Relocation Woes

I’ve done a lot of it – moving. I hate it. We pared our possessions down to a minimum – I could pack and move in about two hours – and I still hated it. Homesteading again will have some different challenges, so I had to buy some things and keep others that I would not have chosen to move.

Canning jars for instance. Who in their right mind moves empty jars? Me, if indeed I am sane. Cannign jars are expensive, they last for years, and they are hard to replace except by spending more money. I got almost all these jars for a pittance. People here ar eno longer canning. They still do where I am going, so I don’t expect to find canning jars at rummage sales for $1 a box anymore.

I am moving bags of flour. The Loblaw’s chain store here had flour on sale at $3/5 kilos. That’s about 11 pounds. I bought eight bags. It is in the freezer right now; I will take it out today, seal it into plastic bags, and move it. Grain products are outrageously expensive in Canada. We grow grain, I know. Why are we paying so much more than Americans?

I have bought some kitchenware that I know won’t be available in New Brunswick – Ontario has a larger, wealthier population, and they discard higher quality goods sooner, so this all came from rummage sales and thrift stores.

I am moving fabric, even scraps. There isn’t that much of it – it amounts to three half-full garbage bags, which will pad things in the trailer. Again, cost and availability are factors. Once this supply is used, I will be haunting the remnant bins and thrift stores for bargains. Occasionally someone has cleaned out a closet or even a relative’s house and given me good fabric. I just received some good wool pieces that way. I see on Kijiji that treadle machines are sometimes available; I hope to get one in the next year. They are probably long gone in Ontario, turned into decorative end tables.

I still have a box of vet supplies (not drugs) and my electric sheep shearers, as well as my hand shearers. I was tempted to offer them for sale, but now I’m glad that I procrastinated. I don’t know if I am proficient enough to offer my services shearing, but if a friend will let me practice on her sheep, I might get good at shearing again so as to hire out in the spring. Shearing is dirty, hot, strenuous work – it’s the main reason wool is a high labour industry. Shearers get butted, kicked, bit and peed on. It is an Iron Man competition every day of the season.

I will finally get to unpack my spinning wheels! We have moved so much, and into such, well – genteel – surroundings lately that my wheels have been packed for almost two years. I have old wool to get washed and carded; I will probably take it to a mini-mill and just get it done, assuming any of it is worth keeping. Fairly clean unwashed wool will keep for a few years assuming insects and mice don’t get into it, although washed wool lasts for decades if it doesn’t get too hot or wet.

I feel as if we are pioneering, or headed to some foreign country, although we are going home, at least for me. It is a different life from the one we have been living. I am no neophyte to it; I know that these winter days will be filled with food preparation and craftwork – and not for recreation, but for our use and possibly income. It is a very slow pace of life. There will be reading, and sleep, and shovelling snow. There will be some exploration of our environment, and more preparation, as we look to gardening and keeping a few small farm animals.

I expect that if done properly our physical and siritual health will improve. I will have time to focus on Nicholas more. I look forward to the slow winter days.

Indispensable

I’d like to know:

What do you find indispensible?

There are the esoterics – faith, love, joy. But beyond that, what is necessary to make your life a good one?

There are a few things that always go with me: Prayer book and Bible. Boar-bristle hairbrush. Swiss Army knife, or, as I call it, the Swiss Peace-keeper’s knife.

When we are settled somewhere, there a few other things: Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal; my sewing machine; clotheslines and washtubs; a few pieces of kitchen ware that make life easier, and perhaps, possible. Teapot, Gevalia ceramic coffee pot, ancient chef’s knives and a really good cutting block. A cast-iron skillet, an enamelled French saucepan. Wooden utensils, preferably olive wood.

Boots, prayer kapps, bonnet. For Nicholas, an old black hat that is beginning to look as if he inherited it from Jed Clampett. Natural fibre clothes. Boots.

At least one dog.

Each other.

my husband Nicholas

Taking Caution

I mentioned in my previous post about those who have failed and those who have succeeded in homesteading. While we may learn best from our own experiences, sometimes we could learn a lot from watching others and taking caution.

