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Maxed Out

Sustainability in practice, Cariboo-style

By G.D. Maxwell

In his own way, Stan Pickles probably represents a whole neglected front in the Search for Sustainability. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t know what sustainability is exactly and I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to guess what the word will come to mean once it’s been danced through the Consultant Chachacha and thoroughly Whistlerized. But for my money, Stan is a study in sustainability.

Stan lives next door to Smilin’ Dog Manner which is to say next door to me. He is the full-time neighbour, having lived along the lifegiving waters of Sulfuric Lake for some 28 years or so. He was the less despised neighbour – single strand of barbed wire – in the Firehall Feud I referred to, without naming, last week. He was kind enough to explain the feud to me.

Like most small communities carved out of the numbing, repetitive, yet achingly beautiful hinterland of B.C.’s lakes, forests and mountains, lots of folks around here go with what’s plentiful and decide to warm their souls and homes by burning wood. Sometimes, through sloth, ignorance, over-exuberance or a bit too much to drink, their hearth gets out of hand and the next thing you know, their homes are on fire.

When you live alone in the wilderness and your house catches fire, you run around like crazy to save what you can and try your mightiest to put the fire out. Generally the fire wins and you end up standing by helplessly watching your castle burn to the ground. In nascent communities, your neighbours join in the hopeless battle and at least you wind up having company with you to watch your house burn. Once the communities get large enough, you and your neighbours form a volunteer fire department.

So it is on Sulfuric Lake. If your home catches fire ’round these parts, the alarm bells sound and the volunteers rush to the fire hall, jump in the fire truck, drive madly to your burning house and watch it burn with you. "We don’t kid ourselves about being able to save a burning house," as one volunteer explained it. "We just try and keep it from spreading to the next house."

Fair enough. After all, this isn’t some professional group of firefighters who train regularly, form unions and keep their shiny new equipment in "green" firehalls that cost one and a half million bucks to build. Although it sits in what could pass for an energy-efficient building – largely unheated all year – I could have sworn I saw a "Buy War Bonds" sticker on the local fire truck.

Being the focus of community energy and the site of craft and rummage sales, the firehall was as natural a place as any for a feud to begin. There were differences of opinion about how things ought be run and about whether the wimmenfolk – who, it should be said, raise most of the money that keeps things afloat – shouldn’t turn the finances over to the men to run, men having proven themselves way superior at handling money as any indicted CFO will tell you.

Anyway, things got a little out of control and the former resident of Smilin’ Dog Manner ended up in a snit with just about everyone in the community, including both of his, now my, neighbours. I’ll spare you the gruesome details.

Stan, being a big-picture kind of guy, chalks it up to the fact, "He was a pigheaded Yorkshireman." Stan would understand such things, being a Yorkshireman himself though far from pigheaded. Stan is, in fact, one of the least pigheaded people I’ve ever met.

Being of an age where he’s entitled to collect an undiscounted Canada Pension, that’s saying a lot. Most of the men of my father’s generation, of which Stan is on the trailing edge, tend to view pigheadedness as a badge of honour, or so it would seem if one judged only by their behaviour. I used to think this had something to do with the Depression and WWII but I’ve come to accept it as simply a combination of their heritage – their fathers invented pigheadedness – and the bizarre physical fact that men’s brains shrink with age.

This does not bode well for my generation who unanimously voted to forego pigheadedness in favour of SUVs and corporate greed. Indeed, when I was going to school and the teacher would ask, as they inevitably did at some point every year, "Now class, what would we like to be when we grow up?" nearly every guy in the class answered, "Less pigheaded than my father." But I digress.

Stan is the antithesis of pigheadedness. He is jolly, almost to a fault. If he were a bit taller and a lot fatter and had his brother’s beard, Stan could easily pass for Santa Claus. That’s how even tempered and jolly he is. Conversely, if he were a great deal shorter, he might pass for one of Santa’s elves. His blue eyes twinkle, he grins enigmatically, breaks into easy laughter with very little provocation and never seems so happy as he does when beavering away in his workshop.

I would attempt to describe his workshop but some tasks are simply impossible. Cluttered would be a pale one-word description, massively cluttered still wouldn’t come close. Every square inch not filled with tools and machines is crammed with outboard motors, chainsaws, lawnmowers, rototillers, weedwhackers and other gasoline-powered tools and toys all reposed in a greater or lesser state of disassemble, some of them appearing old enough to have been prototypes. Spare parts, stripped parts, parts that seem to have fallen from the sky, neatly filed parts, still-in-the-package parts and completely unidentifiable parts live in an unintelligible jumble. The Rosetta Stone to decipher this tangle of life exists only in Stan’s head. He claims, and I believe him, to know where just about everything is. It just takes a little time to find certain things.

But Stan’s gift to sustainability is this: He can fix anything. A chainsaw so broken it was acquired at a garage sale for nothing now growls like a hungry cougar and chews through wood fast enough to be dangerous as a result of his ministrations. A powerwasher deemed unfixable by two people reputedly in the business of fixing such things powerwashes once again after a repair so simple even Stan has trouble believing the idiots couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it.

Throughout the southern Cariboo those in the know – for he discourages new customers – come like pilgrims to Stan’s shop. Bearing broken and tired machines, often in boxes, he is their final hope. Seldom does he let them down.

In an age when almost everything is easier to replace than fix, and efficiency demands the regular replacement of equipment with a lot of life left in it, guys like Stan constitute a great danger to the disposable society’s mindset. He also makes one hell of a great neighbour.