A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Hope for a New Year


Our garden beds getting mulched for next year's garden

    I find myself sitting down to write, finally, in the last few days of the year. This is the third time I have attempted to pull together the incoherent strands of my life into a December blog post, each attempt failing on account of the fact that life lately has not fit into a convenient narrative or theme. The shocking election results and the new direction that they implicate for us as a nation have left me grasping for solid ground. Quite literally. Mike and I retreated to our garden the morning after; and while multiple of our conservative neighbors seemed to be out shooting their guns in celebration (we are surrounded by hunting land after all), we worked the earth, perhaps reassuring ourselves that at least the basic ingredient for survival cannot be taken from us, whatever changes may come. But in reflections since that day, I have come to feel certain that this election forced many, many people into polarized camps backing candidates that do not fully represent their values. They voted either because they were desperate for change, or they were voting for a single important issue, or even voting against something they were afraid would be worse. A two-party system does a poor job representing the diversity that is our country, and an even poorer job fixing the intractable problems that effect us all.


     News of a Trump presidency was swiftly followed in my life by the unexpected death of a much beloved uncle of mine. I scarcely had time to absorb the shock and wake of sadness that followed news of his death when Mike had to depart for a month of seasonal work, leaving me to manage with our baby. I felt so overwhelmed by the responsibilities of single parenting (on a half-completed homestead, in a state of muddled grief) that I decamped for my parent’s home in Wisconsin for several weeks, and then the home of Philadelphia friends for several more weeks. Being constantly surrounded by people who love you, and unconditionally support you, is a wonderful heart-balm for all sorts of hard times, this being no exception. In that same vein, we are now visiting Mike’s family in Ohio before returning to our Missouri homestead. The mood here is festive and celebratory, full of parties and visiting guests, and we have lots of support with our nine month old daughter. And still. My own inner state is dissonantly contemplative and yearning for signs of hope to start the new year with.

Perhaps the last Thanksgiving feast with many of our community members

      In the interests of full disclosure, I realize I am omitting one more strand, one that sits heavily on our hearts as Mike and I look forward toward 2017: our Missouri community is in the midst of major upheaval as well. Several of our neighbors have announced plans to move. The community as we had all dreamed it could be has not coalesced soon enough to assuage concerns about children’s educations, and other reasons to deem the grass greener elsewhere. Perhaps this has been a failure in priorities, or perhaps in community organization, or perhaps in simply not being enough people to form a critical mass that could sustain all of our community needs… There will be much soul searching to come to get to the root of what went wrong, I know. So on top of major changes facing our nation, Mike and I (along with our remaining neighbors) are looking at a major shift in the structure and nature of our beloved community, a shift that will likely take some time, healing and re-visioning to resolve.

Mural in process at Take Root Cafe in Kirksville, now completed!

     How does one begin to make sense of a world changing all too quickly? The words of one of my dear friends and mentors, Dee Dee Rischer, recently struck a chord in me following a visit with her and her family in Philadelphia. “This is what I can do in a future filled with uncertainty. Share space. Grow food. Stay in compassionate relationship. Pray and pray more. Stand somewhere, even if it is the wrong place.” She is one of the voices I turn to for guidance when I feel most in need of a compass, and fortuitously, this time she placed in my hands a book that she just finished writing— The Soulmaking Room—about how difficult passages in our lives help make us into our best and truest selves. It is so timely for me, I feel it worth mentioning here (www.soulmakingroom.com has more). I think she is such an excellent writer and Christian leader (she and her husband Will O’Brien have been mentors for countless young people, including spiritual heavyweights like Shane Claiborne) that she should be more known. The humble life of simplicity and servitude that their family lives is probably not the best platform to leverage a readership with. Instead they pour their energies into social justice causes, inclusion of the poor and homeless through work with Project Home, and the creation of a small co-housing community in the city that shares meals, garden space, prayer time and a hospitality space for those who need a temporary space to live. Another beautiful model of what is possible with community. So perhaps more direction is on its way through her writing… Hope enough for the time being.

Mike and our daughter Caris at his November birthday celebration (playing pin the mushroom)

     I also have been trying to learn from my unflappably happy daughter and the little beacon of hope that she is to so many. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with worry for her future on a planet that is increasingly being dumped full of substances toxic to all life, with an ozone layer being punched full of holes by greenhouse gases. There are too many nuclear weapons, and guns, and people bent on killing other people. She is so small and fragile in the face of these huge things, but they aren’t hers to worry about yet. So I try to shut off my mind and watch how she navigates the world: she makes no distinctions or judgements between people or objects or places. She receives everything with curiosity and joy, which is contagious. I catch strangers staring at her with sheepish smiles, obviously caught in a moment of connection I wasn’t supposed to witness. Old men soften as they touch her tiny fingers, and her dimples seem to have mighty heart-melting power all on their own. It is just amazing to witness this sweet force—I have seen even construction workers break into the biggest of toothy smiles in her presence and start cooing! I am beginning to understand what the Christmas season is all about—the miracle that a new baby is and the hope they represent for people. I used to picture the stately Magi bowing in serene reverence for their new messiah, baby Jesus. Now I picture them grinning and cooing, their hearts opening.

