Some scene-setting will be helpful as we start getting up to speed on how Vicki and I decided to leave Detroit for a five-acre homestead in the hills of Middle Tennessee, and what we’ve done since.
It wasn’t a snap decision, but it was an easy one.
Choose. Urban blight, thick traffic on salt-pocked roads, the stink of despair, pervasive animus, crime and black snow. Or sunshine,woodlands, hills, mountains, serenity and a simpler life. Complete with flowers, butterflies and hummingbirds. But – being who we are and our stage of life – no rose-colored specs.
Our last home in metro Detroit was a cramped condo with a patch of grass in front and a view of a never-completed asphalt parking lot out back. We tried to grow a few plants on the tiny balcony that overlooked the lot, but there was never enough sun. The walls on either side of the condo were sufficiently thick to dampen neighboring sounds, but the ceiling seemed as thin as a congressman's skin.
Up there lived a man-child who kept a large farm dog. He and his tweenie son made games of romping and stomping with the dog on the hardwood floors and generally making as much noise as possible because we had complained. It was just one act in an extensive repertoire. To look for more livable quarters in or around Detroit seemed a fool’s errand. As times got tougher, people turned meaner, and they were everywhere.
It took some doing, but we found a new home in the hills of Middle Tennessee. The house is roomy with a large kitchen, an extra bedroom that I’m refitting as a library, and a long front porch with plenty of space for an old desanctified church pew, a couple of rockers, and a red swing that I’ve built but not hung. White pickets surround the porch.
It sits on more than five acres mostly covered in mature hickory and other hardwood trees, with a pretty stand of pine near the back. Down in a small “holler” that dips steeply behind our backyard is a spring-fed “crick” that trickles away into thick trees and undergrowth, steaming in summer like the forest primordial. A small stone escarpment overlooks the scene and is a good place to sit and ponder.
I ponder a lot. I’m a writer and editor with many years in newspapers and magazines, and now freelancing full time. Much of it is corporate work, and much of that is medical writing. Besides chasing enough work to make a living, my primary concern is our homestead, Shuddering Squirrel Acres. My wife, Vicki, is a natural gardener. Late last winter, as we commiserated about our first summer’s lousy weather and its effects on our gardens, she told me she’d always wanted a greenhouse. So I built one. She calls it “the nervous hospital” for the weak or otherwise ailing plants that most often are resurrected under her care. Soon, it will also be a nursery.
I tend the property. Before long I saw the need for a small tractor with detachable front loader and backhoe. It’s a John Deere, built in Moline, Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi, where my father was born. Both he and Vicki’s mom died a few months before we settled here, leaving emotional scrapes and scars needing that balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. We’re healing.
It happens in our seven food garden beds, and with the honeybee hives I tend. It happens as I take meat from our hickory-fired barbecue pit, and back in the trees where my wood-chipper produces the surface for a woodland path I’m reclaiming from undergrowth.
It happens as we watch the progress of the first trees we planted – fragrant magnolia, eccentric corkscrew willow, suggestive and seductive black mission fig, and Montmorency tart cherry of the sort widely grown in northern Michigan and without equal for pies.We’ve yet to learn the lore necessary to coax healthy fruit from the pair of dwarf peach trees that came with the property, but we’ll experiment in early spring with copper dust and (to us) mysterious oils that are said to do the trick.
Healing certainly happens with the small flock of chickens I raised from two-week-old chicks last spring. They now give us about 20 weekly eggs in warm weather, maybe 15 in cold. The eggs are gorgeous light to medium brown, some with tiny dark dapples, all with sturdy shells. Tending our chickens is a childhood memory made real again. My mother’s people were mostly farmers, and I’ve never forgotten gathering warm eggs from under my great aunt’s hens and the deep eggy flavor of that wholesome chicken fruit, with yolks like yellow-orange domes, not flat and pale after weeks in refrigerated trucks and chilled supermarket display cases.
Most healing of all has been our black-on-tan German shepherd Pete, who slunk out of the trees a few months ago and refused to leave. I even shot at the ground about six feet behind him. His hind legs outpaced his front for a stretch, and he was gone. Then he was back, sitting inside the doorway of our garage, having thoroughly investigated our trash. He was flea-bitten and foul, skinny and stinking, and behaved as though he’d been roundly abused. Now he’s healthy, well fed and watered, and enjoys many treats. In return he trots the perimeter of our property at least once in daylight and once in dark, every day, chasing off one thing or another with his imposing size, weight and darkness. He helps keep track of the chickens while they free-range. He loves us big.
This blog will be about all that and the other experiences of two damn Yankees – those, like Pete, who show up and don’t leave – finding their place in the rural South. There'll be a lot of DIY, or at least how-we-did-its, as our homestead takes shape.
All suggestions welcome, as are you.
I’ve kept a personal blog since moving to Tennessee. It’s called, “I’m mildly concerned that one of my hens is a rooster…” and can be found at http://shudderingsquirrelacres.blogspot.com/.