Our Modern Homesteading Journey

I’m not sure how it started, or when. But I do recall that the Gnome and I were early, early disciples of Mother Earth News Magazine. We landed a first edition copy of the Whole Earth Catalog and thumbed its pages until they were ragged and yellowed. We briefly considered looking for an old farmhouse somewhere in eastern Nova Scotia and learning to grub a subsistence living from the land.

We’re still the proud owners of this 1975 Mother Earth News Almanac. It’s where we found the easy, rib-sticking recipe for potato-cheese soup–the perfect way to cap off a cold day working outdoors.

There was a time, prompted by finances as much as a back-to-the-land ethos, when we quite literally stalked wild asparagus (and wild cherries) in Louisville’s magnificent city parks. We dug day lily tubers from our back yard for food. We made jellies from the thousands of purple violets which had overtaken our lawn and from rampant patches of mint. More than once we attempted a vegetarian lifestyle. (In those days, vegetarianism was considered the true sign of a back-to-the-lander in some quarters.) We got into crafting and selling our wares—mostly weaving and macrame—at local and regional street fairs and festivals. My favorite was ‘barefoot’ sandals. Sound a little hippie? You bet!

The Gnome had always had a hankering to design and build a home with his bare hands. In our first years of marriage, he got a little—and I emphasize little—experience working on home remodeling and repair jobs with a high school shop teacher in summertime and on weekends, which made the itch that much stronger.

Time passed, life intervened, and homesteading on any level seemed an insurmountable pipe dream. But the longing for a more sustainable, self-sufficient way of living never left us. Almost twelve years in, we decided the time had come to take that giant leap. We found a few rocky, sloped acres in the mountains of western North Carolina—way out in the country; sold our Louisville house; packed up children, cats, and our most essential belongings; and headed east.

You can start here to read the nine-part series (it’s long but chock full of fun pictures) about those days living in a tent, clearing land, and self-building our forever home, so I’m going to fast forward—but not before sharing this photo of me putting up corner bracing on our entirely self-built post-and-beam home oh so many years ago.

Too soon,  we found our dream of living an old-fashioned homesteading life a little too big to handle. We both had to find full-time jobs just to pay off the loan on our land, not to mention building materials; the kids were growing up and into extracurricular activities with college in their futures; and more than ever, health insurance was a priority. Jobs turned into careers.

Round and round the circle went. Finally, we were able to retire. Only then were we able to dedicate ourselves to gardening, food preservation, rehabbing our home, drying clothes on the line, cooking and eating at home instead of on the go.

Along the way, the term ‘modern homesteading’ began to surface. As I learned more about it, I realized that’s what we were doing, what we’d been doing all along to one degree or another.

What is modern homesteading? In short, it is a way of finding your own path to a simpler, more self-reliant life. Modern homesteading allows a person to weave old-fashioned skills into modern life. To find what—for you—is the best of both worlds. By this definition, even city-slicker apartment dwellers can be homesteaders. Personal values, life circumstances, and individual demands make both the path and the destination unique for everyone and allow anyone who wants to give it a try.

Our path? We built our own house with our own hands. We’re definitely on the grid, but a chunk of our electricity comes from a community solar garden, and we have lots of south-facing windows for passive solar heat gain.

We compost and recycle. To the extent our skills and tools allow, we do our own maintenance and make our own repairs. We prefer giving and receiving simple gifts, homemade if possible. When the weather cooperates, we line dry our laundry.  For several years, we’ve grown and preserved enough vegetables to pretty much get us through the year. We even continue to forage a little.

Our typical grocery list during gardening season

We support and encourage wildlife. We prefer spending time outdoors to seeing a movie. We support local causes that matter to us personally.
Of course, we’d done some of these things all along, even in the midst of child-rearing and busy careers. Things like recycling, loving the earth, conserving electricity, making do. But now, we have a name for it. And these days we are even more conscious in our earth-friendly decision-making.

