Thursday, March 24, 2016
A Million Things in the March Off Grid | Homesteading | Off-Grid Living
This post first appeared on the Beyond Off Grid blog. From the website: "Beyond Off Grid is a documentary film and media project that explores why we should strive to reduce our dependence on the modern economy and control grid, and how this can be accomplished." In addition to the film itself, they provide excellent educational webinars to provide information and inspiration to those seeking a lifestyle less dependent on modernity and all of the risks that it brings to your family’s safety and survival. Seriously, go check them out. We're big fans.
Everything I learned about homesteading this year can really be summed up in one sentence: I have so much to learn about homesteading. Because here’s the thing: Homesteading, though thrown around as a sort of general term — most folks hear it and have already formed a mental image of a “back-to-the-land” nature lover, or a hipster urban farmer, or super-rural gun-totin’ new pioneer — homesteading, really, is not one thing. It is a million things. It is a million things I did not grow up learning. A million things I did not learn in public school. A million things I barely even knew existed.
I grew up in South Central Kansas, in the heart of the Bread Basket. Farm country. By which I mean: huge combines, and huge grain silos, and huge amounts of pesticides and dust blowing in the ever-present wind and huge, incredibly smelly concentrated animal feeding operations, and “Hey, smell that? That’s the smell of money!” One thousand acres of prime, black soil, and the farmer’s wife buys all her produce at the local grocery store, shipped cheap from Mexico and California. Farming.
In college, I did what a lot of college students do. I learned that there was another way and I sprinted toward it as recklessly and with as little thought as possible. Back then it was called Christian Environmentalism - older, wiser me knows it’s barely the former and strongly the latter. Still, God opened my eyes to another way.
I lived in an environmental village in Central America where we grew our own food without chemicals and where we composted our own waste. Later, I visited a major factory farm in California and saw that it was not the money that I smelled — it was mismanagement. It was pollution. It was death.
So I did what any self-respecting, immature college student would do. I became a staunch vegetarian. Because, hey, that meat is gross (it is) and those animals aren’t treated right (They’re not.) I did not know there was another way. I did not know there was “organic” or “local” or “grass-fed” or “permaculture”. I did not know a million things. I still don’t know a million things.
My husband and I had been married for about four years when we started thinking about farming. We were living in Kansas at the time, and we knew we needed a little land. Hey, land should be flat and cleared, right? That’s what farmers need. We moved to a five-acre parcel of desolation bordering a huge wheat field. I drew up a few pictures of what we could maybe do with it. I discovered John Seymour’s illustrated classic, The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It. At that time, we also found Scott Savage and his Plain Reader. Those essays changed our lives. But there were a million things to learn.
I remember, early one spring, my husband suggesting we plant a garden. “Sure,” I said. “But I don’t know how.” And that’s as far as it ever got. We lived on that farm nine months before he changed jobs and we moved to a new state. We never planted anything on that farm. We didn’t even grow flowers.
We lived in an apartment in Amish country for nine months in that new state. We didn’t have any land to call our own, but the desire began to burn in us both. I read everything I could get my hands on, and we made major changes in our lives. Kind women taught me how to bake my own bread and how to can. We ditched the TV, we sought to simplify our lives. I even began to dress more “plain”. Our minds were changed, but we weren’t farmers.
We moved back to Kansas, and found a house in the city. That first spring in the new house, my husband rented a rototiller while I clenched one hand around these little organic seed packets I had bought online and the other around a used copy of “Square Foot Gardening” and prayed with all my might, “Lord, please let me figure out what I’m supposed to do.” There were a million things I did not know. But the garden thrived that year, and the next year we doubled it. I even coaxed a small crop of apples from the old tree in the backyard. I learned some things. But there were still a million things I didn’t know.
A few years later, we changed states again. While living on a little property that was beautiful and private and completely inappropriate for farming, we dreamed and talked and discovered Michael Bunker’s Surviving Off Off-Grid. Well, that was that. We read it. We read it again. We CAME TO TERMS. We had to finally admit that we don’t know a million things and that we could not let it stop us anymore.
I began to view homesteading like having children. I hear young (and sometimes older) couples say they’re not going to have children until they’re ready. Well, news flash: You’re never “ready”. You don’t even know what you need to be ready until you’re in the thick of it. You don’t know what you don’t know. And later, you do know what you don’t know. That’s even scarier. There are a million things. But you have to start somewhere. There will be a lot of flailing and mistakes and frustration and you will waste money and you will feel stupid and sometimes it is like you are DROWNING, but you will get to the other side and say, “That was pretty amazing.”
After two more years of farm hunting, we ended up on our homestead. We had land and we had strong young children (going on nine of them, now) to help us set our hands to this joyful work. There were simply no more excuses we could make.
We learned how to cut down a tree. And another. And another. We learned how to chop and season and store firewood. I learned how to not be terrified when I watched the seven-year old swinging his own axe. (Mostly.) We learned how to operate a wood stove without burning down the house. (Yet.) But I still can’t name the trees on our very wooded homestead. So our family is going to take a tree-identification course together this summer. There is one more thing - maybe twenty more things - I will know.
I learned that I am allergic to poison sumac. And I learned how to identify it. One more thing. (An important thing!)
We got our first farm animals - Nubian goats - to clear the dense honeysuckle and poison ivy and sumac on our property this year. Two-month old kids. There they were, in the shed on their first night and I was as panicked as a new mother on her first night home from the hospital. “Now what am I supposed to DO with this thing?” I picked up my Kindle and found some books, and read everything I could. What do you mean, de-worming? Trimming hooves? WHAT ON EARTH. A million things. I feel confident with our goats now. But when we breed them next fall, it will start a whole new chapter of “Things Heidi Doesn’t Know”. What about when it’s time for them to kid? Will I be able to milk them? And then there’s cheese making. And yogurt making. And soap making. I don’t know a million things. But I can learn.
We got chickens this spring, too. Again to the books, and to the things I don’t know. I didn’t know how exciting that first egg would be, or how hard it would be to butcher the few old gals someone gave us. I didn’t know that roosters wake up at 5am, and therefore babies wake up at 5am, even if the coop light is set for 7. (I kind of wish I didn’t know that.)
I thought I knew how to garden. Then I learned a new-to-me method that made me see how many hours I’d wasted weeding and watering and I wondered, “How many more millions of things don’t I know?” The garden was prolific. What a blessing. Now how do I store all this food? How do we dig a root cellar? Fermenting? GNOWFGLINS? (Is that even English?) And how can I start seeds more successfully this year? What do you mean, “Soil block maker?” What else don’t I know?
Two rabbits just arrived this past weekend, and my 11-year old daughter was sitting in bed by the light of a Kindle late Sunday night, taking notes for Mom on “How to Raise Meat Rabbits” while three of her younger sisters snored away, because there are a million things I don’t know. (But now she knows.)
And again I hear the little voice in my head: “There are a million things I don’t know.” But it’s March. So now a new voice whispers back: “You don’t have to know a million things today. Just start with one.”
Just one thing. One thing is what this month is all about at our homestead. It is why we deliberately refocus and “double down” each March in our effort to be more self-sufficient and productive — to March Off-Grid. This month, we are choosing to not ignore the panic and frustration of “not knowing”. Rather we are choosing to embrace the “million things we don’t know” and decide — resolve — that tomorrow there will be one less thing we don’t know, and one more thing we do. Because the joy in learning that one thing supersedes the fear of the million we don’t, every time.