Saga I: Learning to Love the Work
The Ways Of Yore,
How a man or a woman chooses to provide for their most fundamental of :N:eeds is a matter of character, resource, and a good dose of tradition. I’ve always believed that your wealth should be worth your salt, and with years of hard work banked up, I figured my karmic returns would be sweet enough to ensure a fairly abundant reaping. My mentors have always been of the most particular ilk; I’ve learned everything I know from farmers, foresters, plant people, healers, trade workers, old-timers and the young at heart. A lot of it has been hard gleaned through failure at some endeavor or other, other lessons came swiftly through keen observance of culture and countryfolk. These have not been my only mentors, and in truth I would have to write an entry for each individual plant, animal, and human ally that I have shared some of this life with. Now I am learning to steer my own ship, and mark the directional course with the distilled wisdom of these thirty years of life.
The maritimes of Canada has always been known as the New World. It was the Viking Vinland to Leif Eriksson, and his uncle Erik the Red, and Bjarni Herjolfsson before him. The Icelanders, and Norseman of the Scandic sea. These pastoral ship building farmers sailed to Canada seeking agricultural lands and timber from Greenland and Canada. The Welsh, Irish, Scots and Anglo-Saxons followed in their wake, then Columbus, and the French fur traders by canoe, and fleets of other cultures trailed behind. They all left behind lives in the old world to follow a dream, and settle here. The place names of the land are stamped with their legacy. In maritime history, the people that grew here were tough and resilient, and able to hack at th harder challenges of life with a discipline that was unique to the east. It’s mostly rock the further to the Atlantic you get, and the long cold wet winters are a test of endurance, and mental health. It’s the land that really lets you know what you are made of, and particularly in the East, the land is steeped with tradition. Salt water fishing, big game hunting, forestry, snowshoeing, food preservation, country lifestyles, and closely knit families make up a quiltwork of what this seaboard territory is all about.
I’ve always wanted to be closer to the ocean, and admit that I feel slightly trapped inland when I can not access the waters edge. It represents the edge of the world, and the infinite of potential beyond the roots beneath our feet. These waylays of homestead journaling shall venture into all the aspects of a life intentionally lived in simple terms in the forests of the maritimes, and the evolution of my saga through the years. I will try to share the realities and challenges of an off grid lifestyle, and the bright and murky aspects of living inside a community. On one acre of land is where I build this kingdom, and only the Gods how it will grow.
Solitude Makes the Heart Grow Fonder,
It is said that solitude makes the heart grow fonder, this is how my raven’s nest would be tended, as I drove across that imaginary border line in the middle of the night, into the maritimes of Canada. The twenty hour journey from the lands of northern Ontario, to the St. John River valley was heralded by the presence of Moose on a dusty dark backroad in New Brunswick. Just under two minutes from my cabin door, I caught this sow running beside my uhaul truck in the opposite lane. It was a moonless night on a road without hydro electric lines, no light save the low beams of the truck lamps, just the antlerless beast trotting swiftly by the pines, bringing me home. Only eight cars were seen on the vaguely 100km stretch from Quebec to home, and people usually just passed through this province. There is a lot of open space, and probably more wildlife per square km than humans. A tunnel of arching alders and spruce boughs honed me in as I wheeled into an overgrown driveway of goldenroad, meter high grasses, and quaking aspen saplings, where the cabin was waiting. I was ready to hit the hay after the long drive, so I unpacked just a few pelts and a blanket and slept beside the woodstove on a makeshift bed. My first night in the woods, where no one had slept in over six years.
Seeing as my motorcycle was as yet uninsured or registered in the province and I had to take fourteen days away from the public, I wouldn’t get much further than my community of neighbors. Much of this time was sipped slowly, and cherished with attention to the details. Simply observing the land, getting to the know the herbs and trees that grew here, and making peace with the family of skunks that already lived under my floor. I walked the boundary lines in my bare feet, knowing I would again walk with fire brand and ritualize the land finding in the way my ancestors did. On the western side of the cabin is a jungle of green life that hid the windows, and had not been tended to since its past occupants. Raspberry canes, Elderberry, Oak, St. Johns Wort, Blackcurrant, Tansy, and Trembling Poplars crowded the space, Underneath them, wild Lettuce, Dandelion, Cleavers, Heal All, and Nettles grew in secret. Munna from across the road, who lives on the communal land came over on her bicycle and taught me about the herbs, and what to do with them. She is a medicine maker, with a son of her own, and makes a living from her relationships to the plants.
