Yes, we are here!

At GRIT and MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we have been educating folks about the benefits of self-reliance for 50 years. That includes researching and sourcing the best books and products to help individuals master the skills they need in times like these and beyond. Our online store is open and we are here to answer any questions you might have. Our customer service staff is available Monday through Friday from 8a.m.-5p.m. CDT. We can be reached at 1-866-803-7096 or by email. Stay safe!

Grit Blogs >

Restoring Mayberry

Turning Bad Wine Into Good Vinegar

Brian KallerIt all started with the parsnips. You can start them in summer here and leave them be, and they keep growing slowly through the dark Irish winters. By spring – the hungry season for most farming people – they are big as a man’s leg, a fact that must have saved many lives in generations past. Thing was, when I wrestled them out of the black mud that winter, we had to do something with them, and neither of us were overly hungry or fond of parsnips. So I made wine.

If you buy your booze from a store, “wine” refers only to grapes, but you can make wine or beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones. I make wine each year from whatever is in season – nettles, oxlip, meadowsweet, hawthorn, elderflower, elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, crab-apples, beetroots or dandelions – and mean to someday try recipes I've found for oak leaf, squash, parsley and cicely. I cannot give enough praise to wine made from meadowsweet, a summer weed with pale, astringent flowers, or oxlip, a delicate yellow flower that appears here in spring.

A few generations ago ,making wine provided not just recreation but survival, as many people had only lake or river water to drink and there were no cures for the many diseases people could catch. The fermenting yeast in wine or beer, however, drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively safe. It also provided calories and vitamins; Medieval Britons are estimated to have drunk four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain.

My parsnip-and-ginger wine, however, was a disaster – I find flower wines easy, vegetable wines difficult. When I uncorked it two years later, it had formed a disagreeable blend of flavours, and two more years did nothing to improve it. So I made vinegar.

Vinegar is what happens when bacteria ferments wine to produce acetic acid. I have had wines turn to alcohol naturally, when I didn’t want it – the hawthorn wine was particularly susceptible for some reason – but I had never made vinegar intentionally. Turns out that, like everything else, it takes time.

There are three ways to do it yourself. First, you could buy mother of vinegar, a slimy glob of the bacteria that makes acetic acid, and mix it with your wine. Second, you could buy unfiltered, unpasteurised vinegar that still contains the bacteria – effectively, it has a bit of the Mother still in it – and mix that in. Third, you could take the long way around and leave your wine out like sourdough, hoping that the right bacterium floats by on a wisp of breeze, lands on your project and goes nuts.

I took the middle route myself, buying a few bottles of unpasteurised vinegar from a specialty store in Dublin and mixing it with the wine – about 80 percent wine, 20 percent starter. I left the mix in a clean plastic bucket in our shed – the bacteria like the cool and dark. The bucket was covered but not airtight – bacteria need to breathe just like you do. In about four months, and the failed parsnip wine had started its new life, and we poured it through a coffee filter and bottled it.

My homemade parsnip and ginger vinegar 

People taking the third option have said they covered their wine with cheesecloth, fastened with a rubber band – they were trying to draw bacteria from the air, but keep out bugs and other such pests. My hawthorn wine was in a carboy, accomplishing the same thing.

This was one successful experiment; I'm not saying this will work every time, or that the result will taste good, or that it will always take four months. We let ours sit that long to be on the safe side, as we couldn't measure the change from looking. With our dark red hawthorn wine, a white film formed at the top of the liquid, making the bacteria quite obvious. The parsnip wine did not – perhaps because it was pale and the film was less visible – but after four months we were satisfied with the taste.

Your vinegar will have many uses beyond salad dressings, of course. You can use it to pickle vegetables, make salad dressings, wipe down the furniture, polish brass, disinfect cutting boards, clean out the coffeemaker, scrub pots or take off sticker glue. You can spray on car windows to keep them frost-free, rub it on rugs to remove stains or use it with bicarbonate of soda to unclog drains. In short, you have some useful stuff on your hands, all from your vegetable patch.

Cheapskate Traveling

Wouldn't live there, but a great place to visit.

Brian KallerGrowing up in Missouri, we never had much time or money for traveling, and while we knew people who did, their vacations – driving for days just to stand in long lines at overpriced rides – never sounded like much fun. Visiting other countries seemed unthinkable; flights, hotels, rental cars and restaurants added up into triple and quadruple digits we didn’t have. Thus, I was in my 30s before I left the country, and I'd never seen an American ocean.

