Hemp and Housing

Last month my husband and I trekked from sunny Potrero Hill north to Solfest, not a medieval holiday but a conference organized by Real Goods in Hopland, to become informed about solar power, windmills, composting, alternative fuels, and unconventional building technologies in preparation for buying a cabin in the hills of Mendocino County. Most of the sessions were three parts compost, one part mystery flower essence. (Real Goods sells, demonstrates, and promotes sustainable living gear and machinery.) We couldn't attend the yoga, wellness, clowns, and music programs, but we still learned a lot, to wit: Power depends on wind velocity to the third power; food production is spiritual as well as sustainable; it's informative to listen to the birds and useful to start fires by rubbing sticks together (we weren't able to do this, however, even with the kit).

The main stage atmosphere was evangelical, as speakers presented well-received rants. Extreme-left back-to-the-landers met up with far-right survivalists in their common quest to become independent of corporate oil, agribusiness, and genetically modified foods. We found some claims outrageous (San Francisco could produce all its own food), but there seemed to be consensus that peak oil production will occur around 2010. A popular vote chose electric cars over hydrogen-, biodiesel-, natural gas-, and ethanol-powered vehicles as the transport of the future, but most people burned gasoline coming to the fest. (Rail service to nearby Cloverdale is still not in place.)

Vendors were everywhere. Sustainable living apparently requires new clothes: hemp, organic and handmade by Third World people. Wine tasting seems to be part of the sustainability revolution; a light buzz helped us choke down those hemp smoothies. Strange herbs and foods, the deadly effects of cellphones, the latest in high-tech solar panels, and straw-bale houses rubbed elbows. The solar-car race disappointed viewers when the miniature vehicles veered off their track and rolled to a stop.

Attendees — 10,000 of them, based on previous years' estimates — were mostly white, of all ages and hairstyles, wearing luxuriant dreadlocks with tie-dyed socks. Navajo weavers supplied a token First Peoples presence. We were clearly not in San Francisco: Dogs were banned, children were welcome, and everyone kept his clothes on.

Beyond self promotion, most speakers were sincere about developing lifestyles that support environmental protection and community-building. We came away feeling that our cabin in the hills might not be just a weekend getaway, but a sustainable, alternative, organic, compost-friendly, and permacultural solar-powered homestead. Or at least it might be a haven for aging hippies in tie-dyed hemp socks.

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