We’ve cobbled together a life that teaches us resilience. One that keeps us closer to the land even as we type on our computers, drive our gasoline-powered car, and use electric tools and appliances. We try to live with purpose, asking how little rather than how much is necessary for living the good life. We don’t feel the need for the newest, best, or most. To be sure, it hasn’t always been a smooth journey and we’ve had bouts of backpedaling. But it’s not about perfection. It’s about striving.

Overall, our lifestyle gives us vast satisfaction as well as the confidence that, should circumstances dictate, we might be competent at true self-sufficiency, at least for a while.
We have found our own middle ground. As time and circumstances change, so will our relationship with this lifestyle. Age and illness will have their impact. But we’ll continue to do the best we can to increase our self-reliance and walk gently on this good earth.

That’s what the modern homesteading journey means to us.

The journey is different for everyone, of course.  At its core modern homesteading relies on exercising any or all of what I’ve dubbed The Four Esses: sustainability, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, subsistence.

Do what you can. Do it the best way you can. Do it one baby step at a time. It all matters.

 

Modern Homesteading Update and Recipes

When I started this blog (a little over three years ago!), one of my main goals was to write about modern homesteading. Since then, however, I also  began blogging for Mother Earth News. (You can connect to many of those posts here). Since I couldn’t put the same posts in both blogs, Living on the Diagonal began to focus on personal essays, poetry, a philosophical musings, while modern homesteading got short shrift.

But I miss sharing that topic over here, and it feels a little like I’ve abandoned my original blogging idea. And if that’s what you were looking for, I have some good news. I think I finally figured a way to get back to it without encroaching on my Mother Earth News blog posts. My plan is to share modern homesteading tips, my modern homesteading philosophy, and my own learning experiences on this site, dropping them in every month or so. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to delve into single topics in more depth over at Mother Earth News.

To start (since we’re now officially in the winter season), I am linking you to several of my favorite soup recipes (previously printed here and on the M.E.N. blog) along with this perfect go-with, my prize-winning cornbread recipe. Simple and perfect for chilly winter nights.

We use home-ground Painted Mountain corn for this recipe, but store-bought cornmeal works just (well, almost) as well.

And while you’re heating up those winter delicacies, I’ll start getting my modern homesteading writing act together.

Some of these soups take almost no time to prepare and some require a slightly larger time investment—mostly peeling or chopping, but all are simple, simple, simple.

The Gnome and I came across this favorite soup recipe way back from our earliest interest in twentieth- (now twenty-first-) century homesteading. We found it in the 1973 Mother Earth News Almanac, when it was a brand new publication.  The recipe is so easy that it’s embarrassing, but, boy oh boy, is this Cheesy-Potato Soup, the perfect stick-to-your-ribs meal after a day of chopping firewood or cross-country skiing or whatever your favorite winter outdoor activity is.

This little volume has gotten a real workout over the last forty-five years!

It was during that same era when we discovered this delicious and healthful Lentil Soup. It’s also easy to make, still hearty but lighter than the others I’m posting. Best of all, one brief cooking session provides us with several hearty meals.

More recently, we’ve discovered the joys of soups made with winter squash. Either of the following recipes can be made with your choice of winter squash—butternut, pumpkin, hubbard, whatever. And the chili is equally delicious with sweet potatoes.

The yummy Cream of Pumpkin Soup with Cinnamon Croutons could almost be dessert. You’ll need to cook the squash ahead of time or use purchased canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix).

This Slow-Cooker Winter Squash Chili is another real winner. You can start it mid-morning or after lunch, depending on which temperature setting you choose. Perfect for when  you have a busy afternoon ahead. In this case, you start with raw potatoes or squash, peeled, and chunked.

Let your slow cooker do the work for you.

Happy soup-making—and eating!

Thanks Giving

“What is the best moment of your day?” she asked.

That turned out to be a question I couldn’t answer directly. Let me put it this way.

