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

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five Years Anniversary

     July is tough month to leave the homestead. In the past few weeks, both Mike and I have found ourselves called away for various periods of time (for work and family visits mostly), and though our home economic situation is starting to pan out as we had hoped it would, our homestead has suffered for our inattentions. When we finally returned a few days ago, we found that in our short absence, nature had filled the vacuum. The electric strand fence that we had proudly strung around our corn, confident that it would keep marauding raccoons at bay, had shorted out due to the growth of weeds underneath it and the corn had been ravaged, almost down to the last ear. Our tomatoes (my favorite vegetable to grow and generally my baby in the garden) were under attack from above by tomato horn worms and below from blight, reduced in places to skeleton vines. Noooo! An hour’s work culled the majority of dead leaves and produced several dozen fat green worms that Caris and I gleefully fed to the fish in the pond. Still, the tomatoes have clearly taken a hit and look much sadder for it. It is hard not to feel overwhelmed by all of the demands of the homestead at this time of year. It is the turning point where all of our spring gardening fantasies crash and burn as they confront the realities of pest pressure, weeds and neglect.

      Not everything has been a loss though, and fortunately, we were welcomed back to the greetings of many friends and neighbors at a community potluck where we swiftly had a week’s worth of meal invites, parties, game/social dates (for the adults), and play dates (for Caris) lined up. Many others in our community are feeling overwhelmed too, and we realized if we could team up and share in the work load, we would all be happier and more productive for it. So group canning sessions have commenced, and the hope, at least, of more work party rotations in weeks to come.

Sunday game day has become an institution

Corn cooked in the solar tube
     One of the big take aways for me from this experiment in homestead living is that living in close community is the way to go. I could reluctantly leave many other parts of the lifestyle—the animals, the garden, the orchard, house building and all of the many other physically demanding aspects of the lifestyle. But if Mike and I were alone endeavoring to do it all, we wouldn’t make it. Instead, we are regularly saved by the good company, help, and wisdom of friends living close by, sharing in our ups and downs. From several older and more experienced neighbors down the road, for example, I received the good advice to triple strand our electric wire around the corn patch and scalp the earth underneath it. We received a trunk load of free organic corn, excess to the farmer who grew it who was happy to see it go to a human mouth and not a raccoon. Another kind neighbor walked me out to her corn patch and picked out a half dozen ears for our supper when she heard our bad news. Instead of feeling devastated, now I feel buoyed to try again next year with my newfound advice and my belly full of delicious corn.

     This isn’t the first time we have felt overwhelmed with the demands of our life here. It has been a constant refrain since we began this project five years ago. Sometimes I only have eyes to see the half done projects and all that we don’t have time or energy to accomplish on our to-do list. I was taken aback by the praise of a neighboring homestead friend who pointed out how impressed she was with what we had built and created in our five years here. “Yes,” I countered, “but our gardens aren’t doing that well and we haven’t made headway with the last big pieces of house construction. We haven’t been able to even make a chicken coop!” (My dream of having chickens has been on hold for years!) She countered back with, “Your bean trellis looks amazing, and sweet potatoes vines are spilling everywhere, your garden looks great to me. And your house… you’ve done SO much.” It is the first time that I stopped to consider that she might be right—maybe I just don’t have eyes to see it. As I considered what we have accomplished, and what might be reasonable to encourage other to try and create from scratch, I decided to do a short survey of our five years of major projects and review what worked and didn’t, what we would do differently. I thought it might be useful information for anyone else who might be considering starting down the adventurous road of homesteading!

     Although the pond we had dug on our land our first season did not involve much time or sweat labor on our part (we hired an excavator to dig it in three days for around $3000 which we fundraised), it has turned out to be a great asset to our land and a great decision to make at the outset. Our pond helps us stay cool, attracts wildlife, is home to our growing fish nursery, and best of all, is a reliable, free source of water for irrigation downhill, which we use all the time. When we started thinking about the layout of our land, we hadn’t consulted an excavator specializing in ponds (there is some logic to their placement in terms of catchment area and damming possibilities), so I feel lucky that it worked on our land to have it uphill from our cultivated land. If I were doing this again, I would try to choose a piece of land that did have pond site possibilities uphill from where I wanted to move water to. We also lucked out with our Missouri clay-rich soil that holds water effortlessly. I know what the hassle and expense of installing a pond liner or attempting other methods of water retention in other soil types, so it is something to take into consideration. What would I do differently? I would have had a plan ahead of time for moving the mound of top soil that the excavator removed to the side for us to use later as it is a HUGE hassle to move it when we need some elsewhere.

