The Good Life Lab: A modern manual for living off-the-grid

When I was editor of Craft magazine, I always looked forward to Wendy Jehanara Tremayne’s next “Re-Fitted” column, which profiled a waste-conscious maker and included a how-to project by that person. A few of the projects included making textiles out of plastic bags, turning used clothing into a quilt, and building a beautiful outdoor fence with found branches and tie wire. Even more inspiring than her articles, however, were our phone conversations between magazine issues. After chatting about her next article idea, she’d briefly enchant me with her snippets of how she and her husband, Mikey, left their high-powered jobs in New York and moved to Truth or Consequences, NM, to live as waste-free and off the grid as possible. Always in a rush, I would hang up and then wish I had gotten more details.

Six years later, I was finally able to read about Tremayne’s “decommodified life” in her fresh-off-the-press book, The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living. Captivating right from the start, Tremayne’s tale of quitting her job as creative director of a marketing firm to “live in the waste stream” describes her bumps and triumphs in turning an RV park into their homestead and living a rich life spending almost no money. Both from the city, she and her husband learn as they go, using found and tossed materials to build structures on their property, driving a car that runs on vegetable oil, growing their own food, concocting homemade tinctures from local plants, and landscaping with homemade compost and free dung from a local camel named Stanley.

Tremayne weaves her narrative with colorful charts, beautiful illustrations by different artists, and loads of how-to projects (DIY biofuel, roasting coffee with a popcorn maker, building a decorative fire barrel, making mead, and constructing a sturdy and handsome papercrete dome, just to name a few). Whether for inspiration or as a road map to creating your own off-the-grid homestead, Tremayne’s book is a must read for any maker who fantasizes about stepping off the consumer-centered treadmill and into a life that is connected to nature, unhurried and meaningful.

-- Carla Sinclair

The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living


  1. Back-to-the-land porn, and not in a good way. Using WVO in the car does not excuse this kind of selfish, obsolete behavior.

    1. Do you live in a way that is less selfish, silkox? Are you a kind and caring person like Wendy and Mikey are? I’d like to know how you live, because you might become a good role model for me and other readers!

    2. So a life given over to mindless, soulless, servitude to economic expansion by ceaseless consumption, overextended on money that doesn’t exist, is better than a thoughtful choice to leave such trinkets behind and reconnect with the Earth. Why? Where’s the rule book that says you must provide a perfect account of how every human being on the planet can thrive when you choose an alternative lifestyle? Why are they held to a higher standard of accountability than everyone else?

      1. According to silkox, there is an afterlife but you will need to collect air-miles to reach it.

    3. Please give the discussion your vision. I’m sure I for one will respect your view point on life if you were to present it. Thanks for being part.of the discussion.

      1. Thanks for the polite request, and my post could have had a more tempered tone. The other commenters downthread have done a good job of completing my thoughts, but this from joe k. deserves repeating:

        ‘The most funny part about this whole discussion is that I know recent immigrant families who are trying to get ON the grid. But to each his own.

        Crazy honky motherfuckers and their hippie dreams of utopia found scavenging around the outskirts of the slow heat death of the universe. Not my thing, k thx. bye.”

        1. It seems like some are coming and some are going,but they have something in common: trying to make a viable life. I remember seeing an article about Humong (?) women who have electricity but don’t respond well to Western mental therapy who find community and solace in community gardens as well as some green vegetables that they can’t find in the markets of their new country. I don’t know the literacy level of the immigrants in question so I can’t speak to whether reading a book by folks who like to experiment will help them. The racial remark does speak to the attitude of presumably non-honky you quoted. enjoy your summer.

  2. When does living “off the grid” ..include internet access, a blog, and digital camera?

    OH well, we’ll go off the grid…but don’t fuck with our high speed fiber connection and satellite uplink or webpage and blog.

    If you want a good guide going off grid for specifically food storage.

    Home Food Systems: Rodale books. Is a classic.

    Very assessable something most people can do in small steps without mysticism overtones or a trust fund, or inheritance to purchase a small ‘farm’ in New Mexico.

    1. “The grid” generally refers to electrical power provided by whatever the standard electrical power provider is in your area. 

