Nurtured by Nature: Remembering a Back-to-the-Land Childhood

Liz Stuart remembers her back-to-the-land childhood. The vertical-log house had a composting toilet and no hot water or television. Most food was grown and preserved at home. This lifestyle allowed creativity and community to blossom.

| December 2008/January 2009

Back-to-the-land childhood. The house was started in 1975 by three people without prior building experience.

The house was started in 1975 by three people without prior building experience.

Photo by Laurel Water

A young social worker reflects on her back-to-the-land childhood and how it has shaped her worldview.

Remembering a Back-to-the-Land Childhood

My usual response when asked where I grew up is “You’ve probably never heard of it.” Newport, Washington, population 2,000, is in the mountains of eastern Washington, about 70 miles from the Canadian border. Fifteen miles west of Newport and two miles off the pavement, the homestead where I was raised is even further off the map.

My older brother Tighe and I grew up in a continually evolving log house that was started in 1975 by three college friends: John Stuart and Carol Mack (my parents) and Cheryl Long (now editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS). The house is on 40 acres of wild land where my parents choose to live a sustainable and low-impact existence. For our family, this lifestyle meant extensive gardening, using an outhouse and constant exploration of the outdoors.

Now I’m a resident of Portland, Oregon, with a degree in social work, and I’m thankful my first 18 years were spent in the country developing a keen awareness of my natural surroundings and learning to value a self-sufficient lifestyle.

Homegrown Harvests

One of the greatest advantages of growing up in our rural setting was eating homegrown organic produce. The crops from our half-acre garden were supplemented with some items from town, but fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs were the norm each summer. Until I left home, I did not realize what a luxury it was to simply walk into the garden to harvest dinner or the occasional snack. My parents claim the strawberry yield increased dramatically after I left for college.

Even in winter, we ate homegrown fruit and veggies. Carrots and potatoes were packed in sand and stored, along with bags of apples, in underground barrels insulated with dried leaves. Squash was a staple all winter long, as were garlic and dried Indian corn, which we ground into purple cornmeal. We blanched and froze green beans, Swiss chard, corn, broccoli and cauliflower. We canned salsa and dilly beans and froze blueberries, raspberries and wild huckleberries to be served on pancakes and waffles throughout the winter.

1/8/2009 7:13:21 AM

Wow, Liz, what a beautiful article! I loved it, and I can relate in some ways to how you grew up, as it was similar to how I grew up. I hope your dreams for a happy future are all fulfilled, and I thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Very best, kevin

boomer harry
12/14/2008 1:28:36 PM

Thank you Mother Earth News and Liz Stuart Truly familiar visions and great memories from this reading.

joe anderson
12/5/2008 11:51:17 PM

Great article by from all appearances an awesome young lady, just wish there were more people my own age out there that were interested in this type of thing! I'm 25 and living simply!

skye maclean_2
11/30/2008 10:48:13 PM

I really enjoyed the article "Nurtured by Nature: Remembering a Back-to-the-Land Childhood" It brought so many smiles and memories to mind of my own life and how we live- I was reading a portion of the article where she remembered “taking a bath in half of a blue plastic 50-gallon barrel in front of the woodstove in the main room.” I joked to my own teenage girls commenting that at least when we had no hot water and they had to bathe in the 30 gallon water trough, they had some privacy lol. It was nice hearing that someone else other than us felt that bathing this way always felt more fullfilling than just turning on the shower knob. I swear in the end I am cleaner....:) It was refreshing reading about someone else who “gets” the idea of a composting toilet. When company comes over and I show them to the sawdust toilet and explain to them how it works and how to use it I am usually met with a blank stare of disbelief or a small uncomfortable giggle while they somehow feel that they must be on candid camera or the butt of a odd joke. Reading her stories about the “epic 3 hour game of tag in the moonlight in 2 feet of snow” made me smile recalling some of our own epic games under the moonlight (though usually capture the flag:) lol – my team NEVER wins:) I really enjoyed reading Liz's story who knew she was blessed by the simple things in life when she was a kid, "feeling a little nostalgic thinking about washing her hair in a bucket, heating bricks on the woodstove to warm her feet on winter nights, and going outside to get to the toilet." When she wrote “I now know I was blessed to have the privilege of seeing the stars and moon on my way to the bathroom every night of my first 18 years.” Not many people understand this way of thinking – it was really inspriring to read about someone who does. Thank you for your story Liz:) Sincerely, Skye MacLean

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