Really green living
A Pasadena family finds change can start in your own backyard
By April Caires 04/24/2008
Melting ice caps, unchecked global oil consumption, mind-boggling volumes of trash accumulating in landfills — the problems facing our planet are so overwhelming, it’s tempting to tune them out. They’re just so big.
But when you talk to the Dervaes family, the founders of a home-based sustainable living resource center in Pasadena called Path to Freedom, it’s the smallness of things you walk away thinking about.
There’s the smallness of their land, for starters: one-fifth of an acre on an unassuming city block just north of the Foothill (210) Freeway. A football field would hold their entire property — house, backyard, driveway and all — about seven times over. Yet on this relatively tiny patch of earth in the middle of the vast urban sprawl, the Dervaeses are quietly staging an ecological revolution.
They call it an urban homestead — and if you haven’t heard the word “homestead” since “Little House on the Prairie” was on prime time, you’re not alone. The allusion is apt, but only to an extent. Like the Ingalls family, the Dervaeses grow their own food and preserve their own jam come canning season.
Unlike the Ingalls, they’ve got 12 solar panels on the roof, a biodiesel filling station in the garage and a solar oven in the backyard. Their kitchen is filled with hand-cranked appliances, but their computer room, where they operate a Web site (www.pathtofreedom.com) that gets five million hits per month from 125 countries, is as high-tech as they come.
The Dervaeses are self-declared “eco-pioneers” of the urban world, and their lifestyle is a new kind of hybrid: the progressive throwback. Jules Dervaes and his three adult children — Anais, 33, Justin, 30, and Jordanne, 24 — live a life that epitomizes “think globally, act locally.” By turning their average city lot into a self-sustained homestead, they’ve ensured that their eco-footprint rarely extends beyond the bounds of their property. At the same time, they’ve gone global with their message, blogging about homestead life and teaching others how to live sustainably since 2001.
The family had been living the message long before then. After stints on farms in New Zealand and Florida, in 1984 they landed in Pasadena, where Jules came to pursue graduate studies in theology. The move was meant to be temporary, but they wound up staying. Instead of adapting to city life, they decided to test the bounds of what was possible in an urban environment.
Twenty-four years later, the results are more than anyone could have anticipated.
In a front and backyard that amount to one-tenth of an acre (the house takes up about half their land), the Dervaes family now grows an average of 6,000 pounds of produce each year — nearly 400 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. They sell the majority to local caterers and restaurants such as Marston’s Restaurant on East Walnut Street. The remaining part sustains the family’s vegetarian diet.
Necessarily, the use of every inch of space on the property is maximized. Grapevines and runner beans curl up fence posts, lavender and baby roses brim from hanging pots. Walking space between the 45 raised beds in the backyard is tight. In a shaded, custom-made bamboo pen in one corner are two goats and a handful of chickens and ducks. The animals — which require special zoning permission to keep — are family pets, but also an important part of the homestead’s operation; their waste is used for fertilizer, and the eggs supplement the family’s diet.
Staples like flour and chocolate — “We’re Belgian,” says Anais, “we like chocolate” — are purchased at local markets, but the majority of what the family eats, including virtually all of their produce, comes from their yard.
Although it’s self-sustaining, the homestead is far from self-contained. Path to Freedom is spilling out all over the place — on the Web, in the media. They’ve even had interest from a documentary filmmaker.
That kind of attention is fairly new. The Dervaes kids weren’t always totally comfortable living the alternative lifestyle their dad taught them. Anais says they had to explain to friends and neighbors why they canned their own food, dried their clothes on clotheslines, decorated their home with secondhand goods and showered only once a week (and, no, body odor isn’t a problem; an all-natural diet and drinking lots of water takes care of that).
“When we were growing up, it was like, ‘Oh dad, you’re just different.’ Now, his different is chic,” says Anais. “A shift has taken place, so what people thought was odd now is being accepted as normal.”
Before, she says, “People would look at you like, what’s your problem? But now people say, oh yeah, I heard that. Oprah talked about that.”