A Plain friend of mine years ago lived on a twenty acre homestead – pasture, garden, woods. They had a small log cabin with wood heat, a hand pump inside, and off-grid. It was a beautiful setting, very private, and they started out with the best of intentions. Two things defeated their efforts. One was lack of planning and budgetting. They acquired materials for a barn but took too long to build it, and when they were away,  thieves drove up to their lovely isolated site and took all the lumber. They ended up with a shanty barn made out of salvaged wood. They put their sheep in a plywood sided pen because they didn’t have enough room in the barn, and  a bear took two of them by reaching over the walls. They drove old vehicles that broke down a lot; second hand equipment that ceased running got left in the yard, cluttering the place and harboring vermin. The other pitfall was that my friend’s husband was not committed to living the Plain life, and was more than a little bit of a hoarder; soon the cabin was full of things “for later” but the things for now – a sink, a better woodstove, a functional vehicle for her – didn’t materialize. He was away working most of the time, and while she and the children were quite good at keeping the farm going, it was hard on her when he came home and didn’t want to  help with the things she couldn’t do like fix the propane refrigerator or cut wood with the chainsaw. He had a physically demanding job off the homestead, and they were both worked past exhaustion because they had not provided for the things they needed to make the effort easier – a log splitter, sheds for firewood and animals, storage for the food they grew. The homestead failed and their relationship broke down.

Our own previous off-grid experience was more accidental than planned, and after heavy rains saturated everything, flooded our little home, and pneumonia took three of the sheep in short order, we had to call it quits. A little more money and planning would have put us and the animals in better living circumstances. My own developing pneumonia could have killed me, and sapped all my energy. Nicholas was gone to work most days, and most of my time was spent cutting firewood, caring for animals, and trying to stem the rising tide in our two small rooms. Thankfully, a nearby friend invited us to live in his house, the sheep went to a friend’s farm, and I recovered gradually in a warm, dry place. We hadn’t meant to land on the property for an extended period without a better plan, but weather and circumstances overwhelmed us. Just a couple of thousand dollars would have seen us through, but we had no way to raise it, and for want of a nail that horseshoe, and the whole battle, were lost.

Recollections of homesteaders from the sixties and seventies are a bit vague; I was a child and a teenager then, but Maine was full of people living off-grid on old farms, getting back to the land. Some of them lived “alternative” lifestyles in small communes, hippies turned farmers. Some were genuinely interested in forming a new way of life; others were just growing pot. Some stayed on as artists, teachers, and animal breeders. Those who were involved in the underground economy often wasted their health and their means of living by sampling their own wares too much. Some got tired of the hard work, the long winters, the lack of stimulating culture. There were no first-run movies or rock concerts. Art galleries were unknown. It was the antithesis of a city and for those used to cultural activities of an enlightened sort, the local Baptist church hymn sing and the Kiwanis’ beanhole bean supper were a poor substitute. People and politics were seriously conservative. Multi-culturalism was French-language square dance calling and ployes suppers at the sugaring camp. (Things may not have changed much in the north.)

Those who came to homestead looking for a better life and who left when they didn’t find it may look back with nostalgia or pain. The reality of northern winters knocks the romance out of living in the woods for many newcomers.

Back to the Land

Now that we are confirmed in moving back to the Maritimes, and we have a place to go, the reality of planning is setting in. I’ve known many homesteaders over the years, some living quite successfully on small acreages, others failing bit by bit, year by year. Realistic planning is the key to starting well.

Although we are welcome and encouraged to raise food and animals on our little patch, I am not rushing into this. Some steps have to happen first. We have to set the money aside for animal shelter and fencing. We have to get the garden area opened by plow. We have to arrange for organic fertilizer – which is fairly easy in that neck of the woods, since there are several beef and sheep farmers. And I am not feeding animals over the winter who won’t produce anything until next year! The advantage of getting layers and milkers cheap right now is offset by the expense of them eating their heads off with no production for months. Sellers are anxious to move their extra stock in the fall, but I can’t make it cost out this year. Since the only outbuilding on the property is an old garage, we need to see if that will be adequate for shelter if some box stalls are built in it. Right now, we have agreed to let the vehicles stored in it stay rather than inconvenience the landlords, who are generous, Christian people – a great blessing!

The house is heated by oil or baseboard electric heaters, which is the only downside to the rental. We are all right with being a bit cold this winter; Plain people wear a lot of clothes anyway, and we will be snug in sweaters and comforters when we aren’t outside working. I don’t see an easy switch back to wood, since the house hasn’t had a woodburning unit in decades. I know I want a Pioneer Maid stove for cooking, heat and hot water; how to do this is the big question.

The house is two bedrooms, plus a small room as an ante-chamber to one of the bedrooms, just the right size for the grandbaby’s crib. There is a good-sized back entry room, heated, so I have a place to sew and spin and keep the dog. The kitchen is large. The living room is pleasantly situated to look out toward the woods that border the river bank. There are two bathrooms, one with a washer and dryer, an unexpected convenience. I will use the washer through the winter this year, and switch back to my laundry tubs in good weather. There is a clothesline already, and I always travel with lines, as well, if I need more room for drying. The dryer won’t get used much, except for real emergencies. I have my wooden clotheshorse for indoor drying.

