Sunday, August 10, 2014

Why I Will Never Be a Homesteader

I discovered Melissa Coleman's book This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undoneon Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness’s site when she included it in her Nonfiction Recommendation Engine: Memorable Memoirs. She describes this book as just stunning… ominous, elegant, honest and evocative and was able to read it in a single sitting. 

What is the This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone about?
In the fall of 1968 Melissa’s parents Elliot and Sue Coleman buy a small piece of property on a remote peninsula on the coast of Maine from Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of the homesteading bible Living the good Life how to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World.  Their dream is to build a home with their own hands then live off the land. They become part of the back-to-land movement of the 70’s. All does not go well and eventually their family becomes undone. Melissa’s memoir explores her early childhood growing up on the homestead while learning to better understand her past.
Motivation for reading:
I grew up on a dairy farm in rural western Wisconsin in the 70’s. When I graduated from high school my goal was to get as far away from the farm as possible. My husband on the other hand is an avid fly fisherman, loves the outdoors and dreams of owning a log home on a couple of acres in Wisconsin's driftless area in our retirement years. I thought reading this book might help me determine whether I was judging my former life too harshly.

My thoughts:
I was not disappointed with this book. Like Kim, I found it to be an engrossing read and would categorize it as a nonfiction book that reads like fiction. Coleman’s story reminded me of Jeanette Well’s book The Glass Castle especially in her ability to write about her parents without bitterness.

I was impressed with how the book accurately portrays the difficulties that come with living off the land:
The reality of this way of life is that you have got to keep at it even when you don’t feel like it. Otherwise you won’t make it. It’s no life for dabblers. You have to dig it wholeheartedly, for if you don’t you just simply won’t be happy nor successful at what you do. (Pg. 111)
Coleman also does an excellent job of describing how isolating this life can be. In an article featured in the New York Times covering the Coleman’s reporter Roy Reed wrote:
“Self-sufficiency proves too difficult for many. Marital stresses, for example, are exaggerated in isolated areas around the country.” (Pg. 205)
I was happy to see her mention the problems of living without health insurance. Many of the books I’ve read (both fiction and nonfiction) covering “dropping out” or “living off the land” fail to discuss medical insurance. Elliott Coleman develops Graves' disease despite his strict vegetarian diet. Lack of medical insurance delays treatment and his health and stamina continue to decline. An underlying fear develops - what happens if Elliot becomes too sick to work.

I came away with a better understanding of organic farming.
Elliot Coleman ultimately becomes an organic farming guru. Here is one of his early influences:
It wasn't until the second summer of 1970 that I really began to understand gardening. That was the summer I read Sir Albert’s classic, An Agricultural Testament,  in which Howard claims that if plants are healthy there is no role for insects. (Pg. 66)
I won’t reveal what happens, but will say I did shed a tear of two. 

Bottom Line:  
If you are interested in self-sufficiency or the homestead movement and enjoy a good story this book is for you.  It would also make a good selection for a nonfiction book club. My only criticism is Coleman’s use of the first person in writing about events and conversations that occurred before she was born and when she was very young. Plus, her thoughts are too advanced for her age. In addition, I would have preferred more analysis of her parent’s actions and a discussion of her life after she left the homestead. Perhaps she will write a sequel. 

As to my own recollections of the farming life – I believe they are accurate. I foresee myself visiting western Wisconsin for a vacation or two, but I will never again live there permanently.
Have you ever considered leaving the corporate world to live off the land?

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  1. Very interesting. We had a very successful tomato and broccoli yield for the entire month of June. boy! was I tired of tomatoes and twice a day and broccoli for dinner every night. Can't imagine having to grow all my food and therefore being stuck with eating whatever's ripe today. I really missed the variety of the market. Was glad when we finished the brocc and it got hot and the tomatoes slowed down! City girl - big time!!

  2. Wow - what an awesome review. I am what you might call a wishy-washy homesteader. I want a home where I can't see my neighbors, but I want to be within 20 minutes of a Target. I want to have horses, cattle, hogs, and chickens, but I don't want to make a living off of them. I am acutely aware of the whole "the farm never sleeps" mentality and I cannot lie - this does not appeal to the writer side of my brain. The culture and small-town feel of a place steeped in tradition is appealing, but there is absolutely a romanticized version of homesteading going around the blog circuit these days and I'm grateful to see a book/review that exposes the real hardships you must endure if you truly want to start with nothing (i.e., no huge pot of cash and/or telecommuter job) and live off the land.

  3. Webb,
    She writes frequently about what they ate - and yes it got repetitive. Also, read reviews that if they hadn't been vegetarian they would have had an easier time of it. They got rid of their chickens because they were too much to feed. Elliott ended up feeling weird about the goats so he got rid of them too. This meant no more eggs or milk. On a side-note the Nearings cheated buying oranges and avocados during the Winter. They also traveled to Europe.

  4. Jennifer,
    Looking back on my upbringing the number one reason why I wanted out was because it was so isolating. I'm an introvert and the area where I grew up was absolutely gorgeous, so you’d think I’d love it there but I felt trapped. On our travels back to western WI we've met a couple who bought a hobby farm there in retirement. They had free range chickens, horses, cows, a huge garden, a greenhouse and an art studio. I thought I could do this. A few years later and the chickens are gone. A weasel got them and they decided not to replace them. The horses are gone too - they were too much work. And the wife almost left last year when she was unsuccessful thawing out their frozen water pipes with her hair dryer during our cold winter. Once again I was reminded why I could never live there permanently.

  5. Sounds interesting. My book club read the glass castle.

  6. I'm about as far from the land as you can get. Even as a tourist I'd rather go to a city (I call it cultural tourism rather than nature tourism) :)

    Yet, this memoir sounds intriguing. It will probably take me out of my own comfort zone, further freeing me never to see the country or try to live off the land. Yes, I will die in the event of a zombie apocalypse. I'm okay with that. :)

  7. I seem to read a lot of books about moving other places, even though it's not something I'm seriously considering. For example, Sarah Moss's book, Names for the Sea, tells about her year of living in Reykjavik, Iceland as a visiting lecturer and her problems in adjusting to food, customs, a very different life. Homesteading, even in the one's native country, sounds almost like emigrating to a new country, since the challenges of getting basic services (or doing without them) and adjusting to changes at all levels may be comparable. Glad to visit for #ThrowbackThursdaylinkup and read your fascinating review!

  8. Chasing Joy,
    It was I think a book club would enjoy discussing it.

  9. April,
    It is wonderful knowing yourself, because I grew up on a farm I can relate to homesteading and do go camping. I am always happy to be home. I haven't been on a cultural vacation in a while. I think I need one.

  10. Lucy Pollard - Gott,
    Thanks for mentioning Sarah Moss's book, Names for the Sea. I've been looking for a book featuring Iceland for my Travel the World in Books Challenge. This sounds like a good one. And thanks for stopping in.

  11. I don't think I'd ever be a homesteader either due to my irrational fear of bugs and snakes. But I'm amazed by people who can be totally self-sufficient off their own land. I'm doing well growing my own limited supply of veggies, baby steps and small victories. But it has given me the bug to want to expand to more raised beds and more room for veggies and fruit to grow. Don't think I could ever do chickens even for eggs. Thanks for sharing with #ThrowbackThursdayLinkup. Pinned to our linky board.