Our friend’s daughter had just completed her second year of college, and wanted to travel for a week before returning to New York for a summer job in theater. My wife and I invited her to stay with us on our homestead in Utah.
One day toward the end of her visit, the three of us sat on the porch eating omelets. Sunlight dappled the poppies. Hens, the source of our eggs, pecked and scratched in the garden. A breeze wafted through the canyon. “Would you be willing,” I asked Sophie, “to share impressions of your visit?”
Ordinarily chatty, Sophie turned quiet. She fidgeted with the pendant on her necklace.
I tried to surmise her feelings. To my mind, the week had been pleasant. An avid permaculturist, Monte gave her tours of our garden. I taught her how to bake bread. The three of us took a day trip to Tony Grove, an alpine wilderness teeming with wildflowers and pine. And then we offered Sophie another quality we value: unstructured time. Without pressing obligations, she could read or walk or in any other way follow her spirit. Wedged between a busy semester and demanding summer job, these seven days provided a chance to relax.
“Do you want an honest answer?” Sophie’s dark eyes suggested reluctance.
Monte turned to her with an expression of gentle alertness. “I think you know us well enough for that.”
“I don’t get how the two of you can stand to live here. It’s so incredibly dull!”
I Love Creating an Art Form
Early this morning, I was sitting on the same tumbledown porch drinking coffee. Already I’d spent an hour watering the garden, another drying lavender and thyme. Soon I’d go inside to work. But for a while longer I’d delight in the shimmering of aspen leaves, the flowering of zinnias, the fruiting of vines. We live on our homestead for the beauty of it, which we’ve cultivated over the past six years.
This beauty is not one of rows, neat and tidy and free of critters and weeds. Like a modern painting, our garden boasts an organic composition of varying heights and movements and hues. Butterflies flutter on oregano flowers, hummingbirds nuzzle in sage. Sunlight shifts with the passage of seasons and hours and days; and the resulting chiaroscuro makes for glorious art.
Yet, it’s not an art form that appeals to all. Indeed, some do not even recognize it as such. Once, an apparently well-meaning neighbor who had stopped by for another purpose, offered to help us get our garden in shape. “I’d be happy to come by with my rototiller,” he said. Then he proceeded to list all the chemicals we could buy to increase efficiency and zap the weeds.
This cultivated beauty did not come of ease. Though the one-acre on which we live and work already boasted a pine forest and shade trees, we have since planted fourteen fruit trees, dozens of bushes and more than a hundred varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs. That first March when the soil was still frozen, we wore gloves not only for cushion, but also for warmth. We spent five or six evenings a week weeding and digging and planting. Soon after, Monte got to work building the chicken coop and yard. One night she was outside hammering well past dark with only a lantern for light.
“Wanna come in for dinner?” I called.
“I’ll be right in,” became her refrain for the next 40 minutes.
When finally she did, we needed to re-heat the food and learn better ways of honoring each other’s paces.
That first year and even the second, the beauty of our homestead sustained us even as the stress of unrelenting tasks tried our resolve. Many an evening those first few years, we spent hours digging pasture grasses with roots as dense and unyielding as wire. On occasion, we excavated wire. And yet we both appreciated the context of our labors: our own corner of the world where the red-orange glow of the western sun infused the snow-peaked mountains and rich brown earth with nature’s splendid lighting design.
And then the food we grew and raised also began to sustain us. One autumn evening that second year, Monte set the wheelbarrow beside the potato patch and proceeded to dig. Her straw-yellow hair contrasted plainly with her dirt-encrusted face, giving her the look of an urchin. But what a happy urchin she was as she unearthed potato after potato after potato. To observe her expression was to understand that this was among her most joyous moments thus far on the homestead. That evening we filled the wheelbarrow to the gunwales. That winter we ate many a spud.
Since then we’ve enjoyed cornucopias of foodstuff from our harvests. Some of the more unusual include nasturtium flowers, honeyberries, sorrel, and mache. We live on our homestead for the taste of it. Much of what we grow is not available at the market. This, I suppose, is because it would be prohibitive to grow this produce on a large scale or because it would not survive transport intact. And when certain products are available – I’m thinking of goji berries and ground cherries, for instance – they are seldom local and fresh, but rather dried and packed and shipped from abroad. They’re also expensive.