Our plan is to stay home most of the time. I will buy groceries in bulk, and since we have two long fasts before summer, beans and potatoes will figure in the menus a lot. I intend to get a secondhand freezer, not too old, and bargain for meat in quantity. Since we will be mostly vegetarian, I doubt if we will use more than one pound of meat a week. Using about fifty pounds of meat a year isn’t much, and it may prove out to be less. I could quite possibly cut that in half, if we keep the strict fasts, which are twice a week, every week, with advent and lent about a month each, and the two short fasts of two weeks in June and August. The fasts are not only meat free but dairy free. The strict fasts exclude fats most days.

I have patterns for all our clothes but men’s trousers. Jeans are still very cheap in the thrift shops, and our winter clothes should go another year or more. Unless I find good dark wool on sale, I doubt if I will get my cloak made this winter, but my cloth coat will do. We are fine for shoes except for muddin’ boots. I have fabric for dresses, bloomers, nightgowns and patch quilts so I have plenty to do on days at home. Nicholas is looking forward to time outdoors with the dog, planning for next year, moving a bit of snow in the driveway, and generally helping around the house.

For being at home is a big factor in homesteading. Some people have to take outside jobs to get the mortgage paid for a few years, but we are hoping that selling produce, wool, lambs and maybe preserves will cover what extra cash we need. We want to live simply and to work together day by day. It’s a form of Christian discipline as well as a social protest against greed and worldliness. Maybe if some of us put on the brakes of this runaway cart we call modern life, the rest of the world will slow down and see the light.

The Kitchen Prayer

all things come of thee O Lord

One of the bonuses of living in a rectory is that we have first pick at the church rummage sale. This seems to be a universal bonus for clergy families. The rationale (at least my rationale) is that we can find things that we know are needed by those who can’t afford even to shop rummage sales. I have gathered in children’s clothes, kitchenware, and work clothes for people who needed them from my own churches in the past. We either write a blanket donation check (usually more than the goods were marked) or we tally it up and give the dollar amount.

I had a list; Mother Kay is away and I knew what was needed. Now, some of it is for us, admittedly, but we are so far behind in replacing lost household items that I need a head start.

It was a good bunch of stuff.

Canning jars – quart and two quart, square. The perfect homesteading canning jars. Four boxes. The prize of all rummage sale prizes!

Two winter sweaters, one for each of us, a pile of children and baby clothes for struggling families (including our own) and a new, still-cello-wrapped family Bible for Kay to present to someone. (Clergy have first dibs on all Bibles at church rummage sales. Dear Father John Pearce, now with the Lord, used to pull them off the shelves in thrift shops, walk up to the sales clerk and ask, “How much for these Bibles?” even if they were clearly marked. I don’t think he ever paid for one, because the answer was always, “For you, Father, it’s free.” He gave them away within days. There really is a need and hunger for the Word in this world!)

Two new quilting patterns, and an Amish doll pattern -you know how expensive those are! A pile of Icelandic yarn and knitting needles and patterns. Fabric remnants.

A knife block with two Henckel knives and steel. A beautiful honey pot. A casserole dish and carrier. Two aprons.

And this:

“Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I’ve not time to be

A saint by doing lovely things or watching late with Thee

Or dreaming in the dawnlight or storming heaven’s gates,

make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.

Altough I must have Martha’s hands, I have  a Mary mind,

And when I black the boots and shoes, Thy sandals, Lord, I find.

I think of how they tread the earth, what time I scrub the floor,

Accept this meditation, Lord, I haven’t time for more.

Warm all the kitchen with Thy love, and light it with Thy peace.

Forgive me all my worrying and make my grumbling cease.

Thou who didst love to give men food, in room or by the sea,

Accept this service that I do, I do it unto Thee.”

It is a simple letter-press card, about 5×7, in a plain wooden frame. It is signed “Klara Munkers” and at the bottom is the chi rho, over a large M, flanked by loaves and fishes. I think I have some old prayer cards by this publisher; I will have to see if it is the same emblem. It is dated 1960, so I don’t think I violated any copyrights here.

