Nature, Electricity, and Grace

On the left is the back side of a white house with a tall brick chimney. In the center is a lot of hilly snow. There are leafless trees in the background.An acquaintance of mine once walked the Appalachian Trail, or most of it, a classic expression of the historic American passion to get “back to nature.” Much as I have long aspired to be a true red, white, and blue American wilderness adventurer like that, my hiking outings in the years when I did such things were mostly of the day-long variety or less.

Truth be told, though, most of my lifelong back-to-nature impulses have focused not on hiking, but on my longstanding experience caring for my family’s old farm house and its land in rural Southwestern Maine, just east of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I’ve written about that place a lot. But never have I written about how my own life there has been and is so fundamentally dependent on – electricity.

This thought dawned on me recently, when the lights went off and stayed off for three days, all over Western Maine, just at the time when my wife, Laurel, and I were hanging out there. The cause? Over a foot of heavy snow had fallen. Which happened to knock down electric lines everywhere in our part of the state.

Not to worry, I thought to myself, as Laurel and I contemplated the serene beauty of the sumptuously falling snow. During the day and then on into the evening the whole landscape had become gorgeous, even mystical. Inside, we had sufficient provisions and a plentiful supply of firewood.

But have you ever tried to get along for any length of time without electricity? No problem, I thought – at first. But then, when it got dark, I couldn’t read, my jerky flashlight to the contrary notwithstanding. I had to go slow on my computer-use, too, since its battery wasn’t in the best of shape. Nor could I do the dishes, since there was no hot water. I could have boiled water on our gas stove, true, but that would have been tedious. Then this, finally: due to the power outage, there was no hot water for bathing.

Even more – or less. Overall, we had to limit our water usage drastically, since the immersed pump in our drilled-well ran on electricity. Because we had no pump, then, we had to depend on the limited supply of water that had already been pumped into the small storage tank in our basement.

I know. I know. Most of the people around the world today would love to have our problems, electricity or no electricity. Hence our guilt abounds. Can you relate to that?

Just ponder yourself owning a second residence of any kind, as we do in Maine. How’s that for resource-consuming environmental decadence!?  Lots of politically progressive people I know own second homes. Hmmmm.

And, to boot, our Maine house itself happens to be a kind of ecojustice pit. The structure is badly insulated and it’s heated by kerosene. The domestic water is heated, as needed, by electricity. We cook using propane. That’s a fair amount of – inexcusable? – fuel consumption, overall.

Feel, then, how easily the joys of living in our old farmhouse during the winter can turn to self-pity, when there’s no electricity: especially when you’re sitting in the dark with nothing else to think about.

Forgettaboutit, I say.  Just wallowing in guilt doesn’t make much sense. For this reason, I want to tell you something that, for us, was truly electric about that often dark and chilly, three-day stay in snow-blanketed rural Maine.

On the last day, Laurel and I, balanced-challenged senior citizens of this planet as we are, started laboriously to dig out our car, beginning with the three-foot snow-wall that the plow-trucks had pushed in front of our Prius, parked near the road in front of our house as it was. We slowly, very, very slowly, began to make some headway.

Before too long, a huge electric-company repair truck chugged to a stop right there. This was one of the scores of such vehicles that were working to get the region’s power grid up and running again. Two young men hopped out of that truck, smiled at us, took our shovels from us, and quickly dug out our car.

Mitch and Mike were Canadians, they said. They had been called down to help with the blackout that the snowstorm had caused all over western Maine. Along the way, they had seen us shoveling – or trying to shovel – and they had decided to help. For Laurel and for me, if I dare may say this: that dig-out by those two young men was an electric experience of Grace, never mind thoughts of us somehow getting back to nature.