    So Caris's joyful new life energy will be carrying me along with her into the next year, and giving me a reason to look forward instead of back. May 2017 be a hope-filled new start for us all!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Neighbors United!




     On the eve of the 2016 election I, probably along with the rest of the country, find myself thinking about politics and why it seems like America is more divided than ever. I feel like I am in somewhat of a unique position to observe this division, as I am an urban-grown liberal-minded transplant moved to a very rural and conservative part of the country. Before I moved here I could count on one hand all the people I knew who voted Republican. Now I am surrounded by Republicans—not just Republicans but Trump Republicans! I know this because of all the TRUMP/PENCE signs that have taken over the roadside. Also the “Make America Great Again” cap that one of my neighbors has started wearing. It seems to match his NRA coffee cozy, probably because of the camo background. It feels like the vitriol spilling over from a crazy election year is infiltrating our normally convivial weekly Neighbors United meetings more and more, and I am not sure how to respond to passive aggressive comments in a way that preserves neighborly relations. I find the whole situation bizarre, and I have been wondering if there is any hope left for our ability to overcome differences and work together, or whether partisan politics will further divide our communities. I also wonder, how do we get to a point of belief to begin with? Why do my rural neighbors in Missouri believe one thing so strongly, while my former urban neighbors in Philadelphia believe the exact opposite?

     My first encounter with this politically divisive spill-over happened four years ago during the last presidential election. Mike and I were camping on our land and building our house, and an elderly neighbor of ours named LaVern (yes, his wife is named Shirley) stopped by to introduce himself. He did this in his hunting suit, with his rifle, with a bucket of turnips which he gave us. He followed the introduction with a few questions—were we college educated? An affirmative seemed to be a bad thing in his book. And what were the top five most important issues to us that we were basing our votes on. He listed his, which I now forget, but they seemed straight out of a Fox news pundit’s mouth. We weren’t sure what to say in the face of a passive aggressive elderly man with a rather menacing gun, but we seemed to get a pass because he finished the conversation with an offer of dead squirrels if we cared for the meat. I think this was a good thing. But the whole encounter jarred me a bit, like, “I’m not in Philadelphia anymore…” Philadelphia where half my neighbors had “COEXIST” bumper stickers (the ones that are spelled out of religious symbols). In Missouri, the only time I saw that bumper sticker it was on a truck followed by another line- “you first Mohammed”. Ouch. But so far, we have been a little insulated from full on confrontation, mostly thanks to our incredibly wonderful neighbors, Don and Dana.


     They are conservative, but also members of our Frontier Lane community, and they have had to make a point of transcending many of our differences in the relationship. We talk very carefully about issues like racial equality and right-to-life, gun-ownership and global warming, and don’t try to ram a point of view. I know there are huge chasms of belief that underlie our relationship with them, but I am also heartened that our commitment to loving and serving one another always comes first. Last week when our car wouldn’t start, stranding us in town with our baby, they were the first ones we thought of to call and they came right to our aid and then lent us their extra car until ours was repaired. This is one of many, many times they have helped us and we have tried to reciprocate. They have a standing open house on Sunday evenings when all of our neighbors come over and we spend time working on crafts, watching sports and chatting. I have often thought that if everyone across the country had such encounters with neighbors across the isle, maybe our country would not be in such a divided situation. It makes it very hard to hate the other when you see their humanity up close and personal. I have seen this first hand time and again when a new visitor who looks different shows up on a Sunday night—there is a bit of guardedness at first but once Don and Dana get to know them, the barriers melt away. For example, at a recent potluck a dark-skinned Indian man was visiting and by the end of the meal, Don and this visitor were practicing their cricket swings in the air. So do we just need ever widening circles of community and relationship to come together? Is that even possible?

     I have been trying to see the humanity in my neighbors who are very different ideologically than me. Why are they so into their guns? Why are they so freaked out by outsiders, particularly Muslims? Why don’t they give any credence to evidence of global warming? Why do they dislike government assistance programs like welfare even when those programs seem in line with the Christian value of serving the poor?


     As far as I can tell, the reason is two-fold. First, if everyone around you—in church, on facebook, in your social circle, on the news you all watch—believes something, you will too! It seems impossible to think outside of what you are socially conditioned to believe. That goes for my conservative neighbors, my Amish neighbors, and my radical liberal neighbors, including myself. But how does a whole group of people come to support someone like Donald Trump? I think the answer has to do with feeling defenseless and impotent—lacking any agency—in the face of a changing, overwhelming world. Donald’s boastful, confrontational stance to the system seems powerful. I hear the members in Neighbors United (composed of many landowning folks living along the proposed transmission line route) threatening to defend their ground with their guns when they feel most defenseless in the face of a system where they have no power. Many, many people are disempowered from knowing how to meaningfully participate in that system, how to have a voice and participate in a process. That is what Neighbors United has been attempting to do—channel all the angry rants into meaningful action by hiring a lawyer to help us become a monkey wrench in the system, getting civic and political support behind us, fundraising, non-violently protesting and getting our presence felt. Guns have been discouraged, but civil disobedience has not. I get the sense that that is a new term for a lot of people actually, and members are getting behind it. People are now ready to lay down before bulldozers instead of shooting at them.