Now that I live in Europe, though, I’m learning how valuable travel can be for the soul, especially for rural people who might otherwise become isolated – nor need it break the bank or the blood pressure when done properly.

Take lodgings, for example: You might be able to stay with friends or family for free, or stay in hostels for a fraction of the price of a hotel room. Hostels are much cheaper because, instead of private hotel rooms with televisions and maids, guests sleep in Spartan rooms with several other people. Most guests respect the privacy and habits of others, however, and are out during the day, using their rooms only for sleeping. Also, since most guests relax in common lounges rather than private rooms, hostels offer the chance to chat with other travelers from around the world. My first night in London I chatted with an Italian chef and a Danish hotelier on temporary work there, and soon the chef was making Pasta Carbonara for all of us.

Or take food: In a new city, you can eat out every night at pricey restaurants – or even worse, do what many tourists do and eat the same fast food as back home, just more expensively. Or you can buy groceries for cheap, healthy food and only eat out for social gatherings.

Wouldn't live there, but a great place to visit.Entertainment doesn’t have to be exorbitant either; the best things to do are usually free, from scenery to monuments to historical sites to museums. Other diversions are less expensive than you imagine; I imagined that West End plays would be only for elite patrons of the arts, but I get tickets for only slightly more than a trip to the cinema – only the movie stars were acting live in front of me.

Getting around in a strange city can be costly if you rent a car, but even in my own country that’s not usually necessary. Some U.S. cities, and most European ones, have so many options that cars are almost never necessary; many Londoners don’t own cars, as they have the Underground (subway), the trains, buses, and a bike-rental system. Most importantly, the city streets themselves are walkable, bordered by sidewalks, crosswalks, fruit stands, cafes, trees, awnings, gardens, and other walkers, rather than broken glass and auto flotsam.

Before World War II, American cities looked like more like European ones do now, with many buses, bicycles and streetcars. Unfortunately, the streetcars were bought and destroyed by a group of oil, car and tire companies, who were found guilty of criminal conspiracy only after the damage had been done. As a result, American cities exploded into sprawl that can be seen from space, and Americans have to spend a lot more money than they should just to get around.

Getting to your destination, of course, will probably be the greatest expense, and flying can be quite expensive. One way of bringing the cost down is to book a cancellation around a certain date, thus getting the ticket at a lower price, even if it means having to keep a flexible schedule. If you have a day job that sends you to another city, see if you can stay extra days and get a free holiday out of it.

People crossed oceans, of course, long before they flew; I took a boat to London rather than flying, which is cheaper, better for the environment and allowed me to write, mingle, smell the sea and savour the journey. Ships still cross the Atlantic and Pacific, and I know of people who arranged to work their way across, doing some equivalent of washing dishes until they reached their destination; as money grows tighter, this could become a much more popular way of traveling.

On land, of course, there are buses and trains, and over here they take you almost anywhere. My native U.S.A. has them as well, although our standards have fallen below those of many other countries. I can tell you from experience that if you take a bus or train across states, bring your own food and be prepared for delays.

I would gladly accept junk food and rescheduling, however, in exchange for buses and trains that just went more places. U.S. rail systems, for example, once had vast capillary networks to service a nation of 100 million; now Amtrak has only a small number of lines that must stretch between two oceans and serve 300 million people, and in many small Midwestern towns, abandoned rail stations sit beside grass-covered tracks. Nearby towns that do have rail lines are often inaccessible to each other, as the lines run parallel for hundreds of miles without meeting.

In the U.S.A., I had rarely ever seen a taxi, and thought of them only for big cities, but in Ireland they are a necessary part of rural travel. They are sometimes local people who spend most of their time farming or doing chores, but who are on call whenever someone needs a ride to the bus stop or train station. I never encountered a small town in America having such a service, but more rural people should consider starting one for their area.

The extremely frugal traveler still has the old standbys of riding the rails or hitchhiking, although the first is illegal, and both are dismissed today as unconscionably dangerous. They used to be staples of rural life, though, and most country folk remember when young people casually hitched a ride to the farm or the next town. People still hitch in Ireland, where communities are stronger and people are less fearful, and I suspect the attitudes feed on themselves – when everyone is too frightened to hitch or pick up hitchers, the custom is abandoned by everyone but the genuinely frightening.

