Notes from a Failed Homesteader.

 

Or perhaps, “How I (nearly) became a Realist”.

A long post. Some of this story I have already written about before.

I’ve “had a go” at homesteading. I mean, I tried. Sort of. But to be honest, the dream fell over. And also, to be blunt, I’m now happy that it did.

How did I come to this? Well, here’s how…

A long-held dream of mine was to move out of the city to the country. It was not a dream that my family shared with any great enthusiasm. But they could see how, after 20 years of city-dwelling, this quiet-loving introvert had had enough. The Whim of Steel was intent upon change. And so, a compromise was struck.

And I was determined to combine a Tree Change with a lot of the ideas and skills I’ve gathered over the years. I had an image of myself as a slightly feral Tasha Tudor, pottering around the place gardening and writing. With nanny goats. And wearing medieval skirts that stitched by hand, (because, by gum, I can sew too). Music would float out through the windows, and I would be nibbling on strawberries, with my pen poised above the page. It was all deliciously bucolic, and quite utterly ridiculous. Life as a film set.

I never said I was a realist. Feel free to snort derisively, lovely reader. Because in this instance, I unwittingly fetishised a way of life that requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and a measured approach. The latter, especially, I have never possessed.

But I was on fire, and passionate about putting years of gathered knowledge to good use, including permaculture, and herbalism, (as well as all that herbal medicine and I studied for years). There would be herb-growing and herbal manufacturing, wine-making, wildcrafting, pickling, cheese-making and soap-making; chicken-keeping, water harvesting, and a myriad of other “homesteading” practices.

When we actually did make our big move to the country a few years back, and bought our funny old Crooked Cottage on 1/3 of an acre, I was excited to make the homesteading dream unfold. There was a giddying amount of work to be done.

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A “before” shot of one of the gardens at Crooked Cottage, (south side). Early 2013. They all looked like this, pretty much.

Yet, the point at which I embarked upon all this, I was already exhausted, and quite burnt out from years of study, work, and major life-stress. With the big move, I was drawing upon reserves of energy that, looking back, I simply didn’t have. Yet in my enthusiasm I was a human whirlwind. And I know I am a force of nature at times. I need to make things happen.

So, in an alarmingly short time, and almost single-handedly, I’d planted trees, and vegies, painted and mended. I’d added a f***-ton of topsoil to my depleted land, and adopted my first clutch of Chook Ladies. I even had pies cooling on the window-sill.

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“After” – same garden as above, but from a different angle.

I wanted to live inside that book. Which is where most of my dreams come from. An idealist, I love the dream, the ideas, and I’m a magpie at gathering them around me. Endlessly curious and hell-bent on learning, I delve deeply into subjects, knowing them in my pores and bones. And then, I release them. Only a few things remain – the books themselves. The stories. The music. An imaginative understanding of a thing or a viewpoint. The rest moves through me like storms, or breezes, or intense heat-waves.

But I digress.

Living in a spiritually and intellectually impoverished community that seemed to resent anyone trying to actually do anything, along with the reality of cultivating poor soil, (and a 1/3 of an acre of steep slope on a barren hillside), is actually quite sobering. In high Summer when everything was being burnt and shrivelled to nothing, I trekked up and down that hill with water, and mulch, and shade-cloths, desperately and fruitlessly trying to keep anything other than gum trees alive. On one hot day, when I was alone at home, I was wheeling a too-heavy wheel-barrow around the garden, and I actually saw stars and then passed out. It was very Jean de Florette, (idealist from the city, moves to village where there is hostility to outsiders; tries to cultivate impoverished land).

See what I did there? Another film set.

My approach was folly. If I’d gone with the flow of the climate, instead of fighting it, I would have made it easier on myself. It was possible for one woman to do it alone, (although possibly a full-time job); but in those harsh conditions, I needed a different approach. Still I clung to my dreams, and knowing that I couldn’t ask for help, feeling rejected by the community, I arrogantly pushed on, believing I could overcome these challenges.

Nearly everything in the north-facing garden died that Summer, flayed by the worst of the heat. And I struggled to keep the rest of the garden, as well as the animals alive and healthy. There were plagues of insects, and critters, and diseases that withered fruit on the stem. There was a total absence of romantic wandering about in the garden, nibbling on strawberries, (the ‘possums pillaged those); day-dreaming and writing. I was too occupied with hard graft and a ridiculous list of chores (and obstacles) a mile long.

FullSizeRender
Same spot again, (facing south, so more sheltered than the north), 8 months after moving in. 2013.

