Monday, March 31, 2008


R. stopped working long enough to sit in his self-built house, bright morning sun warming us in his solar room, on property approached from the county road by driving alongside bluffs and creeks. Born 1949 Illinois.

I was a late bloomer. I didn’t figure it out until, well, until I started smoking pot. Then I figured it out. What everybody else had figured out. I was in college in Kansas City. It was an all-male Catholic college, pretty conservative. I went there without a clue. Very nice, very expensive education. But UMKC was across the street, Volker Park, Kansas City. So – I was smoking pot. All of a sudden I realized why people were protesting what was wrong with the war. That was pretty scary. I was afraid of being drafted and that was why I stayed in college. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I ended up with a degree in accounting. But it was total awareness of everything – why am I going down this road. I started questioning myself and figuring out things from how I was raised with 16 years of Catholic education.

I can remember when I was a freshman, these seniors who were friends of mine were getting their draft notice before they got their diplomas. Scared the shit out of me. I knew I was going to face the same thing when I graduated, so it was like, go to Canada or go to jail. Or go to war. Right before I became aware and started figuring things out, I joined the reserves to avoid the draft. I barely got through basic training, and we were really starting to smoke pot then, getting high, going to lots of concerts, the whole hippie scene, hanging out. I stopped watching TV. I’ve never owned a TV. It was music that I always focused on. There are a lot of messages there, in the music and the lyrics. I remember going to see Moody Blues and I told everybody I was going to see God. I said, it’s as close to God as you can possibly get. The messages were strong, real clear – it was an incredible time. And the ‘70s were great. It’s been great ever since. It’s still great!

We got into another way to eat, another way to live, started raising our own food, tried to use less energy, tried to live in peaceful co-existence. After college we – another man and I – lived in a racially mixed neighborhood, and I was working with kids. I was stuck in the reserves. I got a job working at the probate court in Kansas City. I also worked a second job waiting tables. I waited tables 7-8 years. There was better money in waiting tables than there was working with a degree in accounting, for me. I lived in this house five or six years, working with a youth group, troubled kids, mostly black. It was the YMCA. I had a real keen interest in working with kids, trying to give them a break. These kids never really had a chance.

During college, I worked at Kroger’s grocery store for six years. I was head of a department and part of the ethic that evolved for me was about the godawful waste that happened in grocery stores. Kroger’s had a policy that if there was one broken egg, you threw the other eleven away. If you had some ice cream melt, all the packages that were sticky got thrown away. If you had some moldy cheese, throw it away. If there was a broken carton on a Mrs. Smith’s cherry pie, throw it away. If a bag of frozen peas ripped, you threw it away. Crackers, bread, milk – things were dated. And we couldn’t just put it out on the back dock. We had to open it and pour it down the drain. That went against my grain.

I was trying to figure the other day how I got into what I’m doing and how I got to hate waste so much. I remember my mom sitting me on the steps and telling me I wasn’t getting to leave until I finished my stewed tomatoes. I had to eat everything on my plate. Maybe learning not to waste was part of my growing up. But I always saved little things here and there. I remember working at the grocery store. I would take that food and I wouldn’t dump it. I’d put it on the back dock and slip back there after work with my car and take it to these neighborhood families that I thought were in need, you know, five, six kids, poor section of town, and I distributed all this food. Kroger’s fired me for it. And it wasn’t ten years later that Dennis Weaver got some award for putting together a program that took food from stores in California and distributed it to the poor people. Great idea. But you’ve got to be famous to do it, or I was ten years ahead of it. What a shame, seeing all this food getting thrown out.

That evolved into a lifestyle when I moved to Arkansas, as far as not wasting energy. I got obsessed with not wasting energy. I felt like if I could burn wood and save energy for that little old lady in New York City who couldn’t afford it, maybe there would be electricity for her. If everybody burned wood, there would be more electricity for everyone. I mean, at that time, we didn’t think about air pollution. Wood was available, free, it was a renewable resource.

