Modern Homestead Living: A New Future Not a Romanticized Past

Matt and I recently watched an aptly-titled documentary called Can’t Get You Out of My Head. It focuses on how our human fears, anxieties, and propensities to live by impulse rather than reason have shaped so much of our recent history.

One aspect of this particular historical view that stuck with me is that the documentarian, Adam Curtis, claims thought leaders — fearful about our loss of communal identity and the rise of individualism — intentionally created a longing for romanticized, uncomplicated, regional pasts that never actually existed. Unfortunately, later other leaders discovered that those susceptible to believing in an imaginary ideal past were also easy to convince that the complex systems that underpin our lives today (e.g., the environment, globalism, and diversity) could just be ignored in favor of modern tribalism.

I don’t want to give away too much of the six part documentary because I hope you’ll get a get a chance to watch it. But after demonstrating the detrimental effects of trying to achieve an unrealistic past in a complex present, the presenter ends with this quote:

[T]he ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.

David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

Homesteading and Nostalgia

The truth is some people are drawn to homesteading because of nostalgia for an imaginary past. Honestly, though, those people seem to stop homesteading when they realize the extent of the complexity and commitment involved.

Yet, there are also many of us drawn to homesteading because we are nostalgic for certain parts of the past that actually existed until just a few generations ago. We’re not looking for something imaginary, but something we inadvertently lost during a period of rapid technological innovation:

Practical know how and durable, sustainable ways of living well.

Most of the technologies we think of as “normal” today weren’t relied on 100 years ago. Plastics, pesticides, supermarkets, refrigerators, cars, computers, phones – these are all things that became commonly used while my grandmothers were alive. They are incredible tools that in some ways improve our lives. But, they also make our lives more complicated. And when overused, they come with disastrous consequences likely to wreak havoc on humans, societies, and the natural world for ages to come.

Plastic

Take plastic for example. It’s convenient, cheap, and lightweight. Yet, there’s no denying the chemical fallout such as neurological or liver disorders from BPA and phthalates (and hazards from other plastic-related chemicals we just don’t know about yet). We’re also barely beginning to understand the full implications of the consequences from all the micro and nanoplastic particles in our oceans, fresh water, food, and even the air we breathe.

Additionally, according the EPA, in the US only about 8.7% of plastic sent to the landfill is actually recycled. That means – each year – the other 50,000,000 plus pounds of plastic thrown away is useless waste that adds up annually and must be managed. Plus, there’s all that disgusting plastic litter ruining our natural environment…

I could provide similar highlights for every innovation we’ve integrated into our daily lives since the 1950’s. But that’s not why I’m writing this post.

I want to get to the heart of what draws many of us to the idea of homesteading. It’s not so much that we want to go back. It’s that we’ve realized some our technological innovations are leading us towards a dangerous future and we don’t want to continue on this path. So, we want to scale back our reliance on many of the disposable and detrimental technologies using pre-1950’s solutions.

Past

Truthfully, some of our old technologies are still the best, most sustainable way to do things. For example, a broom is still a wonderful way to clean a hard floor. You can buy or make natural bristled brooms that don’t contain non-biodegradable parts. But even a store-bought plastic broom that could last for years is kinder to the environment and likely better for your well-being than any motorized floor cleaner (vacuum, electric sweeper, robot, etc.).

A broom doesn’t run on electricity or put out ozone. It doesn’t require continuous inputs of non-recyclable materials that you have to keep working hard to pay for. Plus, sweeping gets you moving which is good for your long-term health. It can also be a beautiful experience if you take the time to get into the right mental space to give gratitude for your home as you lovingly tidy up.

Present

Of course, we also want to selectively and thoughtfully use today’s technologies. Personally, I love electricity for things like pumping the water from our 500 foot deep well so we can have running water in our house. But I don’t need it to power a mega-mansion with so many rooms I never even go into. I also like my computer even though I got it second hand, it’s 7 years old, and I hope that every bit of it will be recycled when I eventually retire it.

Yet, we all know there must be personal limits to our fossil fuel use and our dependence on rare, mined minerals for us to benefit from these technologies in meaningful ways long-term.

Future

Finally, we want to use our imaginations to create a healthier, more beautiful future that will be completely different than the trajectory we’re currently on. For me, I’m doing this by homesteading in an Epicurean way. I would never be a homesteader for long if it were hard, tedious, or boring work. So, I use my imagination and creativity to turn things that might feel like work at first into something I look forward to doing.

