We’re starting to settle in to our new home in the Big Sandy Mush valley, near Leicester, NC. We’re really enjoying having our own space and things again. Sandy Mush is also one of the most beautiful places I have ever lived in. The valley has a long agrarian history, and the open, rolling farmland provides expansive, stunning views of forested mountain sides and pastoral homesteads.
Though still humid, it is drier here than other areas of Western NC (something to do with a mountain rain shadow), so along with the greens, there are many shades of gold and brown. Steep hillsides are grazed by cattle and sheep to a thin grassy veneer, dotted with silvery boulders and lined by thick, mythical looking forests. The landscape alternately reminds me of Ireland, Northern California, and (you knew it was coming) Northern New Mexico (well, the moister, mountainous parts).
Though this is most definitely a positive transition, the realities and challenges of a rural, simple, sustainable life are hitting home in a way that wasn’t as immediate at H & M’s. There, we had the benefit of a mature vegetable garden, established livestock, and H & M’s 30 years of experience with stocking up and finding ways to be thrifty. In contrast, starting a homestead from scratch is a daunting and seemingly expensive task.
Settling in to a new home inevitably requires acquiring a few essentials, like trash cans and curtain rods, that don’t carry over or fit from one’s last home. Unfortunately, a large portion of my time of late has been spent in a big box retail outlet to buy something made in China, which doesn’t feel good at all. It doesn’t occur to me until I’m standing in line with my debit card in hand, contemplating the dwindling balance of my bank account, that I might have been able to find these things second hand – saving both money and the resources that go into the manufacture and shipping of new materials.
T and I have the double disadvantage of being both new to this way of thinking, and new to the region; therefore ignorant of the resources available. Our assignment for the next week is to familiarize ourselves with local salvage and surplus outlets, and to make better use of online resources like Craig’s List, Freecycle, and IWanna. But we are also having to learn to cultivate patience, to quench that sense of urgency and need for instant gratification that our consumerist society has bred into us.
The instinct to run off to Target or Home Depot the moment I realize I need something is so ingrained in me, it takes concerted effort to slow myself down and think critically. Do I really need it, do I really need it now, and do I really need it new? It is especially difficult for me to resist the convenience of retail shopping during times of transition, when my self-esteem is fragile, and stabilizing my living space feels critical to maintaining a sense of identity. ‘Stuff’ can be very seductive as a way to define oneself, if only temporarily and shallowly.
But it also sometimes seems that stuff is necessary to enable the things we want to do in our lives. Looking for a job, doing yoga, sewing, cooking, gardening, or doing any of the stuff that makes me feel like me, requires unpacking all these boxes, which requires finding a way to squeeze 1400 square feet of our Albuquerque stuff into the 800 square feet we now call home. I need (want) storage – boxes, drawers, closet hanging rods. I know I should probably just downsize – but I swear I already did! I need a safe and secure place to put my dog during the day – fencing, posts, a tarp to keep out the rain. If I’m going to have clothes that last, I have to keep the moths out of my closet, which means screens on the windows. If we’re going to collect rain water from the roof for our garden, we need barrels and tubes and hoses and spigots. If we’re going to avoid using that crusty, toxic looking window air conditioner, we need fans to keep the air moving through our home.
Home Depot and Lowes are especially tricky for me, because I can convince myself that the sheer fact that I am at a hardware store means I am being frugal and self-sufficient. I’m making whatever I need. And that is what those big hardware stores are selling, the feel-good of being a “do it yourself” kind of person. It’s partly true. But the raw materials for making stuff are also usually shipped from a far away place – a place that may use unfair labor practices and toxic manufacturing processes. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to completely stop shopping retail. But once you start going down the rabbit hole of thinking about the environmental and social consequences of your buying choices, retail therapy starts to lose its efficacy. That, and the fact that we are now living on a small fraction of our former income.
So, what if I could do it myself with salvaged materials, if I’m only willing to wait a few extra days to track them down? Can I tolerate a few more evenings of moths flying in the windows, or a few more days of of the dog being on a lead instead of fenced in? Can I water my teeny garden by hand for a few more days instead of with a fancy irrigation system? Can I find what I need at thrift stores and yard sales? Can I make better use of what I have already? I’ve been thinking a lot about the old adage “reduce, reuse, recycle” and how the first two really require slowing down and taking time to think things through. It is a habit and skill I am only just cultivating.
At H & M’s we were also spoiled by the fact that M did most of the shopping for any extra groceries we needed. This spared me from the overwhelm that I experience every time I go to a large grocery store. We haven’t had time to explore the local farmers markets and small food co-ops or CSAs, so for now we’ve been dependent on Ingles, which has a woefully limited selection of organic foods, or a Whole-Foods-type-grocery. There are some things that Whole Foods does really well, but it can send me down of vortex of indecision and choice fatigue. It is not uncommon for me to find myself paralyzed in the produce section, uncertain whether it is better to buy organic peaches that were shipped all the way from California, or locally grown North Carolina peaches that might be covered in chemicals – both of which are over-priced. I’m also easily wooed by the fresh looking but totally out of season produce at big groceries. Again, I don’t realize what I’m doing until it is too late, and I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a bowl of richly red but utterly tasteless strawberries in November.
So we’re eager to find some alternatives while we get our own garden into production. Our little fall garden is far from producing, set in nutrient depleted ground that was most recently a grassy lawn. We don’t have an established compost pile or any chicken or cow manure to amend the soil. Nor have we had time to set up a watering system, plant our fall seeds, or build a green house or chicken coop.
We’ve also got to get better at meal planning – a skill that M had mastered – to make better use of what food we have in the house, use up leftovers, and reduce the number of times we have to go shopping at all. All that back and forth to big box retailers and grocery stores has also meant that we’re spending far more time in an automobile than is healthy, for us or the environment. We’re hopeful that living closer to Asheville will eventually mean less time in the car. But we’re realizing the sacrifice of convenience that rural living enforces. No more hopping in the car for a stick of butter or an after-dinner outing for ice cream. No more biking to yoga class, or stopping at the gym after work to use the treadmill. On the other hand, the distance to town forces us to be more conscious of how, when, and why we drive. We’re learning to organize our errands so they can be consolidated into one trip, and we’re learning to live without some things in the meantime.
While there have been some eye-opening challenges, there have also been some unexpected gifts. Our new landlords/neighbors/friends (S & S) inherited some lumber from a road-building project in the neighborhood, and have offered to give us some wood to build a chicken coop and a storage shed on the property. They’ve also offered us some veggies from their farm in exchange for T’s help milling the wood. They’ve been incredibly generous with little helpful farm things like manure, buckets, and milk crates, and gifted us with fresh cabbage, chicken and duck eggs, corn, and berry pie. Some other neighbors sent us off after dinner with a bag full of fresh tomatoes. We also met a young couple who work as caretakers of some land around the corner. They have invited us to pick our fill of apples and blueberries from the unused orchard on the land.
And much to our surprise, we are already starting to make friends in our new community, thanks to the welcoming warmth and generosity of S & S. We were a little concerned at first, leaving the tight-knit community of like-minded people in H & M’s neighborhood, that we would find ourselves socially isolated in the country among neighbors with very different values. But it turns out that there is a strong community of young people in Sandy Mush who are on a similar path of seeking a simpler, more sustainable and rewarding lifestyle; homesteading, farming, making things by hand, learning self-sufficiency skills, and building a new kind of community. Once again, the universe seems to have plopped us down in the right place at the right time. And I’m reminded by others on a similar path how truly blessed we are.