     Our hugelculture swales are another big earthworks project we started in our first year, by hand digging trenches along contour of a hillside and slowly planting fruit trees into them. They were a big expenditure of time and energy to do by hand, even with the help of friends, so something I would DEFINITELY do differently is to rent a small backhoe to expedite the process. We could have done a month’s heavy work in a day for several hundred dollars more. I would have used that saved digging energy to plant cultivar fruit trees in our first year, instead of in our third. Another lesson learned is to fill a vacuum faster than nature can, so I would have quickly planted a ground covering on top of the swales instead of procrastinating and having many times the work weeding later. Still, the fruit trees we did plant in the swales are all doing well and putting on their first fruit this year!

     Clearly, our house is where we have spent the majority of our time, energy and money thus far. So I was surprised when I tallied the results of all of our construction expenses thus far and found that it came to a grand total of…. drum roll please… $22,500! (That doesn’t include our cistern and we are still building, so I think it would be safe to round up to 25K.) Where did we save the most money? On labor costs first and foremost—we have done most of the work ourselves, and only around $2,500 of that is for paid help during our fall crunch trying to get the roof on. But that saved money translated into four years of our lives working quite hard, which isn't for everyone... We also saved quite a bit scouting used windows and doors, second hand wood for interior framing, subfloor and the underside of our roof, and really cheap local lumber for everything else. Also, the bulk of our walls are strawbales, which cost $1,000 in total and plastered with clay and sand on the cheap. It took forever, but saved us quite a bit. The most expensive part of the house was the roof, costing us $7,000 total from rafters to metal and some labor costs. But no leaks yet!

     What would I have done differently? One thing I definitely consider is whether it was worth using timbers from our land for our timberframe. Visitors and tour groups always rave about the cool look of live-edge round logs, but in a sense, it cost us a year extra of work, rather than just ordering pre-milled square timbers from our local mill. If we had taken the short cut, we could have built our frame our first year instead of our second. And although I love our house with all of its character, and I don’t exactly regret the cool learning process of working with roundwood…. I just can’t say I would recommend it to anyone else. That was a tough year. It also occurred to Mike and I, as we are in the process of throwing up a simple stick frame garden shed, that if we were to build another cabin on our land, we would NOT make it strawbale. Working with straw bales (and plastering them) was another time-costly and frustrating process. We would build stud frame and infill with lightly clay-coated straw or recycled batting insulation which we would plaster on the inside and find used siding for the outside. We probably could have saved ourselves another year doing it that way. Still, the thermal properties of the straw bales have been amazing, and we went through not even two cords of wood to heat our home last year—not bad!


     Our water systems are one thing I feel glad we have tackled early and have good, redundant systems for. Our rainwater catchment cistern behind our house is one such system. It works well, almost too well, since our cistern is always full. The cistern so far doesn’t leak and last winter, our water supply line to the house did freeze but didn’t burst and we thawed it back out quickly with a heating coil we had pre-installed. So all in all, everything is working smoothly and cost us (including pump and plumbing and some labor costs) around $5,000. What would I do differently? One thing we didn’t consider when installing it all is the future of hot water in our house. We would love to try a solar hot water heater, but we would need a pressure tank that could always be kept full to resupply the hot water as it gets used. Currently with our beloved hand-pump, we can pressurize a water tank, but it slowly dissipates until empty and we pump it back up again. So we are trying to figure out other options, and it seems like the easiest is going to be some sort of manual system, at least for now.

Our dream garden shed is finally happening!

     We have slowly been expanding our gardens and trying different styles—raised beds on contour  in one area, flat beds in straight rows in another, etc. Lately I have been wishing that we had invested right away in getting a detailed soil analysis done and remineralizing and fertilizing the soil for a year before planting. Maybe even planting one year of a fertilizing cover crop. I know that soil fertility is something that takes time to slowly build up, and so maybe there is no short cut. But just getting things planted takes quite a bit of our energy, so fertility and compost making are almost always last on the list of what gets done. Still, we continue to eat out of our gardens and produce at least some extra to preserve for the winter. What we are learning is that yet another plus to living where we do is that there are lots of very cheap options for local, chemical free produce and grain (thanks to Amish farmers especially). We just bought a 5 gallon bucket of essentially organic tomatoes this morning from our neighbor for $4 to help off set our beleaguered tomato plant’s lower yields. I think that might buy one fancy heirloom tomato in the city. If it were on the small side…

     It has been a long road home and we are still going, but for now, I am celebrating the five years of hard and wonderful work that got us here. Writing this post has actually been a great reminder that we HAVE done a lot and I am not taking a a minute of it for granted! Maybe I will kick up my heels for the afternoon in our beautiful house and actually rest a little. Well, maybe....