Working at a reasonable pace, without a fixed deadline, and making things beautiful to me rather than just functional helps a lot. Also, focusing on becoming self-sufficient at the things I love most, not everything all at once, motivates me to do more things myself. Plus, creating rituals and routines to transform the mundane into something meaningful enhances the pleasure in doing.

As an example, I never just weed the garden. I identify the weeds, figure out if they are edible or medicinal, or how best to compost them. I collect them to use for biochar or to make weed islands in eroded areas of our land. Or I take pleasure in feeding them to my chickens or ducks. That way weeding becomes a beneficial act that I look forward to, rather than dread.

In David Graeber terms, modern homesteaders are trying —

To make the world differently.

Homesteading is just one important aspect of a multi-faceted re-visioning of our human future taking place in people’s minds and lives right now. However because so many homes currently function like long-stay hotels rather than productive resources – converting them into working homesteads has potential to make a big dent in so many of our problems.

The Life-Changing Lettuce Bed

Let us go back to the plastic problem for a moment. I have to admit… I haven’t weaned off single-use plastic entirely. Yet, with simple adjustments to the way we provision our favorite things, we keep getting closer.

For example, we eat a lot of baby lettuce. Just by growing a come and cut lettuce bed year round, we eliminated the need for over 100 of those non-recyclable plastic boxes from the grocery store. Plus, that one change has ripple effects.

  • To fertilize the soil so it can sustain long-term lettuce produce, we make compost from things that might have otherwise ended up in the waste stream – food waste, paper products, fallen leaves, and more. That further reduces our landfill contributions.
  • By doing that we also cut out the need for synthetic fertilizers used to grow store bought lettuce.
  • Plus, since we grew it at home, the lettuce didn’t need to be shipped by refrigerated truck from California to North Carolina.
  • Then, since we simply cut the lettuce right before we eat it, we didn’t have to drive to the grocery store and pick it up at the refrigerator there or keep it in our refrigerator at home.
  • On top of that fresh cut lettuce has more nutrients and higher water content than long-stored lettuce which means we get more satisfaction and nutrition from eating it.
  • We also water it by hand with rainwater collected on our property. It didn’t require irrigation water to be transported through long haul pipes that are a serious point of political and environmental contention in places where lettuce is typically grown.
  • We also grow heirloom lettuce that we buy from seed providers focused on tracking down and saving the biodiversity of our food supply. So, indirectly our seed purchases support this important work.

Now, I know that I’m not saving the world just by growing my own lettuce. This is just a metaphorical drop in the bucket. But lettuce is one of the many things we easily and sustainably provide for ourselves at home. And that one small change, reduces so much waste and environmental harm along the way.

We grow all sorts of other vegetables too. And that’s just the beginning of what we are able to produce sustainably at home. We also use the space we don’t need for food production to sink carbon with trees and easy to grow plants that also support wildlife. Plus, since our homestead is so inviting, we stay home most of the time. We drive our cars less. We don’t need to fly to some all-inclusive resort to get a break from our miserable lives. We never shop to cure boredom, etc.

Drip by drip, day by day, these drops in the bucket add up in meaningful ways. We’re also just one household doing this. Think of the collective power we’d have to change the world if everyone with the space provided some of their favorite things at home. Imagine all those complicated and toxic resource and waste streams that could be reduced. That’s a lot of buckets coming together to help put out our global fire!

More importantly, none of this is a hardship. It’s a pleasure to do these things. Making compost is deeply satisfying because you get to see the incredible regenerative power of nature at work in a short time frame. It’s way more fun to stand in the garden and water my lettuce patch while listening to the birds sing and watching butterflies land on my flowers, than to go to the grocery store for boxed lettuce that’s mushy half the time. The taste of fresh cut lettuce from the garden is magnitudes of order better than days old lettuce from the store too!

Come and cut lettuce beds are so beautiful as well. If you scatter sow densely over a the whole bed, rather than row planting single heads, the lettuce crowds out the weeds and retains moisture. And it’s so easy to take your salad spinner and a pair of scissors out to your lettuce bed and cut your lettuce up as you collect it. Then, all you need to do is give it a quick rinse and spin and it’s ready to use.

Why Now?

I bring this all up now because there is finally hope on the COVID front. Vaccinations are rolling out. Stimulus checks have given a boost to failing budgets. Within just a few months, we’ll be ready to get back to “life as usual.” Yet, before we race back to our pre-COVID past, I’m hoping a lot of people will take this opportunity to decide if going back is really the right answer.