The best moment of my day is . . .

when a sun’s ray beams onto my face, wakes me, and bird songs welcome the day;

when I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road;

when the cacophonous chatter of crows having their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning;

when I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea as my mind loosely organizes my day;

when I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden on a sunny summer morning—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that day and preserve more for chilly winter nights;

when the comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtakes me upon waking in the morning and again as I fall asleep each night;

when a few hours of dedicated writing time come my way;

The best part of my day is . . .

when the all-day antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds;

when I take a twilight summer stroll listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle;

when I gaze at the star-studded sky on a clear, crisp wintry night and maybe catch a meteor streaking through the atmosphere;

when I spy mountaintops peeking through a sea of clouds;

when the nighttime call of an owl seeps into my consciousness;

when the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long;

when I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren;

when the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow.

The best—and sweetest—moment of my day is a spontaneous embrace anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.

With all these best moments, I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn: “How can I keep from singing?”

And I give thanks.

 

 

Country Living

It’s taken a long time for me to realize it, but I must live in Hooterville. I did love watching Petticoat Junction and Green Acres back in the day. (If you’re too young to understand those references, or if you just feel like a little nostalgic break from reality, click here and here.)

It’s no wonder we landed up here on the diagonal.

But it was only recently that I noticed the signs for the side roads off of the steep, dusty, barely-two-lane road I often take when I’m heading down into the valley a couple of miles away. To give myself credit, there were no green signs to identify them until our county developed its 911 system, but that’s been a long time now, so any credit due me is minuscule.

Indeed, one of those roads is Green Acres Trail. Loafer’s Joy Drive sounds like it would be perfect for Petticoat Junction’s Uncle Joe. Bugtussle Lane is just down the road a piece. And, honest-to-goodness, I drive right by Feuders’ Hill. There’s got to be a story there! The road I’m driving on is no different—Tater Hill. Yep, I’m way out in the country.

Looking into the valley from Tater Hill Road

I like it here. We may not always see eye-to-eye with our neighbors on a few important socio-political issues, but this is the kind of place where an attentive person—and they’re all attentive—will run out in the rain to pick up a package hanging on the arm of our rural mailbox so it won’t get drenched.

And if a strange vehicle turns onto our half-mile, private, gravel drive, someone’s almost sure to follow, insist on learning the driver’s name and business, and proclaim, “We’re all family here [though not quite all of us are], and we watch out for each other.” Fair warning.

It’s a comfort. And you gotta appreciate the history of the place. The folks who live in the two-story frame house down the road a piece include the great-great-great grandchildren of the ones who built it. Imagine that—a six-generation farm!

So, yes, most folks around these parts are family. But not us; we’re the interlopers—we’ve only lived here forty years. It may have taken a long time, but knowing a neighbor includes us in the informal neighborhood watch creates the kind of reassurance that only comes where folks grow their own vegetables and still hang their wash on the line.

It’s home.

Good Vibrations!

(Date stamp: late afternoon, August 3, 2019)

The Gnome and I don’t do all that much entertaining up here on the diagonal. That’s partly choice and partly circumstance. It’s funny, because as we were planning our open design floor plan all those years ago, we pictured lots of people milling about and even imagined having only giant floor pillows for seating so they could easily be shoved out of the way for more milling or even dancing.

I don’t know why we thought we’d be party-givers here—we hadn’t hosted many get-togethers back in Kentucky, either, though those few we did were always fun, whether is was sharing an evening of the Mille Bornes card game (with my French teacher colleague, of course) or hosting a Thanksgiving potluck with almost more people than could fit into our small suburban tract home.

Perhaps we had visions of showing off the fruits of our hand-building labor, but that was before the hustle-bustle of gymnastic lessons and competitions, track meets, and cross-country races. And it was before we realized we’d be living in a construction zone for years to come.

The way our forever home looked when we moved in–horizontal girts make perfect narrow shelves in our designated kitchen space.

