Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Adaption: the natural way to survive and thrive.

Here we go again. NOAA's website and radio reports are saying that Mother Nature is about to toss us another snowball. What they don't know is the exact track and extent of the incoming winter weather system. I listened to our weather band radio this morning with a considerable amount of concern, and no small amount of disgust.

Yes, I know I can't change the weather -- I wouldn't want to make things worse than they already are, for a fact -- yet I'd surely love to change the way we're forced to deal with it all. Not only on a local, but on a national (international?) frame. We cannot stop the climate changes, though humanity has done perhaps a considerable amount to enhance and escalate them. What we must do, is learn to work with our world and stop trying to play god with it. We're a part of this world, native to it and the unavoidable truth is that we keep denying that we are.

Not smart, folks.

Where were you, this time last year? At the end of January and the beginning of February, 2009, an ice storm hit eastern Kentucky. Just a couple of weeks ago, someone was talking to us about it, and asked how long it was before we "got our electric back". The person said they had just about frozen to death in their a modern total-electric home, and had no way to cook, preserve food, nor did they have a source of light.

Well, well, well. We laughed, and informed the well-meaning person that we don't have electric. This got a shocked look and we were immediately asked what we meant by that.

So we explained that when we bought our place, there was supposed to be a county road into it, but it turned out that the county had, a handful of years before, failed to readopt the road into our property. Since the "public thoroughfare" road passes through the property of a considerably disagreeable neighbor, several problems had arisen.

One, our road is a horrible mess. Currently, a large portion of it is covered in mud and ruts up to a foot deep. Were it not for driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle and being prepared for country/farm driving, we'd be unable to access our home at all. Discussions with various county officials has come to naught. They refuse to re-adopt our road, though there is a permanent residence beyond it (ours) that has no other route of egress. Never mind the fact that the county, which constantly complains of money problems yet reports that the road department's funding is wholly secure, still maintains numerous roads similar to ours. In addition to those, there are roads that essentially go nowhere, and roads that are said to go to graveyards, but do not, which are fully cared for by the county.

Two, that the electric company sees our residence, a half mile out this rough dirt road, as a profit venture for them. Their monopoly on the electric supply -- "the grid" -- is all-powerful. Their first price to us, for installation of conventional electric, was no less than $33,000. Subsequent bids have resulted in their coming slowly down to $17,000. IN ADVANCE. In essence, they said, "Give us a year's wage for the average Powell Countian, and we'll give you a nice electric bill."

Research into the situation proved that a place called "BACKWOODS SOLAR" had a better idea for us to work from. For almost half the price, we can own our own solar rig, plus a generator for power backup, which will eventually be paid for, and can be upgraded easily as time passes.

If we had conventional electric, and a total electric home, we'd have a bill of anywhere from $100 to $300 a month to pay. Endlessly.

And every time we flipped on a light switch or turned on a microwave, we'd be, to all intents and purposes, tearing down mountains that cannot be replaced by the hand of man. Mountains full of resources that are, in the long term view, necessary for life.

Big business tells us that we need to get rid of those mountains (what the...?) and put in some nice "valley fill", that they'll gladly do the job for the little thread of coal that runs through them. They also tell us that they'll do this little job and gladly pay for returning the land to a state of productivity. (How do they figure that? Did they have a calculator that determined profit via a god-complex program?)

I took a good long look at the statistics. I did research and checked around. And guess what... I found answers to some serious questions attached to all of this. And, of course, given no large choice, we did end up learning first-hand that there is another way, and that it's not evil.

For the last few years -- almost four now, if I've counted correctly -- we've lived without conventional electric in our unfinished mountain cabin. We use a woodstove as our primary heat source, and we went back to some of the ways of our ancestors (in the not too distant past, either) for light. Yet we haven't given up a number of the perks of our times. In short, we've become the highest-tech low-tech people we know of, though we're not the only ones in this small, Kentucky county to be without conventional electric.

No, we're not Amish. Nor are we Mennonites. We do live a little like they do (for non-electric supplies, check out www.lehmans.com) , and we've found it to be peaceful and to no small extent educational.

Here is an account I wrote of last year's ice storm. 

 


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Several years ago, on an ordinary day in eastern Kentucky, the forecasts all said that we might get some flurries. What we got was a lot more than that: 17 inches of fluffy white snow. Even the power lines were loaded, crowned by a thin ridge of pristine ice particles several inches tall in places.

