I used to love field trips in school. We would spend a few weeks in advance studying and getting excited about the place we were going. Then we’d go and have a great time. Finally, we’d spend a few weeks after unraveling the experience and solidifying it into some sort of deep learning to take with us into our later lives.
My most important and memorable field trip was our 6th grade eco-adventure. We went to the mountains, stayed two nights in rustic cot-filled cabins, and hiked around observing nature first-hand.
In the weeks before the trip, we learned about the ecosystem of the place we were visiting. We began to understand the climate and the many life forms that lived there — from small critters in the soil to big bears and enormous trees. Words like “deciduous” and “soil life” first entered my vocabulary as part of those preparations.
When we actually arrived in that place that we’d studied in such detail, I remember, it felt both exhilarating and disturbing. The way the cool, fresh mountain air filled my smog-accustomed lungs, was almost uncomfortable. I had learned that all the animals, trees, plants, insects, and effectively the soil were breathing too.
Air was no longer a bunch of nothing. It was full of life and I could feel the vitality in it. As I breathed out, something else breathed in. We were sharing that incredible invisible thing which flowed through our most intimate, hard to reach parts, making me feel connected with nature in ways I had never conceived of before.
Foreign sounds kept me awake most of the first night as I tried to reason out which of the many forest inhabitants we’d learned about might be making them. Was that a grizzly bear rustling around just outside the log wall between us? Or a mountain lion? Or just some forest rodents scavenging for food underneath the decomposing leaves fallen from those deciduous trees?
I had been to the mountains many times before that field trip, but not with any kind of understanding of how different those delicate, natural system were from the concrete sidewalks and manicured trees of my middle-class suburban neighborhood. I had only enjoyed the mountains in the same way we enjoyed family trips to Disneyland. They were an escape from the ordinary – a controlled adventure. But I had never before been to the mountains as a fascinated learner and keen observer.
As the environment became a real thing to me during that trip, I began to see clearly how we were changing it. Camp fires had led to forest fires two years prior and the forest still showed evidence of that devastation. Ski areas, new housing, and shopping construction reduced the habitat for bears. This was driving them to break into homes and cars to find food. Imported insects – brought in on decorative landscape plants meant to make new construction seem settled and stately – were decimating tree populations that had thrived in peace for thousands of years.
Suddenly, the snow-covered slopes I’d ridden my sled down last winter wasn’t just a play place to me any more. My own human activities became a quagmire of conflicting emotions and ideas.
With that one field trip, I began to understand the consequences of bending complex ecosystems to our human will.
The Homesteading Choice
Quite frankly, for most of my life from that point on, I have lived in reference to that 6th grade epiphany. Sometimes, I have chosen to pretend ignorance so I could keep on doing whatever selfish thing I was doing without regard for other life forms and systems at work around me. Other times, I’ve tried to crack the code, to find my way back to some more natural role in those broad systems at work. (Though, mostly these attempts were only in my imagination, as a writer.)
Now though, as a homesteader, I’ve decided to reconcile myself to the role of being a co-creator in systems that are no longer entirely natural, but still have echoes of their original design. I am trying to facilitate a landscape that provides for our basic human needs, but that is also accommodating to the other wild and domesticated life forms who share this place with me.
Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to be a successful homesteader without increasing your awareness of the delicate balance of life all around you. I also don’t think you’ll be able to come to terms with some of the choices you have to make if you aren’t willing to look critically at the systems you currently depend on.
We enjoy a degree of comfort today that our ancient gatherer/hunter ancestors could not even imagine. We have done this by altering the very nature of things and manipulating natural resources for our purposes. We are no longer simply part of the systems of life that support us, we have become developers of new systems that are often incredibly efficient, yet also more dangerous and damaging to us and everything else in the long-term.
We have made it better for some of us humans in the short term at the expense of all other natural systems in the long term. This is the ugly truth we must face either by choice now or by necessity later.
As homesteaders, I think most of us are choosing this way of life because we know this. And we want to try to create systems that are more harmonious and beneficial to more than just us while still enjoying more certainty in our provisions than our ancient ancestors would have. We don’t want our way of life to come at the cost of everything else in the natural environment. Yet, we also don’t want to live at the whim of the nature we’ve created.
We know we can’t go back. We have already imposed ourselves on our environment in ways that will generate consequences for hundreds to thousands of years to come. The trick now is to accept the consequences of our past exploitation and find a way forward using the lessons nature can still teach us. We must also leverage the tools that we have to take action quickly, even if it may mean more harm in the near term.
