You can’t take it with you: fleeing the fires

[from October 2017, during the North Bay / Northern California wildfires]

after wildfires in Glen Ellen, California, October 2017. by N oah B erger, special to the SF Chronicle

This is a wildfires update, and reflections on sustainable living, from the town of Willits in Mendocino County, northern California: in/near where good friends of mine live and where I have been living part of the time in last few years.

Willits is amid the Redwood Complex wildfire, part of Mendocino Lake Complex fire, currently at 10,000+ acres and 0% contained. So far it looks like Willits itself is mostly not directly hit, though being partly evacuated and largely cut off from outside communication, and is functioning as an emergency center including Mendocino Co library and the hospital as hubs.

Here’s my visitor guide to my friends’ beautiful ranch property where I’ve lived for stretches, and the envisioned eco/maker village there, Summit Station:

It is all off-grid, except for a microwave-relay Internet connection: power is all solar, water is from natural stream which they pipe and store, waste is composted. They prefer to get around the property on solar-powered golf carts (fun, easy maintaining, doesn’t scare the deer or the cats!). You can get in and out of town by hopping on the heritage railroad that goes through their property, if you timed it just right with that seasonal once/twice a day service. They would much rather bike or run one of their solar railcars into town if they could, rather than driving, which they mostly try to avoid.

Wildfire risk has been a regular topic of our discussions there — and topic for almost everyone, in places like this. We’ve often talked about strategies for prevention, mitigation, survival/resilience through wildfires — personally, and for one’s belongings, and dwelling. For example, the possible choice of movable dwellings: in whole or part, and movable in different degrees/ways, eg to out of area or just to a more protected location or position or configuration. Or, building partly underground and designing for possible partial burn-out above-ground: thereby learning from the forest ecosystem, the natural builders, which incorporates periodic fires and regeneration.

While one could, and many do, view such a place as a risky or unsustainable place to live, I’ve come to appreciate other perspectives on it. One, to see it as confronting conditions that are “leading-edge,” emergent for large and increasing portions of the world, and increasingly the US as well: living in a constant awareness of ecological precarity, on extremely minimal and self-provisioned resources, living adaptively and with relative absence of government. It has been a revelation to see I can live and work comfortably for indefinite stretches mostly in just simple, self-built structures, no grid utilities, a few gallons of water a day, a tiny amount of propane or locally gathered wood for heat and fuel.

It emerges that a suprising amount of media, communication, and work, in today’s world, can happen via a series of tiny microwave dishes rigged across the hills, improbable as it looks. Occasional rain and fog can break or slow this Slow Internet, and the solar power setup is minimal enough that successive cloudy days may mean the electricity starts up late or shuts early. But you get used to and perhaps appreciate these latter-day forms of following the seasons. A walk in the woods, or tending a wood-stove, or turning in early, is a fine thing to do after dusk, one is prompted to learn, instead of looking at a glowing LCD screen or using appliances.

I sometimes feel, or like to think, that a minimalist or ascetic life was foretold for me in my name, Timothy: after my Irish-born grandfather in London and the Bible book so named, from which come some quite famous and resonant expressions of anti-materialism. For example:

Life without plumbing, without ‘luxury,’ with little money, getting or spending. It could be seen as a poor, unfortunate, or anachronistic choice. But from other standpoints: historically and globally, just ordinary; from an ethical viewpoint, engaged, beneficial. Or simply, where one happens to find one’s self, and proceeds with. As Thoreau said, a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.

Willits itself has a long tradition of conscious activism towards ecological planning and local autonomy. Two of the most important local institutions are Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) and the Little Lake Grange. The latter is the revived Willits branch of the Grange — a 19th-Century-originated, British and American network of rural self-help and cooperative chapters, in US organized particularly to help farmers collaborate against the monopoly power of railroads. WELL and the local Grange, which my friends helped revive, both work to empower communities locally rather than as inextricable parts of commercial (e.g. railroad) or state institutions.

On another level, Willits and Summit Station are directly on rail lines, now in partial operation, which could in future (as in past) provide very energy-efficient and sustainable connections to the region including Bay Area, northern coast, and Central Valley corridor. According to my railroad-history wise friends, who also have served on advisory committees for Mendocino railroad, rail service to the north coast could be restored for much less than $1B and counting spent on a huge freeway bypass around Willits which the California Dept of Transportation rammed through despite deep local opposition, for the purported rationale of saving some minutes for and allowing larger trucks to pass through to Eureka. It was largely a boondoggle and unwanted State incursion, in the opinion of almost everyone I heard from in Willits.

Like much of coastal California, the area has highly favorable conditions for energy-sustainable living, having a mild mediterranean climate, lots of sunshine for most of year, and also fairly ample water supply. With some upgrading of right-of-way on the rail line or Hwy20, one could easily bicycle the few miles from Summit Station property into town for most services needed. (and down to the Bay Area in a day or two, if you’re in shape and really needed to).

For these and other reasons we envision Summit Station as a possible laboratory and retreat/learning/building center for new sustainable and autonomous practices — like Solar Living Institute nearby in Hopland, Aprovecho in Oregon near Forest Grove / Eugene, etc. This would really be developing and formalizing what happens there already.. it’s evolutionary and organic.

(see “Modular ‘Grid Beam’ to redesign our context, furniture to bikes,” a wonderful 28-min mini-documentary recently made about my friends the Jergensons and Gridbeam, by Kirsten Dirksen:

It’s now often predicted that a lot of population and economic activity in the US will shift north, particularly toward the Pacific Northwest, due to climate-change effects. In a way I’ve been prefiguring and rehearsing and testing and considering this, for a few years, in journeying from SF to Willits and Portland and back.

Postscript note:

I realized something about the stunning photograph I put on top of this post, by N. Berger for the SF Chronicle. It is of a destroyed home in Glen Ellen, California, with just a massive hearth and chimney remaining.
Glen Ellen was also the last home of the iconic, larger-than-life Bay Area writer and socialist Jack London (1876–1916), who rose from desperate poor upbringing to becoming the world’s highest-paid author in the early 20thC. Tragically befitting his meteoric short life, London poured much of his publishing fortune into building an ambitious experimental agriculture estate, and lavish mansion called Wolf House, at a ranch now within Glen Ellen. In 1913, the day before London and wife were to move in, Wolf House was completely destroyed in an unexplained fire. His health rapidly deteriorating and alcoholism overtaking him London lived just three years longer before passing away at the ranch in 1916, just over 100 years before the 2017 fires and the later Glen Ellen mansion devastation pictured above.

The remains of Wolf House can be visited today as part of Jack London State Historic Park. Also, in Oakland’s Jack London Square, near where London lived and sailed from at various times in his early life, can be seen the still-operating Heinhold’s First and Last Chance Saloon where he did his homework in high school and which paid his tuition to briefly attend UC Berkeley. Also, a reconstruction, using 1/2 of the original beams, of the log cabin London lived in during his time in the Klondike Gold Rush, Alaska.



editor, @HousingWiki; lead organizer, @VillageCollaborative; organizer/editor, @PDXshelterforum. Portland, OAK, LDN, nomadic. tmccormick at gmail.

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Tim McCormick

editor, @HousingWiki; lead organizer, @VillageCollaborative; organizer/editor, @PDXshelterforum. Portland, OAK, LDN, nomadic. tmccormick at gmail.