So yes, we live on our homestead for the cost of it. It’s not merely that we save money at the market, but also that by spending less to purchase food, we are able to work fewer hours at jobs that do not contribute to our sense of purpose and more at one, homesteading, which does.
We Do Work Hard, For Ourselves
And then there’s the cost to the earth that shopping at the grocery store entails. I try to imagine all the steps involved in bringing a sprig of rosemary to the supermarket shelf. There are the laborers who grow it and harvest it, the trucks that drive it to the processing plant, the plastic manufacturers who produce the hard plastic in which the rosemary is packaged, the processing plant where the sprig is placed in plastic and sealed, the warehouse where the package is stored, the truck that delivers it to the grocery store, the workers who put it on the shelf, the cashier who rings it up, and the plastic manufacturers who produce the plastic bags to bring the rosemary home.
Do we shop at the grocery store? Yes. Do we contribute to processes akin to the one I described? We do. Are we content with that behavior? We are not. But we are pleased that as we produce more on our own, we contribute to it less.
To be honest, I doubt we would grow and raise our own food to avoid that cost alone. The work is far too demanding. We try to live by our values, but we are not saints. If anything, we’re hedonists. We live and work on our homestead for the sensual pleasure of it. To step out our front door in the summer is to delight in a bouquet of lemon verbena, hyssop, and mint. By September, sprigs are drying in our kitchen, bringing the aroma – and beauty – inside.
While much enters our home from the garden, much also returns. Take our vegetable scraps, for instance. We feed them to the chickens. The hens produce eggs. We eat the eggs, and then dry the shells to give to the composting worms or else place around tomato plants as a deterrent to slugs. The chickens produce manure, which we add to our outdoor compost bin, and later to the garden. The vegetables grow well. We eat them and feed the scraps to the chickens. We live on a homestead because this cycle provides immense satisfaction. It gives us the opportunity not only to observe the entire process, but also to be significant agents in it. No mere consumers, we are also producers and actors. To participate in this cycle deepens our ties to the homestead and to each other.
Our roles vary according to interest, ability and need. No factory-line operation, our labor is more that of a theatre performance where many skills and activities contribute to successful results. A week’s work may include picking berries, making jam, digging horseradish root, preparing horseradish sauce, drying tomatoes, feeding and watering the chickens and compost worms, gathering eggs, cleaning the coop, turning compost, moving hoses, watering the garden and orchard, grafting a tree branch, replacing a door on the shed, raking leaves, mowing grass (with a manual mower), collecting firewood, and building a trellis. It also includes more thinking and planning than we would have ever imagined.
One morning our first spring on the homestead, I stepped outside to bring Monte her coffee only to discover her in nightgown and work boots engaged in what appeared to be a ballet. Arms extended in bras en couronne, she seemed to be observing her shadow. “I’m trying to figure out the best place to plant the apricot tree,” she said in response to my question. She proceeded to explain the angle of sunlight over the course of a day and a season. Admittedly, my understanding of this matter has progressed little since then – I should probably forgo dreams of becoming a sailor – but what I did gain was an appreciation of the importance of close observation in the stewardship of a homestead.
This stewardship teaches us the extent of our abilities. I would have never guessed that one day I’d coil fifty-foot hoses, master a pry bar or identify flowering plants. Monte surprised herself in becoming skillful at pruning, grafting and propagating trees. Neither of us imagined that we’d know which vegetables grow well together, and which do not; which require more nitrogen or less water or more fertile soil. We never envisioned that one day with the help of compost worms and permaculture practices we’d make our own soil.
We’ve also learned to acknowledge our limits. After several failed attempts, we discovered that our lumberjack skills are merely mediocre. And so recently, we hired an arborist to fell a dead pine. The least expensive way to do so comprised what is referred to as chop and drop. Once the logs and branches were on the ground, Monte and I needed to move them. It took several hours of physical labor to convey them to the firewood pile, permaculture beds, and other places where we put them to use.