     What I am learning is that when two sides join forces, the result is powerful. At a recent Community Rights training I learned about an organization called CELDF- Community and Environmental Legal Defense Fund. They conduct trainings and offer legal support to communities struggling to defend their land and rights in the face of a corporate take-over (as in, a CAFO, a toxic waste dump, a strip mine, oil or gas drilling, or a transmission line. The organization started with a disillusioned lawyer, tired of attempting to help communities legally participate in a regulatory-based system where odds are always stacked against people in favor of corporations. Time and again he saw communities always lose. But a conservative group of ranchers in a township in Pennsylvania who were trying to keep fracking companies from ruining their water wanted to hire him. They kept insisting in their sovereignty, their rights, and they refused to back down. They had strong local political support and together, they drafted the first community rights ordinance, declaring their local rights—the right to clean water, their community’s right to decide what was best for it. Though it was technically illegal to create a vague rights-based ordinance like this, they did. The fracking company got the state of Pennsylvania to sue the town, but instead of backing down, the town threatened to cede from the state—a flat refusal to lose. And Pennsylvania backed down. The town won. The fracking company moved on. This approach is now being used all over the US. People in communities are coming together to fight the alliance of big corporations and big government using a community rights approach, basically civil disobedience. Talk about real empowerment! Let me stress that coming together as strong undivided communities is more important than ever.

     Well, with all this in mind, I have to go vote!  Last election, our neighbors Don and Dana drove some of our friends to the election station to vote. On the way home they all laughed about cancelling out each other’s votes, a net-zero politically, but an undivided car full of people. So whatever happens today, reach out and make connection with whoever your “other” is… Your community could depend on it!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Got water?

    Fall is here. It feels official. Within the course of a week our wardrobes have shifted from tank tops to sweatshirts, from bathing suits to long underwear, from flip-flops to wool socks. One day, last week, I remember sweating in my lightest of clothes wondering when the heat would ever end, and now, just a week later, we are lighting the wood stove to take the edge off the chill. I don’t know why this shift comes as a surprise, I suppose because the notion of four equal seasons is engrained in my mind. In reality, it seems like there are more like two seasons, at least here in Missouri—the voracious, humid, teaming-with-life “warm” season where Missouri becomes a veritable jungle. And the other season is the inevitable retraction of whatever magic sap had animated everything to life, rendering the natural world full of dry and brown skeletons, to be eventually blanketed with snow. Two opposite pulses—an in breath and out breath—with perhaps one sparkling month on either end that feels near perfect in terms of climate.



     We are in the midst of one of those months now—late September/early October. Not only is this the most beautiful time of year, it is also the busiest for us. We are invariably attempting to wrap up outdoor projects before the November cold sets in, and simultaneously the garden is hitting its peak of productivity, with peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, basil, lemongrass, kale, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers all demanding our harvesting attention. Following harvest, responsible gardeners usually clean up their garden beds and give them a coat of compost and mulch before waving them goodnight. This didn’t exactly happen for us last year since we had pressing home construction and pregnancy concerns outcompeting any thought of the state of our garden. So a little garden TLC is overdue this year… And that is just the garden. Then there is a whole world of apple, pear, persimmon and autumn olive (think small, native, tart berry) gleaning and harvesting out there for those with the wherewithal to take it on!

Autumn olives


     And yet. Once again we find ourselves in the thick of other projects. There is the community cafe mural painting which I am in the midst of. There is the front entryway and closet area, a summer project that we finally just finished. There is more firewood, and more canning. And of course, our adorable and much beloved daughter who can move at the speed of baby light from stairs to hot stove now that she can crawl (yes, we have grown eyes in the backs of our heads!) But that is the little every day stuff. Our big project this fall is our water system.




     We are determined to finish our home water system this year. Hauling buckets of water in and out of our house has lost its charming “Little House on the Prairie” novelty. It has become a bit of a drag. We stare wistfully at our not-yet-functional faucets in sinks and bathtub sighing, ‘one day’. And finally “one day” became now, thanks to the persistent nudging of my aunt and uncle who wanted to help us tackle such a key home improvement. They generously supplied the catalyst for the project: our water pump. It is a Bison hand pump, and probably the single nicest thing we now own in terms of how well it is made and how integral it will be in our future home functioning. Once the pump is installed, within five minutes of easy levering action we will have a full 20 gallons of pressurized water awaiting our every water whim. What now stands in our way to aqueous-nirvana is seemingly a hundred plumbing connection pieces that we have been trying to hunt down in our latest DIY oddessy. I am realizing there is a reason plumbers charge so much for their services… Ugh. There are dozens of different plumbing systems, each with their own pipes and connection pieces and methods of attachment between them. Then there are the pieces that allow conversions between systems. Suffice to say, we are knee deep in teflon tape, PEX shark bites, male threaded converters, pressure gages, shutoff valves and more. And they ain’t cheap…. But that is okay, we are soldiering on, fueled by the dream.