When I was sitting in that office working for the probate court, I could see I-70. There were all these people hanging their thumb out down there. They were all hitchhiking and traveling in those days, and I was having to sit in the office. It ate a hole in my soul. I had such wanderlust. So N and I were pretty tight, we had been together for nearly three years. We bought a house together, saved our money, she worked extra hours as a nurse, and I worked two jobs. We saved up $3500, put all our stuff in storage in the attic and had friends take care of the house, and we took off. We took a VW camper, a dog and a cat and a canoe, all our camping equipment, snorkeling equipment, took off for a year. We camped for a year – stayed in the east, went as far as Newfoundland and as far south as Yucatan and never once paid for camping. We ate out once a month and got by real cheap. At four o’clock every day, we looked for a secondary road that took us near a stream or a lake and that’s where we spent the night. We cooked on a campfire. It was great traveling.

And while we were doing this, we were trying to figure out where we wanted to live. I figured if the two of us could live in this VW for a year, we could survive a marriage. I was strong about that. I did not want to go through a divorce. So I went to those extremes to make sure we knew what we were doing before we got married. Her folks’ place got hit by a tornado, and that ended our travels. We helped them fix their place, then went back to Kansas City and stayed with friends, tried to get a group of us, maybe eight of us, to move to the Ozarks. We wanted to be within four hours of her family, eight hours of my family, within an hour’s drive from a hospital because she’s a nurse. Within an hour’s drive of a university. You start putting these things together – and on a school bus route, we had thought about having a family and weren’t going to home school – so all those things. We were looking for like-minded folks too.

So we took off and started looking and found Northwest Arkansas, found the university, the hospital, and we found folks in Madison County. We found a place to rent, went back and got married, took the Carribean cruise on a 42-foot sailboat, then moved to Arkansas.

We wanted to live in the country because instead of gardening in a little plot in the back yard and raising kids in a little fenced in yard, I thought, well, let’s have a big place where we can raise more food and let the kids run as far as they want to run, and not have to be held in by fences and using to be worried about their safety. We wanted a place that was free and open and safe, safe for our kids. We wanted clean air and clean water.

I wanted to be with a like-minded community. I sought out the community, the people, the folks that were living here. That was in ‘77. People had started moving in here. I mean, there was one couple that had moved here from Haight-Ashbury and they were moving out when we were moving in. They had been here seven or eight years. I thought, OK, is that where I’m headed? No, I had a stronger commitment. Also, I’d always hunted and fished all my life because my family did, my father. So I had a real sense of rural woods-type living. We spent our summers in the woods. And had a garden, and N’s family gardened a lot. But a lot of city folks didn’t have a clue how to make it back here in the woods.

We were reading a lot of stuff about organic gardening, Mother Earth News, all those publications, East West Journal, Whole Earth Catalog. Now we still produce most of our own food, although this was a real bad year. We usually have two years’ worth of canned goods stored up, and this year, thank god we do, because we don’t have the potatoes we usually do. We butcher two hogs every year, a couple of goats. Starting last year we started butchering a beef. We’ve got three teenaged girls now and I trade my folks beef and pork for a cooler full of crappie fillets. My dad still fishes. And goose and duck and venison. They turn us on to a lot of game which is pretty clean food, generally speaking. So that’s good. We milk every morning – cows. We used to milk goats. We raised cows for fifteen years. We’ve got three milk cows, about seven head in a little beef cow/calf operation we have with our neighbors.

We have 90 acres – we’re in the middle. We have eight springs. No ponds, no clay dirt. We don’t need to store water, we have so much flowing water. The overflow from the springs runs to the cattle. One of our springs drops 70 feet in elevation, so we’ve got 35 pounds of pressure. I can irrigate overhead 24 hours a day, double and triple crop. No problems with crops. Some extension service film 30-40 years ago joked about a field of strawberries and somebody asking, what is that out there, and they said, rocks, and they said, you’re growing strawberries in rocks? Yeah. People don’t realize you can grow things in rocks. We’ve got a bottom here and it’s real silty soil. We can go in six hours after a three inch rain and till it.

I used to raise calves on goats and I used to milk goats. We still have goats – they’re hard on snakes. They free roam and keep brush down all around. Pretty much six feet up as far as you can see it’s clean and I like that. They really keep it clean. And I like goats. We’ve got our own eggs, our own milk, we have cream and make ice cream. We work really hard to stay away from processed foods. It’s been a focal point for our family and for N. We’ve always joked that we make more work than money at our farm. But I really firmly believe in teaching kids a good work ethic, and that’s what we have here. Every morning they’re up doing their lunches and their breakfast and every night they’re doing chores and they don’t even think about it. It’s just part of life. When they get out in the work force, not only will they have an education, but they’ll work. It won’t be something they disdain or hate because they’ve never had to do it because they were spoiled. It’s real work, real rewarding, it’s food. What a great way to raise kids.

