Casaubon's Book

Nine years ago today we moved to our farm. We brought with us some boxes of stuff, some furniture, four cats, our then 15-month old son (Eli, now 10 and 5′ tall), Simon, packed conveniently in my pregnant belly, and my Mom (who went home after a day or two of helping us with the little guy). I was 29, Eric was just about to turn 31, and we were about as unprepared for life on a farm as any two (or three) people could be.

Eric had grown a garden once or twice with his Mom as a kid in various apartment buildings. I’d had balcony gardens all through college and grad school, and once a year, my family had made strawberry jam. Neither of us had ever milked a goat. I’d held chickens back when I was 10. We had been living in various apartments, and our entire tool collection consisted of a hammer, three screwdrivers and a measuring tape that Eli liked to play with. Not one minute of our combined almost-forty years of education had covered soil science, botany or agriculture. I was pretty sure I knew what stamen and pistil were, and Eric once had heard a lecture about the development of the moldboard plow in a history of technology class. He wouldn’t have actually recognized a moldboard plow if one had come and bit him on the ass, though, and neither would I.

What brought us there was a combination of factors. The first was Eric’s grandparents. Shortly after Eric asked me to marry him, he told me that he expected to care for his grandparents when they needed it. The rest of the family was far away or unable to do so in other ways. He had long expected it to become his job, and he wanted to make sure that I understood that. I did, and I was willing. And that prevous fall, Eric’s grandfather, 91, vital, energetic and funny had suffered a series of microstrokes. Eric’s grandmother was frantic trying to care for him, and when she recounted trying to carry Eric’s grandfather into the car when he became ill, it was a wake up call for both of us. Something had to change – and our plans had to include them, and a place where they could live in their home until their deaths. We wanted that for them desperately.

The second factor was my desires – we were living in an apartment in an old 19th century mill building in Lowell, MA. It was a great small city, diverse, funky, beautiful buildings, great culture, a strong southeast asian immigrant community, everything we wanted. Except, of course, that we had no dirt. None. Not even a window box. Shortly after we moved in, I realized that it was making me crazy – my original plan had been to eventually get some land. Now I felt like I was being smothered, I wanted some dirt so badly. There was a three year waiting list for a community garden. Had I known then what I know now about urban agriculture, I’d have found some. But then, I just wanted some dirt – lots and lots and lots of dirt preferrably. Even though I intellectually knew that an acre was a lot, I wanted as many of them as I could get to compensate for the fact that I had none.

The third was Eric’s desires – after finishing his Ph.d in astrophysics the year before, Eric had taken a convenient job in the same building he’d done is Ph.d. Over the years he’d spent doing his thesis, Eric had realized he didn’t want to do bench science, he wanted to teach. Science education was what excited his imagination. So when the job designing museum exhibits and educational materials opened up the Center for Astrophysics, Eric was excited. But he found sitting in an office down the hall from where he’d been a graduate student depressing, and he hated being in front of a computer all the time. Our new baby didn’t add to his dedication to a job he loathed. Screw it, we thought, he needed a classroom, and we’d be growing all our own food, so who cared about the 70% pay cut.

Finally, there was the fact that both of us believed that our rather conventional way of life had to change. We both had done the math on resource use, climate change and energy – we knew that it wasn’t possible for billions of people to live like Americans – and yet, billions of people wanted to. Somebody, we reasoned (ok, I reasoned, Eric rolled his eyes, but admitted I was right, even though he was annoyed about it), had to come up with an alternative life model, and some Americans had to try and live on a fair share. Why not us, we reasoned? How hard could it be?

Eric’s grandparents agreed to look for a house together. Eric gave notice. I began dreaming of dirt and buying books about farms. There were some caveats – Eric’s grandparents had a European sense of geography (they were post-war immigrants), and they knew in their hearts that Massachusetts and the rest of the New England states were cold and far away (they’d lived in the New York/NJ metro area for 50+ years), and flatly refused to look in Massachusetts for land. New York or New Jersey were the only choices, once we narrowed things down. It had to be a place with a job for Eric. It had to be a place we could afford. This did not leave many options.

