Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Sustainable Living in the Suburbs of Burlington

My friend Tim was recently in the paper - he's modeling sustainability in Burlington - and inspiring others to do the same. Keep it up, Tim!

Sustainable living in the suburbs

By Sally Pollak • Free Press Staff Writer • June 21, 2008

Tim Nitz and his sons generate one kitchen-size bag of garbage a month in their home in Burlington's South End. They drive about 50 miles a week, most of that distance a weekly trip to Underhill for tae kwon do. The four chickens in their backyard produce six eggs a day. The birds, who eat kitchen waste, appear healthy and content in soil-building mode in Nitz’s garden.

Like live little tractors, they’re turning and tilling the soil as they grub and dig in it. Their excrement contains nitrogen, part of a cycle that fertilizes the garden. They eat the weeds. To add to the green properties of these Rhode Island reds, their coop, made from used materials, is insulated with recycled “Stop Global Warming” signs from environmentalist Bill McKibben’s Ripton-to-Burlington walk of a few years back.

Nitz, a 32-year-old software developer, has developed a name for this kind of living: Suburban Sustainability. It sounds easy and fun (and important) to do when Nitz talks about it in his straightforward, nonpreachy way.

The roots of Nitz’s lifestyle can be traced to his Nebraska upbringing and the state’s agricultural heritage; the Boy Scout ethos of zero-impact camping and his Zen Buddhist philosophy. He is committed to sharing resources whenever possible — giving away garden vegetables, renting a room in his house because it would be a “crime against nature” to have empty housing space in Burlington’s South End.

“I think we’re headed for some real hard times and headed toward major resource constraints,” Nitz said. “So, teaching the kids how to do things on their own, how to do more with less, I think is a lesson that everyone’s going to have to learn real soon.

“We buy everything used. You can get by more simply, and you can be just as happy, or happier, without stuff.”

Nitz has two boys, Rowen, 9, and Petey, 6, who live with their father half the time.

Last spring the boys helped plant and nurture hundreds of seedlings that lined the windows sills, waiting to be transplanted to the big garden out back. The garden helps the boys learn how to raise their own food and eat in a healthful way. Perhaps more important, Nitz said, it teaches them the value of delayed gratification.

“You start in March, and you don’t finish ’til winter,” Nitz said.

The boys have their own plots in the garden where last year they did all the work themselves. (This season, working to improve the soil, they’re doing smaller-scale gardening in buckets.) Rowen grew his favorite garden foods — kohlrabi and cherry tomato; Petey planted and harvested peas and beans. Both boys helped with the mini-greenhouse that produced kale and broccoli well into the winter.

“Enthusiasm is contagious,” Nitz said. “I absolutely love nurturing things. To me, it is so amazing to see a seed become a plant that every time it happens, I am surprised it works.”

Subscribers to the neighborhood e-mail newsletter, the Front Porch Forum, in Nitz’s part of town will recognize him as the person who gives away tomatoes; the father interested in starting an after-school child-care co-op; the minimalist driver looking to share a car; the principal organizer of this weekend’s neighborhood yard sale — and creator of its Web site (www.fiveavenues.org/).

“We had 120 tomato plants last year and gave away tomatoes like crazy,” Nitz said. “People came. It was great. I don’t care if I eat any food out of the garden. It’s just so fun to grow the plants. It’s really a joy to grow food and give it away.”

South End residents who awoke one day last fall to find their bags of leaves gone from the greenbelt might not know that Nitz was the probable leaf thief. Using a friend’s pickup, he cruised the neighborhood the night before the city was to collect the bags, gathering loads for garden compost.

In the fall, he’ll give away more than 200 empty paper leaf bags he has stored in his garage, recycling them to rakers in need.

Before going green was fashionable, Nitz was thinking about these things: Growing grass in his boyhood bedroom, drawing space stations that ran on solar energy.

He moved East to attend Dartmouth College, where he majored in philosophy and religion. He taught himself Web design and computer programming as a college student, when he started an online record store to sell 3,000 used CDs he bought in New York City. (He planned to open a shop in Dartmouth, but rents were too high in Hanover, N.H., so he went digital early.)

Nitz works from home in a corner of his bedroom, where he keeps his computer. He runs a Web development company called Panther Internet, acting as the producer who puts a plan and a team together to make Panther’s projects work.

His company has evolved into a kind of consulting business, in which Web development serves as an inroad to helping organizations become more internally consistent and strategically focused, Nitz said.

Nitz and his boys keep the thermostat at 60 in the winter and wear hats in the house. They bike to the grocery store. The family has little furniture and few possessions. Nitz says he was always repulsed by consumerism.

“It always seemed unnecessary,” he said. “I’ve always pushed back against that.”

There’s more to do: He wants to make an electric bicycle for three passengers, use a refrigerator that relies on cold winter air as opposed to electricity, and build solar hot-air heaters.

And these are only his Burlington plans. There’s an underground bunker, on the plains, coming to life in his imagination.

“The idea that you use every possible resource around you, without exhausting it, so you survive, was very powerful to me,” Nitz wrote in an e-mail. “So my dream is to some day own an underground house in western Nebraska, collect power from the wind, heat with the sun, collect rain water in underground storage tanks, and grow my own food.

“I try to approximate that here, living in town, as much as I can, and still be a responsible parent and provide opportunities for learning for my kids.”

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