Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
The winter is just a little older than it was when we moved to our Middle Tennessee farm only two years ago. From this we take heart in spring being that much closer.
Until then, our tree-covered landscape is gray-on-gray, and usually the sky matches. I could say this bleak scenery has its own loveliness, or is graceful in its starkness, much as puffing academics and breathless art poseurs claim there is a particular beauty to the crumbling remains of my hometown, Detroit. They call it “ruin porn.”
Fact is we mope some in winter, wife Vicki and I, unhappy when there’s sleet and black ice, just as unhappy when things warm a bit because the rains turn the wispy topsoil on our rocky ground into slippery mush. We see the Tennessee sun far more often than the one we saw in Michigan, but still not nearly enough.
Are we fair-weather farmers? No. Things move forward on Shuddering Squirrel Acres, our homestead in the hills of Middle Tennessee about 45 miles southeast of Nashville. We’re just as happy and enthusiastic about our five-acre property, mostly woodlands, as at any other time of year.
It’s just that, as much as a fair shot at peace and solitude, we moved here for renewal, so our moods are better in spring and summer, though Vicki also blossoms in autumn.
I get a little grumpy and more introspective in winter than in brighter times, and it just happens that’s how you find me in this first blog post for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. I’m not trying to bring you down, just give you a little context for what else follows. People today like to speak of what has “informed” their lives. Mine, unavoidably, was mostly shaped in a tough city, one of the toughest. Sometimes it shows. Just so you know.
We have a full agenda, short-term and long, here on Shuddering Squirrel Acres. The name was chosen well before having any idea where we’d find our ideal property. We scouted nearly all of the southern states, including west of the Mississippi, before finding it high on a hilltop (like the lonely goatherd) in a hardscrabble agricultural county of Middle Tennessee. It’s only coincidence that the place we chose is thickly populated by relentlessly destructive gray squirrels, which have had a reason to shudder since Our Trusty Dog Pete joined the outfit a few months ago.
There are others: one rooster, five hens and, inside, two cats and a maroon-belly conure, a personable little guy named Monk. Conures are small parrots and can talk, though Monk hasn’t shown much ambition in that. He slurs most of the few words he knows. But Monk predates everyone else in our ménage, and saw me through some deadly serious tough times, so he enjoys special status as a trench buddy.
By choice, we now live in the sort of place where Vicki can say, “I’ve always wanted a greenhouse,” and we can pick a patch of land and build it. I’ve wanted to own some land since childhood summer months spent with farming relatives in central Indiana. I never forgot the taste of farm-fresh eggs or the hysterical sideshow provided by chickens. Now I have the land, the eggs, and the chickens, and plan to add some meat rabbits, a couple of goats for cheese and amusement, one day maybe a pair of miniature donkeys to keep bad critters at bay. Who knows.
I kept honeybees for a couple of seasons in Michigan, and started right back up down here, envisioning hundreds of pounds of sweet, curative, sustaining honey this summer after last was spent in establishing the two colonies. But the weather here, as in nearly every other part of the country, did as much harm as good, and our take was only a little more than six pounds. More on that later.
The most essential piece of equipment on Shuddering Squirrel Acres is the small John Deere tractor I bought after spending two hours in our first spring digging an 18-inch deep posthole for a bird feeder. With its backhoe and front loader, there isn’t much it can’t accomplish around the property, from digging new garden beds to hauling fallen lumber out of the woods.
Incidentally, I already have a spot picked out in the thick of our woodlands for the writing retreat and office I’ll build using earthbag construction. I’m less sure about sites for our wood-fired clay oven, or the stock-tank hot tub and outdoor shower, which will be components of a hillside pond/pool and waterfall that we’ll build before too much time passes.
There’s also a root cellar to dig and rig; a small barn to build for tractor, feed, and livestock; a better composting operation than the temporary pile that now serves; paths to clear; benches to build; a handmade furnace for making hardwood charcoal to feed my barbecue pit, and which will also fuel my forge as I try to learn basic blacksmithing and blademaking when I can.
All these and other projects, however, have to wait until I finish turning an unused bedroom into the library both Vicki and I have always wanted. I’m building the bookcases in my woodshop, after pausing to make a cradle this past fall for our first grandchild, little ol’ Jack.
These aren’t the idle mental meanderings of a dilettante. I’ve always been what a friend long ago called “a low-rent renaissance man,” with a breadth of interests that naturally suited me for journalism. Most of the things I’m now planning for Shuddering Squirrel Acres have been under study for years, waiting for the time when I was lucky enough, intent enough, or ambitious enough to do what Vicki and I did two years ago. Between the two of us, all three things came into play.
So here we are. I’ll spend a few blog posts catching up on those first two years here, and then take you along as we keep things moving.
I do hope you’ll engage me with questions, observations, challenges, suggestions – whatever. Let’s build a community of peace-loving adventurers, share our triumphs and flops, and put enough in to get a lot out.
Call me Ric.
(Almost forgot. I’ve kept a personal blog since moving to Tennessee. It’s called, “I’m mildly concerned that one of my hens is a rooster…” and can be found at http://shudderingsquirrelacres.blogspot.com/.)
Photos by Ric Bohy