Princess Jane was much more welcoming than we expected when we opened the box of week-old chicks and gently deposited each one into the shaving-filed aquarium where they will live until they feather out. She had, after all, just come inside from disemboweling a chipmunk who made the mistake of venturing out of the woods, but it might have been her full belly that made it possible for her to treat the new arrivals — pullets all – as ladies in waiting rather than waiting dinner.
It took less than a week of staying home to realize that, even with Thing1 home, we were saving piles of money by not eating out, not driving, not buying anything except what was on the grocery list. It took less than two weeks to remember that we could brush off our gardening skills and, without sending Thing1 to the Army (who wouldn’t take him and his malfunctioning immune system anyway), have some fun and make a sizable dent in that bill as well.
So the garden plan was drawn up. Seeds were started. And chicks were ordered.
We’ve had chickens in the past, and they’ve always been fun and educational . From the ladies, we’ve learned that it’s never too early or late to enjoy a good meal. From the roosters, our kids learned more about the facts of life than we were ready to explain. We learned a few unpleasant facts of life from the foxes, and the roosters learned the hard way not to pick on my chicks.
This time around we ordered pullets instead of a straight pick. We only need 6 but, wanting a few different breeds, we ordered the minimum 6 each of Rhode Island Reds and Americaunas from the feed store. Our chicken tractor will hold six comfortably (comfy chickens lay better eggs – seriously), so when they get bigger, we’ll give half of the flock to neighbors who want home grown eggs.
I’m calling it the Homesteader’s Dozen.
When I was a kid my parents and some friends rented a community garden plot in Baltimore. Our yard was mostly gravel and shade, and I remember the first summer my dad carrying on about the victory garden his parents had when he was a kid and the experience he wanted to replicate. We got a few salad and more zucchini then we could eat in 10 summers, and then we moved to a house with a big yard in the Midwest where, ironically, we grew only lawns and flowers. I’ve let my gardens lapse here and there, but this year, I have a hankering for victory.
I had my first back to the land epiphany when we moved to Vermont and wanted to make the most out of space. Every power outage and snowstorm that socked us in, every trip up our rutty road in mud season made me more determined to have my grocery store growing in my backyard, feeding my freezer through the summer. Whenever I dig in, however, I get a lot more than just groceries out of the dirt and my sweat.
My ongoing pulmonary issues and Thing1’s compromised immune system prompted us to initiate a ‘stay home’ protocol well before the governor issued one for everyone in our state. My body has limited how much heavy work I can do right now, but as long as I have the strength to whisper the words “I have an idea” to my husband (and now kids) the resurrection of a big garden was inevitable.
This year I’m experimenting with Straw-bale gardening, laying ground work for no-dig sheet mulching in the fall. So far the weather has been too cold to allow more than a few pea shoots to establish themselves in the conditioned bales, and trays of seedlings and propagated cuttings add welcome green to my office window.
The current experiment is much less work and may produce slightly fewer jars of tomato sauce. As long as there’s something green and hopeful flourishing, however, I’m calling this garden victorious.
I expected some savings during the quarantine from not driving, going out to restaurants or ordering takeout. I expected an equally big bump in our grocery bill when Thing1 returned to the nest, but, even with two giants to feed (13-year-old Thing2 hit the six foot mark this week), thrift, apparently, is part of our new normal. It’s one of the few welcome surprises this month.
I thought about it as I came across a video about propagating root vegetables from cuttings from store-bought veggies. Always a sucker for a recycling project, I knew I’d need a place to keep my cuttings safe from cats looking to knock things over. Before the pandemic I might’ve stopped at the garden center on my way home from work. With every project and new recipe lately, however, I find myself going shopping in my attic or the recycle bin with an eye on repurposing items that might’ve been forgotten or even tossed.
Last year I, along with a plethora of other Americans got swept up in decluttering — removing things from the house that didn’t spark joy. I quit when I got to the book stage (might as well declutter cats or kids), but I was already fumbling during the closet clean-out. I was never going to get that perfect pink size 6 dress on again, and I’m sure it found a better home with a more dedicated dieter. There were plenty of items, however, that went to donation bins whose goals of redistributing old clothing, I later learned, may be doing more harm than good.
For environmental and economic reasons, we were off grid for over a decade. We obsessed over every watt we consumed, but this sparkling solitude has made me question my own material consumption.