No Gym Fees Necessary
Which leads to another reason we homestead: the physicality of it. “Guess we can save on the gym,” Monte has said. Not that we’ve ever joined one. But her refrain is apt. Why donate precious energy to a treadmill when we can use it to convey tree trunks or bury cinderblocks beneath the coop yard to discourage raccoons? With one we’re out a wad of cash (and given other people’s experiences, little to show in return), while with the other we’ve contributed to our sustenance.
And health. We’re both in fine fettle. While many of our age (fifty-three) struggle to reduce caloric intake, we dine on sausages and sage, potatoes with butter, fried eggs with homegrown shallots and chives. We enjoy every morsel.
Not all homesteading experiences kindle joy. The first year we kept chickens, we stored the feed in its original bag. One winter morning, I spied a mouse in the shed. I filled the feeder, closed the door, and hoped the mouse would depart. Instead, it invited its friends. That spring as soon as the snow had melted, we spent weeks clearing out mouse droppings and an occasional carcass. We salvaged metal implements, but discarded those made of wood. We purchased two aluminum cans with lock-on lids.
One cold autumn, skunks made their home under our porch. (Loud music and bright lights encouraged them to seek alternate cover, but not before spraying our dog.) Before we reinforced our chicken yard with cinderblocks, raccoons dined on two of our hens. Voles, unresponsive to nearly any deterrent, leave droppings around our house even now.
These nuisances, noisome though they are, seldom inspire dissuasion. In such moments, we remind ourselves to pan out so that we gain a larger view of the scene. And what we see is a radiant life.
What at times does try our resolve is the amount of energy we need. Typically we feel up to it, and go about our tasks with zeal. I’m thinking of the fun (yes, fun!) of pushing the wheelbarrow uphill on a cool autumn day with mounds of pumpkins, butternuts and sweet meats. Or of gathering and chopping branches to burn in the hearth. Sometimes our energy levels coincide, and in those moments we collaborate in moving fences or shoveling paths through heaps of snow. But at other times we’re like Turkey and Nippers in Bartleby the Scrivener: one of us is on while the other is off.
Last winter our roof accumulated ice dams and nearly three feet of snow. Local news stories circulated about rooftop collapses. Roofers were backlogged for months. One day when the mercury read minus twenty, we bundled up in snow pants and boots, and set a ladder on the icy ground. I held it while Monte climbed. I handed her shovels and rakes. Then we switched places. In this manner, we cleared a low part of the roof above the entrance door. But even with one of us clutching the ladder, it wobbled. If we fell, we’d sprain an ankle or wrist. We accepted the risk. If we fell at higher points of the house, we’d plunge to our death. We adore our homesteading adventures. But foolhardy we’re not.
Early homesteaders lacked this luxury. Without home insurance and other protections, they may have taken risks we do not. Lives were lost to beasts, tetanus and other homesteading hazards. (Sometimes they still are.) Given those circumstances, would we choose to live as we do? It’s a difficult question. Yet, on balance, we’re inclined to say yes. Even now, our lives are not risk free. We’ve been bitten by spiders, stung by wasps and bees. We’ve had accidents with pruners and mauls. And yet, the vitality we feel as we go about our tasks tips the balance in its favor.
So do evenings when we relax on the sofa, tired but content from vitalizing work. Summer twilights we listen to crickets or read. Winters we cuddle by the fireside with wassail or wine. Occasionally, we enjoy the company of family or friends. Mostly, we spend time alone basking in our solitude of two.
Basking too in the poetry of our life together here, poetry comprised of snowy haystacks, cackling pheasants, and two beloveds reposing among the pines.
And then finally – and maybe Sophie would appreciate this – we live on the homestead not only for the poetry it offers, but also for that it inspires. Anything but dull, the muse of our homestead has roused in us many a verse. If I steal into the garden unbidden, I’m apt to hear among the chorus of buzzing and birdsong and breeze, Monte composing a song.
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