The Domesticated Dilemma
Domesticated plants and animals are wild things which have been bent to a human will for our purposes. In some cases, like the Cornish-cross chickens or the commercial laying hen, these animals are such gross perversions of their natural state that they are only suited to environments that have been entirely engineered by humans.
Less extremely altered varieties of domesticated chickens, goats, pigs, ducks, or other livestock, though, still have natural tendencies that derive from their wild forms. Heritage chickens prefer to roost above-ground like their jungle-living precursors. Even ducks that no longer set a nest prefer to lay their eggs in the ground, where the earth would have once offered climate control during the nearly month-long incubation period.
Goats have elaborate, multi-stage digestive systems that work like fermentation vessels to make otherwise undigestable foliage and bark nutritionally accessible. Pastured pigs have the capacity to use their seemingly soft snouts to snuffle underground to locate high protein insects and starchy root nodes to sustain themselves when above-ground forage is insufficient to their needs.
Humans have been extremely successful at finding synthetic ways of using nature for our own purposes. We have created genetically-selected strains of chickens that fatten to immense sizes and fully feather (making plucking easier) before they even stop cheeping like a chick. We crowd them into buildings, force them to live their entire 6-8 week lives on concrete, litter-filled floors eating food from bins and drinking water from suspended nipples. We use feed additives, beak trimming, and other ugly practices to help them survive those horrors. Then we transport them in crates to processing centers where we kill them in a factory setting as if we were making widgets rather than taking lives.
As soon as the live chickens are en route to their mass death, we clear out the litter that contains not only feces but all the dead chicks that weren’t hardy enough to survive those conditions. And we start again with a new batch of chicks hatched by machines not mothers.
Now, please note, that by “we” I mean those of us who not only physically do these things, but those of us who support it with our purchasing power. Because we then buy those processed chickens from artfully arranged grocery aisles after passing through beautiful cut flower arrangements and the sugary and savory smells of baked cookies and bread.
Simultaneously, we buy whatever vegetables we want, regardless of the time of year –tomatoes in December came from 2000 miles away. Our cheese comes packaged in plastic. Our eggs are individually protected in perfectly-sized Styrofoam, plastic, or cardboard cells and refrigerated to cut down the risk of food poisoning. Our milk is also refrigerated, pasteurized, and fortified with Vitamin D so our lack of time outdoors doesn’t make us ill.
In a certain light, our normal way of living (in wealthy countries) is the equivalent of a trip to Disneyland. Our lives are completely disconnected from the exploitation necessary to keep those complex and ruthless systems running.
Even when we try to make right choices, like buying organic or recycling, we are still so far removed from the underlying systems that support the products in our lives that we simply don’t have the information to do real harm/benefit analysis anymore. Half-hearted attempts are all we can muster from inside our dependency driven lives.
When you begin homesteading, the experience is very much the same as my trip to the mountains at age 12. You begin to realize that the ideas you had as a passive user are no longer valid now that you have become an active participant — a conscientious co-creator — in whatever consequences good or bad may come.
I want to tell you honestly – like me that first night in the woods with an awareness of what different life forms were really at work all around me — you will be awake to life in new ways once you cross the threshold into real homesteading. And it will not always be comfortable. In fact, sometimes it will be horrible.
The first time you kill a chicken (duck, goat, turkey, pig, cow, whatever) that you raised, you will do so knowing that the animal had its own spirit, its own intelligence, and a deep desire to continue to exist. You will realize that you have taken something precious that can not be replaced.
Even if you are a vegan homesteader and leave the livestock out, you’ll need fertilizer and seeds from somewhere. Those vegan manure-replacements will come with more compromises than you can fathom. The moment you try to produce them at home, you’ll understand that all systems — even those you create yourself — are exploitative in some fashion.
Nothing comes without a blood price at some point in the line. We inhabit a living planet and death always feeds life in some form.
Real homesteading is not always pretty in the way we often show it in pictures. Like a ride at Disneyland, it can be a roller coaster of emotions from highs to lows and everything in between. Unlike Disneyland, though, all of this stems from your personal choices and not your passive participation. So, there is no chance you can step off the other side of this ride as the same person who started it.
Incorporating Your Learning
The preparation and pre-planning you have done so far, that I wrote about in the first 5 parts of this series, is like the preparation you do before you take a field trip. If you’ve done it well, when you start to have the actual experience of homesteading, you will do it with more knowledge, insight, and sensitivity than you previously had.
