And Glad Of It
To hell with nature. Living in an artificial world is the best thing ever. We need “unnatural,” artificial human interference with the environment.
This is because nature provides very few sources of energy that are worth a damn. The sun is useful, in its way, but notably absent when illumination is most needed at night. In the natural world, fire is available only from forest fires, volcanoes, and lightning strikes. Using forest fires to keep warm is problematical, using molten lava more so, and cooking with lightning is a culinary technique that’s hit or miss, so to speak. The natural kinetic energy of earthquakes and avalanches is difficult to harness in any practical way. And hydro, in the state of nature, takes the form of riptides, torrential rains, and flash floods.
Without unnatural, artificial human interference, the only useful natural source of energy is what we can find to eat – transformed by metabolic process into muscle power, most of which is expended on finding other things to eat.
My family and I don’t live in an artificial world. We live in the natural world. By mistake.
However, that said, my family and I don’t live in an artificial world. We live in the natural world. By mistake. We’re “off the grid.” But we didn’t mean to be off the grid. We got kicked off the grid. Our power is out – again.
The power is out at our house a lot. We live in a big old drafty colonial on a high ridge above a river valley. Our house faces west, straight into the prevailing wind. And that wind prevails. Few are the days when you can open an umbrella in our yard without being blown into the Atlantic 58 miles to the east. And when the west wind doesn’t prevail it’s because the river valley, running north-south, is channeling an Alberta Clipper from the frozen wastes of Canada to us, frozen up to our waists in snow.
The house is out a long country road, up a driveway through the woods, at the very end of the power line. And, being at the very end of the power line, anything – a spouting sapling, an autumn leaf, a suicidal squirrel – will cause the O’Rourkes to go dark. (Not that I’m blaming the electric company, even though the recorded message on their power outage hotline says, “See you next summer.”)
When I lived here alone I didn’t really mind getting snowed-in without electricity or (in those pre-mobile days) a phone line and thereby being cut off from the world. It was restful. I had a wood stove and kerosene lamps. And, anyway, I could find the scotch bottle in the dark. Plus no worries about the food in the fridge spoiling. I could stick the burger patties in the draft coming from under the front door and they’d keep until June.
Then a wife and children happened. A wood stove in the kitchen with toddlers afoot is a standing invitation to the emergency room. And my wife was convinced, probably rightly, that no child could resist stuffing Beanie Babies into the chimney of a lit kerosene lamp or quaffing the kerosene itself as if it were the contents of a Juicy Juice box.
So we stocked the house with flashlights and batteries. Flashlights are of two types – lost and broken. Batteries are of one type – dead. As for heat, what we discovered during our first winter as a family was that, without electricity, there wasn’t any.
The house has seven fireplaces, all child-proofed with massive hearth screens and fenders. The fireplaces are picturesque and do a nice job of taking the chill out of the air on a crisp fall evening when the outside temperature has fallen to, say, 60o. What they do when the outside temperature is -20o and the wind is blowing at the I-93 speed limit is they take a cold room and make it smoky too.
I’ve never worked harder in my life – in order to produce absolutely no unnatural artificial human interference with the environment whatsoever.
One year, there was an electrical blackout accompanied by cryonic temperatures, Mach 1 wind gusts, and driveway-blocking drifts so large that if they could have been formed into a snowball it really would have stood a chance in hell. The blackout lasted for three-and-a-half days. I lasted for almost that long. I’ve never worked harder in my life – in order to produce absolutely no unnatural artificial human interference with the environment whatsoever.
We did survive, but we remained on the verge of hypothermia, with frost-bitten food and no water except from (very slowly) melting pots and pans full of snow.
In some ways it was our own fault. We not only didn’t have the woodstove any more, we had “remodeled” (definition: “made a Buckingham Palace out of”) the kitchen and the bathrooms, adding something like 300 yards of new plumbing that was about to freeze. (Back when I was “flushing for one,” I had the house set up so that I could open a basement tap and drain the whole place in five minutes. Now any attempt at emptying the pipes would have required a PhD in mechanical engineering and a consulting team from Kohler.)
Furthermore, my in-laws had bought the house down the road, and I had frozen plumbing worries there as well. I dearly love my in-laws. They are wonderful people. But not so wonderful that they weren’t spending the winter in Florida.
My wife bundled the six-year-old, the toddler, the baby, the Filipino au pair (probably wishing her Green Card away), and herself into the bedroom that was most in the lee of the blizzard. I made a fire that would have done 1871 Chicago proud. The room temperature rose from brass-panty girdle to hibernating toad.
Then I built fires in the other six fireplaces, put on my snowshoes, made my way to my in-laws’ house, built fires in their two fireplaces, trudged home, and brought firewood up from our basement. Our basement was dug in an apparent (and nearly successful) attempt to get to China and has stairs that, when you’re facing them with an armload of logs, make the Spanish Steps in Rome seem like an ADA-compliant sidewalk curb cut.
By the time I’d gotten the firewood to the ground floor, the fires in all the fireplaces were too low to toast s’mores.
For three days my routine was to haul wood, build fires, trek to the in-laws’, build more fires, trek back, drink a coffee mug full of scotch, pass out on the floor in front of the fireplace in our living room, and wait for the cold to wake me up. Repeat.