A shindig was held at one neighbors for a bonfire. The ban had just been lifted in the evenings, and nearly the whole community was out. One woman and her daughter from Happy Valley Goose Bay in Labrador sang rare strains of music in her native tongue of Inuktitut. Songs about travelers, dog sledding, and the struggled of the Inuit peoples. When she sang, no one talked, not even the dogs or the children. A woman named Sparrow played the banjo, and another strung a fiddle to the bluegrass jaunt of Cripple Creek and other folk tunes. Munna introduced me to her sister Mandala, who exuded the mysterious gypsy nature and had a darkly kind of magical persona. I reconvened with my neighbors Darius and Patricia and recounted a few tales from India, and enjoyed the jovial feelings of the gathering. Something about fires had an effect of making fond the memory of times spent sitting by them.
In the absence of human habitation, the cabin had taken on a fair few mammalian residents, and a brood of paper wasps in my front porch door. The field mice nibbled at my raw butter, sourdough bread, and chia seeds, and a daring brown squirrel wrested itself through the staves of my hall to pillage nuts and seeds from a wooden bowl at night. One morning while eating a stack of pancakes he returned straight up from my floor and onto the wooden counter to scour again, but I had taken measure to cover my stash of protein, so the thief went away empty pawed. The skunks had already raised a litter in the space beneath the floorboards and I could hear them all night bickering. Then I confirmed their presence as I caught them with a uv flash light through my cabin windows leaving the property after dark. One of these restless nights I could hear these odiferous creatures barking and revolting, sounding all the while uncomfortable, and in the morning found the paper wasp nest eviscerated lying in pieces on my porch. They skunks must have been stung as they tried to rip open the hive for larvae. This seemed to handle my skunk issue and the wasps at the same time. I had no intentions to resort to any violent or drastic means, and nature sorted it out for me. A couple sticks wedged into the base of my hall staves blocked the empty space for the squirrel to enter, and now I have fewer trespassers. I resorted to canning all seeds, nuts and calorie dense food that small rodents with gnawing teeth might like to carry away in their cheeks. This may deter most of them if there nothing left to forage. Though as the skunks and their posse moved away, a mother porcupine moved in. At first she was the sole occupant, but she must have been pregnant for now I can hear the faint mewing of newborn porcupines beneath the woodstove, and the purring of the adult. I never knew porcupines could purr or meow, and reflected on how this kind of experience could only happen in situations similar to mine. To be so close and intimate to a creature that is regarded as highly defensive, with a protective board of wood between me and hundreds of sharp quills, has allowed me to experience a unique event in another animals lifecycle that even on nature documentaries may never have been encountered.