It was beautiful, and it was a serious problem. There was no wind, hence the pile up of delicate flakes. The temperature hovered right at freezing, no more and no less. Power poles and lines crashed to the ground. Trees fell, many of them on power and phone lines, roofs, vehicles, and roads.

We were staying with my parents and did better than some folks, perhaps worse than others: our power was out for 3 weeks. The phone worked all along. Having a gas cooking stove and a big fireplace helped. So did knowing how to adapt to the situation, and having the basic gear to get started.

Ronnie and I dug out the coolers and the kerosene heater we had in storage since we'd lost our own residence to tornado damage back in the spring. We packed the coolers with snow, melted snow for water (the water pump ran on electric) and also bailed some out of the cistern with a bucket, and cooked on a kitchen stove with electric ignition replaced by a simple match. We cut wood and fed the fire, cooked food and fed the family.

That was then, in a different time and place.

This time, Ronnie and I are alone in our new home, and for once I'm grateful it isn't "finished" to the average American standard, and that I'm a kind of paranoid pack rat who keeps all sorts of backup items in storage. We have no electric or phone lines in the house, nor water lines at this time. Gas, either. As a result, this storm hasn't really varied our lifestyle at all. We've spent over 2 years here, and happy years at that, living in the unfinished hulk of the large-ish house. The fact that it's relatively isolated has never truly bothered us; we try to meet challenges as they come.

Oh, the forecast this time was very different. The NOAA forecast said "up to 7 inches of snow and/or ice". What we got was ... about 2 inches of ice, then later another 2" inches of snow. (That doesn't sound like a lot, I know; it's the sheer weight of it that does the most damage.) Of course, where we live is a little different than down in town; up on Furnace Mountain, if town has 2 inches of snow, we get 4 or 5. Town, this time, got a bare inch of snow, while we got the full deal.

Knowing it was coming, Ronnie and I stocked up. Since he's out of work due to health problems, there wasn't a lot of cash to blow on needless things. We had adequate medicines already. Food, including those items high fiber, low saturated fat, and yet with calories. Our special dietary needs aside, calories are necessary when working out in the snow and ice.

Canned items and dry. Milk, buttermilk, eggs, it all had to fit into one very large cooler. Ice has been our refrigerant for over 2 years now, so that part we're used to handling. Dry items, of which milk, buttermilk and eggs all are available as, are a boon. Flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda, things like popcorn and sandwich bread as well. We don't have a microwave, of course, so things we can cook on our one camp burner and the woodstove are a must. This isn't a problem at all, if you're used to camp-style cooking, as we are. Very little is needed for us to live here.

Pet foods filled a large metal garbage can. Dogs, cats, kittens. Feed for the ponies, since the horses are too fat and subsist quite well on plain, ever-available rolled hay and the grass soon to be buried (broad horse hooves dig it out easily) in a natural refrigerator.

Water, both to cook with and to drink, as well as water for washing. We keep a goodly supply of various jugs, and most of them are full all the time. We use them in rotation, to keep fresh supplies available. I keep a supply of various teas, cocoa, and coffee, anyway, as well as ramen soups stored in a large metal popcorn tin. For those things, only hot water is needed to prepare what amounts to a pleasant treat.

The rest is classified as "general".  Firewood is also a must, and woodstove maintenance items. Reading material for me, for which I hit the library. A spare kerosene heater wick, some of the little gas canisters to use with our cooking burner and a small space heater in a pinch. Kerosene, of course, in big jugs, along with a bottle of a special treatment to keep things working smoothly. These things, along with candles, require special, ultra-careful handling and storage. Batteries for our flashlights and small lanterns, a weather radio combined with AM/FM to keep us up on news and forecasts.

Firewood was already stacked up, a week's supply readily available. Good, dry, seasoned wood that burns clean. Matches, candles, lamp oil -- all right here and ready to go. Some of it already in use, the rest was a backup in case of long-term weather problems. We even had some to spare for others who weren't as prepared.

Little did we know, though we suspected, what was about to really happen. Ronnie and I love snow, and we'd hoped for that, crossing our fingers that it wouldn't be ice, and if it was, it would be gone in a day. At this writing, the storm's effects have been with us for 4 days. We got almost all ice: rain, freezing rain, sleet. The lowlands are flooded, though it's finally going down some.

The whole area is out of electric. Some repair dates are projected well into February.