Connecting cistern to house

On the train out west!
     Harnessing the element of water on the homestead seems critical to me in order to have true self reliance in an era of increasing water scarcity and climate instability. We have seen first hand how irregular one year can be from the next, water-wise, here in Missouri: drought years followed by record rainy years. This past month we also went out to visit my sister and her husband in Colorado. As we drove through the beautiful, arid mountains with my sister, she filled us in on some of the very complex backstory to water rights in the west. Only recently was it made legal to collect water in backyard rain barrels in Colorado, mostly because every inch of rainfall is owned and spoken for ten times over based on ancestral claims. Much of the Colorado river is diverted in a massive feat of engineering to Los Angeles; rarely is there enough water left for the river to make it all the way to its natural tributaries in the Sea of Cortez. And of course, the source of the water is dependent on Rocky Mountain snow pack, so warmer years mean not as much runoff. If water were used wisely, it could be stretched much, much further, but it isn’t easy to convince a grass-loving culture to change.


     I could see this first hand when my sister and I would go for hikes around her home: just when it seemed like it was just us, the sagebrush and the pinions and junipers climbing up the mountains, we would round a hill and a bright green golf course would pop up before us. I was shocked to learn that in her town of New Castle, water use is five times greater in the summer than in the winter. The difference is due to irrigation of lawns and golf courses composed of water guzzling Kentucky bluegrass. If more people were like my sister they would replace non-native bluegrass with native grass varieties and native plants that don’t need irrigation, a practice called zero-scaping. But evidently just about everyone wants their front yard to look exactly the same, the whole country over, despite huge variations in local climates.

     Well we are “going native” with our land here in Missouri. This is another way of saying that we moved onto land that already had native grasses and wildflowers on it and we aren’t doing much in the way of mowing. Not only are native species beautiful, at least to us, they are pretty useful for dye plants (for me) and for nourishing birds and butterflies that migrate through this area. Most folks here prefer to climb atop riding mowers and mow huge swaths of their land around their houses, but we (in our community) have been trying to educate people about the importance of wildflowers like milkweed for the declining monarch population. At any rate, having a pond that can gravity-feed downhill to source many of our homestead water needs (like watering animals and gardens) gives us a huge water buffer in drier years, and thus a fair bit of resiliency long-term. But for those without pond-digging potential at their homes, even having a few rainwater collection barrels under gutters would allow just about any home owner anywhere to mitigate some of their backyard water use. Embracing water-thrifty native varieties of flowers and plants instead of non-native ornamentals is also a good way to conserve water and save time standing around with a hose!


     At any rate, our quest for homestead water security is nearing a close. The next chapter might involve figuring out what to do with too much water: finding a way to responsibly divert the greywater coming out of our house downhill!


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Yes we can!




      Or perhaps it should be, yes, we ‘can’…. mostly vegetables. August, as any avid gardener or home preserver knows, is the month of putting up the bounty of the season. And for us, that has meant weeks of canning sauces, pickles, and veggies of all sorts. In years past, we have always made a meager stab at canning while focusing mostly on the hard work of building our house. But this year, we are focusing a bit more on food preservation, and our garden seems to be cooperating. Once Mike tamed the wild and unruly weeds that had taken our garden hostage last month, we started doing daily harvests, bringing in basket after basket of produce. One day I looked around at the amassing cornucopias in our kitchen and realized it was time to hop to! Out came the canning pot and the bins of empty jars we had been saving up and we began to chop and boil. Many hours and seemingly every clean dish in the house later, and.... preserves!


     Pickled beets, dill and bread and butter pickles, tomato sauce, tomato salsa, pesto and pepper relish—we now have plenty of all of these. But the true bumper crop of the year for us has been beans. This is a total reversal of last year’s garden when marauding rabbits mowed down every last bean plant that I sowed… and resowed… and resowed! This year though we seem to have escaped the rabbits’ notice and the beans have been prolific. We planted several kinds, but one in particular has astounded us—an Asian long bean variety called Chinese Red Noodle beans have grown into a veritable bean tree. They are great for pickling because their 18” long beans can be lined up and chopped into perfect jar sized lengths for pickled dilly beans. And they keep coming! All of our friends are also busy keeping up with their gardens and our get togethers of late involve comparisons of tomato blight and squash beetle woes, and recipe and ingredient swaps. It is both an overwhelming and rewarding time, watching the stores build up for winter… potatoes, onions, garlic, apples and hard squash are also rolling in. Not to mention firewood!

Mike in action with the "Leveraxe" (thanks Zach!)