The First Stages of Enlightenment. Chop Wood and Carry Water
I culled a few species out of the tangle of vegetation the overpopulated the western side of my cabin. The cleavers were too prolific and choked out the berry bushes, while the goldenroad and quaking aspens were dominant on much of the open acre, so I would not miss them. St. John’s wort was allowed to stay, though its medicine was just a bit late for harvesting, I would look forward to seeing their blooms again next year. They felt protective and calming to my senses. The raspberry canes would be thinned out, which were not hanging in fruit, and the elderberry suckers would be pruned back to allow more light penetration into the cabin which was already in a shadier pocket of the woods. I burned the rotted punky wood stuck with nails in a metal barrel, and a farmer neighbor took a stacks of tyres left behind the outdoor kitchen to weigh down manure piles generated by his full family of animals. I’ve started to stain the cedar shake shingles on the outside of the cabin in the Faroese turf house colors, which is transforming the soul of the cabin with each stroke of the brush. I put out my feelers for cordwood, and came up lucky with a local from Woodstock who could bring me semi-cured split maple within a couple days notice, and with the word, I had my first two hardwood bushcords dropped in the micro meadow of my yard, ready for stacking. The well driller came soon after, with three massive trucks to dig down beneath the bedrock, and shale to find the quartz veins where clear Appalachian water flowed in an the aquifers 125 feet down. Now I needed to find a hand pump to bring it up to the surface. In the meantime I pumped water from the community well using their bison setup, wrapped a shemagh around my head and hauled it back the three hundred feet or so to my hall, east Indian style. This works for now, but come the winter and the eight foot snow banks that would accumulate beside the road, would make it serious mule work just getting a couple gallons of the stuff back for cooking and cleaning. With blizzards and harsh temperatures, this would mean dressing in heavy duck down coats and a fur hat and trudging a sled every few days for the bare nesessities. Although I’ve read self addressed letters of my grandfather doing this with ice, and pulling it much further to trade for potatoes, I am not sure I could muster this tenacity year after year. Besides, there was something else liberating about the importance of a well on the land. It ties into the great myths and symbolism of the Well and the Tree, that my Norse ancestors held close to their hearts, and were pivotal to how they interacted and understood the world.
Thriving Not Surviving,
Living alone in a cabin in the woods currs a lot of hustle and responsibility to the land to survive. Those without an industrious nature rarely thrived under these conditions, but this lifestyle also held the closely aligned instincts for self-preservation. On my own, I needed to fend more for myself in the domestic rituals that homesteading requires. Though if a widowmaker fell while I was pruning the forest, and my senses were too dulled from long hours of toil to move out of the way, my bones would lay among the rocks and the roots, and I would have to inflate my rib cage enough to utter a howl to my neighbors to save me. If I lacked the attention to the cutting arc of my sickle blade while weeding and accidently cut my thumb, I would have to hope it wasn’t too deep for the plantain to heal, or as I have already wisened to, stacking two bushcords before lunch then riding a motorcycle 30km on a chip and tar road is heavy stress on the finely tuned wrist bones that will cause tendonitis. While staining wood is a more therapeutic acitivity for the body, something just doing nothing and gifting yourself with extended rest is a more powerful remedy than any power plant, medicine, or treatment. All animals have this self preservation that transcends genetic conditioning, and with homesteading comes a greater intetion to protect and conserve not only the land but myself. We have no gain on our dreams if we can not love ourselves enough to get there.
During this waning summer month of August the cabin has been without electricity, or running water, and I have catered my diet to accomodate this first stage of homesteading life while I suss out the needs for a solar system. Though I like to say that I need to “run for my water”, and my power comes from the most ancient and eco-friendly source possible, the sun’s radiation. I eat a lot of raw vegetables and fermented, dried and cured foods at this point; my shelf is stocked with kefir, kraut, kombucha, cheese and yogurt, salted cod, unwashed eggs, and roots, jams, honey and dried nuts and seeds or wild greens eaten the same day. These don’t need to be refridgerated, so long as they are kept in the dark and cool environment, and are actually some of the healthiest morcels I can put in my body right now. On cool mornings and evenings I light a fire and brew coffee, steep a slow stew or cook porridge and pancakes on the woodstove. Iron is my prefered cook surface, and copper or steel flasks for drinking vessels. The orientation of my bed is also important and I have always been delivered a more sound sleep with my head to the west, rising to the east.
Back to the Land
I intend to stay fully off the grid, and out of the harmful waves of powerful cell and wifi signals and electro-magnetic frequencies as much as possible. There is a ten kilometer radius of organic agriculture surrounding the eco-community, and very few of my neighbors rely on fossil fuels on their properties. I have made the intentional comittment to use hand tools while stewarding the land, to eliminate noise pollution, and the risk factors associated with heavy automatic machinery. This also caters to a truance for self-preservation. I just appreciate my body too much to get mauled by a chainsaw, and I believe there is more skill and nuance in using analog tools, some of which were design for specifically one purpose, an apple press for instance. Hand tools teach the body a wider variety of skills than machines, and contribute a significant joy in actual doing of the work.
