Returning to our roots to save our post-industrial world

Who among us has heard the sound of a spinning wheel"

Just a century ago, and for centuries before that, the spinning wheel was essential to a household. George Eliot, the Victorian English novelist, wrote in Silas Marner, "The spinning wheels hummed busily in the farmhouse — and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning wheels of polished oak""
Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, wrote in Walden of his self-imposed isolation, "I kept neither dog, cat, cow, pig, nor hens so that you would have said there was a deficiency of domestic sounds; neither the churn, nor the spinning-wheel, nor even the singing of the kettle, nor the hissing of the urn, nor children crying to comfort one."
And Mark Twain, the American writer and humorist, wrote in his autobiography of memories from his early days: "I can see the farm yet, with perfect clearness. I can see all its belongings, all its details; the family room of the house, with a ‘trundle’ bed in one corner and a spinning wheel in another — a wheel whose rising and falling wail, heard from a distance, was the mournfulest of all sounds to me, and made me homesick and low spirited, and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the dead"."

This once-essential tool that spun yarn from the shorn coats of animals to make clothing for people has all but disappeared from our households. As citizens in an industrialized society, most of us no longer raise animals ourselves, or churn butter from their milk, or spin yarn from their coats.
This week, we’ve chosen the spinning wheel as a symbol for the nameplate of our homespun special section. It is autumn, harvest season, the time for our usual fall home and garden stories. The theme we’ve embraced this year is "Back to Basics." We find it more radical than quaint.

Reporter Saranac Hale Spencer interviewed local alpaca farmers, who raise gentle animals native to the Andes. They’ve learned to spin the cashmere-soft wool into yarn, taking pleasure in the 22 natural shades.

Ellen Zunon has written about her suburban Guilderland yard, transformed into a welcoming habitat for wildlife. She writes persuasively about the joy she takes in the plants and animals she encounters literally in her own backyard.
"Each year," writes Zunon, "I seem to make a new discovery. One year, it was a Japanese maple near the fence; another, a scrawny lilac that produced one fragrant bloom; another, a rare feverfew; and this year, a crop of Indian pipe emerging from a blanket of decaying leaves under the canopy of the woods."

Not only does she derive pleasure from her connection with her natural surroundings, but Zunon sees the greater good that it serves. As wilderness areas shrink and backyard acreage increases, home landscapers play an increasingly important ecological role. Natural areas become more isolated from each other, causing inbreeding, which threatens genetic diversity. Backyard habitats, like Zunon's, help preserve the gene pool of native species. Also, by cutting back on herbicides, she is providing a safe haven for songbirds and woodland animals that are poisoned by such chemicals.

Reporter Rachel Dutil writes about a local orchard, Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland, that is among a group of 11 Eco Apple growers in the Northeast, growing fruit with an integrated pest-management system, reducing the use of fungicides and pesticides.
The farm also strives to connect consumers with nature and to educate them on the value of purchasing local produce. "I think if I was able to get all the residents of New York State together, and talk to them"I think I could get them to believe they could grow their own food," said owner Peter Ten Eyck.
When a consumer buys an apple from Chile or Argentina, he said, the money goes back to those countries. When you buy from your neighbor, you are supporting someone who will shop in local stores, who may employ your child with a summer job, and, who may be "silly enough" to serve on the local school board, said Ten Eyck.
He also pointed out that transporting food from the west coast to the east coast costs a lot of money and produces a lot of carbon dioxide. "Apple trees live on carbon dioxide; they need it to grow," said Ten Eyck. "We use a lot more carbon dioxide than we create."

Reporter Jo E. Prout has written about the market for hybrid cars and, yes, even hybrid sports utility vehicles. The new models are sold before they're delivered and salesmen say the added purchase price is made up by tax rebates and lower gas and maintenance costs.
"The hybrid is built for people who don't want to give up their SUVs," said one salesman, "or people who don't want to contribute to global warming."

But a brave few are taking a more radical approach — radical in both senses of the word: getting to the root of a problem, and effecting a fundamental or revolutionary change.

Sharon Astyk, a Knox farmer, is currently devoting her life to reducing her family's carbon footprint. Reporter Tyler Schuling tells her story, the story of a determined woman who has helped launch a Riot for Austerity. A mother of four young sons, she has scaled her family’s use of energy down to just 10 percent of the average American’s.
Astyk and her "partner in ecology," a Minnesota mother named Miranda Edel, describe their project on their blogs. Nearly a thousand people in 14 countries have joined the Riot for Austerity. To conserve energy, Astyk and those in the project are making cuts in seven areas — electricity, gasoline, heating fuel, food energy, water, consumer purchases, and garbage production.
Astyk hasn’t invested in expensive alternatives like a hybrid car or a windmill or solar panels but rather estimates 60 to 70 percent of her family’s electric reduction comes from "just turning things off."

She says the inspiration for the Riot for Austerity came from the British journalist George Monbiot. Monbiot, though, is skeptical about what people can do on their own, and says we can't ask individuals alone to make sacrifices but that we have to make systematic changes. Monbiot estimates a 90-percent energy cut across the board in the rich nations is needed to avoid the tipping point — the point at which the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is so great, the climate could accelerate in ways we can't control.
Even the most extreme leaders would not propose a 90-percent cut, Monbiot asserts, because it would be political suicide. When people say, "Oh, nobody would ever do that," Astyk responds, she will be able to say, "Look over here" and, "Here are hundreds of people who have done this."
We need leadership to accomplish widespread change, but Astyk is forging the way. "Wouldn't it be easier if we got some public support for this"" she asks.
Indeed, it would. And we should push our government for such change. After all, do we want to be responsible for the widespread famine and death that will result with dramatic climate changes"

Astyk argues effectively for public solutions to problems we now typically examine as private. We have a chance, in this post-industrial world, to use our knowledge and technology to stop the harm we've caused.

Few of us will make the commitment Astyk has, but all of us — as we wait for our government to respond — can make some changes in how we live our lives every day. We, too, can unplug unused appliances — cell phones, TVs, computers — and we can easily change to energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs. We can buy Energy Star appliances and hybrid cars. We can hang our wash to dry on a clothesline and we can create yards that have natural plants rather than energy-using landscapes. We can better insulate our homes, and caulk cracks. We can take shorter showers and fix leaky faucets. We can shop locally, supporting nearby farmers, and we, too, can cut back on unneeded trips and combine errands.
Commenting on her family's limited car trips to various activities, Astyk said, "It actually has a lot to do with wanting to have a real family life and wanting our family to sit down to dinner regularly, and wanting our kids not to be running around all the time," she said.

The project is not just a year-long experiment for the Astyks but a lifestyle they hope to maintain. It echoes some of those same values that Mark Twain reminisced over a century ago as he wrote of his early days. In addition to the homesickness he felt at the sound of the spinning wheel, he saw his aunt knitting by the fire and a half-dozen children romping in the background twilight.

We should embrace each other and the best of the old ways as we strive to walk more lightly upon the earth.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

More Editorials

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.