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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Digging In

        We have arrived back to Missouri for the spring, this year greeted at the end of a long drive by a wonderful sight: our house frame and roof still standing, cheering us home again! It feels good to be back with one heck of a season's tough work behind us, and one exciting season of work before us. Now that we have been here for about three weeks or so, I can say that our activities for this first month seem to be organized around a central theme--and that is digging. Digging drainage ditches, digging in little tree saplings, shoveling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of top soil and woodchips to add to our swales, turning up the soil in our one small garden bed, etc. Spring seems like a time for robust digging in, literally and metaphorically, into new projects. Not that I am complaining, because despite somewhat sore backs and tired bodies, it is all work that we are excited to be doing: each shovelful seems to bring our dreams that much closer to becoming realities.

Our little home away from home...

     I also can't complain about the moving-in process. Setting up camp this year has also been relatively painless and quick compared with our process last year (which involved building a covered living structure, setting up roof-catchment water systems, building storage systems in our shed, and getting our mulched outdoor-living areas established to name a few projects!) We were mostly unpacked and set up in one day, with some basic reorganization, planting pots and beds, and re-mulching in the following week. Our neighbors were also generous to feed us our first few days of meals while we got our kitchen set up for outdoor cooking again. In fact, the first weekend we arrived was fairly full of celebrations, potlucks, clothes-swaps and gatherings of various kinds. We arrived in time for this year's May Day celebration which involved erecting a May poll, music, dancing, weaving ribbons around and a big delicious feast. And despite having missed the first days of leaves budding out on trees, which is always kind of miraculous to witness, we also missed the last blasts of cold April weather and have for the most part been enjoying sparkling warm spring days.

May Day, with last year's may poll ready to become this year's campfire

     Although we are eager to start putting in the first floor of our house, what lies beneath comes first and tackling all the drainage issues has required a solid week or more of digging. Putting in perforated black drainage pipe and gravel around the perimeter of the house, and building little retaining walls out of "urbanite" (chunks of broken-up old concrete) around the banked earth of our north and east sides has been quite a bit of a work, shovelful by shovelful. We have also started thinking about how water is going to move in and out of the house, and we have dug in a ditch under the house for "greywater" (which is waste water from kitchen and bathroom minus "blackwater" from a flush toilet) to drain away and out to a greywater garden planted to absorb it close by. As we have muddled through these steps, I am once again struck by how much work and expense a basic house is to construct! Still, the creative process of it all is rewarding and in the end, I am sure we will value it all the more for all the work that has gone in.

     The spring rains this year have been much more paltry than last, and so our pond has not filled to full capacity. We thought we would be spending more time this spring planting out native wetland plants and starting to introduce fish into it, but instead we have opted to focus on planting out our hugel-swale system. You may remember this swale system from posts from our first year if you have been following the blog, but if not, they are basically ditches dug on contour on a south-facing slope on our land, about fifteen feet apart, and we added some rotting logs into the downhill mounds under the dirt relocated from digging. Last year they were looking a bit weedy, but we didn't have much time to pay them attention. This year they have been lavished with weeding, compost and topsoil, seeded with a mix of clovers to pull nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, and they are getting their first plantings! We ordered eight cultivated pear and apple trees to start, and added in twenty-five nitrogen-fixing shrubs, called false blooming indigo, available from the conservation department. We also are planning to add in some more nitrogen fixers (to be discussed in the next post)and what, in the permaculture world, are called "dynamic accumulators," which all have long tap roots to draw up deeper levels of nutrients and make it available at the surface level. These are things like comfrey, burdock, horseradish, and jerusalem artichoke. Finally spending time to get these planting "guilds" established has been very exciting, and so work that it has taken has flown by fairly easily.

