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October 2013

Basic Training

Milking goats, drinking wine and embracing community at the Adirondack Rural Skills and Homesteading Festival

“I love this stuff. Going back to simple living. It gives me a warm feeling inside. You know, I dream of retiring in a yurt.”

That’s Kelly, from Peru. Peru, the suburb of Plattsburgh. Not exactly a place you’d immediately think of as a nexus of urban complexity. We’re talking outside of a yurt, sharing our fantasies of someday living in a one-room canvas cupcake. The yurt, modeled after the shelters of the nomadic peoples of the Asian steppes, is one of the dozens of exhibits and demonstrations that comprise the Adirondack Rural Skills and Homesteading Festival, held the last Saturday in September on a small meadow in the forest at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center.

Kelly is beaming, happy to be here. And so are her husband and teenage daughter. They recently moved from a house in the country to one near the school in Peru to get closer to the activities that be­come more and more important to many high schoolers. “We used to have an old homestead,” offers the husband. “Kelly raised chickens and goats. We were on the cusp of buying an old farm. Our work changed, so we are living in a little suburban house now. We would like to get back to the simpler lifestyle.”

I ask if it was hard to sell the kids on homesteading. “For my daughter, no,” says Kelly. “She always could be a little prairie girl. But my son, on the other hand, is the video gamer. He doesn’t think this is so cool and wants nothing to do with it. He wouldn’t come to this thing today. It’s interesting; they were raised in the same family, but they’re two totally different kids.” Two roads, as was said, diverged in a yellow wood. Laura Ingalls Wilder gathers wildflowers on one, while Madden NFL 13 blitzes on the other.

After our paths diverge I wander down the hill to take in some of the other sights. There’s a lot to choose from: lectures and demonstrations for beef cattle, backyard chickens, birchbark baskets, “primitive skills,” canning foods, fly-tying, mushrooming, managing your woodlot, green community planning, handcrafting a longbow and milking your goat (if you take that plunge). It is one of those ideal late fall days, with partly cloudy skies dimming the light just enough that the yellows, reds and oranges of the hardwoods pop out against the greens and browns of the evergreens. I hear the jingle of harnesses and the blowing of draft horses. A chain saw fires up at a logging demonstration. The rich popping rumble of an old Farmall tractor burbles away as one of the Paul Smith’s professors gives an antique tractor operation and maintenance workshop. Gentle Adirondack folk music melds with the chatter of visitors and exhibitors amid the tables and tents of the main exhibit space. An MC hawks a firewood raffle to benefit the student forestry club. You inhale the homesteading romance with every breath: a blend of fall leaves, sawdust, fresh-pressed cider and small-engine exhaust.

I recognize that I am captivated by the idea of homesteading as well, and I must be careful not to become intoxicated by some unreal vision, some TV fantasy that runs through my imagination in 44-minute episodes. So I resolve to get real, to ask a few questions. I track down the voluble, broadcast-ready MC, professor Brett McLeod, who teaches forestry and natural resource economics at Paul Smith’s.

“September is international homesteading education month,” he says, when I ask how the event started. “All over the country there have been grassroots homesteading fairs. I started talking to Adirondack regional organizations who each said, ‘We’d love to be there, and we know someone who does something else. I can do a canning workshop but I know someone who does beekeeping.’ So it grew from there.”

I ask him the question that drew me here: Why is homesteading so hot now? “I think a lot of things have tipped at the same time,” Brett replies. “The rise of the local food movement, and people running the rat race who want to slow their lives down. Then we had a series of events starting with Y2K and the September 11th attacks, and then the stock market crash of 2008. These events all made for a perfect storm for people who wanted to reclaim their lives. I remember after September 11th, people said they wanted to be in control of something.”

Tipping points, convergence. A need for control. I could see it. There is a hint of the reactionary in some of this, a judgment about the overwhelming current of mainstream values, economy and life. There is something of the archaic wedded to the cutting edge in the gathering confluence of localism, food consciousness, globalism and interconnectivity. It’s different at some basic yet critical level from what has happened before, in the back-to-the-land movements of the ’60s and ’70s.

Brett says, “Today, homesteading has been reinvented as a community-centered movement as opposed to an individualistic movement based on a false notion of self-reliance.” What do you mean? I ask. “When people try homesteading they soon realize they need a community to make it work, whether it’s having someone to watch your animals when you go away or needing to borrow a tool that you can’t or don’t need to buy yourself. Some people have referred to it as crafted interdependence. You intentionally decide to scale everything down to your community, to be self-reliant at the household level, but dependent upon this smaller network outside of that.” So, crafted interdependence. People who want to be self-reliant, but become part of a synergistic web of community support. Independent dependence. It doesn’t need to make sense, and it sounds about right to me.