The same could be said of many of these options; they have become less popular because they require people to give up the normal and convenient, to mingle with many different types of people, to exercise patience, to accept uncertainty. They make us engage with the landscape and travel through it. They exercise muscles, in body and mind, that our forebears knew well, and that we forgot we had.

Use Whitewash Instead of Paint for Traditional Look and No Toxins

House down the road from us

Brian KallerOur homes might be made of brick and plaster, our cars of metal and plastic, and our sheds and coops of lumber, but their surfaces – the part we see – are usually paint. Those flashy colours, though, often contain an alarming stew of ingredients – benzene, tricholoroethylene, formaldehyde, and many others – all of which flake off over time but never, of course, truly leave us. That’s not even counting the lead, now long banned, but which lingers in soil for generations.

So when our chicken coop needed some brightening, we took the old-fashioned route and whitewashed. Whitewashing was used on buildings here in Ireland into the late 20th century, only recently replaced by more dubious alternatives. Whitewash can consist of as little as two short ingredients – lime and water – that can be mixed and prepared with almost no energy in a few minutes. It is non-toxic enough that animals can actually lick it off with few or no ill effects, but antiseptic enough to discourage bacteria in the coop or dairy.

Lime refers not to the fruit or unrelated tree, but to a product made from burning limestone in a kiln. Limestone is mainly coral and shells of long-extinct sea creatures, squeezed over aeons into a solid mass of calcium carbonate, or CaCO3. When burned it vents carbon dioxide (CO2), leaving behind the volatile calcium oxide (CaO) or “quicklime.” When combined with water – hydrated or “slaked” – it becomes calcium hydroxide or Ca(OH)2, or simply called “lime.”

Humans have been creating lime this way for several thousand years, putting it to many uses; as a mortar for building, as an early form of cement, as an antiseptic ointment for animals or an anti-fungal coating for trees. A bit of lime could help remove hair from hides, sterilise water, bleach paper, deter slugs from a garden, or preserve eggs for months. It could be worked into boggy and acid soils to increase the fertility many times over. Also, it colours walls.

Its brilliant whiteness was valued here in Ireland, an island a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle where the winters grow very dark indeed. Cottages here were traditionally whitewashed in spring, as the rainy season gave way to the slightly less-rainy season, and again as part of the ritual leading up to Christmas.

The whitewash also showed too plainly when straw roofs needed to be re-thatched. After a decade or so, moss and algae build up on a straw roof, and when it rains the water runs off the roof and leaves green streaks down the whitewash. When a family had such visible stains, they were said to be “selling laces” – having money troubles, too poor to re-thatch.

Some old houses here were made with cob (sand, clay and straw mixed into something like cement) or wattle-and-daub (a mesh of flexible wood with a clay plaster coating), and as both were susceptible to moisture, the whitewash might have provided an early-warning system, showing where the owner needed to watch for erosion.

Lime and water mix

After experimenting a bit, we settled on a rather simple recipe: 2 cups of water for every cup of lime, with a 1/4 cup of salt thrown in. It was a particularly thick ratio and flaked off a bit when drying, so next time we might try a thinner combination. Once mixed, the wash can be applied with regular paintbrush strokes – or with my 9-year-old’s more Jackson-Pollock-inspired approach. It looks thin and transparent at first, but whitens as it dries. Wear gloves and goggles – lime is only a mildly caustic alkalai, but work with it all day and you’ll get raw hands.  

We also tried mixing milk in as well, recommended by many old books, but found the effect no different, so the extra expense of milk was not justified. Milk powder, however, comes much more cheaply, and could hold some promise. Farmers here sometimes added oils – linseed was most popular – to make it more waterproof, or strengthened it with animal hair or cereal husks.

To be sure, whitewash has disadvantages; it is water-soluble, for one thing, so rain washes it away. This presents little problem when the sides are under a slight overhang, like the sides of our coop or most houses, but when it showers, our hen-boxes receive a gusher of water from the roof, and we had to divert the water with a plastic awning or the white coating wouldn’t have lasted long. Even in dry weather, however, whitewash flakes off over time, and powders your clothes when you rub against it. The good news is that it leaves no permanent stains.