Ronnie and I, thanks to the expensive price laid on us by the local power company, don't have electric in our new house; the loss of electric isn't a shock to us. However, our neighbors and friends, family too, for miles around, none of them have electricity. They're hurting. Some have no heat, others bemoan the lack of lighting in their homes. Those who have natural gas wells are gloating happily ... as long as the heating systems in their homes don't depend on electric to run them. Others, like us, use wood heat. There is no shortage of trees, standing-dead, down, or alive and thriving.

In most places, the phone lines are out. Even here, the signal on our cell phones was almost gone; we had no signal in the house, and it is usually excellent here. (Jan. 30 -- cell phone service was restored last night. The repair teams had to have communications.) Which bring us to another situation: most people have no way to charge their cell phones, since they have no electric. When the charge in the gadgets is gone, so is the area communications.

Ronnie and I, on the other hand, have something to circumvent that, inexpensive devices known as "inverters". These things convert DC, or battery power, to AC, or what you plug up to inside an ordinary house. As a matter of fact, as the ice laid itself down on the land and began its destruction, Ronnie and I sat on our couch near the woodstove and watched DVD movies on this very laptop. "XXX" (Vin Diesel) and "The Silence of the Lambs" (Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn) to be exact. Our cell phones are charged, and we're still functional as per usual.

Town, on the other hand, has been in a mess. We stopped by the bank to do a little business, only to find a sign in the window. "BANK TEMPORARILY CLOSED. NO ELECTRIC." The manual deposit slot, which I believe works on hydraulics, still worked, so we dropped our business off and left. No problem for us. Stores and gas stations had signs similar to the bank, or the doors simply locked. Very few businesses were open or fully functional. Those which were, especially one renowned for its good deli cooking, were doing a booming retail blitz. People searched in vain for kerosene heaters or any other heater that didn't require electric to operate. The local Kroger's store was open -- and they had 11 propane tanks left, which they expected would be gone by early evening.

There were many people stirring around town. Some bought flannel pajamas, some long-john winter underwear, some sweat suits, some stocked up on thick winter socks. Others were getting plumbing repair parts or, most of them, searching for heating alternatives. Candles sold out fast in every shop carrying them, as did Coleman camping supplies. The same thing went for batteries in every size and shape.

It's odd how necessity is separated by want and time. It also never fails to amaze me how easily people forget such times, and how the lessons they should have learned are quickly passed by.

So many of the people we talked to had told us, "Y'all gotta get y'r electric!" No, we said, we don't. Not at the price they want us to pay. All along, we've considered solar power with a generator backup, we explained. The vast majority looked at us with pity and shock, as if we were simpletons doing something outright stupid. We, on the other hand, smiled and said nothing more. No use.

When discussions round out to where we live, and we say we don't have phone, electric, or city water in to our house yet, the usual reply is, "Oh, God! Honey, how do you live?" The pity and shock thing is familiar to us. "Well, you're here, aren't you?" Our reply is common sense. "Looks like your ancestors did rather well."

Or not. Ahem.

If you're poor in Kentucky, like most Kentuckians have been for generations, you'd better be able to adapt and so survive. Our ancestors did well, and so will we. It's not like we have a choice after all, except going out to lie down in the snow and ice to wait for death (however kindly the weapons cold uses to kill). Poverty and struggle has been a way of life here since the first European genetics were tossed into the Dark and Bloody stew. The natives had it better: they didn't destroy the land in the name of profit, and survival wasn't a solitary pursuit. That all changed.

Ronnie and I knew it would be a struggle to make it up here in our remote mountain home. Not like in the Rockies, not that bad. No. But not easy, either. Turns out it was easier to adapt than we thought.

Our neighbors too are in the process of changing over to more sustainable ways of life, such as using their gas wells to heat their home, certified kitchen facility, and greenhouses. A garden requires a good dog or 2 to keep the deer out. The deer are often pests, and it's a struggle to keep enough from them to allow storage of winter food supplies.

There are predators, yes. They're currently coming back from the damage done by those European gene imports I mentioned. The deer, wild turkey, and grouse, for starters. Coyotes moved in, non-native, to fill a gap in the food chain damaged by humans: red wolves, for example, were essentially extinct. A related strain has in recent years been re-introduced to the Appalachians. They're thriving. We see or hear them on occasion, near our home. Coyote song simply isn't the same, nor are the tracks the canids leave in sand, mud, or snow. The big cats (cougar, puma, panther, "pa'nter", or whatever you want to call them) are pushing at the bobcats (bobcats are very shy, and they stayed here, though in lesser numbers due to lesser prey populations), thanks to the rise in numbers of deer. No prey, no predators, and vice versa. It takes time, however, to adapt. And food gardens are to deer are as freely available food is to mice or rats: the more you feed them, the more offspring they produce.

