Riding the Wave

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Some might call our lives romantic. We call it chaotic. We live in a 250 square foot cabin with a baby and three dogs. The dogs come and go, bringing mud, dirt, snow, and sticks. We built our house out of the pine trees down by the pond, and we’ve since discovered how very much the Asian lady bugs love pine. As we enclosed the frame last year, hundreds of thousands of lady bugs descended and laid eggs behind the pine paneling on the ceiling. This year, every day since October, thousands of the next generation lady bugs emerge, fly around, reproduce, and die. They end up in our coffee mugs, stew pot, water glasses, and honey jar. Within five minutes of sweeping the floor, hundreds of corpses have replaced their swept-up comrades. We heat with a small wood stove, so we are constantly bringing in arm-fulls of wood to stack by the stove. Sawdust trails the way. Tilia and Odum like playing with and chewing the wood, leaving trails of shards. The dogs track snow, sand, dirt, and mud. We don’t have indoor plumbing so we’re going in and out all day, along with the dogs.

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But we don’t just live here. Because we are self-employed, we also manage our farm, meat CSA, and education businesses from the comfort of this tiny off-grid cabin with no internet. In one corner of the cabin, when there are no clouds in the sky or leaves on the trees, our cell phones can get two bars of reception and we can, slowly, but successfully, make phone calls and send emails. Right now, we are also in the process of designing a larger house to build for our family. Next summer we plan on erecting another timber-framed house, with material all from our land, right next door. Because of financial constraints, and because we want to, we’ll be doing it ourselves on a tight budget. So Maureen checks out about 20 books/week on general construction, architecture, timber framing, and furniture-making. We’re working on official plans to bring to the inspector so we can get a permit to start building in the summer. We’re also now in the process of planning our garden, apple orchard, and farm for next year. I’m writing a book so I’m constantly researching material from ecology, history, agriculture, economics, philosophy, and spirituality, from both modern and native perspectives. On top of that right now, it’s tax season. So Maureen is in midst of processing all our receipts from 2015, issuing 1099s, categorizing, and compiling. After Tilia goes to bed at night, we pour a glass of currant wine and plan the day, week, and year ahead, make lists, analyze and build spreadsheets.

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As you can probably imagine, our tiny house is quite chaotic. We’ve packed in about as many shelves, counters, bars, and tables as possible, and every square inch of horizontal surface area is covered with piles. Piles of farming books, magazines, newspapers. Piles of seed and nursery catalogs. Piles of building books, sketches, notepads, and graph paper. Piles of research journal articles and books. Piles of receipts and tax documents. Piles of technology – charging cords, laptops, cordless drill charger, and batteries. Which we can just barely keep powered with our modest solar panel set-up, unless we’ve had more than two weeks with no sunshine, in which case we have to box up the technology pile and bring it to town to  charge everything.

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We have piles of random stuff that turned out to be good baby toys. Paper towel rolls, mason jar lids, belts, socks, books, and yogurt, which conveniently double as dog toys. Good thing they are good at sharing! There are piles of baby clothes and cloth diapers. Fortunately, Tilia has been pooping in a little potty every morning since she was 6 months old, so those piles aren’t too smelly! Maureen recently learned how to knit and now she’s an unstoppable knitting force. Every spare moment not using her hands cooking, cleaning, taking care of Tilia, reading, making spreadsheets, or house-planning, she spends knitting wool clothes for the baby, of course, all at the same time. Oh, and she’s also weaving a wool rug.

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So there’s piles of patterns, yarn, needles, fabric, and in-process sweaters, leg warmers, socks, and a rug mixed in with our other piles. The piles grow and grow, one thing on top of another until they reach their point of instability where the slightest bump sends the pile crumbling and collapsing to the floor. Living in our house is like playing 20 games of Jenga all at once. And while we are constantly cleaning and tidying, in a tiny house it doesn’t take much to upset the balance and create what some might call a mess, but which is really just life, albeit, a busy and chaotic one.

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Somehow, in the midst of all this, we eat super well. Our root cellar is still packed with squash, potatoes, kimchee, and onions and everyday Maureen cooks amazing homegrown meals in our tiny little corner kitchen, on the wood stove or little propane camp stove. She is also able, somehow, to be constantly rendering lard and making stock from our abundant beef, pork, lamb and chicken bones on the wood stove. So every time I come in for lunch after a morning of hauling logs down our steep wooded slopes and chopping firewood, there’s a pot of amazing hot stew on the stove, rich broth with chunks of pastured meat and veggies from the garden. Nothing is more warming and nourishing. And delicious, as long as we remain vigilant on the lookout for floating ladybugs. At least they float.