The Dervaeses could easily parlay all that attention into profit, but Jules says the family isn’t interested in commercializing. They don’t sell advertising space on the Web site, for instance, a choice that one friend estimates has cost them at least a quarter of a million dollars. Jules, silver-haired and ebulliently talkative about Path to Freedom — which he considers his life’s work and his children’s legacy — shrugs at the idea of cashing in on advertising or book deals.
“We still don’t have an idea that we’re going to quit this and live off the fame,” he says, laughing. “This is our living, this is what we do, and we’re going to live this revolution to the end, not necessarily profit from it or stop it and go on tour. Once you don’t have to sweat,” he adds, “I think the revolution is over. Because it is a struggle. No revolution is ever successful without struggle.”
The family sees new technologies as an integral part of a true eco-revolution. Solar panels have helped reduce their total energy bill to less than $20 per month, including fees. But they warn that technology alone isn’t the answer.
“Even though we have solar panels, it doesn’t mean we leave all the lights on,” says Anais. She tells a story about a local family that installed solar panels to save money, only to see their energy bill go up. “They think because they have solar that it’s free, so they don’t turn off the lights. They were actually using more energy with the solar panels.”
Much of the homestead remains decidedly low-tech. The solar oven they use for cooking soups and beans is a simple device made of lightweight plastic and a foil-lined funnel that traps heat. Jules says ovens just like it are being used in Darfur, where firewood is scarce and going out to collect it is dangerous for the women who do the cooking.
The family’s kitchen is filled with hand-cranked appliances they find in Amish catalogues and camping goods stores. Only the refrigerator is plugged in, and you get the feeling Jules wishes there were a way around even that.
He ticks off the list of appliances they manage to do without. “Never had a dishwasher, never had a microwave, never had a clothes dryer. On my own, never even had an air conditioning unit, even in Florida. The kids don’t even know how to operate one.”
Self-sustained living is more than environmental consciousness for the Dervaeses; it’s a holistic way of life. Anais says she and her siblings were home-schooled when home-schooling wasn’t yet legal, never mind trendy, and that their father taught them each to pursue their interests and passions independently.
For Justin, the most mechanically inclined of the siblings, that meant learning how to brew biodiesel, which the family uses to log roughly 4,000 miles per year in their ’88 Chevy Suburban. For Jordanne, the youngest and most tech-savvy, it meant teaching herself how to write computer code in order to design and operate the family Web site.
“I would go onto people’s Web sites that I liked and read the code, and from there I would figure out how the Web site was laid out,” she says. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I have to go take a class, but I can’t afford it!’” Jules taught them otherwise. “He was like, no — if you want to do it, you go do it.”
That can-do attitude seems to be a genetic Dervaes trait. Although they are passionate about the need for widespread change, the family says they don’t get discouraged by the dismal state of the planet. In the midst of global crises, they think small.
“I look in the backyard and I gravitate toward what I can do,” says Jules. “When we change ourselves, we change other people. This is my world, so I change this.”
They’ve inspired others to drastically change their own worlds too. Jules mentions a few of the more radical examples, including one guy who, shortly after wrapping up his PhD at Caltech, left city life for good to be an apprentice in a dairy farm. “Threw his parents for a loop,” says Jules.
The family doesn’t expect everyone in a city environment to live the way they do; their hope is to inspire people to make incremental changes.
“Not everybody can do this,” Anais says. “But everybody can do something. We say small steps have a big impact, so using a paper bag instead of plastic, that’s a plus. Turning off lights when you’re not in the room, that’s a plus. Not using as much water, that’s a plus.”
Even for them, she says, sustainable living didn’t happen all at once. “We did this over time. We call it Path to Freedom because we took steps. Food, energy, water, waste, transportation — we just kept going. Once we got down the food part, we said, ‘well, what else could we talk about?’ We moved on. It’s a journey.”
With the Dervaes family leading the way, it’s easier to believe we might actually be getting somewhere.