I have this dream of having my own land, a garden, a couple of cows, some chickens, and just living a quiet life homesteading and writing. I think this is a pretty common dream. Most of us probably indulge in some variation of it. So many fieldworkers, accustomed to a close entanglement with the landscape in which they live, envision this future. Many urban dwellers do, too. I think it’s worth examining.
Some of the top hobbies for retired people are hiking, gardening and birding. Acknowledging that most people don’t get to retire, and retirement is an upper/middle class privilege, retirement asks a basic question: if you didn’t have to work, what would you do? If money were not an issue? If you had all the time in the world? After all of this comes crumbling down, where do you want to be? Where do you see yourself feeling most safe, most happy, most fulfilled? What do people raised in western culture starve for? What do we attempt to return to in retirement?
Hiking, gardening and birding are all “nature” based activities, that are not just about existing among trees, but about interacting with other species, KNOWING other species, plant and animal alike. About seeking connection to an ecosystem. Gardening pulls your fingers deep into the soil, draws your eyes to the slow growth of the plants in your charge. Hiking carries your body deep into a landscape, feet planted on the meandering of a trail, sweat paying homage to the miles gone. Waking up in a tent to hear the birds, and the rustle of trees. Leaving people and all our constructions behind. Birding attunes you to the feathered world that teems around us — what is a soothing background sound to someone is full of information to you. You hear the avian population declare itself, note the comings and goings of the season in the changes of this soundscape. You watch their feathered forms flit around in the trees, and smile, because you can know them. Connection. We seek connection. But what is connection?
When we look for love, we seek connection, too. We want to know and be known, intimately. Western culture generally frames this need around romantic relationships. I feel like our culture is obsessed with pets and romantic partners. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because we’re so starved for connection and intimacy with other forms of life that we try to wring it out of our partners or our pets. That’s a lot of pressure. But what is intimacy?
Intimacy requires trust and vulnerability. In the homesteading fantasy, your livelihood is tied to your immediate ecosystem. You have to trust that the chicken will lay an egg, that the cow will bear milk, that the garden will be fruitful. There are no guarantees. You respond to each other. You are in direct relationship. You cut out the army of middlemen characteristic of globalized, industrial systems. You are deeply intertwined with the ecosystem that sustains you because you also actively sustain it.
Love is about reciprocity. Taking care of land is about reciprocity, too. It’s about knowing and being known — by every plant and tree and bird and domestic animal. Caring and being cared for. About nurturing and being nurtured by other life. Everything is nature, but not everything is life. The thing about other living beings is that, like us, they have their own individuality and autonomy. That means they can surprise and charm us. They can be imperfect and unpredictable. A sudden bloom, an uneven leaf, a bird or animal in some unexpected antic. A pet’s eccentricities. A partner’s own thoughts and ways of being. Those are the things we fall in love with.
None of the inanimate physical surroundings we’re build from “nature” have those qualities. It’s like we’ve extracted all the material BENEFITS from ecosystems without the actual LIFE. So it all feels dead. We’ve separated ourselves from the ‘alive’ part through layers and layers of alienation. Often the legacy of life left in things is what draws us to them — the grain of wooden furniture, built by trees. The briny flavor of fish, the earthiness of a mushroom. The musk of leather. The softness of wool.
It seems like this homesteading dream, and birding, and gardening, are all attempts to reconnect with the part of the world that is alive. We literally evolved to exist in relationship with an ecosystem. There is something about it that feels like home. I think it also helps us feel the texture of our own aliveness. We fill our houses with plants and flowers. We see the curl of a leaf or the soft brown eyes of a cow in ourselves. We’re like, ah, yes, I am human. This body, this mind, lives as human, in relation to all other life.
What non-human life forms do you interact with on a daily basis, beyond house plants or a pet? What do you love about your pet? How does that love initially take shape? What do you like about forests? About ‘wilderness’? About gardens? How much of what surrounds you is lifeless? inanimate? How much of it came from something that was once alive? When you think of your perfect home, how much more life does it harbor that what’s around you right now?
Trust and believe that any physical location in which humans can live is also an ecosystem. Other species do not recognize western society’s demarcations. Sunlight falls everywhere, and everywhere things will grow. Can’t afford to buy land? Yeah, me neither. But you don’t have to OWN an ecosystem in order to have a relationship with it. We are so conditioned to take stock of the world in economic terms. We think that to connect with something non-human it is necessary to own it, to put it in our homes that we also own, to have our name on a piece of paper indicating our total control over that land. But “land” is everything that grows and teems and sings around us, the ecosystem that exists independent of our human constructions. What weeds grow on your sidewalk? What birds alight on the trees? Learning these things helps me feel the living embrace of my world. And that, friends, is a beautiful thing.