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Wednesday, August 13,2014

‘Walden’ in the city

Lansing area simplifiers go for less stuff and more soul

by Lawrence Cosentino
Suzanne Love pulled Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” from the shelf two weeks ago. She hadn’t looked at it since college.

Back then, it was required reading. Now it’s more like an inner voice.

At 66, Love retired on a fixed income last year.

“To maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely,” Thoreau wrote.

Simplification takes many forms. Some people do without cable TV or catch their own meal of fish now and then. Other folks go all in and change their lives from top to bottom.

Suzanne Love is somewhere in between. Duane Elgin, guru of the simplicity movement, has pointed out that most people who choose a life of “conscious simplicity” donīt live in the backwoods or on farms, but in cities or suburbs.

“I didnīt know this was a movement,” Love said with a smile. “But I’m simplifying, for sure.”

She loves to talk with people, read and think. She wants to reconnect with friends and neighbors, do volunteer work and take some time to just figure life out.

“I was busy at a job,” she said. “Now I have a chance to work.”

She drew up a budget: $40 a week for food. So far sheīs holding firm.

The backyard of her small Eastside house is fenced in by reused oak pallets and shaded by unkempt weed trees and mulberries that seeded themselves. Gravel and stones crunch underfoot.

“This is kind of my Walden Pond,” she said.

A Buddhist shrine of glass brick and cheap lawn ornaments rests serenely under the shrubbery. (She’s not a Buddhist, but she meditates.)

Love has already been simplifying for a while. She got rid of her 1963 Corvair in 1970 and hasn’t owned a car since. She walks wherever possible.

“The swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot,” Thoreau wrote.

There’s also CATA. “I raised my daughter with a bus, and she’s raising her children with the bus,” Love said.

Modern conveniences don’t always interfere with simplification. To help meet her retirement budget, she cut out her book and magazine allotment of $50 a month, bought a Kindle and downloads materials free from the library.

Like Thoreau, she has no hankering to travel.

“My retirement destination is right here,” she said.

Yvonne LeFave is a database administrator (“a geek,” she said) for the state of Michigan. She swapped cars for bikes in the early 1990s and uses low-cost “electrohuman hybrids” like her Stites Design Truck Trike for heavy jobs.

LeFave is a conscious simplifier, geek style. She declared that “probably all” the threads of her life connect with Thoreau’s. She doesnīt have a TV. Her sole vanity is her early adopter compulsion.

On a bright Friday morning last week, the quietude of Vine Street on Lansing’s east side was not shattered by the whisper-like whir of LeFave’s latest metal mantis.

“How many cars could deal with that?” LeFave asked.

“That” was a huge plywood cabinet a resident had tossed to the curb. It was more than 8 feet long — more than LeFave expected — but she wrangled it onto the Truck Trike all the same. The job began with a good omen. Inexplicably, a crumpled-up dollar bill rested on top of the cabinet.

She pocketed the wig and whisked the behemoth to the former gas station at 1715 E. Kalamazoo St., soon to be the home of the Lansing Bike Co-op, where it will come in handy for tools and spare parts.

LeFave was intrigued by her grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression: They didn’t drive and re-used everything.

She read books by influential simplifiers, including Duane Elgin’s “Voluntary Simplicity” and Bruce Elkin’s “Simplicity and Success.” The endless reuse ideas of Amy Dacyczyn (creator of “Tightwad Gazette”) made a deep impression.

She retired her 1977 Thunderbird, which cost her a dollar to buy but considerably more to maintain, and started biking everywhere. To cut her grocery bill, she started bulk shopping, but it’s hard to do that on a conventional bike.

LeFave was the first person in Michigan to own an ELF, a three-wheeled bubble-shelled bike with a trunk for cargo and a solar-powered assist motor. One more acquisition — a CETMA Stretch “Cargo Margo” — is on the way (after she got a deal on a used one). Le- Fave has big plans for her little fleet, which is part of her new business, Go Green Trikes LLC, a green delivery and hauling business.

“The best thing is, they let me live the way I want to live, which is non-car,” she said.

Not all simplifiers are proselytizers. Dawn and Matt Hill aren’t dogmatic about their way of life. Unlike snobs who can’t wait to point out that they have no TV, you have to ask them about it.

“I canīt imagine paying so much for cable,” Dawn said. “It’s a waste of time and kind of boring.”

The porch of their northside home is piled with evidence of active play, from guitars to hula-hoops. The table is heaped with about 50 freshly picked onions. Their garden is bursting with greens, carrots, chard, beets and enough squash to last much of the winter.

There are two woodpiles in the backyard, one messy and one orderly.

“Every man looks at his woodpile with a kind of affection,” Thoreau wrote.

They’d love to cut out cars entirely, but with three kids, they’re pleased to make do with one. Matt commutes to his job at Impression 5 Science Museum in all kinds of weather. “It’s a nice quiet time for me,” Matt said. “I’m not distracted.”

They’ve been raising chickens for five years, but that didnīt necessarily simplify life. “Theyīre friends” Dawn said. “If you name them, it’s over with. But we get about an egg a day.”

“I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men,” Thoreau wrote.

If dreams count for anything, put Caleb Kisor into the “all-in” group of simplifiers.

Three months ago, Kisor, 36, moved into a 3-acre lot in Dimondale, just south of the Lansing city limits. He wants to build a cobb house, with walls of mud, clay and straw, for his mother, Gwendolyn Kisor, or “G.G.” She’s studying a book, “Cobb to Code,” to help navigate the legalities of building such a house.

“Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?” Thoreau asked. 

The house is just the beginning. Together, they plan to terraform a grassy field into an “edible forest” of fruit and nut trees and berry bushes.

“This will be my living legacy,” said G.G., 63. The drought-resistant forest will mature in about 20 years. By then, Caleb plans to be “totally off grid.” Solar panels, wind turbines and hoop houses are all part of the plan.

“This old lady wants to be a pioneer,” Caleb said affectionately. “My duty as a son is to try my best to make it happen.”

Last week, they were planning one of the first projects. A dry creek bed lined with rocks will divert storm runoff into the pond, away from the lowlands where G.G.’s cobb house will go. The pond, full of fish, adds a touch of Thoreau to their ambitious plans.

“I donīt know how long God plans on me being involved in it, but itīs a pretty clear picture,” G.G. said.

Simplifying life can be a survival tactic, a conscious decision or a natural flow. Everyone will define it differently, but it often boils down to two things: Less stuff and more soul.

“I sometimes caught a mess of fish for my dinner,” Thoreau wrote.

In the heart of Lansing, people fish the Grand River every day, some for food, some for fun. Last Thursday, Michael Conrad of Lansing was settled in under the Saginaw Street Bridge with a buddy.

“I like to eat fresh fish,” Conrad said. “You can go to private lakes and pay $35, limit 11 fish.”

He tugged the pole. “It’s peaceful and relaxing.”

Conradīs friend, sitting nearby on the rocks, was fishing only for the sport. “I give ‘em to him,” he said, nodding at Conrad.

Across the river near the Brenke Fish Ladder, a Lansing man who only gave his first name — Demetrius — checked his pole.

“I’ve been fishing this river for five years,” he said. He agreed to have his picture taken, then turned purposefully around to attend to his line. Without a word, he sat down and looked into the water.

I asked no more questions.


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