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At times, the chaos is overwhelming. Because we’re always cooking, there’s always piles of dishes that need washing. Water needs to be carried up from the spring, or snow melted, and heated on the wood stove, so we are constantly juggling lard pots, stock pots, soup pots, and water pots back and forth from the woodstove, trying to keep everything timed so there’s hot water ready when we need to do dishes, stock ready when its time to make soup, and soup ready when its time to eat, and then hot water ready again for dishes after we eat. While sweeping the floor for the second time in the morning, I’ll see Tilia trying to pull a toy out of a growling dog’s mouth, so I grab her and pick her up, and just barely butt-bump an unstable pile perched precariously on a shelf which falls over scattering books, notebooks, loose paper, and magazines on the floor. Put the baby down to pick up the pile, but before finishing, she’s found the pile of dirt I was sweeping and is now grabbing handfuls of dog hair, wood shards, ash, and ladybugs. Grab her hand before it makes it into her mouth, which makes her upset, so grab a toy to replace the dirt and then what’s that smell? Oh shit, the lard is burning on the woodstove! Grab the lard pot off the stove, but where to put it? All the surfaces in the kitchen are full of pots waiting their turn on the stove. So it goes on the floor, block the baby from getting into the boiling fat, grab the stock pot to put on the stove, get the lard off the floor and up on the counter where the stock was. Whew. Time to sit down and have a sip of that cold coffee that was made an hour ago but haven’t had time to drink. Take a deep breathe, take a sip. Eew, stinky ladybug crunch!

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These are the normal days. But most days aren’t normal and don’t go as planned. The truck brakes go out halfway up a hill carrying a load of hay. Pigs get out of their paddock and start plowing up the driveway. The truck gets stuck in the mud with a load of sheep and goats in the back which you have to let out and herd across the farm without them getting lost in the woods. A lamb gets hypothermia and has to be warmed up by the woodstove. The neighbor calls and his cows are out and wondering if you can bring your trailer and help get them back in. On your weekly trip to town for internet in order take care of important, time-sensitive business for the farm, you discover a sick calf that needs attention right now, or it may die. All the plans made strategically in the morning go out the window. Farming is a constant process of putting out fires.

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Sometimes we think it would be nice to have more orderly lives. More consistent and scheduled days. Fewer uncertainties and more security. Sometimes we think that it would be nice to live in a bigger house, with everything neatly stored in some organized place. No chaotic piles. No pot shuffling. Indeed, even without extra space, we could keep our place much tidier. But to accomplish that, we’d have to stop doing stuff! Those twenty simultaneous Jenga games represent 20 ongoing projects. If we only had one or two projects to work on at a time, then we could stay much more orderly and keep everything else organized. But working on so many projects simultaneously requires simultaneous chaos. Entropy is the necessary result of productivity. Sure, we could have all our books, notebooks, and magazines neatly filed away. But then we wouldn’t be reading 20 at a time taking furious notes along the way. And if we’re not doing that, then we would have to pay someone to design and build a house for us, instead. We could keep all of our pots neatly put away in the cabinet. But then we wouldn’t be making stock, lard, soup, and heating water for dishes, all at the same time. We could have an orderly kitchen, but there’d be nothing to eat! And if we’re not growing and cooking food, building a house, and running our farm, then we’d probably have to pay someone else to do those things. And then we’d need to get jobs. No thanks.

We left the city and our jobs and moved out here for three reasons. One was to have the opportunity to sink our roots and spend the rest of our lives restoring and renewing a specific place in the world. Second was to have the ability to grow all of our food in ways that are both rejuvenating for the landscape and that result in super foods that nourish our family. Third, we wanted to leave what we felt was a toxic and unfulfilling way of life in order to start a family in a healthy context. This is exactly what we’ve done and we couldn’t be happier. But the price we pay is that we live our lives riding a constant wave of chaos. Often its frustrating. Sometimes its overwhelming. But it’s always worth it.

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We wake up in the morning to the chirping birds, the breeze in the trees, looking out over our animals happily grazing and browsing in the pastures and woods. We sit down with a cup of tea with fresh cream and honey and plan our day, in full awareness that our plans will likely be thwarted somewhere along the way. We sit down three times a day and eat the most delicious meals in the world. Yeah, we don’t have indoor plumbing, but because our skies are among the darkest in North America, we experience the most brilliant displays of stars, planets, and the milky way. Seeing shooting stars while peeing is totally worth it, even when its -10 out. We stay fit and healthy carrying a baby around, hauling food and water for ourselves and our animals up and down hills. No one tells us how to spend our time. If we get bored doing one project, there’s 100 others we could work on. We’ve not once regretted our decision and we’ve never considered retreating back to the comfortable life.

