Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

That Little Voice in My Head

By Cam Mather

I left my house the other night. Yup, it was a dangerous thing to do. ‘Cuz the voice that talks inside my head constantly gets just a little crazy when I’m out in the big scary world. Kind of like Travis Bickle from the movie “Taxi Driver” but without the guns.

I did my “All You Can Eat Gardening” talk at a meeting of the Quinte Master Gardeners. It was kind of scary, them being “Master” gardeners and all, but I’m always up for a challenge. They meet in Belleville where I lived for a few years in my late teens. It’s about a 45 minute drive from my house. To get there I had to drive on Highway 401. This is Canada’s busiest highway and ranks up there with any in the U.S. in terms of traffic volume. When I got on the highway at about 6 pm I couldn’t believe the number of big trucks. That stretch of highway runs between two of Canada’s biggest cities, Toronto and Montreal, and the volume of truck traffic is staggering. The fact that most of what they’re hauling isn’t on rail cars is ludicrous, but the world being what it is I must accept this.

Some truckers like to drive at night because there is less traffic, which means that what you see is just an endless stream of trucks, burning diesel fuel, getting 5 miles to the gallon, hauling truckload after truckload of “stuff,’ much of which is crap that’s going to end up in stores that people are going to buy. Mind-boggling volumes of crap. Most of it made in other countries. Much of it which will just end up in landfills. I think of this highway and then I multiply it by all the other highways in Canada, and North America, and the world and I wonder how it’s possible. Is it just me or is this really depressing? This mad dash to oblivion.

Once I got to Belleville I had to drive past a Procter & Gamble plant. After high school I was accepted to university (which only cost about $1,000/year in 1978!) but I wasn’t motivated or focused and so I moved with my parents to Belleville. I got a job loading trucks at a warehouse but it wasn’t long before I figured out that the job wasn’t for me and I went back to school. It was during this time that I applied at this particular Proctor & Gamble plant where they make Pampers. I really wanted the job. They paid well and at the age of 18 it sounded kind of cool. In those days P&G wanted lifetime employees. Really … remember the days when companies actually wanted employees to hang around? It was a factory job and I had to get through 3 interviews. The final interview included some line workers. And they caught me. They used their little interviewing strategies and eventually they got me to say “…if I ever go back to school.” As soon as I said it I knew it was game over. The last thing they wanted was to hire an employee who planned to leave to go back to school. They wanted people who were going to make Pampers until they dropped dead. And good for them. Their system worked. I didn’t belong there.

It’s funny how things work out. I went to back to school, had some different jobs, had kids, and used cloth diapers. By the time my first daughter was born I had started looking at things like paper diapers and wondering  if we should  be cutting down trees to make these one-time use disposable diapers. Michelle bought two dozen of the flat cloth diapers. The kind that you fasten with diaper pins and cover with rubber pants. They worked great and after using them for both of our children we used them as rags. At around that time I discovered that it’s technically illegal to send human waste to landfills, but apparently everyone does it, so must be OK. Procter & Gamble began running ads that showed a diaper going through a metamorphosis and ending up as compost. They had set up one demonstration factory somewhere that was doing this to make parents feel better about what COULD be done, but basically no one else was doing it. And to think that I just about worked for the “enemy.” I often wonder if I’d got that job if I’d have used their product. Or really, how long I would have lasted there.

When we moved to our little piece of paradise 14 years ago I still had some clients in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and so every 6 weeks or so I drove the 401 into the city and often drove home with this non-stop parade of planet-destroying trucks. And I was conflicted. I had moved off the grid to reduce my impact on the planet, but found myself  driving way more than I probably did when I lived in the city. It was only every 6 or 8 weeks and it was just a Honda Civic, but it was spewing CO2 into the air regardless. I could rationalize it all I wanted, but I was a hyrocrite. So we made the decision to forego that income and do the right thing and try to eek out a living from here. And it’s hard. Our already meager income shrunk even further. But my soul is no longer as conflicted. I’m more at peace with myself. I still drive, but way less. Hardly ever sometimes. And it’s awesome.

So after days of freezing rain and crappy roads I hadn’t really left the house for about a week. And then there I was, on the 401, at night, with all of those trucks, carrying stuff I can’t afford to buy because I got off the treadmill. I found myself slipping back into that consumer mode of thinking…. “How can I make more money?” “I’ve got to get me a bigger piece of the pie everyone out here is chasing.” “I NEED more money!”

After my gardening talk I drove back home. It was cold outside, but the house was warm thanks to the fire in the woodstove. The fire is powered by wood that I cut and carried and split and loaded. And the lights in the house were on, powered by solar panels and a wind turbine that I put up when I was able to afford them. And the fridge and freezer were whirring away using solar- and wind-powered electricity. My bookshelves are full of books (mostly secondhand) that I’ll be reading for years to come. Once I am home that crazy voice in my head starts to subside. The next morning I look out at my frozen fields that are covered in snow. Under the blanket of snow are about 12,000 heads of garlic that will burst up through the snow in the spring ready to grow and be sold. And the raspberry and blueberries are buried beneath the snow, but they’re going to be awesome this year. The gardens are bigger than ever ready to start planting for our CSA. We hope to convince 10 or 12 families to join our CSA this year. The income from the CSA might cover our taxes and some basic expenses.

There will be no vacations. No new vehicles. No contributions to retirement plans. No fine bottles of wine. No hot tubs. No new hobbies.

There will also be way less crazy voices talking inside my head. Surrounded by trees and ponds and clean air and clean power and independence and fields that can grow food to nurture strong bodies, the voice in my head returns to happy Cam. Why I ever leave this place is beyond me.

Photo of Canadian flag located alongside Hwy. 401 in Belleville by C. Löser (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of paper diaper courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


1 Comment

  1. I feel the same way. Left Calgary four years ago. Now I leave my property about once a week, mostly to go into the small nearby town. The plan is to continue becoming more self-sufficient and less of a consumer all the time, working my way to becoming a simple peasant.

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