Keeping the clunker

I’ve been scouting the web sites of used-car dealers, with an eye to buying a newer version of our 2007 Toyota Prius, which has 146,000 miles on it.

IMG_20160901_095905375_HDROur car runs well, gets 45 miles a gallon (52 on the highway), and we’ve spent only $345 on repairs and maintenance in the past year. But it’s survived two crunches (while unoccupied) and one part was stitched together to pass inspection. It’s got lots of other dings, and the warranty on the power-train battery is about to expire. I believed it is uneconomical to be either a car’s first owner or its last, and worried about the hassle and expense of future repairs.

IMG_20160901_095933051(1)And then there’s the exclamation point that’s lit up on our car’s dashboard. Mechanics assure us that it’s a tire-pressure sensor problem that does not indicate a problem with the car’s operation, but it’s still mildly worrisome.

Betsy wanted to keep the car a little longer. After doing some research on automotive economics – and wondering who would buy a car with an exclamation point on its dashboard – I decided that she was right. Here are seven reasons why it makes sense for us to keep the car until the cost of a repair exceeds its value:

  1. Miles to go. I’ve heard that with Priuses, “200,000 miles is the new 100,000.” And I read about a guy in Maine who put 1 million miles on a 1990 Honda Accord.
  2. Carbon footprint. We care about the energy cost of building a new car and disposing of an old one, including hazardous chemicals.
  3. Free theft insurance. Who would steal a car with so many flaws? Keeping the car, we don’t have to worry about future dings, or all the carpet stains.
  4. Frugality. We will pay less for insurance and excise tax than with a new car. I read that insurance costs $300 a year more on a 2010 Corolla than an ’05.
  5. Above average. The average car owner keeps it for six years before trading it in. We bought our car in mid-2013, so we have at least a few years to go.
  6. Depreciation. The amount a car declines in value in a year is the true cost of owning one. The longer you own a car, the less it depreciates every year.
  7. Self-image. We’re just not spiffy types. Our car looks as, uh, lived in as our house and our clothes do. Keeping a old car keeps us humble. (Or prideful in our shabbiness?)

This decision is made easier by the fact that I can get most places I want to go on my bicycle, allowing us to share our one car, and we drive it only 8,000 miles a year. Neither of us has a long commute that requires a newer car.

There will come a time when we’ll face a big repair bill, face each other and say, “It’s time.” But the longer we can delay that day, the better off we’ll be.

New readers of this blog  may want to check out this quick overview of 150 past posts, in 13 categories such as frugality, simple living, gardening, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.




Chipmunky business

I like the taste of garlic and hot peppers, but I’m betting that chipmunks don’t.

chipmunkA family of these cute, furry rodents has taken up residence in our yard. For most of the summer, I liked seeing them scamper around. But then I noticed that tomatoes that were just getting ripe were getting chomped on.

IMG_20160825_085645164_HDRIt took me a while to adjust my thinking away from woodchucks, our usual garden culprit. When I baited traps with slices of banana, I found the bait gone and the trap unsprung, so I concluded that chipmunks don’t weigh enough to depress the lever. And chipmunks can get through or over just about any fence.

IMG_20160825_090000288I tried creating multiple barriers, and even attached old carpet segments to fencing with safety pins. I imagine the chipmunks laughing at my efforts while climbing up the rugs to claim their treats.

I considered getting smaller traps designed for chipmunks, but there are so many of them that even if successful, I’d be constantly catching and disposing of them.

So I picked a hot pepper and mixed it in a blender with two cups of water and two garlic cloves. I let it steep for a few hours, then strained it and put in a few drops of oil and dish detergent. I put the noxious mixture in a spray bottle and sprayed it on the bottoms of the tomato plants, figuring that would deter chipmunks from climbing them.

IMG_20160825_090014763No such luck. I found more bites taken out of the ripening tomatoes, which had to be picked immediately and used for soup or fried green tomatoes.  That’s when I concluded that I had to spray the tomatoes themselves, and so far that’s protecting them from predation.

We peel tomatoes before canning or saucing them, but I don’t know what we’ll do with the tomatoes we slice and eat fresh.  Will rinsing remove the spray residue or we will too be deterred from the seasonal delight of eating fresh tomatoes?  As for the cherry tomatoes, they’re probably goners.

