Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
It all started at a little 50,000-Watt radio station in Peterborough, Ontario. I started out selling radio advertising. Then I moved on to selling television advertising. I went back to university, for a year, then quit, got married and started selling microcomputers in the early ‘80s just as they came on the market. I actually turned down a great corporate job in the biz to sell the small systems because I had a sense that there was more of a future for me in personal computers. When the Apple Mac came out and “desktop publishing” took over from “typesetting ” in the late 80’s, we started our own business, Aztext Electronic Publishing. We started out small, just me and my cousin Dave, and then we began to hire employees. We had big plans for growth until we discovered just how difficult it is to manage employees and so we decided to scale back. For the most part it’s just been Michelle and me working in our business.
Being self-employed was one of the keys to our ability to move to the bush. Our business was somewhat portable. Technology allowed me to move away from my customers. Then we got into the book business and let the desktop publishing take a back seat. And since the U.S. economic collapse caused our book sales to take a nosedive, it’s been “anything for a buck ” around here. Now we’re selling vegetables, doing workshops at the house on homesteading and preparedness, worked on websites, and now that we’ve settled into new our economic reality, it’s pretty great. Earning an income is definitely the toughest part about homesteading.
A couple of weeks ago our neighbor Don Garrett called to ask if I could help him in his shop. Don has a custom millwork business 7 minutes down the road from us. I’ve blogged about him before because we get wood shavings from him that I use as bedding for the chickens, as well as his marvelous off-cuts that I turn into kindling (read about that here). Like Michelle and me, Don and his wife, Deb, work together in their business. Recently Deb hurt her back. Some of his machines require 2 people to operate; one person feeding and one person removing the finished product, and so Don was looking for a new helper.
Last Monday morning I started my new job. And it SUCKED! Or it was AWESOME! It all depends on how I look at it and what time of the day it was.
The hardest part is having to leave for work at a set hour. Since starting my own business, I’ve always started my workday pretty early. And for the first couple of decades I worked horrendous hours. I was the classic definition of an entrepreneur - someone who will work 80 hours for themselves so they don’t have to work 40 hours for someone else.
My usual routine this time of the year is to be up by 6 a.m. to start a fire in the house woodstove as well as one in the guesthouse. I often bring in a couple of loads of firewood before I eat some fruit and granola. I head into the office to check my emails, let the chickens out at some point during this routine and then finally have something for breakfast at about 9. I spend the rest of my day just doing whatever needs to be done, depending on the season. I generally spend most of my day working in the office, but if I feel like splitting firewood for an hour at 2 pm, I do so. So it was quite an adjustment to be dressed and finished eating breakfast by 7:30 so that I could be in the woodshop by 8 am. (I actually prefer to call it a “sawmill.” It makes it sound so historic and blue collar!)
The greatest part of working for someone else is that it reminds me once again how great I have it working for myself. After being self-employed for 25 years it’s easy to forget. Working at Don’s is a huge reminder about how great I’ve had it.
Getting out the door on time is a hassle. So is the adjustment to working in a factory, even if it is a relatively small “factory.” I heat our house and guesthouse with wood, so I often spend the day chain sawing and spitting firewood. After a busy day in the woods I can spend the next day (or two) in the office doing computer work and recuperating. Now I am using my muscles all day long. Day after day. What a concept.
The bonus last week is that Don and Debbie also have a commercial maple syrup business (read about it here) so we spent 3 afternoons in the bush tapping trees. The maple syrup season is early this year. It’s a little scary how early it is. If you doubt the reality of climate change, talk to someone who is in tune with how the maple trees are behaving. Even thought it is only February, the afternoons have been sunny and warm, and so I was getting paid to be out in the bush tapping maple trees. How great is that?
There is an adjustment that comes with reduced expectations. I have run a successful publishing company. I actually did Don’s website (http://ddgarrettmillwork.com/) for him. So I have relevant skills, but frankly I’m pretty burned out on using them. We’re gradually trying to transfer our energies to earning our income through growing food, which is something we’re passionate about. But as I worked at moving the finished wood products to one spot and tossing the scraps on to another pile, I kept asking myself, “am I putting my skills to the best use?”
As the day wore on, I seemed to enter this Zen-like place and I decided that it doesn’t really matter. We still need a bit of money to pay our taxes and put gas in our car and a few other expense, so I have to earn an income somehow. I could go back to doing corporate catalogs for industrial products that I care nothing about and know have an adverse effect on the planet, but I don’t want to do that. Now I’m making hardwood floors. People are going to live in houses and need floors. They can put down carpet made from oil, or laminates made from oil and wood chips and nasty chemicals, or they can put down hardwood floors. I own 150 acres and I can vouch for the fact that forests grow back after you cut down some trees. They are infinitely resilient and regenerative.
Spending the day making a product that is abundantly beautiful, natural, fully regenerative and will last literally for 100 years or more, isn’t such a bad thing. The biggest challenge is to get over the mindset that “someone who works on a computer has more to offer society than a mill worker.”
I think the defining moment came late in the week when a couple came in to talk to Don about buying trim for the cottage they are building. It turned out they are from the same suburban city that I had moved away from. They drive a high-end SUV and are obviously building a large cottage. And there I was working in the shop. Actually at this point, I was getting the drop lines ready to take out to the maple bush. Drop lines are what the sap flows down in to the plastic tubing that runs to the tanks where the sap accumulates before being moved to the evaporator.
At one point the woman asked Don, “Oh, are you getting ready to make maple syrup?” in a sort of “Oh isn’t that quaint, look at the people of the woods trying to earn a living” kind of tone. I thought for a minute about where they come from. I used to ride my bike to the top of an escarpment and look down on at the city when I lived there. There was a brown haze that hung over that city, thanks to the industrial activity in the area. The suburban sprawl continues unchecked there and the defining cultural activity for the people living there is shopping. It’s all about buying stuff. It’s about working all week in a miserable job, driving through commuter hell and then buying crap on the weekend that you hope will provide some fulfillment.
And it was then that I finally achieved that moment of “Zen” when you stop caring about what anyone else thinks of you and you realize that you’re exactly where you want to be, doing exactly what you want to be doing. Something that is relevant and real - making two products, hardwood floors and maple syrup, that are both practical and add to the quality of life. I live in paradise, I commute 7 minutes to work through forests and past lakes, and I get to spend the afternoon in the sun-bathed maple forest surrounded by massive generators of positive energy - maple trees.
Yup, that’s me. I can now add mill worker and tree-tapper to my resume. And it’s pretty awesome!
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