But today was one of our rare company occasions. It was an almost-last-minute, spur-of-the-moment event, which probably made our day all the more enjoyable. We just relaxed our way into it. Our guests included my college roommate, Jan, and her spouse. The four of us had shared several outings in our college days, but decades intervened before we found our way back to each other. Only three visits in the last couple of years, each one making us wonder why we wait so long.

The other couple we’d never met.

For a couple of introverts, that’s the kind of thing that could create a pile of anxiety. But Lyn and I serendipitously and inadvertently had gotten to know each other rather well on social media—through Jan. (They are in-laws.) We became instant pals, each intrigued by the other’s life experience and appreciative of our common values. With Jan’s help, we’ve been trying to get together for a while, so today was a very big day.

Lyn has been eager to see what our ‘modern homesteading’ life is all about. If she was disappointed to learn that we keep no animals and that our garden is at rest this year, she didn’t show it. Instead, she—and all our guests—wanted to know how and why we up and left a familiar life and tried our hands at hand-building a home in a strange place, pretty much away from everything.

Working from the second story

Well, they got answers—and how! The thing is, since the Gnome and I are sort of on the reclusive side, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to talk about this life we’ve chosen and the experiences we had living in a tent and then a barely less flimsy structure while clearing our land, leveling a hillside, and wielding hammer and saw as we also raised our family.

Our first ‘home’ on the diagonal

Oh, we were in our element, talking about those early days. Retelling our story today brought back so many memories—funny, daunting, and sometimes scary. It reminded us just how proud we are of the home and life we’ve built in this little slice of paradise. There are lots of other reasons our visit today was so special, but revisiting our early days on the diagonal warmed our souls.

So, thank you Lyn and Jan and Bob and Jim for rekindling old memories. I can guarantee we’ll go to sleep tonight with big smiles on our faces.

Friends, old and new

Celebration

 

Today marks a big anniversary in the Gnome and Crone’s household. Exactly forty years ago, our family began our biggest-ever family adventure when we came to this little corner of paradise to stay. Two thirty-something adults, two children only weeks away from their sixth and ninth birthdays, and two formerly housebound cats. We came with a suitcase each of clothes, a tent, and not much else except a whole lot of enthusiasm. Almost everything else—including jobs and any sense of financial security—we left behind.

We’d seen our property twice before—once in early April when we signed the contract, and again in late May. There was no sign of spring on either of those visits.

We had expected our Memorial Day weekend trip to be filled with clearing debris. Wearing nothing more than shorts, tees, and flip flops, we were unprepared when we opened the tent flap the next morning to snow! Clearly, we had a lot to learn about living in the mountains.

But this time was different. On July 2, 1979, summer was in full swing. No longer bare, the five acres of woods were lush with full-leafed maple, oak, beech, poplar, cherry, locust, and wild magnolia trees. The almost equally large section of open meadow was a massive sea of daisies, with the occasional black-eyed Susan thrown in for variety. It took my breath away.

The first few days were for exploring. We discovered the delicate deliciousness of tiny wild strawberries growing everywhere; we visited our wooded mountain creek; we discovered an old locust fence in the edge of the woods along our east boundary line; we found twists of downed trees and ferns and mushrooms and wildflowers.

We found home.

Forty years later, things look a bit different around here. Most of the meadow is gone, thanks to trees sprouting up when mowers were out of order or when we were too busy with life to get around to mowing. We jumped on the Christmas-tree-growing bandwagon and planted a few hundred Fraser Fir and Norway Spruce seedlings. Those, too, got out of hand. Today, they are crowded evergreen giants making a home for birds and other wildlife. Most of the daisies have gotten crowded out.

Just the lower portion of a few overgrown Christmas trees

We got the house built—and decades later, rebuilt. All with our own hands. As dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfers, we can’t bear to farm out any of the work on our place even if that means it gets left undone for far too long.