A few days ago I stumbled on a wonderful movie on Netflix called “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind“. I highly recommend for anyone with kids — I even ordered bought the book for my middle schoolers for fall. The story takes place just at the time of the 9-11 attacks and follows a high schooler in Malawi named William along with his family as they endure flooding, drought and subsequent crop failures. The change in family fortunes force them to count every grain in every meal. For William, a born tinkerer who loves fixing things, the changes mean the end of school, but, consumed with a vision of wind-powered irrigation for the village, he sneaks into the library to conduct research on his own.
There are so many powerful themes throughout the movie — strength, family in all its complexity, perseverance, and the power of education – but, as I watched William rummage through the village landfill for scrap metal and used electronics to build his turbine, another, smaller, theme emerged. Education, not merely necessity, was the mother of William’s inspiration, but it was thrift and ingenuity that helped him use whatever was on hand to bring together his turbine and save the village.
Now, a year after my failed purges, I am rethinking every purchase and every creation in terms of its embodied energy and its impact on our budget. The purge got me thinking about what happens to those things when we’re ‘done’ with them. Watching a determined teenager cobble together a life-saving machine with recycled parts, however, provided a sober — and inspiring – new perspective that will make me consider much more carefully exactly when I’m ‘done’ with something and when it still has another life left in it.
Most of our house is buried to save on energy bills. When the wind tears through in the spring and fall, however, I find myself wishing we’d buried the entire thing until I look at the sleeping Sisters from a Different Litter.
The wind and rain have completely blurred the view from our cave at times this morning. It howls through the mountains, making 100 year old trees dance and sway like a bunch of twenty-somethings doing the Batusi — and it’s just as hypnotic (and occasionally horrifying) to watch. I play Monday morning sportscaster, wondering which tree will twist too hard and go down and which one will live to play another day. Anything that could fly into a window is secured against the house, but every once in a while a gust will come from the south, actually pushing on the glass. A gust will come through the forest at the north end of the house making us wonder if that massive pine tree is too close to the part of the house that isn’t buried.
But then Monday morning sports turns from Tree Dancing to the Sleeping Sisters competition. Today’s event – who will move from their cushy spot last (with no cheating by the refs by opening the food bucket lid in the kitchen)? Popular wisdom has it that animals can sense when something is wrong, so when the gusts make the entire forest seem to bow to the ground, I always expect a response from at least one of the Sleeping Sisters.
The wind has made the windows heave at least three times, and, so far, the Sleeping Sisters are in a dead heat. Literally.
So, for the moment, I’m listening to popular wisdom and putting my faith in their instincts over my over-active imagination.
I’ve been making out my list of grocery items to order from the local country store to last the next few weeks and noticing the dwindling availability of of luxury, prepackaged foods like microwave popcorn and cake mixes, as well as staples like rice or pasta. The recognition that this pandemic could lead to shortages of some food as well as higher prices is changing my list but not necessarily for the worse.
When we first moved to the country, I wanted to learn how to do everything. I wanted to make a quilt from scratch. I wanted to make our own bread. I want to grow all our own food.
I worked full-time and, eventually, learned to pick the battles that mattered for our little homestead. I learned how to make a garden. We learned how to raise chickens. The Big Guy makes a mean sandwich bread. The quilting supplies and a pair of half-finished quilted are still in the linen closet, waiting for backings.
Now, some of those skills are getting a revisit. As grocery stores empty their supplies of spaghetti, I begin thinking about how we could make our own pasta again (some thing we did when we were first married). We know we can get flour from the country store, eggs from the neighbors and soon from our yard. We’re taking a look at what vegetables we can grow and, especially, what we should preserve in the fall.
Instead of thinking about where to buy things or how things are made, we’re thinking about how we can make them.
I’ve seen a meme circulating recently suggesting that, when all of “this“ is over, we consider to which parts of normal we want to return. Like so many people, I’m sitting on the sidelines right now, wondering when that will be. Whether that new normal is a time of scarcity or plenty, I do know that, when it arrives, I want to preserve those old-fashioned, farmed-out maker and saver skills that are going to get us through the spring and summer.
And I never want to take anything for granted again.
Last year I broke my foot, and it never completely healed. For most of the last year I felt like I’ve been driving a Pinto with the left turn signal on waiting for the tiniest little ding to knock my appendage out of commission which made gardening last year a fantasy.
this year I’m getting equipped to make the fantasy reality, but I’m a little bit nervous about what mother nature’s planned. We can usually get peas and greens in by March and have first pickings before The trees are fully leafed out.
