Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Thirty years or so ago, many young people came to Maine to live off the land, inspired by Scott and Helen Nearing and their book, The Good Life. Some came to Deer Isle, and many of them still live here. Since then, they have raised vegetables, animals and kids and while many have gotten jobs and conventional housing, most have kept some homesteading practices, like having chickens, keeping bees and maintaining fruit trees. A new generation young adults are now moving to, or back to, Deer Isle. Among them we have many great friends doing fantastic things but we are nevertheless pretty lonely on the homesteading path.
When I first came to Maine in 2008 there was a number of young couples establishing homesteads around the mainland peninsula right next to Deer Isle. We had work parties every second Sunday, when on a rotating schedule the whole group gathered at someones place and dug holes for fence posts, stacked firewood, painted window trim or any number of things. The days ended with a potluck and social hour. This small group of peers held together on a high note for the first year and a half or so of my time here but eventually it fizzled out. Full-time jobs demanded engagement even on weekends or time off had to be devoted to family time. The work parties got harder to drum up enthusiasm for and as that faded and work away from home took over, the projects to center the gatherings around also quickly faded. When the homesteading spirit of this group dwindled, so did Dennis and mine appeal to drive the roughly 25 mile distance to these gatherings too.
I was once asked at one of my book talks to talk about our community and if there were others in our area doing what we do and what that community meant to us. I did a pretty bad job answering that question but later I realized that what this woman probably meant, but didn't quite say, was “what if I find land where I can homestead but it's at a location where no one does the same thing?” The attempts on Deer Isle today to live off the land are few and far apart and the strongest peer-support Dennis and I have comes from each other – that we are both committed to and strongly believe in homesteading as a long term life style.
The bits and pieces of common rural living practices do add up, but with a few exceptions most people probably would refer to these practices more as a hobby than a way to make a living. Three small goat farms produce dairy products, a number of people have gardens or green houses that to some extent produce a surplus for the winter, and more and more people raise their own pigs.
But the lack of full-fledged homesteaders doesn’t mean no one is here to cheer us on: in a highly diverse community with rich and poor, fishermen and self-employed jack-of-many-trades, academics, out-of-state retirees and artists we have as small business owners and a young couple devoted to this place been received with an unwavering support. That we choose to live off-the-land, off-the-grid is probably considered by most people an addition to the broad diversity of residents here and an excellent source of information for their own backyard endeavors. I dare to say some even get inspired by what we do and that inspiration leads to more bits and pieces – that I've kept a few jars of sauerkraut out for sale spurred at least a number of people to make their own, the garlic we sell often gets used as seed garlic and that we graft and propagate apple trees from around the island makes others consider what varieties they'd like to preserve for the future.
No group of peers doesn't mean no support. If I were to pick up and start over again I would let the right piece of land rather than the community weigh in higher on my decision of where to be, especially if I had one solid partner to settle with. Over time, is one is patient, it is very likely you'll find people that are drawn to the basic, sustaining, diverse and positive actions of homesteading.
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