     Among our native "neighbors" that are becoming more and more familiar to us--treefrogs, inchworms, monarchs and swallowtails, hawks and vultures, songbirds, mice (not such a welcome one), snakes, herons, migrating geese, wild turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, and many more--we have some new human neighbors down the road. After considering it for a year, John and a very pregnant Regina moved on to thirty acres down the road to start, or perhaps relocate, a Catholic Worker farm. They have been running The White Rose CW for years in Chicago, juggling both some farming and lots of hospitality and activism, but lacking a real space for it all. Here, they hope to have room for several more singles, couples, or families to join them in running a farm and providing hospitality for folks who need a temporary space (and all of this non-electrically!) I think they are up for the challenge, as they have already tackled quite a bit and seem pretty resilient to the challenges of our off-the-grid lifestyle and location. They purchased a pre-built cabin in need of some repair and have been focusing on fixing it up and getting it livable for the baby soon-to-come, with lots of help of volunteers and community work parties. We are very excited to have them joining the community and hope to partner with them in their vision in future years. Once again, our wonderful neighbor Don Miller helped move a cabin into place with his tractor, making it his fifth house moved/raised in our community in as many years! Thank goodness for the help of community!

      Well, spring edibles beckon me in the forest--morels, wood nettles, and the black locusts are blooming (we have been making delicious sweet fritters with the edible blossoms) so I had better leave off here... A delicious spring to you all!

Friday, May 9, 2014


"Can there be anything so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them oneself?"
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

     As we transition into our chosen way of life in Missouri, I am aware that we are not by any means "pioneers" but simply two more people stepping onto the well-worn path of self-sufficient life, meeting our own small human needs by living off of the land. Our story is not so dramatic or interesting as many who have chosen this path before us, and having their stories in mind has given me renewed inspiration and courage to try what sometimes seems crazy and impossible.

     Perhaps the first story of self-reliant homesteading I encountered years ago was that of Helen and Scott Nearing. They created a life on the land in Maine starting in the 1930s, leaving respectable university careers, building a stone house by hand and gardening during the short Maine growing season. They proceeded to teach and write about their experiences in a series of books about "the good life," advocating for a balance of physical and contemplative practice, and inspiring hundreds of young people who would come and visit them. Reading their book The Good Life was a revelation to me when I read it, that homesteading was something possible, at a time when I knew nobody living that way. It's funny to think back on that now, as I have come to know so many farmers and homesteaders, but I guess being raised in a city and suburbs, I just wasn't exposed to it. I am sure that they paved the way for many countless others as well.

Harlan and Anna's waterfront homestead at Payne Hollow

     Another inspiration are the lives of Harlan and Anna Hubbard (who were made well known through the writings of Wendell Berry). They lived on the banks of the Ohio River, first in a shanty boat that they traveled up and down the Mississippi on, and then on a homestead that they built from scratch. They caught, raised and grew all of their own food and lived without electricity or a vehicle up until their final days. Although they sound fairly "uncivilized", they played classical music (Anna on the grand piano and Harlan the violin) and read great works of literature together daily, and Harlan wrote about their life (Shanty Boat, and Payne Hollow) and painted prolifically. When Berry discovered them by chance one day, he was deeply inspired and went on to write the book, Harlan Hubbard. He also wrote about a particular experience when he was involved in organizing a protest of a nuclear facility nearby them, which he tried to convince them to join in. They declined, and the realization that their entire lives were a protest far more meaningful than his singular action deeply impressed him and surely influenced him in his return to his homeland in Kentucky where he continues to this day to farm (with draft horses) and write essays, novels and poems (on a typewriter) with the help of his wife Tanya. His books are too countless to mention in their entirety, but some favorites of ours are The Mad Farmer Poems, Jayber Crow, The Unsettling of America, The Gift of Good Land, and Home Economics. His life and writings are also a huge inspiration to us, to say the least.

      Of course, there has also been Henry David Thoreau's experiment living off the land at Walden Pond in Massachussets, which, though it only lasted two years, sent out huge ripples thanks to his writing about the experience in his book Walden. I finally read it last year and was struck by how much of it I could relate to almost two centuries later....

