This is a bit of a departure from my usual writing, but it has come to my attention that it might be necessary.
In the 1960-70s there was a back-to-the-land movement in our country. Many people decided they’d had enough with consumerism and urban living conditions, and they moved—sometimes in groups and sometimes singly—“back to the land” to return to their roots. The Homestead Act of 1872 granted land to Americans if they were willing to strike out and build a homestead on U.S. land, and this continued up until the mid-1970s in the lower forty-eight. This Act enabled many to build their first homestead.
|Just a tiny patch of land.|
Unfortunately, homesteading is very hard work, and eking a living out of the land can be physically and mentally exhausting. Many people were not prepared for the sacrifices they would have to make. Many people did not educate themselves enough about what would be required to make such a move. Many people were not prepared for the striking contrast between city life and rural life once the romance of the idea had worn off. And so, many people failed homesteading and returned to the cities, disenchanted and downtrodden (and sometimes grateful).
But some people did not fail. Some people succeeded, although they often had to change and adapt their plans to do so. People who were flexible and willing to learn new ideas and trash old ideas were able to successfully create a homestead. It’s because of them that the idea of homesteading is still alive today, although it’s important to point out that the 1960-70s were just one instance of the movement known as “homesteading” or “back to the land.” In fact, all throughout history, examples can be found of people who had reached their limits with society and wanted out.
But that was then and this is now. The Homestead Act of 1872 was discontinued in 1976 (1986 in Alaska). You can’t get “free” land anywhere, although I think we all know that there is no such thing as “free” anything. Certainly, the homesteaders who took advantage of the Act found that out for themselves. Yet even today, there are new “homesteads” popping up everywhere.
So what is a homestead? That depends. I think the idea has certainly changed over the years. The original Act granted 160 acres per homestead. That’s a lot of acreage to take care of, and it’s no wonder that many people failed. It’s also a testament of strength to those who succeeded. In my opinion a homestead is both a physical plot and a mental state of being. The two are inseparable in order to succeed at homesteading.
You see, the land is just one part. It’s the mental mindset that is most important, and I think that includes a desire for freedom, a love of nature, the need to disentangle from social constructs, and a fierce independence. The idea of doing it for yourself instead of having it done (often dismally) for you appeals very much to the person with a homestead mindset. Those of you who are independent (and often stubborn) by nature know of what I speak.
A homestead is where you stake your claim. It’s your territory, whether that territory is physical or mental. A homestead is where you can be yourself. A homestead is where every success is due to you and your hard work, and every failure also falls squarely on your shoulders and no one else’s. Personal responsibility reigns supreme on the homestead. There is no one to pass the buck to because you are it.
This frightens some people and thrills others. If you’re among those who are frightened by this, you might want to stop reading now if you haven’t already. But if you’re thrilled by this idea, read on.
There is a sense of desperation these days. I can see it in people’s eyes. Not everyone, of course, but a great many people. There is a feeling of being in a trap, of having nowhere to go. There is a sickening idea of being on a hamster’s wheel, running around and around and around and getting absolutely nowhere but exhausted. For a while, these feelings can be staved off by “having fun.” Eating out, drinking, theatres, plays, short vacations, extravagant shopping trips, expensive jewelry, etc., are some ways that people keep the hamster image out of their minds. During the day, they’re fine. Their minds are kept busy, and they delight in new baubles. But at night, the hamster comes out and they lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, seeing the trap but not knowing how to get out.
There is a way back. It’s a long road and it involves a lot of hard work, but it sure beats being on the hamster’s wheel, spinning and spinning. This way back is what I call “homesteading.” It doesn’t involve hundreds of thousands of dollars. It doesn’t involve vast acreage. The only acreage initially required is the space between your two ears.
The change comes from within. It starts when you say—and you mean—that you have had enough. Enough of everything. Enough of smog and crime. Enough of cramped living conditions. Enough of bizarre social constructs. Enough of wage slavery. Enough of spinning your wheels and getting nowhere—whatever it is, you have had enough. And you find out that when you have had enough, you have had way too much.
But where to start? You start right where you are. You don’t wait to see if you win the lottery next Saturday. You start finding out what you can do for yourself. That’s what a homesteader really is: Someone who lives life according to his own terms and on his own turf. It doesn’t all happen magically, of course, but you start at the beginning just like every other homesteader in the world. And you don’t give up, because if there’s one thing that homesteaders are, it’s stubborn. That stubbornness leads to fierce independence, and someday you find yourself with people who can move mountains if they have to.
Sit down for a moment and find out what it is that you can do for yourself without anyone’s help. The chances are (especially if you are young and living in the city), not very much. So you determine right then and there to start doing things, no matter how small, for yourself. You make your own coffee. You bake your own bread. You cook your own food. You brew your own wine.
Oh, I can hear it now. “But someone had to grow and harvest that coffee, that wheat, that food, those grapes, so what good am I doing here? How am I changing things?” Yep. But you didn’t have to pay someone to bake it for you, cook it for you, or brew it for you—often a most inferior product to boot—and you saved that money and put it away. No, you didn’t go shopping with it. You put it away so that someday you could buy an acre or so of land.
