Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
“All right,” says my six-year-old, clearly taking charge of today’s operation, “you take this stick and when the crushed apples start to come out of the grinder you scrape them down into the bucket, ok?” Turning to his other friend, he explains, “You take the apples from that basket and put them into the grinder and I’ll turn the wheel. I might need a little help if it gets stuck.” The adults sit back and watch with joy at the self-sufficiency of these friends on a beautiful fall day.
A few minutes later, our son is explaining how to press the cider from the crushed apples and yells excitedly, “here it comes!” He turns to us to request jars so that he can share some fresh cider with his friends. We are happy to oblige. After all, this is why we bought this property, with its overgrown apple trees and grapevines, untamed wild raspberries, and open fields just waiting to be turned into gardens.
Our little homestead was a dream for 10 years before we found it. When the children came along the dream was amplified. Not only did we want to raise most of our own food, we wanted our children to grow up running barefoot around a beautiful property. We wanted them to connect with nature, appreciate its gifts, and grow to love our little corner of the world. Days like this, when our son is literally dripping with joy at what he can do on our land, are the reason we took a risk on buying a property that wasn’t perfect but had the perfect potential.
Homesteading is sometimes described as a journey toward self-sufficiency. To some extent that is true for us — we want to grow our own food instead of buying it at the store and we love the idea of cutting our own firewood for the wood stove in order to decrease our dependence on oil. But in so many other ways, self-sufficiency seems an ill-fitting word for our pursuit.
Self-sufficiency somehow entails that a person or a family could live on their own without interaction with others — that we could stay on our homestead and ignore the outside world. To be certain, there are some for whom this is the very purpose of a homestead — hunkering down in anticipation of a coming apocalypse. But this is not our purpose.
Perhaps a better word for us is “topophilia,” defined by Yi Fu Tuan (1990) as “the affective bond between people and place.” We purchased this homestead because we want to be rooted to a place that is special to us and to our children, that exemplifies the beauty of the natural world, and that provides nourishment - both physical and emotional – on a daily basis. We do not, however, seek to keep this place to ourselves.
Beyond sharing our homestead with our children, it is also a place where we create community among our extended family, friends, and neighbors. Cider pressing is more fun when done with a group of friends, the wood-fired oven practically begs for pizza parties with other families, and inoculating mushroom logs is much more efficient when friends go in on the project.
Learning how to make the most of our homestead is also a community affair. We are lucky to live in a state and a region that values local food production and provides a plethora of resources to help those who are pursuing these activities. We have purchased most of our berries at the annual plant sale hosted by the park district, attended classes in mushroom growing offered by our local school system’s extension program, and gotten lessons on pruning fruit trees at a local garden center. What we don’t grow ourselves we buy from local farmers whom we have gotten to know personally. We even host an annual pizza bake where we raise money for our local food shelf.
Despite how much we do on our own land, we are far from self-sufficient. We are part of a local and global community that cares about where their food comes from and cares about taking care of the earth. Buying our homestead has actually increased our commitment to this community - to sharing what we do with others and to learning from what others share.
We are topophiliacs who love our little place in the world, but our love for this place is made stronger through the act of sharing it with others, beginning with our children.
Carrie Williams Howe is the Executive Director of an educational nonprofit by day, and parent and aspiring homesteader by night and on weekends. She lives in Williston, Vermont, with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about being an authentic, participatory leader in various settings. She is a contributing editor at Parent Co Magazine. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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