When you look at the trends of these times – e.g. the craze for gardening indoors and out, the uptick in bicycle ownership, sourdough mania, the increase in book sales – I see clear hope for a new future. The pandemic has revealed a dearth of people who choose more sustainable ways of living when unchained from stuff like long commutes, high maintenance grooming and fashion habits, and mandatory/unpleasant social obligations.

So, do we really want to go back? Or do we want to use this momentum gained from lockdowns as a pivot point toward something different?

Homesteading: A Way Forward

I truly believe that using our homes to produce some of what we regularly rely on is a viable path forward to new, more sustainable, satisfying, and equitable modes of living. However, I also want to warn you that a lot of people get overwhelmed when they try to keep living like they did in the past, while also tacking on a few homesteading type activities.

That’s because often they aren’t really homesteading. Instead, they are just switching from buying one set of products to buying another set of products. Plus, they are adding a new workload to their already busy lives rather than replacing and simplifying a more complicated supply process.

For example, you can get chickens for eggs but keep them locked up so you have to buy all their feed and litter. Yes, you may no longer be buying eggs. Yet, you likely still have have to go to the grocery store just as often for all your fresh vegetables. Plus, you’ve also necessitated trips to the farm supply store to buy things for your chickens. And, you’ve added the work of daily chicken care. Overall, chickens add work and expenses to you rlife.

If you wanted hobby chickens and have the time and money for them, then that’s the way to go. But if your point in getting chickens was to help turn your home into a homestead, you missed the mark. Chickens need to eliminate some of your dependencies, not add more.

Instead, you might want to to adopt litter-free chicken keeping methods, give them room to feed themselves, share your leftovers, and use them as tillers or pest control in the garden. Then, you’ll want to compost their manure to grow your fresh vegetables. Between the eggs and the fresh veggies, now you can shop less often. Perhaps once in a while you pick up supplemental chicken feed, but not regularly.

On the whole, you added the fun of keeping chickens while also cutting down the frequency of your trips to the store. Skipping those trips, then leaves you time to grow food and care for chickens. And eventually, between the veggies and the eggs, you cover the costs of your coop and flock.

Epicurean Homesteading

The fact is, to homestead effectively, you will need some way to measure and predict whether the activities you choose do in fact make you more self-sufficient and make your life better in the long-term. For me, that’s where Epicureanism comes in.

Epicureanism has nothing to do with gluttony. Gluttony is how I used to live when I had a regular paycheck and bought whatever I wanted. It was completely unsatisfying and detrimental to my fellow humans and the planet. Instead, Epicureanism is about thinking through whether or not your choices will really lead to long-term pleasurable living that you can feel good about.

Carbon Calculations

Here’s a real life example of how it works. As an Epicurean concerned about climate change (and the uncomfortable consequences we’ll face if we don’t cut CO2 in the air) I don’t take my car out of the driveway without first thinking through whether that trip is worth the carbon I’ll be release by burning fuel.

Note: Burning a gallon of creates roughly 20 pounds of CO2 (because the carbon bonds with oxygen when separates from the hydrogen in fuel during combustion). A kilowatt hour of electricity is about 0.92 pounds of CO2.

To a lot of people, this kind of mental process sounds like no fun. But in fact, it only takes a few seconds. And the result is usually that I don’t waste time and money running back and forth to town in response to some mindless impulse. So, then I have bandwidth for the homesteading stuff I really want to do. Plus, almost always, I end up not needing whatever seemed so important in the first place. Simply by asking the right question, I can override the compulsion to do something unnecessary.

Epicurean Questions on Homesteading

When applying Epicureanism to general homesteading activities, I ask myself three main questions before I consider committing to some new routine or process.

  1. Will doing this activity have a net result of making us less reliant on complex supply chains?
  2. Does this reduce my environmental impact?
  3. And, is this something I will enjoy doing long-term?

If the answer is “yes” to all (which it rarely is) then I’ll drill down into more questions like:

  • Can I live well without this or is it so meaningful to me that I really must do it?
  • How much is it going to cost me in time and money and does the long-term pleasure potential outweigh those inputs?
  • Do I have time for this (or want to prioritize it over other things) or will adding it to my to do list just stress me out?

