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DIY Stills and Thrills: A Sassy ’70s Guide to Cheap Living

Forget hipster idealists, vegans, and off-the-grid hippies: Dolly Freed has another way. Freed — a pseudonym — wrote Possum Living, a manifesto for living cheaply (and, she claims, lazily) in the late 1970s, when she was a feisty 18 year-old. Now reissued by Tin House Books, the volume is a relevant and sassy manual for a non-consumer lifestyle. Dolly’s practical lessons are presented with an irresistible wiseass grin: “We usually leave on the head, tail and fins for the simple reason that the fish looks nicer that way; and it means less work,” she writes. “Also, many fish have considerable amounts of meat in their heads — just like some people.”

Dolly lived with her father on a half-acre lot in suburban Philadelphia off just $5,000 a year, which was perplexingly cheap enough in her day to get her on the Merv Griffin Show. Her dad earned the little cash they needed doing odd jobs during winter, but the book is about everything else it took to live like possums: the gardening, the scrimping and shortcuts, the “merrily gurgling” home still.

What’s remarkable is how prescient, or smart, or just plain no-nonsense Freed’s advice was, because so much makes sense today. Not only do they ditch their car and ride bikes instead, but she warns against getting overly expensive bicycles — see ya, fixies — that might get stolen. Like my neighbors, she uses her yard as a vegetable garden, which she plans carefully (she explains how). She grows herbs and preserves the extras in vinegar. She makes pickling sound simple, cooks over an open fire when she can, buys clothes at Goodwill, and has plenty of time left over for playing chess on the porch.

Some of the projects are harder to imagine adopting. She and her father purchase wheat, soybeans, and potatoes in bulk from a feed store — there are still feed stores around, it turns out, but how many of us will make the time to clean and grind our own wheat? Freed made moonshine with a pressure cooker, some copper pipe, and rubber tubing, assembling the pieces with dough. OK, that’s inventive, but would it be so terrible to buy a gasket or two? Winemaking is easier in the final stages — once you put it all together, you just let it ferment — but even with Freed’s fruit-and-sugar measures supplied, calculating it all gets pretty complicated.

But the real challenge is the bunnies.

This is where Freed is awesome in her punk rockness: like a band that knows it will offend, she puts the hardest track right up front. She raises chickens and bunnies; the chickens provide eggs. The bunnies? They provide meat.

Freed advocates killing the animals quickly and with as little suffering as possible — their method is a .22, but says a heavy club will do. She also thinks all of the animal should be used (if you want to NOT know what goes into sausage, skip this chapter). She has a convincing argument that it’s hypocritical to buy meat in a store you wouldn’t kill yourself, but the squeamish may be more likely to skip the meat course altogether. Yet as gory as the details of killing and cleaning rabbits get, you’ve got to admire Freed’s plainspoken descriptions: when skinning, she writes, “leave the feet on till the end of the job to use as handles.”

Her practicality included a little grocery-store dumpster-diving, fishing in public waters, and doing home repairs without permits — a kind of rule-bending that goes from harmless legal gray areas to stuff that may be ill-advised. In one chapter — which the author, with the perspective of almost three decades, disavows — she supports late-night harassment to achieve worthy goals. This tactic is one that was clearly her father’s, and some of the book’s curmudgeonly-ness seems to have come from him. It’s charming vented through an energetic 18 year-old, but in a new afterword, Dolly explains she came to see her father’s efforts in a new light — he could be ineffective, and his eventual slide into alcoholism alienated everyone, including her.

The afterword proves what a remarkable person Dolly Freed always was. She became a NASA engineer with nothing more than a GED; then, when it didn’t make her happy, she quit, found another career, did that for a while, and quit again. She and her husband and their two children live, under another name, in Texas, where she continues to be frugal. These days, she is very busy gardening.

Watch a short documentary on Dolly below.

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