I think I am weary of the word “homesteading.” It is an American term, drawn from the Homestead Act of 1862; Americans could stake a claim on undeveloped land, and if they stayed long enough, built an dwelling, and worked to clear and plant that land, they could file with the government to own it. Homesteaders in the American West came as something of a surprise to the native people who lived in the same land, and saw no need to develop it, cut down the trees, tear up the sod, and stay, come hades or high water. The word “Homestead” had a connotation of the established family farm; this is what the American government wanted these new settlers to do.
We are in maritime Canada, and while the British and French settlers who built here had no better record of cooperation with and respect for their native neighbours, somehow “homestead” doesn’t work as a concept in this place. Farms were carved out of the boreal forest, often with grim labour and loss of life. These tracts, when not claimed for the Crown, were deeded out originally in huge acreages, then divided and sold.
My Scottish ancestors would have, most of them, come out of the Highlands and Islands, where crofting is an established practice, protected and governed by law. A croft is a rented smallholding – perhaps part of a larger farm or estate – organized under certain principles; the rent is minimal, the right to the croft hereditary, the crofter has right to improvements he has made himself, and for rented crofts, there is a commons for grazing. (Some crofters were able to buy their smallholding, but this seems to eliminate their right to the commons.)
This is why we are more like crofters than homesteaders. We are on less on than four acres; we rent at a minimal price (although more than a croft lease, it is still less than the equivalent house rental in a developed area), we share the improvements with our landlords, and the goal of this crofting is to restore the land to usefulness. We have an outside income, although small, so growing our own food and supporting ourselves without additional expense is necessary to our way of life.
The ex-urban lifestyle was popularized by people like Helen and Scott Nearing, who left academia (under pressure – Scott’s socialist philosophy made him unpopular among his peers in the 1930s) and settled first in Vermont, then in Maine, at a village called Harborside. They wrote books, invited like-minded young people to visit and work with them, and turned an old farm into a vital colony of agrarian research and philosophy.
Quite a few disenchanted young folks headed into the Maine woods to do the same. Some stayed on and did well; many got tired of the long winters, the hard work, and the lack of city amenities. The Nearings exemplified the benefits of their “good life” at Forest Farm – Scott lived to be one hundred years old, Helen, 91. Self-sufficiency, community of choice, and a rejection of consumerism were their goals. (For more on the Good Life Center, see http://www.goodlife.org.)
We don’t have much in common with the Nearings. We are Christians, traditional Anglicans who have sojourned a bit with other, more conservative Christian groups, but were called home to the Church of England – we have more in common with Back to the Land Catholics and hereditary Mennonites than we do with the homesteading movement of the 1960s. We are also not “preppers” or “survivalists”. We are more concerned with stewardship and community than we are in outlasting post-apocalyptic urbanites. Our agrarian philosophy would be closer to that of Wendell Berry, a farmer, philosopher and former academic who went back to the family farm. (A good introduction to Wendell Berry’s writing is at www.wendellberrybooks.com).
I think this has something to do with being Anglican. (Not that Wendell Berry is.) Our theology is organic, responsive to a changing world rather than reactionary; we are rooted in scripture and the tradition of the church, but we are also vernacular and adapting.
At the core of our life is Jesus Christ, who responded to the needs of the world around Him in His days on this earth. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, comforted the grieving. He was part of His community, as well as its leader. He didn’t stand out from His disciples (students, that is) by some badge of office, by dressing better than they, by choosing to ride rather than walk. When He was betrayed, an insider – Judas – had to point Him out to the guards. He ate with, walked with, talked with, wept with the poor, the ordinary, the common. That is what we are doing, and God has indeed brought us to that place.
But it has to be more than talk. (And I am afraid that we – Nicholas and I – were well-trained in Talk.) This has to be preached by doing. And the doing is not in isolation, in self-determined freedom, or in realizing the American dream of a freeheld, prosperous farm. It is in growing a place in a community – a community we know and that knows us – in cooperation, in caring, in communion.
I feel we have more in common with the crofters who share their common experiences via webpage and blog – asking for help, calling on neighbours and family, learning from others – than with the independent American freehold homesteaders. Our goal is to produce enough food to feed ourselves and others and to improve the health of our communities. We are trying to make do with little income – fewer taxes to pay, fewer temptations to face – and stay out of working for corporate structures we know to be destructive of comunity and environment. I know many homesteaders have these same goals, and they can call themselves what they want – but our roots are in the mother church and in the rocky soil of northern Britain.
For those interested in exploring what is happening in Scotland with crofting, see these blogs: The Barefoot Crofter (http://www.thebarefootcrofter.com) and Stonehead (http://stonehead.wordpress.com.)