Three years ago, in the midst of a torrential downpour - Matt in the moving truck, me in my Honda Fit, and my dad in his car - we made our way from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to our new home in rural North Carolina. The traffic around D.C. and Northern Virginia was horrendous, with accidents littering the roadways every few miles. Despite the total lack of visibility and flooded pockets of pavement, drivers were cutting each other off to get a few feet ahead, driving too fast when the traffic picked up, and slamming on their brakes repeatedly as if they were intentionally hoping to cause an accident too.
As sad as I was about leaving our friends and family, that drive to our new life had felt like an affirmation of all the reasons why change was necessary. When we finally made it to Lowgap, I remember having a great sense of relief. It wasn’t just because we survived the drive, but that we had actually done “it.” We said goodbye to a way of living that felt destructive and silly but somehow stable, and had taken our first step towards something we hoped would be meaningful and regenerative, but that was also far more speculative than the beaten path.
In the days that followed, that sense of relief gave way to a question that we are effectively still trying to answer three years later. We had all sorts of plans about what our life here would look like. We’d studied a bunch of books, visited farms, talked to farmers, watched videos, made notes, and planned projects. As we started developing our food systems and installing infrastructure, it became clear that we had a made a pretty good road map for how to transform our landscape, but we hadn’t thought much about what it would take to be kind of people to best inhabit it.
Despite our progress, we have not yet answered the question “How do we become self-sufficient people?” I’ve spent most of my life thinking that solutions came from stores, answers were out there, and professionals are necessary because I am only qualified to handle certain things on my own. One of the side-effects of a consumer culture is that our knowledge and skills have been narrowed down to what we get paid for and are considered qualified to do. We’ve become our jobs and our degrees, rather than a citizenry of well-rounded people with a high level of autonomy.
Certainly, our initial challenge has been to overcome those market dependencies by gaining skills through doing and developing effective replacement systems. To date, we’ve spent much of our time here experimenting, reading, trying, failing, improving, and eventually succeeding in the following areas.
- Providing our own food in a greenhouse, in an annual garden, in food forests, on hugelkulturs, using aquaculture, with the use of livestock, mushroom cultivation, foraging, etc
- Building structures like animal shelters, a smokehouse, a pizza oven, and a greenhouse
- Installing fences to keep some animals in and others out
- Water management – e.g., pond building, swales, hugelkulturs, diversion channels, rain depressions
- Ecological restoration and wildlife and pollinator habitat creation
- Building community
- Food preparation – cheese, vinegar, wine, fermented foods, bread, pizza, etc
- Developing a mix of homestead products for sale to local markets
- Miscellaneous skills like welding for Matt and soap-making for Tasha
- Writing about our experiences
Yet, the more skilled we become, the more we understand that it isn’t just our loss of skills that inures us to the system - it’s the very way we frame our questions and answers. We think in terms of goods and services. We are habituated to transactional living. And our choices are colored by addiction to products and services that we can’t, and shouldn’t try to, reproduce at the homestead level.
It is evident that even our notions of what constitutes problems, and how we go about solving them, stems from consumer culture. For example, a while back, our dishwasher broke. My first thought was, we’ll have to buy a new one. But then I reminded myself I was now a competent homesteader and should try to fix it. I tried and failed. Matt and I contemplated whether we really needed a dishwasher. We can’t run it on solar panels. We know it’s not sustainable. But the alternative of hand-washing when we have limited counter space, painfully shallow sinks, and use so many dishes for all food preparation activities seemed unmanageable with all our other time commitments. We decided a new dishwasher was a luxury, but one that we would indulge in for now and try to wean ourselves from down the road. We effectively did a cost benefit analysis and chose perceived convenience.