Need I say that this is how many of us live? We have the daily duty of feeding our families and others, and caring for their well-being in the most mundane of things, such as washing up. We aren’t St. George slaying dragons; we are Brother Lawrence scrubbing pots. Jesus compares the loyal followers to those servants who sit up in the kitchen, waiting for the master, making sure that all is in order for Him, and He then tells us, “What you do for the least of these, you do for Me.”

When we fail in our daily work, when we put off the ordinary but necessary tasks because we have so many more interesting and exciting things to do, we fail our Lord. He gave us our families and neighbours in trust, to care for them as He cares for us. I’m not saying to be rigid and obsessive, but an attitude of “housework isn’t important” or “cooking is for those who like to do it” fails others. It is an honour to do these things, to care for the children of God. He don’t need to be heroes, we don’t need to be important. We don’t need praise and recognition – we have His approval and thanks already.

The Cost of Shelter – Where is Your Palace?

no palace for the King of kings

Have any of you been looking for housing lately? We expect to move into our own place at the beginning of the year, but where? And how much will it be? It looks as if everything is way more than we can afford!

Now, I’m not very fussy. If it keeps out the snow and rain, can be heated with a woodfire (safely) and has some form of sanitation and a water source, we’re pretty much okay with that. We would prefer, obviously, a garden, some sheds or barn for animals, a quiet, natural setting. But we have been happy in a nineteen foot travel trailer and a 300 square foot cabin. We don’t need much.

Housing is expensive because it is a valuable commodity. It should be a basic human right – shelter. We live in manufactured mansions while many in the rest of the world live in what barely counts as shelter – it doesn’t keep out the rain, or animals, or thieves. (Yes, thieves steal from the poor all the time – a few dollars, medications, a wedding ring, even food.)

But for the poor, housing and basic shelter are a constant struggle. Nothing will bring me to tears and all-out panic faster than the prospect of being homeless. I find looking for affordable housing to be exhausting, discouraging and frustrating.  We hear things like, “We will need a deposit,” although every place we lived together has been in better condition when we left than when we moved in; “no pets,” although my old sheepdog has neve done damage, barely makes a noise, and I always clean up after herin the yard, and heaven knows, it would break our hearts (hers and mine) to be separated now;  “you’ll have to take it month-to-month, I may want it back for my daughter in three months” or “you’ll have to sign a lease because people move out of here after just a couple of months and I’ll want the whole year’s rent,” which means there is something terribly, terribly wrong.

If I could buy a house it would be cheaper by the month, but even if we can scrape together a down payment, I don’t have a job and we won’t qualify for a mortgage. There are cheap properties in rural areas, perfect for homesteaders like us, but after a year and more of financial disaster due to Nicholas’s stroke, we have no credit.  We don’t have parents to co-sign. My father is the only surviving parent, he is in his eighties, and he is in another country.

One author we like, Ferenc Mate, in his book A Reasonable Life, pointed out that it used to be that when a couple got married, they went out to the edge of the village, everyone helped build a house, and the young people moved in. Land and property weren’t commodities – they were community property. Oh, in the days of feudalism, one had to ask the lord if it was okay to put up your hut or cottage, but likely he’d say yes, because a newly married couple meant soon-to-be-born babies who would grow up to be productive labourers.

Just about everything we see on real estate and housing, home decoration and family life, is geared toward selling us the American dream – the big house, the rooms full of furniture, kitchen heavy with granite countertops and stainless  steel appliances and expensive cookware. But people don’t seem to live in these houses; they merely exist, moving between bed, car and soul-grinding job. They long for escape. So then we see the advert with the father finding the family members scattered in different rooms, all of them connected to a different electronic device. He takes them on a vacation in a motorhome to make them reconnect around the campfire, under the stars.

What?

That house, in this market, must have cost a half-million dollars; everyone is in their own room. They are not talking to each other because they are comfortable in upholstered furniture, passively receiving communication through television and the internet. Is there some reason they can’t build a fire in that fieldstone fireplace in the barn-sized living room, turn off the devices and talk to each other in their own home? A half-million dollar home, filled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of furnishings, and they have to buy an $80,000 furnished, self-propelled dumpster to have a conversation?

All right, I’m serious about this. We are looking for, first of all, community. We want to live among other Christians, we want some self-supporting work, we want to grow our own food. I don’t know yet how much we can pay in rent, or if we could possibly buy something with a low down payment and low monthly payments. We are clean, tidy and skilled. We are quiet. We aren’t perfect. We have the occasional light drink but you would never know it. We are good neighbours. I am used to being called out of bed in the middle of the night because someone is in need of help.

Is it possible? Does the medieval sense of community still exist? Is it possible to recapture the sense of the early church in being Christians together?