Out here you don’t need to wear a mask, and there is no pollution save the odd beer can on the dirt road from a passing atv, which I don’t mind collecting. I currently produce less than a five gallon pail of trash monthly, and do what I can to save the jars from any food products I bring into the home. That sometimes means an after dinner past time of scraping labels off of pickle and jam jars. I don’t mind because it saves money and time from transporting glass from the city in my motorbike cases, and I need the jars to hold sundried herbs, teas, and preserves for the forthcoming years. The skies are black at night, and my senses are not dulled by noise of traffic, sirens, and the city din. When the sun goes down, I sleep, or extend my waking time with the help of beeswax candles. I listen for the reverberations of the woodpeaker, the crowing of ravens and screeching of Jays and Whiskeyjacks. Fox has come detectively to see who has come home. I know this from his scat filled with rabbit hair and tinted purple from the pigmented raspberries and dewberries he has likely been feeding on. Bald Eagle surveyed the St. John river, as I sat on my motorcycle outside a highway coffee shop near the worlds longest covered bridge. I’ve set a trail cam on a crab apple tree pointing down a mossy path to catch photos of any animal visitations. I would love to know if there are bears, coyotes, or wolves here. I did find evidence of the black ghost in the pine barrens, though no sightings of one in the flesh and fur. The forest is a place to bathe, to breathe easy, to walk barefoot, forage, hunt, gather, and appreciate. A great population of spruce, pine and tamarack compose this boreal acre, with a mix of poplar, quaking aspen, birch, and alder. Cedar, oak and maple are rare and coveted but they are here, along with wild apple, and hemlock. We are footing into mushroom season, and I’ve already shouldered my pack basket out onto skedaddle ridge here in the lowland Appalachians to forage Chanterelle and Turkey tail mushrooms, Bunchberry, medicinal mosses, and several species of the bramble berries. I can walk outside naked if the bugs are not bad, or sleep in on storm days as the tumult of the rain drums down on my metal roof. At night, I think about someone I miss and mentally release the day from my consciousness. Though I don’t have a proper bed yet and dream of building a king size frame out of live edge wood for my sleep temple. Any ills that may have come, or pains felt I try to surrender it all away, and attract instead strong healing offerings and a surplus of positive energy for the next day to rise.
Off The Grid:
Launching an off grid lifestyle can take its toll on the hard hustled finances you have saved up. Especially if you are anything like me and tend to earn your dough a little at a time, in farm labor jobs and thrifty living where a thousand dollars is a small fortune. All the fundamentals need to be covered, that’s water from a well, firewood for the stove, electricity if you run any single one of the thousands of appliances that now use them, and a reliable vehicle for living on a country road without regular plow service. If you are lucky and there is a spring on your land, you can collect water passively and retrieve your vessels when you need them and filter if needed. This only works six months a year when the water is not frozen. A well is more reliable than a spring, and can almost always be made rather than discovered. This can be twenty bucks a foot to have someone drill deep enough to find water under the earth. The man who drilled my well bought his truck from Pennsylvania, where they had to dig 1600 feet to find it. You can do the math, and realize how lucky you are if you find a shallow well. Then there’s the pump, which can function electrically or by hand. If it’s electrical, then you need panels, batteries, a charge controller, and an inverter, plus underground tubing, valves, a submersible pump, and small parts that are hard to find. Not to mention plumping, spigots, and filters and a water heater running on the electricty as well, stored in batteries in the winter when you don’t have solar radiation. It may be better than paying the bills in the long run, but still involves some major infrastructure. If you do it all by hand, you just need to buck up and do it, even in a blizzard. Step out to your well, and heave ho at it until you fill your vessels. You’ll need to carry a jug, or carbuoy into your home, and pour it into a pot and boil it to use for most homesteading things like cooking soup, cleaning dishes, or taking a bath. The last option is what I am trying. So far so good, but winter is coming. I keep it fairly low tech, and that keeps life pretty simple. Solar electricity is another chunk of change to get established, especially building a battery bank robust enough for six months will little charge. I’m currently sourcing all the necesarry parts to put this Frankensystem together, as