Professors, Performing Monkeys and the Off-Grid Green Myth – Part 1

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather

We recently had a professor come to visit us.

Professor and Canada Research Chair Phillip Vannini is doing research on people who live off grid. He is an “ethnographer.”

According to Wikipedia “Ethnography is a qualitative research method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group.” Our daughter Katie is an anthropologist and she was quite excited about his visit. She described ethnographers as researchers who get right out to observe people and ethnic groups. That sounded good, not sitting in an ivory tower but getting out there and mixing it up “with the people.”

He and his graduate student/research assistant Jonathan arrived on a Sunday evening in time for dinner. We enjoyed getting to know both of them over a bowl of homemade tomato soup while Michelle put the finishing touches on two big pizzas. After dinner, we sat around drinking tea and eating home baked blueberry cake while we covered a wide range of topics.

It felt kind of like we were research subjects and he was examining us under a big microscope. Apparently he wanted to see what strange behaviors the “off-grid” species engages in. How do they forage for food? How do they build their nests and homes? How do they reproduce? (Okay, maybe not quite that far…)

After living off-grid for a decade and a half we’re pretty used to people wanting to check out our place. And I got used to “performing” back when I played the guitar. When you play guitar, often people will want you to add ambience to an event by doing just that. I called it my “performing monkey” routine. I’m sure it was often my own doing, with me making the suggestion or just bringing my guitar and playing it anyway. In hindsight this was probably not the best idea. People told me that my guitar playing was “good.” In my mind, I was fantastic, because when I played Neil Young, or Joni Mitchell or the acoustic version of Eric Clapton’s “Layla” or Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Lady Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” I sounded just like original. Actually, in my head I was even better than the originals. But now when I look back I think people may have just been being polite.

Regardless, we were looking forward to Professor Vannini’s visit. We quickly discovered that the professor is Italian, born and raised in Florence. When he started eating Michelle’s tomato soup he said, “This is the best soup I’ve ever eaten!” It seemed pretty authentic. He could have just said, “This is good soup.” So Michelle explained that it was all from our garden. Frozen tomatoes, minced garlic and some of the basil that we pureed and froze last summer, cooked up on our woodstove. Once the tomatoes and garlic are cooked, Michelle uses an immersion blender to puree it and adds a bit of salt, pepper and something sweet (sugar or honey) to cut the acidity a bit.

Michelle’s tomato soup is pretty awesome. And from watching the Sopranos I don’t feel it’s offensive to suggest that Italians have a pretty good handle on soups and sauces made from tomatoes. They also raved about Michelle’s pizza. For breakfast the next morning we had hash browned potatoes from our garden and eggs from our chickens.

I spent a lot of our conversation questioning them about the other off-gridders they have met. I think he said that he’s interviewed close to 200 from across Canada. I pointed out that he would have had more difficulty tracking down this many 15 years ago when we went off grid because the technology really wasn’t there to make it very doable.

From his talks with off-gridders, there didn’t seem to be one underlying reason why people did it. Many were too far from an electricity pole so it was a financial decision. Some people did it for environmental reasons. Others go off-grid because they really like to stay under the radar, although if he found them they’re not doing as good a job as they could be apparently.

The next morning Jonathan wanted to film us, but it was one of those “OK we have to leave soon, but let’s get some candid shots of you doing what you would normally be doing.”

At this time of year I am still spending much of my day at my computer. It’s still too early to get into the garden. I did some electric chain sawing for them to film. I gave them the spiel on our solar domestic hot water system. And a tour of our garden areas.

We stood under the wind tower and I gave them my “why I can never cost justify our wind turbine” talk. He complimented me on it and said I had explained it quite articulately. I reminded him that with all of the college workshops and tours of our place, I’d probably done it 50 times so it had better be coherent by now!

And then they were gone, off like wind, onto their next stop, and then back on a plane to B.C. the next day.

It’s always nice to meet new people. And get different perspectives on things. And have your soup complimented, by an Italian guy from Florence no less! But some of the information Professor Vannini shared with us about other off-gridders was kind of disturbing. But that’s for another blog.

For more information about Cam Mather or his books, please visit