A Homesteader’s Journey

It’s the little moments that guided me to my homesteading journey, and it’s the same type of little connective moments that keep me here. My first memory of homesteading is with my little dolls. The tiny moss-covered caves, inside the rock wall marking the property’s edge, is where they wanted to live—barefoot and with leaves for their handmade clothing, with the sunlit glint on the moss nearby beckoning a child to rest.

Often too, my parents would walk with me outside, naming all the things. My grandmother took me on long wildflower walks, and here I gathered names and ideas and memories. My dad kept a few animals and tinkered a little with ideas about how to hack the system, bartering hay with neighbors in exchange for their help in haying the field, learning to harvest wood with the workhorse, dreaming about building a windmill. He got mad when, shortly after my first child was born, I made plans to build my little forest cabin on a remote, landlocked parcel in Western Maine. He had it in his mind that I might go to lawyering, and besides, the Nearings, who were an influence on me at the time, weren’t a good example to follow. They had a nest egg to start with after all and so it would be harder for other young people to follow that lead, he reasoned.  He wouldn’t let it go and even after more than 20 years of mostly modern homesteading under my belt, he still can get worked up over it. But he did understand following your heart, and what can a parent want for a child but that really, so he got on board eventually.

It brings a smile to me, knowing how ironic it is that really, he guided me here, every bit as much as the Nearings and my childhood dolls! What brings us to homesteading truly, is an insatiable urging to live a more authentic and connected life, and what brings us to that urging are connective experiences; experiences that break us open with wonder and joy, love and heartache.

In my 21st year, my tiny growing family moved ourselves into a teepee on the land we were “renting to own” in May. In Maine. It was chilly.   Accessible only by logging road, it wasn’t plowable, but during the dry months the jeep handled it fine. The Nearings, with their descriptions of a purposeful life, abiding by the seasons and rhythms, along with other authors of a homesteading or spiritual nature, were the final puzzle piece of an inevitable future –living close to the earth had become a vision that was driving, and getting onto this land was our whole hearts.  We carved our lot out of a forested hillside and harvested the lumber from a site my dad had to clear for his business.  We built a small modified timber frame with that lumber and mostly salvaged materials. We planted a garden in forest soil, cut firewood, built a privy—we made it work, for a short while. But our enthusiasm didn’t match our real world skills, our relationship skills or our financial needs, and so homesteading was paused, seemingly indefinitely. While on pause, I had a second baby, apprenticed in midwifery, got my degree, got a divorce, was hired as a consultant, got remarried, moved to Orland, had another baby and started once again to build a life as a homesteader.

On the second go, I knew I wanted a more modern homestead, with a bit more comfort. I wanted to be able to keep to my ideals and driving desire to be in a right relationship with the earth, but I wanted to keep the perspective that I could make compromises now and make improvements later as I could afford them. We would need a mortgage this time, so part of our figuring needed to be about creating a space where the homestead could come to support itself and us, financially as well as spiritually. We again, were challenged by the landscape. Our home would be carved out of the forest on a Western facing hill. Not ideal farming land, not pasture land—we had to decide to build the soil and push the land or to brainstorm other ways to succeed as a homestead without substantial gardens.  We opted to terrace the land around the home and build the soil, pushing the land.  Slowly, the soil built and it wasn’t too long before the few acres we were on were supporting us with meat and veggies to last most of the year. Our next step was to move into food sales. The first many years of living out at our homestead, the adjacent blueberry field was under management of other family members. It was a spray and burn field, bringing in migrant factory workers and foreign bees. Now, organically managed and mower-pruned—that seems a lifetime ago. Beyond blueberries, we now produce enough mixed veggies to support at tiny CSA and a booth at a tiny farmer’s market, as well as our own farm stand. Our second income stream grew from hosting guests via Couchsurfing—we saw hosting travelers as a way to do outreach and education and we did this without compensation.  When Airbnb lit up the marketplace several years ago we had just finished an apartment to rent. It was ideal for both our income goals and our outreach goals and we were early adopters.   

The struggles that birthed the lovely place that folks from all over the world meander through isn’t noticeable now—no family feuds, no yelling neighbors, no rogue bear dogs. Even the irritated teens have calmed! In the last several years, nearly every person who wanders our little developing homestead is in awe and gratitude of its peaceful state and rejuvenating energy.  We are happy to offer this connective experience to them, and we see it as a way we can encourage new potential homesteaders as well as show examples to folks wanting to tweak their own lives to just be a bit more earth-friendly and heart-centered.

Still, how can we convey that it’s not as romantic as it appears?  How can we talk about being cold in the morning or green firewood or the pests and diseases of the garden without being discouraging? What about neighbors and politics and the compromises we make for comfort or fear or desire? How can we truly share the journey to what is now visible was perilous and couldn’t be traveled without many helping hands?

Three things, aside from the right, imperfect opportunity, are needed for new folks to step onto this path: First, honesty instead of romanticism—it’s not all fun, really. But it’s doable, it’s important, and if your heart calls, it’s imperative.

Second, knowledge that modern homesteading has all kinds of neat new tricks and there’s no one right way: the only real rule is to simplify, becoming localized and self-reliant with earth’s well-being in mind—the earth needs you, wherever you are at. We are all needing to realign and that’s a journey, even for folks who have been at it a while.  

Third, people new to the path desperately need older folks (older no matter your age) who are still at it, folks who didn’t give up on their vision or calling, folks who can tell their story, their love story, no matter where it evolved to.  

It’s too easy to give up, modeling true commitment is a rare and beautiful thing. Remember, it’s never too late to start, there’s a beautiful community waiting to welcome new arrivals and it’s made up of so much more than the human neighbors.

By Molly Mercer