We got some good advice when we moved here. People said don’t just buy something. There were folks who had lived here for a few years and knew the mistakes people make when they buy too far out. So we rented for $40 a month. We tried to live without electricity at first, because we didn’t know if we would buy something with electricity. We ran with 7 or 8 kerosene lamps – we did that for four years while we searched for a spot. We wanted a southern exposure, we wanted to overlook our garden, we wanted live water, gravity flow – and we’re just 20 minutes from town. We paid dearly for it – $700 an acre. Most land out here was $250 an acre. But he was selling the water. He knew what he had and I knew too, because after looking for four years, we knew there wasn’t anything available with live water on small acreage. This was a special place.

I prepared a little bit, after we got back from traveling, and I had worked in carpentry about a year in Kansas City after I got out of the probate court. And those four years I worked in carpentry. That was my goal, to be a carpenter and so I could learn how to build a house. That trade was a means to an end, not something I thought I’d stay with for the rest of my life. It sure fit in with what I wanted to do – working with wood, working with your hands, working outdoors, all those reasons were good healthy reasons to get a job in carpentry. So after four years of building homes, I pretty well knew how to build and design homes. There were solar books out there by that time. Lots of information, tried and true. But look – now I have an air conditioner.

The job that I have become involved with is an extension of this waste ethic that goes back to the Kroger’s where I hated how they wasted food so bad. Yesterday [at lunch with some professional associates] I looked around. I don’t eat out much, and I looked at what was left. You know, I feed two hogs. And there were big old pieces of shish-kabob beef. I asked for a container to put food in, a big piece of aluminum foil. We brought it home. There was a pile of food that high, just from eight people that are all in waste reduction, source reduction, recycling and integrated waste management. I guess it would be too weird to share a plate. So there we all were, all the waste reduction people sitting down for lunch, and all kinds of food waste.

That’s why I never made any money being a carpenter. I was obsessed with trying to use the wood in its best usage and not wasting anything. Don’t just grab any board. Quite often you can have a two-foot piece of scrap of less – you should never have more than two feet. But if you use it property you can cut that down to six inches. That’s just how my brain thinks. I’m constantly thinking about how I can reduce the amount I’m wasting, no matter what I’m doing.

We’ve received a lot of awards for the recycling center we’ve set up for this county. It’s nine and a half years now. I thought after ten years, if it’s not getting better, then are you just going to maintain it? But the long term – this is at least a generational thing. You’re just constantly going back and saying the same things over and over and over to new people, why you should do this, why we can take this but not that. My waste ethic is what I’m continually trying to teach people, one on one. I firmly believe in that one on one. And that’s what we have at the drop-off center. We see our customers every time they come in, there’s someone there to greet them. We ask them how they’re doing, if they need any help, “oh, I’m sorry, no we can’t take that, no caps have to be removed”. A gentle reminder, we try not to nag. Constantly teaching them to do a little better. And it’s difficult because it’s not a typical facility. There are so many things to remember. And you can’t let it bother you that these folks are not getting it right away. It’s a pretty small part of their world. You have to know that part of what you’re going to do is teach.

We’re still making incredible progress. We’ve got two VISTA volunteers starting Monday and grant money has continued to help us improve. Now our re-use sales program is around $8000-9000 per year, just selling stuff that other people want to get rid of: clothes, furniture, appliances, everything. And we’re going to get a household hazardous waste trailer so we can take HHW everyday. The paint, the thinners, bad gasoline, herbicides, pesticides, stuff we really want to get out of the community, along with household batteries and fluorescent bulbs. I don’t know of anybody else that has a program this intensive, at least in this state. I haven’t been to a national conference in four or five years, but I don’t see anybody doing this much.