Since our home is over half a mile out a dirt/sand ridge road through the woods, we borrowed a chainsaw and stocked supplies for it (gas, oil, etc.). It was a good thing we did, indeed.

Tuesday, January 27, the storm laid in to start. Rain, freezing rain, sleet. In short, ice in the making. The snow we'd hoped to see was coming as the ice we had not wanted. We stayed home and cooked barbecue-flavored pork, green beans, and roasted potatoes on our wood stove. Breakfast was sour-dough quick bread and French roast coffee, lunch soup and sandwiches.

We worked on the house, as it's far from finished. Insulation on the walls in the main, partially-underground floor, and a few other things like painting, can be done on a low budget. Ronnie, of course, slept a great deal; his sleep disorder causes him to be groggy and to doze off unexpectedly at times. I read, tinkered with a casual drawing of a mermaid for our neighbors' little granddaughter (Arlie's a precocious age 4, preoccupied with cartoon characters).

During a really vicious winter storm, it's usually best to sit it out. I sent a few text messages, and we used the phone a few times to check on our family and friends. (Cell phone reception being, as usual, excellent here.)  Mostly we just hung around the house and waited the day out.

We often looked out the windows, as an ice storm lays down its own art form. It can be, and usually is, quite beautiful. Everything is encased in a shining layer of clear ice, patterns of icicles here and there.

At one point late in the morning, Ronnie asked me sleepily, "Where did that pine top come from?" He pointed out the door's window. We looked out the window to see a slender, tall pine, perhaps 9 inches through at the butt, leaning in a graceful arc across our old firewood-hauling truck... parallel and above it. Just barely above it. A series of small crackles could be heard. Ronnie's eyes flew wide, and he was instantly awake. "That tree is fixin' to fall on the truck!" He bustled into clothing and shoes with good tread, and forayed out to move the truck. The ice proved almost spongy, porous and relatively easy to walk on.

We watched the tree closely. A scarce 10 minutes later, we heard a loud pop. The tree shivered, as if it knew its end was near. Then, in a skinny moment, there was another cracking pop, and a full two thirds of the tree fell on the ground where the truck had sat. A 60 foot tall tree. Less than 20 feet from the house, but angled (all along) away from the roof. With a sigh of patient suffering, Ronnie fired up the chainsaw and cleared the mess. Then he parked the  truck back beside the remaining stob of the doomed tree. The topless bole would protect the truck considerably, he knew. Evidence of pine borer beetle was revealed in the tree's pathetic remains. The tree had been dying, and the ice massed in the needle-laden top had finished the job early.

This whole process brought on a tree-watch. Not only Ronnie and I, but our dogs. Doofus barked sporadically; she sounded angry and confused. Murphy sometimes barked as if more confused by his partner than the noise from the woods. We stepped out from time to time to check the source of the dogs' concern, as we always do. Here, we're our own security system. (No electric or phone, so we use alternatives not available to "coddled" city folk.)

Silence, broken by what sounded eerily like the tinkle of sweet-tuned bells, perhaps wind chimes, in a large series of empty chambers, and periodically, a crash. It was the ring of ice-laden tree branches in small, jerky breezes that produced the bell-like tinkling noise. The trees also produced the crashes, as some of the forest's children died crushing deaths beneath the killing ice. Music to die through, the drama of it lethal and elegant in the extreme, the trees played percussion with total natural abandon.

Trees, in particular those that had leaned toward the north in reaching for precious sunlight, were endangered most. Some of the smaller ones were able to bend, their tops reaching to the earth in a sort of desperate prayer of survival. The bigger ones broke or uprooted in the sandy soil. Trees growing in clay send their roots downward searching for water and nutrients, and trees here in the sand-with-some-clay soil have no such struggle to get what they need. Hence they are more vulnerable to wind and ice. Hence, the ones less adaptable die sooner, providing precious rotten organic material for the next generations. Life, in the wild that runs seen or unseen all around each of us, can be cruel in a sensible way, like any practical farmer.