Saturday, July 1, 2017

What to eat?


     I was flipping through a magazine a few weeks ago and was shocked to read an article about pacific small fish populations plummeting due to overfishing and sea temperatures rising. These are fish like sardines, anchovies and herring, and they are at the bottom of a whole marine food web, so declining numbers are causing seals, pelicans, puffins etc. to starve or face adversity like never before. Crap! I thought, this is the last straw!  Earlier in the year I read an article about very high levels of arsenic in rice that sent me into a panic. All rice. Even the organic stuff. I read about it just when we started feeding our baby rice gruel exclusively. Cross that off the list. Now sardines…. Sardines are the one meat I can reliably get my picky toddler to chow down on, and given that just about every other type of fish is now considered too toxic or endangered to eat, I thought we were safe sticking with sardines. But it turns out our consumption is part of the problem. And now it just doesn’t seem right to eat them anymore… my child growing chubby and healthy, while a baby puffin slowly starves? Ack!

     The sardine dilemma is just one piece of a huge food conundrum… what are we supposed to eat anymore? The ethics of food just seems increasingly complex once you start factoring in the footprint of fossil fuels used to grow and transport it, the varying level of toxins that could be in or on it, how humanely it was raised and killed, not to mention whether it is healthy or going to give you a coronary heart attack. Or diabetes. Or celiac disease. Or just a headache standing in the grocery aisle trying to decipher a long and complicated ingredients list. What to eat and what not to eat seems to be one of the most confusing things facing us poor Americans these days.

    Strangely enough, one question that people ask Mike and I a lot when they hear about our off-the-grid lifestyle is whether we are vegetarians or not. The answer is that we are not (you, clever reader, probably figured that one out from all the pig butchering references!) I have finally come to understand the vegetarian question to mean, “you live a lifestyle deeply motivated by ethics of decreasing your fossil fuel use, so do you also base your diet on a similar set of stringent ethics, i.e. vegetariansim?” In that case, yes, we do think a lot about where our food is coming from and make choices accordingly. We aren’t alone. Just about everyone in our community eats with a different health or ethical philosophy in mind, ranging from extreme paleo-style to vegan. Some people eat meat from only local, grass-fed sources. Some people don’t eat any food that isn’t local or organic because it has a smaller footprint ecologically (even coffee and chocolate are out!) There are a range of wheat, dairy, and nut allergies that factor in too. It all makes for one heck of a confusing potluck. Increasingly I find myself bringing salads to be on the safe side of everyone’s preferences because I simply can’t remember it all. And I am not alone—I remember one potluck when someone proudly announced their “vegan burgers cooked in lard from their pigs!” before realizing their error and apologizing to the disappointed vegans.

Mike making pizza in our neighbor's wood fired oven

     I know we aren’t alone in our food confusion. Food writer Michael Pollan pins the blame on the pseudo-science of “nutritionism” (and the poor journalism, manipulative food industry and government policies that prop it up). He says we are so “anxious and confused about even the most basic questions of food and health, [that we have] a steadily diminishing ability to enjoy one of the great pleasures of life without guilt or neurosis.” Unlike the rest of the world, we  Americans don’t have the weight and guidance of a long food tradition either, the way other cultures do to simplify their choices.
     I learned this first hand years ago when I was hired to be a cook for some diplomats in Italy, along with another young Italian woman. We would make elaborate traditional meals out of dusty, old Italian cookbooks, fetching our ingredients from shops in town—fresh meat from the butcher, bread from the baker, divine pecorino cheese and olives from another shop, and all the vegetables and fruits we prepared came from the garden and trees of the estate (figs, peaches, and plums, oh my!)  Even the wine and olive oil was local and bought in bulk direct from the vineyard. If I ever tried to deviate from a recipe and improvise a bit, my Italian friend would scold me and say, “you Americans always ruin food!” She made things the way her mother did, and her grandmother, which was the way the cookbooks said to make them too. A surprising number of recipes started with melting a chunk of pancetta in the skillet before adding “tritate” (finely diced onion, celery and garlic) and seasonings to get things going. At the time I thought pancetta was a bit gross (a hunk of pork fat just melting in the pan?), but now Mike and I have come full circle to doing pretty much the same, often cooking with lard. Yet being the confused American I am—tossed this way and that by food trends over the years—I grew up on butter, then margarine, then a blend of hydrogenated oils in a little tub, then olive oil, then coconut oil to finally graduate back to pork fat from our pigs. Full circle back to good old saturated fats.

