It was 1973. Bob Gross had recently returned to his studies at Manchester College. He had left because of the war, because of the suffering overseas in Vietnam. He left because he wanted to make the world a better place, but came home with the world not much improved. The world had not changed over the last few years, but Bob had. He was not a soldier as you might imagine, because Bob believed that to make the world a better place, he could not kill. He refused to fight and spent a year and a half of a three year sentence in federal prison for his convictions. The walls that surrounded and confined him, however, could not limit his mind or his heart, and he began to imagine how he could live so that no one would have to kill for him. He believed that no one should have to suffer so that Bob Gross could live in comfort. His thoughts took him past merely not killing, and led him to see that he would have to exist on the earth in a different way. He realized he must live in a manner that would allow creation itself to survive.
Bob married Rachel Kurtz, a fellow Manchester student, and together they formed a life that put their mutual compassion for their world into daring action, and remains just as vibrant today. They started their married life with a commitment to consume less. Rachel says that they enjoyed growing their own food, and appreciated staying apart from the consumerist mainstream, while remaining mindful of the ecological impact of their lifestyle. Joyfield Farm, just outside North Manchester, Indiana where they have lived since 1984, started out as, and continues to be an experiment in how Americans can live in a way that treats the world as if it really is something created and declared to be good by a good and loving God.
It’s 2004. Thanksgiving has just passed, and Joyfield Farm is ready for winter. My wife and I step inside the house and it’s warm. The heat always feels nice at Rachel and Bob’s. It has a texture to it that your bones can feel. That’s how wood heat feels to me, much preferable to the gas heat at our house. The Grosses could have gas heat, or more likely, electric. Their front door bears a brass medallion from decades ago proclaiming that the house runs entirely on electricity, but that had changed by the time the Grosses moved in. Instead they get their heat from their own toil, from chopping wood. Much of their sustenance likewise comes from close by–either from a local orchard, their own garden, or the store right in town. Just living locally impacts the world, Rachel explains. New Community Project, a nonprofit organization that grew out of the work of David Radcliff, a mutual friend of ours, agrees, reporting “The typical food items travel 1700 miles to get to our table” (School Report). Mostly it is to feed us rich Americans, while the people that really need it are the ones loading the produce onto our supermarket trucks. But tractor trailers don’t have to run constantly around the continent. There are alternative, more sustainable ways of living, as the Grosses have proven. If you look around their home, you may run across less trucked in products compared to the average home, although the Grosses have accumulated a certain amount of belongings that makes Rachel look around at the things they own and says “How did this happen!” As imperfect as it may be, the way Rachel and Bob live makes many others pay attention to their own lives, and that itself can change the world.
The first time I walked into their house three years ago, one of the first things I noticed appeared to be a tall wooden cabinet on the left wall of the kitchen. It stood in the place where it might make sense to put a refrigerator—under the cabinets and next to the sink. To further confuse the situation, I looked around and realized that there was no fridge to be seen. But as soon as I sat down at the kitchen table to a hearty, garden fresh meal, Rachel stood up from the table and retrieved a pitcher of ice cold water from what began to seem more than a simple cabinet. My curiosity could only be satisfied by asking a question I now realize they must get from every new guest, “Is that the fridge?”
“It’s the icebox,” Rachel replied. “Bob made it.” And then I found out about its styrofoam insulation and jugs of ice inside to act as the refrigerant. Part of the reason for constructing a non-electric icebox might be that chemical refrigerants are potentially harmful for the environment, but possibly more damaging is the electricity it takes to power an appliance that size. The Grosses aren’t against electricity or coolants per se; they have a freezer to make the ice for the icebox, as well as to preserve their garden vegetables. They just choose what products they can do without. Rachel says that Bob never agreed with money being the solution to all the world’s problems. She herself learned to be incredibly thrifty from her mother, and adds, “I married someone who can do everything” (Gross), including building an icebox, and other methods to do more with less electricity, or maybe more accurately, less machinery. Rachel’s scientist siblings aren’t convinced that she and Bob use less electricity. “But it’s one less appliance” (Gross), she says, her voice hinting at relief, and the Grosses are not the only ones their decisions bring relief to. One less appliance means fewer parts to manufacture and ship, and that much less fuel consumed, bringing their family that much closer to living more authentically and responsibly, and in a manner that creates less stress on humanity and the environment worldwide. According to David Radcliff, “since industry consumes 40 percent of the world's energy, cutting back on the things you buy directly affects energy consumption” (School Report). Another part of the living at Joyfield Farm is to not try and take advantage of their privileged position in society. Just being aware of our electricity use can remind us of what it’s like for the “two billion people around the world [who] do not have access to electricity” (Consuming Appetites).
Rachel says that someone once told her that heat is the most expensive use for electricity. The federal government’s Energy Information Administration confirms Rachel’s memory, stating that “almost half of the average home's energy consumption is used for heating” (Energy Use in Households). It might therefore mean that heat is also the most polluting application as well. To get around the environmental impact, but mostly the cost and use of electricity, the Grosses heat with wood. Their heating system is a wooden furnace for the winter, and much less ordinary, the wood stove that sits in the room next to the kitchen. Unlike the icebox, it’s pretty obvious what it is at first blush. It looks just like an ordinary wood stove, about five feet long, that one would use to cook with, which they do, as well as to heat the house during the fall and spring. But then I saw another of Bob’s creations that needed explaining, two pipes almost creeping out of the wall, and connected at the ends by a flat spiral of more pipe. Rachel fortunately explained it, saying that the pipes are part of the plumbing. When they need hot water, they just put the coil down onto the cooking surface of the hot stove, heating the water inside the pipes that distribute the water to the shower and sinks.
