For South Dakota residents Norma and Jerry Wilson, living a sustainable life wasn’t a crossroads in life choice. The two had always been raised with that sort of thinking.
“I grew up watching my grandparents live pretty much a subsistence life. They farmed, milking the cows, raising their own food, and caring for the animals they would eat. Jerry grew up the same way. He grew up close to the land. We try to do as much of that as possible because we want to know where our food comes from and have some part in it,” said Norma.
The married couple are both retired English professors and published authors. They live in southern Clay County in a sustainable home.
“We were eager to build our own house. We lived in a cold, drafty house in Vermillion in 1978. We started looking at places where we’d like to live and where we could build then,” said Jerry.
“We did lots of exploring. We knew we wanted to live in the country. A friend had told us about this property that was for sale. We went and looked at it. It had a hill that we could build our house into,” said Norma.
That property had a southern-facing hill, a seasonal creek, a pond, and a spring. It was a vast open prairie as far as the eye could see, with wild plum, sumac, walnut, elm, mulberry, boxelder, hackberry, and chokeberry trees growing on it.
“Before we dug into the hill to start building our house, the first thing we did was plant trees to help shelter the house from wind and snow,” said Jerry.
He plowed into the land above where they would build their home, and it was there that they planted pine, honeysuckle, ash, Russian olive, maple, locust, and lilac.
“The conservation service helped us with buying and planting the trees. The trees and the bushes help provide shelter from the north wind and a snow break,” said Norma.
In addition to planting the trees, the couple is doing all they can to bring back the Native Prairie Grasses of the land.
“For us, it’s imperative to try and bring back the prairie as much as possible. I appreciate Jerry’s initiative to restore the native prairie grasses on the land. Tall Grass Prairie is good at sequestering carbon. It helps us fight climate change. We want to restore the native prairie grasses and flowers and the sustainability of the Earth,” commented Norma.
It was a wet spring that year, and they couldn’t start digging into the hill until late May. The couple dug into the land and built a geo-solar home. With the house being built into the hill, the land is a natural heating and cooling aid.
“No one is going to be able to build a completely sustainable house. But stop and think about what you are doing and how you are living your life. What can you start doing now that will help leave a smaller environmental footprint on the Earth? We don’t live a completely sustainable life. We still drive a car, and it’s a small car, not a hybrid or electric,” said Jerry.
The couple suggested gardening as a way to start, even if it is just a tiny garden.
“You don’t have to buy canned vegetables, you can grow your own and can and store them, and then you have them year-round,” suggested Jerry.
“Line drying your laundry, or drying them on racks in the house during cold weather spells, helps cut down on electricity and doesn’t stir up or bring in near the amount of dust. There’s nothing I love more than the fresh scent of line-dried sheets,” suggested Norma.
The couple also suggests trying to limit the amount of wasted goods.
“We don’t have garbage service out here. We compost most of our food waste for fertilizer or mulch in the garden. We separate our recycling and take that into a center in Vermillion, or what can’t be recycled to the landfill,” said Jerry.
The couple also noted how they handle things differently with their grandchildren.
“When the kids come out here to play, we play outside. We hike, climb the hills and the trees, and go fishing. We don’t need all the plastic items (toys) to play with and then store and keep,” said Norma.
The couple also suggests that when you go shopping, take your own cloth bags from home or purchase them at the store.
“We drove up to Canada, Winnipeg last week, and they don’t use plastic bags in the store. They will sell you a cloth bag for .35 (thirty-five cents). That’s how they are doing their part to keep the plastic bags out of the landfill,” shared Norma.
They also highly recommend downsizing your life.
“You need to be able to separate your wants from your needs. Recognize that our society is headed in the wrong direction. People see something, and they have to have it: a bigger car, house, motorcycle, or boat. You need to differentiate between what you need and what you want. I’m reminded of the words of Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden, ‘Simplify, simplify’,’’ stated Jerry, noting that the size of houses has more than doubled in the past 40 years.
The couple hopes that people will start to do more to help with the fight against climate change.
“We could all do something to help the planet sustain future generations. We want our grandchildren to be able to survive and their grandchildren. Think about your life and how you live it. It can still be fun, but you need to prioritize things. If everyone would change just a bit, things would start changing in the right direction,” suggested Norma.
By Amy Buster