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Homestead Reflections August 2019 My Homestead Journey Continued - part three

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 August Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

What a glorious day! Mid 70’s, the sun is shining, there’s a slight breeze- a perfect day to be working in the garden. But alas, here I sit looking out of my screen house at the beauty and lamenting my inability to be doing just that. Two weeks ago I took a tumble off of my very slippery, rain slick deck, a 6-foot drop onto a stone pathway. Ouch!  The bruises, contusions, pulled muscles and aches and pains are slowly healing, whereas, it will take longer for my broken wrist and thumb to heal. Maybe, this is another sign from the universe for me to slow down. It surely reinforces our decision to sell our homestead, as it is way too much work as we age, especially for Pru to have to do it all, without my help.

However, a one-armed woman using a voice app. on the computer can still write an article for this newsletter.  I thought I would continue the topic of my homesteading journey- part three. (Read Part One and Part Two.) 

I believe I last left off in about 1983 or 84, when I was living in a small cabin attached to my travel-trailer, situated here on my land in Wendell.  I had begun co-creating soil where there was none by using a permaculture technique of layering organic matter in a way that would slowly decompose. Perennials such as asparagus and fruit trees had been planted and my homesteading dream was beginning to become more and more of a reality.

Being able to live this way, without plumbing or electricity on the land, allowed me to save rent and utility money while living a joyful, simple life.   I could choose to work off or on the land as needed, saving cash that I could then invest in the homestead.  This flexibility also allowed me to help others.  During this period, a number of other lesbians were drawn to Wendell and began building their homes, too. It was an amazing time of cooperation; helping each other not only build, but also sharing other projects, like getting our cordwood in. Somehow the shared projects were always more fun than work. Plus, a shared workday always included amazing food.

By 1985 Pru and I had become a team. She and her large dog moved in with me and my small cat, creating a very happy little family. I still smile thinking back to how we made that tiny cabin work for us. In order to pull out the futon bed we used pulleys to raise our rocking chairs to the ceiling, thus making space for the four of us to sleep. When we cooked together in the travel-trailer kitchen, we had to do-si-do around each other.

Women's brigadeBecause the trailer section was hard to heat, we had to be mindful of how we preserved our food. Mostly, we dehydrated our vegetables for winter storage, as canned food would have to be kept from freezing and breaking.  Though once we did try to can some dill pickles outdoors, using a camp stove with disastrous results.  As the hot jars were removed from the hot canning pot, the cool breeze caused them to crack and break.  I now store my fermented crops in an old refrigerator, which preserves the crop plus the multitude of beneficial organisms which canning would destroy.

Another challenging experience that I remember fondly was using our outdoor shower in the winter months. We hung an on-demand hot water heater from a tree. Water was supplied from a friend’s well with a garden hose, which could be detached to drain and prevent freezing. To use it we had to pick a sunny day, bolster our courage to run through deep snow, shower, and then run back to stand by the woodstove before freezing to death. Invigorating!

We loved the intimacy of our teeny tiny house but longed for a little bit more space. So we began planning, designing and building our larger, but still only 600 square foot, home.  As children we had both watched our unskilled parents build the houses we grew up in. This, along with the experience gained helping friends build their homes, gave us the confidence to take on this daunting task.  During this period I was still being an electrician, wiring houses, and Pru was a carpenter on an all-women’s construction crew. The house took over three years before it was habitable, fitting our construction work in around other jobs for income, to purchase building materials as well as for living expenses, all the while planting, tending, harvesting and preserving our food.  In addition, we spearheaded a community effort to preserve 600 acres of forested land, which abutted us, keeping it from becoming a housing development.  This is a nail-biting story that I’ll save for another day.

Nearing stone foundation -with helperWe decided to build a stone foundation based on Helen and Scott Nearing’s technique, as described in their book, Living The Good Life. Since this was to be the foundation of our home and our life together, we asked our friends to each contribute a rock, which we then incorporated into the structure, building our home upon the foundation of our friends.

Because we wanted the site disturbed as little as possible, we had a backhoe do minimal prep work for the concrete footings. We thought it would take the two of us many weeks of labor to hand-mix, carry and pour the concrete needed for this task. And then another blessing came our way, in the form of a women’s work brigade looking for experience in concrete work. Our friend Ann had joined a group of women from Northampton, New York City and Boston who were preparing to go to Nicaragua to build a school. They needed a place to meet each other, work together and learn the construction skills that were needed. We got some help, they bonded, friends fed all of us the whole weekend, and everyone had a great time; a match made in heaven!