      Internet access, a blog and a digital camera can all be powered by a solar unit or a shit-ton of other methods that are not attached to the grid.

      Going off the grid does not by necessity mean refusing to avail oneself of technology, information or other benefits of human society that are inexorably provided by people who themselves do rely on “the grid”. Nor does it necessarily mean that the person “going off the grid” is claiming to be self-reliant. People were not self-reliant before electricity either, not sociable people anyway.

      “Going off the grid” is subjective, incremental, and thus usually unqualified. It just means doing things differently, to whatever extent you desire,  as long as you are not drawing electrical power from “the grid”.

      Note that in the tome you recommend on the cover are electrical appliances. If someone wants to go off the grid in relation to food storage and preservation, they need an alternate power source to do so.

      1. Not entirely…although the tome I mentioned did use electrical appliances. The FoxFire books could be completely off grid.
        Unless you think a cast iron oven in a mud log cabin and using flour ground from a water mill and bee wax candles and pork fat “on grid”.

        It may come as a shock to you…but people for centuries preserved food without a electrical power system.

        1. Yes, someone with a grasp of history before electrification is shocked by it. Haha, you made a funny. Or was it me?

          I don’t defend alternate means because I am unfamiliar with them, I’m on the internet on DSL, but I’m in the middle of a relative nowhere and already grow/raise a significant portion of my own food.

          I’m not “off the grid” but I probably will be someday, for funsies, but for realsies too. 

          1.  You contradict youself there. saying the
            Get with the times, in the current vernacular “the grid” refers primarily to electrical power.

            I have no problem with using electrical, water, or animal power.

            I do have a problem when ‘going off grid’ is framed in a new age type religion as a ‘how to’ book rather than hard facts about how to build a solar collector, or make a garden, or can food.
            Rather than a camel was named ‘carle’ and we used his poop in the garden., and the off ‘grid’ people spend an amazing bit of income on cell phone bills and internet access.

            It’s a fine diary..nothing more..not a ‘how to’ book and shouldn’t be shown as such, and does a disservice to the authors to imply it’s a template for  going off grid..rather than a diary.

          2. Contradiction? I have in each of my posts with you described “the grid” as reference to conventional electric power, of the distributed variety. 

            Also, what are you complaining about? I haven’t read the book, but the summary by Carla Sinclair which makes up the body of this BB post about the book above clearly describes it as a “tale”, “describes her bumps and triumphs in turning an RV park into their homestead and living a rich life spending almost no money” etc.

            The only place that “how-to” appears is in relation to the book containing instructional individual DIY projects. The book as a whole is simply not represented as a manual. It’s just what you say it should be, a telling of the writers experience.

            If you like this stuff, why not also read this book, which is doubtless the inspiration for the title and format of the book discussed in this post. “The Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing. 1989, Random House. It is also not an instructional but a story of another couple who went “off the grid” and I have read that one and recommend it highly. That book and it’s sequel “Continuing the Good Life” -are- about becoming self-sufficient in a much more practical sense, and is also not about seclusion or exclusion necessarily, from society or technology.

  3. Actuallly Silkox might have a point.
    Wendy and Mikey might not intentionally be selfish.  But if every person on the planet is going to be living locally of using non optimised farming methods is it likely that not enough food can be produced to feed all the people on the planet.(No sure whether this is really true but it sound likely).So wanting and encouraging people to live the old way could be construed as being selfish because it deprives other people from food while make you feed better about doing the ‘right’ thing. 

    1.  I’m not Silkox. But I find it a bit ‘preachy’ for people to talk about going off the grid as a salvation to our technological life. While maintaining (from Amazon “look inside”) a 600 dollars a year for internet, and 1200 dollars a year for cell phones (What, Did you grand parents do without text messageing??).

      The technology portion of their budget is above their heating cost and very very close to their health care budget.
      If you want to unplug—off the grid…1200 plus 600 for internet communication seems excessive.

      1. You find it “preachy” when someone cuts down 95% of their reliance on modern power generation, food supply and technology, but don’t bring it down to your definition of 100%?

        Which one is being preachy here?