Then following some unfortunate events in the Autumn, it was becoming clear to us that this was more than a challenge. It felt like an ordeal. An up-hill battle. I felt a lingering curse, upon the land, upon my spirit. It wasn’t just the climate, the heavy physical work, and the poor soil, it was also the spiritual impoverishment and nastiness of the community in which I lived. Never labour under the illusion that alternative tribes can be any less cultish, exclusive, judgemental, and conformist than that which they rail against. Rainbow unicorns are not immune to the unkindness and cruelty which they refuse to acknowledge even exists.

And I strongly believe that permaculture and homesteading is not something that can occur in a vacuum. The efforts of an individual need not equate with individualism. A generous community, and a willing cooperative spirit – a give and take make it so much better. Permaculture is about balance, harmony, a cooperation of energies. It’s reflected not only in the approach to the land, but in the human heart and spirit also. Even though I knew this in theory, it needed to be a lived philosophy. Not merely an ideal.

My Jean de Florette reference is quite possibly relevant after all ; )

Another year followed, (my annus horribilis), and I survived, literally, by retreating into my garden studio, and into my writing and my work. There was not a pickle pickled, nor a bar of soap made; no bread baked, no wine brewed, (although I did drink a fair bit of the stuff). I had lost heart. I felt very alone, and utterly crushed.

It takes a lot to bring me so low, but seeing how the Moon-girl suffered at the hands of that community was the final blow; and the Bloke was hardly at home, having to commute long hours to the city. It was exhausting for him too. The dream now resembled a nightmare.

And so we cut our losses, and moved again. It wasn’t a complete failure. At least I know that I left that place better than when we arrived. That I gave it love, made it as fertile as I could, added some beauty. A very small thing, I know. But it’s something. And I refused to lose hope, or embrace the deadening parasitism of that environment.

And in coming here, we’ve given ourselves the gift of a gentler environment. With richer, softer, friendlier soil, (and acutal friends are here, which helps). But here in this mountain sanctuary, I haven’t given much thought to homesteading. I’m heartened when I hear of others doing it, but the thought of doing so myself is still exhausting. And to be honest, the thought of actually doing it ever again, is deeply unappealing. But we’re where we’re meant to be, and the love of this land is deep and true.

Here at Rapunzel’s Cottage, we harvest water simply because not being connected to a mains supply, we have no choice. And I’m glad about this. Although I notice my anxiety rises as the water level drops. My mood follows the rains, and when it’s absent for any length of time, I fluctuate between melancholia and agitation. Today is floridly wet. The rainwater tank is replenished. My happiness grows in this softened landscape. I drink deeply of both a sense of home and yet also a sharp knowledge of impermanence. My sense of being adrift is something I allow more, and am less of a tornado in my approach.

I love beauty and beautiful things; but I live frugally, and am not much of a consumer, (although in a first-world context, that’s entirely relative). When I come across articles with headlines that shout “my year without shopping!”, I often wryly think how shocked these people would be at my meagre shopping and spending habits. Even though I’m pleasure-loving, buying lots of things can be a distraction, a false creativity, (even without budget constraints). Deploying time, energy, and resources from where we could be. Perhaps, for many, that’s the lure and solace of consumption. It helps us avoid painful silences, time passing, and the mirrors they hold up to us.

I actually feel intensely privileged in my life, but I realise that I measure privilege by the arc of human history – our scientific leaps, our health and nutrition. My soft hands are from a lack of field or factory work. My level of education is something that only 50 years ago was rare among women. I can thank modern medicine and nutrition for my child living past her infancy, and the polio vaccine for her strong limbs. I can thank the eradication of smallpox for my smooth skin, and I’ve managed to make it to my 45th year, unlike my great-grandmother who died at 33 from the flu in 1918. She left 5 small children to be scattered to foster homes, because their father in those times before the advent of feminism, was unable to work as well as be a parent to his children. And there was no welfare to assist families in need. I measure wealth by the progress of centuries, and the existence of fundamental human rights. How it affects the majority, rather than by what model car I drive, or the label on the clothes I wear, (boutique de Oxfam, usually).

This may seem to be beside the point, but I do feel it’s all connected somehow to my dreams of a permaculture paradise. How we live, what we have to give, what we take without thinking. How we love the world and use its resources, and whether we are filled with wonder at the earth’s miraculous existence, its astonishing beauty and uniqueness. And whether we can have hearts that are generous, and not resentful of others, because we assume they have more than us.