We settled on the Schoharie Valley in New York and its surrounding areas. We made three trips before the final move, 9 years ago – one to scout locations, one to see 12 houses in three days, and one, with Eric’s grandparents, to see the house. And now we were moving in. Completely unprepared, still achingly sleep deprived from Eli’s early colicky months, with dreams of cows and chickens, huge gardens and wool to spin, and a baby coming, an addition to build for the Grandparents. For assets, we had a part-time teaching job in the SUNY system for Eric, the last semester of my tiny graduate stipend (and my dissertation that never would get finished), and a complete lack of comprehension about what we’d gotten ourselves into. That last was the most useful thing we had.

And, as William Goldman put it in The Princess Bride, from one thing and another, 9 years passed. Maybe you’ve read a bit about one thing and another here – there was a CSA and some books, some poultry and goats and a couple more babies and a lot of screw ups – the kind of thing that constitutes a life, I guess.

Two days ago, there were five families at my farm, and I was showing them what we’ve done over those nine years. Some of it wasn’t that impressive – I showed them where we screwed up designing the garden beds and where we are now finally, finally fixing the screw up we lived with for five years, and explaining what the root cellar would look like if it wasn’t May. Some of it is kind of interesting – we showed them the cookstove and how we’ve gotten off heating oil, and the ways we are using willow and other tree crops to feed our livestock. I talked about how we’ve come to produce almost all our own meat, all our milk, all our eggs, a majority of our produce and staple starches (ie, potatoes mostly). We have no debt but our mortgage, and not much of that. We get more independent of the feed store every year. Our use of fossil energies has fallen every year – we approach what we dreamed of – 1/10th of the average American household. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t everything. But I still think someone has to find some kind of good life with a lot less.

It isn’t the perfect sustainable life I dreamed of – we use about 1/10th the average American’s gas, but we still own a car. We heat with wood cut sustainably and locally, and use comparatively little, but it still make emissions. We eat local and sustainably, know every chicken our family consumes, but we let the kids make s’mores too, and I’m pretty sure Hersheys and Stay-Puff aren’t nearby. Periodically someone points out it isn’t really sustainable as it is – and that’s right. It is a hybrid – a mix of what life is like now and what life can be, with emphasis on making sure that when (I don’t say if here) major changes come, we can be as comfortable as possible, go on as best we can. But I cherish no illusions of a life without vast trouble. The question is just how much insulation we can give ourselves and our children, how much help we can give to our neighbors and our friends, and ultimately, how many other people we can help do the same for themselves, their children, their friends and neighbors and loved ones. It isn’t perfect at all – it is just a tiny start of something deeply flawed – and as much as we have managed.

And in nine years, this has become home. Shortly after our move, the Rabbi of a synagogue we were considering attending gave me the email of a woman about my age, with two children a little older than mine. We started corresponding by email, and now, not quite nine years later, my children and hers are playing together, and we are talking about bar mitzvah dates for her eldest with the ease of old friends who know the insides and outsides of each other’s lives. When Eric and I occasionally talk about the pull of eastern MA, where most of my family is (now that Eric’s grandparents are gone), we talk about how hard it would be to leave our close friends here, our good neighbors, our synagogue, and so far, the anchor here has been stronger than the pull from there.

Only Eli has ever lived in another place, and none of them remember it. Both Eric and I, the children of divorce and mobile childhoods, have now lived on this piece of land longer than we have ever lived in any single place.

Every year we know it better. Every year we restore it a little more. We count more bird species, more wetland creatures every year. The families that came to see what we have done sat outside with us and we saw a pair of tree swallows, the first time that they have resided here – yesterday I found their nest, and that makes 10 different species of birds raising babies on our land, from the yellow warblers in the lilac bush and the barn swallows in the barn, to the cedar waxwings in the spruces and the Pheobes on the front porch.

