Sustainable by Necessity: Traditional Lifestyles in the Modern Environmental Crisis

Throughout my life, I have had the extreme good fortune of having a close relationship with my paternal grandmother. She is one of the kindest, most caring individuals I have ever known, and I owe her so much–for practically raising me, for helping me out in multiple ways, and for just being a guiding spirit by her simple presence in my life.

But even more fortunate for me, my grandmother grew up on what you may as well call a “farm” in Waynesboro, Virginia, which is (well…”was” may be more accurate nowadays) a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was born in the mid-1920s and lived at home with a big old Appalachian family until she married my grandfather in the ’40s.

I mention all of these biographical tidbits (sorry to reveal your age, grandma!) to provide the context and background for my main point. Having grown up in this sort of an environment, my grandmother has enriched my life with countless stories of what life was like for her and her family in a time without the modern conveniences we rely on and take for granted–including electricity!!! Yes, people actually survived, even thrived without that wonderful force that magically comes out of the wall outlets when you plug something in, that brightens your room when you flick a switch, or that makes driving a little bit safer with traffic lights and so forth.

But I digress. From my childhood up to my last visit, I frequently sit with her as she reminisces, for she has some outrageous and amazing stories to share. My interest has grown ever keener, though, as I have become more involved in environmentalism and have tried to live as sustainably as possible. So I have prodded her to open up her mental treasure trove of memories and dig out lovely items for me again and again…which always proves as enjoyable for her as it does for me.

Why does any of this matter to you, dear (green) reader? Because many of those knee-slappin’ stories from the home-place contain absolute jewels of sustainability, things that glimmer like emeralds (you know, the green gems) waiting for us modern treasure hunters to pick up and put to use. Here are a few things I found most useful, hilarious, and/or praiseworthy:

  • For the most part, my grandmother’s family produced all of their own food. They had cows and pigs and chickens and what have you, along with the usual (and unusual–it was the country, after all!) pets. There was a fruitful family garden, which served for all the seasons thanks to canning and preserving–that is, not freezing or refrigerating, but old-fashioned canning and preserving. There was plenty of wild stuff to use for foodstuffs, too, such as apples and pears and berries. They did buy a few things that they could not grow or make–coffee, sugar, salt, flour, etc.–but overall they pretty much fed themselves…and it was a big family.
  • No electricity meant no refrigerator or freezer, but they kept perishables good with a rather ingenious, yet utterly simple, device called a “spring box.” This was a box that stayed submerged in the stream nearby, with a rope securing it to the bank. Since the water was always relatively cool, the box served as a refrigerator and helped milk, butter, and so forth from spoiling. The cellar was good, too, as a cool place for veggies and fruits.
  • They even managed to make some of their own clothes. My grandmother informs me, with evident chagrin, that they were mostly the family drawers, so no designer dresses or anything like that. She even shared, with evident chagrin, that she once made a dress for my aunt out of a feedbag…and she swears that “it looked good!” Talk about reduce, reuse, recycle: Feed the chickens, clothe the kids!!!
  • Forget low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads. Try outhouses and baths in a tub full of stream water (heated on the stove if you were lucky) that had been lugged up to the house.

Nowadays, folks living like my grandmother and her family used to likely would be on the “cutting edge” of sustainability, reducing their footprint and conserving natural resources in ways that few of us could imagine. They might be featured in an environmental magazine or a TV special, looking so ultra chic in their homemade drawers and feedbag dresses.

Yet they were simply getting by. They had no choice but to live sustainably; to do otherwise would be not only wasteful but impossible. Getting by on scant financial income in a rural, fairly poor area, they had to conserve and provide for themselves as much as possible if they were to survive.

My grandmother’s family, like so many other families in the past, were sustainable by necessity.

I do not want to romanticize the past as some “Golden Age of Green.” Life was hard, no bones about it, and getting by often meant grueling work day in and day out, from well before sunrise to well after dark. It was the age of walking to school five miles uphill both ways…in the snow. It was the age of sticking newspaper, rags, and anything else into the spaces in the walls to keep the winter chill out.

Moreover, there were a whole lot of unsustainable practices back in the “good ol’ days,” things we are trying to undo and clean up after today and for a long time to come.

Still, in our age of conveniences, where life is made much easier and yet much more complicated in many ways, we are getting dangerously close to a point of no return when it comes to avoiding global catastrophe. Whether you focus on the oil crisis, global warming, species and habitat loss, or population problems, I doubt there is much doubt left about how serious conditions are getting on planet Earth.

So I think that we, too, are at a point where we must become sustainable by necessity. The reasons for us are different than those for my grandmother, but the end result is the same. We have to stop living like we have a blank check or a limitless credit card and start living instead as if our resources are scarce, precious, and quickly lost without some real ingenuity and self-control.

And I think we would do well to look back to our wise elders, to steep ourselves in their stories, to share in their lives and learn from what they have to give us. Not only would we do well, but I think we would do a great thing for these precious elders by reaching out to them, embracing them in our hearts, and thanking them for the good things they have done for us.

Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Rick

    Great Essay:

    I to come from an agracultural background and yes I agree that we need to slow down and look to the past for answers to todays crisis! I would love to use my farming knowledge and live on a sustainabil sustanace farm with solar and wind power. However, this is not practical for me as I’n now handicapped and on disability! While I could adopt traditonal farming techniques to my requirements there is no way I could ever afford the exspenses involved in startingup such an endevor at todays prices and I would say that is the case for most potential farmers today! We need to face the reality that the ones who can do the most have the most the rich and large corporations have to become partners in the recovery from this crisis or we are all doomed!

  2. Kendra Holliday

    Yeah this age of convenience annoys me like crazy. Meat eating is about convenience. Another example are all the gadgets introduced in order to save you time, but they end up being obnoxious and give you MORE to think about. For instance we have cats and my gf decided automatic kitty litter boxes would be keen, so now we have 3 in the basement and they make a racket and get stuck and I end up having to scoop them anyway and they use electricity. Plus I don’t think the cats like them either since they are peeing elsewhere. But I can’t tell her that or she’ll get annoyed with me for nixing her grand futuristic plan. I don’t like her GPS, either. I kindof miss those impossible-to-fold maps, sigh…

  3. Steve Salmony

    On living without regard to hard truths, matters of scale or limits to growth

    How freedom without responsibility destroys life as we know it.

    How do rich and famous people, who live large and have huge ecological footprints, as well as corporate β€˜citizens’ that cast giant shadows over the Earth today, so easily get away with socially irresponsible behavior which could soon precipitate an ecological catastrophe?

    As everyone knows but few openly discuss, wealth and power buy freedom. What is all too obvious but often cloaked in silence is this: A small minority of individuals in the human family with great fortunes and virtually all large corporations exercise their great wealth and power in ways that allow all of these self-proclaimed masters of the universe to live lavishly as well as to willfully refuse assumption of the responsibilities which necessarily come with freedom.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

  4. perpetualsharon

    For reference, I am 36 years old. I, too, grew up in the Blue Ridge Mtns of Virginia NEAR a small town called Rural Retreat. My family, parents & 4 children, lived on a self-sustaining farm. We had electricity in our home. No running water but had a well and hand pump on the back porch. No inside toilet… yes, outhouse. Baths were in a wash tub, on the back porch in the summer, in the livingroom by the woodstove in the summer. We grew our own food; fruits, veggies and animals(cows, chickens, pigs, goats). I helped milk cows, tend the garden, whatever needed to be done. We lived on that farm until I was 10. At age 10 we bought a larger farm with a larger house AND it had indoor plumbing! We thought we had died and gone to heaven.

    Looking back on it now, living on self-sustaining farms wasn’t as bad as I thought it was then.
    We had everything we needed. Mom made a lot of our clothes and taught the girls to sew as well. We also learned to can foods for the rest of the year. It wasn’t cool then, but I am little ahead and prepared for gas/inflation super-overload.

  5. Julie Green

    My parents had started reading Mother Earth News in the late 70’s and decided to “go back to the land” in a vague but sincere attempt to be self-sustaining. By the word ” vague” I mean they had no real plan on how to maintain self-sustainability past hunting for food and growing a garden.

    Being the youngest of their nine children and 11 years old when we made the transition, I experienced the lifestyle longer and more fully than did my siblings, who promptly moved away as soon as they graduated from school.

    We built a two room log cabin in a hurry before cold weather and moved right in. My parents had sold their previous home to buy this 110 acre tract of land and had just enough left over to buy a chainsaw. Thus were the preparations made for this big adventure! We spent the first winter gathering firewood for the stove made from a barrel, clearing the enormously healthy field of multiflora rose entwined in numerous junk cars and thousands of tires.

    Water was carried in milk jugs and five gallon buckets from an existing spring some distance away from the house, food was kept outside in a cooler outside the front door during that first year and an outhouse was a cold hearted friend on frigid winter mornings. We all waited as long as we could each morning to see who would warm the seat first! Oh, those were the days…….

    You are correct in thinking that the lifestyle of sustainability was hard work, making do, often being cold, wet, miserable and walking for long distances to await a school bus.

    But, since when did hard work hurt anyone? I realize that both “hard” and “work” are four letter words in modern times and it’s the rare person who actually knows what they mean in regards to manual labor.

    I know this much….I wasn’t overweight then. I was healthy and fit, I could work all day and not be sore- muscled the next. I slept like a baby and my actual needs were few. Food, water and a few changes of clothing were enough then to get by and a real treat was getting to read a little before Dad blew out the kerosene lamp for the night. Living in close quarters with many people made us talk more quietly, make movements more efficiently, time was managed well and cooperation was a necessity.

    Of the nine children, I am the only one who really looks upon that time with any nostalgia and a yearning to return to that more simplistic lifestyle. I am living on the edge of it now and would most willingly tip on over and go back to the land with a good opportunity to do so.

    For now, I raise a free range flock of chickens, am starting a small flock of hair sheep which I are grazed using intensive rotational methods, and I always strive for frugality, debt freedom, skill set diversity, growing and preserving my own foods and living a more simple, healthy lifestyle. All on an acre of rental property!

    As a single mother with one meager income, I have always recognized the necessity of being frugal and making do, but now I am back on track towards sustainability as well. It’s the wise choice in these times and those caught in the landslide of a falling economy without a valuable skill set or a way to maintain sustainability will be the newly poor.

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