It is also, almost inevitably, white – although in the west of Ireland, I’m told, some farmers painted their houses pink by mixing pig’s blood with the wash. The fact that lime was cheap and easy, while coloured paints were expensive, probably accounts for the classic look of Irish homes – clean white exteriors accented by brilliantly coloured doors and windows.

Locals here seemed familiar with many vegetable dyes or fabrics – elderberries for lavender; red cabbage or brambleberries for blue; nettles for green; St. John’s Wort for magenta; and marigolds, calendula, dock root and onion skins for yellow. Many of these colours are also water-soluble and fade quickly – which modern people think of as a disadvantage, although some valued the muted colours.

Some traditional peoples did create natural pigments, however, by boiling various clays and minerals – yellow and red ochre, sienna, umber, cinnabar and iron oxide for reds and browns, copper ore for green paints, urine for yellow, lampblack or charcoal created blacks and greys. Wherever you live, your plants and soil probably have their own palette of colours, which you can use at least as well as the Neanderthals who painted long-extinct animals on cave walls.

My daughter helping paint the coop 

Ancient Technique Lets Forests Produce Timber Without Killing Trees

Living chair on our land, made from a coppiced willow.

A prehistoric squirrel, it is said, could have scampered from Norway to Singapore without touching the ground, so dense was the carpet of trees that stretched across the world. Similar forests stretched across North America and many other parts of the world – all of them providing a home to thousands of living things, all of them vacuuming the carbon dioxide from the air and keeping the climate stable.

Most of that landscape was felled for timber and paper long ago, the land given over to crops and suburbia – or to wasteland. Of course, humans need food and houses, but we also need timber and wildlife, and our ancestors would have been wiser to preserve some of those forests for future generations. And sometimes, they did – for at least six thousand years, some humans have used an old technique to continually harvest timber from a forest while keeping it alive indefinitely.

When an evergreen tree is cut at the base, its roots die. But many broad-leaved, deciduous trees continue to soak up water and nutrients through their roots. The roots put their energy into creating shoots, which grow into new saplings – and soon you will have several smaller trees where you had one before. In a matter of years or decades – how long depends on the type of tree – you can harvest those smaller trees, called “underwood,” and the process begins again. You can keep doing this as long as the original base continues to live, which can be more than a hundred years.

Commonly coppiced species included ash, chestnut, oak, hazel, sycamore and alder, and most of these created shoot from the cut stump, called a stool. The new trunks usually curved outward from the original stool, and so their naturally bowed wood was often prized for ship-building. Other species, like cherry, would send suckers upward from the roots surrounding the stump. Either way, the new shoots grow quickly, fed by a root system made to support an entire tree.

Woodsmen coppiced areas where they could keep out cattle and horses, as animals might eat the shoots. In places where animals might roam the woodland they would pollard – or cut branches higher up on the tree out of their reach.

Willow stands in a class by itself in coppicing, as it does not need to mature before being cut, nor does it require a decade or two of waiting. Its flexible shoots – withies – are perfect for weaving into shapes, which provided early humans with homes, boats, chariots, armour, fences, barns, sheds, coops, weirs, animal traps, and baskets.

Early humans must have regularly cropped basketry plants as they would edible plants, and burned woodlands to encourage their growth, according to anthropologist M. K. Anderson. He even proposes that some of the first agriculture might have been to grow basketry crops, not food crops. (1)

Here in Ireland, willows – sometimes called sallies or silver-sticks – were pollarded each winter from century-old trunks that had never been mature trees, often looking like fields of spiky sea urchins. Weavers here were said to harvest the willow on St. Bridget’s Day – Feb. 1 – and with large machete-like tools called bill-hooks, and collected ten tonnes to the acre.

Waterford farmer and self-sufficiency expert John Seymour called coppicing and pollarding “the most fundamental of woodland crafts.” (2) The earliest stumps that look coppiced to archaeologists date from around 2500 BC, but the craft seems to have been perfected in medieval Europe where vast stretches of woodland were coppiced or pollarded regularly for charcoal, firewood, timber and other uses. (3)

In a copse – a forest of regularly coppiced trees – each tree is marked with the year it was last felled, and only a fraction of them are felled again each year. If the forester is coppicing them every ten years, he or she will fell ten percent of them each year, and the forest will be maintained.

