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

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Beginning of a Homestead

Finally! The long-awaited first post on our Missouri homesteading blog! Yes, it has taken me one whole month to sit down and actually write this since we arrived in La Plata, Missouri in late May. I suppose I wanted to wait until I actually had some progress to report on, but truthfully, getting settled in and started has been an overwhelming affair. We are just now beginning to feel confident in the project ahead of us--building our home, on our 20 acre homestead. Another impediment has been our irregular relationship with technology. Although I have a laptop, and Mike has a cell phone, we have been camping on our land, with no wires attached. That has meant that recharging and internet access has been spotty, and furthermore, in the move we seem to have accidentally only brought one camera and one connection cable between us, neither of which work together! Therefore, figuring out how to upload photos to the blog has taken awhile. 

But all glitches considered, here are some highlights from the last month:
Arriving: After a 10 hour drive from Ohio, we started nearing NEMO (that is the actual acronym for North East Missouri, not just a Disney fish) around 7-8pm. I felt excited to be finally turning off the highway onto familiar county road E, and then onto our new road, which is appropriately named “Frontier Lane”. We rolled down our windows to hear the crunch of gravel under the tires, and to absorb the familiar neighbor homesteads as we passed by-- two Amish families and their assortment of children and horses, a mid-aged cattle-ranching couple, the Millers, our friends who share a communal homestead called Still Waters Sanctuary (they are the Possibility Alliance), then down the hill toward our friend Beth’s land (she just moved on with her portable tiny-house-on-wheels), and over the little creek bridge and up to our new gate. As we pulled up and shut off the noisy radio and AC of the car, stepped out onto the land, we were enveloped by a sense of peace and calm that comes from the pink sky and long shadows of sunset, the breeze blowing prairie grasses and trees, and the hum of insects. Suddenly, a wild turkey shot out of the brush 10 ft. from us and sent our hearts pounding. As we made a quick loop over the grassy hills, the more it sunk in-- this place is already fully inhabited and alive!  We have come to live among the deer, ticks, owls, song birds, muskrat, snapping turtles, poison ivy, oaks, junipers, snakes, fireflies, wild flowers, frogs and all the rest of the life there that we were introduced to in the coming days. A little daunting to technically “possess” it really... I feel humbled by the reality that we don’t really own it at all, but now the land has two more inhabitants, us. 

Our first lean-to! Constructed mostly with scrap materials from friends

Neighbors: “I get by with a little help from my friends” would be an understatement for the process of getting set up and going here. Each day we have been carried by our neighbor’s generosity: we are routinely fed, given water, we have borrowed trucks, been given directions, advice, cookies, weather reports, lumber and metal roofing, tools, towels, pillows, blankets, laundry soap, jars of home-canned goods, and most importantly, good company. It feels good to already have what seems like something stronger than friendship here--real community that we can lean on time and time again. As we were going over to Don and Dana’s house for the second time in a week to borrow their truck, Don, a conservative Christian who is as earnest and hard-working as he is generous, explained--as I began to apologize for inconveniencing them--that it was important for us to serve each other and build our interdependence because we all need each other. He pointed out how often he leans on us to help round up his cattle. In fact, just that week we had gone out into his fields with him to search for a scrawny newborn calf that he was bottle-feeding daily since its mother had basically rejected it. This idea--that generosity shown to another will build and come back around, linking everyone in the circle of community--is the backbone of the gift economy, which is what we are all trying to create instead of a monetary-based system. Not that the gift economy is exactly new. It sustained family farms for generations before an era of industrialized ag. where machines filled in the gaps of human limitation. We are rediscovering how to lean on our neighbors again. And boy are we ever!

Building: So our goal for the summer is to build ourselves a home, or at least half of it. This endeavor may seem a tad bit naive or idealistic to most folks, plus it is rumored that there is no greater way to break up a relationship than to try building one’s dream house together. We don’t have much money and are trying to do most of the work ourselves, without hiring outside help, so perhaps we are additionally foolhardy. But we met last summer building a two-story 1000 sq. ft. house up the road, and we have been pretty much building together every day since then, so we are hopeful we will survive the process. That being said, choosing a site was very difficult. A dozen considerations factor in to the decision: dust from the gravel road, the NW winter wind, the SW summer wind, solar access, soil quality, access to the road, tree location, proximity to a garden site, the seasonal creek that occasionally floods big time, on and on... It actually took us a week and half just to stake out the foundation. We were so excited to start excavating that we plunged in one hot, sunny morning with shovels and lasted 4 hours before deciding to rent a mini-excavator for the rest of the foundation pits. We are trying to find the tricky balance between work done by hand with hand saws and elbow grease, and work done using a minimum of machines and power tools where it makes sense. This was one of those situations where it made sense (Missouri soil is solidly clay... potters could throw the stuff on a wheel!) Mike dug a one cubic yd. hole in four hours, and we did the next eleven holes with the mini-digger in another four hours. Our neighbor also helped us level the site with his tractor. After that, this past week we have spent re-filling those same holes with 17.5 tons of gravel, by hand! This might sound crazy, but we figured it would be better to go slow and tamp each course of gravel by hand instead of using big machines. Picture two shovels and a wheelbarrow. Despite occasionally feeling like a chain gang, it hasn’t been that bad. We just finished topping the gravel pits with "urbanite" blocks (busted-up old concrete slab) and are already combing the woods on our land for suitable oak trees for the posts and beams to come next. 

From above, "help! I'm drowning in gravel!" to finished foundation pits below...

Birthday: Amidst all of this endeavoring, I turned 30. My family came for the occasion and there was a big pond-olympics-pizza-party at Still Waters farm to celebrate. It was a perfect evening, even more so because another friend who lives there also turned 30 the next day so we celebrated together, with neither of us having to bare the spotlight of attention alone. I feel pretty good about entering a new decade of life with my dream homestead taking shape beneath me and a wonderful guy to create it and share it with. 
And to round out the above gleaming portrait of life in Missouri, lowlights from the past month:
Ticks, everywhere. Marginally less annoying than mosquitos but no less insidious.
Poison ivy, in many inconvenient locations, including my ankle. 
Flipping off my bike and landing on my face, ouch!
The occasional 100 F+ day, very hard to work in
Missing friends back east... ah, the conundrum of a life spent rooting in many places! Although community is something I already have back home in the city, a homestead and a life of creative self-sufficiency would have been much more difficult there. Affordable land (with hardly any taxes on it), freedom to build and farm without licenses and inspections, and abundant resources beckoned us west. Like many settlers before us I suppose... Still, I have a heart divided across the map.
Well, that is the latest for now. I intend to keep updates on our progress monthly, so check in periodically to follow the evolution of our homestead!