A St. Petersburg couple learns no-impact living can have a big impact

ST. PETERSBURG - Eric and Anna Scott were haggling about the chickens. It was a dispute they'd had several times in recent months, ever since they decided one of them would have to go.

The date of the chicken's demise wasn't until September. But which chicken?

"Buffy," Eric was saying.

"We're not eating Buffy," Anna replied firmly.

It was late afternoon on a steamy Friday and just then, Eric was towing a Flexible Flyer wagon with a 40-pound bag of dog food along a brick street west of downtown. Anna was walking beside him.

The Scotts, married 21 years, are what you would call environmentally conscious. Chickens roost in their back yard. A barrel collects rainwater. Iced tea is served in mason jars. Until recently, they raised tens of thousands of bees.

But this year, the Scotts made new year's resolutions that took it a step further. They decided to challenge themselves. What would it be like if there were no Publix or no Progress Energy? What could they live without? How far backward could they turn the clock on modern living?

So in January, they ate no processed foods.

In February, they spent no money.

In March, they turned off the lights.

Which brings us to April, and why Eric was tugging the wagon of dog food. They parked their cars in April.

When you spend almost two hours walking to and from the pet store, you find you have plenty of time to talk about dinner menus five months from now in hunter-gatherer month. Which is why Buffy is on the, er, table.

"She's not laying eggs," Eric continued, wiping his brow.

"Oh, whatever," Anna said dismissively.

"This," Eric said, "is why you don't name your food."

• • •

The Scotts didn't get to raising chickens and bees in their yard overnight.

She teaches mentally disabled students at Gibbs High. He is a printing press manager for the St. Petersburg Times. Their two sons are grown. One is backpacking in New Zealand. The other, Brian, 20, lives with them and goes to St. Petersburg College.

They were not born into environmental consciousness. This is something they evolved into, like a fine wine aged in a cavern.

Eric, 42, grew up eating out quite a bit. But he also spent a lot of time hunting in the woods of Central Florida with his grandfather, a chicken farmer.

Anna, 40, grew up eating what was cheapest. Her family would pick a truckful of tomatoes and can them. They collected aluminum cans for vacation money. But she cringes when she reveals that her mother was likely to toss a wrapper out the car window.

The roots of their foray into sustainable living are hard to pinpoint. Maybe it was when Anna banned sugary cereals. She remembers their son Brian standing in the supermarket aisle at age 6 or 7, saying, "Why can't we be like normal kids and get Froot Loops?"

A few years later, she stopped buying soda. Then they cut back on TV. Soon the cable was gone. Then they were joining a food co-op and planting lettuce and tomatoes and potatoes.

And before you know it, they were planning a Conestoga wagon trip right back to the 19th century, determined to shed every indulgent, wasteful aspect of 21st century life.

Stories abound of urban environmentalists living without toilet paper and shopping only local. A New York City man wrote a book called No Impact Man about the year he and his family turned off the lights and produced no garbage. It became the subject of a documentary.

A woman in Oakland, Calif., Novella Carpenter, wrote a book called Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, about farming and raising livestock amid prostitutes and shootouts.

One expert estimates there are hundreds of thousands of families living "off the grid," without need for utility companies or water providers. They grow organic crops on community-supported farms. They compost all their waste. They install solar panels.

More and more, these are middle-class families like the Scotts, who live in a modest terra-cotta and beige home in the Kenwood neighborhood, drive a yellow Nissan Xterra and have two German shepherds, Arya and Kai, and a chihuahua, Kitty. In their back yard, they have dozens of crops, from papaya trees and muscadine grapevines to summer squash and black-eyed peas.

The Scotts care about the environment. But for them, it's also about exploring how to do with less. How to be more independent. How to one day maybe not have to work so hard.

But they are quick to point out that they are not extremists.

"We're not outcasts living in some commune," Anna says.

They weren't even sure if they could follow a no-impact lifestyle. They had tried to buy only local one month last year and struggled, particularly with finding local gas.

That's why they decided not to turn off civilization all at once. What if they tried out carbon-footprint-reduction methods one at a time, sort of a like a cheese-of-the-month club?

They could see what worked, what didn't work. And blog about it.

• • •

On New Year's Day, they sat down to a meal of black-eyed peas and salad from their garden and ham hocks from half a pig they got from a farmer in Wimauma. And that's the way it was during no processed foods month. They stripped down their diet to beans, vegetables, fruits, organic milk, the pig.

From their blog:

We thought we were going to starve but had a house full of food. We went to the store at least eight times in the first two weeks, only to stand staring at all the things we couldn't eat.

They disagreed about what exactly that meant. Anna tends to be more of a free spirit about these matters. Eric tends to be the stickler about the rules.

Take white rice. She thought they should be able to eat it. He thought they shouldn't. It's bleached.

She ate it anyway. He didn't.

As the toxins flushed from his body, Eric lost 18 pounds in two weeks. Normally upbeat and happy, he grew moody and depressed. Anna missed soy sauce, bouillon and vinegar.

As the month ended, Eric's mood lightened. And he decided he wanted to keep most of the new diet. It suited him and he felt the best he had in years.

Anna and their son Brian, however, craved a cheese pizza. But their craving banged like knock knees against their commitment because February was "no spending month," which meant no expenditures except the mortgage, bills and a single tank of gas. No eating out.