The trees of this area had a double-whammy this round. Last summer was a locust year, and the 17 year cicadas lay their eggs in the crotches of tree limbs, thereby weakening the limbs. When the limb of a nest breaks and hits the soil, the locust's larvae can dig into the soil and wait another 17 years, slowly maturing as they do, to come out, sing their powerful song of ancient adaption and procreation, mate, lay their eggs, and die. To all good things, an end. Even to the trees. There is no forest made only of trees; a forest is a community of myriad living things. All of them vulnerable in some way. What summer brought forth, winter finishes off.

Ronnie had an appointment on Wednesday morning, January 28th. As soon as we awakened and looked out a window, we knew he wasn't going to make it. Nothing had essentially changed; it all looked the same. Frozen, glazed over, untouched by time. He couldn't find the number, so he called someone who had it. She said she'd call for him. A little while later, the doctor's office called us instead, to say the clinic was closed due to weather and no electric. That problem out of the way, we decided that it was time we tried to get out. Other responsibilities, such as my elderly parents, rang the duty call.

On Tuesday, Ronnie had taken a walk to the gate to see what the damage was likely to be, as far as trees on the road out. It didn't look bad, he said. Just one cluster of tree tops near the ridge crest, just beyond the 16 foot gate that marks the start of our property. We could get out the next day, he reported.

The next morning, I got a call from a good friend and neighbor on the mountain, who said her husband was on the way with his tractor, that there was a tree down right at the end of our road, where the  private woodland lane met blacktop. The roads, she said, were a mess, trees all over the place had come down. It didn't sound good, but we didn't complain. I told her we'd work our way out, that there were certainly some blockages, and I'd call her with further news as we went. She said OK, and that she'd contact Dewey by his cell phone and relay the message. I thanked her and quickly dressed in layers and thermal wear. We cleared up the household chores and skedaddled.

What a difference 24 hours can make. Beyond our range of sight at the house, things had indeed changed. Loading up the old Jeep with empty water jugs, the chain saw and supplies for it, everything we might need, including some dry clothing and spare coats, we set out. It was raining, adding to the ice in dribs and drabbles. Halfway up the driveway, a sizable limb lay across in front of us. Ronnie stopped, 4 wheel drive still engaged part-time, and removed it. We should have seen it as a sign.

As we crested the short drive onto our farm-road, we looked to the side and saw a mess: slender trees, bowed low to the road, from both sides. A whippy, droopy tangle of switches dipped to the road surface from both sides of the road. Broken branches littered the area around it all.

Ronnie put the Jeep in park, and shut it off. He got the chainsaw and I started clearing away the broken branches. Snow began falling, thick, wet, and heavy. We had on raincoats, expecting more rain.

Everything was covered in ice, and my worn, thick-lined leather work gloves were very shortly wet. My shoes had good tread. Though not originally water-proof like Ronnie's work boots, I'd sprayed mine with waterproofer and it held up well. I have such trouble with finding shoes that don't cause my feet to quickly be the source of much agony, so whatever I can do to make do has to be enough. The water not yet frozen ran in sluggish streams under the icy surface of the road. The sand and clay mixture looked rusty red below the glazing, and I stepped carefully.

There was no time to be fancy, so we just cleared out a path, and while Ronnie tossed the last few small logs aside into a pile, I walked up to the top of the rise, tossing aside stray branches as I went, and looked toward the gate. By this time, there was half an inch of snow on the ground.

Oh. Ow. Arrgh!

It was a mess. Between where I stood and the gate lay 7 very sizable trees, and on the other side of the gate lay what passes in my generation as a monster-sized one. I yelled back to Ronnie with the bad news. He shook his head, loaded up the chain saw, and came along to where I had recently stood. I'd gone on to pull and tug at whatever I could move without it being cut. Random forest litter lay everywhere along the old road. A closer look, and I commented that it looked like a war zone.

It did, and it was. The forest had tried to hold off the elements, and the casualties were numerous. Countless small trees were destroyed by the crashing woodland behemoths.

I called our pal Carol Jean, and told her that unless Dewey could use the bucket of the tractor to clear most of it as he went, as we had borrowed his chainsaw and had it on our end, he might have a long wait. I knew Dewey couldn't hear his cell phone over the roar of the big orange Kubota unless he was stopped, and then he'd call home for messages. She said she'd relay the news, and said he'd gone to help the son of another friend, and would have sufficient occupation, she thought, to hold him a while. I also called my Dad to remind him to take his pills, and to remind Mom to do her post-cataract-surgery eye drops. They were OK, Dad said, and my brother offered to come help. So far, so good. I had reported the added snow, at that point having accumulated into about an inch of thick layering atop the glittery, wicked ice.