We are poor financially, but we are rich in knowledge. Who needs that in their community? Who has room?

“Victory in Jesus” Gardens

We have a yard that is mostly walnut and maple trees. My garden was a washtub with tomato plants and herbs in it.

My family had large gardens when I was young. Both sets of grandparents had large gardens. Have dirt, will garden. The farm never left our souls. We grew food, we ate it fresh, we canned and froze it. We gave it away. We gleaned fields of peas and potatoes, orchards of apples, wild bushes of berries, riverbanks of fiddleheads, maple trees of sap, hedgerows of hazelnuts.

I am delighted now to think of that connection to the past.

Our parents and grandparents grew Victory Gardens during the last European war – people were encouraged and supported in digging up their yards and growing their own food, so that crops could be diverted to the support of the troops. Many European families had to wild-gather to survive during and after the war.

We were still just a few years past being an agrarian culture. People knew how to make a garden.

I don’t think any of our neighbours has a vegetable garden. This little town is proud of its shade trees, its luxurious lawns, its air of ease and privilege. When I lived in rural parishes, people left bags of corn, tomatoes, green beans, onion and zucchini on my doorstep. One parishioner dropped off a few homegrown vegetables here this year. I bought the produce I canned.

The food bank here is in constant need of donations. Industries have closed in this area; other people are chronically unemployed or underemployed. It looks like it will get worse rather than better. (And just to bring this up – local farms employ migrant workers to pick apples, tobacco, ginseng and cabbage. The reason? Local people don’t want these seasonal jobs. The work is too hard, the pay too low, and if they take them, they endanger keeping their government-paid benefits. I can’t take even seasonal work until my immigration status is settled, except to work for the church. I did field work as a child and teenager. It isn’t that hard.)

In a land of plenty – in the garden region of Canada – why are people receiving boxes of dried dinner ingredients and cans of soup? Why don’t food banks have great resources of fresh food? Some do – because someone had the inspiration to solicit donations from farmers and farmers’ markets.

But we could all be doing more to feed those in need by planting a new kind of victory garden – I’ll call it a Victory in Jesus garden, from the old Baptist song.

We could be feeding ourselves and the poor, improving local nutrition levels and health. We could be reducing our reliance on transported, carbon-hungry resources. We could be getting rid of harmful lawn-maintenance practices and chemicals. (One reader wrote me earlier this year to say she had persuaded her church to plant a garden on the church lawn. That’s what I mean.)

The black walnut trees on our lawn are at the end of their growing years. The best thing to do with them would be to cut them down and sell them to a craftsman for fine furniture. This would also get rid of their messy nuts and the squirrels who live on them. Not much will grow around black walnuts, except the maple trees which are also as big as they can get, are dropping dead limbs, and hogging the arable area of the yard with roots. I love trees, but these are at the end of their lives, and they will soon be a hazard. I say take them down, use the wood as possible, and plant something like fruit trees, a little more in keeping with using the yard for a garden. (Don’t get me started on the line of overgrown cedars along the fence.)

Gardening is work, more than many people think they should have to do. But why shouldn’t we turn our hands and hearts to the earth, and share in its production? We are divorced from the natural world; we try to corner it in parks where we are comfortable with mown lawns and trimmed trees. We like the idea of wild spaces, but we don’t want to live in them. Our homes are air-conditioned and warmed so it is always perfectly temperate inside, and we never have to wear climate-suitable clothing. (I had a friend in past years who literally ran from car to building, building to car, car to home because she didn’t want to bother putting on a coat even in a mid-Atlantic winter. It took a while to persuade her to carry suitable winter clothing in her car so that if the car broke down she wouldn’t freeze to death.)

It’s autumn here in the North; most of us are done with the garden. The last of the basil came in for pesto here; the other herbs are potted and in the shed, hardening up for a possible winter indoors on a cool windowsill. (Herb plants do not like our overheated homes.) But there is next year. I want to be in a place suitable for a garden and more. I want to grow not just for ourselves, but for those who are unable to grow for themselves.

It’s one thing to receive a bag of canned goods and a loaf of plastic-wrapped bread when we are in need. But it is impersonal and industrial. It’s almost as if someone says, “Here you go – this is good enough for you.” But when we are given, in need, fresh tomatoes, a head of lettuce, a bag of sweet, long green beans that just taste of sunshine and clean water, a paper-wrapped loaf of still warm, fresh bread – we feel loved. We feel part of the community. We feel the gracious hand of God on us. Someone cared enough to grow and bake for us. We become part of the family.