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.

 

Country Roads

Alongside the country road I drive most days, I’m sure to find—depending on the time of year—trillium, wild irises, fire pinks, flame azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, Japanese meadowsweet, bee balm, daisies, evening primrose, black-eyed Susans, Turk’s cap lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, wild blackberries, Joe-Pye weed, touch-me-nots, ironweed, snow, and ice. All strikingly beautiful and all worth slowing down for.

 

On a cool but sunny day, I’m as likely as not to find a lazy dog dozing on the asphalt, in no hurry to get out of my way.

It isn’t rare to find myself behind a farmer driving his slow-moving tractor from one field to another. Other times it may be a load of Christmas trees or a flatbed groaning under the weight of too many rolls of hay puttering along in front of me.

A deer, raccoon, possum, chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, or even a fox or bobcat might scamper—or mosey—across the road any time of day or night.

I often come upon a car or truck at a dead standstill, the driver having stopped to catch up on the latest community ‘news’ with a neighbor. Usually, they’ll look ahead and wave me around; they’re nowhere near ready to move on themselves.

It’s only right to roll down the window for a “Howdy” when couples are out for a morning jog or an evening stroll. Those moments, too, may turn into drawn-out conversations.

One should never be in a hurry on a country road.

Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer

They call them the dog days of summer, these days of July and August, usually the hottest and most humid of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). But I can already feel fall. The air has grown slightly less moist, hinting at autumn’s dry coolness, even when the thermometer doesn’t agree.

I hear it in the sounds of insects—different from early summer bug buzzes and chirps. And I hear the occasional thump when a premature nut hits the ground.

I see it in the trees. Their leaves grow simultaneously darker and paler, and occasional ones waft to the ground. I see it in the flowers, too, whose colors have changed from bright summery hues to the softer mauves, lavenders, and golds of fall.

Yes, we may still officially be in summer’s dog days, but fall is in the air. There’s something slightly wistful about these times when the old begins to fade and the new is just beyond the horizon. We become nostalgic for something not yet gone. While some of us bemoan the loss of barefoot days, summer picnics, tubing down a river, others are perking up at the prospect of football, fall foliage, apple cider, and hayrides.

By the way, do you know where the term ‘dog days of summer’ comes from? I always thought it had to do with the way lethargic dogs laze on country roads or under porches during our annual heat waves. I guess in a roundabout way that’s not far off. In fact, the ancient Romans called the hottest, most humid days of summer ‘dog days’ because they associated them with the star Sirius, the dog star. Our most sultry days coincide, more or less, with the time each year when Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, appears to rise just before the sun.

At this time in my life, the change of seasons brings a question to mind. It looms larger with each cycle—what changes lie in store with the next season? But, whatever is in my own future, my head knows that each season brings its own gifts. My challenge is to embrace them while they are here in all their fullness and, when the time comes, to let them go lightly so I can do the same when the next one rolls around.

 

Dancing Trees

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The Gnome has enjoyed playing a woodlands game with our grandchildren during their respective toddlerhoods. He’ll pick them up, hold them in his arms, and place their ears next to one of the large trees in our small forest. “Shh,” he’ll say, in his own hushed voice. “Listen.” After a few pregnant seconds, he asks if they can hear the tree.

Inevitably, they do. Is the unfettered imagination of childhood innocence at work, or are the sounds real? Whatever, watching a small child’s eyes light up, a grin spreading across a lollipop-cheeked face—such moments are pure magic.

On these spring days and nights when the wind skims across the peaks of our mountains in its furious attempt to get who-knows-where, it leaves a few things in its wake.

The crack of still-bare limbs clanging against each other as if they’re engaged in some ancient battle, wooden branches as swords, breaks the silence. Sometimes, one cuts the other to the quick, sending it crashing through other branches on the way to its final destination below.

The wind has an entirely different effect on other trees. Norway spruce and Fraser firs we once imagined growing into a profitable Christmas tree business overwhelmed us—and everything else around. Today, they are jolly evergreen giants, having grown to eighty feet or more, long branches drooping under their own verdant weight.

Wind bends, but never breaks, these resilient trees. Instead, they nod their heads to each other in rhythmic time, their outstretched branches bowing and swaying as if in some sort of complicated old folk dance. It seems they’re almost smiling, wordlessly saying, “It’s okay. I’ve got you covered.”

And they have, in a way. In such close proximity, each supports and shelters its neighbors from the wind’s potential danger. Even more, they create a haven for the wildlife that give us so much pleasure: deer, bears, the squirrels who race through branches in the height of their springtime romantic frenzies, hoppy rabbits, stripey skunks, and of course, the myriad songbirds who seek solace and grow little bird families in the protection of their branches.

