An Energy Pioneer's Second Youth As a Human Advocate: Off the Grid, but Not Off His Rocker
More than once, my copious critics have accused me of demonizing those with whom I disagree and lionizing my favorites. I don't see matters that way, but when someone laboring in life's vineyard strikes me as particularly interesting and thoughtful, perhaps I might admit a slight inclination to 'hero worship.' Today, readers will have a chance to meet a new hero of mine.
Among the attributes that I value most in someone, consciousness probably ranks number one. Like 'synergy,' 'responsibility,' and loads of other words highly touted by folks in this New Age, 'consciousness' is easy to use vaguely and without purpose. When I say that people have a high level of consciousness, I mean that they recognize that all pieces of the world fit together and that we owe it to ourselves and each other to try to figure out how the entire framework operates, even though we can't ever 'get it' completely.
Thus, one way to think about consciousness is that it combines a huge ambition--to know how all aspects of the world hinge on each other, with a big measure of humility--we will always fail to understand with anything really even vaguely akin to comprehensive comprehension. Don Harris, in my estimation, has an extremely high level of consciousness.
He also is part of a cohort that has practiced off-the-grid, back to the land living, which many of my colleagues and mentors view as romantic nonsense at best. I don't view things that way, even though I would imagine my own path as involving transforming the grid and reintegrating environmental stewardship into communities as the approach to employ rather than proposing that I myself, or others who want change, should flee.
But if I could do what Don Harris is capable of doing, who knows what might happen? Certainly, in any event, he does not define his choices as a rejection of connection or fellowship; his own far-flung network spans the globe. I have the good fortune to introduce folks to a living legend, a model of human capacity and human compassion, a man whose advice is a blessing to those who can hear it.
How I know when someone has a story to tell I cannot convey. I'm not in the least sure what clues me, yet I am very rarely wrong. And boy was I right about Don Harris.
As one of the practical founders of modern small-scale hydroelectric capability, folks should note up front that he expresses grave doubts about my earlier projections of a coming small hydro renaissance; the potential for greed and abuse is so high as to make attendant policies in favor of hydro highly suspect.
He does see the work that he's done, and the ability to garner a current of electrons from a current of water molecules, as important transitional technologies, which can bring us closer to the wind and sun power options that can, in his estimation, fit with a golden age of humankind, "if we can just keep from ruining the planet first."
This article, in this hopeful vein, seeks to accomplish three things.
- First, it proffers Don Harris' life story in abbreviated form, though no doubt a much more detailed telling would be rewarding in all sorts of ways.
- Second, it provides a briefing of some of the technical innovations, ideas, and caveats that he has to offer about non-damming hydroelectricity.
- Third, it presents a philosophical and spiritual aspect to his thinking that, to me, are as important and captivating as any other aspect of this particular cousin's life.
So here goes, for any other of my cousins who care to lend their attention and find the time to follow along.
AN ACCIDENTAL HERO'S JOURNEY AND WHAT WE CAN LEARN, IF WE LISTEN TO HIS STORY
Unlike many of my contemporaries, I contend that we all need to bask more in history. The current pass will always appear as a random, basically meaningless montage without the relational coherence that can only come from seeing clearly the way that past yields present. Similarly, no one's path through life is explicable if the observer doesn't learn about the beginning.
Don Harris struggled with his health as a child, growing up in and around Akron, Ohio, where his father, a physicist, worked on a classified government project to build a decoy army, out of balloons, to confuse the German high command about Patton's whereabouts. Rather than the 'weak-lungs' and other 'frail-child' explanations that the doctors gave his mother, however, the actual reason that he so often sickened was the air pollution from the rubber factories. "I'd get sick right after a 'sizing' run," he told me in our interview.
And then, after the war, his dad transferred to New Mexico, where lots of physicists found employment at government labs, "and all my problems cleared up, just like that." His dad soon took them to California, where Don remains to this day. He now has all sorts of papers and memorabilia of his dad's career, which included plenty of work for DOD and other branches of government, but he's never gone through it.
