Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
A year and a half ago, my husband and I hastily bought five acres of neglected woodland on a hillside in New Hampshire without much of a vision for what we were going to do with it. As an avid gardener, my only stipulation for our new home was that there was space for a vegetable garden. Indeed, there were five small raised beds and a tiny clearing in the forest that let the sun in for a handful of hours each day during the warmer months, which we agreed was a good enough start. For months, we lived simply in our new home, largely ignoring the dark, encroaching forest and our home, which was rife with inefficiencies and rotting from the outside in due to a handful of painfully obvious building miscalculations.
But as the seasons passed, we felt increasingly inspired by our friends, the people we had met through our travels (my husband was often on the road for work) and the community we had become part of to settle down and homestead. The spinach and carrots we pulled from our tiny raised beds paled in comparison to what we could be doing. Yet, we struggled to see how our newly found vision of a homestead could fit on the landscape that we already owned: The entire property has a 15 to 25 percent slope with little exposure to the south — a poor choice for subsistence farming. The house would need major renovations to make it livable for our growing family, and we felt constrained by money and time to do it right. We also knew we'd have to clear land—lots of it—to do much of anything.
This past May, as the last frosts passed through the valley below us, we agreed to make a go of it — despite the seemingly impossible challenges we faced — and committed to turn our home into a homestead. As I look back on the past three months, I wish that we had made the decision sooner (like last fall when we had all winter to plan) and that we had more guidance in those crucial first weeks about what it would really be like to hurl ourselves into the lives of homesteaders. So for those of you looking to make the leap and start homesteading, here are the top three things we've quickly learned:
1. Start somewhere, anywhere. We started by clearing half-an-acre of land and replacing our five raised beds with a fenced in garden plot that spans 28 x 40 feet. We've learned more in the last two months interacting with the landscape than we had observing it for the last eighteen months. For example, we knew that the drainage on the property was poor, at best, and that we would need to address them before the next growing season. But after watching the water rush down the mountain behind our house and flood our new garden several times a week, every week through the first months of summer, we were able to really understand the scope of the issue and how best to address it.
2. Get skilled. Our second task was to split enough firewood to get us through the winter ahead. It was the first time I had ever swung an axe, and I quickly learned that with my tall but petite frame, I had to find another way to do it if I was going to help get through the pile of wood next to our garden without hurting myself. My husband handed me a maul and a sledgehammer and taught me the proper way to swing, wedging the maul into the log until it split. Log by log, I helped him split and stack nearly four cords of wood. Without learning some basic skills, like knowing how to split wood, our path to self-reliance would have stopped right there. We've also learned not to dismiss any skills we may have, regardless of how inapplicable they seem. For example, I used my web design knowledge to build a website for a local farm in exchange for a farm cooked meal every Friday night—a welcome relief after a hard week of work.
3. Aim for interdependence, not just independence. When our tomato seedlings suddenly turned yellow and stopped growing before we were able to transplant them outside, a friend offered us two flats of extra seedlings from his greenhouse, saving us the time and disappointment of having to buy them from a local nursery. Likewise, when I mentioned that we were having some fertility concerns in our garden, another farmer offered to fill up as many 5-gallon buckets as we could carry from her best compost pile on the farm. Engaging in our community—whether it's through trading skills or creating friendships—has both saved us and inspired us to keep going. It’s proved particularly critical in these early stages of creating a homestead since we haven’t had the time to build up our own resources and are just beginning to learn all the skills we need to be more independent.Are you a homesteader? If so, we'd love to hear the lessons you’ve learned along the way that have proven indispensible.
Photos by Larissa Reznek