You’ll make connections, decisions, and choices that you would have been oblivious to in the past. Because if you don’t, then you are not really homesteading – you are just creating another kind of Disneyland at home. You are going to the mountains for adventure at the expense of all the life forms you put into service for your own experience. And, trying to homestead with that kind of ignorance, distance, and sterilization will lead to failure.
You are about to start knowingly and actively exploiting resources for your purposes. Most of us try to hide from this kind of knowledge so we don’t have to make complicated choices about right and wrong. More accurately we have traded the complex calculus of which group is being harmed and which is benefiting for the simplicity of looking at a price tags and making purely economic decisions.
Trust me, it’s hard to argue yourself into believing it’s beneficial to the animals for you to raise a chicken, duck or pig for meat. It’s a bit easier initially to tell yourself it’s beneficial to raise a dairy herd, until you realize that milk comes from breeding and the male babies must either become meat sources or be castrated and made into pets. It might feel like you are a being a good vegetarian in raising laying hens for eggs, until you hatch your own and realize that 50% of the chicks are male, will become nuisances, and must be killed at some point by someone.
Yet, if you do it well, exploiting animals on your homestead is one of the easiest ways to start making real transformations to your landscape. A flock of meat chickens or a few pigs used intermittently, or a load of manure from a feedlot, increases the biodiversity and fertility of your landscape immensely, fast-tracking the healing. This in turn makes it possible for you to grow a more diverse, self-sustaining food supply that makes you less dependent on killing or exploiting animals for protein.
Some aspects of homesteading are easier to come to terms with. Native bees need native plants as food sources. Creating habitat that includes their natural pollen and nectar sources is beneficial to them and us. Not only are many native flowering plants easy to grow and beautiful, but native bees do significantly more pollinating around the homestead than domesticated honey bees. Without native bees and other pollinators my fruit trees, which bloomed this year before the honey bees were actively foraging, would have had dismal fruit set.
In some cases, like supporting pollinators, it’s easy to see the mutually beneficial path. By blending the wild and the cultivated, we create a new kind of harmony.
The part that I find most difficult in homesteading, though, is identifying “natural” ways to use domesticated animals or to build natural soil sufficient to sustain domesticated plants in a harmonious way. To do that, I must accept the inevitability of obvious exploitation and choose the path of least harm and greatest benefit long-term.
I am 4.5 years into full-time, hardcore homesteading. I’ve killed hundreds of animals, raised thousands of plants, created inches of new soil, increased the biodiversity on our landscape immeasurably, blown it more times than I can count, and learned so much about how to live well that it makes me feel like I might be on the right path after all.
I am not an expert and I don’t have all the answers. However, in the next several segments in this series, I want to take you on a virtual field trip through my homestead to give you an idea of what it is like to attempt to be a co-creator with nature rather than simply a passive user. I’ll show you the ugly truths of exploitation, the difficulties of trying to use domesticated life forms in more natural ways, and hopefully give you some insights that will help you as you head into your own journey of “honest exploitation” on your own homestead.
Ignorance is bliss for so many. But I think it is the empty kind of bliss that only lasts a few minutes at best, before you have to go ignorantly in search of your next bliss fix. In other words, you have to be a kind of fiend for ignorance to maintain that bliss throughout an entire lifespan. And there are certainly people who manage it – growing more and more ignorant year after year, blissful experience by blissful experience.
Homesteading is not bliss. It’s work. It’s deep-knowing. It’s full of the kind of truth that breaks your heart. However, I am also convinced that it’s a pathway to real, enduring contentment that comes from feeling like you are actually doing something meaningful instead of just consuming resources.
Rather than spending your life fiending for ignorance, you become open to an intelligence so much greater than we humans have on our own.
Please also note, homesteading is just one of many alternative paths to finding a better way of engaging the world we have inherited and created. I also think it’s important that those of us looking for alternative ways of living don’t become dogmatic about which ways are best. There are tons of good answers if you seek them.
If my ideas on homesteading do resonate with you, then I hope to see you in the next post. There, we’ll start to get into the nitty gritty details of creating and living in a working homestead. The emphasis will be on using livestock and leveraging by-products from today’s industrial agricultural systems to ultimately (hopefully) create a more resilient and self-sustaining systems that is beneficial to more than just us humans.