Seymour describes a coppice-with-standards system in which coppiced trees – harvested every several years or so – are interspersed with trees allowed to grow to maturity and felled for large pieces of timber. The latter group – called “standards” – are harvested at a rotation time of about 10 times the coppice; for a coppice cut once a decade, for example, the standards will be cut once a century.

If more forward-looking souls were to turn their fields into copses, they could have a regular harvest of wood for many generations to come. Enough copses around the world could supply the world with paper and timber, warmth and wildlife without the need to ever fell another forest.

Top photo: Living chair on our land made from coppiced willow.

Bottom photo: Wood for the winter.

 Coppiced wood from our land

(1) Anderson, M.K. – The fire, pruning and coppice management of temperate ecosystems for basketry material by Californian Indian tribes. Human Ecology 27(I) 79-113. 1999.

(2) Seymour, John – The Forgotten Arts and Crafts, DK Adult 2001.

(3) Coles, J M -- "Man and landscape in the Somerset Levels". Limbrey, Susan and J G Evans. The effect of man on the landscape: the Lowland Zone (London): 86–89. 1978.

Simpler Ways to Stay Warm

Brian KallerEvery day, it seems, acquaintances send me articles about how to live better or save energy, many of which neglect the most obvious answers. They often report inventions that could increase fuel efficiency by 10 percent, ignoring the 500 percent increase you get from packing more people in a car. Others praise the junk foods with 10 percent less fat, not the people who eat 100 percent less junk food. When it comes to keeping warm in winter, likewise, we often overlook the simple.

We use many times more energy keeping warm than our ancestors did, partly for the reasons I mentioned last time: our houses rarely use the natural energy around them, and they leak the energy many of us import from far away. Most modern homes are many times larger than traditional ones, giving us far more space to heat. Another reason, though, is that inside these houses, more and more of us are alone.

In 1900, only one percent of U.S. residents lived alone, and half lived in households of six or more people. By 2012, 27 percent of Americans lived by themselves, and other Western nations saw similar trends. When extended families gathered under one (small) roof, the entire building could be heated or insulated more easily, and of course when people gathered in the same room, their body heat warmed the air. More people living alone, and fewer people per house in general, means more vast spaces to heat separately. (1)

For another thing, most of us keep our homes very hot these days. One U.S. organization assumes a normal indoor winter temperature of anywhere from 20 to 27 degrees C (around 67 to 82 F), but the British keep their homes at 17.5 degrees C (62 F), and a few decades ago kept them at 12 degrees (53 F), according to the U.K.’s Building Research Establishment. I don’t have statistics for Ireland, but homes here often feel colder still, and one local woman keeps her windows open during the near-freezing winter. Victorian Britons often slept with open windows – and they lived during the sub-zero nights of the “Little Ice Age,” an era when the climate was much colder than today. (2) (3)

Many old techniques allowed people to remain warm while sleeping, by transferring heat from the fire to some thermal mass and letting it radiate slowly. They put closed pans of hot coals or sand under the bed, or put their bedding atop “bed wagons” that left space underneath for heat sources. Some people in Central or Eastern Europe built masonry stoves, whose winding chimney heated a giant thermal mass of brick or stone – and some had a space for bedding attached to the stove itself, so that the fire would warm the brick underneath the bed. Hot-water bottles accomplished the same purpose with less of a fire hazard, and we still use them in our house through the winter.

If such temperatures sound intolerable, keep in mind that most of us dress poorly for the cold these days, even though we can buy highly insulating and comfortable clothes unavailable to our ancestors. Look at the everyday garments of people two or three centuries ago, and you see that what look like costumes to us were appropriately heavy and insulating. The business suit handed down to us from European gentlemen was made for a cold climate and colder age, even though people continue to wear them in paradoxically air-conditioned offices in Arizona and Florida.

Clothes insulate the body the same way that batting insulates the home, by trapping poorly conducting air pockets between the hot and cold spaces. As Kris De Decker of Low-Tech Magazine pointed out, though, insulating the body means warming only a tiny layer of space between us and our clothes – which costs much less energy than insulating our now-giant living spaces. If we feel warm, however, it achieves the same result.

