Locals experiment by living without electricity
Story by Mary Landy
Photos by Charlotte Ward
On a cool Wednesday evening, downtown Harrisonburg goes dark. Only a streetlight helps to guide walkers to the front porch of the Downstream Project house. Someone has a headlamp on, casting a direct red glow around the otherwise dark kitchen inside. Corey Maxa, Amelia Morrison and Casey Lapham light four tall candles spread throughout the kitchen.
The only electricity in this house comes from an extension cord from the basement to charge a computer and a water heater. It currently has only two residents – they’re welcoming and often have many temporary roommates.
The owners of the blue Downstream Project House no longer live in it. Rachel Sarah and her husband Nicholas built the house between 2011 and 2012, just after they were married. The house’s mission came out of a shared passion for living alternatively, leaving as little impact as they could on the earth.
Rachel Sarah and Nicholas had been in Earth Club in 2008 and 2009 during their time at James Madison University. Rachel Sarah remembers a trip to West Virginia where she heard the stories of those who had been affected by mountaintop removal mining.
“I just couldn’t come back to my apartment and switch on a light switch without thinking, ‘Wow, this electricity is coming from coal,’” she recalls. “The more I learned about environmental injustices, the more you realize how they’re connected to other environmental injustices, and then the more you see how they’re related to other social injustices.”
She began to experiment with her roommate with things like limiting waste and lighting candles at night instead of turning on the lights.
“First, I had to go through a time of overwhelm … and then after that trying to figure out, ‘Well how can I live in this world?’”
The light from the candles begins to illuminate the room as someone lights a piece of cardboard to stoke the woodstove. As eyes adjust, the room seems so bright that the absence of a light switch is forgotten. Within minutes, the room smells softly of a summer night bonfire.
Corey lays out potatoes and vegetables on a cutting board and Casey begins to chop them.
“Full disclosure, this bag of sweet potatoes was liberated from a Food Lion dumpster,” Corey says as he moves to light another candle, red and white, burned down from many nights’ use. This freeganism isn’t altogether uncommon in the house.
Though it’s dark, everyone works around each other flawlessly — they’re used to this. As they chop potatoes, boil water and slice green peppers, they talk all the while. When they close the woodstove, the scent goes away. The room is warmer than one would expect on a February night.
Amelia and Corey speak to each other, mostly in English, but sometimes in Spanish. As the sizzle of the vegetables and the potatoes on the woodstove fills the room, Corey begins to sing to himself at the sink.
“The more I got to give…it’s the way that I live… what I’m living for,” he says, almost to himself.
Somewhere, an old clock chimes seven times to mark the hour. The kitchen smells of fresh food. Herbs dry on a suspended grate from the ceiling.
“It’s possible, you know…changing our system. What you put energy into will grow,” Corey says.
After a few moments, Amelia follows up, “If you had no limitations, financially or geographically, what would you do to be happy?”
When Rachel Sarah and her husband bought the blue house, it was an opportunity to experiment in ways they couldn’t living in an apartment. The transition into an electricity-free life, however, wasn’t easy.
“To let go of that stuff, even though we have passion to let go of it, has been hard, because it’s what we know,” Rachel Sarah admits. “Each year we try to pick something to change significantly. We are Christian and our Christianity has informed much of what we’re doing.”
The name for the house, the Downstream Project, comes from their desire to live “into the Kingdom of God.”
“How can we live in ways that aren’t affecting us downstream? Who are the people that are affected by my choices?” Rachel Sarah asks.
The family uses the Lenten season each year, between Ash Wednesday and Easter, to give up something new. Using this time as a start, Rachel Sarah says, leaves them feeling empowered and encouraged to continue on living without certain amenities, like a refrigerator or washing machine.
Rachel Sarah believes that she and her family can help support and inspire other people in their decision to live in a more ecologically conscious way.
“I think it’s a fun claim to fame that I have two children that I’ve cloth diapered all the way through, and I’ve never had a dryer,” Rachel Sarah says through laughter. “It’s always been normal life to just hang everything up. So, if anyone ever needs encouragement, I’m happy to encourage people that it is possible.”
When asked about her favorite memories from living in the Downstream house, Rachel Sarah said it wasn’t just one night, but many.
“I think our favorite times were evenings…having people over in the evening for dinner and to just be together, whether we’d play a game, or music, or just sit around and talk about whatever topic comes up,” she remembers. “It seems really life-giving in a time that’s so full of quickness and instantaneous information and things… just having these candlelight evenings. It’s just cozy and intimate… It’s special.”
Among the clinging of forks picking pasta and vegetables off plates, Amelia asks, “Has anyone been reading any good books lately?”
Corey begins to describe a book on American Indian liberation theology.
“Indigenous cultures … their discernment for what to do as a people included their ceremonies. So, all their decisions are spiritually-based…in one of the first paragraphs it’s like, we can’t separate the political, cultural or spiritual for people that are in this place. It makes me think that we are so far away from that now as a society,” he said.
Amelia remarks that the ways in which Corey and his roommate live “have a very grand vision of the future – always inspiring us.”
They go on, discussing how living personally in this way can be reflected in society as a whole.
“Social change on a large scale can be something creative, experimental and playful. That’s a beautiful thing,” Amelia says.
The food is gone from the plates and all that is left is a sweet tea made from nettle and mint. The only sound is water running over the plates to clean them.
“The electricity part is one element, but we’re trying to really learn and grow and experiment in many different directions,” Corey says.
Much of Corey’s lifestyle is reflected in his work with the New Community Project, Vine and Fig. Amelia and Casey are also involved with Vine and Fig’s mission, and believe in the mission of alternative living.
“I think much of what we do is very much experimentation, trying to figure out a new culture and a new way to live that’s personally life-giving but also is more just,” Casey says. “This is kind of a small-scale experimentation of, you know, what is it really like living without electricity? We can shift culture in that way and normalize things.”
Corey begins to speak about those who live in a community and acknowledge the ways in which their actions affect the rest of the world.
“Part of the ‘no-electricity’ is to hold space and to give encouragement to someone who might be thinking about experimenting in similar ways,” he says.
The unseen clock chimes nine times. The night is darker still and one of the candles has burned out, but there remains a light strong enough to see around the table. As everyone begins to clean up, Corey hums the tune from his earlier song, Deep Inside. Food is put away in used and cleaned containers and dishes are washed and dried.
The conversation turns to candle-making.
“Rachel Sarah and Nick had homemade candle holders out of bent clothes hangers,” Amelia remembers. “We tried to make more, but we didn’t have enough beeswax.”
By the time goodnights are said, the sky is sparkling with stars, and the air is a bit colder. Something feels different than before, fuller, more connected.
Contact Mary at email@example.com.