Tamara Burke


This week we were hit with two sobering reminders of the fragility of the systems on which modern life is so dependent:

• Friends of ours served by the California power company, which is turning off its grid in high wind to prevent sparking in tinder-dry conditions, have been without power for several days now.

• Here, on the other side of the country, I am typing a column with battery power and a candle to illuminate the keyboard.

Wind and rain knocked out our power grid. In Stowe, in a house built in the early part of the 19th century and retrofitted to accommodate modern conveniences, power failures were inconsequential. Email piled up on some distant server, waiting for an opportunity to come flooding in, and evening entertainment involved real books.

But water flows downhill, the spring house lay in the woods above, while an unheated basement kept everything from milk to meat nicely chilled and preserved. With a flick of a switch or a twitch of a power pole, we were back to state-of-the-art late 18th century with barely a bobble, wood stove clicking with heat.

We had coffee, and cold milk to go in it, and could bathe. Which, in my opinion, is pretty much the definition of civilization.

This new place, however, is a modern, late-20th-century house with all the conveniences, including a well that requires a pump to bring water to the taps. There’s something to recommend a well; you very rarely find a mouse (or two) floating in your well, the way you do in a springhouse. We kept a little goldfish net on a pole just for fishing furry swimmers out of that old springhouse. Not only are there no mice in a modern water system, there are no mice in this house at all. 

Which, I confess, is not something I would have been able to claim about the old place. There I shared quarters with the descendants of mice who shared quarters with my grandmother’s mother’s mother.

The layout of a modern home isn’t wood-stove friendly. A properly constructed home, built around a wood heat source, has small rooms built around a central core. Doors are used to circulate air around the house and, before bed, up into the second floor.

The late 20th century favored long, narrow houses. The rooms immediate to the wood stove are comfortable, but the heat doesn’t reach down the hallway to my office.

But cranky as cold fingers make me, I’m not sitting in darkness, breathing smoke and wondering where the fire is.

The storm that knocked out my power and tore holes in the freshly paved roads along Route 15, undercut Route 108, rendered Bull Moose Run impassable, flooded Richmond, and isolated the town of Eden completely wasn’t a named storm. Unlike Irene, it was just “weather.” 

Particularly violent weather. Weather producing, according to the authorities, the fifth-largest power outage in Vermont’s history. Weather we were woefully underprepared for.

Preparing for a protracted power outage means moving the milk and perishables into a cold space, or at the very least coolers, and wrapping a freezer in quilts, the more the merrier, to keep the cold in. Those things you can do hastily after the power has gone out. 

But before it goes — and after you’ve filled buckets, bathtubs and bottles with water — making sure all the dishes are clean, your laundry is freshly done, and you’ve taken the time to clean yourself up should be high on the priority list. It’s unpleasant to have the power go out with dishes in the sink and yourself in a state of hygiene where a bit of hot water and soap wouldn’t go amiss.

Naturally, when the outage turned unexpectedly serious, we were caught with our laundry baskets full, dishes in the sink, and in an unfortunate personal state that made any drive-thru with coffee an attractive alternative to actually being seen in public, quality of the coffee be damned.

Anna, over in California, tells me she is adapting to intermittent power outages of unknown duration. All the things that need to be charged are now sitting on power banks, not one but two solar showers are filled and ready to be deployed, and water is strategically staged everywhere it might need to be.

She’s plugged LED smart nightlights into the spare outlets, and lines the south-facing window sills with solar-charging Luci lights. It’s a significant investment, low-tech container systems and high-tech lighting, but much less costly than a generator, which neither she, nor I, can afford, but both of us are considering.

In the midst of our second roundabout, washout-avoiding trip into town for hot coffee and internet access, it occurred to me that a properly organized power failure might help to diminish a household’s carbon footprint.

This is, in fact, the idea behind the power strip shipped by Efficiency Vermont this fall: Several sockets mimic a power failure, cutting off completely to turn off an appliance that would otherwise draw the power necessary for instant-on convenience.

The idea that nature exists in a state of balance, or harmony, dates back to the ancient Greeks and is ingrained into how we talk about natural systems. It is easy for me to interpret a storm-induced power failure as nature seeking equilibrium, but there is no scientific basis for the “balance of nature theory.” Nor the notion that nature is correcting by toppling power poles.

There is, however, science pointing to increasingly violent weather becoming the norm. So, while we can’t afford a generator, we will be picking up a few LED nightlights, another Luci light, and, without question, the means to brew a decent cup of coffee during the next storm.

Tamara Burke and her family were longtime residents of Stowe, leaving the Garnache-Morrison Memorial Forest as a gift to the community. She and her husband, the sheep, and a riot of golden retrievers now call Craftsbury home. She continues to work in Stowe. Email letters to news@stowereporter.com.

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