    2. Are we all to live in human battery cages because other people can’t keep their legs together?

      1. The first step in minimizing my environmental footprint while maximizing quality of life was to get sterilized. Haven’t regretted that decision for a second.

      2. Granted the world would be a much nicer place with far less people around. 

        But the reality is that due to political, religious, and behavioral reasons there will be more not fewer people. This is not something we can change easily.  Finding optimized ways of producing food is likelier to succeed.  This will have bad sides of course. But is life at the moment so bad?

        And kids born in food deprived regions did not choose to be born. It was their parents choice. And it would be wrong to make them suffer for their parents choice of reproducing.
        One could even reason that by wanting fewer people to be on the planet one deprives all those people that could have existed from the joy of living on this planet.  You could even argue that that is selfish, because it is a trade off between a few people having a wonderful life  and a lot of people having an OK life.

        Once we get into way too many people having a horrible life things  change of course. But I don’t think we are at that point any time soon.

        1. Once we get into way too many people having a horrible life things change of course. But I don’t think we are at that point any time soon.

          Are you on crack? There are tens of millions of people starving, barely housed, uneducated and with no access to medical care.

          1.  Then you complain more to Catholic Church. And American Churches that promote a flood of starving people rather than population control

            I think Frans made a good point. Intoning birth control for over population.

            But personally. I go Homosexuality “FOR THE WIN”

          2. I’ve figured, starting sometime in recent years, that the only reason religions are anti-homosexuality is that the white-robed grey-beards figure their population growth will be diminished, which means they don’t get bigger than the neighbour, which means they have less power.

            Then they invent some ridiculous narrative about how it’s the devil’s work etc.

            It’s so silly.  But so aggravating and destructive.

          3. I am aware of that. That’s why I was talking about “kids born in food deprived regions”.  But I argue that at the moment there is enough food and technology around to feed everyone.   This is not happening, but that’s due to political reasons, and a real shame.   But it is even more reason to find ways to more efficiently produce food instead of less efficient.

            The ‘that point’ I was referring too is when all the food that can possible be food produced is not enough to feed all people on the planet.  But ‘any time soon’ is debatable of course. 

          4. They are not being intentionally or unintentionally selfish, simply because they were not previously contributing to any resolution, and do not now detract from any prospective resolution. 

        2. Regardless, and contrary to the points of Silkox and whoever I post below now;

          Just how great a segment of -NORTH AMERICAN- society would be required to consume less, reclaim more, and produce food at only a subsistence level for people elsewhere to go hungry?


          1. Even with all our gluttony we manage to feed a large portion of the world. For profit, of course.

        3. Yes, for many people life is very bad indeed from lack of food and clean water etc. I assume that you don’t think about them much.

          As to the situation not changing any time soon, you may be right. But the Chinese got a handle on their population increase and drastically reduced it in a fairly short period of time. Not an ideal solution, but it proves that something can be done, even on a massive scale.

          1. China has done a huge amount to reduce poverty. So much, in fact, that it hides the fact that poverty has generally gotten worse in the rest of the world.

          2. Minimizing media exposure of a problem doesn’t mean you’ve reduced or eliminated it.

          3. The Chinese cultural revolution was “Not an ideal solution” is about the most compassionate piece of writing to emanate from the Occident in relation to Mao’s decimation of Chinese society.  Ever.

          4. All I said was that the Chinese decided to slow their population growth and succeeded, period. I did not approve the cultural revolution, which had nothing to do with their population initiative, that’s just ridiculous. 

        4. By finding optimized ways of producing food, you encourage population growth and even more suffering, which means you will have to optimize even more. Lather, rinse, repeat.  If everyone were living “selfishly”, locally and using non-optimized farming methods then there would, in fact, be fewer people.  Large cities would be untenable and slums would cease to exist.  Families concerned about their survival would choose to limit their own growth.

          We will never see a large percentage of humans choosing to live like that, and the modern, urban-centric lifestyle has many social and technological benefits, but people have become slaves to a machine of growth and consumption, and feeding that machine will not make things better, it will only prolong the current problems until new, bigger problems arise.

          I doubt there is any real solution, but we can certainly do better than we are now.