Ronnie cut, and I tossed, tugged, pulled, picked up logs I knew would make me sore and miserable later, and threw them into heaps. In such a case, one does what one must, and hopes to heal up later, with or without health insurance (which we don't have). As we worked, we moved the Jeep into relatively safe positions; none were perfectly clear in the woods, as tall trees, some of them around 80 feet tall, soared skyward above us.

We were almost to the end of the barrier of tangled victims when I looked up to see a pair of blessedly bright headlights high atop the cab of a tractor coming over the hill. Dewey, my hero! Heck, make that "our" hero! An ordinary, everyday hero, the best kind that exists.

I poked Ronnie and hollered in his ear, "The cavalry is here!" I pointed. "Dewey's gotten through!" Ronnie grinned and waved, as I did, to our helpful friend. Then we ducked our heads to the work again. Dewey's big tractor would have to have help with the really big trees, and the chainsaw was it. 

There was always an underlying comfort in the labor we sweated over: next winter's firewood supply laid in temporarily untidy heaps along the road, needing only pick up, splitting, and stacking. One never overlooks a thing like that when the difference between want and need becomes clear. We'd grinned the whole time we worked, and laughed at each other's grin as well. No use crying; the job still needs doing and tomorrow needs planning for, regardless of sore muscles and bones.

As soon as we got the big tree on our side pretty much moved, I cleared a path in the odd trash for the wide gate to swing open. It was locked, as usual, so in due course Ronnie unlocked it and swung through to work on the really big tree on the other side. Luckily, no tree or large branch had hit the gate or the posts, set in cement, supporting it. Ronnie made as short work of the big chunks of red oak as he could and I hit a faster pace clearing the brush away so he could work. In a short time, Dewey maneuvered the tractor in and shoved a monstrous chunk of the log away. Most of the trees that had fallen were of saw-log dimensions, but this one was by far the largest. It, and its partner on the other side of the gate, had uprooted, forced to the ground by the sheer weight of ice.

Perhaps alone of the people digging themselves out of the storm, I spared a moment's silence for their deaths, these children of the woodlands who were perhaps 100 or even 150 years old. "Trees grow back!" Or so the greedy say. I say, Not like you think. The damage of poor logging practices lasts for more than a few generations. To my eyes and ethics, the California redwoods are all the more precious to me for their age and size; there are no "virgin" timber trees left in Kentucky at all, to my knowledge. Historical photos show logs on railroad cars -- one per car. No car would hold more, they were so huge. Each of the trees was "harvested" by means of man and beast (horses, mules, oxen) muscle alone. I would have loved to see these woods before the damage was done. As it is, I still love it  all, and mourn the oldest survivors when they fall.

When the road was cleared, we followed Dewey and his bright orange farm-steed out the long dirt-floored lane. Small trees had broken since his original passage, and there were a few fallen limbs of good size. The tractor's big front bucket moved it all with easy nonchalance. At the end of the road, the tree the tractor had barely fit underneath hung lower, slowly being crushed to the ground. Ronnie whipped out the chainsaw and went to work on it, and they used the tractor to push away the paltry debris of the wooden victim with satisfaction.

A head poked out of the tractor cab when we were on ice-crusted blacktop. "See y' at th' house!" Dewey called, then drove on. He looked jaunty and satisfied in his warm cab. I had no doubt he'd rescue another neighbor before the day was out. He and his wife are that sort -- the kind you love for who they are, and what they do, and you respect them more than deeply for their principles and generosity.

We followed his tracks up the hill, and stopped in to check on our neighbors. No electric, no phone. A kerosene heater parked in the middle of the living room had a pan of water on it. They'd cooked supper the night before on the front porch, using two propane tanks and small burners rigged for deep-frying turkey (one of them was ours, still on loan). The menu had included soup beans and fried cornbread.

"That's for Arlie's lunch," a granddaughter announced, referring to her baby sister, the aforementioned precocious child of perhaps age 4 who was off napping. The girl was bored to tears, she said, with no TV and no radio. Her MP3 player ran on batteries alone, and she had no spares. I chuckled a bit, and explained about inverters and batteries, rechargeable batteries, and how to do it. She frowned. "Can you please tell all that to Daddy later?" I would, I promised, and if need, would do so in writing.

