The Power of Conviction

One Woman’s Charge to Live Life off the Grid.

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Rita Goldman| Old photos: courtesy of Susan Graham | Property photos and Susan’s portrait: Jason Moore

huelo homeI was living in Olinda when the big storm of 1980 hit Maui, knocking out power at the storm’s epicenter—my neighborhood—for 11 days. Like an old soldier, I still recount that experience of a quarter-century ago when I want to impress someone with the hardships I’ve survived.

What a wuss. Susan and Michael Graham have been off the grid for 30 years, raising three kids who grew up thinking living sustainably is normal.

Granted, their home is in Huelo, a rural community on Maui’s north shore into which power lines have only recently begun to make significant inroads. For the Grahams, that was part of the attraction. In fact, Huelo was a step up.

A first-time mom-to-be, Susan Graham stands in her cottage in Wailua Valley in 1975, a fringe of red chili peppers drying above the window behind her.

“Mike and I moved to Maui in 1973, and lived in Wailua Valley, above Ke‘anae Peninsula,” says Susan. “It was beyond ‘off the grid.’ We had an outhouse, and no hot water.”

“We had to go down this muddy road to get home,” recalls Vrinda McCandless, the younger of Michael and Susan’s two daughters. “We’d always get stuck in the mud. Once we had to spend the night in the car, eating peanut butter in the back of the Land Cruiser.”

When Vrinda and her older sister, Tulasi, approached school age, the Grahams realized they needed to move closer to town. They found what they were looking for—undeveloped land with a stream, oceanside of Hana Highway—on 12 acres of fallow pineapple fields in Huelo. “We bought it in 1978, built a small house in the gulch, 12 by 16 feet, and lived there while we built the house we live in now. Halloween, 1980, we moved in here.”

living off gridAs she welcomes me into her comfortable, unpretentious home, I look for signs of the onerous sacrifices living off the grid surely demands. I can’t find any. The place has the same relaxed warmth I’ve encountered in Midwestern farmhouses—if you don’t count the exquisite Asian antiques lining the living-room walls, or the windows opening onto a tropical landscape.

“What do I do that’s different?” says Susan. “Nothing. I have computers, TVs, a fax machine, a dishwasher, a bread maker, a washer/dryer.”

To run those appliances, provide electricity for lights, hot water for bathing, and a pump to move catchment water up to their second-floor bathroom, the Grahams employ a combination of wind and solar power: photovoltaic panels on the roof, and a wind turbine in the yard. Batteries store energy generated from wind and sun; there’s a propane generator for those rare times, usually kona weather, when Huelo gets neither wind nor sunny, blue sky. The refrigerator runs on propane, just in case those rare times stretch over several days.

The catch is, you can’t use everything at once.

“If you’re not on the grid,” says Susan, “you have to think. Can I run my dishwasher and washer/dryer together? No. I have little TVs. I have a two-slice toaster. Would I like a four-slice? Sure. But I like being conscious of what I use. I like being off the grid, and I love living here.”

Which makes Laf Young the perfect neighbor. The man Susan calls her “energy guru,” Young has a background in engineering, and has taught industrial and vocational arts. He also set up his own renewable system five years before the Grahams. Young helped them to set up their initial system, and to expand and modify it over time.

“Thirty years ago, there was no renewable energy, almost no inventory of things you could buy to configure a system,” Young recalls. “We borrowed from the marine environment—yachts and so on—and from trailer technology.”

At first, the Grahams relied on photovoltaic panels, which fed into batteries that could store up to an evening’s worth of energy—about as much as the typical car battery. Their kids remember having to unplug the television by 8 p.m. And since heat-producing appliances are major energy consumers, “We had no blow dryers, no curling irons,” says Vrinda. “It was horrible!”

Before the advent of cell phones, the Grahams had only an oversized car phone that plugged into the car’s battery . . . and honked the horn whenever someone called.

In 1998, the Grahams bought their first wind turbine. “The difference between just having solar and having wind, too, is night and day,” says Susan. She means it literally.

“The solar [panels] charge in the day, when you don’t need lights. At night, the kids use the TV, take hot showers. . . . The solar charge gets used up in the dark hours. Wind complements it, because it’s always windy at night.”

A host of antiques graces the Grahams’ living room, among them a Chinese screen from the 1890s that belonged to Susan’s great-grandmother.

Innovative for its time, the Grahams’ system is antiquated by today’s standards; they plan to upgrade in a year or two. Although their current energy costs are minimal (about $100 a month for propane, mostly to run the refrigerator) upgrading is a significant investment. Young estimates it will cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to bring the Grahams’ system into the 21st century.

That they haven’t yet done so is a matter of busyness, not finances. Susan’s great-grandfather Chapman Root owned Root Glass in Terra Haute—the company that won the original design patent for the Coca Cola bottle. The family’s fortune is the real thing.