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

    Gandhi's self-sufficiency activism and practice at his communal ashram in India are hugely influential to us and many: the salt march, spinning and weaving cloth, farming and raising animals. His concept of the duty of "bread labor," is something that has stuck with me: that we all have the responsibility to provide for our basic needs through basic labor. Growing our own food, raising our own animals, making what we need, eating more simply and consuming less  (or more mindfully) are all ways of doing our own bread labor. I am finding how much meaning and joy there can be in this kind of self-reliance work. I finally learned how to spin fiber into yarn this past year, inspired by Gandhi's simple daily practice, and I have been knitting and sewing many of my own clothes (none yet from cloth I wove from yarn I spun... wouldn't that be the extreme act of self sufficiency?) Sometimes the question pops into my head, "wouldn't it be far cheaper and easier to just buy this?" And the answer of course is yes, it would be. Still, I find it deeply rewarding to create some of the things I need in life, and I find that I treasure those things (or the things friends have handmade) so much more.

     Really, what the self-reliant lives of these inspiring people (and countless others) points to is that we don't really need all that much materially to live a good life, and it isn't out of our reach to provide for those needs ourselves. I read this line some time ago and wrote it down (though I have no idea who to attribute it to): "our actual needs are so much larger emotionally and so much smaller materially than we have come to describe them in American society". If one ducks out of the fray of media messaging encouraging the want and consumption of so many needless things, this becomes obvious. Yo-yoing back and forth between life in a tent in a field and the heart of a big city, I can testify to the fact that skirting commercialism is infinitely harder in some locations than others! I have a much harder time resisting the temptation to consume excess stuff when I am in the city, with so many stores, magazines, online ads, etc. surrounding me. When I'm in Missouri, surrounded by trees and wildflowers, mostly what I want more of are trees saplings and wildflower seeds! Oh, and a house :)

     I know I am not alone in being consumed by the feeling of wanting stuff. Many of us suffer from what has come to be called "affluenza". In the book by that name by authors Clive Hamilton and Richard Dennis, it is defined as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." Without going into it too much, I think we can all agree it exists in America, probably more than most places, and it can be hard to escape from the feeling of wanting more, especially when its all around you and everyone else has it. I might add on an extension to the definition--we get overwhelmed with having too much. We accumulate so much stuff in our houses that it becomes a burden, draining us of our energy and resources just to maintain it all. There is this great quote by Wendell Berry that warns against this condition: "Don't own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch on fire." My own experience is that it takes quite a bit of mindfulness not to accumulate excess material stuff, to really keep checking back in with what my real needs are. My friend Beth is a master at this, and she has to be since her house is tiny- only 120 sq. ft.! She has only a few sets of dishes and utensils, only her most treasured books, only a few towels, only one small closet of clothes. She is constantly paring down further too. For anyone who needs inspiration to go the extreme in letting go of possessions, there is the 100 Thing Challenge, by David Bruno: if you could only own one hundred possessions, what would you keep? I haven't tried it myself, but I find myself thinking about it when pressed with the choice of whether to buy something or not--would this make my 100 thing list? Remember, Gandhi died with only a few possessions, including one bowl, his spectacles, a pair of sandals, and his robe. He sets the bar pretty high on what constitutes as "essentials".

Beth's tiny house on wheels

     So the ingredients we are finding useful in our journey to greater self-reliance are living more simply, utilizing what elements our environment has to offer to meet our needs, and last, learning skills to be able to transfer the raw materials around us into what we need. There are really no shortage of books, classes, volunteer opportunities, or apprenticeships to learn those skills, but it does take some intentionality to seek them out. Right now, our combined years of experience taking classes and volunteering on other people's house builds has resulted in a huge skill asset of being able to do most of the work to build our house. We are saving a small fortune in not having to hire professionals. We have also been able to harvest raw material from our woods and turn it into building materials, and fuel to cook our food with (plus harvesting some of that food as well). Not only are we saving money, but the process of doing it all ourselves has been incredibly rewarding. Every day I wake up excited to start our days work, and not once have I felt like it hasn't stretched my mind, body and spirit in the process of doing it. Our work has brought us closer to each other, our land, and our neighbors. So I highly recommend learning some hands-on skills! Cooking, growing food, crafting, building--start learning wherever your passion lies, and one skill will lead to the next. There are hundreds of schools and opportunities across the country, even in cities, where you can begin. I will list some of our favorite resources below when I get a chance... But for now, we just arrived back on our land and there are a hundred things to do and people to hug! Happy spring!