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Living Close to the Land: Mainstream Family Learns Homesteading Ways
Nestled at 3,200 feet in the Sierras, halfway between Tahoe and Yosemite, lives a regular family — with a rather irregular knowledge of off-grid living.
“We don’t sit in the dark. We are consumers,” says Mark Oswald, a local fireman. “We’re pretty mainstream people. I don’t preach this stuff. My children just learn through immersion.”
The Oswald family of four has all the modern conveniences they need — microwave, vacuum, washing machine, refrigerator. “We just use them with a little bit of training and awareness about where power comes from,” says stay-at-home mom Kathleen Oswald. “My parents always told me to run the dishwasher at night, when other things are turned off. But with solar, it’s the opposite.”
Kathleen always wanted a log home. Mark could have been content in a yurt. Their timber-construction “kit” home designed for passive-solar living has served as a happy compromise.
The 3,500-square-foot home (just under half of which is currently designated as heat storage) employs a solar Heliodyne system for hot water and radiant heat, and a prepackaged OutBack center for electricity, both from the Real Goods catalog. Eight PV modules reside on a tilted rack on the shed, producing a 1.3-kilowatt solar system.
After spending years happily crunching the numbers on a solar system and taking a few classes on solar panels, Mark called the decision karmic. Installing the solar system was straightforward. “I have a rocket scientist friend who I thought I might call on, but I didn’t even need him,” says Mark, a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none.
Nature and nurture
A solar system is just one step the Oswalds have taken toward energy independence. It’s all part of a lifestyle of conscious living that grows with each year. Mark, a hunter and fisherman at heart, can harvest a turkey out his back door, which opens to just over 10 acres abutting National Forest. He also teaches a class on hunting safety, trying to pass on the self-sufficiency aspects of the declining pastime to the next generation.
The Oswald children, 9 and 12, who according to Mark might rather watch TV, do in fact participate in homesteading projects when called on. Chores include watering and weeding the garden, composting and slash burning.
One of the Oswalds’ next projects is to build out their garden in the mountainous rocky soil. According to Mark, that will entail finishing clearing a mandatory 100-foot fire boundary around the home, prepping the stubborn dirt with the family’s compost, animal-proofing the area from deer (and the 250-pound bear that visited recently), and planting a greater array of foods.
Then there’s the chicken coop Mark is fashioning out of an old dog kennel he found; an old-fashioned pit-style root cellar that he’s laid out in his mind; and a handmade “solar dryer” for preserving meats, fruits and veggies that would be nice to start on as well.
Living close to the land and encouraging a lifestyle of respect for it is part nature and part nurture for the Oswalds, who both grew up on or near ranching and farming communities. Both have an innate passion for the learning that comes with a homesteading life.
Do your homework
Mark’s advice to people just starting to go green is: do your homework. “If it’s solar, learn everything there is — anything you can get your hands on. And get different opinions,” he says. “Oh, and you have to have a good BS filter too. A lot of people who tell you things are also trying to sell you stuff.”
Start small, he adds. Try a simple garden with five or six raised beds and read the good stuff like Backwoods Home magazine. “It’s like what Mother Earth News used to be.”
Another tip from this veteran green tinkerer is to be creative — but also realistic — in financing of projects. “There are many avenues to explore for loans,” says Mark, who used a family military connection to secure funding through USAA. “But always remember that’s there’s no free lunch. You have to work or save for it. Have a cookie jar and put your pennies and dimes in it.”
Most importantly, no environmentally friendly initiative should be undertaken for cost savings alone. “Sweat is part of the enjoyment,” says Mark. “If you don’t like to sweat, don’t bother.”