By Catherine Moran
One of the books I received as a gift over the holidays was The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living by Wendy Jehanara Tremayne. Tremayne is a former round-the-clock New York career woman who realized that her job was impeding on her life, and not making it any better. The cycle of needing the job to have the lifestyle necessary to keep up with the In Crowd, and to have to work even more to afford said lifestyle, didn’t appeal to Tremayne. Rather than stay in the loop of work in order to buy and then have to work more, she shucked that life and headed to New Mexico to live off the grid with her partner. She quotes Krishnamurti: “It is no sign of wellness to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
The book’s physical construction should be remarked upon here. The binding is unconventional, in that the spine is exposed. An explanation from the back cover:
“For this book, each folded group of sixteen pages, called a signature, was individually sewn together with thread, and then the signatures were sewn together into a whole, called a book block. This binding style is called Smyth sewn and is the highest-quality book binding available as it is more durable than glue and lets the book pen flat, making it easier to read.”
The Good Life Lab is part memoir, part reflection on the benefits and challenges of living off the grid, and part recipe book (recipes for food, medicinal tinctures, how to build a building with papercrete, how to roast coffee beans in a popcorn popper…the list goes on). Beautiful illustrations fill the interior, as do photos of Tremayne and her partner working with various materials.
I found this book to be inspiring, but also intimidating. While I enjoyed The Good Life Lab and definitely resonated with Tremayne, I can’t say this book is for everyone. I’m not even sure it was for me, but I’m more inclined to say that it wasn’t for me at this point in my life, but could very well be a handy resource in the future. As I said, Tremayne’s story is quite inspiring: she has been able to create a life in which she and her partner are sufficiently able to make almost everything they need for themselves (or buy it secondhand to repair and use). I would like to be able to do as much as she and Mikey do, making all food from scratch and taking classes to learn to weld and solder and craft things with my hands. But herein lies the problem for me, and I’d imagine many other casual readers: I’m still stuck in the work-to buy-to work cycle (though, in my case, not necessarily to keep up with any crowd so much as to afford rent and cat food). As someone who is not ready to pick up my life and live off the grid just yet, I felt sort of bad about my efforts while reading.
Tremayne’s story itself, in terms of how she made it to New Mexico to begin the life she wanted to lead, was what I enjoyed most. All of the tidbits, such as how to install PV solar panels and use WVO (Waste Vegetable Oil), made me feel sad that I cannot adapt my lifestyle more drastically. I think this book is an amazing resource for someone looking to live a self-sufficient and meaningful life, but I would recommend Beth Terry’s book, Plastic-Free for the city dweller, or the person who is looking to transition portions of her life to be more eco-friendly. Terry’s prescriptions are meant to be taken in small steps, and aren’t as drastic as starting a new life elsewhere, but more about working with what you have, and making change where you can.
Finally, one point that Tremayne touches upon about our society really stuck with me:
“I wonder if people are afraid because they know that they don’t understand the real world? Acculturated knowledge is shallow, and the landscape of commerce is not necessarily logical, fair, reliable, sensible, or just. The footing is unsteady.”
She observes that “Since we are part of the natural world, civilization’s acculturated knowledge is not our own. We cannot intuit it. […] For a world that cannot be intuited and is difficult to understand, we have created a variety of interpreters: lawyers, accountants, and highly specialized people who interpret civilization’s code.”
My mouth dropped after reading these passages. In large, urbanized cities, we are unable to care for ourselves at a human level. Doing taxes is complicated because it is not knowledge we are born with, nor is it knowledge everyone possesses. The law is confusing because it is made up of rules upon rules that do not govern the natural world. This is something I’m sure I was subconsciously aware of, but had never really thought about before, so I felt my mind being blown open while reading such ideas.
In short, I’d recommend this book to anyone looking to make large-scale changes in his lifestyle. You won’t find a more in-depth, helpful resource about starting a homestead from scratch, unless you check out Tremayne’s blog, Holy Scrap, which she runs with her partner. This was a lengthy review, but warranted, because there was so much packed into this book, a true labor of love from the author; such is everything in her life.
Adventures in Greening is a column running on Kate-book.com every other Monday at noon. It is written by the very eco-conscious Catherine Moran. Follow Catherine on Twitter here, or check out her excellent book blog.