I mentioned there are many fickle elements to get harmoninizing together to actually run your nutribullet, or turn on an edison bulb hanging in your roof. Cordwood remains the simpler of the off grid systems, if you know how to light a fire. Still, there is an art in wood culture that few people talk about. How many BTU’s are you getting from your wood, as different species burn at different rates with different heat values. What stacking technique you use, and how early the wood was sourced in order for it to have enough time to cure and dry. Several country folks let their wood dry two or three years in advance for a winter, which could be a bush cord of timber each season from Halloween to Mothers Day, at three hundred bucks a pop to order, or several weeks of hard labor to select, fell, delimb, haul, saw, split, carry, and stack yourself. Stevedore Steve commented on the Maritime Men who were proud to work with a crosscut saw and an axe in hand. I have two axes, a modern Vipukirves ax from Finland, and another antique run of the mill saw from an earlier era. I’ll use both for different purposes and watch the splinted wood pile up. There are ways to build the fire itself to save energy, and the kind of stove you are burning them in. There is fast wood for making getting your pan warm enough for fried eggs, and slow wood, for roasting a duck in a pan, or keeping you and your love warm all night without needing to stoke the flames. This also contributes to a healthier love life, and generally more comfortable night. Wood and water is heavy, so you learn not to waste it. I have set the date of Halloween in my mind to start consuming my stack, until then I am burning deadwood I collect from the forest a couple times a week. Some of it is punky and just smokes, and most of it is too thin to last longer than a breakfast fire. I just need enough for my percolator and porridge, and maybe a kettle of dandelion coffee, and figure that six bushcords will last me even the harshest of maritime winters if burned efficiently. I keep only wood furniture, which collect and radiate more heat in the hall, and the windows are double paned for less warmth leaving the cabin. Chopping wood, and carrying water starts with a fair bit of cash offering to the Gods of frontier country, but these are some things I think are truly worth every nickel. I try to live according, frugal but not cheap, efficient but abundant.
The Village in the Country:
Two wheels will not be able to carry me through the snow as four wheels would, and I’m bucking up to dish out for my first car or truck. A horse and sleigh was the next option, kidding but not really. Some will use their skidoos to visit town, though they are built for forest trails not icy roads and salted highways. I live 15km from the nearest general store, where one can buy unleadened gas, stove pipes, fixes, toilet paper, coffee, homemade baking, basic foods and jars of things the locals have preserved like pickled fiddleheads and maple syrup. Even have a cash machine, of which I prefer to have some stowed away than using a plastic card for everything. The next closest town is 32km from here in the St. John River valley, with a small town energy and some services like a bank, liqour store, meats and grocery, gas, and a coffee shop. But for hardware and homeware, farmers market, and a secondhand shop, Woodstock is the closest at the 56km mark. I hope to nail down the essentials of what I need by the time the snow flies and not have to travel beyond the small towns in winter. This also engenders a deeper connection to the neighborhood and the local ma and pa shops in the times of scarcity. Considering all the factors with how the world is shifting, I would probably depend on those smaller businesses if I can’t venture into a city for provisions because of social distancing.
As I finish this first letter, I am waiting for some hemlock beams to be delivered which will contruct a platform for my yurt, and I’ve cut two spruce trees to make additional staves in my hall for extra roof support. I finally have a pot big enough to make soup with, and besides a couple evening guests, my company has been finely kept with porcupines, a raccoon, and a black nosed mouse who returns even after I caught him in my hand and carried him out to the woods. A humming bird has been visiting my apple trees, and a blue jay was purveying my land on more than once. I’ve caught nothing on the trail cam yet. I turned thirty last week and somehow it matters, I just haven’t realized how. It’s quiet, and the metors showered during the new moon turnover as I laid on a bed of hay in my neighbors backyard. The mosses, grasses, and leaves are still green but autumns decay is coming. I am thankful for what I can enjoy, and what little I need to be happy with it all, though I don’t think I could do this alone through the years. May the Gods attract to me the fuller things of life, keep my hands clean, and my heart stoked.