Since every degree of indoor heat translates to about nine or 10 percent more energy, a 20-degree change in temperature could bring heating expenses from exorbitant to almost nil. As one of our home builders said, “If you’re wearing a T-shirt in the winter, you’re spending too much money.” (4)

As house insulation can be expressed using measures like R-values, clothes insulation is measured in the lesser-known “clo” unit. A “clo,” developed by scientists in the 1940s, is defined as the amount of clothing needed to keep a couch potato feeling about 21 degrees C (70 F) indefinitely.

If that sounds too vague, you could use the physicist’s definition: a clo is about equal to 0.155 m2 K/W. Or, if you’re an architect, you could translate it to home insulation R-values by defining a clo as 0.88 R. You could also say that a clo is about an eighth of a centimeter in clothing layers, or that each clo generally equals three kilograms of clothing weight. In everyday terms, however, it’s a three-piece business suit.

Mammal with substantial insulation

Photo: Baby polar bear with enough "clo" to survive the Arctic.

Every one-degree (C) drop in temperature can be compensated by putting on about 0.18 clo worth of insulation, and organizations like ASHREA and ISO have compiled meticulous lists of clothing and their clo-values, so a T-shirt is 0.1 clo, a sweater (or jumper, if you are in Ireland or the U.K.) about 0.2 to 0.4 clo, and trousers 0.25 to 0.35 clo. As De Decker points out in his article, if someone in a T-shirt simply put on more appropriate clothes – long underwear, heavy shirt and jumper – they could reduce their heating costs by 50 to 70 percent. (5) (6) (7)

Finally, one last and often-overlooked factor in winter warmth: most of our ancestors worked hard. Chopping wood, keeping animals, pushing barrows – even the most everyday chores from childhood to old age required physical activity that we rarely get today. Physical activity might be the most important factor in keeping the body warm.

My friends back in Minnesota were living with minus-40 temperatures recently – Centigrade and Fahrenheit, for that’s where the two scales meet – and that might seem to require more insulation than clothing can provide. Indeed, according to De Decker, keeping a resting person warm at those temperatures requires 12 clo, the equivalent of 12 suits layered on top of one another. Walk around, though, and that figure drops to four clo, and when running to 1.25 clo!

If all of this sounds overly Spartan, keep in mind that most of our ancestors lived in harsh winters with no central heating, no electricity, no coal, oil or propane. Go far back enough, and they even survived an Ice Age, and most of the time they not only survived, but prospered. If you want proof that we can thrive during cold weather on far less energy than we use today, just look around you.


1 – “The First Measured Century,” book from PBS, p. 92.

2 – American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)

Standard 55-2010, “Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy,”

3 – “How warm is your home?” BBC News, 3 March 2011,

The “Little Ice Age” was the period from the 1600s to the 1800s, when winters became much more severe. It may have happened, strange as it sounds, because Europeans introduced diseases to the Americas; up to 95 percent of the population of two continents died off, their farms grew back into forests again, the trees sucked up trillions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect was quickly reduced, and global temperatures plunged. That era, when Londoners held “frost fairs” on the solidly frozen Thames River, is the source of most of our Dickensian Christmas imagery, the reason we sing about wanting a white Christmas even though most of our climates don't allow for it anymore.

4 – “Insulation: First the Body, Then the Home,” Low-Tech Magazine, 27 Feb. 2011.

5 – ASHRAE Research Project Report RP-411: A Comprehensive Data Base for Estimating Clothing Insulation, January 1985.

6 - Gagge, A.P., A.C. Burton, and H.C. Bazett. A practical system of units for the description of the heat exchange of man with his environment. Science, 94: 428-430, 1941.

7 - Handbook of Clothing: Bio-medical Effects of Military Clothing and Equipment Systems, 2nd edition. By Ralph Goldman and Bernhard Kampmann, 2007

Keeping Warm in the Deep Freeze

Brian KallerIf you grew up in the modern West – North America, for example – you probably grew up with central heating, cheap fuel and a near-endless supply of electricity delivered right to a hole in your wall. Generations of us grew up handling the winter chill with one simple technique: reach for the thermostat and crank it up. This assumption of convenience has shaped how we build houses, how we eat, and how we dress for all seasons. It also means that a fuel crisis or depression – or the winter storm that cut power to half a million North Americans a few weeks ago – can leave us completely vulnerable.

Consider, then, that people lived for thousands of years in wintry lands without a thermostat to crank, or without any modern fuel or technology, and obviously did not all freeze to death – nor were they even necessarily uncomfortable. They built their homes differently than we do, they adopted different dress and habits, and lived with a different set of expectations.