I remember liking chipmunks when I was a boy. In fact, when I was 8, I wrote a poem about them, and dug it up in an old family album. It begins, “At sunrise, like a praying priest/Sits the happy chipmunk beast.” I remember reading comic books about two chipmunks named Chip and Dale.

Alvin and The ChipmunksThat same year, 1958, one of the most popular songs was by a group called The Chipmunks, and featured speeded-up voices that I guess people thought sounded like chipmunks. The record sold 4 million copies in just a few weeks (click here to hear it, if you dare). They later became cartoon characters. Even today, I sometimes get one of their  tunes stuck in my head and can’t get rid of it.

But I hope to get rid of chipmunks in the tomatoes, if not with garlic-pepper spray, then by some other means. Any ideas?

New readers of this blog can get a quick overview here of more than 150 past posts, separated into categories such as simple living, frugality, gardening, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.





You don’t miss your water…

With Amherst in “extreme drought,” and facing a possible water emergency next month, we are irrigating our gardens with rainfall that fell on the roof of our house.

IMG_20160807_084457612We got 1.6 inches of rain on July 31 and Aug. 2, and though that’s not enough to fill the town’s reservoirs, it did fill up our three 50-gallon rain barrels. Rainwater drains directly into the barrels from our gutters, and there’s a spigot at the bottom of each that we use to fill up watering cans and buckets.

When I use the phrase “water emergency,” that’s not hyperbole. In September 1980, after a similarly hot and dry summer, the University of Massachusetts had to send students home because Amherst didn’t have enough water. Click here to read the details.

Amherst has more options for providing water now, but officials were concerned enough to impose voluntary water restrictions on July 25. Water use this summer has been 500,000 gallons/day higher than the historical summer average, and town officials have activated a water source that’s typically drawn on in September, when demand increases dramatically. If we don’t get substantial rain in the next four weeks, we could be in trouble.

Several times this summer, I’ve watched the radar as rainstorms have broken up  while approaching Amherst, dumping rain to the north and south. It happened again Saturday, as we got a minor shower while 15 miles away there was over 1.5 inches of rain.

IMG_20160807_084543802We’ve tried to water our garden as much as possible from our three rain barrels, but they ran dry at the end of July and we had to use a hose. We have a fourth rain barrel that isn’t yet connected to a gutter, and we fill that up from buckets placed  under an unguttered section of roof.

Betsy’s been telling me that it’s best to water vegetables occasionally but thoroughly, yet I sometimes lose patience with the slow pace of watering cans and irrigate too shallowly. I have gotten better at using one watering can while another is filling up. Some crops, such as eggplants and blueberries, have suffered because of the drought, but at least we haven’t had to worry about late blight on the tomatoes. Cucumbers, which demand a lot of water, have withered.

I’ve started taking fewer and shorter (low-flow) showers, and we don’t have a lawn (see “Lawn order: Who needs it?”). We don’t flush the toilet every time we pee . We rarely wash our car. Betsy empties the water from a basement dehumidifier into a bucket that she uses for toilet flushing, and saves the running water as it heats up before washing dishes.

I first encountered the soul classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in the version done by Taj Mahal (a native of this region) in the late ’60s. Let’s pray for rain and hope our wells don’t run dry.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 150 past posts, separated into categories such as simple living, frugality, gardening, cooking, living without and climate change. Or hover over “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.









A walk in the woods

Some people “bag” peaks.  We may give that a try sometime, but for now we’re “trail bagging” around Amherst.

Being out in nature is supposed to be good for our mental and physical health.  And we both like to walk.  So we have resolved to take weekly hikes on nearby trails.

IMG_20160803_093908421Our guides are  Amherst Conservation Areas and Trails, (1988) and Amherst Literary Trails, (2007). The Amherst Conservation Department in Town Hall sells a map of all of Amherst’s conservation areas and trails.

IMG_20160803_083441126This week we started with some trails near Puffer’s Pond in North Amherst.  The Ray Stannard Baker Trail, though short, provided an initial uphill climb to get our heart rates up.  I spotted foliage of lady slipper and wild lily of the valley on the forest floor and a number of mountain laurel bushes, hinting at great springtime beauty.