So is the family’s altruism. Susan’s parents started the Root Family Foundation, which funds education and children’s health programs across the country. Susan herself has given considerable amounts of time and money to worthy causes, but until recently, the Grahams were not only off the grid, but under the radar. Mike is a happy hermit, an artist when he’s not busy maintaining the house and grounds. Susan has served on a number of boards over the years—including Ka Lima o Maui, (which aids developmentally challenged adults), Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, Montessori School of Maui, Seabury Hall Academy, and the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Yet she has always been so unassuming about it that few people knew of her involvement. At least, until 2004, when the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Aloha Chapter, named her Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser of the Year. “I always feel like I get more credit than I deserve,” she laughs. “I have good attendance. People mistake it for smarts.”

Susan credits her parents with sowing the seeds of her philanthropy, and for helping to cultivate her love of the outdoors. “My mother was one of the first ‘edible landscape’ gardeners,” she recalls. “We lived in Ormond Beach, Florida. Mom grew broccoli, cabbage . . . all kinds of vegetables around the house and under hedges; she could grow them on the ocean side of the house, in spite of the salt. My dad was really low-key. He loved nature; every summer he’d pile the six of us kids into the car and head west. We’d stay in Best Westerns, or in cabins in Yellowstone.”

“When Mike and I moved to Maui and wanted to start gardening in earnest, there was very little organic fertilizer. The only good manure was at Makawao Chicken Farm; we’d go and load up the truck. In 1977, I started Homestead Maui, our original fertilizer business, in a warehouse by Kahului Harbor. We had a lot of hippies as customers, but also, as Maui started to grow, a lot of two-acre gentleman farmers, and some decent accounts with hotels. A lot of our customers were older folks who had grown up when ‘organic’ was the only way to garden.”

Around this time, Mike and Susan discovered a fascination with palms; for a while, they grew more than 200 species on their property (they’re down to “only” about 100 varieties now).

“We’d collect seeds at Lyon Arboretum and Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu. You couldn’t harvest seeds off the trees, but most of the places let you pick them up from the ground. I have royal palms from seeds at Makawao Union Church, date palms from seeds at Maui Mall.”

By 1985, “Homestead” seemed a bit too hippy, so Susan renamed the business Oasis Maui. “I never drew a salary, but it was my first business; my ego was involved. I employed between two and five people, paid good wages and had a profit-sharing plan. I always felt good about creating those jobs.

“The other thing we did was make an offer to all the schools on Maui: We’d pay for any gardening project a teacher would submit to us. We sent out a form saying, tell us what materials you need. We’d fill those orders, and sometimes gave technical assistance. One class planted 100 koa trees that I gave them, potted in one-gallon tubs. Some elementary classes did science projects. At Christ the King, we started marigold seeds with the kids for a Mother’s Day project.”

Susan was among a core group of parents who supported Montessori School of Maui as board members and volunteers. As president of the school’s board, she oversaw the purchase of four-and-a-half acres in Makawao, just above Hui No‘eau Visual Arts Center, which became the home of Montessori of Maui in 1994.

 

“When I closed Oasis in 1995, I really missed that connection with gardening and children. We had done gardening in boxes with the Montessori kids. Once the school had a permanent campus, I made a $25,000 donation to start a garden there. The money funded a rock-wall entrance, a Hawaiian ‘auwai for wet-farmed taro, and paid for a naturalist for several years.”

The garden became a living classroom, with teachers eventually incorporating outdoor activities into the curriculum. The living classroom became the springboard for a campus expansion, now under way, that will soon earn certification with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a rigorous rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council [MNKO Vol. 10, No. 1].

Her involvement with Montessori, and with introducing youngsters to the joys of nature, have long outlasted her own children’s tenure there as students. Now that she’s a grandmother, several times over, chances are that connection will remain for years to come.

And what do the Grahams’ now-grown children—who all live very much on the grid—think of having grown up off of it?

“Did I resent it? Never,” says Vrinda. “It influenced who I am, and makes me appreciate everything.”

“Growing up without all the electronics made me appreciate art, music and literature,” says son Cliff. “I’m the only 25-year-old I know who doesn’t play video games. When you grow up playing with toads, making bows and arrows out of bamboo, and playing in the mud when other kids are riding bikes, it can make you seem a bit eccentric, but it instilled in me a great appreciation of the environment. I admire my parents’ approach.”

“It made us close,” agrees Tulasi Dennis. “Literally. If we didn’t have enough energy, we’d sit with candles in a single room to read or eat together. We all have fun memories of swimming in our pond, and it definitely gave us an appreciation for what we have. We’re still a tight-knit family to this day. We all call each other all the time.”

It’s just that, nowadays, phoning one another doesn’t make the car horn honk.

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