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.
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.
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.
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.
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