     So we are trying to take a card from the Italian’s book by eating mostly local things we grow or raise ourselves (or our Amish neighbors do). We aren’t too rigid about it though, because, let’s face it, some things are worth importing! So we do buy some specialties from the grocery store and we also have a wild card, an Amish run “Bent and Dent” store a few miles away, carrying a very random assortment of food items that are rejected for whatever reason from grocery stores and sold at a steep discount. You never know what you will find there, but fancy organic fair-trade coffee is a reliable bet. Another sector of our diet comes seasonally from our land—we have a sizable wood nettles patch and wild mushroom and wild berry harvests are frequent. This year, our community is planning on conducting a big acorn harvest experiment, to see how hard it will be and what yields we can get from the many oak trees surrounding us. Mike and I are also experimenting with growing some varieties of corn—flint corn for polenta and grits, and flour corn for pancakes and breads. Our neighbor John is experimenting with popcorn. Our friend Iuval is experimenting with growing and pressing sunflower seeds for oil. Another neighbor, Brian, has been tinkering with cured pork products and hard cheeses. Some of them are really good… I bet they would even pass muster with my Italian friend! As a community, we are slowly recreating a regional cuisine tied to the land and its seasons, and relearning a set of skills that have mostly been forgotten in recent generations.

Andrew giving a fermentation workshop on wild wines

    In that same vein, a former community member, Andrew, is visiting us now and inspiring us in the direction of fermented food and beverages, which he now makes and teaches about professionally. Fermenting things and eating them is a great way to feed your gut microbiome, which the latest health research seems to be indicating is linked to myriad health issues—as in, a robust microbiome is a good thing! So after delving in with Andrew on some recipes over the past few days in our newly finished kitchen, I thought I would share with you his kraut recipe—my answer to the question of "what to eat?" It is infinitely adaptable, something you probably can’t buy in the super market, and super delicious and good for you. Make that GREAT for you.

Sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions and kale in the garden
     We just happened to have lots of cabbage, carrots and beets ready to go in our garden, so we got to work chopping those up for this recipe, but it will work with any type of crunchy vegetable really: radishes, onions, kale or chard, cauliflower or broccoli, kohlrabi, chinese cabbage, bok choy, etc. You will also need a few spoonfuls of non-iodized salt (look for kosher salt, canning salt, or sea salt) and some jars or crocks to pack it in.


Kraut Recipe- 

1. Start by chopping or shredding up your vegetables into a big bowl. You can experiment with bigger or smaller chop size.

2. Once it is tossed together, it is time to measure and sprinkle on salt. You want just enough salt to keep certain kinds of bacteria from growing, but not enough that the good bacteria can’t grow. Andrew recommends 2 1/2 Tablespoons per 5 lb. of cabbage (or whatever).

3. Now that it is salted, squeeze the vegetables and mash them a bit until it starts looking like some liquid is coming out of them. Andrew gives it the “squeeze test” to check. If you are working with something too firm to produce liquid, like a bunch of carrots or radishes, Andrew recommends making a separate brine that he pours over the vegetables in jars. For this, he uses 1 Tbsp salt: 1 cup water.

4. The next step is packing the jars. We decided to experiment a bit with blends of different veggies, adding some fresh garlic to one jar and more beets to another. Andrew then packs quart jars full of the juicy vegetable mixes, sort of mashing them down as he fills to eliminate air space and make sure the liquid gets in everywhere.

5. To keep everything safely submerged under the brine, Andrew folds an outer cabbage leaf into a square and tucks it down on top of the rest to help keep it all from bobbing above liquid level. The liquid should cover everything. If you don’t have enough because, say you used an older, drying-out cabbage, then just make a bit of brine to make up the difference.

