The Importance of Quiet Reflection
At first blush, “Quiet Reflection” may not seem like a necessary homesteading skill. Yet, I think it is probably one of the most important skills to hone if you want to become more self-sufficient.
Before I started growing my own food, raising my own livestock, building structures, and more, I was a city dweller. I worked at a law firm, wore business suits, and bought everything it took to sustain my life. So many of us come to homesteading by opting out of, or away from, other forms of living.
We choose self-sufficiency because we are tired of being dependent on systems we don't trust. We do this work because we care about our carbon footprint, about civic responsibility to our fellow humans and nature, and we don't want to be cogs in industries that don't have our best interests at heart.
We become homesteaders to live a good and meaningful life. Sometimes though, after a few years of rushing to become fully-fledged homesteaders, we lose sight of our initial intent and slip back into old habits.
Self-Sufficient or Different-Dependent?
The homesteading experience is a lot like falling head over heels in love. At first you can't get enough of it. You learn so much, so fast. You build confidence and want to take on more. There's constant novelty to keep you interested.
After a while, though, that excitement-fueled energy begins to dissipate. The shiny of that new relationship with life wears off. And you have choices to make.
If you are like me, maybe the realization that your homesteading dreams have gone awry comes over you as a physical experience. Perhaps, as you are unloading your hundreds of pounds of livestock feed, you feel light-headed, and your vision blurs. When things come back into focus, you suddenly see your feed-filled Honda Fit hatchback with fresh perspective.
You recognize you've basically traded shopping at the grocery store for shopping at the feed store. Yes, it costs less and comes with more satisfaction. But, you've missed the point. You're not self-sufficient, you're just different-dependent.
Then like any new relationship, you find yourself at a point where you must decide – is this really working or am I just fooling myself? Do I want to take this to the next level, beyond the excitement and novelty, beyond the throes of early love, and develop something enduring?
Or, do I want to admit that homesteading was really just a way to distract myself from the life I had before and now it's time to move on to something else?
Quite frankly, this is the point when most people say, we'll that was fun. But I need to get a real job and stop wasting my time. However, if you are in this for the long-haul, this is when the practice of quiet reflection becomes a critical skill.
Why We Need Quiet Reflection
Each thing you learn, each activity you complete, each set back you suffer, each hurdle you overcome transforms you. You can't make your first kill as a hunter or meat processor without being altered. You can't grow a garden without growing yourself too. You can't forage for food without being amazed at the depth and complexity of living systems.
As you integrate these experiences into your sense of self, you change. As you change, your wants, needs, and reasons for doing things change too. But many of us are used to operating on automatic pilot. Once we start a job, get used to eating certain foods, develop routines – we literally wear a groove into our lives that is hard to escape without conscious thought.
Homesteading is no different. You start raising chickens, milking goats, processing ducks, and before you know it – you've created a life just as mindless and unsustainable as the one you tried to escape.
This is human nature. We like habits and routines. They make us efficient and effective. Problem is, unless we stop and think about what we are doing and why we are doing it, we will simply apply our old habits of being to our new way of living.
Maybe we start using homemade cleaning products instead of store-bought. We're using just as many products only now, it takes longer to make them. We start a goat herd, make our own cheese. But, we want all the styles we are used to having – mozzarella, cheddar, Parmesan, brie, and so on. So, we order more equipment. We start raising chickens for meat, but get bored with just eating chicken. We want the variety we had at the grocery store, so we get a couple pigs, some ducks, take up hunting, share a cow, etc.
I bet you can see a trend here. As we try to recreate the things we had in our old life, the workload starts to stack up. And if we are not careful, the so-called “simple life” starts to be a complicated mess. Quiet reflection is literally your escape hatch from this trap.
Quiet Reflection Tips
Quiet reflection is an inherently personal activity. I can't tell you exactly how to do it. But, I can tell you some things that have worked for me.
1. Remember Why
As I said at the outset, we all start doing this for specific reasons. They may have been extremely idealistic, but they were important enough to set us on a path to radically alter our lives. But what were they?
Why did you want to do this? That's the biggest question I ask myself. And like any good former business manager knows, a good way to get to the real truth of a thing is to ask “why” enough times that an honest answer emerges.
