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The Choices of Homesteading

When we moved to our farm, we were working with a limited budget and an ambitious set of goals. Before we took this leap, we made sure that we knew what we wanted to get out of it, and how we were going to get to those goals. This would mean some compromises in lifestyle that have raised a few of my acquaintances' eyebrows.

It does not really occur to me how unusual our lifestyle choices have turned out to be until I start explaining our situation to "regular" people. I barely even think of our decisions as sacrifices anymore - in fact I barely think of them at all. We are not making a political or ecological point by not having a toilet or heating with wood, we're doing it out of necessity (although I'm guessing the environment thanks us). And our long-term plan includes indoor plumbing and a fully heated home. But for right now, this is the home we are living in to pursue our dreams.

One of my favorite quotes by the great activist and poet Wendell Berry has to be, "It is perhaps impossible for a person living unhappily with a flush toilet to imagine a person living happily without one." I think of this line whenever someone raises an eyebrow and asks me "why" or better yet clucks condescendingly and says, "well, you can get used to anything."

Our home is quite comfortable, as is our barn. We do not have a toilet, we use a camp toilet and bury the evidence weekly, similar to the waste system described in this Mother Earth News article. We have an outdoor shower that provides beautiful views while bathing in the summer months, and isn't useable once the ground freezes. Instead, in winter, we wash our hair in the sink and towel clean. Our house is kept warm by a hardy little woodstove and occasional supplemental heat from a kerosene heater (and lots of blankets on the bed!). In summer, it is kept cool by nighttime breezes. I cook on two camping "hot plates" and a wonderful apartment-sized oven that my parents got me for Christmas. I only miss a traditional stove if I'm frying up more than two things at once.

Our home does have electricity, although it's a fairly limited amount. We have lights to read by and run our TV, the one really modern accessory in our home. The house is a traditional New England farmhouse with an original square of four front rooms and an added on ell. We use the two front rooms as our bedroom and a sitting room (ok, that room is mostly for the cats), and this is what we keep heated. The back two rooms of the original house is where we keep the camp toilet and most of our supply of firewood. The ell, which we plan to remove and replace in the future, houses more wood and otherwise we have sealed off. If you are inside and keeping the fires burning, the front two rooms stay between 60-70 degrees. If you neglect the fires and it's a cold night out, the room can dip into the thirties but it has never fallen below freezing.

Across a seldom-traveled dirt road is our barn. The animals' quarters take up half of the barn, but one corner we have walled off and insulated for our kitchen. We put the kitchen in the barn because we knew we'd need running water for the animals and someday we hope to have a cheese-processing room in the same area. The insulated kitchen is kept warm by a single electric heater, which keeps it always above 40 degrees and often as toasty as 80 if you're busy baking.

We did not set out to live "off the grid" (though we do not mind the idea) nor did we choose our new home because of it's "original" condition. We found a property with the land and barn we wanted, in a location that appealed to us, and we've made it work. We've set goals for crops, more animals, cheese making and goose breeding. Accomplishing those goals means not focusing on the house, something we had our eyes wide open about as we moved up here.

But to return to Wendell Berry's quote. While plenty of homesteaders have told me they admire us, or make me blush with the much more extreme sacrifices they've made, equally as many comfortable suburban dwellers have pointed out to me things like "at least you're young" or simply asked why on earth we'd make these compromises in our home. These folks are well meaning, but I wonder if they notice my broad grin as I explain how cozy our little home is, how excited I am that I've figured out how to roast vegetables in the new camp oven, and how complete my life feels when I rub Tater under her velvety white chin. But then I suppose, "it is perhaps impossible for a person living unhappily with a flush toilet to imagine a person living happily without one."


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