Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
By Cam Mather
Mother Earth News was recently preparing an article about homesteading and asked me a bunch of questions, one of which was “What are the biggest misconceptions people have about homesteading and homemaking?” My answer was “That homesteading can be tidy and that every homestead is picture-perfect. The truth is it’s a messy, exhausting way to live. There are always things to do, and you must learn to live with the feeling of not having accomplished all you wanted to on any given day.”
I was thinking about this last night as I was taking seeds off of dried corncobs while I was watching TV, and making quite a mess while I was at it. This is pretty much my raison d’étre for most of the year, making a mess, or at least I’m sure that’s how Michelle sees it.
I have come to the conclusion that this is the way it is living in the country, heating with wood and trying to grow food for a living. I have also come to the conclusion that I have the greatest wife on the planet to tolerate what a slob it would appear I am. Perhaps “slob” is the wrong word. I’m not messy and disorganized by nature, but it’s the reality of the way we live.
When we hosted a couple of workshops here in the fall and I brought people into the house after our various tours around the property, I had to reiterate each time that people should leave their shoes on, even after the garden tour. I say it every time… “This is a farm house built in 1888 and these floors have had dirty boots walking on them for more than a century, and I don’t plan on breaking the pattern.” City people have a real predisposition to want to take their shoes off. Not me. Let’s say the phone is ringing, and my boots are covered in mud. It’ll take me 20 seconds to take the boots off and by then I’ll have missed the call. So instead I just go for it… that’s what a broom is for, to clean up the mess. And yes, I make sure that I’m the one who sweeps it up later.
I often joke that after we’ve swept, especially in the winter, when we throw the resulting dustpan full of stuff into the woodstove, it has the BTU equivalent of a big hardwood tree. We used to carry our firewood into the house to fill the wood box by hand, but I finally got smart and welded some steel onto a hand dolly. It makes it infinitely easier to bring in the firewood, but unfortunately it increases the amount of extraneous bark, sawdust, etc. that ends up on the floor.
In February or so I’ll set up our shelves with lights in the kitchen to use for starting seeds. Shortly after that I’ll bring in the card table to use for my seed container boxes so that I can start organizing for the season. As the spring proceeds and we end up with numerous seedling trays, we’ll move them outside during the sunny warm days, and then back inside, some to the back porch and some to the kitchen.
This seed “mess” lasts until just about the time we start harvesting garlic in July. Then the kitchen becomes “Garlic Central” with up to 20 baskets of garlic at various stages of processing and cleaning. I also have a supply of boxes that we use to sell large quantities of garlic, so they take up what’s left of the spare room in the kitchen.
As we get towards the end of garlic processing I always seem to end up with a variety of vegetables in various stages of sorting and processing from potatoes to onions to squash. These all take up space in the kitchen. Eventually I sell these vegetables or store them in my root cellar. Then it’s seed saving time and the kitchen fills up with buckets of plants that have seeds that I need to remove. There are buckets of corncobs, lettuce and spinach and carrots and whatever else I’m doing that year. When it comes time to actually remove the spinach seeds from the stalks or remove the corn from the cobs, I prefer to do it in the living room while I’m watching TV. This, of course, just spreads the mess over a wider area.
And throughout this cycle of one messy season after another Michelle just smiles and waves. She’s undeterred by the chaos and the mess that I generate. If I had one of those Martha Stewart-type wives, I’d be in trouble.
Our house is not a pigsty, but there are times of the year when it definitely appears well occupied, which I love. When you sit in a kitchen where families have nourished their bodies with food that they produced, for more than a century, it’s a special place. It’s special to be doing exactly what they were doing here 100 years ago. We are even tracking that same mud into the kitchen that’s been tracked in by generation of boots. Welcome to my world.
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For more homesteading stories, you'll enjoy our new book "Little House Off the Grid: Our Family's Journey to Self-Sufficiency."