Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Bill Stagg, homesteader, in front of his barn in Pie Town, New Mexico. Photographer Russell Lee (1903-1986), Library of Congress.
Click here to read Part 1.
Whenever I fancy an item for which I lack funds, I remind myself of what the item would cost in terms of that freedom. Fortunately, and perhaps because I live a joy-filled life, these material desires rarely beckon. And when they do — a broadfork breaks and gardening is made more difficult, a shingle flies off the roof in a storm — first we check our cache in the shed. Then we ask around and offer to barter (a brave soul to climb on the roof in exchange for a rhubarb pie and bushel of pears).
And if not, we search thrift shops and yard sales or hire a local handyman. If we need to spend, we prefer to contribute to a neighbor’s livelihood and forge community bonds.
The July morning dawned humid and hot. Juneberries, which appear late in the Pennsylvania mountains, blossomed on the trees. Cows lowed on the neighboring farm. Inside the barn, stuff awaited our sorting. Bales of hay. Bales of straw. Shovels, rakes and troughs. Wooden fences. Animal pens. Barrels and buckets and bins. Used clothes. Rope, wire and twine.
“What would one do with this?” Ben asked. He held up an object resembling a cross between a saddle and a corset. We agreed to save it in the mystery bin. Ben kept some of the items; the remainder we offered to neighbors. What they didn’t need, we donated to a junk shop in town. We couldn’t have put them in the garbage even if we’d wanted; no such service existed.
We could have driven them to the landfill. But seeing what we’d be contributing to the detritus of human habitation, we chose not to do so. Over the years, I’ve become less inclined to support their manufacture as well.
Tiny houses, often defined as those under five-hundred square feet, have gained purchase in recent years. Their lure is apparent. In a society of architectural obesity, they represent a clean-limbed leanness (or gauntness). A kitchen table that doubles as a work desk, a bathroom that doubles as a shower stall, a mattress ensconced on the floor in a loft.
Considering a Tiny House
Before settling on our homestead, Monte and I had considered making a tiny house our home. Economical and cozy, tiny houses are an ideal choice for many. But they do not lend themselves to a life of home-based production. Unless one builds a canning kitchen, food-storage pantry and other out buildings. In which case, one no longer occupies fewer than five-hundred square feet.
Residents of tiny houses tend to amass digital devices to compensate for lack of physical space. Kindles take up less room than a library of second-hand books. Yet, I doubt these electronic gadgets use fewer ecological resources. Still, my comment is less about judgment than preference. The smell of old books gives me joy. So do the mysteries of who underlined those passages, who recorded those quirky marginal notes. I delight in the sensual and human connection. I adore my bower of books.
Virginia fed herself off the food she grew, raised and preserved. In cold climates, where she lived, where I live, preserving is useful. Though the notion of a short growing season is misleading – persimmons thrive in the winter months, as do brussels sprouts, sunchokes and kale – many people prefer to eat a more varied range of plants. Apparently, Virginia did. The countless mason jars of home-canned vegetables and fruit attested to that. So did the containers of dried blueberries, apples, tomatoes, raisins and herbs.
For all of her stuff, she left no evidence of artificial refrigeration. (A wooden shed, situated over a stream, kept food cold for much of the year.) No dishwasher, blender, vacuum cleaner, washing machine or almost any other modern appliance revealed itself as we sorted through her belongings.
It occurred to me that with the exception of the narrow refrigerator tucked in the niche, I didn’t own any of those items either in my Manhattan apartment. (With the exception of a washing machine, I still don’t.) So as dissimilar as our lives appeared to be, we shared a distaste for gadgets.
Yet, I had to go to the farmers’ market or grocery store to acquire food. That meant I had to devote more time than I preferred to paid employment and less than I wished to producing my own provisions. That lesson from Virginia did not lay dormant; that lesson became my goal.
It was May when Monte and I moved to the homestead. White blossoms dotted the cherry trees. Lilacs burst forth in their purple bouquet. Grass skimmed my ankles. “Pretty soon,” Monte said, “we’ll need to mow the lawn.”
“How about if we get a goat?”
“How about if we get a mower?”
“I’ll stake it.”
“And feed it and water it and find it each time it escapes?”
We settled on a manual mower. After several attempts (it failed to cut the weeds), I relented and bought a used one powered by gas. In the meantime, Monte began replacing the lawn with hugelkultur beds. Our lawn-mowing days may be nearing an end. I have visions of a minimally-appointed shed.
Then again, the room gained by discarding the mower with any luck will be filled with mason jars containing sundried tomatoes, ground cherries, and other produce from the thriving beds. Or with the broad fork we’ve yet to replace. Or with extra bales of straw.
I doubt it will remain empty. One thing I’ve learned about minimalism and the homesteading life is that although each has value, they’re not well-matched.
A native New Yorker, Felicia Rose moved several years go to a homestead in northern Utah where she grows and preserves tomatoes, arugula, garlic, rhubarb, and many other crops. She is currently sustaining a permaculture garden, experimenting with new recipes that use the food she grows, and living a bountiful life on a limited budget. She writes an occasional column entitled A New Yorker in the Valley for the Cache Valley Voice. Find all of Felicia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.