Spinning, Knitting, Crocheting, Organic Gardening, Living off-grid, and chasing sheep - because- I'm, like, NOT SANE!

Monday, August 17, 2009

we have to talk....

- Which is to say that this post will be long beyond long and have some parts where you might roll your eyes and wonder why I babble so – but I hope you’ll read it all the same-

For the last two years, I’ve been ‘casually’ mentioning that things are changing around the farm. And, oh boy has that taken on a whole new meaning in the last few weeks. I haven’t talked about it much and I hope that after reading this post, you’ll understand. Part of my keeping quiet about it was the sorrow of it all. Some of the changes were hard to come to peace with and, while I know I can share anything here – I just didn’t really know how to do that until some of the chaos dust had settled a bit and we could begin to see a bit of the ‘future’ chaos dust unfolding. And, the other part is that while the chaos dust was flinging about – some days were so murky that it was really hard to know what would be. For just a bit, it seemed like EVERYTHING would change and that just made this little crab crawl into her shell and hide for a while.

It all started with our realizations and dances with ‘the truth’ about our lifestyle. We had many grand reasons, I’m sure, for why we did what we did – why we chose to move to the woods and live entirely off the grid and learn to be dependent on only ourselves. It was a good basket of reasons, too. For one thing, 10 years ago when this dream began, alternative energy was still considered a ‘pie in the sky’ dream for the average person. Now? Well, now the options are truly endless and (I hope) it stands a fighting chance in becoming the mainstream view of future new home building. WOW – what a radical shift. We were also a very young family and, not being children born to wealth or very lucky in terms of lottery winnings (I think you have to actually buy the tickets to win, darn!) we were pretty ‘low budget’ so the concept of taking matters into our own hands and building our own home seemed very rational – and it was. For less than 8,000, we built a barn and house and never paid one person to hammer even one tiny nail. We cut every log and cemented every wall of the cordwood barn we built and while that may seem a silly accomplishment, for us – it still makes us smile. I’m so glad we did it! And, then there were our ‘ideals’ – we wanted the good life for us and mostly for Things 1, 2 and 3. We wanted them to have childhoods saturated with nature exploration, happy days on the farm, and a generally satisfying and simple way of living. And they did – and I’m glad we could give it to them.

Before we took the plunge and went to our remote homestead, we had many friends who either had or were doing the same thing. We vowed we’d learn from them – from their successes and their failures. One thing we found in nearly every circumstance where things did not turn out well was a person or persons in the team sticking to some ideal and refusing to bend. It is the kiss of death when you count on Mother Nature for your daily survival. You have to imagine the impossible, embrace the improbable, and find peace when your hopes are thwarted by reality. We vowed to ourselves, our family, and to each other that we’d never let ourselves get so boxed in by an ‘ideal’ or fantasy of how it MUST be done that we’d cause suffering or grief for anyone in the family – and we’ve pretty well kept each other in check in terms of that, save for the last year or so when reality began to wield a club instead of tapping us ever so gently on the shoulders. For some time, now, we’ve been the lone voice in that patch of woods – all the other families have returned to the ‘normal’ – the last being our dearest friends of over a decade who ended their 24 year marriage in divorce and completely left their way of life. It was heartbreaking to watch and a bit sobering because we could too closely see the path that had led to it. That coupled with the ‘truths’ that kept lurking about and turned over just too many stones for us to keep embracing the improbable. And, after this summer, the improbable has become so murky and weathered that hope has become a rare find – or so it was until just a month or so ago. So, here’s the story as I can now, after a bucket or 20 of tears and some serious hugs and some laughter and some long goodbyes, tell it:

We began to realize a couple of years ago that our solar set up was going to need some serious upgrading to handle the load of the farm/the business/and, oh yeah, the living. We started doing some research. The good news is that we found that many advances have been made in the solar industry and, hence, much higher quality products are available with much less waste and up front expense. Unfortunately, we also found that these trends were heading solely toward the ‘grid tied’ solar set ups like you see springing up (hope, hope, hope) all over neighborhoods these days. For old timers like us, the totally off-grid systems are not as efficient, very much more expensive, and are fairly lime green in terms of green when you consider the life of the batteries (about 5 years and you need lots of them to operate a household even without the appliances I’ve learned to live without like an iron, blender, hair dryer, etc) and the lower efficiency of the off grid systems. It is good that the tide is turning but we began to feel like we’d fallen prey to a undertow and were sort of falling to the bottom of the pile. We considered, for a moment, grid tying but it is impossible beyond the challenging of impossible. Not only would it cost what two years of college for Thing 1 would cost to get the poles out here, but we cannot and will not cross the watershed that lines our property as it is a valuable and vital breeding ground for so many species. On this, we have dug in our heels and let our ideals reign supreme. You have to bend like the willow but even the willow will snap eventually – and we have to be able to live with ourselves in the end so no power lines….end of story.