Anna solved the dilemma by staying up late to buy the pizza at 11:45 p.m. on Jan. 31 and then eating it after midnight on Feb. 1.

No spending month forced them to barter — something Eric was uncomfortable doing. Before the month started, they tried to barter for dog food at the pet store by offering to sweep the store or clean the parking lot. They were turned down.

When Eric's friend wanted him to go to a shooting range, he exchanged eight pork chops, lettuce from the yard, a whole organic chicken and a loaf of homemade bread for the $35 in range fees and ammunition. It felt like a lot for such a quick event.

"It seemed more expensive to pay in food than in cash," Anna said.

Toward the end of February, Eric didn't feel good. He went to the doctor and violated the no-spending rule with his co-pay. He had a kidney stone, likely caused by the release of toxins when he lost all the weight.

As March — known in the Scott family cave as no-electricity month — kicked off, Eric returned from surgery to a dark house. And the lights stayed off. Anna strained his urine for the kidney stone with a lamp strapped to her head.

The only appliance drawing power was the fridge, which kept the pig leftovers cold. They had votive candles and oil lamps and found themselves rushing around to get everything done before sunset. They cooked on a butane stove and washed their clothes in a tub. Eric used an antique iron heated with coal to press his trousers.

They played cards and Yahtzee. They missed their music because they couldn't charge the iPod. At least they had their son Brian, who could still play his steel drums using the head lamp.

Make what you will of what happened next, but right in the middle of no electricity month, Eric went out and bought a flat-screen TV so they could Skype with their other son and watch movies. He's not sure why he did it just then. Without power, he couldn't even use it for a week or so.

"I guess I was in such pain with the kidney stones," he said, "I needed a happy thought and it was like, 'How about that?' "

• • •

April began with them parking their cars for the month. They rode their bikes more than a mile to their jobs. They walked to downtown St. Pete to a Thai restaurant for a date night. But the biggest hurdle, they soon realized, would be the grocery shopping. How do you carry multiple bags of groceries without a backseat or a trunk?

One day last week, Anna and Eric hopped on St. Petersburg's trolley to find out. They had just forgone a $2 transit bus in favor of the 25-cent trolley to save money. It was Eric's first time ever on the city's public transportation.

"Pssst, we're doing it," Eric said to Anna. "We should have brought the camera."

Though the electricity was back on for alternative transportation month, they had found themselves keeping parts of each month that worked. Eric, in particular, had kept most of the diet and had lost 37 pounds. They were spending less money and now put Anna's paycheck into savings every month. They were much more conscious of lights being on.

But they haven't forced the world to suffer along with them. Anna, for example, has violated the rules whenever it came to her mother. One day, she had to pick her up at the hospital; she chose to make the trip in her mother's Ford Focus rather than the Flexible Flyer. Eric didn't complain.

Inside Publix, she asked questions they wouldn't have asked back in December, like "what's glycerol?" And he made carbon-conscious comments like "I got some dates, but the pears are out of season here; they're all from South America."

And then while she was grabbing paper towels and he was hunting for dish soap, she had this sudden realization: May is no-plastics month.

"We won't be able to buy this or this or this or this or this," and it seemed like she was pointing to just about everything in the cart because most of it was wrapped in plastic — the fresh mushrooms, the pineapple, the Fuji apples, the grass-fed ground beef, nuts, dates, paper towels, the multigrain flax crackers, the Tostitos organic corn chips.

"Oh my God, that's going to suck more than I thought," she said.

"Plastic is actually the one I'm dreading," Eric said. "It's in everything. I'll tell you what I'm concerned about is walking the dog."

Anna asked if they could use plastic garbage bags that they already had at the house.

"We've got to have ethics with this," Eric replied seriously.

She made a face, as in, sometimes you have to bend the rules.

This was another one of those debates. Like Buffy the chicken, it was a decision for another month.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Photos by LARA CERRI | Times

Anna and Eric Scott pulled their wagon to a pet store to buy dog food because they designated April as no driving month. It took them almost two hours to make the round trip.

Eric and Anna Scott leave their home to go grocery shopping. The couple made a new year's resolution to change their lives a little bit each month to have less of an impact on the environment and to explore how to make do with less. Side benefits of their efforts so far include saving money and slimming down.

The Scotts check the trolley schedule at a stop several blocks from their home. April is their alternative transportation month, so they're not using their car.

To see Eric and Anna Scott's blog, go to tinyurl.com/3qcv95s. For more information, go to www.codegreencommunity.org

A year of doing without

January

No processed foods

February

No spending (except for mort- gage and bills)

March

No electricity (except the fridge)

April

Alternative transportation only

May

No plastics brought into the house

June

Alternative income (everything they can come up with to make a buck or barter for their needs)

July

Volunteer month

August

Alternative cooking (solar oven, cook boxes)

September

Primitive skills (gun safety, fire starting, animal harvesting, foraging)

October

Local products and shops only

November

No garbage (nothing goes in the Dumpster)

December

No entertainment (except for what they create)

To see Eric and Anna Scott's blog, go to tinyurl.com/3qcv95s. For more information, go to www.codegreencommunity.org.

A St. Petersburg couple learns no-impact living can have a big impact 04/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 25, 2011 6:53pm]

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