Has the dream of homesteading set sail since the pandemic?
Is ‘homesteading’ still relevant today when very few can afford to do it because of real estate prices?
Since the pandemic’s mini exodus of the cities to rural land and the corresponding jump in land prices here (triple what they were five years ago), I have started to question the value of the heroic ‘do’er on yer own’ homesteading vision. Question it, in part because I don’t really see how it would be possible to do anymore, as an individual or young family without some serious backing.
A decent piece of land with woods and a house in this area (which is a ‘poor’ area, with poor soil), which is about what you’d traditionally need as a fair start for a homestead, was $150,000 five years ago, but is now a half a million dollars. And you’ll have paid double that if and when the mortgage is ever paid off.
I can’t image working off-farm to pay a million dollars off, and still having any time or energy left to connect with the land, homestead and raise kids, as I have had the privilege to do. The only people I see homesteading that way these days are those with family money or when one of them is working in IT.
I thought the dream of homesteading, of owning your own land and working with it to create abundance, food security and personal sovereignty was universal. I’ve dreamt about this stuff since I was a child, lived it for forty years and been teaching how to do it for over thirty. It’s a good part of what’s taught at the Sacred Gardener School. And amazingly, it’s only just come to me now in a crystal clear way that the very idea and dream of homesteading is part of the colonial legacy.
Often the hopes and dreams of ‘greener pastures’ or brighter futures are propelled by the urge to run from the tragic, grief soaked present. For most of our ancestors to move to another continent meant abandoning the past altogether, leaving our ancestral lands and ancestors behind.
Until you’ve lost the connection and wealth that comes from living with land in an intimate indigenous way, until you’ve lost the security of living in a larger ‘tribal’ group of your own kin, what on Earth would possess someone to leave their family and landholding for a promise of wealth in an unknown lonely place. Nothing. This is a western dream. Only tragedy and strife would lead to such a choice looking good.
From this perspective I think homesteading is like a silver lining to the dark cloud of colonization, offering the hope of harmony and sovereignty amidst the colonial gloom of destruction and tyranny.
For a few hundred years since the Industrial Age, since the revolution in France and since European colonization of the Americas almost everyone in the west has shared the dream of homesteading, though it wasn’t called that. It was just thought of and called ‘owning a farm’ or a ‘piece of land’. Before WW2 all farms were all organic and run in a fairly sustainable way through the efforts of an extended family. That existence, that was once common is now extremely rare; a life of abundance and sovereignty, of growing one’s own food and drawing what we need from the land. Of living in a harmonious way with the Earth and our rural neighbours, who were often part of our extended family, and to whom we looked to for help.
While the word homestead only dates back to the 1800’s, the idea of a small family run farm must be as old as colonization itself. Before that any agricultural dream would likely have involved an extended family, if not the whole ‘tribe’. The word homestead is relatively new, having emerged in the early 1800’s from immigration campaigns to fill the newly colonized land (North America) with settlers from the old country. In the U.S. they created the ‘Homestead Act’ that basically gave people land if they would clear ten acres, plow an acre, and build a house. The cleared land would create the pasture the farm animals needed and the trees from the clearing would be used to build the barns, houses and infrastructure like bridges and corduroy roads they needed for animals and carts. The colonial homesteading laws and propaganda that were intended to facilitate peopling the land, worked hand in hand with ‘the Indian Act’. As the armies (often created by promising soldiers free land) scoured the newly conquered west they commenced to ‘legally’ take away ‘Indian land’. Then, once the army had cleared the indigenous people out they would survey the land and try to give it away as quickly as possible before the ‘Indians’ had time to come back. Once cleared of First Nations people, the government of Canada and the US just gave the land away to immigrant settlers, or to urbanites wanting to escape the unhealthy crowded cities in the States where immigrants first flocked. At first the land they were giving away was the best, by lakes and rivers for navigation and to accommodate the first surveys. But to claim the land early governments wanted colonization everywhere, so when the good land was gone they continued to give out all types of poor quality land. This is the legacy of this land and the 150 year old homestead where I live (that’s a whole other story which I will tell you someday).
The idea of legally owning a parcel of land is also a surprisingly new invention of sixteenth century Britain, to protect larger hunting estates, which had been part of the ‘commons’ used by farmers and ‘poachers’. The elite’s intention was to keep the land from poor country folk trying to eke out a living by hunting, foraging and fishing. Before that time people didn’t legally own the land. Large areas of land, usually defined by the geographic features like waterways and ridges, were simply inherited and part of a family’s heritage. Often these plots dated back toarchaic times before written land records were kept. Occasionally these irregular parcels would be lost or traded to a new squatter usually from the region. Everyone around would know about it from all parties (in the rural way) and so no one questioned the transfer in any legal way. And there were no universal land ownership laws as there are now, so if you had enough power you could just take what you wanted and payoff or bully another who objected.