     Besides trying to keep on top of our garden, we are also trying to keep our heads above water on all other fronts of the homestead—firewood gathering, water hauling, laundry and diaper washing, baby bouncing, dishes and cleaning, and various other house projects that lurch forward and stop in submission to our baby’s nap schedule. Just when one sector seems to be going well, another drops behind, creating a perpetual sense of never quite being on top of it all. Throw in to the mix a mural to be painted, a full community social calendar, and seemingly unending car trouble and you have our life this last month in a nutshell! For the most part I would not want to give up any of it (actually, definitely the car trouble part), but our days feel very full in a different way than they used to, pre-baby, when we could work with total focus on building into the dusk of evening and then wash up in the dark and light the rocket stove to begin cooking a simple candlelit dinner before falling into bed.


   


















      With baby Caris now in our lives (almost 6 months old), we are first and foremost beholden to her always-changing schedule of eating, playing and sleeping. This makes for an erratic day-by-day: some days we will have 2.5 hours of solid nap to be buzzing away with power tools and then the next she will refuse to nap for longer than 15 minute segments. She is both a good-natured baby (“the smilingest baby ever” is a compliment she often gets) and extremely active. She skipped right over “sitting” and is determinedly on the verge of crawling and standing. She also gets very bored with the same old toys, which means I am always tearing through the house in search of something to give her to explore that won’t spear her in the back of the throat or choke her. While we used to be able to plunk her in her seat for little stretches to cook or eat a meal, she has figured how to twist and squirm her way to the ground in short order, meaning most of the time our needs have to be squeezed into little 5 minute windows where she is happily occupied with something. We also tag out with each other, rendering us each into one half of an able-bodied person. I have to wonder at our Amish neighbor up the road, Magdalena, who is home alone most days with 6 children under the age of 8 (plus pregnant). Every morning she drives her older kids to school in a buggy past our house, just as we are all lumbering out of bed and trying to conjure some kind of breakfast into existence. I look at her huge garden, clean laundry flapping in the breeze, contended flock of small children, and paddocks with every animal you can think of and wonder…. how the???


     Though motherhood and homesteading have been way more fulfilling than I could have imagined, I occasionally feel the call of the unencumbered life, beckoning me in the form of young single friends who report on their adventures. Today a friend called from Tillers International, a traditional skills school in Michigan, waxing poetic about all the tools he was hand making and the team of oxen that he has learned to work with, tilling the fields and hauling logs from the forest with. “Oxen!” I think, “if only I could go off and learn how to drive a team of oxen!” But no… I am pretty sure babies and oxen are mutually exclusive. Another few friends came back to report on time spent in assisting the Lakota Sioux in their resistance of the North Dakota oil pipeline at the Sacred Stones camp up in, you guessed it, North Dakota. And several more friends have decided to go up and join the resistance efforts. And part of me yearns to hop in the car with them to help in whatever way I can. But then I look at my tired baby, and the weeds, and the piling up dishes and think… reality check! I have to remember, for years of my adult life I too was that unencumbered adventurer, but throughout it, in my heart I craved roots, which I now have in abundance. Roots, and one happy little shoot who will have a mouth to feed this winter! So for now, back to the garden for another round of harvesting and canning. Yes we can!


Thursday, August 4, 2016

Big Questions


     Each month, I start writing a blog post by reflecting on what has been going on in the last month at our homestead in Missouri. But this past month we have mostly been away from our homestead. We have been traveling far and wide, visiting friends, family and attending a wedding. So I have been puzzling about what to write this post about instead. To be honest, when I leave our homestead life in Missouri and step into other people’s homes and lifestyles, I tend to reflect on our choices. The perspective gives me a chance to zoom out on our life and think about what has been working and not working, where we are going next with it all, and how it fits into both our ethos and the bigger picture of our lives and the world we live in. I know… it is a lot to take on. My brain hurts a little from trying to work it all out, but I thought I would write about the big picture nonetheless!

     Contributing to this mental taking-of-stock have been several losses that have further made us consider our lifestyle and consumption choices: within two days we had our computer and car die, leaving us in a bit of a technology lurch. These two machines have been our techno-crutches as we have transitioned into the simple life. We found ourselves asking whether we should replace them or not, and with what? We had always assumed that by the time our old car died we might be at a place where we wouldn’t need a full time vehicle… maybe there would be a community car cooperative we could join or something. Owning and driving a vehicle has always felt like an icky but necessary component in our lives as we haul building materials and possessions too and fro and transport ourselves seasonally. Many of our friends and neighbors don’t own vehicles at all, biking or carpooling instead, which furthers our sense of guilt about being gas-guzzlers. At the nearby ecovillage, Dancing Rabbit, there are several car-sharing coops where you pay per mile to use a truck or solar-charged electric car. Sounds great! We would sign up if we didn’t live 45 miles away. Our community has talked about starting something similar… But right now? Were we ready to either start a car cooperative in our community or take the carless plunge?

     And what about a new laptop? Again, we have many friends who don’t have one at all and use library computers if any. We also have a neighbor who uses her computer quite a bit—online craft sales, blogging and networking are crucial to her and her husband’s livelihoods. We fall somewhere in-between with our computer use, going online a few times a week when in town, and otherwise using it mostly to write with and store photos and other downloads. It can be an amazing tool, but not without a cost! We had gotten around the ethical question of a computer’s production footprint (heavy metal mining, Foxconn factory working conditions, etc.) by buying a used one and sharing it. But now? Were we ready to deal with that ethical can of worms again, on top of the car dilemma?

