Homestead Hopes

Resisting the Flattening

I read a long, and somewhat depressing article in Tablet not long ago. I encourage you to go read it, too. It’s worth it, I promise.

Back now? Good. Resist the flattening. With all your heart and strength. One way to resist it is to preserve and celebrate those things that make us NOT like everybody else. Maybe your hometown was settled by Dutch immigrants and celebrates that history. Maybe it was a stop on an old coach road, with coaching inns that still stand. If you live in, or are from, rural America then one of those things that makes you and your place part of the texture of life is the culture unique to you and your place. Which brings us to my motivation for launching into an effort to hang on to it that I talked about in my last post.

What do I mean by, and why do I want to, explore and restore rural American culture? The first thing we need to do is think about that culture in a way other than through the lens of mass media and the academy. Both of those institutions paint rural America as a homogenous mass of people clinging to a world that has been passed by, or never really existed at all and is simply a nostalgic yearning for something that never was. Or, worse, they tar all of those people and places as being entirely without any culture of their own, entirely peopled with bigots and -ists who simply can’t accept “demographics” and “diversity” and all the trappings of modern life.

Set that aside. Because that’s not an accurate picture at all. Rural America is a beautiful patchwork quilt of tiny communities that retain both the flavor and tone of their original residents and the ability to still function AS a community. These are places that don’t look exactly like each other. They may lack the “multicultural” sameness of urban environments, true. But they have intriguing aromas, notes, and colors – like a bushel of quirky, misshapen heritage apples from different trees. What they lack in the shiny, sparkling consistency of the display of Red Delicious at Whole Foods they make up for in flavors most people have forgotten an apple can have.

Everywhere around us, pop culture is attempting to flatten us. With mallets, if necessary. We won’t BE flattened. Texture is beautiful. Texture is real diversity. Not the fake bean-counting “diversity” of Critical Theory.

In fact, rural American culture is so diverse, don’t expect me to cover every aspect of it here or in my other ventures. I’m going to give you a buffet of things from my own perspective. Because I can’t give you anyone else’s. Everything here will be MY stitches. My drawings. My paintings. My voice. And none of that is “silencing” anyone else. Go stitch your own quilt. Draw your own drawings. Paint your own scenes. Sing your own song.

Homestead Hopes

Toward an Independent Farmstead

As we move closer to actually breaking ground – probably in the spring, now that subzero temperatures have settled quite thoroughly into the area – I got an E-mail from my builder asking if the architect had provided a site plan. Well, not so much. But I did send him a little plan I had draw up myself.

I’m sure there is a piece of software or handy app somewhere that would have made this a much easier task. But, lacking those, I did a screen capture of the satellite image of our place from the GIS system, and carefully marked the scale. Then I moved it into Photoshop and used an approximation of pixels against that scale to draw little outlines of the buildings we’d like to eventually have on the property. Here it is:

The lighter pink swath is the driveway, leading directly to the house. The garage is set back a little from the front of the house, so that the whole thing doesn’t seem like a garage with a small house attached. North is up, in the standard convention, by the way. The little building furthest to the East is a sugar shack/brew house. That puts it close to the sugar bush, a little away from the house, but not so far that it’s a slog in the snow.

Just North of the house we’ll put the chicken coop, and past that, the barn. Way up at the top? Beehive. I’m hoping to do a Slovenian Bee House. Ideally, I’ll find someone who makes them in that style, sized to the typical American frames so that those are easy to replace.

Most of the wild brush in the front will be cleared away. There is one venerable old apple tree that I wanted saved. It’s quite lovely, and puts out a decent crop even though it hasn’t been pruned or tended in years.

Now what remains to be decided is what, in the short term, will go where. We have plans for a small orchard – more apples, some peaches, pears, and cherries. But they’ll probably need to NOT go where the current tree is. A single tree can be worked around, but a small orchard will need some space. The orchard site will need to be far enough from the west fence row not to be too shaded, and far enough from the walnut trees not to be affected by the chemical that they produce that inhibits other plants.

And then there are the berry patches. Raspberries and blackberries need to be kept somewhat separate from each other AND from the wild brambles that might carry disease. I would like some gooseberries and currant, but we live in a portion of the state where growing them is restricted to certain varieties. The listing doesn’t appear to have been updated for some time, so I may end up trying to compile evidence that some of the newer varieties are resistant to White Pine Blister Rust to get permission. They’re more shade tolerant, but will still need a nice sunny spot.

Regular garden beds should be close to the house so that we both tend and use them. Probably between the house and the chicken coop.

We may have to get that far, and then see how we can best arrange the rest. At the moment, we’re planning to start with some of the smaller livestock (chickens, ducks, rabbits), so permanent pasture and housing for bigger critters might get moved around a bit as we go.

10 acres seemsĀ like a lot, until all the sudden it doesn’t.