6. Now you can either rubber band a piece of cloth on top of the jar, or screw on a lid and place the jar in a bowl because it may overflow a bit as it gets fermenting. You should put it aside and check it maybe once a day or two to “burp it” (if you went with the lid), and check for bubbles. By day 3 or 4 you can taste it. It will likely be pretty salty and young still—crispy and mild. You can eat it at this stage, or let it go longer. Maybe by one month, you might start noticing a white scummy something on top. Don’t freak out, this is normal. Just skim it off and let it keep going, making sure that everything is still below the brine level.

     We Americans tend to be a little mold-phobic, but consider that this very vegetable ferment is what Captain Cook packed into barrels and brought to sea to feed his crew for two years. They were fine. They didn’t get survey because of it. Eastern Europeans consider any kraut younger than six months to be pretty much just coleslaw—too crispy. It softens as it ages, which is where you get the type of soft, stringy kraut often piled on brats and such. If you are the type of person for whom the very thought of some living, burping, blooming thing in a jar gives you the creeps, then you can always ask someone else who knows what they are doing to check your stuff out for you. Or you could just buy some from someone else who makes it. But at any rate, don’t short change your GI system, eat fermented vegetables! Kimchi is basically this recipe with some different things added— ginger, Korean hot pepper powder, fish sauce, and usually daikon radishes too. But I think the fun is in the experimentation, and if you make small batches, you have less to lose if something goes wrong or doesn't taste that great.

Mike making a batch of elderflower wine in our newly finished kitchen

     Happy fermenting! And if you are intrigued about trying out more fermented things, Sandor Katz is the best source for more information-- Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, his books, are staples in our kitchen. Andrew Cobb, our friend who guided us through this recipe, ferments and brews kombucha in the Houston area and sells his delicious stuff under the name "Sipping Sister," perhaps one day available at a store near you!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Adventures of a Free-Range Baby

Containment... one parenting strategy at work

     It has been a little over a year now that the birth of our daughter sent our homesteading life into a new direction with a new pace. There is no denying that our plans have slowed down to a turtle crawl from their former rabbit-like turbo speed. We are in the slow lane, chipping away at what we can each day, and thus, we have reluctantly adjusted our expectations. In the early months, I learned to be pleased if I got one boringly domestic task accomplished each day: “I got the diapers washed! Cross the dishes off the list!” We could slowly eek out a project during assorted nap times. We were two people reduced to the capacity of a half person. We learned that what we suddenly had lots of availability for were social things that didn’t require arm capacity or punctuality. We could sit around and visit and take walks and such. We could travel. We could even sit in meetings if Caris wasn’t too fussy, taking turns bouncing her up and down and retrieving her pacifier. Somewhere in the course of the last year, my internal clock has shifted. I have chilled out and adjusted to the new erratic, spontaneous flow of our life. Goals are loosely held to generously set deadlines. Unexpectedly, little windows of time open in the day for things to get done, but they can never really be counted on in advance.

Porch roof underway...
And finished!

Caris "helping" on the worksite
      It never really occurred to me that anything else than this slow-lane-with-baby adjustment was possible, especially out here living simply on the land, but I felt thoroughly schooled the other morning when I stopped by my Amish neighbor’s farm to buy some strawberries. Something has been eating every one of our meager patch’s berries before we can get to them, but Lena and Ira have buckets brimming with them. And hundreds of little vegetable seedlings for sale from their greenhouse business to replace all of the ones I have managed to stunt or kill from neglect at our homestead. They also have plenty of milk for sale from their sizable goat herd. And then there are the rest of the animals on their farm. And did I mention they have seven kids under the age of 10? And Ira works construction jobs quite often too. He happened to be home and very congenially asked me, “so what has been keeping you busy?” After hemming and hawing a bit while I went through my mental list of what had previously seemed to be quite the juggling act: a single baby, a small garden, random house construction projects, community meetings, chores and art-making in the margins… hmm. I finally settled on an evasive, “oh you know, this and that!” Considering that they cheerfully manage seven times what we do, I can’t complain. It gave me a new perspective though, an awareness that we are novices learning how to live off the land compared to our neighbors who have had a lifelong education and the wisdom of generations in living-off-the-land skills.

