Know Your DIY Limits: Safety on the Homestead

Reader Contribution by John Atwell
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East Hawaii, the windward side of the Big Island, is a bastion of do-it-yourself practitioners. This widespread spirit of self-sufficiency and body of DIY expertise are two of many factors that drew us to this rock when we decided to break from our conventional lives and white collar jobs on the mainland to develop a homestead.

For additional context, let me just mention that during our two years here our family members have rubbed elbows with folk who have personally, and by hand, converted their vehicles to biodiesel and now propel themselves ’round the island using only old kitchen grease scrounged from local eateries.

We have come to know an individual who, by himself and in the later years of his life, like a modern-day Grizzly Adams, built a two-story cabin (that we stayed in for some time) using only hand-powered tools. We have gotten acquainted with contemporary settlers who have designed and hand constructed multi-room compost toilets that exhibit design elegance, efficiency, and functionality (not to mention no smell) that would have left Leonardo DaVinci in awe.

Wild guava saplings hand hewn and woven into a fence on our property.

Learning the Limits of DIY Acumen

This said, we have also come to realize that not everyone who has the time and inclination for DIY projects should necessarily engage in said endeavors, at least not on every level. We have witnessed self-done projects that had function and form, some that exhibited neither, and some that were outright dangerous.

We have learned, too, that some DIYers are more motivated by innate rebellion against “The Man” than a desire for sustainable living — not that this is necessarily wrongheaded. (“Permits? We don’t need no stinkin’ permits!”)

For our part, we long ago acknowledged and learned to manage our personal, relatively low-level of handiness. Screw together 2-by-8s and attach PVC segments to create net-covered raised beds? No problem. Homemade lacto-fermented sauerkraut, shampoo, and toothpaste?  Piece of cake. Install or repair our own plumbing or electricity. Not at this juncture.

Since deciding to more fully embrace the path of the homesteader, have we moved to learn new skills? Sure. In the past 2 years, our family members have learned to butcher both sheep and cows, vaccinate pets against local life threatening plagues, can everything from jams and jellies to fresh caught tuna, and inoculate natural growing media with mychorriza to propagate mushrooms.

That said, we know what we are good at and we are perfectly comfortable trading those skills (or coin earned for said skills) for the expertise and experience that are prudent to have when executing some other things not only well, but safely (and sometimes legally).

Working Smart Over Working Hard

Put another way, we like to learn new things, and we enjoy a bit of toil, but — in our estimation — it sometimes boils down to working smart over simply working hard (instances of economic necessity not withstanding).

Undoubtedly, there is pride to be had in self-reliance. We have tasted that on some levels. It is also true that maiming and death, of self or others, at the hands of your own creation tend to meter pride. We’ll happily trade or pay for some goods and skilled services, as necessary, to better manage such risks and still acquire what we need.

So, must you do everything yourself to be a real homesteader, a practitioner of sustainable living, a good steward of the earth? Of course not. Even pioneers of old traded what they could produce well for goods and services of those who were able to do or make other things better. (Some home-brewed fruit vinegar for your handcrafted cheese? A bit of ironmongery in exchange for some carpentry help?)

Also, as alluded to above, not everyone has the same motivation to homestead. We have watched several renegade DIY practitioners, in the name of self-reliance, beam with pride while engaged in construction projects that they were not qualified (or legally permitted) to carry out, at risk to themselves and family, who also import GMO corn and soybean feed for their turkeys, dust their cooped up chickens with toxic miticides, and burn their plastic recyclables in open fires. Sustainability, stewardship, and homesteading are much more than DIY, in our estimation.

John and Esther Atwell and their four kids’ journey into sustainable living, organic food, and homesteading began while living in the San Francisco Bay in the 2008-2010 timeframe. Their current grand life experiment — detaching from a fast-paced, conventional, urban lifestyle to establish a sustainable, organic homestead, homeschool their kids, and become more involved in community and church — began in earnest in early 2014. The couple, graduates of Duke University and the University of Virginia, have homeschooled their four children — two of whom are now in college — and Esther previously ran a tutoring business focused on hard sciences and math up through calculus.  Find them online at Sojourn Chronicle and read all of John’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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