These past few years, after everything was stripped away, the dream in ashes, and my heart quite broken, (not to be too melodramatic, heartbreaks grows us, don’t they?), the same, truest things remain to me: my loved ones, our health, the herb garden that I must always have, roses, the writing and stories. Music, always music. I have more than I lost. Not materially – in that regard I have less than I did. But here in my home we are more to one another, and the peace was worth what it cost us.

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Peace rose in my mountain garden. Rapunzel’s Cottage, January, 2016.

In relinquishing so much, and all the back-breaking, (though no doubt for some, rewarding) work of homesteading, I still choose a value system of trying to consume ethically. But I choose to place the heart of my energy and focus elsewhere. And I’m also choosing to put my creative work above other things, because that requires a lot of commitment, and energy, and I only have so much. I also know myself much better now – that I belong amongst art and books and music and ideas. I know that there are others who are better, or more equipped at tending the earth. At growing orchards, and rows of vegetables. I have an even deeper respect and gratitude for their skills and efforts now.

My contribution to earthcare is that I can grow flowers to attract the bees, and I never use sprays or poisons. And, I listen closely to the spirits of the land, and what they have to say to us.

I have always wanted to give something, contribute something of value that helps others. Whether it just be giving them hope, or heart on a dark day. I’m not quite sure if or how that will ever happen, but I have to try my best, with what I have. And for me, I don’t think it will be growing vegies, or cultivating land in any intensive way. I seek to support and appreciate the food growers and bee keepers, orchardists, and land-nurturers. Like the artists, the teachers, the healers, they are doing so much of our good, essential work. Work for dark times.

Thankyou for making it this far. Much love to you friends. xx

 

 

14 thoughts on “Notes from a Failed Homesteader.

  1. I’m sitting here trying to think of an intelligent response to this post and instead all I can think is,’Yes! Yes! Oh how lovely….what a wonderful person she is.’ That’s all I got. but, yes! x

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  2. Growing to know ourselves… Wisdom… And worth the effort…

    Thank you for sharing your journey.

    Your journey, so far. Because we are always on the personal journey, of self discovery.

    Gentle hugs,
    Tessa

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    1. I agree Tessa – getting to know ourselves and gaining some wisdom along the way. Looking back now, it was worth the effort. I would have always been wondering and wishing if I hadn’t had a go. And it’s helped me shift my focus and work out where why biggest priorities lie. xx

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  3. My family tried homesteading for a while when I was a teenager. Our experience was pretty much the same as yours. After all the sticky, noxious, enormous weeds had been yanked by hand from the property, it looked like the placed of dreams. But the pretty vegetable garden had to be walled and swathed in mesh to keep wallabies, possums, and other creatures out. The septic system needed constant attention. The bread baking was lovely – except when the power went out. And then there were the nights when the area’s fire alarm went off and we sat with bags packed, waiting to see if we needed to be evacuated and potentially lose everything. So you have my sympathy, absolutely! We were glad in the end to return to suburbia. I think we all learned a lot, and I certainly gained a deeper love for the land, but I do believe my own contribution to the health of this planet will always come in different ways. I can nurture a few flowers for the bees (although mostly it’s luck and watering).

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    1. Oh Sarah! This all sounds so familiar, I had to giggle, but also felt a familiar sense of dismay.

      There’s a lot to be said for cultivating a love of the earth, for speaking about this love and keeping the natural world alive through language. I think of you when I write this, and Robert MacFarlane also. Different writers, I know, but you both write of the spirit and the earth in ways that help us remember. Because once we forget, I truly believe that we’re lost. xx

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  4. i don’t think we all need to be full-on homesteaders in order to be part of the new world many of us so ardently desire…in fact, most people won’t ever be producing the majority of their own needs. most people will live in places or situations in which that would be impossible, anyway. i DO think that the lessons of how to raise, harvest, and process food, rear livestock, cook and to some extent, preserve, food for delicious, nutritious meals, wildcraft and grow herbal material for cosmetic and health needs, make and repair and maintain things around the house and yard—these are all wonderful, valuable things to know and to experience. and i think that the lessons learned by those who attempt some degree or homesteading, whether they deem it a failure or a success themselves, will be important to the evolving zeitgeist of change toward more sustainable lifestyles. as you say, you have gained greater respect for those who do tend the earth daily and produce the food and craft items the rest of us need. all of us, wherever we dwell, can love and appreciate the land that sustains us, and live in conscious ways that support positive change. artists and writers can contribute through their art! when you write, i can see and feel the love for place; i can feel your appreciation of the green kindreds, and the long, slow sweep of time that led our ancestors to be what they were and us, ultimately, to be what we are because of them. your lifestyle is full of thoughtful decisions to create a nurturing home of beauty and love and celebration of life and art. we all build our lives on dreams…sometimes those dreams need fine-tuning. sometimes we need a new dream, or to come at the old dream in a new way. and i believe very strongly indeed that tending the hearth with care, as you do, is as important—maybe more so—than almost anything any of us can do to contribute to a kinder, healthier world…

