The author’s son, Jordan, with their multi-purposed garden shed. Photo by Jo deVries
I can hardly believe that it’s been 25 years since I purchased 6 ½ acres of bush land with the idea of turning it into a home for myself and my three-year old son.
I was raised in a quiet part of the city of Ottawa, with a corn field at the end of our road. Development happened quickly; the corn field became a nursing home. I had friends that lived in the country and I knew that was the environment where I belonged. It took me a while to get there.
Adjusting to a New Reality in an Old Home
Pregnant and single at the age of 29, I decided that my first priority was to give my child a great quality of life. I wanted to help him discover the road less traveled; the road to personal sustainability and independence. But first, I had to know what that meant myself.
The majority of us are dependent on gasoline and electricity far too much — I wanted to escape that trap. I wanted to be able to not only survive, but enjoy life to its fullest, despite what might be happening in the world around me. I knew that the answers would be found in living a simple down-to-earth lifestyle, in escaping the things of man.
I was a struggling artist with big dreams and no savings. It was time to be practical. I decided to sell my Harley-Davidson for a down payment on a home.
I bought an unbelievably cheap old house, with the idea that I would fix it up and sell it for a healthy profit to fulfill my dream of purchasing acreage. I put my sweater-designing studio downstairs, leaving us with a large two-bedroom apartment upstairs.
During that time, I learned that owning a house that depends on oil and electricity requires a substantial cashflow to keep everything maintained and operating. My sweater-designing career hadn’t panned out the way I had planned, and it soon became clear that there might not be any profit to be made from my business or my house.
Despite these realities, life was good. We were living on the corner of a small town with friendly people, a number of fellow artisans, and a big backyard with a swimming hole across the road. I had no money, but was armed with an impressive portfolio, a solid work ethic, and deep faith that I was not alone on my quest.
Jo and Jordan wearing Jo’s knitwear. Photo by Marlene Schaly
Finding the Perfect Property and Breaking Homestead Ground
Despite my financial situation, I searched for an inexpensive piece of property that had privacy, a natural freshwater source, and a seller that had a good sense of humour and was open to negotiation.
My search brought me to an affordable piece of bush land, only 15 minutes away. It was not the kind of property that the average person would want, but to me it was a diamond in the rough — exactly what I was looking for.
The property was half rock, one quarter recently cleared field, and one quarter dense woodland with a meandering creek at the back. I fell in love with the stone ridge face that stood 20-foot-high and ran 300 feet in length, down the center of the property. At the time of purchase, there wasn’t even a driveway in. The back part of the property was like a jungle, making it difficult to walk two paces without getting stuck in the brambles.
The deal was closed before I had even seen the creek. I put a down payment on my dream and bought some time to come up with the rest of the money.
While waiting for my house to sell and my career to take off, I would spend time at the property, planning and landscaping. I purchased a set of brush cutters and started clearing a way in, following the foot of the stone ridge to the back, just in case the low-lying field flooded in the spring (good thing too!). I wanted to build away from the road and the visibility of neighbours. The view from our windows would focus solely on nature. I had the trees that were in the way cut down for firewood and started making plans for a potential house site, a garden area and, most importantly, a temporary shelter.
I bartered some furniture to have a friend build a 9-foot-by-9 ½-foot garden shed that would house my tools and a hide-a-bed couch. Jordan was now four years old and was able to help with chores. His task was to pick up sticks for kindling. At one point, we spent seven months living in that tiny shed. It was the best time ever!
The Slow Pace of Building an Off-Grid Cabin
Progress was slow, but while others were planning their exciting, one-week camping trips, we were living it. Cooking over an open-fire amidst the occasional snowfall was challenging. But witnessing pileated woodpeckers and hawks flying overhead, listening to the calls of owls and wolves, catching glimpses of foxes, moose and deer, made it all worthwhile.
The journey has been rough at times, and there have been many distractions and obstacles to overcome, but that’s just part of life. Progress was much slower than I anticipated. Jordan was 10 years old when we finally moved into our 14-by-18-foot timber-framed cabin.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with plans, but I have learned to live in the moment and take solace from my peaceful surroundings. The many photos I have taken along the way are instrumental in helping me focus on the many things that have already been accomplished. They provide evidence of just how rich our lives have been, having taken that leap of faith.
Never give up on your dreams, especially if it concerns your quality of life. If your intentions are pure, you will be blessed.
I have now been living in my cozy cabin without electricity for 20 years. Last year, I purchased a small solar panel and a marine battery to enable me to finish my second book and continue writing on my laptop. On sunny days, I can write for hours. On cloudy days, there are countless other things that can be done. When I need wifi, I drive 15 minutes to town and work from my van.
Follow Jo’s story on MOTHER EARTH NEWS to watch her cabin build reveal.
Continued Gratitude for a Well Lived Life
At present, the sun has barely been out in two weeks and I’ve got a deadline. I am sitting in my van, typing, an extension-cord plugged in at my friend Joanne’s place. I am counting my blessings.
Challenges separate those who are serious about accomplishing their goals from those who are just talking about it. When the going gets tough, we need to focus on what we can do, not on what we can’t.
In a world of unrest and worry, I sleep well knowing that my heavenly Father is watching over me, and Mother Earth is providing the things that make life worth living. A walk down a country road, or sitting by an open body of water, always helps recharge my spirit.
I hope to continue to share my many experiences with those seeking a down-to-earth, simple existence. Everything is better if we have someone to share it with.
Jo deVries, or “Jo of the Woods”, designed and built her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type lifestyle without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares her know-how for candle making, masonry, and self-sufficient living. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.