Some days the call of my family is stronger and we talk about leaving. Some days we wonder how we possibly could. When we came here, we did not know what we were getting. We did not know what we were choosing. We had only improbable, ridiculous dreams, not concrete training, only energy and enthusiasm and passion, not knowledge or skill. The people we dreamed it with are gone, and live on in our memories, and new people have come into our lives. I have no idea what the future holds, for good or ill. I am not sure how well we have done at accomplishing all the things we have intended.

But through a combination of good fortune, the kindness of strangers who became friends, good luck, energy, hope, optimism, too many books, barter, trust, too many mistakes, sweat, stubbornness, curiosity, joy, anger, ambition, fear and delight, we have made it into something. It may not be for me to say what. I still shake in my boots every time I invite strangers to our place, tremble for fear that we will look too small, too disappointing, that our insufficiencies will overflow what we have accomplished. But I keep doing it because whever else it is, it is real, it is what we have done.

It changes every year – I showed people where the cistern will go, and the hoophouse, and more tree crops. I talked about the sheep that we hope will come soon, along with the ones we have shared for years, about how important sharing has been and we hope it will continue to be. I showed them where I hope the new dreams will grow. This one thing I know – nine years is just a beginning, and the new projects, the changes, the adaptations are just starting too. And most of all, from it wells up a stream of new stories that I tell here, and a stream of new friendships that flow out from it. And that alone would be enough.

It is a rainy day on June first. Last year there was frost. Two years before that, it was blazingly hot. We need the rain, and the boys are in the house, doing logic puzzles. I’m looking at the laundry dripping on the line, the laundry I forgot, catching up on the inevitable dishes that 22 people use and thinking of nine years passed. Of new lives – baby goats, new hatched chicks, new planted perennials, of boys brought home to the farm and introduced to a herd of brothers and a place. Of loss – the pets buried under the Japanese maple, the ewe with the retained placenta we couldn’t save, the dog, the cats, the cats of friends without good dirt to bury in, of Eric’s grandparents. Of good days and bad, new things and new trials and chances taken. Phil the housemate moves in day after tomorrow. The sheep and Xote the guard donkey return on Friday. The pile of laundry and dishes and things to plant and prune and weed grows smaller and larger but remains. It is a life in a place, just like yours, but mine, and from one thing and another, nine years have passed. And I’m looking forward to the next nine.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    June 1, 2010

    I really do think there’s a heck of a lot to be said for staying in one place and really getting to know it. Too many people spend too much time moving around, or just not paying attention to where they are, that they can never really know what it means to really know a place – to know that this elder tree has the best fruit, or that when the river is so high, the heron moves to a different fishing spot… It’s the work of a lifetime to really know a place.

  2. #2 curiousalexa
    June 1, 2010

    Many thank yous for sharing your journey with so many people, of which I am thrilled to be one. I’ll never forget the first time we met and you exclaimed “you look like me!” I knew that because I had seen your picture on your books, but hadn’t thought about the fact you didn’t know what I was like beyond discussing looking for used Carharts for 6′ tall women [wry grin].

    In many ways I wish I had more of your “good luck, energy, hope, optimism, too many books, barter, trust, too many mistakes, sweat, stubbornness, curiosity, joy, anger, ambition, fear and delight”, but I work with what I have and use your example to know there is no one right way, there is only the way you yourself can do. (Although I resemble the book remark!)

    I first started looking for a homestead in the late 90s. I finally found it last year. Your writing has encouraged me to think beyond homestead into generational sustainability. Even though I have no direct offspring, I know the work I do here will impact not only who ever follows me here, but also the people around me now. It’s hard for me to believe you shake in your boots, fearing your example is not good enough, but your example, your enthusiasm, and possibly most important, your willingness to admit mistakes, reverberates much further than you can imagine.