I say “perceived” because when framed in the context of becoming self-sufficient people, it was a totally wrong answer. We’re now newly invested in an expensive technology that requires the use of electricity that we cannot generate ourselves. Regardless of the propaganda by dishwasher advocates, we know it is far more energy efficient to do dishes by filling a small tub of soapy water for washing and scrubbing and just rinsing quickly under running water. And the fact that we use so many dishes is an indication that we still have some simplification to do to become self-sufficient. A new dishwasher isn’t a convenience on the road to self-sufficiency, it’s a lengthy and unnecessary detour.
A dishwasher is an expensive item and obviously not sustainable, so it’s an easy example to point to. The real challenges though are not in the big decisions; we know the right answers on those even if we choose otherwise. The small and daily decisions have a larger cumulative effect than a one-time purchase of a dishwasher. And these, are in fact the habits we find most difficult to change.
We started this adventure with the notion that we would use the easy availability of consumer products to fast-track our way to self-sufficiency. And that philosophy has served us well to a point. But now we need to make the next step in our transition and cut our ties to consumer culture, even if it feels like a hardship until we adjust. In truth, we don’t know exactly what this looks like because we have not seen it in our lifetime.
Matt and I both have early memories of being marketed to as children watching Saturday morning cartoons or re-runs of The Dukes of Hazard. If you doubt the pervasiveness of the messages, then think back to your favorite toy. Was it home-made or store bought? How long was it your favorite? How many other toys did you have? If are in the forty-something age bracket (like us), did you have a big wheel or a cabbage patch doll, or know someone who did? There’s a high probability that many of you in our age range have similar memories and experiences. And that’s not just a coincidence.
Even though Matt and I both rebelled in our youth becoming “alternative,” we each have stories of owning Creepers and Doc Martens, and other similar brand-named alternative attire. That too is not an accident. Fashion took over punk rock before we knew it existed. Nearly anything that starts as an authentic movement eventually gets co-opted by the market.
Now with the internet, marketing has become even more pervasive and directed. As I click through websites on homesteading, animal husbandry, building a gray water system, composting toilet, DIY anything… related ads start to pop-up. Recently I was reading a post on “What Homesteading Really Costs…” I could only read a short section without scrolling because most of the screen was covered by advertisements for chicken coops and cattle panels (since I’d recently been searching those). In the post, the author wrote about having to pay for fences, roads, rebuilding structures, how she started blogging to make some money, but then she became an essential oils saleswoman and her husband was able to quit his job and build their dream home. And you can become a sales rep too, and support her dream of homesteading, while also supporting yours…
It is clear that the idea of the self-sufficient life has now also been usurped by advertising and an alternative product list. But Matt and I don’t want a simulacrum of a self-sufficient life. We genuinely want to opt out, not just to buy into an alternate version. And we know the only real way to do that is to learn to live without spending money.
When we first started this journey, I didn’t understand why so many homesteaders also focused on developing their primitive skills. For us, this transformation was about using existing resources to make a transition to something more sustainable without being uncomfortable. The longer we are on this path though, the more we realize that in order to make ourselves self-sufficient people we need a total mind-shift from the mentality of consumerism. I am beginning to see how learning primitive skills, and being able to conceive of living with a pre-industrial perspective, can help free us from the trap of believing that everything we consider normal these days is necessary in the first place.
You can’t unravel healthcare when you believe it’s an entitlement and a necessity. You can’t end war in the Middle East when you see your life as dependent on fossil fuels. You can’t rail against the stock market when you support the underlying corporate systems with your purchase dollars. And we can’t keep one foot in both worlds and at the same time expect to live up to our ideals.
I don’t know if Matt and I will be building our own teepees or tanning a deer hide with brains any time soon, but we do plan to get back to more primitive ways by learning to live with fewer modern comforts. And we are planning to intentionally live on much less money than we currently use and see how far that limitation gets us towards truly becoming more self-sufficient.
That torrential drive here was a starting point. These last three years have been good preparation and training. We have a few more projects we’ve allowed on our list. Those will take financial resources, but will be wrapped up quickly.
The road beyond this last project list is unpaved, unknown, and likely to be much harder going, but we are totally looking forward to it!
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