She smiled and her grandfather grinned. Grandma was bringing puzzles and things to do, he said. She'd be fine. I winked and told him I had puzzles and card games at the house, too. Not to mention art supplies and the odd craft stuff. Idle hands, and all that. Boredom is something I don't tolerate well.

As we proceeded, weaving through the broken and bowed trees that obstructed the roads from secondary onto primary, we saw that a militia had formed: a small army of capable neighborly people had mobilized, deploying as cleanup crew. We too stopped at times, to clear the road of a dangerous branch or a blockage. One lane was open, the snow (which had reached more than 2 inches in places) on the roads atop ice that had never been salted or scraped away. The lane wasn't always on the same side of the road, but wound through the encroaching storm damage like some huge white snake's path along the mountain's ridge line. Armed with personal time and personal equipment, people were taking things into their own amazingly capable hands.

Good thing that was, too. We met a state dump truck with a plow on it, finally, and behind it was a dual-cab state pickup truck with five men in it. The men stayed in that truck, not a one of them moving to clear anything off the road. Most of the same blockages were still there when we came back through later.  The plow driver too made no motion to move anything other than snow and ice, no matter how small.

The county roads were a lot worse, most of them untouched. The county is in a very bad financial condition, and there is no more money for salt. A combination of sand and salt is being used, and at that, only in the most needful conditions. That is as it should be; we are a nation of spoiled rotten constituents who expect every winter road to be as clear as it is in summer. The county had bad management in past years, yes, but also impractical standards to hold to, as well.

The state is about to take over the county's budget, and the local folks don't expect things to improve much. Just more of the same, people further away to hold to accounting when something is done wrong or completely neglected.

Other things people take for granted have come to look very different.

It took hours for the local coroner to get in to a house where someone had died, a friend reported, but the body was safely at a local funeral home and being taken care of correctly. Fallen and bent trees had shut off access to the come completely. The funeral will most likely be put off a few days, until the weather and the roads clear. 

 
Freezers, the modern form of bulk food preservation, are electric-powered (though gas models do exist), and food supplies will be seriously depleted. The bad economy, which most locals recognise for the repeat of The Great Depression that it is (despite media and government downplay of it to Recession standards), is not going to help people to restock. Nothing will, except their own hard work and pure effort.

In addition to the ice and also snow, there has been a considerable amount of flooding in the low-lands of Powell County and surrounding areas. All of the rain that didn't freeze ended up in the streams as run-off. Some roads closed due to fallen trees, or ice. Some closed due to water being across them, water as cold as the ice it ran across and under.

While there huge numbers of homes without electricity and regular "land line" phone or internet service, the cell towers were not only strained, they were impeded by ice and snow accumulations. Satellite reception was mangled by the cloud banks hovering over the area. In our house, where the cell reception is normally excellent, we had none at all, and barely any even if we went outside. Sweet spots always exist, but the service has spotty at best. It was eventually restored late in late afternoon/evening of the 29th. An attempt to use the free and open wireless internet service at the local public library came to naught on Wednesday, as the electric was off and the router thus disabled.

Kentucky is crippled. However, its people are far from broken. This is merely another hitch in the normal flow of things -- and thereby perfectly normal in and of itself.  We will adapt, and those who adapt will survive and learn.

Sure, I remember sitting there, just 2 days ago, laptop hooked to inverter and automobile battery, watching movies. The kitten, Mystery, was drooped asleep in my arms like the trusting baby she is, and I know I'll remember. From times past, I remember the 17 inch flurry, and my mother continually making hilarious, though unintentionally so, attempts to use electric-powered items while my father sat contentedly by the fire, feeding it and poking happily among the embers.

We learned. Ronnie and I have already planned to can and otherwise preserve all of our foods, even meats, instead of depending on freezers. We'll keep a chainsaw ready and operational all of every winter. We'll prepare and stock up with things like toilet paper and medicines.

Some folks never learn.

Thick white furred the branches outside our windows on Thursday the 29th of January, 2009, the snow clotted atop a sleek crusting of brittle shine. Every tree has a northern side covered in white atop curving wind-swirled patterns of ice. What a beautiful thing to see.