He wants to though, eventually, since some of the stuff might be historically important, like early prototype "solar panels from the 40's and 50's that h(is Dad) collected." That would make chronological sense, since Bell Labs researchers first came up with photovoltaic panels in 1954.
He adds, so that I can almost hear the rueful smile over the phone, "I was a pretty rebellious kid," at the same time that he attributes some of his mechanical and scientific acuity to Dad's tutelage; good genes too, probably. In any event, he turned his tinkering proclivities toward motorcycles very early. "I got my first bike, a Cushman Eagle, in seventh grade." Asked if his parents knew, I 'hear' that smile again: "I was pretty much outa control a lot of the time."
However, he obviously enjoyed himself, and his first serious cycle, which presaged his racing days and the skills that led him to hydro, was an Aerial Four-Square, "which I souped up when I was fifteen and broke my leg riding," in one of his early attempts to tame the laws of physics. Evidence of a guru of the outback, a sage of water's force, is not evident in this teen rebellion in mid-1950's California.
"I was never really big on academics," he tells me, preferring really fast machines in the vein of an icon such as James Dean. When he did begin to do some college work, around 1960 at Glendora State, he was once more ahead of the curve, so to speak, realizing "that a whole lot of what we'd always been told was hogwash." Early on this caused him to switch further away from paterfamilias and science, turning to the underlying foundation, the study of philosophy.
He also began to labor for wages in a part of California's vast technical industry, as a glass polisher in a state-of-the-art precision optics plant. "I got to be a pretty good polisher too," he says, while recalling that "more and more of the work was for the military though. And I had a lot of friends who were coming home in boxes" as the decade of Vietnam ground on, "so I started to 'opt out' of work on military contracts."
More than once, I mention Edward Abbey, a writer whose ideas show affinity with Harris'. Don acknowledges the similarities. Abbey once wrote,
"The sense of justice springs from self-respect; both are coeval with our birth. Children are born with an innate sense of justice; it usually takes twelve years of public schooling and four more years of college to beat it out of them."
This fits very well with Don Harris' resistance to both academics and war work. He's not, at least on the surface, as militant as the crew portrayed in The Monkey Wrench Gang, but his thinking is adamant that we have to alter our POV.
In the event though, basically forty years ago, his company headed to Houston, about as foreign and absurd an environment for Don Harris as New York City would have been for George W. Hayduke, a wild character in a novel by the aforementioned Abbey, who once quipped, "New Yorkers like to boast that if you can survive in New York, you can survive anywhere. But if you can survive anywhere, why live in New York?" And when the Texas firm, as one might anticipate less of a worker-friendly environment, disallowed any opportunity to 'opt out' of war work, back to California Don flew.
But then this option--and however compromised and co-opted such a choice may be, it does allow for an 'expression of conscience,' something normally denied to proletarians--also came to its end in the land of the Golden Gate. So he quit and moved into his VW microbus, avoiding the police and as much as possible moving along under the radar and pondering whether to 'go native' altogether.
Then, in a way that he admits is a bit millennial and Manichean, he followed through on threats to sever at least some of his most basic ties to 'civilization' and move back to the land. "Just about everybody was talking about it back then, and a few of them, like me, did it." He looked for land all over the West before he settled on acreage in the California Sierras that he obtained for $600/acre, at some point just after the beginning of the 70's.
He built himself a structure, the continuing basis for his current home, and procured an extra twelve volt battery to lug back and forth from his VW bus to his lodgings so he could have the occasional electrical amenity. "This wasn't really very practical, or any good for the bus or the battery either," and out of this nexus came the first 'ah-ha!' step toward the formation of Harris Hydro.
The Whole Earth Catalog had a diagram for a little generator, and, "Hey, I had a creek on my property, so I wrote to the handful of companies that did this sort of stuff back then, a couple of engineers too, and I only heard back from Canyon Industries, but Dan New there encouraged me and sent me some designs; one other place too, I don't remember which, but" they were all for situations that didn't fit with his little stream out in the rugged outback.