We decided to work harder (a recurring theme in our lives which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it is how we’ve managed to make this beautiful family and make it in life together but a curse because it is the solution we tend to fall back on which means we are often harder on ourselves than we have to be) and, you know, we did. We hauled water - every drop that has dyed every skein and every cup full that has wet a child’s mouth and every loving spoonful that has provided a meal, a bath, a drink for some critters – we hauled it by hand. We built fences to try to return the former woodlot that was cut over before we purchased it to the old farmstead that it was some 80 years ago – racing to thwart the trees and make pasture for the critters. We chopped wood to warm ourselves and cook and we grew whatever our thumbs would allow and ate every bit of it even if it was a seedy, miserable zuchinni that should have been snapped by the early frost.

One of those ‘truths’ or flaws in our rational that became exposed by reality was that we also thought, as many people do, that by doing a lot of our own work and saving money by living simply, we’d be able to have more time being a family. This one didn’t really pan out like we’d hoped. In fact, we were more than hit below the belt when we started actually tracking the numbers and realizing that is no less expensive to live our remote life than it is conserving. We waste a lot more than we can sit comfortably with due to some of the limitations of our power capabilities and food storage, wear and tear of equipment and such. Actually, our bills at our old 110 year old farmhouse were LESS than they are now living off the grid. Ouch. That one really stung the pride a bit….and made all the work and sacrifice seem a pale comfort through the storms. Just ouch. When the chores you need to do (in addition to farm chores which seem like a day at the beach compared to the daily living essentials like water/warmth/survival) just to survive take up 1/3 of your day – and that’s a normal day when something vital doesn’t break and you have only yourself to fall back on so you have to stop what you’re doing and work however many long hours it takes to FIX IT NOW – then you sort of wake up behind and go to bed watching the ‘to do’ list grow like weeds. You find yourself telling your kids that you’d be happy to listen to them about something but they’ll have to walk around with you because you only have ‘x’ number of hours/minutes of daylight left and ‘x + 1-a billionty’ things that have to get done like getting water, hauling in the wood, pulling dinner up, etc. and it starts to look very different than the life you thought you were giving them. In our case, the mounting piles of ‘truths discovered by actually doing them and finding a result’ colliding with a series of unfortunate events and mixing with the colors of how our family is growing and changing meant only one thing – something was bound to change.

We’ve had a miserable summer, but it’s not like we’re that easily frightened by adversity. I remember, distinctly, the time I had to chase a garden destroying pig back into her fences dragging my oxygen tank behind me the year I got pneumonia and that was just a few days after I’d come home from the hospital. Or the countless times the huscreature has had to go out in the rain/sleet/snow whether healthy, happy or sick as a dog because living everyday means the chores of living everyday still must be done – even if you’re so tired you want to just cry. Living on a dirt road in mud season means you spend a week to three walking to and from your car – or thousands of dollars a year repairing the damage you do with your vehicle by trudging through the muddy road and uncovering rocks, making huge car eating ruts, etc. etc. We’ve survived many a scary time, too – like the year that our aging neighbor ‘went off his meds’ as his family later explained but spent the better part of a season shooting his gun while we drove by and yelling profanities at us. Or the time that the house almost burned down because an ice ledge broke off of the metal roofing and a freakish thing happened which resulted in a damaged panel that shorted out our system and burnt the wiring. Or the time that a high speed police chase ended in our driveway late at night when the huscreature was at work and I was home alone with three sleeping babes in the deep woods – can still hear my heart beating when I think about that night – LOL. Or, the storm that brought cloud to ground lightning that struck our house and fried our inverter. The inverter is the beloved device of the solar set up. It is the brain, the heart, and the lungs of the entire system. Without it, you get no language between the panels and the little plugs you plug your stuff into and pray it will work. Being on your own means just that – there’s no one to hold your hand when something goes wrong. You have to make up your own rules as you go along and you have to be able to reconcile with yourself when that causes mayhem. I am convinced that this is how ice cream was invented….to soothe the worried mind.

So, we can survive a fair amount of challenges. We’ve accepted it as the price of living in paradise and kept working harder. But then miserable seemed to be a recurring theme. There was a ridiculous amount of rain. Ridiculous. Like stunting the garden and washing out the road ridiculous. It will take many thousands of dollars to make it passable in anything other than a 4WD and even that will need constant repairs because the road is becoming a car eater. Huscreature can tell you exactly how long it takes to replace a ball joint, wheel bearing, or drive train – he had to learn because mechanics are not cheap and cannot be bought with cookies like I can:)

The rain also pointed out the glaringly obvious – we are not skilled carpenters and the challenges of a round roof proved above our ability. The barn roof needs replacing – another huge chunk of resources, time, money that we don’t really have or want to expend – again. We’re not winning the pasture battle. The baby trees lush out with leaves and choke out the grass. The sheep and horse cannot eat them fast enough and we cannot cut them fast enough to make enough pasture to raise the healthy, natural flock we insist upon. Nothing short of clearing it by fire, clear-cutting, or taking a backhoe and abolishing the landscape as it stands will catch us up on the gain that the trees have in the cycle. It is neither sustainable to maintain the herd here nor are the ‘solutions’ acceptable to us. The place seems to be telling us that reverting it back to the farm it was is OUR dream and that it really wants to stay wild. We love it too much not to listen.