     This question—how much technology do we want to be consumers of?—kicked off a series of questions in my mind about how I want to live, and I began looking around for answers as we traveled. Other questions that I have been ruminating on are as follows-

  •      Is the simple life really simple? Or is it more work and more complication? What would make for more simplicity in both lifestyle and process, and therefore more peace and ease? 
  •      Are our choices making a difference in the world? Or are we actually distracting ourselves from making real change in a different way—by engaging at a policy level, a macro level, working within the mainstream?
  •      What does a right livelihood look like for us? We need at least some amount of money to live off of to supplement the cost-saving benefits of homestead living and building your own house, but what would both fit into our unconventional life and feel just? 
  •      What kind of community do we want to help create here? How much interdependence and how much space is most sustainable? (Underlying this question is a bit of unease brought on by some of our neighbors considering moving elsewhere…)
  •      And lastly, how do we want to bring up our daughter? How do we want to educate her and how do we fit that education into our homesteading and working lives? 

     Oh lordy! I have contemplated these questions all over the place! On quiet country lanes strolling our baby amidst crickets and wildflowers. In a hip city neighborhood while peering into a mommy-and-baby yoga class. In the houses of old friends. In hotel rooms. At truck stops. In cars and trains. Surrounded by extended family. And alone, at night, watching our baby sleep. I have thought about other intentional community models: the Amish, the ecovillages, the co-houses, where we know other people trying to live out their answers to similar questions. I have thought about what our lives might look like if we lived in the various places we have been visiting, mentally trying on each one. I am sorry to say that I haven’t  come up with any stellar definitive answers. Just for-the-time-being answers. Mike, my partner, pointed out that nobody has these things totally figured out… that we just keep living with the questions, along with the best of intentions. Which is probably true, (sigh).

     So for now, we acquired a “patch” car. One that some family friends were wanting to let go of for a price we could afford. It will see us through until we can make the car cooperative a reality and we can quit private car ownership for good. But we have started the conversation with our neighbors and are looking into the nitty gritty of joint insurance and ownership. And we did buy another computer—a refurbished laptop, which feels a little like saving a less than perfect computer from the scrap heap. I guess we aren’t quite ready to go computer-free, though I wish computers were made to last longer and were more fixable.


     As for our homestead return, we pulled into our driveway this morning and unloaded our luggage back into our quietly waiting house. The weeds have grown monstrous in our absence, as has the vegetable garden—beans spilling over their trellis, tomato plants flopping over their cages, sweet potatoes vines climbing into the pathways. Our to-do list floods back into memory, a hundred projects await. Big questions seem like a luxury suddenly! In the morning we will awake and dig into our land and community once again. And it occurs to me that maybe these are questions better asked and brainstormed in a community. Or perhaps while weeding a garden…



Summer's bounty, foraged and grown!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Summer's arrival



    Summer is here in Missouri, and seemingly all-too-soon its unsavory features are here as well—the humid heat, the ticks and chiggers, the onset of drought, the voracious growth of invasive understory weeds, and more. This part of the year often feels like a battle to stay on top and in control of our immediate surroundings. And that battle feels even harder to wage with a baby in tow.

      A little while ago I was pacing with a stroller back and forth on the path leading up to our house, attempting to lull our sweet baby to sleep. To both sides of me were unfinished projects, a rather discouraging reminder of our limited capacity these days. I was feeling rather glum about it as well as our relative lack of progress this spring, when it occurred to me that three months ago I was pacing this same path in the midst of labor, stopping to grab my back during painful contractions. The land around me then was a tapestry of gray and brown under a haze of drizzle. Now, a season later, the same land is transformed: bright greens dappled with flowers under a blazing sun, with two of us instead of one. And in that interim, though I can’t exactly point to when, I realize we have made some small progress creating our homestead.

     What exactly have we done? For one, we managed (barely) to keep up with the demands of the spring gardening season by getting starts and seeds in the ground, adding mulch and compost and even digging a few new beds. The spring garden push can be incredibly time consuming, so much so that our neighbor Teri (a veteran gardener who grows much of her family’s food) planned both of her children’s birth dates for late fall, after the garden work was wrapped up. She was a little anxious on our behalf, with our baby’s March birthday, and I understand why now. Let’s just say this isn’t going to be a bumper crop year for our little garden. But we got the basics in: tomatoes, cukes, potatoes and sweet potatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale, beans, swiss chard and basil. Surmising our unmoved pile of compost at the top of our driveway (which we envisioned whisking down the hill to the garden in short order), I plunked into it our squash seedlings, which are now happily growing there.