      Mike and I didn’t embark on parenthood with any child-rearing philosophy in mind. But the active, determined nature of our daughter has set the direction of our parenting style toward “free range” more than anything, plus pieces of gleaned advice from various friends and neighbors. We give our daughter more freedom to follow her free will than probably most kids her age have. She probably has more access to dirt too. We take her to the garden with us and set her up with some tools, a bucket of water, and some cups and let her experiment with different combinations of elements—straw and dirt in bucket; water and dirt poured on woodchips; water poured on shirt; dirt, wood chips and straw in mouth, etc. This sort of thing occupies her for a few minutes and then she is off, non-stop walking everywhere with great determination. There is no fighting it… so we let her free-range outside with us, using a zone-defense approach: I track her when she is in my zone until she wanders closer to Mike, and then she is his to track. We tag out constantly and manage to both get light work done with this arrangement, with only a few panicked moments leaping to our feet to avert her path from the giant poison ivy patch. At other times we plan out blocks of time that one or the other of us is fully on-duty to free up the other partner for more focused work. It helps too that there are always other friends with kids at home over yonder hill, and sometimes we join forces or swap child-watching times with other parents. This is one of the perks of living in community—especially when all together, there are many eyes and hands to watch and help parent children, what anthropologists call alloparenting. Just another way of saying the truism, “it takes a village to raise a child”.

So those warning are on the bucket for a reason!
      Despite the parenting leg up that community provides, and having more or less two stay-at-home parents, I sometimes wonder whether our rustic lifestyle tips the scales in the other direction. Right back to the arduous slog that parenting sometimes is. Here is an example of something I can’t imagine happening in most people’s homes: I was taking a bucket bath in our tub, balanced precariously between the leg of prosciutto overhead (which is its own saga..) and a bag of dirty diapers behind me. Not exactly glamorous to start with, but such is life in a small house. Enter adorable toddling daughter who is both eager to get into everything, and to not let me out of sight. “Please don’t freak out and need me to pick you up right now,” I remember thinking as I poured hot water over my head, eyes shut, and what a relief, she didn’t! She quietly occupied herself while I washed soap out of my eyes. I am still learning that a child “quietly occupying” themselves usually doesn’t yield anything good. When a few minutes (perhaps seconds?) later I recovered sight and looked around, I was dismayed to discover the room covered in piles of sawdust that she had carefully relocated from the sawdust bucket (for the composting toilet). Worst yet, I was covered in sawdust flakes that she had been softly flinging at me in the tub. And I was out of clean rinse water in my bucket! To laugh, or cry, or scoop your little rascally daughter into your soggy-sawdust covered arms and hug her? Just saying… I can’t imagine this scenario happening outside a very rustic homestead, and it is pretty on par for us.

     So the trials and tribulations of parenting on a homestead? Is it worth it? Despite the frustrating moments sandwiched between dirty diapers and prosciutto leg, I think so. There are plenty of magical moments that make it worth it. This afternoon I gave up on doing anything productive and joined Caris for a romp in the sandy creek bed on our land. Slow flowing water meandered around us in little pools, dappled sunlight streaked through the giant trees up on the banks, birds and butterflies darted through: for an hour I forgot that life was anything short of paradise. I am glad that she will grow up knowing what monarchs and swallowtails look like in person. And knowing the names and calls of dozens of bird species, and which plants are poisonous (even if she learns it the hard way) and which are medicine. Yes, all in all, I am glad we are raising her here, in this way.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Designing a village

Mike inspecting the mushroom logs

      It has been raining for weeks now. We went from a winter drought to a spring deluge in short order, and now we are waiting for breaks in the rainfall to leap into action outside and start seeds in the garden, get trees planted, and work on projects. Yet, the dreary weather has been good for two things—the fruiting of our mushroom logs, and sitting around a table with our neighbors to discuss the future direction of our community.

      The future of our community on Frontier Lane has felt like such a massive conversation to attempt to have. Everyone who has moved here has a lot invested in regrouping around a unified vision, post-exodus of the founding couple of our community and several other families who will be dearly missed. The ten of us who are interested in remaining have been excited to discuss ideas about moving forward. But still, there are so many huge moving parts to the equation of a community. What type of community structure will allow us all to thrive together, outside of the mainstream culture, and build upon what everyone has been working so hard to create already? Should we be focusing on economics, perhaps a shared income source? Should we focus on physical structures, like a shared building that could be created to meet everyone’s needs? Or should we think about systems—cooperatives perhaps, for homeschooling children, sharing vehicles, maybe even meals, or for sharing livestock and animal care? Should we be using a tractor or a team of horses? How should internet and electricity fit in? Private property vs. shared property? Should there be an alternative currency? And how many more people do we hope to have join so that there will be just the right number of people without being too many to function relationally altogether? And so on…