Goats are so adorable. I love their sideways floppy ears, the bulging bellies and rough coats, how they like to have their heads scratched, and even those slit-iris devil eyes. I spend some time talking with Rose Bartiss, the president, chief ambassador and webmaster of the Adirondack Goat Club. She and a partner are running a goat demonstration booth, along with Rose’s lively young daughter, who clearly sees the goats more as adored pets than as the foundation of a neo-homesteading do­mestic economy. Rose is in teaching mode, explaining the principles and requirements of goat husbandry: the commitment and the many benefits. It turns out that you can’t just milk the goats. You need to take another step if you ever want to see a drop of milk. “If you want goat milk,” explains Rose, “you have to breed the goats, have pregnant goats and then baby goats. You milk them twice a day for 12 months or 18 months. You have to think of yourself as a farmer.” This is starting to sound a bit, well, involved.

She continues: “And goats beget chickens. People with goats accumulate animals.”

Hmm. Really? But then you get goat milk, goat cheese, cashmere sweaters. Good things—I’m with you. But you also get male goats, which, according to Rose, stink and get riled up during their rutting season. Not the best pets or neighbors. What’s a backyard homesteader to do? Sharpen your knife.

And so we arrive at the third rail of carnivorous neo-homesteading. The Rubicon that beckons to be crossed. The River Styx. Some personal background: My family has backyard chickens. We eat the eggs, but have no workable end-of-life plan for the hens. My meat-eating children live in willful denial and will not let me complete that trope we learned from Disney’s metaphysical treatise, The Lion King. You’ve heard it: “Circle of Life.” It’s clear that many of the attendees of this day’s festival have not paid the silent ferryman either.

Promptly at 2:30, professor Joe Orefice conducts a standing-room-only, experiential lecture-demonstration of how to invert a chicken, stuff it head-down through the neck of a Clorox bottle nailed to a tree and use one’s pocket knife to sever the arteries supplying the chicken’s head with life. Two boys volunteer to hold the dying chickens aloft as they bleed out. Joe does this with admirable respect for the life of the birds and relates what he has learned about the most hu­mane and least painful way to do this incredibly common, yet altogether too-invisible chore, at least invisible to the meat-eating pacifists in my family. This is a chicken. Yet, it’s clear that all that great grass-fed beef, pork and goat travels the same path. The folks on the other sides of the tables have lived this, accept it and get on with it. I imagine many of the attendees, like me, think long and hard about taking this big step, which doesn’t comport with homesteading’s romance in our minds’ eyes.

“I never enjoy killing these animals,” says Joe. “But it’s part of the lifestyle. It’s part of most of our lifestyles, but we just don’t see it.” Or choose not to.

Later, I talk with Bill from Lake Clear. He’s a retired builder who has lived off the grid in the past, and now has grandchildren whom he is encouraging to adopt aspects of the homesteading life. But he is aware of both the idealism and the harder reality of the choice. “I love seeing the younger people latching on to what they perceive as simplicity, but it’s really not. Living this way is character-building. It’s all a lot of hard work. This way of life has some simplicity, but there’s nothing really simple about it.”

We talk about how the lifestyle brings individuals together, and he points out that one of the beautiful things about it is how it blends the assets and needs of people of all ages. “You need intergenerational cooperation. When you get older, you’ve got your brains and expertise, you become the wise person, and help the youngsters by directing their muscle power and teaching them.”

I end the day at the booth of a local vineyard, Hid-In-Pines, based in Morrisonville. The friendly host is allowing me to sample different varieties of his wine. We’re a long way from Napa Valley, but something about the flavors reminds me of Adirondack wood, air, water and sun. I reflect on where the homesteading movement is coming from, where it’s going. How it represents a resolution of the eternal paradox of self-isolation and communion with others. I think about another remark that Bill made, that stays with me as I drive back home to my chickens, my house in the village of Saranac Lake, my own hybrid lifestyle.

“Homesteading,” Bill says, requires “bringing it down to the human level, where you’re the machine.” But what about the people around you? “Really,” he says, “the machine is the community, and if you lose your community, you lose your humanity.”

P.S. I bought the wine, but not the goats.

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