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10 Years After Trying to Live off the Grid, Farmer Wonders, 'What am I Doing Living on This Little Island?'

Can the actions of a few people trying to live self-sufficiently in the woods truly make the world a better place?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ParkerK

 
 
 
 

In spring 2003, Peter Janes decided to do something most people only dream of — that is, if they think about it at all. He left behind an academic education and the urban life that went with it to move to a small island off British Columbia's coast. Appalled at what he saw as industrial humankind's destruction of the natural world, Janes figured the most honest response was to build an alternative system: by producing his own food, building his own house and generating his own power.

"I wanted to physically make the world a better place," Janes said. With his family's help, he bought 40 acres of forested land on Denman Island. It came with two trailers. Janes and a girlfriend he's no longer with moved into one, and promptly sold the other — "a big, ugly, white vinyl doublewide," he said. They planted a vegetable garden and got some chickens. Self-sufficiency "was definitely an ideal," Janes explained, "but we were doing everything we could" to achieve it.

That ideal has since become an influential driver of North American culture. It's in " The 100-Mile Diet." The rise of agritourism. The urban gardens of Vancouver, Detroit, Brooklyn and Mexico City. Bill McKibben bestsellers like "Deep Economy" and "Eaarth." The Global Village Construction Set. Modern Farmer magazine. Resurging farmers' markets. The Degrowth movement — a "shift away from our current industrial society," as adherents put it — across North America and Europe.

For Janes, it now presents a philosophical dilemma. After 10 years striving to build a self-sustaining farm on Denman Island, he's struggling with questions that probe his life's meaning. Assuming he could cut all ties to the industrial system — and that's "a very tall order," he realizes — would it be worth the immense time and energy he must continue expending for the next five, 10, 50 years? Can the actions of a few people in the woods, he wonders, truly make the world a better place?

'Big catalyst'

Janes' green awakening isn't traceable to a single moment. There was no Exxon Valdez-type catastrophe that shook him out of his urban stupor. He recalls a growing dissatisfaction with the insular academia of the University of Victoria, where he took anthropology and environmental studies. And he recalls a gnawing sense, as articulated by writers like Wendell Berry, who he was reading at the time, that few things sacred can survive an industrialized society bent on conquering the natural world.

Around this time, Janes embarked on a "crazy walk," he said, from Cape Scott on Vancouver Island's north tip, to Victoria, 500 kilometres southeast. He hung out with lots of activists, and began to notice disconnects between their comfortable lives — "drinking black tea with white sugar," for example — and the ecological injustices they railed against. "That was a big catalyst for me," he said, "that it doesn't make sense to be upset about all this stuff but then be supporting it."

Janes dreamed of an education center in the woods. Blending farming, spirituality and outdoors skills, it would give people the tools to live less destructively. Arriving on Denman Island in 2003, though, he got sidetracked learning his own new skills. Slaughtering animals was one of them. "I'm a bit of a bull, a hard-headed person," he said. Yet he recalls feeling "pretty emotional" shooting his first sheep. Its carcass bled onto a feed pile, and other sheep munched obliviously on the bloody grain.

That first year some university friends stayed over the summer. Even with their help, Janes was learning that true self-sufficiency would be much harder than he'd thought. Going off the electrical grid was prohibitively expensive, the farm itself produced almost no income and he needed money to buy food and tools. So he took menial labour jobs when he could, trying not to enter the winter too burdened with debt.