Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Winter is a time for me to visit my family and friends in the north of Sweden where I grew up. A city in the 110,000 inhabitants range, the area hosts friends and siblings with degrees ranging from nurse to actor to teacher, with the same kind of lives I once had, too — before Maine, before Deer Isle, long before I'd even heard the word homesteading. Lives with careers and mortgages, lives where smart is a phone, sourdough bread a fashion and organic, locally grown produce increases your status on Facebook.
While many of those visiting our Hostel are farmers and homesteaders themselves, some come from that “city culture” and seem to take their first hesitant steps outside of a flatly paved driveway when they arrive at our place. Wide eyes, a sense of adventure. I appreciate the interest shown in my life and in a more sustainable, conscientious way of living. That is, after all, why we open our home to hundreds of hostel guests every summer, to show that there are alternatives. What's fascinating to me is the very fact that my daily life is fascinating.
“How big is this island again?” someone asked me. The answer — 3,000 inhabitants in winter and 6,000 in summer — usually seems, judging by the facial expression, to fall somewhere between deserted and slightly inhabited.
“And only solar power?” Yes, only solar power. “Do you have a phone?” Yes, of course. We have a hostel, we need a phone. But no cell phone. No one I know has a cell phone, I usually add. The reception is terrible. A moment of silence usually follows, to contemplate this vast unknown. A place with no cell phones.
I've left the cities I once called home, from houses with radiant heat, from apartments and rents and kitchen appliances. From kitchen taps with warm water, 3-minutes showers, outlets with unlimited power in every corner of every room, daily newspaper, daily commute, daily grid. It wasn't for the fame nor glory that I moved across the Atlantic, and it was not for the opportunity to rack up my exoticism credits that I chose a small homestead on a small island in Maine.
Still, my everyday life, the chores and the repetitive routines, as just about all lives have, becomes something extremely fascinating. How many people get to explain how they keep their food cold when talking about what they do nowadays?
One of my old friends confided in me that she and her partner had bought a house in the mountains, without running water. She needed advice. Well, I explained, we have a bucket in the kitchen with drinking water, and a bucket under the sink to catch the dishwater. A hand pump outside the house. All this is pretty normal by now, just something I do. Fill up the bucket and bring it in. I don't feel exotic, or radical or anything. It's just about the same feeling most get when turning the taps. Just something I do. “How do you heat the water?” my friend wanted to know. On the woodstove, I said. Just put the water on the stove. “How do you take your baths?” she asked. I explained: a rubber tub, on the kitchen floor. Heat the water, bathe, empty the tub outside. It kinda gobbles up the evening, between my bath and my husband's, but that's what we do. “Like how often?” she said and couldn't hide that look people get on safaris when approaching a newly discovered tribal society in a dark part of Africa. “Once a week?” and I almost expected her to whip out a camera when I nodded in approval.
And we heat with wood, and cook with wood. Not only do I split the fire wood, I also run the chain saw to fell the trees. We mill our own lumber. Go out in the wood when we need building material — that tree and that one for the frame, those for the roof, those for the walls.
We don't go to the store. Well, for soap and toilet paper and an occasional bottle of wine, but otherwise all the meat, egg, fruit and veggies we could possibly eat are to be found in the gardens, the orchard and in the root cellar. The fact that we raise pigs and butcher them ourselves is met with great curiosity, as is the occasional deer we come across and the abundance of clams to dig. We trade produce for dairy products such as cheese and yogurt, sometimes tomato seedlings for a pound of coffee.
“Like the old times,” my friend laughed and warmed my heart in the cold Swedish winter evening. Indeed as the old times. Or the new times, depending on your point of view. Exotic or not, if people like it, it's great. If they dare to try, it's even better. I don't mind answering the questions.
Anneli blogs for MOTHER EARTH NEWS about her insights and ideas from a handmade, DIY-everything homestead and hostel on Deer Isle, Maine.
Photo by Anneli Carter-Sundqvist