An Open Letter to Aspiring Homesteaders

As a sort-of homesteader, I am always torn between the feelings of elation one gets when tapping trees, laying down compost, or canning tomatoes,…..and the feelings of hopelessness one gets over the heating bill or the need to take the tiller in to the repair shop AGAIN. It’s not just the expense that rankles. It’s the awareness that one sort of sucks at eco-friendly, small-is-beautiful, self sufficiency.

And it gets worse when one sits down to read the gurus. Eliot Coleman’s fabulously and alarmingly perfect rows of friggin color-coordinated lettuce all laid out with Germanic perfection on a grid scheme make me want to lie down and cry. And Joel Salatin moves his chickens every day. Yay for him. Meanwhile, our mobile coop has a flat tire and has been immobile since November. Oh, and I till my soil. Evil, I know, but I do it anyway. And let’s not talk about cloth diapers.

The beauty of my total lack of perfection as a homesteader is that I am able to have compassion for the thousands of others out there who are trapped in the city, have to work full time, have no space for the organic non-GMO ancient wheat they’d love to plant, and whose gardens are regularly ravaged by urban groundhogs. I have a message for you all, and it’s this: don’t beat yourselves up.

First of all, let’s get over the idea that country living is this huge sacrifice or hardship that only a few intrepid souls are willing to make. It is, in fact, a luxury. Land prices are outrageous. And even if you do scrape together the funds to get a little place on the land, chances are you will still have to support yourself by going to work. We are very lucky to be able to have our home on the land. But even so, we have not yet begun to achieve the level of sustainability that would enable us just to live off our acres.

So next time you read the heroic tale of some bold homesteader who quit his six-figure job in the city and made the sacrifice of living on the land…well, just roll your eyes, as I do. Those stories don’t have a lot of relevance for most of us. Most of us just have to try to do what we can, where we are.

Here are a few things, at least, that just about anyone can do, to make your life simpler, more wholesome, more sustainable, more earth-friendly, and more communal:

1) Compost. This is the number one item on my list because it’s easy, it’s free, and if everyone did it what a difference it would make to the quantity of crap we dump into landfills. Even if you have no idea HOW to compost, or have no intention of using your compost, simply burying your food scraps rather than trashing them can make an enormous impact. It also means less expense on trash bags, less gross stinkiness in the trash, and less guilt when your kids refuse to eat their crusts, or the whites of their eggs. And let’s not diminish the fun of setting up a really chic little compost bucket: I use an old Veuve Cliquot champagne bucket for my compost, just to advertise to everyone how classy I am.

2) Grow a garden, not a lawn. The “perfect lawn” is an unnatural object, made possible only by extensive applications of chemicals and laborious efforts with fuel-powered machines. Unless, of course, you are grazing sheep. If you aren’t, stop fretting about the clover: let it grow, it’s good for the bees! And the dandelions can be picked young and eaten. But either way, put in a garden. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, some things, like lettuce and snap beans, almost can’t go wrong.

3) Support your local farmer’ market. If you can’t grow it yourself, buy locally. Try to eat what’s in season. This means putting your money into your own community, getting better nutrition, reducing your carbon footprint, and making farmers happy.

4) Preserve your own food. If you can grow enough to can, freeze, or dry for the winter – excellent. If not – talk to your local farmers about the possibility of buying in bulk. Especially at the end of a harvest, growers often have extras, more than they can sell or preserve themselves. Even if the prospect of canning terrifies you, almost any produce can easily and safely be frozen for the winter months. This means healthier food, less packaging, and greater food independence for you.

5) Reuse, recycle, and upcycle. Even something as small as reusing shopping bags – using shopping bags instead of buying trash bags – can make a difference. Try to buy from thrift shops or local artisans as much as possible. When you need to make something, think about whether it can be made with materials you already have available.

6) Use simple hand-tools when possible. If you have to cut down a whole stand of trees, I realize you might need a chainsaw. But otherwise, use a handsaw. It’s quiet, it uses no gas, and it’s great for the biceps. Use a scythe or a swingblade whenever you can, instead of a weedwhacker. Invest in a high-quality hoe (see the earlier post on garden hoes) and use it when you can instead of the tiller. Do this often enough and you can eventually quit your gym membership, which means saving money and using less petrol driving around.

7) Put your kids to work. Yes, even at the tender age of six, a child can take out the compost, bring scraps to the chickens, weed a bed, or plant seeds. Some kids will love this – others will bitch and moan. I was one of those who bitched and moaned, but hey – look at me now, doing all the same things I used to whine about as a kid, and enjoying it! Involving your children in your homesteading activities – no matter how simple – means handing on your ideals and skills to a new generation, and knowing that the earth and the community are being passed on to good hands.

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About Rebecca

When I'm feeling optimistic about my life, I call myself a Renaissance woman; when I'm being realistic, though, I have to confess that I am no Pico della Mirandola girding my robes to debate the luminaries of the day, but rather an easily-distracted post-modern pro-life feminist environmentalist farmer and teacher, with too many theories and not enough discipline. Maybe that's okay, though: I've come to discover that academic rigor sometimes leaves no space for the kind of conversations in which philosophy really "happens." Or maybe this is just my excuse for preferring lively dialogue with friends over the drudgery of scholarship. Since I am busy raising a family and working several odd jobs, I don't have the time I need for genuine scholarship, anyway, but that doesn't mean philosophy takes a back seat or waits for me to get done with this phase of my life. Philosophy is at the heart of life. To be a thinking, questioning, valuing, doubting, believing, bodily creature - that's what it means to be human, after all. I have an eclectic religious background (Jewish, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic) - so, while I am now a practicing Roman Catholic I find myself more interested in building bridges of understanding with people from a variety of faith traditions, than in worrying about apologetics. I am fascinated by the different processes by which people try to figure it all out, this struggle called life. I am also fascinated by the ability of so many to ignore the struggle, to silence the conflicts of the human heart, whether by turning away from the "ultimate questions" - or by forcing overly easy answers to these questions. When it comes to matters of faith, I have moments of Nietzschean agnosticism, and moments of neo-classical Deism, and moments when I believe that beyond all the veils that lie across the faces of reality, there is a being who not only created the world and set things ticking, but also loves us. These moments of religious certainty are born not out of rationalism, nor any gifts of mystical insight, but just out of my stubborn existentialist refusal to think of a universe in which any person can live and die utterly unloved. That's why I have stuck it out with Christianity, fundamentally: the compelling image of a God who loved us so much he'd rather come down and walk among us in the mess and murk of human life and death than coerce us into perfection. If it weren't for this image of Jesus - if it were just the institution and the rituals and the apologetics and the authorities, I'd just say "to hell with it" and be a Zoroastrian.
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