Reflections on "The Circumference of Home"

Kurt Hoelting, seen here at our Sedro-Woolley office in 2008 in the midst of his “yearlong experiment in car-free local living”, will be at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center May 15-16. More details and registration on our Sourdough Speaker page.

By Kurt Hoelting
May 3, 2010
My new book The Circumference of Home: One Man’s Yearlong Quest for a Radical Local Life grew quite seamlessly out of a yearlong experiment in car-free local living in 2008. I had been concerned about climate change since it first surfaced as an issue in the 1980’s. Yet my own carbon footprint had only grown larger in the ensuing years. The gap between what I knew to be true, and how I am actually living my life, had grown steadily larger. My wake up call came after I took my own carbon footprint online. I thought I’d do fairly well. After all, I was driving a hybrid car, actively recycling, keeping my thermostat low. But I was also flying a lot for work and pleasure, not noticing how thoroughly this jet travel was trumping all my other conservation efforts. I was shocked to see the size of the discrepancy between the two.
Yet fashioning an appropriate response proved elusive. I was too enmeshed in my high-carbon lifestyle to see any obvious way out of the conundrum. Feeling thoroughly stuck in the mire of this contradiction, I found myself sliding into a chronic depression. I had almost given up finding a way forward at all when the genesis of a creative response ambushed me one morning over breakfast with a friend. “What would it be like,” I found myself musing, “if I didn’t get into a car for a year? What would it be like if I spent an entire year living car-free within walking distance of home.”
Something in the audacity of this idea grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. I started scheming about places close to home that I could explore under my own power, hidden gems I had neglected in my rush to more distant places. I drew a circle on the map sixty miles in radius with my home at the center – a circle that traced a nearly perfect circumference around the Puget Sound basin. I took a sabbatical from all work and travel that would take me outside this circle, and on the winter solstice in 2007 I parked my car in the garage for a full year. Armed with my boots, a bicycle and a kayak, and public transportation, I set off on the adventure of a lifetime.

In the process, I reclaimed some lost parts of myself. I fell back in love with my home geography. I rediscovered the capacityof my own body, and the pleasure of using it to transport me to nearly every part of my home circle. Each journey of exploration turned into a pilgrimage of homecoming. I reconnected with my immediate neighbors, and found new sources of support within my local community. I learned how to thrive on public transportation for day-to-day work and errands. And as my carbon footprint grew smaller, the opposite trend was happening to my perception of place. My circumference of home grew steadily larger and more expansive in its sense of scale.
Along the way, I experienced a new resilience of spirit, and my depression released its hold on me. The reality of our climate crisis may be as daunting as ever in the aftermath of my year, and there is much work to be done, but the experience has fundamentally changed my relationship with the challenges we face. I feel more engaged in my local community, more hopeful about the human future, more willing to take risks and decisive action on behalf of that future, and more grounded in the rich fabric of the place I call home.
Kurt was featured on NPR’s”To the Best of Our Knowledge” program, alongside Bill McKibben and Brenda Peterson, last weekend. You can listen to it here.

This essay was adapted from an Earth Day essay by Kurt Hoelting for Powell’

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