Sustainability is an organic idea

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Sustainability in the Balance

Eat local-go green-give back-get exercise-save energy-don’t burn-go off the grid-pinch pennies-pay it forward- save water-avoid waste simplify-eat organic-grow your own-support the community-live close to nature-clear brush.  My husband Greg and I hadn’t been married long and were planning a new home on nine acres on the Kings River in Central California; we were starting fresh, in many senses, and wanted do things right. We’re both in our 50s and both teach full time, but we have some skills and background in making, growing and raising “stuff,” and we like to work outdoors. It makes sense to grow what we can, support our neighbors and minimize the journey our food travels, but we also want to minimize our daily and weekly travel and perch as far off the power grid as possible.  We try to extend sustainability to home construction and design, entertainment, and other aspects of daily life, but we also factor in cost and time, and, while we aim for simplicity, style is important to us as well. So, it’s all a balance.

Food. There are several good articles and one great blog ( about local food sources and menus, but here’s how we do it.  We love to eat and cook, and, although I enjoy reading recipes, I rarely follow them beyond the gist–fresh ingredients usually result in delicious food.  The jury may still be out when it comes to interpreting the meta-studies on how much better organic food is for us, especially when organic food is expensive and hard to find—but if we grow them ourselves, we know what went into them. Greg built garden boxes —4 feet by 8 feet and 3 feet high with a drip irrigation system on a timer with netting over the top against deer and birds.  We have ground plots for rangy produce like squashes and melons, and the potatoes grow at ground level.  Our stone fruit trees and olives are planted in groups of four, so the trees have to compete for nutrients, keeping the trees smaller, but the fruit larger and producing a reasonable crop for the two of us and for sharing with friends and neighbors. So that they’ll bear from March through October, we staggered early and late varieties.  We clustered the citrus and avocado trees in the warmest pocket, but still cover their PVC teepees with sheets to keep them from freezing.  Dozens of lavender plants make way, around the kitchen side of the house, for rosemary, tarragon, lemon thyme, basil and mint.

We gather mushrooms, blackberries, miner’s lettuce, purselane, pigweed, mint and watercress.  Our chickens trade us eggs for layer scratch and protection. There are many reasons, sustainable as well as political, to reduce our reliance on meat, but we keep a healthy balance and eat meat a few times a week.  We don’t fish (yet), but we have friends who prefer fishing to food preparation, and I’m always willing to cook what they catch.  Previously, we raised steroid-free beef cattle on a bigger ranch, but they need attention when we want to travel and the freezer required to store the meat is a power hog.  A milk cow would be even more of an anchor.  The food we don’t grow, we try to buy locally, but we like imported cheese and saffron; I like Rwandan coffee and Greg likes good scotch.  My grandmother used to make all her dog’s organic food, but we have busy lives, so we buy kibbles from Costco. We have devised elaborate home-grown dinner parties (our 100-yard diet):  river trout or crawfish, vegetable frittata, grilled eggplant, amazing salads, home cured olives and pickles–and home crafted beer, wine and sparkling water, all from Greg’s “fermentation station.”

Drink.  With friends or just the two of us, we like to relax in the evening with a bottle of good wine.  Within 100 miles are Paso Robles and the Far-out Wineries of Templeton, where my parents grow wine grapes (ONX Wine).  My brother-in-law also makes excellent reds (JB Wines), and we have neighbors with an award-winning winery (Cedar View).  Surrounded by such bounty (and competition), Greg first embarked on beer-making (Kings River Brewery); and, although he buys many of the ingredients at Bencomo, a Fresno brew supply store, he flavors his beers with home-grown lemongrass, blue curl (a sage-like wildflower), oak chips, or spices from the garden.  Satisfied with his brewing success, he has planted 50 grapevines and the absentee next-door neighbor planted 125; with these, Greg is making Petite Syrah and a Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre blend. We buy coffee, tea and chocolate for cocoa without apologies, but when I admitted that, unreasonable as it may be, I still wanted sparkling water, Greg said not to fret.  He came back from his brewery in the barn with three bottles of lime-flavored bubble-water and said he could make it with the mint, citrus or berry if I wanted.

