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

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!

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!

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!