After 72 hours, I passed out for good. After 78 hours, the power came back on. We bought a generator. (So did the in-laws.)
Buying a generator resulted, of course, in no notable winter power outages for the next several years. Then the power went all the way out. For weeks. In an ice storm of Quaternary glaciation ilk.
Everything visible from the top of our ridge across the ten miles of river valley was covered in an inch-thick glittering transparent crystalline rime. It was very beautiful. For a moment. Then, with the weight of the ice, everything visible began to break. There was a sound like the Brobdingnagians of Gulliver’s Travels pouring milk on Rice Krispies the size of the Lincoln Monument into a bowl as wide as Lake Tahoe. Trees snapped, phone poles crackled, and power transformers popped. After that, with a big crash, the woods around our house fell across our driveway.
But we had a generator! All was well. For a moment. What we didn’t have was gasoline to run it. Although the generator had been sitting idle and had a full tank, that tank held just half a gallon, which would last us only about six hours. I had gas cans in the garage. They were empty. I needed to siphon gasoline from our cars.
I found a length of plastic tubing – a “Tijuana credit card” we called it when I was a teenager (and a petty criminal). But I was woefully out of practice in petty criminality. It had been 50 years since I’d “liberated” gasoline from a car. In the meantime, car manufacturers had equipped gas tank filler necks with something called an “anti-rollover valve.” In theory this prevents gas from spilling out of the tank if the car flips. In practice this prevents me from being the petty criminal teenager I once was. It’s almost impossible to get a siphon past the anti-rollover valve. Almost impossible… but not completely. It took me an hour of poking and twisting with the plastic tube. Then I forgot that the key to sucking gas out of a gas tank is to quit sucking at just the right moment. That moment passed me by.
If you ever say to me that some cheap hootch or bad cocktail “tastes like a mouthful of gasoline,” you are – I’ll tell you to your face – lying.
If you ever say to me that some cheap hootch or bad cocktail “tastes like a mouthful of gasoline,” you are – I’ll tell you to your face – lying. If, on the other hand, you say to me that a mouthful of gasoline is a good way to stop smoking, you’re telling the truth. I had to quit for three hours for safety’s sake.
The other problem with siphoning gas from my wife’s Suburban and my Jeep was that there wasn’t much gas to siphon. My wife – who thinks fuel gauges are prone to false panics – had been driving around on empty. And I think “E” means “Eh – there are a couple of gallons left.”
Thus I had to clear the timber on the driveway and go find gasoline. Before I’d even gotten my chainsaw started I found out that my insulated Sorel Caribou boots could put Tonya Harding back into World Figure Skating Championship competition, if she can find a skating rink that slopes downhill as steeply as my driveway. After I’d gotten my chainsaw started I found out that chainsawing on ice made me eligible to file an OSHA workplace health hazard complaint against myself. I would have died a mangled death if it weren’t for the fact that using a chainsaw on ice-encrusted tree limbs is as effective as using a chainsaw on concrete rebar.
One thing, however, ice has going for it is that’s it’s “slippery as ice.” Using the natural form of kinetic energy known as being overweight I was able to slide away enough of the fallen trees to let my Jeep pass. Which it did, like a luge. Austrian luger Manuel Pfister reached a top speed of 96 mph on a track in Whistler, Canada, during a practice run for the 2010 Winter Olympics. But I may hold the world record.
The drive into the closest town in the river valley, without ice storm obstructions, takes 15 minutes. With ice storm obstructions it took an hour and a half and included an encounter with the severe sag of what must have been the only live power line left in the region. I have a front turn signal on my Jeep that is still permanently blinking.
The electricity was out in town. No gas stations were operating. I made my way to the next town down the valley. There, one gas station had auxiliary power. The line for the pump was a mile long.
My generator was running low on fuel back at the house. The needle on my Jeep’s gas gauge had flopped over to the left of empty and disappeared from sight. Did I go home and reenact the drunken drudgery and resulting catatonic state of three years before? Or did I abandon my family and go in search of gasoline with a faint hope that my wife (of very slender build) and three kids could get enough firewood up from the basement suburbs of Shanghai to keep themselves from freezing to death?
I listened to the radio. The newscaster said thousands of people were without power. The power company estimated power-line repair would take three weeks. The baby was now four and could probably help with the firewood. I abandoned my family.
I drove west, up out of our valley and into the low hills on its far side. And there on those hills I discovered one more thing about nature that isn’t worth a damn. She’s utterly fickle.
The spectacular ice storm had encompassed our entire river valley, but it had encompassed only our entire river valley. At the westward hills, the storm had simply given up and quit leaving nothing but a dusting of snow on the ground.
In a way I was disappointed by nature’s lack of ambition, scope, and drive. If I had a spectacular ice storm like that going, I wouldn’t have been satisfied until everyone from Kansas to Quebec and Boston to Boca Raton was living inside the Good Humor truck. But that would be unnatural.
Besides, in this case, I was gratified by the fickle uselessness of nature. I saw a gas station with its lights on and no line at the pump. I drove up and, with great excitement, shouted at the sullen, pimply kid in the cashiers’ booth, “DO YOU HAVE GASOLINE?”
“We’re a f***gas station,” said the kid. I was back in the artificial world.