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    1. Such a beautiful comment. And this: “we all build our lives on dreams…sometimes those dreams need fine-tuning. sometimes we need a new dream, or to come at the old dream in a new way”.
      Yes! And realising that it’s ok to change those dreams, let them change colour and shape. Or discard them – and it’s interesting to see not only how different these can be over time, but also the common thread of desire and being that runs through these dreams. That they often lead back to who we are in a very fundamental, true way…xx

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  5. I lived the way your describe for more than 20 years and although I loved every minute of it – it was darned hard work and long hours with very little monetary reward and times were tough. To boost my income I took a part time job at the local school looking after the children at lunchtime in the playground and had the time of my life with them and I GOT PAID WHICH WAS A BONUS. But in the end I just couldn’t keep up with everything that needed doing – I had just had enough and we sold up – but I loved the feeling of being connected to the land and the animals and am so glad I did it and I still miss it – now I don’t have to spend hours preserving and jamming and freezing (far more than we actually needed). I don’t think it hurts to say enough is enough and change your path in life – that is what makes life interesting isn’t it.

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    1. 20 years Elaine! Deep respect! That’s a true commitment. The school job sounded lovely – and possibly a respite from all the constant demands, (you’re right – there’s always something that needs doing). I like the fact that now, I can harvest my herbs at my leisure and enjoy my home. Even though it still is often a place of work for me, I get to draw the boundaries between home and work a bit more than when I was trying to self-sustain.
      xx

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  6. My hats off to you for attempting this sort of life. I still dream of dabbling in flower farming, but there are parts of this work that I know I would not love. For example, selling to brides, which is a large part of the market. I think weddings are bit overly indulgent and over-the-top. And it seems, anyway, that our plot of land is over-run by the worst type of bugs in the summer. I think that being a homesteader takes a whole community or a whole family to take part in the work. The work is your life. And that is darn hard. A farming life. Or a self sustaining farming life. I know they are not for me. Reed laughed at me when I bought pickling spices last year. He placed it on the shelf and said sarcastically, “Well, it will be right here when you decide to use it.” Ha! He knows me too well. But the darn bugs are our cucumbers anyway.

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    1. A flower farm Nicole! How wonderful! For years I’ve held a dream of having a (very wee) medicinal herb farm. I’ve scaled the dream down a fair bit, but I’m still plotting and planning a larger herb garden that I’m going to establish (apart from the little culinary one by my kitchen door, which is going very well indeed).
      I bought some pickling spice. And some cheese-making supplies. They’re um, unopened at this point
      ; ) xx

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  7. *giggle* I bought a huge jug of apple cider vinegar AND pickling spice, two years ago. Along with my mason jars. I use the vinegar, at least. And the jars….for storing stuff. 🙂

    Oh, how i LOVe this post…it speaks so truly to my heart of hearts. It’s good to try things…it’s good to learn that perhaps we don’t want something as badly as we thought we did, rather than never find that out and be always wistful in the wondering. I’m wrestling with so many things just now….much hinging on what I decided to do with the gardens this coming spring. Ease of care and watering seem to be the touchstones…..nothing else seems remotely manageable…not if I want, like you, to put my creativity and peace of mind at the forefront. Art, books, stories, my loves….these are the cornerstones of my happiness and everything else needs to take a back seat…..

    much love to you, dear-heart…..i’m so glad i could visit here today. xoxo

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    1. heheh…at least the pickling gear is being used Mel, (that’s what I tell myself). I still have a cheese-making kit lurking accusingly at the bottom of my pantry. I comfort myself that it’s there if I ever have a brie shortage.

      And it’s good to try things as you say. I know if I hadn’t had a go I would have always been wondering, and itching to try. Not doing so would have been a regret, but now at least I can honestly say I have no such feelings. It’s actually quite freeing, because I can focus more wholeheartedly on Other Things. Tried that, didn’t really work, moving on. At least I got to live it rather than daydream it for another 20 years.

      Lots of love to you also, loveliest Mel xxx

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