Granted, it’s small. Volumes are low, and that’s what makes it manageable. We buy all the non-ferrous metals – copper, brass, stainless steel, heater cores, radiators, aluminum cans. That’s a whole other operation. We take tires, oil – plus we take all the trash. We take four different types of trash. We take wood waste, Class 4 demolition and construction debris, we take dimensional lumber, no plywood, particle board – and we run that through a grinder and a value-added process and it turns into a marketable product we sell by the scoopload for mulch. We’re still learning how to manage trash without a landfill.

We’re still struggling with markets, so I’m on the board with Ozark Recycling Enterprise. Right now we’re having trouble moving corrugated cardboard. The cooperative can’t move it because they can’t get any guarantees from the mills. It’s a mess right now. All the metal prices are down, so our business is off there. If it wasn’t for our re-use sales carrying a great load, we’d have a hard sell to our elected officials. The bottom line? Diversity, educate – it’s not just an environmental thing. It has to be an economic thing in order for it to be proven to the powers that be.

We want to put a video together that will go to the state coordinator who teaches classes for those who want to be certified to run transfer stations, where they pooh-pooh recycling because they say it doesn’t work. And the state coordinator is saying, but our county has the best program, they continue to survive, they’re successful. So we need to have that as a model, transfer that information, to get one going in every county.

If you want to plug into what we’re doing, then you can take it to whatever level you want. Use the facility. Don’t dump it on the back forty. That’s a lot of the ethic, just getting people to take care of the trash properly, much less recycle. So there are so many issues. But it comes down to air and water, water quality. I drink out of the ground. I haul that spring water wherever I go……it’s the cleanest water can get……..a natural order to things…….a natural cleansing.

This latest fifth grade class we toured through the center, I took it to the next level and got them close to the planet. After the tour of the recycling center, I ask if they have any more questions. And then I say, “Before you go, I’ve got a question for you. What is the most beautiful thing in the world?” And they go, “My girlfriend ... This place ... Uh, the stars, the mountains.” And I say, “Oh the stars are pretty and they mountains beautiful and the rivers are so pretty, but you know, I saw a picture one time and you know what I think? The most beautiful thing is the planet itself. Have you ever seen that?” I bring out a posterboard picture of the planet seen from the moon. “Isn’t it beautiful? It’s gorgeous. Did you know this is the only planet in our solar system that sustains life as we know it? Did you know when you’re sixty years old there’s going to be twice as many people on the planet as there is today, 16 billion people? We need to figure out better how to take care of this planet. We’ve got to have somebody to take the ball here, because we’re getting older and somebody’s got to do it and we’re not doing a very good job right now. We’re getting a start, but we’ve got to carry it further. I want to leave you with that, I want you to take that home and think about how you can make the planet a better place to live.”

So that’s really pushing the envelope, when I give them that rap. Some of the fifth grade teachers, new this year, are going – “oooh” and sucking air. They don’t want to hear it. It’s not their ethic, not the way they were raised. It’s too foreign, pushing the environmental envelope too far. So how far can you push it before they yank you back and say ‘we don’t like what you’re doing’ and try to get me out? I’m continually pushing that envelope as far as I can and still keep my job working for county government in a good ol’ boy county. I mean, can they pay me to be an environmental activist? Is that what the people in our county want? Is that what they elected their officials to do, to hire people who teach people how to take care of the planet? Yeah, that’s pushing it. I mean, I’m supposed to be out there taking care of the garbage, by golly. I mean, we’ve got to do this recycling because it’s required, and now he’s up there teaching the kids all this crap. You can just hear it.

In the middle of that, I have three teenage daughters and a wife who are plugged into the mainstream of America and they want to live the way they want to live, so I have to balance myself and my philosophy with that of my family’s. So here you see me building a house that’s bigger than most people have and a garage that’s bigger than most people need. Maybe 1800 square feet, 2200 with the garage. Excessive. Producing the food is getting harder all the time. Starting to feel some aches and pains.

I’m doing what I’m doing because of water. I moved to this area because I wanted to drink good clean water. I believed years ago that there would be a limit as to what water could absorb, as far as chemicals go. I mean, how many times can you go through the hydrological cycle and the water be truly cleansed of all contaminants? How many places in the world can you still drink good clean water out of the ground? That’s what I’m fighting for in northwest Arkansas. I mean, you can drink water out of Beaver Lake. Processing takes out the biological factors. But what about the chemicals? Are they taking all of them out? Give me a break. They don’t even know what’s in it.

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