“Pioneer Night”: Making Conservation and Emergency Preparedness Fun

By , October 26, 2009

When we lived in Juneau, we developed a tradition that is so ironically juxtaposed to our current lifestyle that when friends remind us of it, we’re momentarily stumped. The tradition provided an excellent weekly break from normal, helped us to prepare for emergencies, and saved money. We called it “Pioneer Night.”

Juneau is prone to power failures. Outages that could last from an hour to days disrupted many an evening’s plans. We took these in stride, switching to other activities; the main crisis involved finishing any interrupted cooking. We had a woodstove for heat, and a few flashlights, candles and oil lamps for light.

We noticed that often we felt a bit disappointed when power returned. The novelty of an outage appealed to us in some way. A minor crisis must be overcome; our activity became more family-focused without computers, housework, or music to distract us (television was rarely a factor, as we’d canceled cable years before). We gathered close to the wood stove for warmth, and talked. Sometimes we’d play games, or make music. Restored power signaled a return to a normal that seemed less appealing than the preceding “emergency.”

This led to “Pioneer Night.” Thursday evenings we turned off heat and lights, started a fire (if needed) and lit the house with oil lamps and candles. We ignored appliances; we even avoided opening the refrigerator if possible.

We prepared meals accordingly. Soup or other hot meals from the day before provided easily reheated leftovers. Sometimes we’d have salad, or cold finger foods—crudités, bread, and slices of cheese. Eventually, Michelle experimented with cooking full meals on the woodstove, unwittingly laying the groundwork for our future lifestyle.

We ate sitting on the floor at a low, round table near the fire. Occasionally we played wind-up music boxes for ambiance. After dinner, I usually read aloud while Aly and Michelle played or worked on hand crafts.

We arranged our collection of oil lamps throughout the house, wicks trimmed, reservoirs filled, and matches available for instant use. No need to rummage in the dark for lamps or candles. Our emergency lights became incorporated into our décor, and weekly use habituated us to their location, maintenance and operation.

The custom provided a weekly reminder of the value of ready-at-hand electricity. It also taught us we could manage well without it when necessary. We noticed a one-quarter drop in our electric bills through this and other small conservation measures.

“Pioneer Night” soon became a source of spiritual and mental refreshment. Like most Americans, we longed for weekends. Thursday’s change of pace felt like extra time off.

Our experiment in conservation may seem frivolous, but perhaps not. On October 21st, utilities in Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska conducted a two-hour test of natural gas conservation. They asked residents to lower thermostats and hot water heaters, and postpone washing dishes and clothes. Participants reportedly reduced consumption by about 3 percent. I’ve not heard participation estimates, but I wonder if presenting it as a Pioneer-Night-like event might not have tempted more people to get involved?

Friends, some of whom have established their own “Pioneer Night,” speculate that we’re now living it 24/7. Ironically, this isn’t so. Since we generate our own power, electricity’s cheaper than lamp oil! True, we do cook on the woodstove a fair amount. Our décor still features oil lamps and candles, ready for emergencies. “Pioneer Night” served us well, even after it became, for us, a memory from a former life.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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