For the most part, in the last thousand years, since European feudal times of the 9th century we’ve lived as peasants or surfs on allotments of a ‘Lord’s’ land to whom we pay taxes (or rent). Yes, landlord. And they in turn likely had to pay someone like a regional King or Queen, who often in turn paid some distant emperor just to leave them alone. For most of this time the payment would have been a portion of your grain or livestock and not coin. We’ve seen the poor peasants in a hundred movies starving while the rich ate well and still demanded full payment from thepeons pitiful harvests. And in hard times I’m sure this did happen. But think about it. This feudal system has lasted a thousand years. It can clearly be quite functional for everyone or it wouldn’t have lasted that long. To tell the story from another non-hollywood perspective. Your landlord and the higher powers of royalty are protecting you and your crops from raids. And you live, draw a livelihood from, and grow your food on their land. And I think while a yearly payment would be expected it was not likely a set amount or enforced with violence like it always is in the movies. As with all things back then I’m sure there was bartering and negotiation. The powers that be would consider the year’s crop, wanting more on a good year and taking less when the crop is poor. Unlike the movies things moved slow back then and nobody was going anywhere, so you didn’t want enemies that might kill you or your descendants. They wouldn’t have wanted you to starve or even be too disgruntled. Or else the surfs (workers) might die, or rebel. Better to keep them happy and poor.
You might think by contrast we live in an enlightened free democracy, but it’s essentially the same set up now as it was then. And the division between the land holders and the renters is widening every day back toward a feudal arrangement. Each country, state or province is its own legal entity that owns all the land, and we are tax-paying ‘lot holders’. We think we own the land when the bank mortgage is finally paid, but you’re still just a renter. If you stop paying land taxes you’ll find out soon enough who really owns your land. I had friends that tried this. They wouldn’t pay or budge and eventually the sherif showed up at their door and evicted them, padlocking the house and land behind them. They weren’t thrown to the gallows as they might have been, but still remarkably barbaric treatment of your own people by the government and authorities, ‘for this day and age’.
Aways back when the Sacred Gardener school first became popular and our capacity was overflowing a documentary film maker came, thinking they would make a movie about this phenomenon of people coming ‘back to the land’. It didn’t work out because they couldn’t get funding for some old white guy (me) talking about Earth spirituality and living humbly with the land. Maybe it also didn’t work out because there was interest in taking the angle of being a “better settler”, and wanted to use that as the title. Cringe. I didn’t want to look at it too close in those boom days, you know “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and all, but I sure was uncomfortable with it. That title to me meant the best I could do in life would be to be a good “settler”, Yuck. Even the word, settle speaks volumes about compromise and loss of our dreams. And while I do teach homesteading skills so we can reclaim a handmade life back from the industries that we willingly gave it away to, I also teach that the real richness, that we’re still missing even if you have all the sustainability pieces in place, is that the daily actions of a homesteading life are deeply connective rituals that act as an ongoing rites of passage, to keep us connected with the Earth, the spirit world and our ancestors. I help people to re-member their indigenous being. I also help destroy the colonial structures of oppression that live within us, and help folks rebuild their relationships to the land and the ancestors. I help people to heal through learning to draw nutrients and medicine from the beauty that surrounds us. Help them rebirth their consciousness, to the land. Help to them relearn to be comforted and nurtured from the loving bosom of the Earthmother, and to put Her above all things.
With all the ethical complications, political considerations and unscalable economic challenges the reality and the dream of owning land may have finally set sail for many who are struggling to pay rent and food. But I believe we all still long to experience the essence of ‘homesteading’ in some deep way that can manifest in many forms, not just ‘living off the land’. And while the old heroic homestead image might not be as relevant, I think the impulse to be responsible and live a simpler life that’s closer the land is more strong than ever. People are ‘homesteading’ in houses, apartments and even vans these days. Even if you don’t grow food there are a hundred ways to get food and survive that don’t feed the corporate oligarchy. You can forage for some of your food; harvest the bounty of local fruit trees (that the land owners don’t harvest and give them something back), you can wildculture or guerrilla grow many vegetables and herbs on vacant land in the country and city. You can conscientiously source your food and buy local, organic, bulk produce from small farms, then process it or store it so you have food throughout the long seasons in the North when nothing is growing without being part of the industrial shipping problem. All these acts feed the land, feed our neighbours, feed the community and avoid feeding the middle men in the industrial food chain. Urban homesteaders can craft what they need from ‘garbage’, dumpster dive for food, and get anything else secondhand so as to not contribute to the manufacturing of more garbage. This is just urban foraging. You can forage for medicine to avoid the so called ‘health care’ industry and have homegrown businesses doing your ‘soul work’ for your community outside of the mainstream systems. You can grow food and herbs on roofs and balconies, even window sills can be productive. Or you can grow organic hydroponic vegetables and greens in very small spaces.
The other thing inflated land prices may do is bring us back to more collective practices like those we used to have. For example even a hundred years ago farmers shared equipment among whole communities. Harvesters and such were too expensive to get for one farm, and you might only need them once or twice a year. So everyone who had a share in the machinery would travel around and all do each other’s harvest together. Once, it was common to work collectively with others on communal land. Now we also have the alternative of legal land trusts, that are run collectively, so everyone can afford to buy-in and feel a real sense of ownership. So everyone can have a secure space for our souls to comeback to the land. For us to live a simpler life, without the great cost and sacrifice of all your time to achieve solo ownership.
I know they are going to be more and more of these co-creative acts of independence, in the homesteading spirit if not the traditional form, because it is the right way to live, and the only way we will change our culture and escape this corporate reality. And we need to do it not just for the Earth but for our children’s children, so they can have the chance to live with the land and escape the rat-race. Homesteading, however it happens is filled with hope and the spirit of peace. I believe we can still feed our longing for sovereignty, and the dream of homesteading in many ways. And that living these dreams can bring us back into harmony with the land, without ‘owning’ the land.