The Wisdom and Beauty of Frugal Living

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Enthusiastic foragers, goats embody “waste not, want not.”
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While designer coops may be easy on the eye, chickens thrive equally well in a much less fashionable environment.
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Prolific reproducers, rabbits have provided meat, fertilizer and fur to generations of farmers.
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Those with an eye for wonder can find awe in the lowly watermelon, which transforms sand into succulence.
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Surrounded by scrub and sand, author Bryan Welch had been herding goats for more than a year prior to his 10th birthday.

My mentor was a sunburned, 60-year-old, 300-pound Jehovah’s Witness in dark glasses. Tim Posey didn’t look like a tree-hugger. He didn’t talk about self-reliance, loving nature or saving the environment. But in many ways, he was the truest and best conservationist I’ve ever known.

I grew up in an enclave of Army surplus barracks and mobile homes on the Mexican border, a few miles from El Paso, Texas. Technically we lived in the village of Anapra, in southern New Mexico. But our community — and our culture — didn’t really belong to either state or either country. In many ways, the border is its own nation, a country that attracts self-reliant misfits, independent thinkers and many people who are simply stranded on the margins of the North American economy.

Mr. Posey bought 10 acres in that economic — and literal — desert in the 1950s. He drilled a well and buried a network of shallow waterlines, dividing the land into a grid of lots where renters could park their trailers. He dug simple septic tanks with standpipes rising out of the sand. He planted poles and strung power lines.

If you rented a lot in the Posey Trailer Park, you could pull your trailer in, hook up the sewer, electricity and water, and within an hour or so be ready to settle in and watch Gunsmoke.

The great thing about owning a trailer park, Mr. Posey would tell me, was that after you had the water, sewer and power set up, you could pretty much “set back and collect the rent.” But Mr. Posey didn’t rest on his laurels. After the trailer park was operational, Tim Posey built himself an oasis.

The Plenty in Nature

The Posey homestead probably wouldn’t strike most U.S. citizens as a vision of paradise. We lived on dunes dotted with creosote and mesquite bushes, cactus and yucca. Mostly, the land was bare sand. We got only about 7 inches of rain a year — usually in a single deluge in late June or early July. Tim Posey had a half-acre vegetable garden irrigated with well water; a collection of sheds and barns built from scavenged poles and plywood; pens for his goats, chickens, geese and ducks; two long rows of rabbit hutches; and a few paddocks and stalls he rented to horse owners.

I started hanging around when I was about 8 years old because I loved animals. By the time I was 9, Tim Posey had hired me to milk the goats and take them out to the desert to browse. He said he figured he couldn’t get rid of me, so he might as well put me to work. I was paid in eggs and milk.

The desert is a goat’s natural habitat. Where we see a wasteland of scrubby plants, they see a smorgasbord. I would open the gate and watch Tim’s little herd of half a dozen dairy goats charge into the scrubland, greedily seeking out their favorites — bunch grass, mesquite beans and purslane. They seemed to enjoy variety and moved eagerly from one species to the next: Seedpods for breakfast, grass for brunch, a big meal of flowering purslane, and then maybe a leisurely hour or two munching on mesquite leaves. In the evening we went back to the barn and I witnessed the daily miracle. From the desert’s sparse, coarse, resinous plants, the goats made sweet, frothy milk loaded with butterfat.

Mr. Posey worked a similar miracle in his garden. We mixed manure from the chicken pens with well water, then poured the slurry into the irrigation water. Because Mr. Posey had a bad back, it was my job to stir the slurry in a 55-gallon drum. If you’ve ever stuck your head into a barrel full of liquefied chicken manure on a 95-degree afternoon, you can confirm that the sensation is less a smell than it is a state of being, like snorkeling in a pond that’s equal parts feces and ammonia. Still, it was our magic potion. There in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert, surrounded by sand dunes, Tim Posey cultivated squash and cucumbers, fat watermelons and tall stands of corn. He grew chiles, beans, okra and peas.

The desert summer days were long and sunny, the sand clean and well-drained. We added water and fertilizer and, voilà! — the desert made food. It struck me then, and still seems to me now, a sort of miracle, or at least evidence of an earthy magic — the transubstantiation of sand into watermelons.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses encourage their members to raise and preserve their own food, and to protect the planet by using organic growing methods. But I didn’t know then that the Posey homestead’s frugal self-reliance was inspired by a religion. I knew only that it amazed me and that I felt closer to God there among the plants and animals that provided our food than I ever had in a church. I never considered joining the Witnesses, but I guess I became a sort of lowercase witness myself, a witness to the wonder and satisfaction of growing food on a personal scale. And my goat-herding evolved, in a roundabout way, into my career.

Constructive Action

Since my company acquired MOTHER EARTH NEWS in 2001, the magazine has formed the main part of our business, the primary engine of our growth and profitability. By almost any measure, it is the biggest, most profitable, highest-impact media business in the world focused on preserving our environment. It’s held that distinction almost continuously since its founding in 1970 by our predecessors, John and Jane Shuttleworth.