Traditional homes in many cultures had thick walls, whose thermal mass absorbed heat during the day and radiated it back during the cool night. Some homes in Ireland, for example, were made of cob – a mixture of sand, clay and straw that could be literally sculpted into a house. I helped built one in County Clare, Ireland, and I’m told it remains cozy inside years later.

The cob house in Cadhay - Wikicommons

Photo: Wikicommons

In many cultures – whether medieval Wales, pre-Columbian America or Ancient Greece – villages were arranged to maximize exposure to sun and light, minimizing the need for burning fuel. Only in recent times have we decided to build without regard to direction or landscape. (1)

“Coupled with other low-tech solutions … passive solar design could all but eliminate the use of fossil fuels and biomass for heating buildings throughout large parts of the world,” wrote Kris De Decker in Low-Tech Magazine. (2)

Of course, many homes used to be easier to heat and insulate, for the simple reason that they were smaller. As recently as 1950, the average new home in the United States was 983 square feet, not much larger than old Irish cottages. By 2004, however, the average had swelled to 2,349 square feet, even though family size had shrunk, and most homes were occupied by just one or a few people. (3)

Realistically, of course, most of us are not going to design new cities or even houses – even if you have an opportunity to build your own home, as we did, budgets and local ordinances might force a compromise with convention. Most people rent or pay a mortgage on an already-built home, and have to retrofit.

Thankfully, retrofitting can go a long way, starting with insulation; according to one organization, 65 percent of American homes have substandard insulation. That wasted energy – whether at the electrical power plant or in the home – has a real human cost; according to a 2003 study, retrofits across the United States would mean 6,500 fewer asthma attacks, and save hundreds of lives and $1.3 billion in health costs. That doesn’t even count the billions we would save in heating costs, the fossil fuels saved for future generations, and the greenhouse gases left un-gassed. (4) (5)

For people who can’t afford new insulation, old clothes stuffed in the attic could also help. Victorians used to insulate inside by putting old wine bottles – empty but re-corked – under the floorboards, creating air pockets. People can simply close off outer rooms and seal them off, keeping heat in areas where people spend most of their time. Trees and vine trellises, moreover, can be positioned to shade homes in the heat and let light through in the bare-branched winter.

You could create your own thermal mass inside your home. A trombe wall is a thermal mass – bricks, black-painted water tanks, anything to absorb heat during the day and radiate it at night. It would usually face the south (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere), and sit inside your windows – but if you want to build a greenhouse, you could build it on the south side and make your outside wall the thermal mass. (6)

What all these approaches have in common is that they maximize external energy coming into your home (south-facing windows, trombe wall) and keep the heat that’s there from escaping (insulation). All of them, though, involve building or installing something new, and some solutions are even more basic than that – so much so that they are often overlooked. More on that next column.  


(1)    A Golden Thread: 2,500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology by Ken Butti and Jon Perlin, as cited in “The solar envelope: how to heat and cool cities without fossil fuels,” by Kris De Decker, Low-Tech Magazine.

(2)    “The solar envelope: how to heat and cool cities without fossil fuels,” by Kris De Decker, Low-Tech Magazine.

(3)    “Americans want smaller homes, not McMansions,” USA Today, August 25, 2010.


(5)    “The Public Health Benefits of Insulation Retrofits in Existing Housing in the United States,” Jonathan I. Levy, Yurika Nishioka and John D. Spengler, Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, April, 2003

(6)    The Passive Solar Energy Book by Ed Mazria.

Getting the Most Out of Christmas

Brian KallerChristmas morning ranks high among most people’s golden childhood memories, the tangible foundation for later abstractions like delight or gratitude. You might be in a college dorm or nursing home, you might not remember yesterday’s lunch or tomorrow’s appointments, but you probably recall opening that first gift from Santa.

So here’s a question: how many second gifts do you remember from your childhood Christmases? How many third or fourth gifts?

Amy Dacyczyn, author of “The Tightwad Gazette,” made an interesting observation about children on Christmas morning: the first present is magical, she said, but the fourth or fifth means far less, and by distracting the child, diminishes the magic of the first present. Moreover, by the time the child receives the fifth present, they are anticipating the sixth, and will feel disappointed when it doesn’t arrive.