    Thank you.

  3. #3 Ed Straker
    June 1, 2010

    Before I start, let it be known that I am making this comment in the full knowledge that this should not be a taboo topic with someone as keyed-into doomer topics such as yourself. So please don’t treat this as a troll. I just really want to get your take on this…

    —————-

    “Somebody, we reasoned…, had to come up with an alternative life model, and some Americans had to try and live on a fair share. Why not us, we reasoned? How hard could it be?”

    If you’re concerned with environmental footprints, and you want to be a role model, how do you rationalize having more than one child?

    What construes a “fair share” as far as reproduction is concerned? Does dropping your household energy consumption by half entitle someone to have two kids instead of one? Drop it by another half and have a 3rd? What’s the formula? Even the Duggars practice extreme frugality to make ends meet. Does that mean they are ecologically responsible?

  4. #4 mousedude
    June 1, 2010

    Wow, my wife and I are basically at the exact same point You started at, minus the kids. A young couple, one an almost graduated Ph.D student who wants to teach, the other holding down a job. We too are living in a “dirtless” apartment in a small city in the northeast (I’m actually a grad student where your husband teaches) and waiting for our “real lives” to begin soon. Our craving for dirt, fresh air, sustainable economic security and plain old peace and quiet is almost painful, and my fire escape garden isn’t cutting it.

    We’re also seeing the dire predictions we heard in our youth coming to pass before our eyes. Economic and environmental disasters that we were told were inevitable, but which sounded far fetched a decade or two ago are now headlines. It now seems like a race to get a sustainable life started before it becomes impossible. Before jobs and mortages become impossible to find. It’s a scary time to be stepping out into the real world.

    I’m hoping that by absorbing as much information as possible from blogs, books, and people who’ve done this sort of thing before, we can avoid many of the “many mistakes” you refer to, and ease our transition to a self sufficient lifestyle.

    Anyway Thanks for keeping it real. and I’d love to hear more about those “mistakes”, and how you would have avoided them.

  5. #5 Jules
    June 1, 2010

    “It is a hybrid – a mix of what life is like now and what life can be, with emphasis on making sure that when (I don’t say if here) major changes come, we can be as comfortable as possible, go on as best we can.”
    I often find a line in your writing that makes sense out of how I’ve decided to live my own life and today this line is perfect. We are the hybrids halfway between what was (or is) and whats coming.

  6. #6 Andy Brown
    June 1, 2010

    I was just talking with friends about “paths not taken”, and in many ways you are walking that path I didn’t take. Or at least I haven’t taken it yet. I don’t long for the dirt, unfortunately, but I do long to not be such a part of our unsustainable and destructive system. Reading your blog and others by people who have been carving their way out — is inspiring me to begin gathering my resources. Thanks.

  7. #7 Sharon Astyk
    June 1, 2010

    Nope, Ed, I don’t claim everything I’ve ever done in the last decade is something others should model ;-). I’ve written considerably more about my reproductive choices elsewhere (Depletion and Abundance has a whole chapter on population – and on where that puts me) that I won’t reiterate here. But it works the other way – as long as I have more than a fair share of children, the best I can do about that is to reduce my impact as much as possible – to the point where my kids use substantively fewer resources than the average 2 kid family. But no, it isn’t a defense or justification – just what I do with the family I had.

    Sharon

  8. #8 Shamba
    June 1, 2010

    We don’t realize what we’ve done in our lives, sometimes, until we look back and see how far we’ve come. :)

    You still write beautifully and with love for your way of living and it’s heartening to read.

    thanks for your blog, sharon.

    peace to you and yours,
    shamba

  9. #9 DennisP
    June 1, 2010

    My wife and I are at the other extreme from you and Eric: we’re not young and are only getting started in reducing our use of resources. We’re both retired and I’ve only recently (last several years)gotten keyed in to the coming scarcity. We’ve been on our plot of country land (6 miles north of town) for 10 years. We grow a large garden that provides a lot of our own food (but not all it) and this year I’m growing chickens for meat and eggs. Planting a few fruit trees as well.