It might be true however, that burning wood is equally as polluting as the generation of electricity. The Environmental Protection Agency says, “Wood smoke contains hundreds of chemical compounds including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, organic gases, and particulate matter...Several of these pollutants have demonstrated cancer-causing properties similar to cigarette smoke. In many urban and rural areas, smoke from wood burning is a major contributor to air pollution” (Energy Savers). It is perhaps too hard to gauge how much pollution is saved or created with one house that might use less electricity than average. One benefit could be that the money the Grosses do not pay to create electricity they do not need and to contribute unnecessarily to the industrial excess that dangerously warms the globe can be donated to organizations like New Community Project that work “in Central America, where deforestation is rampant [by] supporting tree nurseries in Guatemala and El Salvador” (If a Tree Falls).
Another way Rachel and Bob live locally and responsibly is by cooperating with their neighbors. The Grosses share Joyfield Farm with Cliff and Arlene Kindy. The farm was purchased together by the two families in 1982 and when the Grosses moved in two years later, the Kindys transformed what was then the corn crib into a small cabin style stone house for their own home. The Kindy house stands a few hundred yards away from the Gross home, and in between the two is part of a large vegetable garden. There the Kindys grow organic vegetables to sell at the farmers market in downtown North Manchester from early spring until it gets cold in November. What they grow and sell in season includes asparagus, lettuce, spinach, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, eggplant, peppers, radishes, carrots, parsnips, onions, potatoes, peas, squash, tomatoes, beans, rhubarb, and various berries (Kindy). The Kindy’s pamphlet listing all these products explains, “We strive to grow and sell quality produce not sprayed with destructive chemicals. We bring you reasonably priced, locally grown food” (Kindy). For their own sustenance, the Grosses preserve vegetables and fruit grown in their smaller personal garden and some from the Kindy’s market garden. Across from Joyfield is a conventional farm that sprays pesticides and fertilizer onto their own field. These chemicals leak nitrates into the groundwater and into the well shared by the Gross and Kindy families. This is part of the reason Rachel says they choose to stay away from chemically treated food from the supermarket, adding, “We already get it in the water” (Gross).
Another reason for choosing to grow and eat organically may be one that Rachel mentioned earlier in our visit. Bob and Cliff were in their twenties in the early 1970s when they met at their Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) orientation. The Vietnam War was raging, and men their age were being called up by the thousands, by force of law, to go to Southeast Asia with a rifle in their arms. The U.S. government held the future of their youngsters in the balance. This power to induct men into the army, even against their freedom, and often their willingness, was symbolized by the draft card every man their age was required to carry. Bob writes in 2002, “It seemed like I was carrying a membership card in the whole war system” (Shoes of Peace). They entered BVS because they believed in a different future. Bob worked in a homeless shelter in Baltimore, while Cliff went to Mississippi to serve in a similar project. Their experiences as volunteers, combined with their religious upbringing in the Church of the Brethren led them to the conviction that all war is sin. This made their draft cards seem an abomination, and Bob and Cliff returned their cards to the government. As explained earlier, Bob landed in federal prison for a year and a half for resisting induction, and it was there that he got the idea to live in a different way. It is possible Bob was reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in prison, because her themes show up in his life’s course. In Living Downstream, biologist Sandra Steingraber paraphrases a very applicable passage by Carson: As veterans returned to America from World War II, and commercial pesticides were being developed from the scientific advances made possible by intentions to apply chemistry and physics to war, “the goals of conquest and annihilation were transferred from the battlefield to our kitchens, gardens, forests, and farm fields” (Steingraber 89). As Bob returned from prison as a protest to the inhumanity of war, he strove to transfer something other than “conquest and annihilation” to his kitchen and garden—his concepts of Christian compassion and justice.
Joyfield Farm is an experiment running directly counter to wartime inquiries into the limits of a hydrogen atom. It contains astounding discoveries made possible only by the desire to use human knowledge for the good of the world, and is one experiment worth learning about. The simplicity of the heating systems, the icebox, and the gardens of the Grosses and the Kindys all speak to a deep and sacred yearning shared by so many. Existence amidst the conquest of warfare and hunger, pesticides and pollutants, and consumerism and consumption will ultimately lead to annihilation of vital plant and animal life, natural resources, and of course, humanity. The trees can stand only until we topple them down. The animals can defend their habitat only until we destroy both creature and home. Fossil fuels, wood pulp, coal, and oil can support our lifestyles only until these same lifestyles dry up the wells. Human beings, on the other hand can put an end to these patterns. We will live as long as we stand up for the trees, protect the animals, slow down our use of natural resources, and continue to choose good deeds over warfare in our personal and international relationships. Just as important as the way we treat our next door neighbors and our enemies across the oceans is our relations with God’s good, yet suffering creation. Thanks to people like Rachel and Bob, Arlene and Cliff, and the myriad others who live in similar ways, the possibility still remains of reversing our patterns of conquest and annihilation with actions of compassion and justice.
Energy Information Administration. Energy Use in Households. 7 December 2004.
Environmental Protection Agency. Energy Savers: Air Pollution from Wood-Burning
Appliances and Fireplaces. 7 December 2004. <http://www.eere.energy.gov/consumerinfo/factsheets/ja3.html>.
Gross, Rachel. Personal interview with author. North Manchester, IN. 30 November 2004.
Kindy, Arlene and Cliff. Kindy’s Organically Grown Produce. Self published.
New Community Project. Consuming Appetites. 2 December 2004. <http://www.newcommunityproject.org/Consuming.htm>.
New Community Project. If a Tree Falls. 7 December 2004.
New Community Project. School Project on Energy Conservation. 2 December 2004. <http://www.newcommunityproject.org/energy.htm>.
Shoes of Peace: Letters to Youth from Peacemakers. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 2002.
Steingraber, Sandra. Living Downstream. New York: Random House, 1998.