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The state classifies us as living well below the poverty line. I guess that’s true according to the materialistic perspective of the IRS. But from a more human perspective, that classification is patently absurd. We live the most rich and satisfying lives we can imagine. I get to spend my days doing exactly what I want to be doing, including spending abundant quality time with my wife and child. I know for certain that I will never look back and regret how I’ve spent my days. I get to eat the best food Mother Earth has to offer, every day. Most people would look at us in pity living in such a tiny shack without power or plumbing with such a meager and uncertain income. Pity turns to a confused stupor when those people realize we are well-educated and have purposely chosen to live this way when we could easily have secure, good-paying jobs, a new car, and a comfortable house in town. But to us, we live a life of freedom, perched in the heart of God’s Green Earth and every day we wake up feeling humbled and blessed by the richness that surrounds and includes us. Nothing could possibly be more satisfying, and we’ve never been happier.

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The trade-off is that we we spend our days riding the wave, navigating between piles and piles of chaos. But despite all the chaos, we ironically spend most of our time doing what most people would consider boring and inane. Farming and homesteading consist mostly of daily chores. While there is unpredictable craziness around every corner, most of the day consists of not-very-exciting activities, carried out in quiet solitude. Hauling water, pitching hay, weeding the garden, chopping firewood, harvesting potatoes, shelling beans, sharpening knives, knitting sweaters, butchering a pig, repairing fences. Some would call it boring, I call it meditative. Monotonous work is the best time to process all the chaos, consider options, and plan out the complex sequencing of events that must unfold in exquisite order if twenty projects are to be carried out simultaneously. 

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But that monotonous work is an even better opportunity to forget all those projects and simply perceive the infinite multitude of events taking place at every moment. A pair of bluebirds singing love songs to each other, a swarm of nearly imperceptible tiny bees dancing around delicate flowers at the tips of willow branches, the scent of the locust blossoms carried on a subtle summer breeze, shapeshifting clouds foretelling future events, the last rays of sunset refracting rainbows across a crust of crystalized snow. Magnificent events that most often go unnoticed, attention focused instead on self-absorbed thoughts or the screen in our hand. Appreciating such mundane grandeur requires temporarily forgetting all of life’s complexities for a brief moment, taking a deep breathe, and soaking in the living beauty that surrounds us at every moment. Not too difficult while carrying buckets from one side of the farm to another.

Speaking of buckets, it’s time for me to toss this laptop on one of the less precarious piles, haul a couple buckets of water to the sheep, feed the chickens and cows, gather eggs, chop firewood, and meanwhile figure out how the heck we’re going to detail the enclosure of our future house’s frame. But the songs of the recently returned tufted titmice, who join me on my walk back up the hill, urge me to stop fretting about the house and to pay attention to their musical accompaniment of the moon rising in the east and the sun setting in the west, reminding me that despite all the chaos, we are free. We have the freedom to live our lives the way we feel we were meant to live them. Human beings being human. And it turns out that that way of life involves more uncertainty than security, more labor than entertainment, more monotony than comfort, and more chaos than order. But we’d rather be free than have a secure paycheck and be actively engaged in the place that we love than to be passively entertained.

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We’d rather navigate through the piles of our own chaos than have our lives ordered by others who most likely do not have our best interests in mind. Whenever muddy dogs, a dirty floor, drafty walls, musical pots, and collapsing book piles crescendo to frustration, we can stop to take a deep breath, look out at the majesty of our surroundings and remember that we’re free. And then we laugh. Because it really is funny and we really are enormously blessed to live in such spectacular beauty.

  • Lindsay Rebhan ,

    You and Mo ebb and flow with the land and each other. Freedom. Synergy. This was a beautiful piece!

    • jrj ,

      Huzzah!

      • Juliana ,

        Having lived like this myself with such freedom I applaud your choices and thank you for this article. jmah

        • Jessica Schneider ,

          You and Maureen are tremendously inspirational for me. Thank you for taking the time to write such a complete picture of your life – not romanticized, not neat and tidy, but full of joy and beauty and mess and tedium and hard work and craziness and love and dedication. I hope to follow a somewhat similar path in the not-too-distant future, and realistic models like you make it a little easier for a rule-follower like me to find my way out of the office and into the dirt. Thank you thank you for doing what you do and for not selling a glossy idealized version of your lifestyle but for just being real.

          • Jessie ,

            Thank you for sharing!!!

            • Steven ,

              Yes. Thank you. Keep living it; looking forward to your book, brother.