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Sustainable Compromises

A Yurt, a Straw Bale House, and Ecological Living

Alan Boye

Publication Year: 2014

Living simply isn’t always simple. When Alan Boye first lived in sustainable housing, he was young, idealistic, and not much susceptible to compromise—until rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, and loneliness drove him out of the utilities-free yurt he’d built in New Mexico. Thirty-five years later, he decided to try again. This time, with an idealism tempered by experience and practical considerations, Boye and his wife constructed an off-the-grid, energy-efficient, straw bale house in Vermont.

Sustainable Compromises chronicles these two remarkable attempts to live simply in two disparate American eras. Writing with hard-won authority and humor, Boye takes up the “how-to” practicalities of “building green,” from finances to nuts and bolts to strains on friends and family. With Walden as a historical and philosophical touchstone and his own experience as a practical guide, he also explores the ethical and environmental concerns that have framed such undertakings from Thoreau’s day to our own. A firsthand account of the pleasures and pitfalls of living simply, his book is a deeply informed and engaging reflection on what sustainability really means—in personal, communal, ethical, and environmental terms.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xiv

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1. What I Lived For

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pp. 1-5

In the late spring months of 1973 I built a yurt on a high desert plateau thirty-five miles to the southeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and began living there alone. I had just finished teaching fifth ...

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2. Sustainable Compromises

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pp. 6-12

For several miles past the Cornucopia commune there was nothing but a big empty until the highway came to an old- fashioned, real-life ghost town named Madrid. Madrid consisted of dozens of empty...

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3. Where I Live

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pp. 13-19

Knowing we would have flush toilets meant that wherever we built our new house, the land would have to accommodate a septic system and its leach field. We also wanted land that was close...

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4. Water

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pp. 20-32

Although he never lived extravagantly, Henry Thoreau chose to live in poverty for two years at Walden Pond. He wanted to see just how little one really needed to live a comfortable life. More...

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5. Design

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pp. 33-43

There is no way around it; in building either a house or a life there’s going to be compromise. “While I’d like to build the perfect house,” Sam Clark writes, in his...

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6. Foundations

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pp. 44-53

Before I left home, the foundation of my beliefs had been largely fashioned by my parents or my friends. I was lucky to have had a good education, and I knew my way around books and...

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7. El Sol

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pp. 54-67

The man on the other end of the phone was emphatic. “Passive solar does not work well in Vermont,” he repeated. I gulped. This was not just some yahoo who was speaking, but an...

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8. Economics

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pp. 68-76

When, in 1988, the exiled Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh called for a “deep ecology,” he was echoing a growing scientific understanding that human life is dependent on a harmonious...

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9. The Beautiful Tree and Other Disasters

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pp. 77-86

It was what I call a great-grandmother tree, a sugar maple of such incredible girth and height that it dwarfed all else, an ancient giant whose towering branches and centuries of seeds had...

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10. The Amoeba

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pp. 87-99

Miraculously the maple tree missed the fi nished framing of the straw bale house by mere inches. The damage to the slab was minimal, especially considering the power to which it had been...

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11. The Straw That Broke The

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pp. 100-105

When Harold showed up a couple of days later, he got down on his knees and spit on the concrete. He took out a rag and began...

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12. Finances

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pp. 106-111

Then there came the Great Recession of 2007. On July 19, the day our trusses arrived from Canada, the Dow closed at over fourteen thousand for the fi rst time in history. By early August, about the...

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13. Collaboration

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pp. 112-124

It’s not like I had a lot of money in those days anyway. When I was hired to teach at the Tesuque school, the September before I built the yurt, the community...

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14. Artifacts

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pp. 125-132

Years after I left New Mexico for good, I visited the site of the yurt on a summer vacation, from Vermont, with Linda and the boys. Naturally, I had to show my sons the place where the old man once...

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15. Solitude

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pp. 133-140

Although the intervening years have allowed me to romanticize the memories of living at the yurt, there is no denying the fact that I was never more alone than the time I spent there. A month...

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16. Visitors

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pp. 141-146

One early evening at the yurt, I had just gathered firewood for my cooking fi re when I stood dead still, listening. At first, there was nothing but the high, lonely whine of the desert insects, but...

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17. Thick Skin in a Winter of Discontent

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pp. 147-163

By late summer in the year we built our straw bale house, the real estate crisis was in full force. No one was interested in buying our Victorian house. In fact there had only been three or four people...

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18. Spring

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pp. 164-169

The snowfall that winter was heavy— like the old days, the oldtime Vermonters said— but as the drifts grew deeper around our door, the inside of our house looked more and more like...

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19. Higher Laws

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pp. 170-180

You can’t escape the idea of sustainability— it is everywhere in modern culture. The problem is that the popular and commercial use of the word seems to mean nothing more than a new way...

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20. Postscript: Mistakes Were Made

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pp. 181-186

While researching before we built the straw bale house, I came on an article on the Internet entitled “Build a House in Two Days Using Straw.” It gave me a...


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pp. 187-188


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pp. 189-191


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pp. 193-197

E-ISBN-13: 9780803265011
E-ISBN-10: 0803265018
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803264878

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sustainability -- Philosophy.
  • Ecological houses -- Vermont.
  • Boye, Alan, 1950- -- Homes and haunts -- Vermont.
  • Ecological houses -- Design and construction.
  • Sustainable living -- Vermont.
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