As an example, we opted to grow a small vineyard so we can make our own wine. Do I really need my own personal vineyard to be more self-sufficient? Of course not! But the fact is I do regularly buy wine and consider it an important part of living a pleasurable life.

Most of the wine I buy is shipped for thousands of miles. So, of course growing my own reduces my dependence on complex supply chains. Since we grow grapes organically using compost tea and whey and reuse bottles, growing them also definitely reduces our environmental impact.

The initial planting and trellis set up took a few days of work and a few hundred dollars. But we’ll save thousands of dollars over the life of our vineyard. Vine care just takes a couple of hours periodically and I enjoy doing it. As for making wine, it only take a few hours to harvest and process once a year. Plus, we use the same fermentation equipment and processes that we already use for making elderflower champagne and beer.

Besides saving money, decreasing our dependence on complex, and reducing our environmental impact — making wine is fun and satisfying. Sharing it with friends and family is a blast. We also thoroughly enjoy having our own mini-vineyard as part of our landscape. That’s the perfect example of what I call Epicurean Homesteading.

Pick Your Own Adventure

There are no plug and play answers for how to homestead. It will vary by where you live, your interests, and your capabilities or willingness to learn new things. However, finding ways to pleasurably produce things you love and thinking long-term can make it easier to figure out where to spend your time.

I can’t offer a specific homesteading program that will work for everyone. However, I do want to share some advice I give myself often.

1. Homesteading is a journey not a destination.

I know it’s cliché, but also true. The fun is in the doing. Take pleasure in every part of the process including the designing and planning, the building, the operating, and even the maintenance. This way you get to start enjoying your homestead right now — not 10 years from now when you’ve finally checked off all your boxes.

2. Opt for ascetism not austerity.

You can’t just plug it into your old, overstuffed life and expect success. You need to make room for it first. That means you will have to give up some things that you are doing now.

Mindfully eliminating things you do by habit but that aren’t making your life better will help. All those things you didn’t really miss during COVID lockdowns can give you some clues on what should go first.

Then, don’t rush or set deadlines. Instead, just make a little progress every chance you get. If you enjoy the process, you’ll work at it more often and it will add up quicker than you think.

3. Follow your bliss.

I know… another cliché. But Joseph Campbell got it right and nailed it in just three words. The thing is though, homesteading is so new to many of us that we don’t always know where our bliss is. So, to his wisdom, I’d also add “try before you buy”.

When people talk about how hard homesteading is or having learned the hard way — I think what they really mean is “I took on more than I was ready for, or things I didn’t like, and suffered my way through it.” That’s not what I want for you! I want you to have a great time doing this!

So, before you start a big garden, grow a small one. Before you get a flock of chickens, chicken sit. Before you get a greenhouse, grow leafy green vegetables in a cold frame. There are lots of ways to get started small before you size up on the things that will really contribute to your long-term happiness.

The added benefit of starting small is that then you’ll have some practical experience to help you make good decisions about the big projects you choose.

4. Embrace discomfort.

Creating a homestead is exciting and challenging in wonderful ways. However, it can also be extremely frustrating and disheartening if you are expecting the immediate satisfaction. Go into this knowing that it will be a few years before you really experience that baseline security, comfort, and contentment that endures long-term.

Degrees in Homesteading

I like to think of homesteading as being similar to getting college degrees. Four years will get you your general education and a taste of specialization in homesteading. You’ll also have a good foundation for a working homestead. Then it takes another 2 years for a masters degree that will start to get you better pay, in the form of savings, from homesteading.

After that you can spend the rest of your life getting PhD’s in the parts of homesteading you like best. These advanced degrees don’t always lead to more savings. Yet, they absolutely add up to a more fascinating and pleasurable life.

Not a Makeover

Also, homesteading isn’t some cosmetic makeover where you throw a few rain barrels on your gutters, put in a raised bed and a cute little chicken coop, and call it done. To make real change, you need to reassess all the dependencies you have in your life and decide if there are better ways of provisioning those things (or if you even need them).

Honestly, if your transition doesn’t bring you some discomfort, then you probably aren’t making meaningful changes. But, please trust me, discomfort in the short-term is a perfectly reasonable thing to endure in exchange for long-term pleasurable living that comes from homesteading for your well-being and to create a new environmentally sound future for our planet.

Epicurean Living

If you’d like to receive a free copy of my first issue of Epicuren Living, an electronic chapbook filled with Epicurean philosophy and related ideas on gardening, homesteading, creativity, and ecology, enter your email address below for a link.

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