 

The long, graceful, ballerina arms of our tallest neighbors wave at me through the glass door that defends me from wind’s ravages. They invite me to join their happy dance. And I do, if only with a smile as I wave back.

Summertime

(Well, this is embarrassing. For reasons too complicated to explain here, I’m not sure whether the following piece is mine or if it’s a compilation of some of my fellow writers. Logic dictates it’s mine, yet it doesn’t feel as familiar as it should. But since summer, in all its fullness, is officially just around the bend, I want to share. So, here goes—with sincere apologies if I’ve inadvertently plagiarized.)

Summertime

Summer is the most voluptuous season.

Summer is like

. . . a rainbow, bright and colorful after a dark storm;

. . . . wide open spaces with no boundaries;

. . . imagination with endless possibility.

Summer is like like the blinding light of a camera flash, the scent of singed skin, the music of Beethoven; it’s like life at full maturity—gone is the perky innocence of youth as hints of age peek through its brilliance.

Summer is like lemonade—sunshiny bright, sweet and tangy, liquid in a sweating glass.

Weeds Are Flowers, Too!

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” ―A.A. Milne

I love this quote, and it’s so true. Another equally true saying is “Weeds are plants whose virtues we haven’t yet learned.” Many decades ago, The Gnome and I discovered that the hundreds of wild purple violets popping up in our back yard could be turned into jelly, as delicately eye-popping as it was tasty.

Dandelion is the bane of many a gardener and lawn-lover, but it is actually an herb worthy of respect—a cheery little plant with more uses than you can count on all your fingers, whether culinary, medicinal, or otherwise. You can use virtually all parts of the plant, though you’ll want to avoid the sticky stems.

Dandelions are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. With the leaves, you can make everything from salad greens to classic Irish colconnon to quiche.

Did you know dandelions aren’t native to the U. S., but were imported by European immigrants for their culinary and medicinal uses?

Last year, we made the most exquisitely subtle syrup from the flowers. I’d have been hard pressed to tell it apart from honey. Dandelion tea and wine are other favorites. Dry the root for a coffee substitute. Fresh roots can be used instead of or alongside other root crops. Make a hand lotion or moisturizer from the flowers. Pollinators love dandelions.  And who can forget the sheer joy of blowing on a dandelion puff?

Lamb’s quarters fill the fields with buttery yellow blossoms in springtime. Just before they get to that stage, the stems can be harvested and eaten as a broccoli substitute. And the young leaves make an excellent addition to a green salad.

Chickweed, invasive as it can be, is another nutritious green. Add spinach-y chickweed stems, flowers, and leaves to salads or cook them up like other greens.

Star chickweed is only one of  twenty-five varieties of Stellaria, a member of the carnation family. All are edible and all except the mouse-eared variety can be eaten raw. 

By looking at so-called weeds through a different lens, we can find beauty, peace of mind, and functionality. Not to mention a veritable grocery store in our own back yards.

* If you’re thinking of joining the foraging movement, find yourself a good field guide that will also alert you to similar-looking but unfriendly plants. You’ll also want to (1) ask permission before foraging on private property; and (2) avoid areas that have been exposed to chemical pesticides or herbicides as well as roadsides. They retain automotive emissions you wouldn’t want to ingest.

 

 

 

A Mountain of Wildflowers

 

The early July day we drove onto our property for keeps is a day I’ll never forget. The four-acre meadow was white, covered with native oxeye daisies—my favorite. There were enough black-eyed Susans thrown in for variety, but not enough to take away the impression of snowy summer field.

At that time, we had no idea how many different wildflowers would grace us each year. We had to live through a full year to see it all. More, actually—a few, like jack-in-the-pulpit, can be hard for the novice to spot in a wooded landscape.

We didn’t know the following May and June would bring rhododendron blossoms throughout these mountains or that June-blooming flame azaleas dotted our property with mountain laurel following close behind. We’d never heard of fire pinks, which are actually blazing red. Red bee balm and both yellow and orange-spotted touch-me-nots are summer-to-fall natives.

Milkweed, Joe-pye weed, and ironweed (none of which should have the word weed attached to them) add varying hues of purple to the landscape. Open fields turn yellow when wild mustard, common ragwort, and evening primroses bloom.

The list goes on from March’s trillium to October’s purple asters—not to mention the many varieties of ferns, mushrooms, mosses, and lichens that share this land with us. But we all know pictures tell a story much more eloquently than words. Enjoy the two slideshows below.

 

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