Travel. We were inspired by the challenge from “locavores” in San Francisco who shop growers markets and eat only food grown within a 100-mile radius of their city, but we differ from the Locavore founders, according to their website and articles in Time and the New York Times, in that we live pretty far from a city.  They point out that most food travels 1,500 miles before it gets to consumers’ plates, stamping a huge carbon footprint and degrading the quality, but for us, the year-round farmer’s market is 40 miles away, so it also makes sustainable sense to stock the pantry with monthly Costco hauls (even there, we try to choose local when we can). We have to drive sometimes, but we consolidate our trips to the city and carpool with colleagues when we can. We used to go to a gym, but now we rely on a dvd of yogi Rodney Yee and walks on the ridge above the house.  I drive a Prius and Greg drives a Volt, but we also have a full-sized Chevy pickup for large loads and to transport the kayaks up to the put-in point.

Local trips aside, we travel when we can. The world shrinks for the better when people experience different cultures; intercultural understanding may ultimately make us much safer as well as wiser. From traveling around the U.S. and to other countries and continents, we learn more about sustainability.  I hang out clothes on the line as my grandmother did, but it’s nice to see that such a logical use of solar energy is common practice in Europe and South America.  We always “drink local” when we travel–beer in Belgium, wine in France, pisco in Peru.  In remote Hvaar, Croatia, the natives are locovores by necessity; we traveled around the countryside and stopped at roadside stands for cheese, olive oil and wine.  Lavender grew wild. In Baja, Mexico, we recently visited a farm-to-table restaurant ( that makes their own sausage, employs reverse osmosis for recycling water and mixes amazing beet-ginger margaritas and hibiscus “farm-tinis.”

Pest and Weed Control. Gardens and houses are susceptible to all sorts of pests, and we are required to control grass and weeds because we’re in a wildfire area.  Although we are not herbicide-free and Greg mows the flat lawn by the river in the summer when we have events, our three llamas keep the grass and weeds down. We have a problem with the invasive plant called Tree of Heaven (a misnomer).  We tried pulling them out and hacking them down, hacking them down and painting them with Round Up, and finally called in eradication specialists, who used chainsaws and Garlon (and showed us how to acquire a license for the nasty stuff).  The result, of course, is a rebound of native oaks and ferns, a better environment for wildlife and an environment less prone to wildfires.

Rodents are even more destructive.  To keep rodents from the house, we encircled it with lavender, and, we lined all the beds with leftover wire mesh roofing material from the house construction to keep gophers out. In the barn, we have two cats who are mousers, and the dogs are not only watchdogs and playful companions, but they stalk gophers and alert us to rattlesnakes.  The chickens (who sleep in a fox-tight coop constructed of left-over roofing material and construction scraps) control insects.  For their safety, they are free-range only by day.  We encourage one rodent, the insect-eating bats, but to keep them and their messes from the house, we installed bat boxes on the barn.  We have a similar box for owls, who eat many times their weight in mice a day, says Ross Laird bird trainer.

Comfort, Winter and Summer.  Our house was designed by Arthur Dyson (, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, who subscribes to his mentor’s philosophy of sustainable organic architecture.  In this era of mega-houses, we kept the design to 2,000 square feet:  one bedroom, two bathrooms; most of the house is an entertainment area including kitchen and bar, dining room table, and a concert area with an 18-foot curved ceiling that can seat 50 guests. Because the house is sustainable on a budget, we skipped the official Leed certifying steps, but the home is incredibly efficient; our power bills are about $100/month, even with an extra freezer in the barn. In Fresno County, because temperatures can reach 110 in the summer, most homes include air conditioning as a matter of course. But we don’t like forced air, and we wanted the high curved ceiling revealed, unmasked by ducting, and we were convinced we could do without it.  (We did, however, plumb to be able to add it if the world warms or we change our minds). So far, so good, even after a record hot summer.  We are higher than the Valley floor, and the river swells in the summer and blesses us with a cool breeze.  Protective overhangs of up to 15 feet, a metal “cool roof,” a whole-house fan and six ceiling fans, and dense insulation all help, and we often jump in the water at 5PM on a hot day.  The house faces north, towards the river, with east and west protected by forest; to our south is a mountain, which delays the sunrise.  In winter, the house stays warm with radiant floor heating, but we keep it set at 64 degrees and wear sweaters.  Due to burning restrictions and our sensitivity to smoke, we have no fireplace, but we have an outdoor firepit which is the center of many a cool night’s gathering, fueled by stick kindling and fallen branches, and leftover construction wood.