But we have done a lot. We cleared the land of some trees and over time planted more; we built our forever home with our four hands—as well as the help of four much smaller hands (setting out the building lines, foundation, plumbing, electrical, roofing—the whole bit); we built a spring house and pumped water up from the creek; we built a couple of outbuildings.

We started and abandoned one garden only to begin again a few decades later. This time we enclosed a 5400 square foot space, a space where many of those gorgeous daisies once lived, for vegetables and fruits—we’ve been working on that project for four or five years now, and we do a pretty good job of feeding ourselves from it throughout the year.

 

 

(It may not look like it, but that 5,400 sq ft of enclosed garden space (ready for planting) could hold six clones of our house with a decent amount of space left for landscaping. A couple days’ worth of harvest in pictures 2 and 3.)

Most of all, we raised a family. A family where our children learned the value of making do, of making their own fun, of how to do things with their hands, of learning by doing, and that it’s okay to take (certain) risks—to try new things with an entire world of unknowns in front of you.

(Hover over each photo for caption.)

And now, we have grandchildren to share it all with, too.

It’s been a good forty years. We are looking forward to many more.

     

Same view (more or less) 1979 and 2019. Our road is under the snow.

 

    

Version 1.0 in need of serious rehab after 30 years vs. Version 2.0

If you want to learn more about our early homebuilding experience, you can start here.

Never Too Old To Learn

Well, I learned something new the other day!  When we moved to the North Carolina mountains several decades ago, the Gnome and I were taken with the many new-to-us wildflowers growing along roadsides. One, we were told, was phlox, also known as summer phlox, tall phlox, or garden phlox. Phlox paniculata.

Now, we knew about phlox—creeping phox, that is, otherwise known to us as thrift—those mounds of pinks, blues, and violets that cascade over rock walls. Quite a ground cover. Phlox subulata.

This tall phlox  was new to us. Same colors, it grows in clusters on tall, slender stems. Every year we see them brightening up already bright spring days. (Or so we thought.)

What–this isn’t phlox?!

This year, they seem to  be growing in particular abundance–on road shoulders, next to creek beds, on hillsides. But, it turns out, this spring wildflower I’ve been admiring isn’t phlox at all. How about that? What I’ve been admiring this spring is dame’s rocket, sometimes known as gilliflower. Hesperis matronalis, if you’re interested.

I think I can be forgiven for confusing these plants. To the casual—or not so casual—observer, they look identical. Same growth pattern, same height (around two to four feet), same color palette, they grow in similar environments. There are subtle differences, though, and you’d have to get a much closer look than you can when you’re driving past. Dame’s rocket has four petals, while phlox has five. (An easy mnemonic: dame = four letters; phlox = five letters. How convenient!)

This one is phlox.     http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Epibase

There’s an easier way to recognize the difference in these two flowers, and it has nothing to do with the appearance of the blossoms: dame’s rocket is a spring flower; phlox blooms later in the summer.

Both are fragrant in the evenings and relatively scentless earlier in the day. The flowers of both dame’s rocket and Phlox paniculata (but not annual or creeping phlox) are edible with a mild, spicy-sweet flavor. Dame’s rocket is a close relative of arugula and mustard and, like them, its leaves (which are best eaten before the flowers blossom) have a slightly bitter taste. Flowers and leaves would make a lovely addition to salads. Sprouted dame’s rocket seeds are also edible.

Moreover, dame’s rocket has been used for medicinal purposes, and it’s also known as an aphrodisiac. Who knew? (Not me. I didn’t even know its name!)

Sad to say, this spring bloomer is considered an invasive species in most states. Seems it has a take-charge attitude, pushing aside more polite plants. So, I won’t be buying any dame’s rocket seeds or digging up roadside plants to pretty up my place. But I’m sure going to enjoy them on country drives. And now that this ‘old dog’  has learned the difference between dame’s rocket and phlox, I think may appreciate both of them even more.