The Meaning of Life on an Off-Grid Homestead

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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Isn’t there a Monty Python movie about the meaning of life? It’s kind of a big question. I think I came up with the answer.

My epiphany started while I was sorting the recyclables in the garage. This is a big deal in my world, because we only go to the dump 4 or 5 times a year. Eventually the recyclables start to pile up and I start running out of room in the garage and I snap, have a hissy fit and rant about it being time to do a dump run.

We have a fairly good recycling program because we only take one bag of garbage, but the car these days is weighted down with the other stuff, especially since we started a decluttering campaign. Turns out if you save magazines for ….17 years, they really pile up. Here’s that goes on in my head; “Well, I might refer to them at some point. No you won’t. Recycle them. Okay.”

Michelle and I have been recycling for 30 years, so it’s not like this is new to me, but for some reason on this recent morning it all just seemed kind of pointless. Why am I doing this? What’s the purpose? Where did all these things come from? Do I not have something better to do with my time? When humans figured out how to save some seeds and begin agriculture and harness fossil fuels to free up our time to do other stuff, was this the end game? Was this what all the innovation and sweat and toil and blood and tears for? So I could spend an hour and a half in my garage tying up old magazines and sorting the glass from the metal and the soft plastic from the hard plastic?

Is this all there is? Is this my ultimate purpose on this planet? Is there no grander plan that I’m involved with, or is it just this?

And there you have it. My existential moment. I use the word constantly, have never figured out what it means, but I think it fits here. I think this is the meaning of existential.

It was kind of a strange time to have such a moment. I am an environmentalist. I hate wasting stuff, so sorting recyclables should be no big deal. In fact, since the end result is a trip to the dump, which can be a pretty exciting excursion, there was no real basis for this emotion. But there it was.

I told Michelle about my existential crisis in the garage, but she didn’t seem too concerned. I got one of those “just suck it up and get on with your miserable life” looks.

But I shouldn’t get these. I live in paradise. I live at one of the greatest times in human history. We have iPhones, we can Skype, we have backup cameras on our cars (well ours doesn’t, but I hear that other people’s cars do) we buy can buy Meals Ready to Eat … where the meal comes in a package and cooks itself, in the package!

The good thing was the moment did pass. But it just kind of sat there at the back of my consciousness for the next few days. I kept coming back to it.

At breakfast the next morning Michelle and I began sharing memories of our honeymoon, when we drove from Eastern Canada to British Columbia and then down to California. We camped and were away for a whole summer. Michelle reminded me of waking up on Mount Rainer in Washington State in July, with frost on the tent and not wanting to walk to the washrooms because of the fear of bears. We had arrived the day before and the mountain had been covered in fog. We woke to a beautiful sunny day and the view of the mountain was spectacular.

At one point in our conversation Michelle said, “it’s been quite an adventure, leaving the comfort of suburbia.” I thought she meant our trip out west, but what she was really referring to was our move to our off-grid home in the woods 17 years ago. And it truly has. It’s been fantastic. It’s been frustrating and terrifying and mostly utterly brilliant.

I spent the rest of that day rototilling gardens to get ready for planting for our CSA. It was a beautiful spring day without a cloud in the sky. I worked from garden to garden, thinking about what had been planted where over the last few years so that I could figure out what should go where this year. And where to put the corn to prepare for the raccoon apocalypse that will descend upon us once the corn is ready to pick.

I sweated a lot. I drank a lot of water from our well. Our crystal clear well without a home or farm or business for 100 miles around that might contaminate it. As I worked the chickens roamed the gardens scratching and pecking in the soil. And I thought about the people with jobs in the city. I thought about the work I used to do, promoting businesses, to help them sell more stuff. And I thought about the drive home those suburban people would have, and the traffic, and the exhaustion they might be feeling when they came through the door and still had to cook dinner.

Later that day I walked in the door in time to help with dinner and I was exhausted. The kitchen floor was kind of covered in dirt because eventually I just got tired of taking my muddy work boots off every time I came in. Oh, and the cat had been rolling in the straw outside and then tracked it through the house, so I wasn’t the only offender.

After dinner I went out to work on the new greenhouse in the barn foundation. And a million birds were singing. And a thousand spring peepers were peeping. And I could hardly walk I was so tired. And I walked from garden to garden that were now ready for planting. And I walked by the two new beds I’ve made for the 100 new raspberry stalks that are on order. And then I dragged the tire from the manure trailer that loses pressure over time down to the pond to see if I could spot the leak.

And finally I dragged myself on to the porch. And there it was. The answer. To the question. I make next to no money. But I do live like a king. And I grow food, the most basic thing that we all need and really, the lowest common denominator for someone trying to earn a living and yet have the lowest impact they can. We all have to eat. And I grow food as sustainably as I can. And I use organic growing methods and human power where others use chemicals and fossil fuels in their tractors. I work at a small level. I work at a level I can tolerate. I can live with what I do. I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Our adventure continues everyday. And I never regret leaving suburbia. I’m so glad I did when I was still strong enough to work like I do.

Life is good.

The recyclables … they’re just a little nuisance along the way.

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