    It is a lot to think about, I know, and honestly, given how often intentional communities fall apart, maybe it is a little idealistic even to be trying. But it is also exciting to imagine the possibilities. A blank canvas far larger than the size of a single homestead—a village, a new culture even, a model of sustainability. What we have been discovering so far is that life feels much more fulfilling when it is shared daily with a community of other people. I suspect humans are hardwired for a kind of tribal life that isn’t exactly encouraged in our modern, developed world. (Interestingly, the Amish community is organized by tribes or church communities—fifteen to twenty families in relative proximity to each other make up each church group, and if they grow larger than that, they split into two churches and keep growing.) On the flip side, it has felt overwhelming to Mike and I in the past to try and live in communities where all meals, chores and buildings are shared and there is very little autonomous space or time allocated to be individuals. Striking the right balance feels important. We are therefore giving this process our full effort, hopes, and dreams.

Salvaged building materials taking over the driveway

      I realize that this process requires risking a lot too. We have had to consider what it would be like if we failed as a community and were the last homesteaders on Frontier Lane—not likely, but possible. Still, taking steps forward in uncertain situations is our only chance of realizing the future we want to create: that truly has been the lesson we learned several years ago when Mike and I were faced with an entirely different upheaval possibility. We received a letter in the mail letting us know a high voltage transmission line was slated for essentially our backyard. Truth be told, I think I spent a week curled in fetal position, paralyzed with foreboding, after that letter showed up. After crying on the shoulder of our wise, fierce, elderly neighbor Glinda, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “these things have a way of happening if you keep your head stuck in the sand. It’s time to start organizing”. As reluctant as I was to heed her nudge toward resistance (fetal position is very comfortable, thank you!), we did start organizing as neighbors to confront the proposed line. We connected with more and more people who were also looking for a way to defend their land, and despite the David-vs.-Goliath odds against us, almost three years later (and a heck of a lot of work), this past week an appellate court judge sided with our group against the energy company… No local permission, no line. Hallelujah! Glinda has since passed away after a long fight with cancer, but I suspect she knew how it would all come to pass.

     Buoyed by the good news about the ruling and possibilities of a community to come, we are launching optimistically into spring. Seedlings are emerging, frogs are striking up their chorus, baby red tail hawks are making their little gull cries from the forest—the world is made new again. We are as busy as ever launching into projects, adding more balls to an already full juggling act. We have been salvaging materials off of an old house in town for future projects, working on our kitchen cabinetry, putting on a porch roof, starting a garden shed, and getting our garden going, no small task. Clearly, we aren’t getting anywhere fast with any of these projects, but somehow we manage to slowly keep accomplishing things, along with the usual suspects—dishes, laundry and naps (mostly Caris). On that note actually, I should wind this down and join her since I am getting over a cold (another joy of living in community—shared illnesses!) Happy spring!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Home economics

    For the last month we have been nestled back in our cozy straw bale home in Missouri, submerged back into the rhythms of our simple life here. Morning light streaks through our bedroom window and wakes us, (or rather, our daughter, who then wakes us by gleefully pouncing on us.) One of us will then reluctantly lumber downstairs to chop up kindling to start the fire in our stalwart engine, our Ashland cookstove. As the stove warms, so does our breakfast (and dish water, and lunch meal often too), and our day is underway. On these bleak winter days, amidst bleak and uncertain changes going on in our community and our nation, I focus on gratitude for small things: the bright red beacon of a cardinal sitting on the garden gate, the surprise visits of friends and neighbors, the way the sun lights some angle of our home, the joy of our daughter learning something new. These are small but buoying things to focus on instead of losing oneself in the undertow of uncertainties swirling around us.

     The rhythm of chores inherent to homesteading also helps us stay present and productive—we have to keep moving and doing, cooking and chopping, digging and tending—rather than stagnant worrying, and wondering about the future. This is something I love about homesteading, though I realize from the outside, it looks like a lot of thankless, hard labor. I suppose it is, but regardless, every morning I am excited to get up and going on the days projects, I suppose because they are ones we ourselves have dreamed up, or because each project has a gratifying completion—something we can see or hold in our hands at the end of the day or week as reward for our efforts.