And this is where being a motorcycle speed freak and race hound stood him in good stead. "I hadn't had any engineering courses really, but being my own 'hot-rod' specialist had taught me to solve problems or lose." Or, God Knows, die in a fiery wreck. So he built himself a little out-in-the-woods machine shop and started exploring what mechanical parameters would align with the type of property and waterway that he had. "It took about a year to get up to 35% efficiency," a reasonable minimum for acceptable low-flow operation, "and you know, that was that."
And 'that' was a matter of timing: the intersection with an entire generation, especially in the West, that espoused returning to nature, often practiced communal or minimalist lifestyles, or just wanted to make a place livable that allowed the occupant to leave the world behind. "And a lot of these people had money, or other resources, that they could use to pay me."
The 'orders' at first were simple requests from friends and acquaintances: 'Hey, you think you could build me something like that on my particular rivulet out in the middle of nowhere?'
"I never did more than one or two at a time at first, and I'd take them up to the Sierras, or up North of San Francisco just like that, one or two at a time, and I'd help people install them, design their own little delivery and storage capacity, the whole thing."
His big epiphany arrived in 1974-75 or thereabouts. "I had put together six of these things to take up past the Bay Area, the first time that I'd ever tried to combine more than a couple of installations in one trip. And I hadn't presold all of them, so I was counting on word-of-mouth when I ran into this guy, Dave Katz, a real wizard who had founded Alternative Energy Engineering, and he bought all six of them off me on the spot, I knew then: man, I can make a real living doing this."
Anybody would hear the beam in his voice at this juncture. "What I like best about it," he confides, "is that you get to go into the best places on earth when you're doing this," the holy, special, treasured, magical places that most folks never see or only see passing through and never really get to feel and touch and interact with.
The next thirty years passed like a drop into a wormhole singularity. He had plenty of referral customers, commercial outfits like AEE sought out his stuff, 'Harris Hydro' became the brand to have in home power situations. Home Power Magazine attests to this in many of their back issues.All sorts of governmental and non governmental agencies wanted a piece of Don Harris, even the World Bank for a few projects.
Sometimes, the whole vortex became a little overwhelming, more about contractual obligations, cash flow, and other mundane matters of business-as-usual than about the beauty of the process, the elegance of what resulted when Don Harris intersected with a unique creek on a one-of-a-kind slope in a place that might pass for an entry on the 'seven wonders of the world' list. But he sounds as if, for the most part, he never wanted to be the 'Mr. Big of Little Hydro.' He just honored a calling.
That combination of vocation and avocation, however, was always bigger than generators and batteries and pipelines and Pelton Wheels and penetrating new markets and so on. Don's true life's work was about defining a certain sort of relationship to the earth, one that Wendell Berry talks about a lot. Don's not heard of Professor Berry but promises to check him out; they approach and think about life and humanity in similar ways.
And this avocational commitment has continued into what Don agreed has been a "very active retirement." He still installs systems for people whom he knows and loves. He thinks pretty constantly about "moving further away, you know, from the city scene" that he's already left pretty far behind. And he teaches people, not only about hydroelectricity for small scale applications, but about what independence and interdependence and stewardship mean.
He shows up next at Appalachian State University, which I profiled here. We plan to meet so that I can show him the largest, longest, deepest canyon East of the Mississippi River, which, believe it or not, is in the great State of Alabama. Don leaves good pieces of himself wherever he goes, so he has friends everywhere, and he's always in demand. Truly, his life has been a template for engaged living.
Of course, many folks would hold that the most important parts of Don Harris' life have revolved around the technology that he has impacted and the service that he has provided, both to individuals who have benefited from his diligent technical ability and to the society at large, which he continues to implore to adopt ways of thinking and acting more in tune with the earth and hence sustaining of life and progeny and hope for humankind.
