shower enclosure in one corner of the cabin, with a camp-er’s shower bag hanging over it, and an outhouse. It had a woodstove for heat, a propane stove for cooking and no re-frigerator. The cabin was a radical departure from our little farmhouse in Kansas City, Mo., where nature was harnessed into manicured lawns and tidy hedges. But for me, it was a dream come true. I’d been working to live more simply: I’d started a little garden, stopped using air conditioning and learned to rely on a woodstove for heat. But moving to this cabin would really test the convictions I’d been spouting for years. My kids, who are far more game than most children I’ve met, kept expecting me to get over this fantasy, like the time I wanted to get a nose ring—but I didn’t. I bought the little cabin and we moved in.

Low-impact Living

Our cabin is a straw-bale octagon that was built by two women and their adolescent sons. They built it out of beautiful vigas—stripped logs and straw bales plastered with a ce-ment stucco, which makes it unbelievably cozy, sturdy feeling and quiet. The first night I heard the winds roar down from the mountains I worried that my car would be knocked over. But the house was unshaken. The front three walls of our house face south and are built almost entirely of double-paned glass. It doesn’t matter the tem-perature, if the sun is shining — and it usually is — our house will be warm by about 10 a.m. and stay warm until long after nightfall. During the winter, one good fire at night keeps the place very comfortable.

I was, in many ways, completely un-prepared for this adventure. I didn’t really understand how the solar-electric system worked or why the pump that sucked water from the cistern groaned deafeningly, like a cranky garbage disposal that’s caught hold of a fork. I was alarmed because the water in the 1,300-gallon cistern had been sitting so long it smelled of rotten eggs and I feared it always would. I wondered if sulfur was toxic.

Fortunately, I have smart and curious children. By read-ing the owner’s manual and playing with the switches on the DC power box and on our inverter, we learned which ones turned the water pump on and which ones turned the outlets on. We saw that if the indicator light was green, we were good to go. If it turned yellow, we were getting low on battery power and if it turned red, we were in danger of zapping our batteries entirely. We could also watch the inverter, which converted solar or direct current power into alternating current power—what most appliances run on. The inverter kept track of how much power was left in the batteries. Anything above 12, I was told, was all right. But if it dropped be-low that, it could tax the batteries. I knew that refrigerators were energy hogs, but I didn’t know that anything that heats or cools was verboten. One day, feeling bold, we plugged in the toaster oven and tried to make a piece of toast. The power indicator looked like the stock market on Black Monday. After that we made toast in the propane oven.

Learning to live without power was actually easier than I thought it would be. One doesn’t, it turns out, actually need a food processor, micro-wave oven, television, blow dryer, or any of those other things that are part of a “nor-mal” household.

Living without privacy was something else. My oldest and youngest children are boys and my middle child is a girl. There had to be some way we could shower and dress without an audience. I thought of the pioneers who rigged up bedrooms using sheets suspended from the ceiling and decided to make a wall comprising bookshelves, my dresser, a set of glass-front kitchen cabinets I’d bought at a salvage place and a wonderful old quilt. This divides the front of the house, where the sink, woodstove and the front door are, from the back of the house, where the shower enclosure and the beds are. Also in the back of the house we have our chamber pot, of sorts.

I knew I wouldn’t want us having to travel to the outhouse in the middle of the night. Bears, mountain lions and coy-otes all live around here. So we built an indoor toilet, the design of which I found on the internet. It is a box with a remov-able lid that has a hole in it. On top of the lid sits a toilet seat and inside the lid is a five-gallon bucket with some wood shavings in the bottom. My children are appalled if, while buying the shavings, I make any reference to how we intend to use them. For the benefit of anyone in the store who might be listening, I am supposed to pretend we have a gerbil.

I thought the outhouse was going to be my biggest obstacle. I met a woman who, every time she had to go to the out-house in the winter, picked up her two cats and took them along as insulation. I had also heard of people who found all kinds of lovely things to say about out-houses. I thought those people deluded, but now I understand them better. When I step outside first thing in the morning, even on a rainy or snowy day, I am always struck by beauty. The smell of the sage-brush and the pine trees mingles with the sound of birds and I have new joy, every day, to be here.

In fact, my biggest trial has been the lack of a refrigerator. I have learned that if one buys ice every day it costs a for-tune and if one leaves fresh produce out in the cooler on a very cold day it’s not very savory. I have learned that dogs will go to great lengths to get one’s food if it smells good to them and mice can crawl into the top of a slippery plastic milk jug if the top is left off. The good thing about high fat foods such as butter and whole milk is that they keep better. We eat a lot of canned vegetables and beans, canned tuna and chicken, as well as pasta and rice. But that first year I missed fresh foods.

Close to nature

Because we lack a reliable water supply, we did not try a garden on our place the first spring we lived here but a friend shared hers with us. So the kids learned about tilling and planting and about acequias—the little streams that flow here that are precious as gold in this arid climate. There is a person, called the mayordomo who is in charge of when the acequias are allowed to run and how much water each person gets. So we had to water on his schedule and do flood irrigation—like the ancient Egyptians. While it’s not my favorite irrigation method, it does figure heavily into ancient history and I thought it was cool for the kids to learn about it firsthand.

In fact, when I think about it, the kids have learned a lot of what I hoped they would learn by moving here. We’ve been so busy, I hardly noticed. They’ve learned from daily life that rain and snow mean water for us, not just the plants. We buy our drinking water, but our bathing water falls from the sky, onto our roof, down a drain pipe and into the cistern. When there is a dearth of moisture, the cistern goes dry. That connects their lives with nature in a practical way, which I love. It is the same with sunshine. When the sun shines, the house is warm and there is enough power to run the water pump and sometimes even a light or two. When the sky is overcast or the days are short, we know we have to plan ahead. We must collect water during the middle of the day when the sunlight is powering the water pump. If we don’t, then when we turn the water on in the evening or early morning, the thing might not work at all. The kids know they have to gather wood for the fire. And last fall, they gath-ered pine nuts for food from our hun-dreds of pinion trees as well as pine cones and sage brush for kindling.

They’ve also learned not to be fussy. We all revel in visiting people in houses where we can take long, hot showers and watch a movie in a house. But we also love coming back to our cabin where we have to heat our shower water in a soup pot on the stove and use only a couple of gallons apiece, where we have to make the fire and empty the chamber pot and read at night by oil lamp or flashlight.

And we have our five untamed acres. Our land is five acres of pinion and sage-brush, prickly pears and yucca plants. It is covered in marble and quartz, sand-stone and granite. Hundreds of rabbits live here. A pack of coyotes lives nearby. We’ve seen bear scat and mountain lion or bobcat tracks. We have other neighbors, but we can’t see them from the house. The kids have played hide and seek for hours during the day, and at night there is silence and dark and a sky full of stars. When the moon is full, it turns the pin-ion to indigo and the sagebrush to silver and one expects to see mythical creatures dancing outside. We have plans for goats and chickens and horses and a garden. But whether we cultivate the land or whether we just enjoy the wildness of it, I have to say, the kids made the right decision.


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