This year, however, Mother Nature may beat us to the punch, having given winter it’s pink slip already. I think she’s tempting us to get the peas in early.
You can buy prints and cards of this painting here.
Most days we’re so wrapped up in middle-class mundaneity that the solar panels and hot water on the roof and the amish wood cookstove that heat and power our life seem completely mainstream.
And then it snows. And snows. And snows. And we load a few more logs next to the woodstove and think how lovely it all looks. And, as much as I once romanticized the idea of being completely self-sufficient ,I’m glad we’ve picked the battle that lets us wait out the storms we’ve seen this winter without worry.
It is work – I hang every scrap of laundry and we monitor every watt we use – but it’s also a luxury, and we’re grateful for it each time the snow begins to fly.
Winter isn’t officially here yet, but the wood stove is going every night just about. I love our wood stove. It’s an Amish made wood cook stove that heats not only our whole house but all of our hot water during the winter. I love it for its practicality, but I also love the romance of it.
Something about managing the hotspots on the large cast-iron cooktop and knowing where in the oven cookies will bake and not burn makes me feel like a real homesteader.
Our house is homestead in a lot of ways. Everything about it’s design was practical, initially. We designed it to be off grid, so that the multiple winter power outages would no longer affect us. We built it to be earth sheltered so that we would not be subject to the whims of the utility companies. We designed it to be a home where we could live if as we age,.
The wood stove was also a practical decision, initially. It was a source of cheap heat. It would do all the things that the woodstove has historically done throughout our nation’s history. It heats our water and our space and cooks our food.
But the pleasure I derive from standing in front of our red-hot practicality as the smell of fresh apple crisp in the oven and black bean stew on the cooktop tickle my nose hairs is anything but practical. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
I had the dubious honor of having Margaret* on my list for the evening after only two weeks working at the nursing home. When I think back to my trepidation that night, I’m ashamed. Margaret would give me several gifts, one of which I think each year as we put up the last apples of the season.
Completely bed ridden and saddled with a strict diet, Margaret had little control over her life outside of her morning and bedtime routines. She was notorious for yelling at anyone who failed to deliver her care to her very detailed specifications. I hadn’t met her, but I was terrified of her.
“What are you doing?” she demanded as I first entered her room that night.
“I have your dinner, Mrs. Williams,” I said, determined to be polite, even if she yelled at me.
“I don’t want any,” she said. I didn’t argue and took the tray out of the room. The institution’s policy was not to force people to eat if they didn’t want to. What Margaret could not refuse was minimum basic care that prevented bedsores.
Hoping to avoid conflict, I eschewed suggestions from the nurse manager and asked Margaret how she wanted me to proceed. Apparently unused to being asked what she wanted, her demeanor softened. The snapping ceased, and she quietly explained which gown she wanted and how she wanted her pillows arranged. Before I knew it, we were done.
I continued with my list and was nearly finished when the call-light outside Margaret’s room went on. Another nursing assistant rolled her eyes at me when she saw it.
“Now you’ve done it,” she said. “She’s going to bug you all night.”
When I went to see what she needed, Margaret asked if I was done with my list. I answered not yet. She asked for fresh water which I got before returning to my list.
Second shift at the nursing home was quiet. We did rounds before the graveyard shift started. Most nights between rounds we finished our charts at the nursing station or studied. But this was not most nights.
I had just started my charting when Margaret’s call-light went on again. Again, I went to see what she needed. She requested more water. Then she asked my name. She asked how long I’d been working and where I was from, telling me about herself as we talked. I soon learned she had not only grown-up in our newly-adopted Vermont town but in the red farmhouse that we had just bought. Our property had belonged to her family since the colonial period.
We talked about people we both knew. She told me about our house. She corrected me on a few points of history, mentioning that it had been built in 1761 and not 1790 as we had thought. She told me of an attic beam with the build date carved into it. Suddenly, it was 10:30 PM and time to begin last rounds.
I got home late that night.
Before I went to bed, however, I opened the door to the attic at the back of the bathroom and, armed with a flashlight, found Margaret’s beam. I went to the east end of the attic and, just as she’d promised, found ‘1761’ carved into a rough-hewn beam. Margaret was not as senile or cantankerous and I had been led and only too willing to believe. She was a living connection to the history of our town, our house, and to another way of doing things – a way that we very much trying to emulate.
The next night and the rest of the week Margaret asked to be on my list, and I began looking forward to my shift.