    Another big spring event was the arrival of our STUFF. My parents recently decided to sell their Philadelphia house, and so all of our worldly possessions stored there made the trek across country to our new Missouri house via a moving van. And not too long after, Mike’s mother brought a van full of our stuff we had stored at her house. Wow, it doesn’t take long to fill a house! And a deluge of stuff is a force to be reckoned with. Books, dishes, tools, craft supplies, mementos, furniture, etc. have come piling back into our lives from some former time. No amount of Marie Kondo-style organizing and down-sizing really makes it any easier to deal with, especially when all you have are assorted short nap-times throughout the day to make sense of it all. Suffice to say, unpacking has taken a chunk of our spring time and energy! (And, I might add, I am extremely glad for our foresight in designing plenty of storage spaces…)


    Another focus this spring has been Mike’s fledgling coopering business, which he has been working at quite a bit lately, along with our good friend Cynthia (who learned coopering at the traditional craft school, Tiller’s). They plunged into the endeavor of making five-gallon white oak barrels two winters ago, in partnership with another friend’s craft distillery business (which demands such barrels for aging certain types of liquor). It turns out Missouri is an excellent home for a coopering business, as many of the nation’s barrels are made here or sourced from oak from here (of which there is no shortage). And it turns out that coopering is a good business to get into because of rising demand for barrels from both the wine and spirits industries. At the same time, coopering is a complex precision craft—steam bending beveled staves, charring the insides of the barrel, and fitting a lid on both sides, and then checking for water-tightness. The amount of trouble-shooting is monumental, and they have been streamlining their process somewhat by outsourcing a few steps to one of our Amish neighbors who has a woodworking business and a full workshop to boot. It is hard for Mike and I not to dream of building our own workshop on our land, but at the same time, pragmatism hangs heavy over our lives these days! So instead, Mike has converted our former tent platform into his open-air workshop.

     I, on the other hand, am plunging into my own creative endeavors, one of which is painting a mural for a new café opening nearby. Though I haven’t painted much since we broke ground on our house, my interest in painting was reawakened recently when I was unpacking boxes of art materials and older work into my studio space (aka the second upstairs room in our house!) When a friend soon after asked me to show some of my paintings at an outdoor art walk event outside her new café, I decided to go for it. This led to a flurry of connections and ideas, one of which is the mural. The café is an unusual one, sourcing all ingredients from local organic sources and offering the finished product for a sliding scale amount. The mural has to touch on those themes, plus additionally needing a kid-interactive element and tying into the unusual space and what exists there. So during nap times, I have been tinkering at a design for the mural which I will start on later this summer. You know, in my spare time…



     So when all of this endeavoring is not happening, having the addition of a wonderful baby in our lives has actually made for additional time spent socializing with our friends and neighbors. If you can’t be reasonably productive in a given time because of your children, you might as well be unproductive along with your friends and their children! It is in this department that I find myself immensely grateful to live in a close knit community. The few days I have spent single-parenting alone in our house have been, well, difficult in their isolation. For the most part however, there are few days that pass without social gatherings of some sort—potlucks, pond parties, work parties, kid performances, birthdays, craft gatherings, music gatherings, house tours, discussion groups, friends dropping by, etc. While I used to find it tiresome to keep up with everything going on while trying to make headway building, I now realize this social schedule is ideal when you have kids. These gatherings often involve lots of extra hands to hold babies and lots of extra eyes to track kids, hence a little break for us tired parents. We aren’t the only ones struggling to find time to tackle bigger projects… and that is where work parties came into existence!



     A few months ago, a group of us neighbors met to discuss a couple of possibilities—one was the idea of hosting a revolving work party so that once a month one homestead would get an injection of help on a big project. We were June’s host site and in one morning we were assisted with finishing cistern burying and building a retaining wall for a clay bank. Everyday we have passed by these two projects-waiting-to-happen and wondered when we would ever be able to get to them, so hallelujah for the push forward! Mike’s mom and friend Barbara were visiting and taking on baby and cooking duties, so Mike and I were both able to join in the work. Pond jump and potluck followed, and for a brief time we basked in the headway made. Little by little we are getting somewhere: our baby is growing, our plants and trees are growing, our homestead is inching toward something like completion.

Monday, May 16, 2016

All about poop



     My April update had turned into my May update… such is my life these days in the slow lane! With most things lately, parenting a newborn baby has meant slowing way down in the productivity department. I sympathize with this momma tortoise, because that is about where I am at, moving at the speed of molasses with a needy little one in tow. To be fair, I had mentally scheduled us a few months of “get absolutely nothing done on the homestead” after the birth, so I am pleasantly surprised that we are accomplishing just a little more than expected.



      It has helped to have an absolutely fabulous little baby to care for, who is generally  good tempered and a good sleeper. As soon as she goes down for a nap, I stealthily tip toe away and furiously set to getting chores and assorted to-dos done in the unknown window of time before I hear her little groggy cry calling for me. Another god-send has been the handwoven baby-wearing wrap that talented weaver Connie Westbrook made for us. Several times a day, Caris consents to being stuffed into the folds of cloth hugging her to our chests, where she dutifully passes out while being jostled around in the course of eating, doing dishes, taking walks, talking with friends, working in the garden or the like. Each day, all planning goes out the window and we don’t quite know what to expect, thereby being pleasantly surprised when we stay on top of more that we thought possible.


