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July 20, 2010, 11:34 AM ET

A Professor Travels a Rocky Road to Find a Sustainable Life

Tinmouth, Vt.—During my recent travels in the Northeast, I stopped at Solarfest, a festival where environmentally oriented people could attend seminars on sustainable farming and alternative energy, hear some famous speakers, buy hippie clothes and confrontational bumper stickers, and eat bean burgers.

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I was here to meet Philip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at Green Mountain College who was giving a talk based on the subject of his new book, Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader (Chelsea Green Publishing). The book, which recently got a glowing review in the Los Angeles Times, documents Mr. Ackerman-Leist's views on the homesteading movement, along with stories about his own sometimes-difficult journey back to the land. (He and his wife lived in an old Vermont cabin without electricity or running water for seven years before he built a small, off-grid house on their acreage.)

I haven't read the whole book, but I have read chunks of it, and they are outstanding—well-written and contemplative, with dashes of humor. In telling his story, Mr. Ackerman-Leist, who has a background both in sustainable farming and in philosophy, not only gives people a guide to homesteading but also grapples with some very big questions: What are the promises and perils of seeking a sustainable life? What is the true meaning of efficiency? What is the role of higher education in teaching sustainability and practical skills?

This is not a self-righteous book, and there seem to be no easy answers.

The following is one of the passages that Mr. Ackerman-Leist read at Solarfest—a passage that represents some of the qualities described above. It describes the day he and his wife, Erin, arrived at Green Mountain College. There, the young professor encountered an unlikely teacher, dressed in a campus-security uniform, to guide him on his quest to get back to the land. Enjoy … 

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Every homesteader needs a Virgil—a rooted local who can help one navigate the probability of purgatory, avoid a self-inflicted inferno (woodstove-related or not), and find the simple pleasures of the local paradise. These Virgils, guides into the geography and chronology of a place, can be found everywhere—in cities, suburbs, and small country towns, although they may be more anonymous and harder to find in well-populated areas. However, the best Virgils have a hard time remaining anonymous in smaller communities—places like Poultney, Vermont.

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Carl was the first person we had met when we pulled up to the college's main entrance, towing a U-Haul trailer behind our pickup in May 1996. With his cigarette, slight speech impediment, and bearish belly, it was easy to wonder if we hadn't run into a backwoods vestige of old New England, poorly disguised in an ill-fitting uniform of a college security officer—the result of questionable casting on the part of a director who had no choice but to work with the locals provided him. But anyone who thought Carl fit into any ready-made role suggesting ignorance or backwoods obliviousness was quickly disabused of that notion.

He would amble into most any social situation and usually interject just the right verbal wedge to work his way into the grain of the conversation. Sometimes he made sure folks felt the force of the wedge, but more often than not they barely noticed how he inserted himself into the dialogue. His wit and charm would soon hang in the air as thick as his ever-present trail of cigarette smoke. The occasional Korean student at the college would be particularly rattled on first encountering him, as he would shift abruptly from an American welcome to a casual greeting in Korean.

An astute observer of human character, Carl had a full repertoire of approaches—and reproaches—that he could use to deal with a spectrum of personalities and situations. Within just a few minutes of meeting him upon our initial arrival at the college, he had us divulging our hopes of homesteading, as well as of establishing a college farm on the campus.

"What do you know about this area?" The question was delivered with what I soon learned was his trademark skeptical glance, replete with a downward tilt of his head and a tightened brow.

"Not much," I replied.

"Would you go to Wall Street and start investing with pesos?"

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I must have responded with a blank look: It was my first encounter with Carl's pedagogy, full of aphorisms and momentarily perplexing parables.

Carl courteously filled in the blank for me since it was apparently a sample question on my first test—something he would soon refuse to do. "Well, if you don't know much about the people or the place, then how are you going to figure out what to grow in the garden, much less survive on your new homestead? You're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy." His eyes sparkled, and he let out a reassuring laugh. But then he looked at me, ready for something resembling an intelligent response on my part.

"Well, I guess I'll have to start asking questions." I'm sure my tone exuded more naive optimism than confidence.

"Yeah, but you'll save yourself a helluva lot of time and maybe even money by asking the right questions to the right people. In my experience, you academic types spend too much time standing in front of the mirror and asking questions of the only person you see."

He looked at me with constricted eyebrows. "There aren't many people around anymore who've got the answers to the questions you don't even know you have yet." His face softened a bit. "I guess I better help you find them before they all die off. Otherwise you might not survive very long in these parts."

He looked straight at me and took a long draw on his cigarette. "I don't know if you're worth keeping around," and then he smiled and pointed to Erin with the dying red tip of the cigarette. "But I like her already." Erin blushed, but not before grinning.

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