A pile of Christmas presents

Photo: Maxim Malevich/Fotolia

We do this even as adults; find out you’re getting a Christmas bonus and you might feel a moment of triumph. Find out you’re getting a second bonus, and you’ll be pleased … but not as pleased as before. Just like the gifts on Christmas morning, two surprises are not twice as pleasurable as one.

The reason seems to be that we adjust our expectations according to recent events, so that an unexpected gift or loss changes everything briefly and then loses its effect as we get used to the new normal. Even the most life-changing events, like winning the lottery or enduring a car crash, have little effect on long-term happiness – as we know from a 1974 study of people who had experienced just those things.  Spending has increased for four decades in the USA and Europe alike, so we all have more toys, yet surveys say we are no happier.

Yet we spend more almost every Christmas, and it’s not difficult to see why. Most parents give their children the best, or feel pressured to keep up with other parents, or – let’s be honest – want to make up for not spending enough time during the year. The easy answer – buy more things – screams at us from all around, its messages pasted onto walls and along roads, interrupting your television or internet, blaring from loudspeakers in the distance. Avoiding such messages increasingly means withdrawing from mainstream culture.   

Thus, what was once a single holy day has metastasized into a shopping season, a time to eat too much, drink too much and spend too much, while getting less and less pleasure from the same activities. Mainstream culture has even placed a sense of moral obligation on spending, as the media track sales figures like telethon hosts.

In an article in Slate magazine, however, economist Joel Waldfogel demolished the idea that Christmas spending is good for the economy. Let’s say, he said, that you describe the cost of a gift as the store value plus the pleasure of receiving it as a gift.  If your granny gives you a 50-dollar Christmas sweater that you love and would have bought for yourself anyway, you receive more value from it as a gift. But most of us don’t love all our Christmas gifts and wouldn’t have bought them for ourselves – as evidenced by the fact that we didn’t. They have less value to us than what we really wanted, so gift-givers are spending more money to get less – an imposed inefficiency on the economy.

Waldfogel doesn’t even include the potential 20 percent or so extra cost of buying on credit during the holidays, or the cost of storing and maintaining your gift, or the cost of electricity or buying batteries. He doesn’t include the ecological cost of creating more junk when you throw the gift away eventually, or the money given to business whose policies you might not agree with, or any of the other ripples you create in the world with each purchase.  

What about other rituals, you ask – the decorations, the parties, and the flood of annual songs? Can’t we enjoy those things? Of course – if you genuinely enjoy them. You are not, however, obliged to load up on the same plastic decorations that adorn every shop window or cubicle this month, or sing the same five songs all the loudspeakers repeat, or watch a television program you’ve seen many times before.  

If this sounds too Scrooge-like in attitude, remember that Scrooge opposed the spirit of Christmas, and took no pleasure in seeing family and friends celebrate together. I’m saying the exact opposite; I’d like to see a lot of stressed and increasingly broke people enjoy the holidays again. Those nostalgic images of the Christmases past, from Charles Dickens to Norman Rockwell, would never have portrayed people staring at glowing screens, or listening to headphones, or of waiting in line at the cash machine, even had such things existed.

Realistically, of course, some of us have office jobs to go to, co-workers who expect presents, relatives to visit, and children already receiving stacks of gifts from elsewhere, and we shouldn’t try to change everyone else. None of us can completely hold back the surrounding culture, but we can make many small changes; we can limit television over the holidays, play games with children, read to each other by candlelight on Christmas Eve, and fill our time with the things people used to do before consumption became many people’s full-time job.

Here in the Irish countryside, where we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, Christmas time brings eighteen-hour nights and howling winds, but most people still needed to feed the animals and do all the regular chores. Traditionally, according to our older neighbours, people bought a goose for dinner, whose fat would polish their boots and harnesses for the next year. Many people brought holly, ivy and rosemary into the house from the surrounding countryside, and when they decorated a tree, it was often a few days before. Neighbours would bring home-made gifts to each other’s houses, and sing songs that might be unique to each region, passed down through the generations.  The holiday lasted only a brief moment and disappeared, and that made it precious.


“Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?” By Brickman, Philip; Coates, Dan; Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 36(8), Aug 1978, 917-927.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn, 1998

“You Shouldn’t Have: The Economic Argument for Never Giving Another Gift,” Joel Waldfogel, Slate magazine, December 2009

Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters

click me