The green revolution is spreading. Not by leaps and bounds but by small, tentative steps. Environmentally conscious people across the country who want to cut down on the use of fossil fuels, are looking into solar power, electric or hybrid cars and organic gardening.
Here in the Hudson Valley some intrepid souls have taken the first steps toward a greener lifestyle. Jazz musicians Mark Shane and Alice Nielsen-Shane of Walden are a prime example. They heat their home with solar power, grow their own food and are working consistently to reduce their carbon footprint.
“The idea of getting off the grid occurred to me shortly after the Y2K thing and we thought about it for quite awhile,” 64-year-old Mark says. “Then I remember being in a diner reading an article about installing solar panels and figured it was a good idea to use energy from the sun to heat the house.” Mark discovered that getting off the electric grid completely was cost prohibitive, so they went with solar heating.
To get heat for hot water, he first installed four solar panels on the roof of his 1700 square foot vinyl sided 1950’s ranch home. Later, four more panels were installed to heat the house. All eight panels are discreetly positioned together towards the back of the house, but Mark soon learned that the one downside of solar power is gray days. After a couple of days of cloudy weather, the solar cells are depleted and a backup system is needed to supplement the lack of sun. He installed an electric heating system as a backup.
“We are not entirely free of the energy grid,” Mark confesses, “but we are saving 20 to 30 percent on heating costs; and 40 to 50 percent in the spring and fall.” He also feels this is the way to go for younger people in their 20s and 30s who are buying a home. According to Mark, the whole solar conversion cost under $25,000 with help from a one-time government tax credit. “It’s an investment and probably better if you’re younger, because you have to think about how long it will take to pay for itself, but Alice and I expect to live until we’re 125,” he jokes, “and we’re saving money already.”
Solar heating is cost effective for the Shanes, because their system of eight European-style radiators can be channeled discretely to one room or throughout the house. Each has its own dial for on-demand heat. These units are located in the dining room, kitchen, both bathrooms, living room, master bedroom, spare bedroom and in Alice’s studio room. “We can dial up heat in any of them and heat only the areas of the house where we require it.” Mark explains. “Gone is the constant on-off of the furnace all day to heat and re-heat the water tank. That is a definite waste of energy.”
Alice and Mark are both working musicians. They like jazz with a distinct blues basis including Muddy Water, Fats Waller, Dinah Washington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Theirs is a true love story, one that includes love of music, love of the land, and a fierce dedication to each other.
According to Mark, meeting Alice at the 1992 North Carolina Jazz Festival was a stunning experience. “One of the players I was with said, ‘See that gal over there, she plays piano.’ So I peeled out of formation and made a dive for her.”
“We made a date for the next day and I pulled up in my big yellow Caddy with my yellow dog Moochie and took Mark to the beach,” 56-year-old Alice explains.
“She was so intelligent and charming,” says Mark. “She just charmed me.”
That was 18 years ago and they’re still going strong. A New York native, Mark kept up a long distance courtship between Rockland County and North Carolina for four years. Finally, on one of his frequent visits, he proposed marriage while driving through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
“He popped the question to me in the Bay Bridge-Tunnel and once we reached the other side he said, ‘I’m a different man now,’” Alice remembers fondly.
Married in 1996, they moved to Walden because of its natural beauty and proximity to New York City. Then in 1999, after renting for a few years, they bought the house they live in now.
In the garden
The Shanes supplement their solar heat with a wood stove, “Because it’s romantic,” adds Alice. They are also avid organic gardeners, committed to growing and preserving food, something Alice learned from her mother in Alaska.
“My mother was an organic gardener back in the ’60s and was hip to Monsanto even then,” Alice says, referring to the Monsanto Corporation’s controversial genetic engineering of crops.
“We object to companies toying with Mother Nature,” explains Mark. “These people don’t know what the effects are, since no long term studies have been done. They’re playing Dr. Frankenstin, and no one knows where it ends.” Their safety concerns about genetically engineered crops, spurred the Shanes to take up organic gardening.“We’ve had a large organic garden since 1994. Our first summer here we had a huge, steaming pile of compost in the yard and the neighbors didn’t mind once we shared our tomatoes with them.”
Together they grow an array of delicious vegetables. They regularly harvest two kinds of tomatoes, lettuce and arugula, broccoli, red or green cabbage, bush beans, peas and garlic, and much more.
“We also have a real nice patch of horseradish, rhubarb and usually some variety of mild chili peppers,” Mark says. “I even came up with a new variety of garlic called ‘Music.’ According to Mark, it’s a hard type of porcelain white garlic, for those who know garlic. In the winter, when Mark isn’t recording or performing, he also enjoys hunting white-tailed deer, so the couple can have venison during the winter months.
“We have venison, and the way Alice cooks it is out of this world,” he says. “In fact, Alice is pretty handy. When we met, I tried to impress her with my culinary skills. This nonsense went on for about a week. The girl is an extreme culinary talent, who makes the best Lemon Meringue Pie and the best bread.”
“When I’m not baking bread, playing the blues or hanging clothes on the line, I am singing with my acappella group, ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams,’” Alice says. Mark is also very proud of the fact they will be performing a special Valentine’s Day concert together called “Love Them Blues.” Both will be singing and tickling the ivories. For more information, check out the Shanes’ website, shanepianojazz.com. “We don’t usually work together,” he says, “so it should be fun.” It sounds like a perfect way for this special couple to spend Valentine’s Day; making music together.
For those who want to go green like the Shanes and need some help in getting started, Mark and Alice suggest contacting:
Robert Lachman is an award-winning journalist who lives in Red Hook. He has worked for many local newspapers and is also a singer-songwriter, who performs in the area.
- The Cornell Cooperative Extension. If you don’t know how to reach your local CCE office, check out the website at cce.cornell.edu.
- Sustainable Hudson Valley, is a grassroots organization, which offers “knowledge sharing… to scale up energy savings.” Its website is sustainhv.org.
- The U.S. Green Building Council of N.Y. is a group of architects, builders and economic development professionals geared towards helping communities go green. Check out greenupstateny.org.