We plan to eventually put in a solar power rig with a generator backup (see www.backwoodssolar.com for information). Clark Energy's first price on putting in conventional electric was no less than $33,000 USD. Subsequent prices were a third less or so (those offers ranged from $16,000 to $21,000 depending on the route taken with the lines, and considering a disagreeable neighbor who won't allow lines on poles, thereby increasing the cost to us considerably).  A solar rig, one sized for our household, is priced at about $10,000. (We will need to add various natural gas appliances to make it work correctly.)

Many years ago, there was a Rural Electrification Association, or REA, program for low-income people to get electricity to their homes. Apparently there is no such thing now. A call to the United States Department of Agriculture office in Morehead, KY, let us know that we make a thin skim (about $2,000 a year) of too much income to qualify for a low-cost program to help people get solar power into their homes. We've talked to everyone we could find about this, even citing medical need for Ronnie's sleep apnea problem and his need of an operational CPAP machine. There are no viable options that we've been able to locate.

We aren't the only ones in the area without electric, either, most of those without also being low income -- of course. Eastern Kentucky's scattered with such situations. Loopholes, they call them, where we see no openings at all.

In short, Ronnie is not well, we have no health insurance, and his job* is our only source of reliable income. I cannot, due to my own health concerns, return to normal, full-time work or even full-time college classes (no financial aid without full-time, degree-seeking status, and we can't afford any loans). We have bills to pay, a house and farm to pay for, so things not an absolute necessity are thereby low priority. We are among Kentucky's poor, and likely, through nothing changing, to stay that way. Or, as the locals usually say it, "We're pretty poor and pretty apt to stay that way." Not that it's truly "pretty" at all.

Those who currently (pun intended) grieve the loss of their electricity will do so until someone gets around to fixing it. We want power we can fix ourselves if need be. The fact is that solar power is nearly free power (the equipment costs, and can be continually upgraded), and that the use of it takes money from East Kentucky Power when users don't pay them for services not needed.

The big electrical co-ops power their lines by coal -- which takes power from the people, removing income and viable land for self-sufficiency through what is called mountaintop removal mining (it's really just plain old "strip-mining"). Whole mountains are destroyed in as little as a month, machines taking the place of manpower from families who need the jobs. It helps no one in the long term.

Ask the folks who at this very moment (at this writing) have no power at all. Who's holding the reins? Not the public, not the people of Kentucky. Certainly, not those who are poor and without options.

Like I said, some people never learn. We want to learn -- and we will. Even if "Big Biz" and "Gov dot Com" (they seem to work together, after all) and all of their cronies gang up in Washington, D.C. to laugh at the ignorant hillbillies of Kentucky. Ignorance we can change. Stupidity, on the other hand, never changes.

NOAA is forecasting another winter storm due to hit Kentucky on Monday and Tuesday, February 2nd and 3rd, 2009. Snow, they say, this time. They aren't sure, and can never be honestly so, so we'll prepare for whatever comes. After all, that's not really anything different to us. We live like this every single day of every single year. So did our grandparents, and at some point, so did yours.




Dig in. It's coming. Hard times are a way of life. Can you handle it? 

 



All opinions voiced herein are actions of freedom of speech, and reflect the views of one person. 



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With the new storm (forecast to begin on January 28th, 2010 and for precipitation to stop when the temperatures drop below 10 F. on Saturday morning, the 30th) coming in, we're taking actions to be prepared. I certainly hope that more people will take a note from our experience and start heading back to basics.

None of our old profit-only and short-term-thought ways will stop overnight, and it will take a minimum of untold decades to clean up the current messes and problems to a tolerable degree. We've got a world in evolution. There is no need to stop use of all technology; what we need to do is use it, and our natural resources, wisely. Anything else is purely foolish. Generations to come will suffer by mistakes made in the past.

What we want to do is start on the journey of responsible humane-ity. In time, we'll install that solar rig and run our home in an affordable and sustainable way, and with a little luck, our retirement years will be spent right here in this self-designed and year-'round efficient home.

The language is distracting and confusing. Carbon offsets, carbon footprints... what we need to remember is that, like the various life forms around us, we are a carbon-based being. When we burn it all, we burn ourselves along with the rest. It's all one planet, and we're symbiotic organisms dependent upon its health and well-being. As it is, for us.

Just can sign me as  "one of those ignorant power-less Kentuckians". While you're at it, though, don't forget to ask questions of those who survived without all the toys of modern life how they managed it. We did. And the elders answered.