Homestead Hopes

A Bit of Earth

Almost two years ago, now, my husband and I came to a point where we decided that we’d like a bit more space to live our lives.  I’m not sure if it was the neighbor ratting us out for our illicit chickens, the waking up repeatedly to flashing lights in the windows as local police visited the house around the corner.  Again.  Or the feeling of constriction of not being able to use our little yard the way we’d like.  My two daughters are on the Autism spectrum, and not aware enough of danger to be allowed to play outside without really close supervision – very nearly hands on.  We had a few notices stuck to the door by the city regarding various “infractions” of ordinances.  Even when all we really have are two small raised beds for herbs and veggies.

The time had come to seek out something more.  Neither of us are city people to start with.  He grew up on a small farm in western Illinois.  I grew up in a more sprawling suburb in central Michigan – with frequent trips to grandparents’ farms.  We’d try the “soccer mom” life and it was not for us – especially with kids who weren’t on the dance/sports/hand out with friends carousel.

Unfortunately, finding our “bit of earth” was more difficult than we’d anticipated.  First we explored the few listings that were available that matched or came close to what we wanted:  around five acres, some woods and some cleared.  That added up to just a few parcels, all of which had some drawbacks – mostly still being a little too close to town, in a township whose zoning ordinances had the potential to still give us trouble.

Then I got a bright idea.  I fired up the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) map for my county.  This allows you to see ALL the parcels in the county of interest.  When you click on one, you can get information about its size, zoning, and the contact information on the legal owner.  I started marking likely-looking properties – no buildings present, the right acreage, the right school district, and hadn’t changed hands in the last 12 months, or so.  We spent a lot of time driving around looking at parcels and taking family walks down country roads.  We did really prefer to be somewhere with natural gas available at the street, along with electric and cable.  So, some of this was to look for the flags that mark natural gas lines and some to look over the property in general.

Next, I started my letter-writing campaign.  I bought several packages of blank notecards in cute designs with colored envelopes – the kind that look like a baby shower invitation or a thank you note from the outside.  Then I handwrote a note to the owners of the parcel we were looking for, talking about what we wanted to do and asking if they had any interest in selling the parcel in questions, and ending with contact information for both my husband and myself.  We got near a 30% response rate.  And, if you’ve been in sales, you know that’s pretty good for cold calling.  Now, sometimes the response was “we’re not interested,” and sometimes it was for sale – for an outrageous amount of money.  We even got good enough at google-stalking to find phone numbers and follow up with a call.  One parcel was intended for its owner’s retirement home.  Another was a “private hunting reserve.”  Yet another has a long story I might tell someday about an ex-athletic star from my alma mater, a fast-food empire, and 80 acres in the wilds of West Michigan that his wife still doesn’t want to sell even a corner of.  Some properties we got permission to walk.  Some of them even got names.  “Narnia” was down a beautiful private road with an ornate lamp post at the end that we found in the winter.  “Pooh corner” had a fabulous giant beech tree on the edge of a gorgeous meadow.

Don’t name things.  You get emotionally attached, and then can’t get the owner to make a deal.  Also, keep in mind that people can be wildly unreasonable.  If you hear the words “I gotta get $X out of it,” walk away.  You’re dealing with someone who doesn’t understand that his or her financial condition has zero bearing on the worth of the parcel in question.  If you’re talking to someone who is proposing a division that is clearly contrary to the local zoning ordinance – walk away.  Most often they’re convinced they can get the zoning board to make an exception.  Hint:  they can’t.

We began to despair entirely until we finally got a phone call back from the elderly gentleman who owned 10 acres of…  brush.  Or so it seemed from the road.  In fact, he’d planted 3-1/2 acres of it in black walnut trees when he first bought it.  But now, it was too far away from where he was living and he wasn’t able to keep up on it.  None of his children had the means or interest to buy it.  So maybe it was time to sell.

Walnut trees

With his permission, we managed to cut a trail into the property from the road, so that we could access it.  The walnut trees form most of the Eastern and Northern boundaries of the parcel.

The center is a meadow, with a fencerow containing a sugar bush as the Western border.  There are a couple wild apple trees.  Though it must be admitted that it’s wholly infested with Autumn olives, berry brambles (black raspberries and red, maybe some blackberries as well), and multiflora rose.  This effectively gives me a parcel of land that cannot be penetrated easily from any side – a plus when you have children who might be prone to wander.  And, since we agreed to purchase it – we had trouble naming this one.  Walnut creek?  Too Little House.  Mockingbird hill?  No hill.  And I haven’t seen any mockingbirds as yet, though the bird watching is excellent.  But Brambleberry Meadow seems to fit.

The very Southeast corner is cut by a drainage culvert that functions as a small creek.

In fact, despite needing rather a lot of work, it fits the bill for what we were looking for.  While too flat for a walk-out basement, and with too high a water table for any sort of basement, it should do nicely for some of the other plans we have.

Follow along with the saga of getting a house built, setting up a site plan, choosing livestock, planting trees and gardens, and everything that will need to happen to turn an overgrown brushpile into a small farmstead.