The Good Life Get-Together: Homesteading Workshops

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John Rexelman gives fruit tree students some pruning tips.
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Wind power expert Carl Tourtellotte demonstrates that assembling your own powerplant is an elevating undertaking. 
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One of the nice features of the festival is that participants—such as this chain saw instructor—give mini-workshops of their own!

“Two-thirds of the people who attempted homesteading back in the 60’s and 70’s failed, for lack of skills and lack of community support.” Norm Lee spoke those words, and he should know . . . because he came very close to being one of those failed back-to-the-landers. He and his wife Sherrie moved onto a few undeveloped acres in upstate New York in November of 1976. Soon after their arrival, that area was hit with its worst winter in decades, Sherrie lost her job (the couple’s sole steady source of income), and Norm nearly died of the flu.

Both Lees now admit that their plunge into homesteading was a bit rough (“We don’t recommend that anyone go through what we did,” Norm says), but in spite of their misfortunes, they were able to stick it out. After the pair pulled through that first winter, they decided they should help combat the isolation that had increased their own troubles by organizing an annual festival for homesteaders. As a by-product of that project, they also created a small networking periodical, the Homesteaders News. And through Norm’s and Sherrie’s zealous efforts, both the magazine (a home-typed and hand-lettered 64-page journal) and the yearly Good Life Get-Together have evolved.

Norm and Sherrie preach and practice a simple homesteading lifestyle. They reside in a one-room geodesic cabin they built with 2 X 6’s and five-pointed (“Starplate” brand) connectors . . . grow most of the food for their vegetarian diet in a raised-bed, backhoe-dug garden . . . and enjoy the secret of “not wanting more than earning will buy” (i.e., they live on little cash). Their real work, though, is to build a network of homesteaders–as their magazine puts it, to help others learn “how to live simply and sanely in a troubled world”–and the annual climax of those labors occurs every July at the Good Life Get-Together. (The event’s title reflects the couple’s deep admiration for Helen and the late Scott Nearing, the famed twentieth-century homesteaders who wrote a series of books about the “Good Life”.)

One MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffer, Pat Stone, took his family to last summer’s festival (the sixth) in Naples, New York and found it to be an enjoyable, worthwhile, and stimulating event. The setting was plain (almost Spartan): The primitive camping consisted of privies, one double sink, and a chilly shower. But that rarely dimmed the enthusiasm of the well-qualified instructors, whose ranks included Plowboy interviewees John Holt and Andrew Saul. Likewise, the dedication of the more than 200 participants was just as clearly felt as the friendly atmosphere of the opening night’s country dance.

In between that Wednesday shindig and the closing circle on the following Saturday were three activity-filled days of workshops. The material covered in these sessions included beginning welding . . . beekeeping … hydroelectricity … calligraphy … working a horse . . . pole barn construction . . . cooking natural foods . . . home schooling . . . winemaking . . . dry stone wall construction . . . home health care . . . cheese making . . . mail-order home business . . . wind power . . . organic-food gardening . . . and more. Each day offered three two-hour workshop sessions, and that schedule was repeated throughout the week, so by the end of Saturday everyone attending had had six hours of concentrated instruction in each of the three main subject areas.

And while there’s nothing like delving into a topic for three sessions to make you realize you can’t learn everything about anything in six hours–particularly when so many of the workshops tried to combine “book learning” with a bit of hands-on experience–most of the sessions seemed to do a good job of imparting knowledge. The MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffer certainly enjoyed the three workshops he attended: Dennis Lamoureux’s Passive Solar Design (“It takes an open design and a lot of thermal mass to make a good solar house. After all, you have to absorb three times the heat you need during the day, since you get sunshine for only eight hours but need to heat the house for 24.”) … John Rezelman’s Fruit Trees (“You want to prune branches to thin the tree and to let light in . . . enough, say, so a robin could fly all through the tree and not touch it with his wings.”), and Andrew Saul’s Practical Nutrition (“People need vitamins today more than they did in biblical times, because their lives and environments are more stressful. In a way, you feel New York City even up here in Naples.”).

