Sane and Sustainable Homesteading, Part 1

Reader Contribution by Steve Maxwell
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Many people in the world long for a life in the country, lived on their own terms, close to nature, honest and hands-on. A few of these people take this feeling far enough to make the leap, leaving the city, buying land and striving to live the homestead dream. That was me in 1985. But too many of these people find that homesteading is harder, less fulfilling and more painful than they imagined. Too many end up abandoning the dream, feeling guilty, discouraged and inadequate. It’s a shame, a waste of life and it’s often unnecessary.

Homesteading is Easier Than Ever, But . . .

The fact is, now is the best time in history to live the homesteading life. That’s what I’ve found over the last 30 years of living at the end of a little cart track called Bailey Line Road. Technologies exist that empower the individual like never before. Cities are becoming less livable, rural areas have room for more hard-working residents, and the opportunity to make the economics of homesteading succeed have never been rosier. So why is it so simple to find people who’ve tried homesteading and given up? It usually comes down to failures of philosophy.

Google “Why I Quit Homesteading” and you’ll find lots of would-be homesteaders who aren’t nearly as happy as they used to be. Some are back in the city, some end up tied to a job they hate in town, others are living some watered down, emaciated version of the liberating dream that led them out of the city in the first place. Over the years I’ve seen many homesteaders come and go, and there’s a pattern to what I see.

The Homesteading Dilemma

Perhaps the most common reason for homesteading failure is rejecting too much technology. I know this pitfall well because I used to hold it dear. I say “dear” because it was like a badge of honor. My original homesteading plan had been to have only a hand pump for water, only a dirt floor in my log cabin, horses to do all the pulling work, and a food supply that came entirely from my land.

I set out to dig a 40-foot x 60-foot basement excavation by hand, I built an all-wood wheelbarrow using hand tools only (even the wheel and axle were wood), and my only bathroom would be an outhouse in a region that regularly gets down to -20 degrees F.  I’d mistakenly believed that the big problem with my modern, unfulfilling city life was all that technology and “the grid”. And the more I eliminated this stuff from my life, the closer I’d get to living the deep joy, sustainability and satisfaction of living in the Garden of Eden. Or so I believed.

Homesteading Theory Versus Homesteading Practice

Funny thing was, the more I actually used the right kind of technology in the right way, the better my homesteading life succeeded and the happier I was. I struggled with this internal contradiction for years, grudgingly adding technology to my homesteading life and feeling guilty about it while also marveling at how much it helped me. I’m not talking about new or fancy technology, either. Many of my things are old, well-used, well-loved friends, such as my 60 year old tractor.

But in a single moment one night as I lay in bed, I had a realization that changed everything. The natural world is not perfect, it’s not the Garden of Eden, and living with nature will always require some kind of struggle. Often quite a bit of struggle. Technology helps us struggle more effectively and now I embrace it. That’s not to say that all technology is beneficial, but your homestead plans are doomed to failure if you believe that homesteading is all about getting primitive and rejecting technology.

I’m now delighted to be connected to the grid, I love my electric welder, the internet is the engine that keeps my homestead financed and I’m so thankful I get to live on my land and never leave the property to earn a buck unless I want to. We don’t milk goats, we don’t raise all our own meat or grow 1000 lbs of yams each year. We can’t afford to grow that much on our own, and you probably can’t either. Sounds strange? After all, how can you not “afford” to grow food that doesn’t cost you any money to produce?

It comes down to how much time you have in the day and how many other important things you need to get done. Poor time management and ill-placed focus is often a huge problem with homesteaders.

I could go on, and I do. Click to learn more about how sustainable homesteading works in the real world.

Steve Maxwell, “Canada’s Handiest Man”, is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. For more than two decades he’s been helping people renovate, repair, build and maintain their homes. Find him online at Maxwell’s House blogand read all of Steve’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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