Alden and Mari Brindle are off the grid in Blount County.
No Alabama Power bills, for solar panels electrify the stately home they built from straw bales and stucco.
No water bills, for they drink from a vast system that captures and filters rainwater as it flows from the roof of their barn.
They keep chickens and ducks for eggs, grow corn and potatoes, onions and figs, fruits and berries and vegetables of all description to set a bountiful table. They buy a tank of propane for cooking every few years, but that’s about the extent of it.
I let out a snicker when I learned Alden Brindle was a nuclear engineer retired from Alabama Power’s mama the Southern Company. I read too much into it.
“Oh,” he said. “I was off the grid even when I worked for them.”
The Brindles are part of a community that calls itself Common Ground, a group of friends who decided years ago to invest in Blount County land together, to form a sort of co-op for people who wanted to live “gently” on the earth.
“We were a bunch of like-minded young people who caught the tail end of the Mother Earth movement and actually bought a farm,” said Stephen Guesman, who lives off the power grid with his wife Martha Hunter in a home constructed of a Mongolian Yurt surrounded by a 12-sided expansion. They call it a Dodeca-Yurt.
Wait. Am I really here? Or better yet, are they really here?
This is conservative Blount County, after all, which had the highest percentage of votes against Barack Obama of any Alabama county (86.5 percent) in the last election. Yet that Blount County has tiny clusters of environmentally sensitive Earth People – let’s face it, they have been described as aging hippies — scattering and greening its hills.
On 80 acres of Common Ground land six families have built personal and different homes. There are yurts and a double-wide yurt, a straw bale house and even an underground home. Across the river is another “intentional community” called “Wild Hydrangea.”
The groups have reached into the Blount County community and some have reached back, seeking ways to cultivate their own simpler lives.
Don’t call this a commune. Please don’t call it a commune.
“We have no resemblance to commune,” Guesman said. “Everyone here pursues their own economics and their own religion and we’re just a community by intention.”
But they do help one another. They live and share information about ways to limit consumption. They lend a hand both to raise homes of their neighbors and to help each other understand the technology that gives them both freedom and community. But they don’t share homes or even politics. Just a land trust, and a common goal.
“It’s a philosophy of life,” said Daryl Bergquist, whose knowledge of solar has helped not only fellow residents, but people and businesses across Alabama. “I would not say it’s political at all. It is good stewardship of the earth that we all share.”
Bergquist, who looks uncannily like Gandalf the Grey in a T-shirt that reads “Grow Food Everywhere,” sits on the board of directors of the Blount County Chamber of Commerce, and once served on a Bob Riley commission studying energy. He is consulting with a Blount County steel company as it builds solar powered benches with USB ports and outlets to charge iPads and phones.
Which is very cool, but which is another story.
Bergquist is not totally off the grid, but close. Last year he spent about two bucks a month on electricity from Alabama Power – not including the base rate of $15-plus the power company charges for the privilege of being its customer.
It is hard in Alabama to be self-sufficient. Solar is expensive – although prices for panels are falling. Batteries cost more than the cost of the power they generate over the course of their life, Bergquist said. And around here, Alabama Power charges customers who partially rely on solar a $5 per kilowatt fee, a mind-boggling disincentive to those who would use the sun to produce their own energy.
But that, I suppose, is also another story.
Rick Trescott – who keeps a bumper sticker in his house that reads “not a liberal,” says living simply – and letting others do the same — is simply in keeping with his libertarian principals.
He and wife Pat Trescott live in a ’60s house apart from the Common Ground group. The two have been hard at work, retrofitting the place with solar panels and energy-saving tricks that use the sun for advantage in both summer and winter.
Since they became interested in efficiency they added 2,000 square feet of livable space to the house while at the same time cutting energy costs by 40 percent, Pat Trescott said. Now they live much more comfortably and much cleaner, she said.
At Common Ground, residents find ways to cut every single watt they can, from little things like insulating floor ducts and water heaters to building houses underground. Trescott saved huge amounts of wattage by swapping a bathroom space heater for a heat lamp.
It’s not crazy. It’s not nuts. It is merely living. With a purpose. It is realizing that life does not have to mean McMansions in the suburbs with mortgages and chemically greened lawns.
“We’re all on this earth together, Bergquist said. “One person being responsible for their consumption is helpful for everyone.”
Debra Gordon-Hellman has to mow the roof of her underground house. But she can also go inside in the cool air and watch TV or listen to her juke box. She is not off the grid, merely sensitive to usage.
She used to have a composting toilet, but recently switched to a more traditional fixture. For the sake of family.
“When they came to visit me they wouldn’t use the toilet. They had to hold it until they left,” she said. “My daughter had nightmares thinking she would fall in.”
This is, no doubt, an odd and unusual place. But it is magical when you walk through the gardens, when you see the beekeeping and the farming, the cisterns and science and the bounty of the harvest.
It’s not about wealth. It is not about how much stuff you have. At least, not as much.
“In this neighborhood, keeping up with the Joneses involves having a solar oven,” Guesman said.
Oh well. People will be people.