You wash your own clothes, and if you have a clothesline to hang them on outside, great. If not, you hang them in your house on drying racks you can get up at any department store. Then you take that money you would have given to the electric company for running the dryer and you put it away. You repair your clothes when they get torn instead of immediately buying new clothes. That means if you don’t know how to sew, you’ll have to teach yourself. And you’ll shop in secondhand stores.
“No way! I am soooo busy! There’s no way I can do any of that. You’re crazy!” That’s my favorite excuse of all time. “I just can’t do it because I’m busy! My job is exhausting! You just don’t understand! You’re living in a fantasy world!” I like that too.
Wage slavery will keep you living from paycheck to paycheck for the rest of your life, just squeaking by, not knowing that there are so many things you can do for yourself, and in doing those things, you don’t have to pay someone else to do them for you. Yes, they take time to do, but so does working extra hours to pay for all the things you could have done for yourself.
“What’s the difference? If I work lots of hours, I’m exhausted but I pay someone to do all my menial chores. If I work less hours, yeah, I can do my own chores but I earn a lot less money. Either way I end up exhausted and with very little money. Either way it works out the same.”
Oh, but it doesn’t. If there’s one thing every homesteader knows, it’s the satisfaction of doing something for yourself, of a job well done. This satisfaction comes from hard work and learning, and ultimately it builds confidence. Doing things for yourself makes your confidence soar, and you can’t get that through working long hours and you can’t buy it, either. It’s something you have to earn, and this “earning” has nothing to do with money at all.
From there, the homesteader will naturally have an urge to want to be closer to nature, to grow his own food. Or at least some of it. Did you know that in a fertile 6 x 6 patch of sunny earth, you can grow five tomato plants? And if they’re San Marzano tomatoes that you have watered and cared for very well, did you know that you could get over 100 tomatoes per plant? That’s 500 tomatoes. Yes, I have done this myself countless times—countless—in Maine. You could sell some to the neighbors. Or you could can them and have your own sauce all year long.
“But I don’t have a 6 x 6 patch of earth!” You can get a five-gallon plastic bucket and grow one plant in that. Your yield might be a little lower, maybe 50 or so tomatoes. But that’s still a lot of tomatoes, and boy are they ever good.
“I can’t put a plastic bucket outside! There’s no room, and even if there were, the thugs in the neighborhood would steal it or destroy it!” Can you put it on a fire escape? A rooftop? “No!” Hmmm….maybe tomatoes are not for you.
Do you have a few sunny windows in your house or apartment? Did you know that you can grow leaf lettuce all year long in inside window boxes? You could grow enough to have a lot of salad. You can also grow basil, cilantro, rosemary, and other herbs right on your windowsill. “I can’t have any dirt in my house!” Could you buy some scallions, cut them off about five inches from the root base, place the stubs in an old glass, put an inch of water in it, and place it in a window? Soon new scallions will grow with no dirt at all. And you can keep harvesting and growing, harvesting and growing, for several months before you’ll need a new batch of roots. And you can also do this with celery, bok choy, basil, romaine lettuce, etc.
“No! I live in a box car without windows . . .” And on and on. Do you see where I’m going with this?
“Okay. I’ll try it. A little. But I still don’t see how it gets me out of the rat race. How does that work?” It works step by step. It works by teeny tiny victories that you might not even notice unless you’re really paying attention. It works by building your confidence ever so slowly. It works by changing the way you think. Soon you’ll be wondering if you really need this or that, if you can improvise with that other thing, if you can do without, or if there’s a whole other way of doing something that you hadn’t considered before. You take baby steps, and before you know it, you’ve gone quite a way—and those steps lead to plans. Big plans.
Do you know what confidence eventually gives you? It gives you courage, and courage is something that is so lacking in our society today yet so desperately needed. It gives you courage to try something, and if you fail, it gives you the strength to go on because eventually you’ll work it out. It gives you foresight. It gives you planning skills, the ability to see long-term what you need and what you should do to get it. Confidence gives you the ability to say, “No, I’m not going to do that. I have another idea,” and then you go out and do it.
Really, that’s all homesteaders are. They’re people who work and think for themselves. Some of them go on to quit their jobs and move to large parcels of land, where they farm and work very hard for themselves. It’s a difficult life but a satisfying life. Others move to the suburbs so they can have a little more nature and let the good earth produce. But either way, all of them are determined to do for themselves.
I know several families who live on half an acre or less. Did you know that on a well-placed half-acre plot with plenty of drainage and sunshine, you can grow all the vegetables a family will need for a year? Yes, all. Of course, you’ll have to can, freeze, dry, and/or ferment your harvest to preserve it, but you can grow all the veggies you need. You can also have several chickens that will produce more eggs than you can eat. You can have a few fruit trees for jams, jellies, and wines. All on half an acre. It’s doable. It can be done. There are people doing it right now.
Some homesteaders ultimately end up being farmers living in remote areas, but many live in suburbs or mild versions of the “country.” Many of them keep their jobs or at least one member in the family does or perhaps they’ll all go to part-time work outside of the homestead. Are they completely free of “the system”? No, but they’re a hell of a lot happier and freer than someone stuck in the rat race, and in the end, that’s what homesteading is all about: Home, freedom, independence, and happiness.