Homesteading

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chick-coop-girls
I didn’t expect the news to hit me as hard as it did this morning. Then again, I haven’t quite figured out how to avoid a tear-stained cheek when I see one of theirs.

Stewart came in looking very sober and quietly let me know that half of the newly purchased chicks were gone. Just as he told me, five-year-old Annie was heading out to feed this, her first flock. When we found one severely injured, the news got worse.

Her Daddy held her at the breakfast table as she cried out the tears of her first real homestead loss. I watched these two across a jar of fresh blue bonnets and tried not to cry too. It isn’t our first loss on the homestead, and certainly not the first time we’ve had to learn from a loss, but seeing Annie did me in.

cucumber

The remaining chicks were fed and watered and new housing contemplated. Her tears were gone not long after she finished her sourdough pancakes but the rest of the morning felt somber and heavy. Somehow going to check on things in the garden seemed appropriate, between hanging up laundry and sweeping floors.

lettucebed

I half wondered if we wouldn’t incur some loss there as well. We have often had these losses come in bunches; a swath of fruit trees and the garden taken out by cows; chicks lost to snakes one night and a rat pilfering the tomatillos the following morning. I’ve also been a bit like a Mama of a newborn in recent weeks, checking these little seedlings daily as they go from seed to seedling to a plant sturdy enough to withstand the reality of weather and bugs and everything in between.

ruthie-radishes

So out we went, to check on these baby vegetables that we’d taken photos of the night before. With Ruthie in her rain boots and Joshie on my hip we went to touch the dirt and pull some weeds.

And there they were, the green beans and tomatillo (just one) that survived the unexpected frost. There were the squash hills and melon plot and cucumbers with their dewy wet leaves. The peas still held their delicate flowers; the newer potato planting is still barely coming up. The lettuce is still growing and the garlic has me wondering just what is under all of that green top.

It was almost odd how green and dewy the garden was with the death of those chicks in the back of my mind.

wildflower

I think what homesteading does is to prevent us from being sheltered from some of these realities of the world we live in. With life and then death it can all feel so fragile at times… which has lead me to the conclusion that we’re just kidding ourselves when we think it’s not.

Part of the education we’re receiving out here is through the death and the life and the infinite mercies in all of it that we so often don’t see. We give thanks for the loss and ask the Lord to teach us whatever we are supposed to learn – both physically and spiritually. There can only be more death in our future, of that I am certain. It’s a good reminder of the sobering reality of husbandry and stewardship.

October marked five years that we have inhabited this land, working towards creating a sustainable off-grid homestead on the five acres put into our care. As is often the case, this series is me stumbling through the agrarian process, finding my way through the dirt, in words.

I had tried, for weeks and months now, to write about things like financing a homestead and our primary reasons for doing this… but somehow they were too raw to touch. So here we are and even now I shake a little as I write this, remembering the depths of my unbelief which were brought to the surface by the trial of Stewart’s illness.

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I can’t think of a single thing on this homestead that is what we thought it would be.

For years before we moved off-grid we read books and practiced skills and made plans. House plans, garden plans, animal plans, family plans. We wrote them down, tucked them away in our memories, and then I moved across the country with the naïvete of one with a head full of theories and no real experience.

For as long as I can remember I didn’t want to move any further south than Indiana and even that was a bit too close to Texas for me. But for reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, we decided about seven years ago that this is where we’d be heading. At the very point the decision was made I was at peace. I was intimidated and nervous, but at peace.

One thing Stewart always joked about was that he’d dig me a hole to live in. The real plan was an underground home. The first spring we were here we dug the hole. It was huge, compared to the 300 square foot cabin we currently resided in. It held so much promise, with its ten foot depth and cool dirt floor.

And then we had Annabelle and then Stewart was pretty sick for about six months and then Ruthie was born and the plan to lay block and build an underground home just never materialized. That hole is now the most abundant pond for watering the gardens that we’ve had. This has been the story of all of our best-laid plans.

But I will step back a moment here.

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It was early fall of 2013 when Stewart was mostly bed-ridden with adrenal fatigue and I decided I would plant the fall garden. I was six months pregnant and shoveling away on a bed I had big plans for. I was working for Cultures for Health, caring for and homeschooling the children, and trying to care for Stewart… but for some reason I had it in my head that the garden needed tending.

One day Stewart looked at me and asked me why I was pushing so hard for something that – given the hot, very dry weather in October – didn’t seem like it was meant to be. Looking back on it now I don’t remember praying about whether I should be pushing for the garden or even asking Stewart if he wanted me to make it a priority. I just thought I was supposed to be moving the homestead forward in some small way so I brute forced my way through… and probably neglected some higher priorities in the process.

A month or so later, I was even more pregnant and Stewart was still in the depths of recovery. The boys and I had managed to pick a large bowl full of the dried blue speckled beans that were in the garden. Those beans were one of the first larger harvests we had on our homestead and as such they represented something to me.

I came inside and plopped the bowl atop the wood stove. I had, for weeks and weeks, carried something around on my shoulders. It was deep and ugly and reminds me a lot now of that burden Christian carries in Pilgrim’s Progress – both in weight and content.

Stewart was resting in the bed and I was trying to reach over my growing belly to wash some dishes so that I could make supper. The next thing I heard was the clanging sound so peculiar to a stainless steel bowl falling to the ground. I spun to find the beans scattered behind the wood stove, most of them now completely lost.

Despite knowing they were lost, I dropped to my knees to try to pick them up. Eventually the beans weren’t the only thing I was scrambling to grab hold of and soon my seven-year-old was on the floor next to me wondering why Mama couldn’t stop crying. It made no sense, but there I was.

Stewart helped me off the floor. The beans were gone. The agrarian ideal I had held onto with its nicely packaged divisions of labor and neatly packed harvest baskets of homegrown food was gone. The focus of this work became more clear. That weight on my shoulders began to fade…

Months later Ruthie would be born and Stewart’s health seemed to improve drastically during that period. He began working on the new cabin and we settled into the change and the mundane that graced the everyday.

But before all of that seeming resolution came, just days after I was picking beans off the floor, I was walking through that little cabin. There was a tiny strip of paper atop the solar freezer that caught my eye so I paused to look at it. No bigger than the size of the letters inked on its page, it was a slip of paper torn from one of the books in the Little House on the Prairie series.

Most likely it was torn by the hands of little Annie who was two at the time. Her full name is Annabelle Grace, a name her Daddy had picked out eleven years ago now when I was pregnant with Elijah. That moniker, when broken down, means “Grace, beautiful grace”.

And that slip of paper torn by her little chubby fingers? It read only: “A Year of Grace”.

And so it was… and so they have all been.