          1. Except that in starving countries people generally tend to have MORE children, to increase the chances that some of them survive to adulthood. Your claim that we would produce less offspring if conditions were worse is in fact the complete opposite of what we observe. In Canada, where people are sitting pretty (relative to the rest of the world) our population is on the decline. Maybe it’s not so crazy to think that if we fed everyone in the world, we might actually see a better world for everyone.

  4. It’s not easy trying to make living in the waste stream sound attractive, even with the bonus of free camel dung. I’m more inclined toward growing vegies in the yard and harvesting some solar power for electricity and hot water. If lots of people did these things we could make a worthwhile impact almost immediately.

    1.  It was done before.

      But probably can’t be done again with home owner ass; and local laws about front yard gardening in communities.

      This is why activists should be charging to make laws that front yard gardens and HOA should back off..and growing food in your front yard should be legal.

      Forget the sprital aspect…The front yard has full sun..and I can grow food there. Fuck it looks like crap a month or so out of the year. That corn is dying..and the pumpkins are coming in for fall..and the melons are gone and vines look ugly for a few weeks.

  5. As I dig deeper into the pages on the ‘browsing” bits.
    I see it’s not intended as a “how to”.
    But rather a personal journey.
    No problem with that…but it shouldn’t be framed or intoned to be a manual for living off the grid, but a diary of the authors the personal spiritualism and religious screed can be excusable, but sours me about the mechanics of a book with religious type overtones.

    /Hey, stop what you thinking there……it’s bad when Jerry Falwell did it too.

  6. I just saw Lloyd “Tiny Homes” Kahn speak at Maker Faire a few weeks ago and he made the very logical point that “self-sustaining” isn’t a goal, it’s a direction. Few people have ever been fully self-sustaining but all steps taken in that direction can help both the mental and physical environment. Growing some of your own food, reducing your dependence on grid-based fossil fuels, eliminating toxic products…all these steps make the world a better place. Adopted en masse, they could greatly improve our outlook as a species.

  7. Most people I know don’t have the time or the energy to devote to off-the-grid living. I’ve got a family to feed and educate. We have little time to spend harvesting paperclips and pipe cleaners from the local garbage dump to build a new fence to keep the locusts from eating the tomatoes.

    Dumpster diving is out of the question because we haven’t quite developed a resistance to botulinum toxin, and, once again, the kids have school and homework.

    The most funny part about this whole discussion is that I know recent immigrant families who are trying to get ON the grid. But to each his own.

    Crazy honky motherfuckers and their hippie dreams of utopia found scavenging around the outskirts of the slow heat death of the universe. Not my thing, k thx. bye.

  8. BTW, roasting coffee with a popcorn maker is “meh”.  None are made to be operated for the length of time necessary to roast your beans and using them for such cuts their usability expectancy dramatically. Like, you may only get to roast your coffee a dozen times before it kicks. 

    BUT, if your sourcing your re-purposed popcorn makers from a dump (or yard sale or other “it’s garbage to me” aspect), then it’s a great idea. 

    1. I don’t have a dog in this fight–just skimming comments–but I’m compelled to report here that I’ve been roasting delicious coffee for myself and friends, 1-2 times a week, for the past two years with an $18 Presto popcorn popper. However, I did buy it new, so maybe I’m part of some problem or other. I just don’t want people to think it’s quite as flaky a proposition as you make it sound.

      (also, every so often, I wipe out the bean-roasting residue, and actually pop some corn with this thing)

  9. It looks like a mule choker! But it’s only 320 pages (or whatever Kindle editions weigh in at now.) Waiting for the ‘How to Dominate Architectural Digest Using Waste Stream Stuff and Keep a Compliant Farmstead In 1 Hour A Week’ special photo edition maybe? Well, they keep bees and crank out tempeh from soy and I’m guessing 0 banana leaves.

  10. I don’t think anyone on the discussion has taken the time to read the book as I have. The results of the “radical experiment in hands on living” are not in yet. Please give the author the respect you give to the inventor and scientist. She is actually living her experiment, which is not the case for most pundits. The book IS a DIY manual. For the ultimate project: Your Self.

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