Many of us take some action to protect the environment and the earth’s resources. We recycle, or carry a reusable grocery bag or take shorter showers.

Then there are a few people who give serious effort and make major adjustments in their lifestyle. Joel McKinney is one of the latter.

There was a time when McKinney would have said he is trying to live a “sustainable” lifestyle. But he pointed out that whenever a description becomes popular, it is co-opted for commercial purposes. Large corporations now freely use the “sustainable” label.

McKinney would rather call his approach a “low-impact” lifestyle. In talking about what he is doing, he often uses the word “steward,” a term that indicates responsibility and temporality.

He graduated from high school in 1973, and the oil embargo followed soon after. “I became aware oil is a finite resource,” McKinney said. “Earth gets a finite amount of energy every day. Mother Nature started (an energy) savings account in the form of fossil fuels. We have been rapidly spending this savings account.”

McKinney was born and raised in southern California, though his family has Minnesota roots. Through the years he gathered much knowledge on how to live with less impact on the environment. His architect father was often trying new ideas for his clients. He encouraged Joel’s learning about alternative architecture and alternative energy. In addition to studying, McKinney picked up practical knowledge working in construction and building a home in the high desert of California.

In 1988, McKinney sold that California house and bought 20 acres of land north of Walnut Grove, “20 acres of garbage from a commercial farming perspective,” he said. It is rolling land bisected by a creek and a ditch, much of it wooded, with an old set of buildings. It would become the site where he put into practice what he had learned about low-impact living.

McKinney was taking art classes at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall when he met Ruth. As they visited in the sculpture studio, they discovered they shared a similar philosophy on lifestyle. They married and together worked to translate their philosophy into real life. They have done that at Blackhawk, the 20 acres that serves as art studio as well as home.

The biggest project is building an alternative dwelling to the large 1904 house on the property. Joel designed and is building the earth-sheltered house. The dwelling is built into the southeast slope of a hill to receive the maximum amount of winter sun. The load bearing walls are built of concrete block filled with concrete. The concrete roof panels are thickly insulated. The structure employs thermal umbrella technology.

“Thermal umbrella technology is like a heat pump without the moving parts,” he said. It is a technique where the soil around the house is insulated and serves as passive heat storage. Although the building is not complete and was not heated this past winter, the temperature inside never dropped below 27 F.

“I’m trying to build something that bridges the desires of our culture for creature comforts and entertainment with the realities of our climate here in Minnesota,” he said.

Future plans are to add greenhouses, both for food production and heat gain. He also plans to build an earth shelter for the cows and take down the old barn.

McKinney’s regular income in recent years has come from computer-related work, but he seems to gain more satisfaction from his work at Blackhawk.

“I feel closest to God when I’m in the fields or working with the animals,” he said. “I really like it. It is a gift to be manager and steward (of this piece of property) for a while.”

Being stewards for the McKinneys meant not forcing the land to be what they want, but discovering what it has to offer. They have grown some small grains, but much of the rolling grass was not good for cultivation, so they got a cow to graze it. Buttercup is a Jersey cow who has a heifer calf and will calve again in July. She gives way more milk than they could drink, and Joel began to play around with cheesemaking “and had good results,” he said. Ruth eventually took over the cheese and butter making.

“Turns out that she’s a better cheese maker than me,” Joel said. “She made parmesan, gouda, mozzarella, cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt, kefir and a lot of butter.”

The McKinneys had two gardens last summer that supplied much of their food. The woods have mulberries, chokecherries, black walnuts and hazelnuts, and they planted other fruit trees. One hillside had beautiful, light, friable soil three feet deep.

“Every winter a bit of soil blows from neighboring cultivated land and settles in the grass,” McKinney said. Because of the southern exposure, he used the land to plant Marquette wine grapes.

There have been other actions taken. Many more trees are being planted. And except for large appliances, much of the electricity is supplied by photovoltaic panels, with electricity stored in a series of deep-cycle batteries.

Both Joel and Ruth had taken lesser-paying jobs so they could live full time at Blackhawk, rather than only spend weekends there. They had been intentional to develop a lifestyle in which they could be comfortable, yet be good stewards who do not take more from the earth than they put back.

We can choose how we live our life, as the McKinneys have done, but we cannot control all of life. If we could, this story would have a happier ending. Last summer, Ruth was diagnosed with cancer. Before spring arrived this year, Ruth died. It is a painful adjustment for Joel.

“Ruth was such a partner in every sense of the term,” he said.

What they were trying to build together is far from complete, but Joel will try to keep it going.

“Lifestyle levels that rely on fossil fuels are not sustainable,” Joel said. “Solar electricity will not miraculously replace all our diesel, gas and coal, so we need to work out some other ways of making things work. I’m experimenting with a number of things. I’m sure other people are working along these lines, too. We each do what we can.”

To learn more about what they have done, go to At the bottom of the home page, click on “The Earthship at Blackhawk.”