Over the course of the past year, we've chatted with many folks who are hoping to start a homestead. Like us, they've been dreaming of going "back to the land," of living a simple, self-sufficient life in the country. Quite often, they've sought our advice about how to make it happen. Thus far, we've had a hard time answering them meaningfully.
A big part of the trouble is that we just don't have much experience doing this. Another contributing factor is that we don't like telling people what to do. Every situation is different—we can only speak to ours with authority. Finally, we struggle because, while we want to be supportive and encouraging, we also want to be honest about what the process has been like.
Since we moved to our land, we've experienced a huge range of emotions about our decision, from over-the-moon elated, to really, really burnt out. We've felt both liberated, and trapped by this project on many occasions. The past year has been an incredible growing process. Below, we've tried to capture some of the most important lessons we've learned.
Becoming "self-sufficient" was the wrong goal
One of the biggest motivating factors for our move to Vermont was a desire to get away from society as we knew it. We wanted to take to the woods to create a life of self-sufficiency. Having been here a year, we can safely say that idea was marginally ridiculous. We still want to take responsibility for the whole of our physical survival, but being self-sufficient is no longer an end unto itself.
Instead, we've learned the importance of community. Hardly a week goes by that we're not humbled by how great our neighbors and friends are. It's hard to imagine having accomplished a tenth of what we have without them. Together, we create amazing things. We rely on each other. We support one another. In short, we are discovering interdependence as opposed to independence.
Building a Homesteading vs. Having a Homestead
When we first started this project, it didn't occur to us that there was a distinction between having a homestead and building one. Instead, our dream was a naive, smooshed-together amalgamation of both of those ideas: we wanted to live in a a beautiful, natural home we created with our own hands, surrounded by an abundant garden and menagerie of animals.
We still ache for that dream, of course, but the realities of getting there are really starting to sink in. Because we started on raw land, and because we want to do most of the building ourselves, our lives will likely be consumed by construction projects for several years to come. For some reason it never really clicked for us that building buildings was going to be such a huge part of our lives for so long.
While we're relieved to no longer live in suburbia, we realize now that our old home had vast potential. There was a huge lawn just waiting to become a massive garden (assuming the woefully obtuse, captious homeowner's association didn't object). We might've gotten away with bee keeping and raising chickens, too. All without packing up our lives to start from scratch.
Growth will not be linear
Often, it feels like we're trying to do too many things at once. Frequently, it seems impossible to focus on one task because everything on our homestead is interrelated. We recently learned the phrase "Hodgepodge Growth" from a permaculture book, and we've been finding comfort in its aptness. As important as it is to prioritize the many tasks that need to be accomplished, it is also important to realize that growth is not linear.
For example, last spring we wanted to start building a house. To begin, we needed a foundation. In order to get the raw materials we chose to build with, we needed to make the site accessible for delivery trucks. And so, instead of merrily taking to the woods to build a house, we started by improving our road. A big part of that project involved clearing downed trees…
[Hodgepodge growth] can look or even feel scattered, but it may be just the opposite—the most focused way to go about the whole project. You will find that things are connected functionally that don't seem to have anything to do with each other.The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane
Sleep, Creep, Leap
We learned this phrase at a permaculture workshop about growing nut trees in New England. Our instructor, Keith, used it to describe how some trees grow. At first, development will seem very slow. The tree might even appear to be dead as it builds a root system. When it has enough of a foundation to start diverting energy to above-ground growth, it creeps along slowly. Finally, after years of mostly internal growth, with a solid root system to feed from, it will leap out with explosive development.
We've adopted this motto for our homestead. We're definitely in the "sleep" and "creep" phases of this project, as we gather information, learn new skills, and build the foundations for all of our plans to come. It's important to remember just how crucial these phases are, and to recognize that progress is being made, even if it doesn't feel like it.
To be continued…