    Your blog is one of the most interesting that I’ve run across and I’m currently reading Depletion and Abundance. Your writing is always thoughtful and provocative and you set a good example for all who are trying to work their way to a new kind of living. Keep up the good work.

  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    June 1, 2010

    My life history is sort of a mirror image of yours. I first lived in a house with no electricity, wood stove, kerosene heater, smokehouse, no indoor toilet, a model T Ford converted to pickup, a big garden, fields plowed with a team, etc. As time went by, we got electricity, electric stove, refrigerator and freezer, propane heat, Ford pickup. We figured out that we were farming to feed the team, and turned the fields back into pasture. I raised angora goats for mohair for my college money, and Spanish goats, which we ate. When I went to college and lived in the dorm, I had an indoor toilet. Now I have two cars, no garden, all electric house, and two indoor toilets.

    Anyway, I find you blog very interesting. Good luck on getting back to where I started out.

  11. #11 Jadehawk
    June 1, 2010

    I have to say I was very irrationally relieved to know that you were one year older than I am now when you started this farming thing. I had thought you were much younger than that when you moved, so it gave me a weird sense of desperation that I wasn’t going to have the time to learn all this shit! But I guess since I started planting this year, and next year we’ll probably have a house with our own veggie garden, it’s not too late after all. Though, it’ll still take me longer, since I’m also having to catch up on some education (but I’m hoping to get some soil science classes in, as well).

  12. #12 Jennie
    June 1, 2010

    Good luck on the housemate!
    Hubby and I just finished a stint as housemates with one of my best friends. It makes me smile because before we moved in with her, hubby was sure it wouldn’t work. “She’ll hate the baby, she’ll hate us being under foot, we’ll never get everyone out the door every morning on time, she’ll keep the baby up, the baby will keep her up….” Now she reports missing us underfoot every morning. And we were just talking yesterday about how much we miss her and how huge our new place seems with just our small family in it.

    Heh… the longing for dirt. Luckily I had that craziness well established before hubby knew me. He’s never known me without my garden. I always have to have it written into our rental contracts, “Renter will tear up x% of lawn and grow veggies and return said % to lawn when vacating rental premises.” :-D

  13. #13 bryan
    June 2, 2010

    Hi Sharon

    My wife and I have purchased 25 hA of bare, probably poor farmland with nothing on it, and hope to move in this winter. Our whole life we have felt something big was going to happen; but for 5 years we have been actively trying to extract ourselves from the predictable ecological train wreck. As I’m a commercial pilot and my partner is a ER nurse we are deeply involved in wasting oil and plastic. At least she grew up on a dairy farm so I have learned which end of the cow is which.

    We are lucky enough to see the future but still access the past – so for example we ask ourselves do we make floors of packed horse manure & linseed ’cause that’s low embodied energy; or do we use tiles while we can still buy them? I cycle to work where I burn 100 gallons of leaded gasoline each day. And so it goes with every action in our lives. Meanwhile the people around us are oblivious. It is an odd world view.

    So thank you for writing, and for letting me know that there are a few people plugging away. Your writing is inspiring, and terrifying; there is still so much to do.

  14. #14 Don
    June 3, 2010

    Sharon:
    This is a beautiful, well-written, and inspiring narrative. Thank you.

  15. #15 KiwiRach
    June 3, 2010

    @mousedude — your ‘real lives’ are *now* not something you start in the future. Sure a different life, may be just around the corner and absolutely worth planning for and working towards, but *now* is still productive time, not some sort of suspended animation. We’re only one year out from my husband completing an 8 year Phd and I’m so glad we didn’t put our ‘real lives’ on hold for the duration — instead we had three children, I did some postgrad study of my own and we got an allotment and started growing stuff.