Our next big adventure was renting a portable band-saw mill and making lumber from the trees we cleared from the wooded land to make openings for the garden, orchard and house site.  This was a major undertaking, which neither of us had ever experienced, or for that matter even seen in operation.  In case you didn’t know, log length trees are big and very heavy!

Saw millWe did manage this task with the result of having lumber for many of our walls, ceiling and floor in the new house. Looking back, we sometimes wonder if this may have been one of those endeavors we could have skipped, as in the long run it might have been easier to just purchase the lumber. Nah, we love seeing the beauty of these trees, grown right here, throughout our home.

We call ourselves “the put it up take it down, put it up again construction company”, because sometimes mistakes were made but always corrected.   Often, in the middle of the night I’d wake up with a realization that a mistake needed to be corrected. Like changing the direction of the ceiling carrying beams, as a large window below would not support the whole second floor.  Luckily, the dream came before we installed them incorrectly.  Hauling those 4X6 oak beams to the house site about 100 feet down the steep “goat path” from where they were delivered necessitated calling on friends and ingenuity.  A neighbor found a metal platform attached to a bicycle wheel in the old cabin she’d just bought.  She saved it not knowing what it was; later she discovered that hunters use these to haul deer from the woods.   This was a perfect tool, which saved our backs, allowing us to safely move the beams.

hauling oak beams down hillBy this time we had connected with other homesteader-types in Wendell who generously shared their skills with the newcomers.  We decided we wanted to build with the long-view in mind.  To this end we chose slate shingles for the roof, as the longest lasting, fireproof material available.  Who wants to be up on the roof replacing asphalt shingles when we were 80, we asked?  So off to the Valley to haul home used slate from an old tobacco barn.  Of course, then the question was, “now what do we do with it?”  Jonathan, a stonemason, to the rescue.  Not only did he teach us how to cut, form, and install the slate on our waiting roof, but he also lent us his tools. 

Almost anywhere we look in the house, we see a story.  For instance, the octagonal window in our peak was a gift from an Ashfield, MA friend.  The window was fished from a flooded stream behind her house.  Brand new with stickers still attached, it had survived its journey down river and became a welcome addition to our home and a great story to tell- one among many, but not enough time for them all today!

After three years of construction, even though we swore we would wait until it was completely finished, we moved in. It was winter and trying to keep both places heated became too much work. Besides, little by little we had moved our food preparation and many possessions into the new house. It was a constant hassle to know the location of whatever items we were searching for, was it in the cabin or the house?  Besides, living in the new house gave us more room for parties and potlucks.

Being that each of us had had difficult experiences building a house with previous partners, we decided to take a different emotional approach on our construction site. We made a vow that we would only work on the house when we felt in harmony within ourselves and between each other. Wow, what a difference in energy, both while building and while living in our sweet home.

music night before we moved inAnd after living in our still unfinished home for over 30 years, it still feels peaceful and calm (most of the time!)

Meanwhile back in the garden and orchard, things steadily grew and produced in abundance.  However, it became obvious that we should name the homestead Wild Browse Farm when we realized how much of our produce was being harvested by the wild creatures, with whom we shared the land. For some reason they didn’t limit themselves to the 10% we had grown for them!  Now that housing could take a back burner, other dreams, like fencing, could be implemented. But again, as with the house and purchasing building supplies, implementation was always in stages, and dependent upon money and time. Even though one of our mottos was, “we have more time than money”, we still needed to keep working off-land.  I’m tired just thinking about all of this!

I had hoped to write more about soil building and how we reclaimed abandoned degraded forested land, but time has run out today. However, if you are interested in this topic you’re in luck!  Pru and I will be presenting this very topic (Homestead Soil Building: Starting from Stones) Sunday August 11th at the NOFA Summer Conference. It is an exciting tale, starring two half-crazy women, working with nature to co-create deep, rich, healthy soil and a life together. We hope to see you and share more about our journey, our successes, and our setbacks.

See the full NOFA Summer Conference workshop schedule here.


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