All of the sudden, the markers start to point to the same issues and this is where the scary part becomes the painful part and you know you’re saying goodbye to something you treasure because you can feel that constant aching where your heart sits. I tried to ignore it for a loooong time but then a few months ago, I dropped Things 1 and 2 off at some friends’ house and had a few minutes of ‘thinking’ time on the way home. A conversation started and I didn’t like where it was going from the start. You always know you’re about to wake up to a surprise when you start a conversation with yourself like, “hey, what is going on here? Why so unhappy?“ I mean, I love what I do for a living, I have farming so deep in my blood that I think it my take me with it should I ever leave it and I am surrounded by love and happiness in the forms of family and good friends. Why? Then, it answered back and sounded something like, “Well, you know, the Things are growing and changing and (insert Thing # here) is really needing (insert the need of each Thing here) and you feel awful because you know they can’t have it because of (reason). And I started to cry because the ‘reason’ was the same every time and it was the thing we’ve been fighting so hard to make –our home.

I did what any person would do - I took it to my best friend. Only, my best friend is the person who’s been pushing so hard right along side me all this time and he’s pretty personally invested, too. So, you know it was hard to say, hard to hear, and hard to help each other with. It’s like we’d both seen the dice be tossed years before but just then realized that they would just land on the table and be what they were – no do overs, no slight of hand, no blind hope would change the resulting numbers that they’d be called. You could say the bubble burst but I think it could be more aptly described as trolls bursting through your neighborhood toppling everything in sight. The chaos dust was thick and nothing seemed certain for a while.

Then, driving home one day, I noticed a sign in front of my favorite farmhouse in the area. I’ve loved this house for 12 years – squealing with delight the year I first spotted it coming around the corner . We all looked at each other and considered it a moment but then ‘pashawed’ the idea and went home to weed the garden with vigor and dedication. Later, the generator died and is just now barely working and ½ of the battery bank was lost in the gray 5 weeks of June and the beginning of July – they were long past their age expectancy of 6 years but we were sure hoping they’d hold out longer. The inverter that we’d pieced back together after the lightning strike stopped working and the money we’d been saving to drill a new well closer to the house so that we could install a tank and have actual running water went, instead, to repair our vehicles and buy more hay. She was speaking to us but we just weren’t ready to listen to it. But her voice got louder. And we had to listen. I went to Sock Summit with a sense of excitement but also with a pool of uncertainty whishing about me (us). Then, like magic, the Universe stopped peeing on our heads and the stars danced a pretty dance and then got right into line so our chaos could calm down a rest a bit. Just days after I arrived in Oregon, huscreature and I decided once and for all, that too many things were right about it all to keep trying to convince ourselves it was wrong.

The short end to this long story is that we are moving our farm. We feel fortunate that that is all that we have to change. The sheep and horse get the reward of living on an organic hay farm with fields of rich, fresh grass. We’ve leased the farm for a while whilst we decide what we can/want to do – we’re not quite ready to become homeowners again just yet and feel that taking the time to ruminate on the ‘future’ picture of the farm is wise at this point. We feel blessed to come away from it all still believing that farming is what we want to do, still being a family and working in both the present and the future as the same beautiful team, and looking ahead to a brighter and more open way of life. We’re taking the panels with us and hope to be set up as a grid –tied system in a couple of months – still trying to do whatever we can to sustain ourselves and leave as soft a footprint as we can. The Things will now have the comforts of both their parents’ time and attention AND the necessities of warmth, friendship, and a healthy level of growth in their lives. And the huscreature and I? We get to focus on the passion that drove us to the goal of the homestead in the first place – the thing that lives in the heart of us – the farm. The barn is entirely set up for a dairy and the time huscreature has saved just in the few days since we’ve moved in not having to lug water about and being able to do the daily parts of surviving with more ease have re-kindled some of his old dreams – like when I used to make cheese, butter, and yogurt specialties from our dairy cow and we talked of starting our own organic dairy. In addition to the wool life, of course because I want to make sure to say that THE WOOL IS STAYING. LoL. We’re even keeping our name – as our new farmhouse also sits upon a giant knoll and trickles down a grassy bend – just like the old place only the house is easy to get to – no long muddy roads – so we can achieve the level of friendships and community that we need. It’s a 100+ year old farmhouse but we love its charm and history enough to embrace its ‘quirks’ and, once more, we’re looking optimistically forward to the new experiences that await us. It’s a good life, again, and that is all we can really ask for. Well, that and a hot shower at the end of a long day.