Maybe that process looks something like this. Well, I wanted to grow my own food. Why? Because I have no idea what's in the stuff at the grocery store? Why? Well because I don't know the people who grow it. Why? Because we've become a society of consumers. Why? We've lost our connection to the land, to nature, to the underpinnings that sustain us. And, we just don't know the true value or costs of things anymore. Why?
By this point I am losing patience with myself. I feel like a child irritating their parents with incessant why's. Still I keep asking until I finally get to something that feels like the underlying truth.
I don't want to be a robot just doing what other people pay me to do or influence me to do. I want to create a life of meaning wherein I can take care of myself without being exploited or exploiting others to do it.
Or as Thoreau put it, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Your answers may be similar or different. But when you finally get to that deeper level and have something real to work with, it becomes easier for other kinds of reflection.
2. How Am I Doing?
The next step in my reflection process is to ask myself if my current choices are bringing me closer to the reasons why I wanted this life. In my case, that carload of duck feed was a big clue as to that answer.
Don't just ask this question about the big things, though, ask it about the little things too. For example, I consider myself a “recovering consumer”. Even after years of curbing my consumption, on occasional trips to the market, I still unwittingly put things into my cart that I don't need (or want) just because they are on sale.
A moment of quiet reflection over the contents of my shopping cart usually results in several items being returned to the shelves before I step up to the register. Worrying about a few extra items may seem silly to some. But, I know the real costs of cheap goods – in terms of human exploitation and environmental degradation. To me, it's not just some silly thing in my cart, it's a test of my resolve to live equitably (e.g. earth care, people care, fair share).
3. How Can I Get Back on Track?
The first two questions are really about understanding your motivations and whether what you are doing is working or not. This kind of self-evaluation is the easy part of quiet reflection. The hard part is figuring out what to next.
How do I stop filling my Honda Fit with duck feed? The easy answer is don't keep ducks. Yet, ducks are the fertility source for our food systems. Someday, those systems will be sufficient to support our ducks. But not yet. Finding the right balance between using “different-dependency” now to attain greater self-sufficiency later is the challenge.
In my case, I cut my duck population by half and stopped selling duck at the farmers market. I am spending on truckloads of compost instead of feed and am adding more perennial plants as duck forage for the long-term. Spreading compost for a few hours and planting seeds takes less time than regular trips to the feed mill.
All of the above assumes you have the luxury of being able to make decisions about how you want to live. Sadly though, those of us who can, are in the minority. Some places are so violent and so environmentally devastated that daily survival is a challenge.
In my opinion, those of us who do fall in this category – of being able to choose how we live -- have responsibilities to choose to pathways that honor our extreme good fortune. To choose to live lives of excess - to the detriment of those who have limited choices – is a terrible injustice. Yet, it's one I commit regularly simply because I fail to appreciate what I already have.
Dwelling on the simple fact that I have the luxury of being able to imagine and create a meaningful life, is one of the most effective forms of quiet reflection in my repertoire. When I do this often, all the things I think I want, all the stuff I imagine I have to do, start to seem ridiculous.
For example, do I really need to order 15 more fruit trees? Or, do I just need to show my appreciation for the 15 I already planted by helping them reach their full potential? Do I need to raise 4 pigs instead of 2? Or do I just need to spend that extra time saved raising fewer pigs by fully appreciating the sacrifice of life and making use of every part of the pig? Can I do most of my cleaning with soap or a vinegar water mix plus caring attention? Or do I really need to make products for each different surface and room of the house?
The truth is, there is no such thing as total self-sufficiency. Even if you can do it all on your own, the resources you draw from – wood, water, soil, air - come from a living and giving planet.
You can create the ideal conditions for making soil, but you can not make it yourself. You can plant things, but you rely on the original plant material to make seeds or starts. You need sun, soil, and all the conditions necessary to life that have evolved over billions of years to grow plants.
The closest we can come to self-sufficiency is to learn our true needs and work with nature to meet them with as little detriment as possible. Then, we can deeply enjoy what we have through appreciation. Quiet reflection is the essential homesteading tool that can help you cross the threshold into greater true self-sufficiency.
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape. For an up to date list of Tasha's current works visit her here.
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