For those who would like, a few links, among thousands of available portals, are available here about these technical aspects of this great man's life.
Don Harris has manufactured and designed micro-hydro electric systems for .... This authoritative guide makes efficiency fun through personal anecdotes and ...
Micro Hydro Generators. He has manufactured over 1000 systems and personally installed over 200 in 20 different countries. Don Harris has been designing and ...
A Pelton turbine from the micro-hydroelectric system
currently providing renewable power to
Comunidad Nueva Alianza in Guatemala.
File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
with Don Harris, 44 min. Don Harris has designed and manufactured over ...... and design consulting available for PV, Wind, Micro-Hydro and ...
In actuality, of course, this fellow himself was partly responsible for a big shift in human possibility.
Don Harris took a practice that only large farmers and weird wizards had been able to practice, in places like Hot Springs, North Carolina, where Tom Haney's water wheel "lit up the hollow." Using batteries and coils and electromagnets and all manner of off-the-shelf technology, he added a racing-cycle honed problem solving capacity and engineered techniques that stand to this day. He 'fathered,' or perhaps midwifed is a better phrase, home based power for a lot of people.
He was a transformational force here--while Paul Cunningham accomplished the same things in Eastern Canada, a Leibniz to Harris' Newton--from a machining of electromagnetism-in-relation-to-water that depended on huge volume flowing slowly, to the varied and adaptable forms necessary to deal with a small amount of water falling very quickly in rushing cascades so typical of much of our planetary home. The math and physics remained, but the housing and delivery systems had to change.
And that's what Don Harris did. I asked him about patents, and some of the most crucial information and thinking in our interview came to the fore. "I have a peculiar philosophy about that--knowledge is like a flow of energy, and if you get anal retentive about holding on to it, owning it, then that kind of attitude shuts the whole creative process down. I like the idea of thinking things up, not hoarding them."
Of course, he'll never try to get an MBA with thinking like that. And besides, he asserts, only a few of his ideas were ever really patentable, Interestingly enough, the one time that he considered getting 'intellectual property' protection happened when he came up with a really clever switch, that let the flow of electricity go back and forth from AC to DC at critical shifts in the flow of water. "I didn't know if someone might try to steal that and shut the rest of us off from it."
He decided that other, older patents would give him leverage to fight off any such predatory behavior. And he went back to the water and the power available there for people with the resources and know how to use.
A MIND AND SPIRIT IN UNION WITH THE NATURE OF OUR EARTH
Don Harris interjects snippets of wisdom into the interview, like little jabs of fiery insight. I cannot do them justice here, but a few things deserve the preserving potential of the mediating exchange that takes place even on a little blog like this.
One point that comes repeatedly is that we cannot continue to poison the bed in which we all lie here. In Don's view, this is especially true in regard to the Plutonium economy that--though he would put the point more diplomatically--the plutocrats in charge envision as the basis for their own version of a 'thousand-year-reich.' "We're not built to manage such systems long term," even if engineering brilliance can make them seem plausible for a few years or even a few decades.
When I ask about 'opportunity costs' in this regard, he says that I shouldn't get him started, because he might talk all day. He recognizes that we go for the quick gain, never caring about sustainability and what the easy road might cost in the long run. In this vein, he adds,
"We've lost touch with the spiritual dimension of science and knowledge, which was humble and always seeking without caring about getting anything out of it necessarily."
Some would scoff at this as romantic nonsense, and Don Harris would accede to their skepticism. He would also insist that part of the dialectic of human accomplishment has always been in holding knowing holy, ultimately unattainable, which certainly contradicts the cocksure materialism of much of science today, but certainly not all of it.
"We're at the locus of a huge transition now; every generation thinks that, but it's really clear now. I've paid a lot of attention to forests, almost to where you can talk to them. ... General stress levels are so high that...an attack-mode makes it worse. While the solution-to-the-problem mindset is understandable, it's probably part of the problem a lot of times, what with unintended consequences and all."
Instead, he advocates that we've got to alter our ways of thinking about problems and systems.