Decoration.  The house is efficient, but also a beautiful organic design.  Much of the decoration also comes from the surrounding 100 yards. Piedra, where we live, means “stone” in Spanish; accordingly, the decorative landscaping features river rock, and the bookends are all special stones we’ve gathered over the years.  From a pole on the wall behind our bed hang treasures collected from our walks:  eagle, hawk and osprey feathers, leaves, seedpods, and sycamore bark.  The concrete counters in the bathrooms are inlayed with colorful stones from the river, and Greg’s father made a lazy Susan in the kitchen from wood gathered on the property. We created sculptures and benches of wood and metal construction scraps. Instead of buying flowers, we gather wildflowers or other foliage, but I love the orchids in my morning shower.  The Christmas “tree” is a huge ceramic vase filled with pine branches from the hill, but if the grandkids can make it next year, we’ll go to the tree farm by my college and cut one down. I wired together pine branches to make an over-sized wreath on the front gate, but a large poinsettia stands inside the front door. I remember when Nixon told us Christmas lights are a waste of power, but Greg constructed conical wire “trees” over the two lemon grass plants and colored lights keep them from freezing.

Entertainment.  This endeavor itself makes for good entertainment.  Collecting, gardening, brewing, and cooking are all big fun to us.  The animals—domestic and wild–are endlessly entertaining.  At our age, many people we know are buying vacation homes.  We like vacation homes, so we decided to create one to live in year-round.  We hike, we kayak on the river, we play petanque on court down by the river.  Petanque is the French version of bocce, both of which are more sustainable than golf.  But Greg likes golf, so he makes a chipping course on the lawn whenever his father or grandson visit. Especially when the weather is fine (8 months of the year), we coincide our parties with the full moon for the natural light.  Friends and neighbors bring their bounty to share, and we combine it all for a feast by the water.  Unlike uber-elaborate and wasteful weddings, my son’s wedding this summer, on the lawn by the river, featured an altar constructed of tomato baskets wrapped in white tulle with armfuls of white babies’ breath that we grew.  I made the candles of recycled wax, which meant I could customized the unity candle for a blended family—four wicks for the bride, the groom, the son, and the daughter.  Most of the flowers were grown on site, but some bloomed too early, some too late, so we were grateful when the father of the bride went to a florist and swooped up all the white roses he could find at the last minute.

Goals—Of course, we could still do better.  We keep an eye on the price of solar panels, so we can drift even farther off the grid—then we’d spring for those electric cars.  We looked into a wind generator, but our ornithologist neighbor said they are a hazard to golden eagles. I tried teaching online so I wouldn’t have to drive to campus each day, but I really don’t prefer that mode of delivery—perhaps I’ll change my mind.  We could take up fishing ourselves or raise rabbits or another animal for meat (I can’t seem to slaughter my chickens, even though the foxes sometimes do it for me).  We could raise goats or cows for milk or cheese (but we like to travel).  We might learn to press our own olive oil, but there are neighbors who do that commercially. We try to do the right thing, but sometimes it’s just peace and tranquility that we want to sustain.


Burros, Marian. “Preserving Fossil Fuels and Nearby Farmland by Eating Locally.” New York Times.  25 Apr 2007. Web.  31 Dec 2012.

Brandt, Michelle. “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods, Stanford Study Finds.” Inside Stanford Medicine. 3 Sept 2012. Web. 10 Jan 2013.

Chang, Kenneth.  “Parsing of Data Led to Mixed Messages on Organic Food’s Value.” New York Times.  15 Oct 2012. Web.  10 Jan 2013.  “Locovores.”  2 Dec 2010. Web. 31 Jan 2012.

Maiser, Jennifer. “Eat Local Challenge.” 19 Jan 2010.  Weblog. 31 Jan 2012.

Roosevelt, Margot.  “Local Food Movement:  The Lure of the 100-Mile Diet.”  Time Magazine.  11 June 2006.  Web.  31 Jan 2012. (qtd. Barbara Fisher, an Athens, Ohio cooking teacher)


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