The floor of the car is littered with paint chips. Bob and I have been choosing colors for our newest Sap Bush Hollow enterprise: the vacation rental, to be located in the apartment over the post office, next to the cafe.
We bought the post office building in our hamlet two years ago partly to convert the former firehouse on the one side into our cafe; but also because the building had two apartment units: a one bedroom downstairs that we rented to a mother and daughter; and a three bedroom upstairs that Kate, our herd manager, and Joe, her then-fiance, moved into.
Three weeks ago Kate and Joe got married. And now they’re moving into the farmhouse that adjoins Sap Bush Hollow. Mom and Dad bought that house, and the acreage that came with it, last summer. We had been renting that land to graze our livestock for years. When the opportunity came up to purchase it, they pounced.
I try to stack all the little paint chips into a tidy bundle and shove them into a folder, attempting to create a little bit of contained orderliness in what has become my sprawling, complicated life.
I think back to the days I thought we’d just be homesteaders. I thought that Sap Bush Hollow Farm would eventually pare back to just a few animals for our subsistence. I visioned myself coming in after the pigs were fed and the family cow was milked to enjoy a quiet evening knitting Fair Isle sweaters while I listened to Bob play guitar. There’d be a nice dog on the rug beside the hearth.
I was a little chagrined when a reporter contacted me recently to do a story about homesteaders. I remember the conversation vividly, along with my admission that never really attained that dream:
I tug at the phone cord as she asks me to explain my livelihood.
“Well, we’re not really homesteaders,” I stammer. “I mean, we’ve tried a lot of those things, and we grow a lot of our own food …But we also grow food for about 100 other families, plus a lot of other drop-ins who purchase a small portion of their meat from us…And then there’s the cafe, see, and the farm store. And the books. And the blog, which is funded by patrons. And the online store. And then we have the long term rentals (I don’t mention the plans for the vacation rental). And we own the post office.”
I can hear the confusion and panic in her voice; that frightening moment journalists confront when they realize they have the wrong person for the story. And they’re on a deadline.
I try to be helpful. “It sounds like I’m not what you need for your piece.” I need to help her get off the hook gracefully. “I think you’re looking for real homesteaders. I don’t fit that bill. Let me give you some names of people you can talk to.”
“You wouldn’t call yourself a homesteader?” She asks.
“Well, homesteading skills helped us get started. We couldn’t have afforded to live without jobs and develop the farm without them. But we don’t really have a homestead per say. I guess its more of a…..subsistence empire.” I laugh. I want her to laugh with me. Laughter would imbue the moment with forgiveness. And I feel like I need forgiveness, because somehow, with all these enterprises, a part of me can’t help but wonder if we lost our direction.
I think I remember when it happened. One of the neighboring farmers who’s fields were above ours dropped in at Sap Bush several years back. He’d signed some sort of exploratory lease with a gas company, and he was organizing other farmers to get involved. We were horrified. We refused to join us, but feared the impact of his decisions on our farmland and town. This was the third threat we’d felt to our community in recent years, including an effort by the USPS to close down our post office.
I felt we’d grown so powerless. I felt like we had invested so much into growing wholesome food and raising a family, and learning all these skills that enabled us to live peacefully in this backwater town without conventional jobs, cloistered away from the world. That’s how I wanted it to stay. And here, on my doorstep, was something worse than all the other onslaughts that could ruin all that.
Dreading the impending frack threats, we began looking around. We considered the viability of relocating the family business, or just simply going smaller and living off-grid in a place where the water wouldn’t be threatened by the forced march of fossil fuel-dependent progress. Was there a place we could move to avoid this? What could I offer my children for a future if we did? A giant bubble of anxiety took up residence in my stomach. I am defined by these mountains and pastures; by the neighbors I knew growing up, by my days in my own kitchen. And I was horrified that we would have to throw it all away.
One evening, the stress of all these considerations became too great. I slipped out of the house and went and sat in the woods for a good long while, hearing the thrushes call and the water in the stream down below. And I sat. And I sat. And I sat.
And I realized a few simple truths. First, I was living as though my water were poisoned before anything had even happened to suggest that it could. Second, we would never leave this place. Homesteading skills may enable a family to pick up and move to remote locations. They enable a family to survive outside the economy, to explore new frontiers. But sooner or later, for many of us, one place becomes home.
And we would fight to protect it, and then we’d adapt to whatever came next.
The resolve brought peace in my heart. Bob, Mom, Dad and the girls and I joined the local fight to get laws on the books to protect our community. But I think that process changed something inside all of us. Instead of closing ourselves off to the world, hoping that no one would ever trouble our little corner of paradise, we realized we needed to open up.
We had to do more than protect our water from being poisoned. The world needed to recognize this is a place where no one should ever dream of poisoning the water, of trading in the mountains and pastures and streams and forests for quick money.
And that, for our family, meant thinking bigger about our business. And deeper about our intentions.
Reflecting on all this, I realize now that we didn’t lose direction. We gained it. And the direction was outward. We had to learn to reach outside ourselves, using our farm as a resource base to consciously grow our business and our community. In the years since that event, we’ve pulled our money from nearly every external investment and put it within our town borders.
We’ve learned that every time a person comes into our community and feels nourished by our food, is breathless from the beauty, whispers a prayer beside one of the waterfalls, or feels welcome and loved, our home is a little bit safer and a little bit stronger. And our children’s futures are a little bit brighter.
The paint chips are all different sizes. They don’t stack neatly. I let them fall back to the floor in a colorful heap. Like the rest of my life, they scatter freely. At least, on the floor of my car, I know where to find them to show them to Mom. I need to show her soon, because Kate and Joe will be moved out of the apartment and into the big farmhouse next week.
Thus, come October, when the cafe closes for our annual vacation, I won’t be knitting as much as in years past. Bob probably won’t sit quietly and strum his guitar. We’ll be pulling down ceiling tiles, scraping, nailing and painting. And when we’re finished, we’ll have a little three bedroom vacation rental overlooking Panther creek, footsteps from our local hiking trails, next door to our cafe. And we will have opened ourselves up further still, telling the world that we are here to be loved and cherished.
Sap Bush Hollow is no longer a tiny homestead. It’s no longer a subsistence farm. It’s a sprawling subsistence empire, rich in people who love it. A few of us knit when we get a spare minute. Some of us play guitar and sing. But all of us have good dogs to sit beside our hearths. That part of the homesteading vision stays with us.