Thursday, March 1, 2012

The New Homesteading: A Year in Maine

The homestead in January, before the first snowfall.
If I had any doubt about how much work this year was going to be, here is the proof, two months in: It has taken me this long to write my first blog post about life in southern Maine on the homestead.

It's not that I've been actually writing this post that whole time. It's that I've been so busy, outside and in, and adjusting to such a different daily routine (not to mention traveling) that "Write blog post" keeps getting moved from to-do list to to-do list without ever getting do'd. Er, done.

You know the procrastination mentality, right? In part, it has something to do with feeling paralyzed by the size of a project -- in this case, the concept and practice and philosophy of homesteading. What's homesteading, you ask? Well, that's part of the problem, too. I'm not sure I have the best definition, not yet, anyway. Ask me again at the end of the year.

It's tempting to define it as the act of growing or raising all your own food. But that's not quite it, really. Take out that "all" that is so tempting to put in when you speak the phrase, and you're getting closer. Especially since my brother-in-law, Peter, who built this house, philosophizes quite eloquently about the folly of total self-sufficiency. What about community? Why should each individual try to do absolutely everything himself when it's more energy-efficient (in more ways than one) to concentrate on a few things you can become proficient in, and then share them with neighbors or friends (hopefully, they're one and the same) who are proficient in others? That is, you raise laying hens for eggs, some of which you trade for milk. Makes sense.

Anyway, so far, I'm thinking of homesteading as farming that's not about profit. Homesteaders are small-scale farmers or gardeners who are using their land to provide for themselves. Not exclusively for themselves, necessarily, but they're not setting out to grow enough to sell significant quantities, though they may do some of that here and there to supplement their income. Makes sense. Doesn't it? Here's how Peter puts it: "The farmer grows for what sells and must make a living doing it," he says. "The homesteader grows for what the family wants and needs and how they want that to happen."

My sister and brother-in-law, the happy homesteaders.
The philosophy was popularized by Helen and Scott Nearing and their "Living the Good Life" (1954) and related books, which inspired countless others to attempt the same in the 1960s and beyond. Peter lived with the Nearings in Maine in 1964, for two months, and he tells tales of rosehip tea for breakfast, simple vegetarian soups with bread for lunch, rigorous work, the most beautiful, stone-walled garden he has ever seen, and a determination to, above all else, never go into debt. While Peter says the Nearings had pre-existing wealth that allowed them access to this idyll, they were also generous, selling off some of their land for just $33 an acre to acolytes such as Eliot Coleman, who with his wife, Barbara Damrosch, has become a guru in his own right. (Coleman and Damrosch, in turn, are also selling some of their land at that same price to worthy apprentices.) But if you're not one of the lucky few, or didn't get in on the movement when land was cheap, getting in on homesteading requires a significant investment of money, not to mention time.

Peter bought his five acres in North Berwick from his sister, Wendy, for just $1,500 in 1976. When I first saw the property, a dozen years ago, it was nothing if not a compound: main house, garden, chicken coop, woodshed, back shed, back back shed. (The place was, and is, shed heavy.) Pete cleared the land, even built all the structures himself. Rebekah has her own back-to-the-land history, at least in spirit: In the 1970s, with her first husband and best friends Diane and Reggie, she foraged, made her own tofu, sewed dashikis, and devotedly shopped at a food coop.

When she moved to North Berwick so many years (and cities) later, after falling in love with the charming Mainer who gave a visiting lecture to her class at Lesley University, the main house was about the size of a trailer, but expansion plans began soon enough. Now, the garden space alone is 2500 square feet, the main house is about 1200, and there are more sheds, a cold house, a greenhouse, a duck coop. Not to mention enough solar panels, installed a few years ago, to provide electricity.

Those panels are on the building that encompasses the greenhouse and duck coop, and Peter has been finishing part of the interior space to provide more sleeping quarters. The original plan was for me to bunk out there, but I've been so cozy on the third floor of the main house, in one room big enough for a desk, shelves, dresser and bed tucked in between one set of windows and a landing dedicated to indoor plants. My views from bed are 100 percent treetops. I've resisted moving outside for another reason, too: The runner ducks (eight of them, down from 10 after a hawk attack a few weeks ago) get up at 5 a.m. or so, whenever Peter lets them out, and I like to sleep a smidge later than that.