I learned she had moved to another town when she married, losing contact with old friends. I knew one of those friends and asked her if I could let him know that she was here. She said yes and we arranged a meeting. The two octogenarians had attended the town’s remaining one-room schoolhouse together, and had much to share. The meeting didn’t prompt a miracle turnaround of her physical health (I didn’t expect it to) but, following that visit she seemed a little happier.
Her health soon began failing rapidly and her memory with it. Some nights she barely recognized me at all. Even when she didn’t remember my name, though, we enjoyed lively conversations, mostly about her family’s farm.
One night I said mentioned how much I loved the trees on the property. For the first time since I’d been taking care of her she’s snapped at me.
“Those damn hippies let my father’s fields grow over,” she growled. She told me of how hard her grandfather had worked to keep them clear for their livestock. She told me how father had changed the very shape of our road by planting grapevines as roadblocks. Then she told me of an apple orchard her grandfather started nearly 70 years ago. The wooded hills were hiding dozens of apple trees.
Margaret died a few weeks later. I didn’t know or care if it was professional to do so, but I cried.
About that time, the Big Guy and I decided to build a new house on our property, dividing and selling part of the land to help pay for the construction of the new house. The land near the old house wouldn’t perk for a conventional septic, so we began hiking through our forest, looking for a better build site.
Cluttered with Rosie Bush, it was easy to get lost even on 10 acres. We did notice that some of the craggy plants looked like trees. When April dotted the trees with apple-scented blossoms, I realized Margaret had been entirely lucid that night.
We had no intention of trying to restore a neglected 70-year-old orchard, but we did need a building site. I asked our excavator guy if he could keep an eye out for the apple trees while clearing. He doubted there would be any and warned me that any he found would not be productive given their age. I’m not superstitious, but I was sure our discovery was a gift from Margaret, and I asked him to humor me.
When the clearing was done there were three apple trees in our yard. And the excavator guy was right. For the first year or two none of them produced anything bigger than a walnut.
After a few paltry harvests and wanting to expand my vegetable garden, I contemplated cutting the trees down. Sentimentality ruled. The apple blossoms were beautiful in spring, and the shade from the trees didn’t hit the garden until very late in the afternoon, so they were spared.
The next year, the Big Guy asked a tree-expert friend for help. When I asked if the trees were too old to produce, he answered honestly that he didn’t know. The trees were so old even he couldn’t identify the variety. He charged us $20 for a pruning. Then we waited.
The spring blossoms came and went as they had the first four years. Then the walnut-sized fruit began to form. This year, however, they grew almost as big as tennis balls. We had apples.
Everyone on our road seems to grow red apples whose rosy color clearly indicates when they’re ready to pick. Our trees consistently give yellow-green fruit. We decided to rely on cues from the local farms, watching for their billboards inviting passersby to the harvest.
When it was time to pick, our apples weren’t pretty. We discarded any that had been attacked by worms. However, knowing even scarred apples could be made into pie or applesauce, we filled several 5 gallon paint buckets. We were so excited we didn’t think to taste any. When we finally did, our harvest was very starchy and not sweet. We assumed we had picked too early.
The next year we picked later, but the harvest still failed to give us sweet apples. Another year an early frost killed the blossoms. We began to wonder if the pruning and picking was a lost cause.
Once, again, I wondered if we should cut one down. Something about chopping down a given tree, however, seemed like breaking a commandment. I decided to extend my garden another direction and Margaret’s trees remained another year.
Last winter we pruned again, knowing we would get one or two heavily-sugared $20 pies.
Before we knew it apple picking season had come and gone. Margaret’s trees had gone untouched. The first frost hit, and still only a few apples lay on the ground. We had not picked a single one. The nights mostly stayed warm until Halloween week, and then temperatures dipped into the 20s. The apples began to fall.
The Big Guy has a healthy sense of adventure and had the first bite of the year.
“Wow,” he exclaimed. He took another bite and handed it to me. “That is the sweetest apple I’ve ever tasted.”
I tried it and agreed. We began picking and then shaking trunk of the tree to loosen riper fruit. We quickly filled our 5 gallon bucket with candy-sweet treasure. I made a pie and a crisp and another pie. We got the kids to work shaking and picking and gathering.
Now as we peel and core and put up the last of the harvest, I think about Margaret’s gifts. They’re not just in the apple trees or even the history that only she could tell us. They’re in learning to look deeper.
Her exacting standards were not just about controlling her shrinking universe – they were about forcing the people in it to see her as a whole person, regardless of her age or physical condition. I’m ashamed to admit that I when first met her, I was thinking of her list of demands and not her need for human connection and to feel valued.
