A Big Mess
Many moons ago, when my kids were still little, I sent my 4-year-old son upstairs to clean up the pit of destruction that was his bedroom. About twenty minutes later, I went up to check on him. He was standing in the middle of way too many toys, with Barney in one hand, and had done nothing at all.
“Austen, why haven’t you started cleaning?” I asked. He looked at me with big teary eyes and said “The mess is so big I don’t know where to start!” Sometimes I feel that way about the world we live in; humanity has made a terrible mess of things, and it seems nobody knows how to clean it up, or even how to begin trying. I view homesteading as a small part of the solution to a gigantic problem, something that can be done at the personal level.
On that day long ago, I told my son, “honey, you just start with one thing at a time.” Now, I try to apply that advice to where and how I live. I am learning homesteading skills, even though we are still in a rented rowhouse. I wish I could say I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I haven’t. The awareness that things on this planet are not as they should be came to me rather late.
I grew up in rural Texas, where people made a living farming and ranching (no one called it “homesteading” then), and huge swaths of open land still exist. We played in the coulees and creeks around our house & our family dog was a half-coyote mongrel runt we found while out on some adventure or another. We routinely “rescued” coons, ‘possums, snakes, horned toads, and birds, which of course my mom would always have us release. Wildlife had a home there.
Then I lived in Montana for eight years, where I once stood less than twenty feet from a black bear cub, without the benefit of a fence between us. Not intentionally, I promise, and we booked it out of there as fast as we could. Where there’s a cub, there’s a mama, and we had no desire to meet her. Wildlife had a home there, too.
Our last move was to a fairly large city in Oklahoma, still our current abode. There is no real green here. Birds nest in the trees at the mall, and I wonder what their food source is. Squirrels are practically epidemic, as there are no natural predators to keep them in check. They are desperate for habitat, too, it seems. One nested in our car engine, with the resulting damage totaling up to several hundred dollars & one dead squirrel.
So in 2006, when we bought a house outside of town on a few acres, I started the work of making the property wildlife friendly. We cleared out the debris from the creek so water from the small stream could be reached by wildlife. Then we built deadfalls, cleared invasive Red Cedar and sick trees, and planted prairie mix on the unwooded parts of the property. We put up feeders in the winter. In practically no time, the variety and number of wildlife increased; rabbits, birds, quail, turkey, foxes, and deer were all sighted. Where before they may have passed across the property, now they found a home there. We created an environment that provided shelter for my family and the local wildlife.
The Environmental Impact of Consumerism
Through all of this, I still didn’t make the connection between my environmental impact and my consumerist lifestyle. That epiphany just happened a few years ago. There were two drivers for this: a TED talk on Zero Waste, and a book I read called “The Sixth Extinction.”(which really is a rather terrifying read) These two things started my quest for a better understanding of how I affect my environment, and what I need to do to minimize that impact. An astonishing amount of the damage we humans have done to the planet can be linked to two things; the first-world idea that bigger is always better, and the quest for cheap, easily obtained food. The second issue can be addressed in large part by homesteading.
I’m as guilty as the next person. I equated success with a bigger house, a bigger gas-guzzling truck, a bigger income to spend and buy imported things that really added no value to our life. My preferred method of obtaining food was eating out. I had a pantry full of processed food that was quick and easy to make for those times I had to cook at home.
Eating Better Food
I also realized that our eating habits were impacting our health. So I started looking for better quality, locally grown food. It’s expensive and hard to find. It’s almost like a secret sub-culture. There is a food co-op in Oklahoma City, but it’s not advertised. You will only find it if you are looking. There is a farmer’s market in our town, but it’s tiny. We have three “natural” grocers, but only one sources locally. The other two are chains that ship in just like every other grocery store in town and have just as much processed food on their shelves. It’s alternate branding; it’s not any better for you than any other mass-produced, in-a-box food.