I've been getting up at about 6:30, so I have time to make coffee and oatmeal and wake up while I read newspapers on my iPad. Then we've usually been going outside to work for a few hours (sawing wood, hauling bricks, collecting maple sap, feeding chicks, or undertaking new projects such as insulating the new room) or first doing an hour of what Pete, who is retired, calls "smart work." That entails sitting around the kitchen table with Rebekah on the days she's not teaching high school Spanish, and, as the wood cookstove blazes, putting together plans for getting pigs (what breed, how much feed, when to get, when to slaughter) and tracking the planting by date and location (onions into seed trays 2/9, plant outside 5/1, etc.). I'm a spreadsheet junkie, so I feel useful with such projects, although so much of homesteading work is variable that I'm tempted to just put "It depends" in every one of the fields.

The rest of the time, I'm helping Rebekah cook (for awhile there, I kept the house supplied in freshly made corn tortillas, but my pace has fallen off) and working on my own recipe development, research and writing projects.

This is why I'm here. My yearlong leave from the Post is about having the space to work on two book projects: a second cookbook for Ten Speed Press focused on vegetable-centered dishes suitable for the single cook, and a longer-term project on the new homesteading.

What's new about homesteading? To be blunt, I am. I'm hoping to bring the new to homesteading, to bring an urban perspective to a rural (or suburban, depending on how you view southern Maine) undertaking. That's going to show up in a myriad of ways, I think, as it already has.

Here's just one example: We're talking about making soap, using the pork fat that came with the meat that Rebekah and Peter bought from the JED Collective and is sitting in the freezer (with, I can tell you exactly, 168 pounds of chicken, and so much more). Peter wants to make our own lye from wood ash, since we have so much of that around, and shouldn't be putting much of it in the garden after getting the latest soil-test results. And I can see the point of that. But in reading about the process, there's a good reason modern home soapmakers buy commercially made lye: Its strength is consistent, making the result easier to control. The new homesteading, in my mind, must mean something akin to caring partly about using up your wood ash -- and partly about the softness of your skin.

Of course, I'm the same person who asked my sister to help me decide between two jackets made by Carhartt, that working-man's brand, by telling me which was "cuter." (And I was ecstatic to read of the collaboration between Carhartt and designer Adam Kimmel.) Maybe I should coin the phrase "metrohomesteader."

Metro mindsets aside, decades after the Nearings, there's another wave of back-to-the-landers, and I want to write about this life because I think it has profound implications for much of what ails us. Not that everyone has to move to Maine and build a shed and back shed and back back shed in order to become healthy, or make the planet healthy, but aspects of this life -- respecting the environment, producing very little waste, fostering nutrition on the plate, working hard to provide for yourself -- can filter into the urban, suburban, ex-urban and rural existences. I hope through this blog I can illuminate the realities of such an undertaking, show the new ways of approaching it alongside the old, and maybe entertain or even inspire, here and there.

When the year is over, I have no doubt my own outlook will be forever changed, in ways I don't even realize.


  1. Ah, if there can be guy metrohomesteaders, there is homesteading hope for an urban-only gal like me. I love camping, as long as there are clean toilets, good coffee, hot showers and comfortable beds available at all times. Anyway, delighted to read of your adventures as - or soon after - they occur, and looking forward to the books.

  2. Nicely written my southern Maine neighbor. I look forward to having you at our Slow Food Seacoast Writers Night in April! Let me know if you need some of my home distilled lavender essential oil for the soap you are making.

  3. What a wonderful opportunity! If you have a moment after the morning papers, check out Amanda and her husband are in moving into their second year of homesteading (somewhere in Maine) with 5 children. Definitely not my cup of tea, but her blog is a joy to look at and to read.

  4. Metrohomesteading may well be the next trend, what with artisanal pickles and home-brewed kombucha already lighting the way. Great to hear about your exciting projects. Hope you will find time to join your buddies for #LetsLunch from time to time :)

  5. Thanks, all. John, I'd love some of that oil -- along with instrux for DIY distilling! Kimberly, I'm on it. And Linda, I'm hoping to get back to #LL, indeed! Sorry for the absence...

  6. Joe: I just love this! As a person who lives in the city (Seattle) who has backyard chickens, I'm right there with you as a metrohomesteader (but directly in the metro). And I used to make my own soap. Although I haven't done that for years, I've been meaning to start again. Soap tip: when you make soap, shred the leftover pieces and use, w/borax, as laundry detergent.