I’ve gone through an evolution in homesteading in three phases.
In the ‘60s, I built a house in Big Sur, developed a water supply, and terraced a hillside for farming. I was intrigued with the idea of self-sufficiency, and along with all of the changes going on in the ‘60s, the back-to-the-land movement was a powerful force.
We had a big garden, planted fruit trees, and I could walk down the canyon to the beach to get fish and abalone. Pretty soon after finishing the house (built out of mostly salvaged materials and hand-split shakes) and getting set up for farming, fate intervened, and I left Big Sur for a 5-year stint building geodesic domes.
Flash forward to 1971. I bought a half-acre in a small Northern California coastal town and built another house. This time we got farther into homesteading. We had goats, 50 chickens and 5 colonies of bees. We raised a lot of our own food. I cut hay with a scythe. We learned a lot of the “forgotten crafts”: making butter and cheese, brewing beer, baking bread, smoking fish, and many skills and crafts that had been part of our ancestors’ lives.
After several years, I realized that all this was taking too much time. Tending dairy animals is time-consuming and tricky. Bees need attention. Raising a good portion of your own food is demanding. (I’m talking about small plots of land here. If you have acreage, then everything is different.)
I started cutting back. First, we got rid of the goats (a half-acre is too small for dairy animals anyway). Then the bees. I started putting more time into publishing, less into food production and home crafts. We didn’t give up on these things, but scaled back.
The third stage in our homesteading lives is where we’re at right now. I’ve learned that you can’t be self-sufficient—self-sufficiency is a direction; you never get there. But you don’t give up because you can’t do it all. You do what you can, tailoring your homesteading activities to your life, work, and location—country, suburban, or urban.
These days we’ve blended the homesteading in with other aspects of life and, over the years, it seems we’ve achieved a pretty good balance. It works for us.
Back in the ‘70s (the ‘60s happened in the ‘70s, right?), there were 6-7 couples in my small town, on small pieces of land. Between us we had cows, goats, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, and bees. We made wine and beer. We had a food co-op. We shared experiences and inspired each other. We published three booklets on local food production.
Well, it got to be too much for everyone. We stuck with it, albeit on a smaller scale, but none of the other couples are still doing any of this. It was unsustainable.
I’m not the first to notice that a lot of the concepts of the ‘60s are being rediscovered (or newly discovered by younger generations). There’s a huge interest in fresh, home-grown food. Foraging. Recycled building materials. Small(er) homes. There are community gardens and the occasional small flock of chickens (sans roosters) in the cities. Using your hands. Small-scale homesteading as a hobby, if you will.
It not only feels good to grow some of your own food, but there’s the quality: the taste of a homegrown sun-ripened tomato just knocks your socks off; broccoli cooked within minutes of picking is sweet, entirely different from store-bought; fresh eggs cause you to think, “So this is what eggs are really like.”
My friend Louie says there is a word in Italian, abbondanza, meaning plenty, richness, good feeling. You walk into a kitchen where there are people, a meal is being prepared, good ingredients, things smell good, there’s wine—there are good vibes—and you say, as a salute to plenty: abbondanza.
And there is the ancestor thing. Practicing some of the skills of the not-so-distant past means re-connection with ancestors’ lives. I was sharpening a chisel by kerosene light in Big Sur years ago, and I felt a jolt of familiarity, as if I had done this before (maybe my great-great grandfather, and it was in my genes).
Finally, there’s fitness and fun. Using your body to garden or build is an antidote to hours spent at a keyboard. Doing these things is fun. Watching your plants grow. Gathering the eggs. The satisfaction of making something with your own hands.
Lloyd Kahn will present a workshop at the Puyallup, Wash., FAIR.
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