Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I never met Virginia. I knew about her from Ben, and from a photograph he kept on his bookshelf. In it, she wore a frayed knit cardigan, loose turtleneck sweater and bulky eyeglasses taped at the hinges. Seventy at the time, she had taupe hair, jaggedly cut, and few wrinkles.
I knew about her too from her stuff. She left behind everything from buttons to bottles to books, which she’d accumulated over the more than fifty years she’d lived on the Pennsylvania homestead. When she died at the age of eighty-nine, Ben inherited the place along with the stuff.
Now approaching retirement, he hoped to live there himself. He wondered if I’d mind helping him clean it. “If you can spare a week or so,” he said, “I think we’ll make a dent. And while we’re at it, enjoy the company of dear old friends.”
Glimpsing the homestead from afar, I felt confident of our mission. On one side of the dirt road stood a modest white-shingled farmhouse, on the other a weathered barn. Only after we arrived did I gather hints of the enormity of the task. Buckets of tools, kindling and logs filled the front of the wrap-around porch. Barrels of compost filled the back. The sides of the porch held shovels, hoses, rakes and whatnot.
On the main floor of the farmhouse, a wood-burning stove, used for cooking and heat, occupied much of the main room. Shelves and cupboards held cast iron pots, mason jars filled with peaches, apples and pears, and an assortment of crocks. The cellar contained large barrels of corn, potatoes and squash. These vegetables, aged beyond eating and even beyond planting, would need to join the compost, though not on the porch. Another day, we’d tackle the upstairs, the canning kitchen, the barn.
But for now, we got to work. We washed linen in a metal basin, and then hung it to dry on a line. We aired hand-sewn pillows and quilts. We removed spider webs from the outhouse and wasp nests from under the eaves. Then we took a break to forage for dandelion leaves and berries and ramps. Together with bread and tea, we made our meal.
That moment took place ten years ago. At the time, I was living in a two-room Manhattan apartment. The sleeping alcove contained a double bed, wedged between a radiator on one end and a window on the other. Bookshelves lined the walls from ceiling to floor, except over the bed, where they stopped a few feet above so one could sit up to read.
The other room, which combined kitchen, dining area and living space, contained a stove and sink along one wall. Along a second hung a hinged table, lowered for meals, and then returned to its flush position so one could open the hide-a-bed sofa at night. The refrigerator stood in a niche between the rooms. I shared that apartment.
Needless to say, minimalism prevailed. Not the Minimalism of the modernist rich, those who deride consumerism, and yet practice it in stealth, but rather the one borne of the necessity of housing all of one’s possessions in a shared three-hundred square-foot space.
I discarded no less than I accrued. A newer pair of shoes from the thrift shop meant an older pair needed to return. An empty jar meant an excursion to the courtyard recycling bin. A trip to the farmers market came only after an assessment of space in the cupboard and fridge.
Archeologists, curious about ancient civilizations, often have no more than kitchen-middens or other material remains to inform them. Fortunately, I had stories about Virginia. I knew for instance that she’d worked on the farm growing vegetables, tending fruit trees, caring for chickens and rabbits and goats. I knew as well that her insistence on being sovereign over her time, even if it meant poverty, which often it did.
These stories contributed to my curiosity about her stuff, and what it said about the life she’d lived. No less, they made me wonder about the choices I made, and whether Virginia had something to teach me.
Three years ago, my wife Monte and I bought a homestead in Utah. The previous owner offered us garden equipment: buckets, hoses, nozzles, shovels, spades and hoes. “Would you like me to leave the canning jars?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, thank you, if you wouldn’t mind,” Monte said. “Oh, no, thank you, but we appreciate the offer.” My response overlapped hers. Lessons from Virginia still lay dormant within me.
For Monte, who grew up in rural Utah with its long cold winters, Virginia’s way made sense. She’d learned to bottle peaches at the age of ten. “Come harvest time,” she said, “the jars’ll be handy.”
Until this day, a shed behind her parents’ home overflows with parts from old appliances and tools. (What if a pipe breaks and finances are tight? What if a neighbor could use a new chain for his saw?) And food storage, a religious as well as practical imperative, fills buckets and freezers and shelves throughout the house.
My response to the question about jars was informed in large part by memories of living in a tiny New York apartment. It was also shaped by the understanding that Americans consume too much stuff, and that doing so is wreaking havoc on people and earth. If I didn’t have a lot of stuff, I could convince myself I wasn’t over-consuming.
Was that true? Over the years, I’d bought countless jars of tomato sauce, pickles and kraut. But unlike Virginia, who saved jars and reused them, I deposited mine in the recycling bin. So my having less didn’t mean I consumed less. I merely threw more away.
Needless to say, the canning jars remained. All 47 of them (I counted). Since then, we’ve accumulated more than triple that number (I’ve stopped counting). The first harvest, we bottled twenty-five jars of apple sauce, twenty-eight of tomatoes, twenty each of peaches and pears.
Since then, we’ve added both variety and number, harvested mostly from our garden. These provisions comprise many of the gifts we give as well as much of our cold-season fare.
To accompany the jars, we’ve accumulated - primarily through yard sales, thrift shops, scavenging and barter — a brood of chickens and a coop, a food strainer, dehydrators, canning equipment, bees and beekeeping gear, a bin full of composting worms and several rusty cast iron pots. (Elbow grease followed by oil and heat has renewed them.)
We’ve also accrued extra sunhats, work gloves and boots. Better to store (some may say hoard) them when they cost pennies at a yard sale than have to buy new ones when the old ones become worn beyond repair.
By last March, I’d saved several dozen cardboard oatmeal containers. Why? I hadn’t known. Then came time to sow our seeds. Within an hour, we’d used every container, and then proceeded to cut up saved baking soda boxes. Our kitchen resembled a greenhouse, dirt and all.
In my city life, such an arrangement would have irked me. So, too, would have mismatched dishes, linen and towels. Though I owned few items, those I did needed to be of a piece. Now, such formalities defy me.
Our kitchen cabinets hold an array of mismatched cups and utensils and plates purchased at thrift shops or bartered with neighbors and friends. The effect is not quaint like that of a country house in a glossy magazine. Rather, it speaks the truth of its owners: people who refuse employment that chafes against ethics and spirit. People who value a frugal life.
I could affect a lofty stance by claiming that environmental concerns motivate my behavior. Yes, I value the conservation of life on this earth. But the more personal truth is that as a homesteader, I experience daily the beauty and meaning and joy of living close to the land and to my soul without the interference of anyone who might exert ownership over my time. I’m protective of that life.
Stay tuned for Part 2.