     Every season or month has its projects and tasks, and it seems February—with spring around the corner—is the cozy month for dreaming and visioning for the year to come. Recently I’ve noticed everyone in the community swapping seed catalogues, gardening books, and brainstorming big projects for the year. At a potluck dinner a week ago, talk turned to gardening and everyone sheepishly disclosed their latest vegetable fantasies for the coming season: “flint corn”, “alpine strawberries”, “rutabegas”. Our own garden fantasies for the coming year include building a garden shed and expanding to our second garden area with storage crops like corn, dry beans, potatoes and squash. Another gardening goal is compost, lots of compost. These dreams have been fueled by two books published by Chelsea Green (anything by them is excellent): The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe and Will Bonsai's Guide to Gardening. Both of them are seasoned and opinionated old-timers who know their stuff. Not just know it, but who breed, grow, store and eat their own stuff year round. Suffice to say, we are inspired to great gardening ambitions. Surely, to end a fall garden season with stores of roots, beans, grains, bushels of fruit and nuts and cold hardy vegetables growing under row covers is a deeply satisfying vision hard-wired into our genes. At least, it feels like it. 

We have running water!
Bacon curing in the bathroom

     Besides getting swept away with garden fantasies, Mike and I are headed in new directions with our vocational energies this year. We are each embarking on different ventures that we hope will yield more financial stability for our family. The financial equation is something that almost every homesteader has to tinker with: rarely is it possible to make your living entirely off of the land. Even our Amish neighbors who are masterful at growing crops, raising animals and putting up prodigious amounts of food have side gigs like carpentry, milling, repairing small motors, making buggies and the like. Having a child has meant that Mike and I can no longer do renovation work during winters in the city, saving up for the year to come, so a shift of home economies is in order. The puzzle for us has been to figure out what work would be rewarding to us, what would allow us to still mostly homestead, and also be viable in a somewhat depressed NE Missouri economy.

     For Mike, the answer seems to be free-lance organic crop inspection, working for certification agencies. This kind of work would mean some travel for him now and again, while I keep the home fires burning. But perhaps not far—apparently there are around 480 organic farms in Missouri alone! Organic farming is one of the fastest growing sector of the agricultural world and certificates get reissued to farms yearly, meaning lots of work for inspectors. Meanwhile, Mike and our friend Cynthia continue to dabble in coopery (barrel making) when they get the chance to, and have dreams of ramping up production in the near future.

Ella making copies of a penguin lino print she created

     As for me, I am venturing into the art world: I am beginning to teach weekly art lessons out of our home for the community kids and, during baby nap times, making my own artwork for a show I will be in this coming summer. The show will feature not only my work, but my maternal grandparents, who were both prolific artists on top of doing many other things (including building their house and growing much of their food). I feel honored to get to show with them, and it definitely has me working overtime to meet my next artistic deadline.  So we will see! This year will be our litmus test for whether we can sustain ourselves financially on our Missouri homestead. Undoubtedly there will be other economic ventures in our future—perhaps more value-added goods from our homestead like honey, garlic, mushrooms, or organic meat or produce sold to our wonderful new local foods cafe, Take Root. But for now, we are underway.

Everett carving his hummingbird print block during art class

Regina trying out Mark and Alyson's water pump
     The other huge demand of the coming year seems to be community brainstorming and rebuilding after the departure of several families. Conversations are beginning, ideas are being thrown around, surveys of needs and dreams and possibilities are all underway. I am beginning to feel excited about the new direction we are taking, as well as a deeper sense of solidarity with  our remaining neighbors. Recently, we all went on a weekend retreat to an ecovillage nearby, Dancing Rabbit, where we have many friends and allies. The much larger community there (comprised of three adjoining communities—Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth CLT, and Sandhill Farms) is further down the road than we are in every sense, and we have the advantage of learning from their successes and failures. We learned our cistern building strategy from several folks there, and our Community Land Trust model comes from Red Earth Farms as well. We soaked in the inspiration and good company and returned re-energized for the work ahead.

Retreat at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, in their beautiful dance hall

Rocket mass heater at Red Earth Farms
Cool stair design at Dancing Rabbit

Dancing Rabbit ecovillage- a mix of communal and private natural buildings (white one is straw bale!)

The straw bale Milkweed Mercantile Inn and Cafe building at Dancing Rabbit

Mark and Alyson's straw bale building with recycled pallet wood roof trusses showing

     As you can tell, another year is slowly making its contours known to us. We have a lot that we are juggling and surely more to come, but for now we are able and ready for our busy 2017 homesteading season to begin!