      Much of our new role as parents seems to revolve around tending our baby’s needed inputs and outputs. Breastmilk in (requiring very little effort on my part) and a mustardy yellow poop out. I don’t think I had ever given poop very much thought in my life, but lately it has been featuring prominently in my days... And nights for that matter. Because I am now the adoring servant of a 2 month old, I don’t resent this new proximity to her poop. Rather, I have accepted it as part of the package of parenthood, as has Mike, who swaps out with me tackling her excretions.  


     Since we have been getting so many inquiries about what we are doing for diapers and such, here goes an explanation….  Thus far, we have opted to use various hand-me-down cloth diapers from friends, being the eco-thrifty people we are. While it is tempting to save ourselves the trouble of washing diapers, the thought of what the total pile of dirty disposable diapers would look like if it was sitting on the floor of our house was too overwhelming (diapers make up somewhere between 2-5% of landfill waste… yuck.) There are some cool hybrids on the market now—biodegradable “Tushies” or flushable insert + cloth cover “G diapers”—but they aren’t cheap, thus every few days we pull out the scrub brush and washboard and clean cloth diapers the old-fashioned way. Total cost= $0. Total time it takes= 1 hour every other day. Is this trade off worth it? To us, for now, yes. I thought I would dislike the task of diaper washing, but it has become much like washing dishes… a mildly off-putting yet strangely meditative task once you get into it. The sun and clothesline help bleach out stains and disinfect before the diapers repeat their thankless duty.


     Our daughter’s poop is only one stop on the poop tour of our homestead, lucky you! The next stop is our composting toilet. This might be the most off-putting feature in our unconventional home. Because we don’t have a flush toilet and septic tank, and also because we figure we can put the poop to better use than hibernating underground until pump-out time, we have opted for a “humanure” system. It is pretty simple—do your business in a dressed-up bucket, cover with sawdust, and then empty once a week into a specially designated compost pile to decompose. (This is the low-tech version of a composting toilet. There are many companies that make fancier versions requiring less hauling). Does it smell? If using the right amount of sawdust, I will say not really… After emptying the bucket, we will wait several years for our humanure pile to heat up and decompose to the point where all pathogens are killed before using it around our fruit trees. I do know people who use it in their gardens, but I personally would rather not risk the direct contact with produce. We instead opt to put other animal’s decomposed poop on our garden beds! (We were very excited to receive a recent load of finished horse compost for our garden.)





      If the thought of humanure makes you a bit grossed out, let me point out that first, it is a very old and venerable practice. Traditionally, in China, farmers would put outhouses on the edge of their fields so that those passing by would leave their contribution to the farmer’s field’s fertility. Second, humanure is an industrial-scale modern-day practice in the US! If you live in a city or suburb and you have ever wondered what happens to your poop after you flush it down the toilet this is it--cities treat sewage until it is safe to apply agriculturally and then sell it to various rural localities and fertilizer companies. Each city has a different brand name for their fertilizer. For example, from Minnesota you can buy the twin cities’ municipal solid waste under the name “Minnegrow 5-4-0” from your garden supply center. The only cringe-worthy part of the whole operation really is the increasing amount of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics that get passed from toilets back into the soil and from there into streams and rivers. That is cause for concern. If you, like me, find this topic strangely fascinating, I recommend listening more about it from the archived Radiolab broadcast, “Poop Train” at- www.radiolab.org/story/poop-train . Also check out The Humanure Handbook  by Joseph Jenkins to learn more about composting your poop. But all this is to say, I like knowing the source contributors of our soil’s fertilizer and keeping them very local!


     The next stop on the poop tour is our outhouse, situated in the hugel-swales of our orchard.  We designed our outhouse so that it was light enough for two of us to lift and move from location to location as holes filed up. The screened-in sides keep things nicely ventilated and flies out so that one can have a scenic and not too stinky depositing experience. As the shallow holes fill with manure and sawdust we bump the outhouse down the row of trees, leaving little fertility pockets along the swales. Each outhouse in our community has its own clever name and slightly different system. For example, our neighbors use their “Saloon,” (emphasis on “loo,” thus named for its swinging doors.) Down the road is the “Phu Ping Palace,” (pronounced, you guessed it, “poo-ping,” named after a fancy skyscraper in Bangkok.) Ours is called “Poo with a View” for its scenic outlook over our homestead.


    Well, if I haven’t grossed you out too much yet, for the last stop on the poo tour is over the creek at the neighboring homestead. Our neighbor Brian just finished building a brick and cob oven in their outdoor kitchen and has been firing it up for baking bread and pizza. The secret ingredient in the exterior plaster? Their cow’s poop of course! Animal manure is used around the world as a strengthener in clay plaster and earthen floors. Perhaps because its fine fibers or enzymes, it seems to add extra strength without the stink you might expect. The only reason it isn’t in our house’s plasters is that we don’t have a ready supply to manure the way our neighbors do with their cows, Crème Brule and May Apple. At any rate, the results are delicious and hopefully for our stomachs, long lasting!