Use It or Lose It

July 30, 2012

Credit: Mare-Anne Jarvela
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Early in adult life, I unexpectedly found myself living in a rural New Hampshire community without any job prospects. The house had no central heat and no modern conveniences, and I was in no position to afford them.

For an income, I set up a whole-grain bakery in my kitchen, delivering up to 400 loaves of handmade bread each week to Boston and a few New Hampshire stores. I learned to split wood and manage woodstoves, tend a large vegetable garden, and preserve food for the winter. I shoveled snow by hand, hung my laundry, and washed dishes by hand. The years I did have a regular job outside the home, I commuted by bicycle whenever possible.

Decades later, my dogged persistence in maintaining a way of life that incorporates a large dose of daily physical labor has as much to do with the injunction, Use it or lose it, as it does with financial necessity.

Use it or lose it isn’t just a cute marketing slogan for fancy sports equipment. It’s a deep law of evolutionary biology. Our skeletal muscles (the ones attached to bones that enable various kinds of movement) need regular maintenance. Our bodies simply don’t maintain muscle fibers we don’t use regularly, or create new ones unless we demand  them to by increasing our physical efforts (although evolution seems to have favored those who were most efficient at storing fat against the periods of famine our early ancestors must have experienced).

Plus our hearts, lungs, brains and nervous systems, bones, blood vessels and other tissues all depend on the work of these muscles for their own vitality. Increasingly, science reveals that exercise--using our muscles often--helps maintain emotional stability and mental acuity. Exercisers have less chronic disease and fewer infections. Exercise also helps hold various forms of age-related decline at bay.

Needing to stack the wood, spread the ashes, hang the clothes, hoe the beets, harvest the beans, haul the mulch, and spread the compost as essential tasks in my household economy are important tasks that keep me using the physical equipment I don’t want to lose. As I’ve written about earlier,  I’ve also set up other parts of my life for maximum inefficiency.

I don’t always embrace these tasks enthusiastically, but I take them on willingly. Beyond the exercise the taks require that keeps me healthy, they form virtuous cycles that seem magical:

  • The wood we burn not only produces heat, but cooks our food and dries our laundry during the winter.
  • The wood ashes help sweeten the soil that grows the abundant vegetables and fruits that keep us healthy.
  • The kitchen, yard and garden leftovers become compost that help keep our food plants healthy.
  • The laundry drying on indoor racks during winter humidifies the dry winter air.

At some point, we may have to abandon the work of wood heating and install gas appliances. I’ve already started shrinking the vegetable garden a bit (e.g., 40 tomato plants instead of 70; 50 cabbages instead of 100).

But then again, I’m still looking for a good old boy to rig my bicycle to grind wheat berries into flour and to pump water into the lower gardens. 

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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