"We're a very complex organism; simple creatures evolve and adjust more easily, so if we pass a real tipping point, evolution itself becomes problematic. ...A Native American view, that the earth is living, full of feedback loops and adjustment, is probably necessary: the Gaia principle and such."
If we don't get a clue about these sorts of matters, he believes, ultimately, the "earth will just react to us as if we were an infection or malignancy" that needs to be removed to protect the living core that percolates beneath our arrogant posturing of superiority.
He'd agree with Edward Abbey: "(L)ove of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need - if only we had eyes to see."
The capacity to hold contrary strains of existence in balance is key to this brilliance that Don Harris has accessed, and to which he invites all of us to gain entry. The ability to say, "I don't know," and really, really mean it, is part of this delicate skill.
As well, so shortly after I mentioned the importance of interconnection here on JustMeans, he too emphasizes that "so many people are missing out on the importance of our relationship with the earth." Without righteousness or any taint of 'cosmic grooviness,' he contends that indigenous peoples all over the world, even if their lives were full of struggle and travail, "in some ways did a better job of managing, ecologically, than we have done."
Though thousands of miles separate us, I can see him shake his head with a combination of something like certainty, a resistance to resignation, and an acknowledgment of doubt, all at the same time. "We're in a bad place," he says, "as a species. And I truly don't know if we can find the wisdom to get out of it. We've got the know-how, we've got the technology, God knows we have the resources; but I'm really not sure if we can get past the greed and smallmindedness that hold us back."
He affirms my sense of possibility, even as I agree that, at the very best, "a tough row to hoe" lies ahead. Like Wendell Berry, he pays attention to the forests, which are suffering like he's never seen before, everywhere on the planet. We might all listen to Berry's "Mad Farmer's Liberation Front Manifesto" in this regard.
When they want you to buy something they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won't compute. ...
for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion--put your ear close,
and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world.
Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts....
As soon as the generals and politicos can predict the motions
of your mind, lose it.
Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
We need, indeed, to resurrect this sense of power that lies latent within us.
I comment and ask, "So you'd support all sorts of increases in attention toward, and backing for MH and other SEA's; how can someone reasonably expect that to happen?"
Now, he laughs aloud.
"You put your finger on the source of the problem. Revolutions, sometimes in a vortex, have to happen. In math, it's a null point. It's terrifying. Earlier, what was good for General Motors was good for the nation. But at crisis points, things that were true no longer work. At null-points, smaller inputs of energy make bigger shifts. Systems changes come at these junctures. Timing is as important as greatness. Creativity is much greater in these times, despite their scariness."
Every crisis is an opportunity. Our lives depend on our seeing, and seizing these opportunities, "not for gain, not as individuals, but because it's the right thing to do, as a species."
Models come in all shapes and sizes. Many folks criticize those who adhere to independent living. My viewpoint is that Don Harris gives us a model of interdependent living that so empowers individuals, at least potentially, that they can imagine themselves as independent of all except the righteous and just interdependence that makes human life still possible.
I ask him, to close, "f you were to leave a reader/listener with one or two thoughts to ponder, what would you say?"
"Dwell upon the heart as much as the head, find a way back to feeling and intuiting as well as planning. Great thinkers and philosophers should be a source to which we turn. Shorter term, greedy approaches are more than a dead end: they are literally death. Today's peak of the species, materially, has led us to be spiritually bankrupt. More fundamentally, we need to germinate this kind of consciousness, and sharing, in everybody. So much that we need is now pre packaged, but when we buy it, it's gone somehow and we become less human."
He laughs. "I don't know," he repeats; "'Crisis' is also opportunity."Photo Credits:Pelton Turbine: Wikipedia
Harris Hydro Product: BackWoods Solar
Whole Earth Catalog: Chris Drumm
Earth: Woodley Wonderworks
Off Grid Living: Irina Slutsky
Water Wheel: James Emery
Waterfalls, Forest: personal collection