Gary Johnson first moved to Marlboro, Vermont, in 2002 for his undergraduate degree. After graduating, he spent a year living in a small cabin in the forest near his college, where he learned to cook on a wood stove, managed his first serious compost pile, and spent endless hours tracking and observing the local wildlife. Through his time at Marlboro College and his year in the cabin afterward, Gary became inspired by the off-grid lifestyle and the natural beauty of Vermont. He later moved to Burlington to attend the University of Vermont for his Ph.D. and soon became nostalgic for his time in the quiet forests of southern Vermont. After all, what was he to do in a vast “urban” metropolis like Burlington? It was, in fact, Vermont’s largest city, boasting a massive population of over 44,000 residents! Eventually, Gary found his footing in the “Queen City,” replacing his car with a fixed-gear road bike (ideal for winter riding!), joining a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program), and even moving into a shared house with some fellow Marlboro graduates, which they retrofitted to be heated solely with firewood, hand-collected from a UVM professor’s property.
Through his Ph.D. research on ecosystem services, Gary first met Austin Troy (one of SIG’s founding principals) since SIG also works in the ecosystem services domain. After meeting at a conference in 2011, David Saah (SIG’s Managing Principal) offered Gary a job as a contractor with SIG to develop some custom scientific software for estimating wildfire risk to properties. Later, after graduating in 2014, Gary came on board as a full-time employee, where he became the company’s first computer scientist.
Because SIG allowed him to work remotely, Gary set out to fulfill his dreams of living sustainably in rural Vermont. After intensive research, he decided that living in a yurt was the best option for him. In comparison to a tiny home or the option to live in a bus, a yurt would provide him and his partner the maximum amount of living space, make the home semi-portable, and leave the smallest environmental footprint possible. With the help of his partner and friends, Gary built a solar array, erected a wind tower, and installed wood heating, cooking, and thermocycling hot water systems in order to not use any fossil fuels in his home.
After 3 years of living the yurt lifestyle, Gary was able to save up and buy 67 acres of his own in Worcester, Vermont (population: 998). On that land, Gary hand-built a stone foundation and root cellar for his yurt, planted gardens where he grows food and medicinal herbs in the warmer months, expanded his solar array, dug and improved a gravity-fed spring as his water source, constructed and managed multiple thermophilic compost piles for his composting toilet system, and harvested all of the firewood for his annual heating, hot water, and cooking needs from his land with hand tools (e.g., crosscut saws, axes, mauls, sledgehammers, wedges, cant hooks, sleds). Of everything he’s accomplished in building his off-grid yurt homestead, he’s most proud of the systems that he’s built in order to live more sustainably and without any fossil fuels in his home. This lifestyle may be eco-friendly, but it also requires intense amounts of labor, including hauling forty-pound buckets of drinking water from his spring, scything fields, and felling, limbing, bucking, and dragging firewood from the forest to be used to heat the yurt. Though this lifestyle is time-consuming and laborious, Gary is committed to being as environmentally conscious as possible and wouldn’t change a thing. In his opinion, as an environmentalist, it is his responsibility to live according to the values that he professes – to be the change he wants to see in the world.