Each day’s main sessions were followed by a series of ten-minute demonstrations by attendees who were willing to share a skill of their own. These exchanges covered all sorts of topics: juggling, organizing a food co-op, drying green lumber, playing the cello, dowsing, quilt making, running a window-cleaning business, maple sugaring, organizing family games, scything, hewing a log, making miso soup, and even writing an article for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. (Guess who taught that one!) In addition, the Good Life Get-Together featured children’s workshops–for those aged 7 to 14–and supervised sandbox play for two- to six-year-olds.

The highlights of the festival, however, were the interactions among the participants. There was an ongoing interchange of ideas, know-how, opinions, and puzzlements, from one man’s complimenting his female coworker’s talent for building stone walls (“You work good with shapes.” “Yeah, I sew, so I’ve had a lot of practice with spatial relationships.”) to the home orchardist’s confession that he’d waited ten years until he’d cleared a certain back patch of ground before trying to put in some fruit trees . . . only to find that the area had bedrock eight inches down!

If any one issue dominated these exchanges, though, it was certainly the topic of homesteading itself: what it is, why do it, and how to do it. A discussion about that was officially kicked off by Norm Lee and prominent self-reliance author John Vivian, who held a public debate in which they disagreed–on several points–as to what homesteading’s really about. Norm said, “First off, unplug the TV. It’s the hook that keeps you wanting all the time.” And John countered, “I need the television to help me stay tuned to the outside world.” After Mr. Lee declared that people should quit raising and eating meat, Mr. Vivian remarked that he didn’t see a thing wrong with dining on some of his daughter’s home-reared fowl. And when Norm said folks should buy used clothing, John replied that that was also a matter of personal preference. He, for one, wasn’t going to subject his children to social rejection by making them look like sloppy oddballs to their peers.

Of course, the debate was amiable–and included many topics of agreement–but it did serve to liven the place up and to intentionally illustrate that, as Vivian put it, “homesteading is defined by the person who’s doing it”. Or, as Norm added, “Homesteading is a very–if not fiercely–individual thing. There are as many approaches to homesteading as there are homesteaders.”

The two made several other noteworthy points, such as:

John: The most important requirement for beginning homesteading is that you do have money to get going. Know before you make the jump how much you’ll need to get started. Then raise double that amount . . . because you’ll blow your estimate.

Norm: To those who feel you can’t homestead till you get those fifty acres, Sherrie and I say you can begin tomorrow morning at the breakfast table by changing how you eat. Are you going to sell your blocks of time somewhere to get the money to buy a car to drive to the supermarket to pay a cashier for your meals . . . or are you going to start a garden so you can step outside the kitchen and pick your food?

John: You’ve got to enjoy homesteading enough to make worthwhile the changes and compromises it demands. Face it, fresh homegrown peas taste wonderful, but after 25 years they get old, like anything else. So you have to keep learning and finding new challenges . . . maybe even pack up once in a while and start over someplace else!

Norm: I’m opposed to the bayonet-in-the-teeth survivalist mentality. Instead, I want to work on networking and building community. If disaster strikes and the mobs come out from the city, we won’t machine gun them down. Instead, we’ll hand them some seeds and show them how easy it is to grow their own food.

Vivian’s and Lee’s exchange was just one of the many discussions on the self-reliant lifestyle. A particularly moving interaction took place at a “singles’ homesteading” roundtable. “It’s hard to get over the loneliness of trying to do it all by yourself,” one woman admitted. “I mean, you can’t tell the dog about the joy of finding a tiny bird in its nest. The dog’d eat the baby!” “But,” a young male replied, “it’s better to do it yourself than to have the wrong partner. It’s no fun having a mate who sucks your funds for cordwood into Sasson jeans!”

Such discussions pointed out how much the homesteading, back-to-the-land, self-reliant–well, whatever you want to call it–movement has changed from its first revival in the sixties. Oh, it’s still going strong: The participants at the sixth annual Good Life Get-Together were earnest and committed. But today’s self-reliance seekers view the world with less naiveté than did their predecessors, tackling the task with more of a “let’s roll up our sleeves and face the rewards and difficulties” realism. They also seem to accept the concept that homesteading can be an evolutionary process and not necessarily an all-or-nothing, revolutionary move. As Norm Lee put it during the festival, “We all have one thing in common: We’re all on the path to self-reliance.” Perhaps working toward the Good Life is actually the best life of all, for–as Scott Nearing was fond of saying (quoting Robert Louis Stevenson–“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on the Good Life Get-Together, contact Homesteaders News.

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