Thursday, November 15, 2007

power down, part III

Tuesday morning we woke up with no power. Third day in a row.

By now it was starting to get irritating, and restrictive. The house was largely quiet -- no radio programming, no CDs, no movies. I have realized as a result of this temporary deprivation how much I love to listen to music, and need it, really. Also, the house was chilly except when the sun shone, as Mum didn't want to use the wood stove in case it heated up the freezers.

The house was quiet, the computer didn't work, and doing what used to be simple and easy tasks like flushing the toilet, washing dishes or doing much of anything after dark now came with associated work: hauling buckets of water upstairs, maneuvering around the buckets while in the bathroom, heating water, etc. My initial feeling on Sunday of "This power outage is kind of good in a sense, because it shows us all how vulnerable we are when we lose our electricity," had given way, or worn away, really, to a sense of frustration. Also, I had the sense of being a lot more reliant than usual on sunlight. Until this power outage, I hadn't realized how great a sunlit house really is, until I couldn't cheer up a cloudy day just by flicking a switch.

But at least Tuesday was sunny. I went for my power-walk, which made me feel somewhat normal, and when I got back there was that telltale rough hum coming from behind the house, and Monty's truck in the driveway. The power was still off, but the generator was going full tilt. Monty reported that the crew from New England was working hard, but it looked like it would be late tonight before the power was restored. Mum, tired, translated: "So that means tomorrow, at noon." The original worst-case scenario had come true, day by day: 72 hours without power. Of course, by now there was no longer any trace of the storm, and the sun was shining bright among the leafless trees, but the effects of Post-Tropical Storm Noel lingered on, becoming normal as we did our best to carry on with our lives despite the lack of electricity.

Lunch was, again, potatoes with onions, and again, delicious. I had sliced a few ripe tomatoes and seasoned them liberally with salt and pepper, and had some sharp cheddar on the side. The balsamic vinaigrette on the potatoes gave it all a light kick. I was going to do the dishes after, but decided that I'd rather spend what few hours of sunlight remained, outside, knitting on the deck. After I'd had enough of that, I came inside and started writing out what would become these blog posts, by hand on scrap paper, with the steady, one-note hum of the generator behind me. The rest of the house was quiet. Every now and again a crow would fly silently by the window. I wrote as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky, and until it set behind the mountain around 5.

This power outage has certainly got me thinking. We rely on electricity for so many things, and as a result of it, have lost touch, somewhat, with the world outside our houses. This is the kind of phrase you often hear, condemning modern society, but in this case it's my first-hand experience. Not only that, but I've realized that it doesn't really matter whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not -- having electric lights that you can turn on at night, and that you become used to, will by virtue of their existence cause you to pay less attention to when the sun sets. Similarly, if you have electric heat, you'll get used to that, and won't pay as much attention to wearing wool socks and sweaters, or to designing houses to face the south so the windows capture solar heat.

This unplanned experiment in "off the grid" living, now wearing on into the third day, was certainly showing us the wide use of and dependence on electric power in this community, and the simple power of habit keeping it that way.

(Of course, if you were truly living "off the grid", you would have chosen to do so, and not only that, but you would likely have alternative power sources in place -- small-scale solar, wind or hydro power for necessary appliances. And there'd be plenty of other aspects of your life running on human or animal power, like food production, bringing wood in, transportation, etc.)

For the rest of the evening I puttered quietly: I did the dishes by lamp again, which was, to be fair, very cozy. I played Solitaire and read. Around 7 I heard the fridge trying to start, as the power flickered, then turned off again, flickered, then went off. I realized that when we could turn on the electric lights, I would really miss the coziness of the kerosene lamp! Then, at 7:30, the fridge sputtered to life. "Hurrah!" Mum exclaimed. I flicked a light switch, experimentally. On came the light! Miracle! Mum was excited: "I can warm up a bean bag in the microwave again! I can turn the heaters on!" Having electricity again was luxury. Having become used to not having it, it felt like too much, suddenly. We could flush the toilet, and turn on the hot water tap, and heat the rooms! All using electric current. Amazing! I found, as well, that having electric lights on at night, lighting the whole house if we wanted to, felt a bit garish.

We decided to play one more game of cribbage, to carry on the tradition. I insisted on using the kerosene lamp.


It's now been a little over a week since the power came back on. The shock of having power again has worn off, as of course it would, since we've lived much longer with electricity than without it. But writing these blog posts about our 72 hours powerless allows me to remember it in detail, and be that much more thankful for the computer I'm writing on, the music I'm listening to, and the electric light bulb I'm writing by.

There are also the "It Could Be Worse" questions, like: "What if it had been the middle of winter?" Or, "What if there had been no fossil fuels, either, so we couldn't run generators or cars?" These are the kinds of questions I think a lot more people need to be talking about, because there is a very good chance that our worldwide, abundant energy resources will stop peaking and start running out, in this century to be sure. And maybe experiencing power outages for 72 hours would get people thinking?

How about a lighter question -- in the event of a power outage, and assuming you're relatively comfortable like we were, what would you do to pass the time?

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