Today, about 6 million people regularly read MOTHER EARTH NEWS. It’s grown steadily and profitably the entire time we’ve had it.

That surprises some. In spite of its reach and longevity, MOTHER’s mixture of self-reliance and conservation-mindedness still strikes a lot of people as quaint. But I’ve never found it quaint. Since the first time I picked up a copy in the mid-1970s, I’ve thought that MOTHER’s writing about small farms and energy-efficient technology addressed the philosophical bedrock for humanity’s relationship with its habitat.

Maybe that’s because I learned my conservation from people like Tim Posey. Mr. Posey’s personal values embraced all the definitions of “conservation.” His home was a surplus building bought on the cheap from the U.S. Army and moved to Anapra from Fort Bliss. Nearly every structure, every machine, every board and every wire on the Posey homestead was reclaimed, repurposed and refurbished. I’m sure that penchant for recycling was born of economic necessity. But part of what I learned from Tim Posey — and others like him — was that ingenious frugality can be the source of every bit as much intellectual satisfaction as any other form of invention. A large part of that satisfaction, then as now, comes from the awareness that every power pole scavenged from a decommissioned railroad telegraph line has saved a 30-year-old tree from being cut down.

The fundamental values associated with conservation are virtually universal. Nearly every human being appreciates a living tree and would like to save it from destruction.

And everyone likes a scavenger hunt. Hunting for a good but cheap used pole is more fun than going out and buying a new pole. If you offer people the opportunity to make constructive, creative changes in their own lives, most people are receptive.

Everyone wants to preserve clean air and water. Everyone likes a dose of nature now and then. Everyone wants future generations to be at least as prosperous and healthy as our generation. So why, I ask myself, has concern for the environment remained one of the most divisive topics on the U.S. political agenda all my life?

In a word, fear.

My partners in arms — environmentalists — are afraid of looming catastrophe. They have accepted their responsibility for humanity’s impact on the planet. They know the data, and the data tell a compelling story. Earth’s habitat is changing rapidly, and we are the cause. We are depleting the groundwater, exhausting the topsoil and diminishing the planet’s precious diversity of species. Understandably, this knowledge fosters a sense of urgency. It’s easy to feel a little freaked out.

On the other side of the geo-emotional divide are those who habitually deny that we are degrading the planetary environment. They’ve heard the murmurs about big changes and they instinctively recoil.

Both camps are fundamentally afraid of what tomorrow may bring. And both camps are motivated, to a destructive degree, by that fear.

Between these two camps sits a community of busy farmers, gardeners, goat milkers, trail builders, engineers, scientists, windmill climbers, solar installers and others quietly going about the business of creating solutions. To a great degree, they have led our society’s journey toward sustainability, and they continue to do so.

They are leaders because their excitement is stronger than their fear.

Logically, when crisis threatens, we need to subdue our fear in order to take constructive action. But taking action also somehow diminishes our fear. It feels natural. When we get busy, we’re not as scared anymore.

Perhaps we don’t control the forces changing our climate by growing a few vegetables, but we do influence those forces, and I think the activity profoundly changes our perspective. The situation immediately seems more manageable when we begin to manage.

That’s been the most gratifying thing about my work these past 30 years. My assignment, as I see it, is to get excited and stay excited about people who do good in the world. It’s my job to tell their stories. In the process, I’ve steadily become more optimistic.

My work has been a sort of meditation on constructive action. And that meditation has made me more inclined to take constructive action.

I learned two important habits while I was a goat-milker and manure-mixer on Mr. Posey’s homestead. First, Tim taught me how to connect with nature on a personal level. Animals are great models of constructive action. Their initiative is always authentic. They wake up every morning with a passion for living.

Tim taught me to respect the plants and animals we lived among, and to understand their nutritional, medicinal and psychic needs. He taught me to drink goat’s milk warm and to appreciate the companionship of the animals that provided it. Later I found other influences in the books of people such as Wendell Berry, Robert Frost, Jane Goodall and Joel Salatin. Tim Posey led me there.

The second good habit I picked up on the Posey homestead was a natural inclination to get to work, and to do my work in a cheerful state of mind. There’s an old cliché about busy hands being happy hands. It’s a damned good cliché.

I’m sure passersby on Posey Road didn’t generally share Tim’s vision of paradise in the peeling paint and dry rot of his barns, or see the charm of all that frugal living. But I learned to see the place through his eyes. Now I have my own place where the hinges are rusty and the garden is overgrown, but I see its charm and its grand potential.

As I walk around the property, year after year, I can feel my tread getting a little slower, a little heavier, a little more in line with Tim’s gait. And the habitual smile on my face is, maybe, a little more like Tim’s smile.

Bryan Welch smiles and walks slowly on his Kansas ranch, where he raises pastured beef, goats and sheep, along with unruly vegetables. He is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want.