We learned about them in school–those sturdy pioneers of the 1800s who headed west in their covered farm wagons to build little cabins and eke out a living on land provided to them at no cost by the government. They were traditional homesteaders. Oh, those were the days! The Gnome and I made our own trek out west last fall (not in a covered wagon, mind you) and happened upon the Oregon Trail Ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming. Oh, my!
See that? See what 500,000 (that’s right–500,000!) people traveling across solid rock with their horses and wagon wheels did to that rock? In places, these ruts cut five feet deep! Can you imagine?
Now, those people had it rough, no doubt about it. They left all they knew behind, faced both known and unknown hazards, all to make a hard life in uncharted territory.
The back-to-the-land homesteaders of the 1960s and 70s faced a different scenario, not nearly so hard, but still pretty rough. To generalize a bit, the movement toward subsistence living was a rejection of modern life as folks strove to get back to basics. They were idealists, but typically without any understanding of what they were getting into or the experience they needed to succeed. Going back to the land often meant no running water, no electricity, insufficient heat in winter, and certainly no air conditioning in summer. Yes, it was plenty hard.
Modern homesteading is something else again. There’s a healthy segment of people who still opt to plow their fields with real horsepower instead of machines. There are those who eschew electricity (unless it’s off the grid). But these days there are many avenues to a new kind of homesteading.
People who call themselves modern homesteaders are usually people who want to live closer to the earth; to do more of the work of daily living with their own hands–like growing and preserving their own food, sewing or knitting their own clothes, cooking their own meals. They want to learn the practical skills to live more simply. They want to be resilient: not necessarily completely self-sufficient, but to develop the philosophy and skills to become more self-reliant.
In short, modern homesteading is a way of finding your own path to a simpler, more self-reliant life. Not everyone agrees with this definition, but it seems to be the majority position. Modern homesteading allows a person to weave old-fashioned skills into modern life. To find what, for you, is the best of both worlds. City slickers, even apartment dwellers, can be homesteaders by this definition. Personal values, circumstances, and demands make the path–and the destination–different for just about everybody. But anybody who wants to can give it a try.
Some people like to call the Gnome and me farmers. I have far too much respect for real farmers to let that go by unchallenged. Farmers are up well before dawn day in and day out. They work outside all day, summer and winter. We’re gardeners. That’s all. Modern homesteaders, though–I’ll take that. Our path? We built our own house with our own hands. We have electricity, but half of it these days comes from a community solar garden. For all sorts of reasons that make sense to us, we don’t heat with wood. But we do have lots of south-facing windows for passive solar heat, and our walls are almost twelve-inches thick, so even in our sometimes frigid climate, our house stays pretty cozy with very little heating expense, relatively speaking.
Our piped-in water comes from a spring back in our woods. We tap our own maple trees and boil the liquid down to syrup. We recycle. We’re inveterate do-it-yourselfers. To the extent our skills and tools allow, we do our own maintenance and make our own repairs. We grow and preserve enough vegetables to pretty much get us through the year. We wash our clothes in a modern electric washing machine, but to dry them we usually use our solar clothes dryer.
So, we’ve cobbled together a life that works for us. One that teaches us resilience. One that keeps us closer to the land even as we type on our computers, drive our car, and use electric tools and appliances. One that gives us vast satisfaction, as well as the confidence that, should circumstances dictate, we might actually be able to be self-sufficient–at least for awhile. Our own middle ground. And, for us, that’s modern homesteading.