Two years ago, public radio reporter Doug Fine bought a 41-acre ranch in southwestern New Mexico to live off the land – and off the grid. In his book, Farewell, My Subaru, due out this month, he says he raised his own food, cut his dependence on fossil fuels and still managed not to "die in a way that would cause embarrassment if the obituary writer did his or her research."
How did you come up with this idea?
I wanted to see if I could reduce my oil and carbon footprint but still enjoy the amenities that we expect as Americans. In other words, to continue driving a motorized vehicle and have power at my house—not live like a total Grizzly Adams. Can I enjoy Netflix and the Internet without fossil fuels?
Can the average working person live off the grid?
Yes. Anybody can live an almost totally oil-free lifestyle. If your vehicle has a diesel engine, you can convert it to run on waste vegetable oil from restaurants. That's what I did for my ROAT, my Ridiculously Oversized American Truck. Solar power is totally feasible. Growing your own food takes an hour or two a day. But I would suggest that if one doesn't have an hour or two to work on one's life, one might be too busy.
How environmentally conscious were you growing up?
I started out in the suburbs of New York, where I didn't see a real tomato until I was in college. I thought tomatoes were supposed to be orange baseballs, like you see them in the supermarket. The way I live now is an absolutely drastic change. But when people visit me here at the Funky Butte Ranch, they're not saying, 'Wow, what a wacko.' They're saying, 'How can I do this?'
When was the last time that you went to a Wal-Mart?
I go much less frequently than I used to, but the dilemma remains. Today, my goats' water bucket broke. It's a plastic bucket made in China. Eventually, I want to go to a thrift store and find an old ceramic or metal sink to use instead, but in the short-term, I need another bucket.
Do you see yourself as a humor writer?
It's to the point now where if I do something painful or dumb, I think—that's a career move. I make a career of doing things poorly and increasing people's confidence they can do those things, too. When I first experimented with solar power, I shocked myself so badly that I could practically see my own skeleton through my skin.
What was harder than expected?
The animal husbandry and some of the food-growing. When I hear coyotes howling, I go sleep in the pen to keep the baby goats company. I know that would be a hard transition for some folks.
You sleep in the goat pen?
If you're basically offering a buffet of goats and chickens, you need to defend against predators that want 24-hour takeout.
Why did you pick New Mexico?
Well, one of the few things I did right in my early preconceptions about this project was imagining that New Mexico had really great potential for solar energy. In truth, much of North America does, even Alaska... but New Mexico's definitely one of the best spots. And there's a real beauty and subtlety to the culture and terrain here that I love. It took me a couple years to find just the right location, a place I call the Funky Butte Ranch.
How long do you plan on continuing living this way? Is it just an experiment, or more permanent?
I see this as my home base. I didn't embark on this as a quest for personal happiness; I've always been a pretty happy guy. And I don't feel like I'm some sort hero of the earth... it was just an experiment, but over the course of it, all the elements of my life just fell into place. I have a home that I love, a really good network of friends, and a healthy place to live that's ecologically alive.
And you know, I am not "Mr. Latest Diet," but I have never been healthier. Eating locally and knocking transfats out of my diet, has had a concrete effect on my physical health. So I guess that's sort of the underlying theme – you might set out to save the earth, but you're really saving yourself.
What advice would you give to readers who want to follow your example?
My recommendation to people – and to myself -- is, don't feel guilty if you're not doing it all at once. Most of our carbon miles come in the form of our transportation and the transportation of our food. So I would suggest attacking those two first, and then your utility situation.
Maybe you'll plant a garden and start growing a lot of your vegetables, but you'll still drive your car for a while. Maybe you'll convert your car to run on vegetable oil or something else, but you won't be on solar or hydropower for a while yet. Take it one step at a time and make the changes. It's totally doable.
I'm finding, after a little less than two years here, I hardly miss any of the stuff that I used to have in my life. I don't miss going to the gas station. I don't miss buying eggs and milk at the store.
Every worry that you might get too good at this stuff to be funny?
(Laughs). No. If you just look at my blog, you'll see it's still one screw-up after another. Like a few entries ago, I had to bring a billy goat here, because in order to have goat milk, a goat has to give birth, right? I'm super protective of Natalie and Melissa (the goats). I got them when they were still bottle-feeding, and they think I'm their dad. I didn't want to breed them when they were like teen moms, you know? Anyway, I brought this billy goat in, and it was a nightmare, I was seriously injured by him multiple times, he tore down the goat pen, and I had no idea if he was actually doing what he needed to do... Yeah, there's no danger of my getting too good at this stuff to write about it anymore.