Open up The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living, Wendy Jehanara Tremayne’s new compendium of skills, projects and timesavers for sustainable living, and you’ll find a little of everything. Whether you seek a recipe for prickly pear punch, tips for sous-vide cooking on the cheap or advice about installing your own off-grid PV solar system, Tremayne has something practical and eye-opening to offer. Part memoir, part instruction manual and part uplifting philosophy, The Good Life Lab demonstrates that any of us can live a happier, freer and healthier life just by taking charge of our own learning and applying our new skills creatively.
In 2006, when Tremayne and her partner Mikey Sklar left white-collar careers in New York City to find “a life free of drudgework and a way to live in balance with nature” in Truth or Consequences, N.M., they took an enormous leap into the unknown. But they didn’t do it blindly. “New York had become predictable in certain ways,” Tremayne explained in our interview, “and so had my career. I knew the kind of work I’d be doing if I stayed on course. I looked at the salaries of the best and worst in my field and estimated my earnings. I calculated my free time measured in weekends and two week[long] vacations a year.” In the end, staying in a job that bored her and kept her separated from nature simply wasn’t worth the cost—monetary or spiritual.
Not everyone has the will or ability to affect radical changes in locale and income. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t open to improvements. Maybe we want to maintain our comforts while cutting our costs, or we’re aiming to have a more positive impact on the Earth. According to Tremayne, there are smaller ways to start. “Our projects,” Tremayne said, “begin … with questions and inquiry: Where is that herb, milk, meat or butter coming from?”
Part memoir, part instruction manual and part uplifting philosophy, The Good Life Lab demonstrates that any of us can live a happier, freer and healthier life just by taking charge of our own learning and applying our new skills creatively.
It makes sense. Because food plays such a central role in our homes and health, changes for the better often begin in the kitchen. With recipes, gadgetry know-how and erudite food lore, it’s an area where Tremayne shines. “We use old popcorn makers to roast our coffee so that we can buy green beans, which [are] half the price of roasted coffee,” she told me. The best models for the job are covered in the book. Living simply and inexpensively doesn’t have to mean a loss of modern pleasures, she noted: “Our popcorn maker roasts are better than roasts that have come from thousand-dollar machines.” The Good Life Lab covers an array of these kinds of topics, from the whys and hows of living foods and fermentation—including kimchi, tempeh, mead and yogurt—to constructing an outdoor plant dehydrator from grocery store bread trays.
New Mexico readers will especially appreciate Tremayne’s wildcrafting expertise. A surprising portion of her food, medicine and even hair products comes at no cost, straight from nature. “Find your local herb store and say hello,” she advised me. “You’ll find knowledge and like-minded folks there.” She suggests asking for their help when you start out in plant identification—“Many plants look alike; in the beginning you’ll want to be sure you’ve selected the right one before consuming it.” She advocates creating “a small harvesting kit: small clippers, bags for dividing samples, a marker for labeling, a plant identification book … and notebook.” According to Tremayne, Michael Moore’s plant identification books, like Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, “are the best for our region.”
Wildcrafting is useful for more than food. The Good Life Lab describes how to make antibacterial, water-resistant paint from the flat green pads of the prickly pear, for example, and how to find and use soapberries in place of laundry detergent. Tinctures and herbal remedies are one of Tremayne’s favorite subjects. The book advocates learning to recognize ephedra, a natural stimulant also known as “Mormon tea” that Tremayne told me can be chewed “like a toothpick for a quick pick-me-up.” (A cautionary note: Local ephedra should be used carefully; it’s weaker than the banned Asian variety, but it’s still a stimulant.) She also said willows, the “salicylate-rich (a.k.a. aspirin) plants, are great toothpicks, too, and can cure a headache.” We New Mexicans are lucky—“What’s wonderful about our medicinal landscape is these plants are free, simple and effective medicines as well as food,” Tremayne said.
The Good Life Lab isn’t limited to local plants and homemade snacks. Its mission is nothing less than portraying a balanced, nature-conscious life as not merely tenable, but also fun. It urges pursuing interests that result in skills to help you build the kind of life you want, and it teaches how to do so in conjunction with what Tremayne calls “living in the waste stream.” She explained, “Trend can be defined as a system that encourages the disposal of goods while they’re still perfectly fine,” but creativity can be harnessed to turn things around by making use of the waste itself. “If we make mistakes while learning to make things out of waste,” she pointed out, “it’s okay.” Tremayne is the founder of Swap-O-Rama-Rama, a nonprofit clothing swap that offers workshops on sewing and modification, one of which will be held at the Albuquerque Mini Maker Faire on Aug. 24 and 25. Tremayne will also speak at the Faire.
Being a maker is “vital,” Tremayne said. “Cooking for ourselves allows us to prepare and eat real food,” and the process of learning how to do that is itself rewarding. When trying to live a non-consumerist life, curiosity and necessity go hand in hand. “We try not to make waste,” she said. “We compost and use byproducts when we can. The pulp remaining from nut milks we spice up and use as filling in raviolis. We consider the packaging that comes with our food something we should keep; after all, even recycling has a cost to the environment.” In the end, it comes down to one vital principle: “Learn from the shared knowledge of others.” The Good Life Lab is an excellent way to begin.