For me, the question became how to get the best quality food with the least impact on my environment, and still be able to afford to live. Homesteading and self-sufficiency is the long-term answer & we are finally working towards that. The short-term answer is Walmart. And I hear you going “WHAT?!” Well, Walmart has organic produce, and they source some of their produce and meats locally, or at least regionally. Secondly, I can shop just twice a month and know I can get everything I need because they are always stocked. The one legitimate natural grocer we have in town struggles with supply, so it means more trips to get the food I need, hence using more fossil fuels to get food. I don’t think the trade-off is worth it.
So I buy fresh, and prep on the weekends, creating “convenience food” in the form of already cooked meals. When I have time, I make my own sauces, soups, and jams & either freeze or refrigerate them. I recently bought an Instant Pot to help with all this, and a pressure canner is next on the list. I still buy breads at the store, because making bread is something else that is harder than it looks, but I’m learning. My goal is real food, all the time. I’m so not there yet. And I do all of this, even knowing that what I am cooking and eating is not as good or as healthy as what I could grow on my own if we were homesteading.
I recently read an article in Scientific America that said the produce we buy in stores now is about 40% less nutritious than what was available 50 years ago. Genetically modified vegetables boast increased pest resistance, quicker growth, and larger size, but not increased nutritional value. That these vegetables are grown in soil stripped of nutrients and maintained with chemicals further adds to the problem. We all live in a food environment motivated by profit, not the greater good.
Our environment is so far from what God intended that it is daunting. Our planet and our food are like Frankenstein; recognizable but terribly altered. Change is truly needed and extremely difficult because growing and transportation of food is an enormous part of our economy. Big Food wields tremendous power, and they don’t want change because it affects their bottom line. Sure, more and more people recognize that change needs to be made, but they are dependent on that food supply. An apartment dweller in Boston can’t grow enough food to sustain themselves, even if they tried really, really hard. There is only so much one can grow in a pot. It really bothers me to think that the entire nation is in this stranglehold, and most people aren’t even aware of it. Well I, for one, am opting out.
I am blessed with the ability to change my circumstances & environment. I have made a lot of changes lately, dragging my somewhat bemused husband along with me. Last year we downsized again, and now live in an 800 sf rowhouse. Thankfully, it has a smallish backyard where I can garden. My energy bill is routinely under $80 a month, as compared to over $450 monthly at our big house in the country. It’s a huge reduction in our energy consumption & I’m happy about that. We don’t miss the space at all. and we now recognize that we “need” a lot less that we thought. This has started us (me) on a minimalist journey as well, but that’s another story.
Huge change is coming up for us. We bought two acres outside of town, and we’re building a homestead there. We are adding in eco-conscious choices everywhere we can; using less timber, making sure it’s energy efficient, adding solar to at least supplement our energy needs, and including rainwater catchment in the build. We are also installing an aerobic septic system, to help water the garden. I want a living environment that has as little negative impact on the planet as reasonably possible. Adding a positive impact through improving wildlife habitat and growing good food to eat is a definite bonus of homesteading.
Be the Change
I also hope that we can find some like-minded people in our new town. People invested in healing the planet and working in harmony with nature to ensure a healthy and abundant food supply. I want to seek out organizations and volunteer opportunities that help solve these problems. I want to be in an environment that includes engaged and motivated people.
A lot of people look at me like I’m crazy when I talk about this change in lifestyle. One of those people is my husband, but he’s getting used to the idea. He lived on a farm, so he does know what I’m talking about. The thing I hear most from him is “It’s a lot of work.” Well yes, it is, but we could both do with a little physical work in our life to improve our overall health. We are way too sedentary right now for only being in our 50s. We need to be in an environment that encourages productive and meaningful activity, not just sitting around staring at the TV.
What appeals to me most about homesteading is learning how to build a sustainable environment that is in harmony with the natural world. Something tended to, and passed on to someone in the next generation who will continue to care for and profit from our efforts.