IMG_20160803_085445135_HDR(1)Part of the Helen Hunt Jackson Trail skirts the north side of Puffer’s Pond, also labeled “Factory Hollow Pond” on our map.  On our early-morning hike, the glassy surface of the pond was undisturbed by ripples from human activity.  We watched in awe as two great blue herons took flight over the water.

IMG_20160803_090030700We noticed that extensive work has been done on this heavily used trail, including conservation plantings. Unfortunately, some of the new bushes appear to be dying, perhaps due to the severe drought this summer.

IMG_20160803_090354629Last, we climbed an uphill  section of the Robert Frost Trail going from the pond to Pulpit Hill Road. As we walked we got curious about these places and place names. We already knew something about Ray Stannard Baker, the muckraking journalist who moved to Amherst in 1910. He wrote philosophical tales of country life published under the pen name David Grayson.

But why did someone call this eminence we were climbing “Pulpit Hill?”  What kind of mill was powered by the water in Factory Hollow Pond?*  Who was Helen Hunt Jackson and what did she write?IMG_20160803_094323130

Seeing all the questions that arose in our minds on this brief excursion, I was imagining what an educational adventure it would be to hike each of the 14 Amherst Literary Trails and then read something written by each author.

So much to learn!  So many trails to explore!  Who needs Pokemon Go when curiosity can conjure an underlay of past times and ghosts of those who came before, even as we walk through today’s landscape?

This is a good life, indeed.

New readers of this blog can link to more than 150 past posts here or hover on “Index” above. They are divided into categories such as simple living, frugality, gardening, cooking, living without, food preservation and climate change.

*Reader Elisa Campbell says that mills powered by the waters of Factory Hollow pond included cotton, several kinds of paper and later, railroad equipment.  She recommends a number of historic works with further information.


Free heat

When town employees were taking down some maple and birch trees on our street a few months ago, we asked them to dump the wood in our side yard instead of disposing of it.

IMG_20160415_134405415We ended up with an enormous pile of logs, two of them behemoths 18 inches in diameter and 10 feet long. So I asked two friends who own gas-powered chainsaws to help me cut them up. Amazingly, they both offered to come over on the same day.

I used to own a gas-powered chainsaw, and cut up big trees for firewood, but I concluded that I shouldn’t. It’s too dangerous for me to operate alone, and I wasn’t able to give this machine the care it demanded, in terms of oiling, cleaning, tightening  and sharpening. The smaller electric chain saw we now own is lighter and easier to control, but can only cut up tree limbs and other wood under six inches in diameter.

IMG_20160606_113248691_HDRMy friend Rick Cowan came down from Vermont on Monday to help out. With Betsy and I moving logs into place for him to cut, we went through half the wood in 90 minutes. I was impressed with Rick’s caution, from the protective chaps he put on his legs to the number of times he stopped to check his chainsaw.

IMG_20160606_113335736_HDRDuring our breaks we reflected on how much  easier and faster it is for us to cut up wood using these machines, powered by fossil fuels, than it would be to do the work by hand. Even with the big two-person saws that can fell a tree or cut up big logs, the human strength, time and energy required would be enormous. We are grateful for the industrial revolution, the invention of the chainsaw and for the fossil fuels that run them. It makes you wonder how we would do things if we didn’t have these “energy slaves” at our command.

The work tired us out, and we were having lunch when the phone rang. It was our friend David Ahlfeld, offering to come over and help us cut up wood. After laughing at the coincidence, I told him we we’d just been there, done that. Then I pulled out that old infomercial tag line, “But wait! There’s more!” and agreed to get together soon to finish off the job.

IMG_20160610_073118495_HDRMost of the wood we cut up Monday won’t be burned until the start of 2018. I’ve started  splitting the logs with a maul and stacking the wood so it can dry out. This is the part of heating with wood that I enjoy the most, though I have to do it in short bursts to avoid hurting my 66-year-old body.

Why bother? Why not heat our house with oil, which is so cheap now, or pay someone $200-plus a cord for wood that’s cut, split and delivered? Well, we enjoy the comradeship that comes with working with friends, we like getting life’s necessities for free, and appreciate getting them from our very own street. You can’t get much more local than that!

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 150 past posts, divided into categories such as simple living, frugality, cooking, gardening, living without and climate change. Or hover over “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.