By Ben Hewitt
This article is adapted from The Nourishing Homestead (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014) and is reprinted here with permission of the publisher. For more information about Ben’s book, visit Chelsea Green.
Like everyone I know, we occasionally find ourselves faced with a decision to which there is no obvious answer. Do we borrow money to build a bigger barn, or do we keep getting by with what we have? Do we spend our meager savings on trees and soil amendments, or do we keep our money for a rainy day? Do we cull a beloved-but-high-maintenance animal, or continue accommodating her needs?
My wife Penny and I have some touchstone principles, ideas, and ideals to guide us when such questions arise. Though it’s not a literal list, etched into stone or rolled into a yellowed scroll, truthfully, we are not always able to act in harmony with these principles. There are times when circumstances compel us to behave otherwise. But even in these cases, it’s valuable to understand and acknowledge the compromise we’re making.
We hope these principles, such as they are, help.
Photo by Jessie Burke
It’s always easiest to do what everyone else is doing. A couple of years ago, our sons’ trapping and wilderness skills mentor wrote them a long letter. The letter was about many things, and one of those things was facing the challenge of finding their way in this world, with its conflicting forces of beauty and tragedy. “It is always easiest to do what everyone else is doing,” wrote our boys’ friend, and that line has stuck with me ever since. I turn to it time and again, generally when faced with a task or decision that is hard and perhaps even overwhelming, and which, if we’d chosen a different life, we might not even face at all. It is always easiest to do what everyone else is doing. And then I remind myself: Easiest, yes. But not necessarily the most satisfying or correct.
Do not let the logic of the market dictate the logic of the homestead. According to the logic of the market, I should quit making butter and get a job, because I can earn more at my job than it costs to buy my butter. According to the logic of the market, I should buy all my food at the lowest possible price, with money I’ve earned by selling my time (aka my life) to the highest bidder. The truth is, the logic of the homestead rarely conforms to the logic of the market. It will almost always be cheaper/faster/easier to allow industry to provide, particularly if one is not discerning about the quality of the products offered. What logic does the homestead conform to? The logic that what you eat and how it was produced matters. The logic of vibrant health. The logic of making a life, and not merely a living.
Resilience of systems is the outgrowth of diversity, redundancy, simplicity, and, ultimately, resourcefulness. Diversity means that a failure of one crop can be offset by the abundance of another; redundancy means that a failure of one delivery mechanism—be it for water, heat, or fertility—can be offset by the continued operation of another; simplicity means that neither diversity nor redundancy is dependent on complex systems or mechanisms requiring specialized knowledge or components beyond the reach of the landowner.
Resourcefulness of body, emotion, spirit, and skills is just as important as resilience of systems. Because when systems fail, as is possible no matter how materially resilient they are, it will be resourcefulness of body, emotion, and spirit that carries the day. True homestead resourcefulness depends on being adaptable not only to the change we expect but also to the possibility that things will not change as we expect. Being too invested in any particular outcome can lead to disillusionment when these changes do not unfold as anticipated.
Resourcefulness of body, emotion, and spirit is the outgrowth of health, skills, community, gratitude, generosity, and love. Investments in these things provide the sort of unconditional security that is not dependent on economic conditions.
The manner in which you spend your time is, in fact, the manner in which you spend your life. Time is not money; it is life. The notion that time and money can be conflated is enormously convenient to the industries that would like us to view our lives as being worth nothing more than whatever money we can earn so that we might buy whatever they are selling.
We are not stewards of the land; the land is the steward of us. The notion that humans should serve as “good stewards of the land,” while well intentioned, is rooted in the fallacy that humans should seek to guide and influence nature. I believe that reality is precisely the opposite, and our continued survival as a species depends upon us understanding that nature is our caregiver, rather than the other way around. The land is the steward of us, and we should treat her with the respect our caregiver deserves, always considering how our actions impact the natural world. This does not mean we won’t affect the land for specific purposes. Rather, it serves as a reminder of our dependence on healthy ecosystems, and it humbles us to the truth that while the land would thrive in our absence, the reverse is not so true.
The more we mimic nature’s processes, the greater success we will have. As restoration agriculture advocate Mark Shepard is fond of saying, “We spend all our time trying to kill what wants to live, and trying to save things that want to die.” Much of that effort is expended in our attempt to compel food production systems to conform to preconceived notions of what agriculture should look like, rather than simply observing what plants and animals are naturally inclined to do. Interdependence, not self-sufficiency. The more interdependence we develop with family, friends, neighbors, and community, the less dependent we become on institutions far beyond our sphere of influence. It is critical to acknowledge that our neighbors’ needs are our needs. We must also be willing to humble ourselves into asking for assistance. There is nothing that industry wants more than for us to believe we should never need or accept help from our friends, family, neighbors, and communities.
The pebble principle. The pebble principle refers to the idea that through our choices and actions, each a proverbial pebble dropped into the ocean of the world, we all generate waves of influence that reverberate through our communities and beyond. Often, we cannot know which of our choices and actions are generating these waves or how they will be received. But we can remember that every decision and everything we do carries ramifications that reach beyond our cognitive powers of observation.
When in doubt, be generous. We all inhabit a society that is largely influenced by an economic model that encourages accumulation and stinginess. In fact, it rewards these “virtues,” via the self-perpetuating nature of interest-bearing asset accumulation. We have actually come to view generosity as a form of activism, and perhaps the most urgent form of activism our culture needs. To us, being generous does not mean giving everything away, but it does mean remembering that one of our goals in life is not to accumulate more than we reasonably need.
I’m not suggesting that you adopt the same tenets; you may feel very differently in regard to any of these points. But I am suggesting that you consider adopting a list of your own. If nothing else, it compels you to think carefully about your guiding principles, and in this regard, it is a significant step toward living life on your own terms.
-Author Ben Hewitt lives in Cabot, Vermont with his wife, Penny, and sons Fin and Rye. Over the past 17 years, the Hewitt family has transformed an over-grazed pasture and neglected woodlot into a thriving homestead, producing an abundance of nutrient dense food in biologically active soils.