Wednesday, April 27, 2011

This Life is In Your Hands

Thirty-three years ago today I was born in the southeast corner of my parents’ half-finished house. That 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 three-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 ten-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 daughter of homesteaders and organic farming pioneers Eliot and Sue Coleman, the book is a heart-breaking testament to the brutal challenges of truly attempting to live the Nearings' “simple life.” As Ms. Coleman 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 it feeling extreme gratefulness for Melissa's brave decision (there was 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 psychological taxation, particularly for women, of the homesteading lifestyle: relentless work, long winters without electricity (or B Vitamin supplements to counteract the depression), isolation, and as Melissa notes, pioneer lifestyle without the religious faith those pioneers depended on for consolation.

My parents’ life was similar to the Coleman’s in some ways, and dissimilar in others. They tried to grow as much of their food as possible, did everything with their own hands (except hiring someone to bull-doze stumps out of their newly cleared field), lived without electricity, were continually broke, 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. Maybe 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 a few days ago, and afterwards someone asked her about her life now: how was she choosing to raise her own daughters, having been raised the way she was? Melissa said that there’s a balance: her girls don’t watch TV, she has a vegetable garden, and cooks as much of her own food as possible. But other than that, her life is pretty modern. As is mine, on my thirty-third birthday. In a time when the wings of enthusiasm for homesteading have, yet again, taken 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 home-made 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 grandmother’s 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, 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 Melissa, I’ll take Scott Nearing’s line “This Life is In Your Hands” my own way: I will embrace technology for the ways in which it will set me free, buy most of my vegetables from my mother’s stand, buy my daughter’s clothes at the thrift store, and then, in the time that's left, plant, water and tend, with all the enthusiasm and devotion of those beautiful idealists of forty years ago, the seeds of my choosing.