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Voices / Essay

A different good life

A child of back-to-the-landers redefines homesteading

Robin MacArthur, a writer, musician, film-maker, and mother, lives in Southern Vermont on the land on which she was born.

Marlboro

Thirty-three years ago, I was born in the southeast corner of my parents’ half-finished house. The year my mother was pregnant, my parents cleared (with chainsaws and an ax) a driveway and an acre of forest, dug a foundation, turned trees into logs (by hand with an adze), milled their pine into boards, laid a field-stone foundation, collected old many-paned windows, and built themselves a house.

A few weeks before my birth, my parents and 3-year-old brother moved up the hill from the cabin they’d built ten years earlier to the “new house.” There’s an amazing slide somewhere of my mother, nine months pregnant, at the top of a 10-foot-tall ladder, nailing clapboards.

I’ve been thinking about all of this since reading Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life is In Your Hands. The author is the daughter of homesteaders and organic farming pioneers Eliot and Melissa Coleman, and she has written a book that is a heartbreaking testament to the brutal challenges of truly attempting to live the “good life” of Vermont back-to-the-land writers Helen and Scott Nearing.

As Melissa puts it: “It was by the force of [my father’s] will alone that we had lasted as long as we did. His was the strength the pioneers had possessed, but the world had become an easier place since then, and people didn’t need to work so hard to survive, so they didn’t. It was insanity to do so.”

I started out with many criticisms of the book, primarily the overly florid and precious writing style, but I ended feeling extreme gratitude for Melissa’s brave decision, afte a devastating tragedy in the family, to write the story she did.

Woven into the narrative is an illuminating and thorough history of the homesteading movement and the origins of our modern-day - and now ubiquitous - organic farming culture. And the book is an amazingly honest rendering of the psychologically taxing nature of the homesteading lifestyle, particularly for women: relentless work, long winters without electricity (or B-vitamin supplements to counteract the depression), isolation, and as Melissa notes, a pioneer lifestyle without the religious faith those pioneers depended on for consolation.

* * *

My parents’ life was similar to the Colemans' in some ways and dissimilar in others. My parents tried to grow as much of their food as possible, did everything with their own hands (except bulldoze stumps out of their newly cleared field, a taks for which they hired outside help), lived without electricity, were continually broke, and drove ancient, completely undependable cars.

But my parents did not abide by the Nearings’ sanctimonious and zealous creed. They had a telephone, a rototiller and, eventually, a tractor. They liked to party, and drink beer, and take road trips.

Perhaps most importantly, they lived near extended family and were actively involved in their community. They were living “the good life,” but only because it brought them pleasure, not because they thought it was necessarily a better way to live.

I saw Melissa Coleman read from her book a few days ago, and afterward, someone asked her about her life now: How was she choosing to raise her own daughters, having been raised the way she had?

She said that there’s a balance: her girls don’t watch TV, she has a vegetable garden, and she cooks as much of her own food as possible. But other than that, her life is pretty modern. As is mine.

In a time when the wings of enthusiasm for homesteading have, yet again, carried people off (just about everyone I know here in Vermont is growing a vegetable garden, raising chickens, talking about getting goats, learning to can, and spending hours looking at “mama blogs,” where women make adorable homemade smocks and wool sweaters for their children), I find there’s a lot I don’t say.

Of course, those are all healthy things for the world. But I’m not partaking.

I’ve lived the “simple life” enough to know that it’s exhausting and leaves little room for much of anything else. I want fresh vegetables, but I don’t want to break my back all summer growing them. I want to bake bread — sometimes. I used to knit. I don’t particularly like canning.

The first thing my grandmother did when their farmhouse got running water was buy herself a dishwasher, and she was, for as long as she lived, continually trying to buy her homesteading daughter-in-laws dishwashers of their own.

“Freedom!” she’d cry out. “Get yourself away from that sink!”

* * *

My grandmothers dishwasher, it could be said, enabled her to pursue a musical career. She didn’t want to be just one thing, or abide by anyone else’s code for living, or be homebound.

Like my grandmother, I’m aiming for my own definition of “the good life”: My husband and I built our own house in the woods, we have a vegetable garden, and my daughter and I help my mother with her berry farm, and sugaring operation, and chickens.

But that’s about the extent of it.

Like most things, it comes down to knowing who you are, and finding balance between the things you love.

Like Ms. Coleman, I will embrace technology for the ways in which it will set me free, buy most of my vegetables from my mother’s stand, and purchase my daughter’s clothes at the thrift store.

And then, in the time that’s left, I’ll plant, water, and tend, with all the enthusiasm and devotion of those beautiful idealists of 40 years ago, the seeds of my choosing.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #100 (Wednesday, May 11, 2011).

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