This winter our tree guy will come and tend our trees, and they may or may not give a good harvest again. But if they don’t, they will still have a place in our lives because, like Margaret, what they have to give is still valuable, even if we don’t recognize it right away.
*Margaret’s name has been changed.
We don’t live at the top of the mountain; we live in the middle of it. During thunderstorms, it’s like being perched in the middle of a waterfall as the rain and runoff course down the hill and around our house to the river 300 ft below us. Lately, though, it’s kind of been like living on a mountain top.
The bridge at one end of our road that’s closest to the closest major town (Arlington, VT, pop 2397) is closed for repair for a long while. Now we take the long way to get most places. The long way takes us further into our town center – complete with town hall and school house turned summer art gallery before we can turn down the main road heading to civilization. It’s been a bit of a pain, but it’s also been an unexpected pleasure.
Running north and south through a town with a population of 353 (including the part time residents), our dirt road was never congested. When people wanted a change of scene from the main road that runs parallel with it, however, they made a small detour and took ours. Now, with one end blocked, our road has become a mile long cul-de-sac, and our yard, 900 ft off of that cul-de-sac has become as quiet as the nearby monastery.
The quiet is peace. The distance makes us mindful. A ten minute run to the country store has turned into twenty minutes, and every errand is now considered carefully. As we did when we first decided to live off the grid, we are now learning to decide how to make more out of the limited resource of our time when we go out. And we are being reminded, once again, to decide if we really need that extra purchase badly enough to go out at all.
There are few events in a life that engrave themselves on a memory as getting married or becoming a parent. That was true for me, and, while getting married was memorable, it was wasn’t as life-altering as the second part. For us, getting married was like continuing a really, long fun date. Becoming a parent, while just as fun, was fun too, but it was a lot more work. For me, becoming the parent of one and then two was memorable for another reason, and I did something yesterday that brought it all back. I cleaned.
Right before each of my boys was born, I was seized with an overwhelming urge to clean. Despite being on ordered bed rest, I could not contain the need to clean tubs and toilets, sweep and make beds. Fortunately, giving birth helped moderate – suffocate, actually – that desire. I do clean, but it’s usually prompted by impending company or the inability to reach the kids’ bunk without first checking for my health insurance card.
Yesterday, however, the cleaning bug bit. It’s been stalking me for the last few weeks.
We’re planning a train trip out west later this summer, and, after learning we couldn’t check luggage, I decided to take another look at carry-on strategies. I googled a few packing list ideas and found tons of people who have learned to leave the tonnage at home.
Most of our trips in the last decade have been by car, and the last train trip we took was when Jack, our twelve-year-old, was small enough to ride on my back. While our cargo rarely includes a separate case for makeup or shoes (we’re not that stylish), anyone who’s road-tripped with kids knows the packing list needed to accommodate the extra towels and toys and clothes required for even a small trip expands to fit the exact cubic footage in any vehicle you buy. Jack now dwarfs me, and his six-year-old brother, Superdude is catching up. Fortunately, the increase in height is indirectly proportionate to the number of toys needed to occupy them on a journey, and packing light seemed not only sensible but possible.
My pursuit of a smaller, more-flexible packing list coincided with my annual rotation of hand-me-downs. The hand-me-down rotation spawned a bigger-than-usual mountain of laundry as I got old clothes ready for the donation bin. We live off the grid, so every scrap of clothing dries on a clothes line, and most of it’s put there by yours truly. I was in the middle of a midnight folding marathon when it hit me – we need to start living lighter.
I spent most of the rest of the night folding and sorting and excavating my and the kids’ clothes, ruthlessly tossing in the bin items that had were too small or too worn or simply too unused. The sorting went on with other loads for a few days until yesterday when the building momentum turned into a housewide cleaning frenzy.
I started at the west end of the house and am now working my way east, adopting a scorched earth policy with baggage of all types. By the end of the day, I had four bags for the donation bin and three for the dump. In one room I could see more floor than stuff, and I could see the back wall of my closet.
I’ve lost a dress size in the last few weeks, and I know other clothes will fill some of the void if the weight loss continues. Jack will also need knew clothes by the end of the summer. When I go to buy again, however, I’m hoping I’ll remember the mountain I sorted down to a mole hill. It was not just an outgrowth of an epiphany prompted by a desire to clean less (that would be practically impossible). It was a desire to get more out of the little cleaning I do.