Simple Living Archive


Q&A with Philip Ackerman-Leist: Up Tunket Road

Friday, September 24th, 2010

For seven years Philip Ackerman-Leist and his wife, Erin, lived without electricity or running water in an old cabin in the beautiful but remote hills of western New England. As they slowly forged their farm and homestead, Philip and Erin embraced the joys of simple living while also acknowledging its frustrations and complexities. In his inspiring book, Up Tunket Road, Ackerman-Leist shares those adventures, foibles, and epiphanies.

Chelsea Green Publishing: The title of your new book, Up Tunket Road, is a bit of a play on words. Where is Tunket Road and how did you get there?

Philip Ackerman-Leist: Yes, “Tunket” is a curious word—an old word with an unclear origin. But it does appear in old texts as a mild epithet, a toned-down curse word that replaces a somewhat stronger word. The classic example seems to be “What in the Tunket?!” Essentially, “What in the hell?!” A book of old Vermont place names that I found several years after settling into our homestead actually used the example, “Why in the Tunket would he want to live there?” The irony, I guess, is quite clear.

As for how we ended up there, it’s pretty much what I would tell my students not to do when looking for a job or a piece of land. I took a job with no contract and I found a piece of land by following my gut more than my head. My wife, Erin, and I came to Vermont at the invitation of my old friend, Tom Benson, who was the new president of Green Mountain College and was in the midst of transforming the college into his vision of an “environmental liberal arts college.” I came to build a college farm and a sustainable agriculture curriculum. I didn’t realize how controversial an idea that was until I’d arrived. Erin and I decided that regardless of how things worked out at the college, we’d found a captivating region to settle down in, so we decided to choose a place that would work for us no matter whether my vision for a college farm came to fruition or not.

When I talk to my students about finding a piece of land where they can farm or homestead, I always suggest that they look long and hard, comparing real estate values and options, checking soils maps, and visiting parcels in different seasons, if possible. But I just got up one day and decided it was time to find a piece of land. I left Erin and her mom that morning and said I was going to go find a place to live. They laughed and let me go my merry way. But I actually found it within hours of setting out. In fact, our place up Tunket Road was the first real estate ad that I circled in the local flyer that morning. And, at less than $40,000, it was the only place we could afford that had some semblance of an inhabitable building on it!

CGP: The book opens with a scene of you in a classroom at Green Mountain College asking your students what it means to homestead. And you revisit that question throughout the book. Following your 13-year experience building a homestead in Vermont with your wife, Erin, what conclusions have you come to about what it means to homestead in the 21st century?

P-AL: Well, it ain’t what it was for Thoreau, or even for the Nearings—even though there are valuable vestiges of both in our cultural assumptions about why one should embark on such an adventure. It’s still about not only searching for a meaningful existence, but also carefully crafting it. It’s still about wanting to be connected to the natural world. And it’s still about pushing against the status quo in a relatively quiet manner. But some things strike me as very different in the 21st century.

For starters, we’re much more distant—chronologically and often geographically—from homesteading traditions. Our culture is quickly casting aside basic skills and invaluable parts of our human inheritance. For example, as we rely on industry to produce our food, clothing, furniture, and even our entertainment, we lose the skills we need to produce those things for ourselves. As that happens, we also lose other valuable things that go along with those skills: heirloom vegetables with niches and stories, old tools that make ecological sense, livestock breeds that offer hope for sane and humane animal agriculture, ways of looking at the forest for sustenance, ways of learning that involve patience and humility instead of credits and certifications, a waning work ethic, and even an innate sense of satisfaction of what we’ve accomplished at the end of any given day.

But perhaps the most distinct thing about homesteading in the 21st century is the fact that we face an unprecedented swarm of interrelated ecological crises…and I’m neither a pessimist nor a conspiracy theorist. I’m just someone who cares about how we treat our collective ecological inheritance and each other. It’s not simply the scale of these crises that makes homesteading in the 21st century so different from previous eras—rather, it’s the fact that homesteaders can no longer afford to be reclusive individualists. In essence, ecology—the science that we love to tout—has smoked us out of our holes and hermitages. We’re all in this quandary together, and the idea of retreating instead of stepping out and up is no longer viable in my view. If we believe that we have ideas and lifestyles relevant to countering our current ecological and social crises, then we need to step out of the shadows and offer what we can to help find solutions. If we’re good ecologists, then we can no longer pretend that we’re somehow separate from the problems. We’re part of the problem, but we can also be at the vanguard of the solutions. That said, we also need to be humble and recognize that there’s a lot more to learn once we engage public processes toward change—not just about process and leverage and open-minded persistence, but also about the interdisciplinary complexity of the problems we’re trying to tackle.

CGP: You’ve also lived in very different regions from Vermont (the South Tirol in Europe, North Carolina). How much is homesteading a localized thing, based on the specifics of place? Are there any universal principles you’ve discovered that seem to apply to any setting?

PA-L: Homesteading, when it’s rooted in place, is probably serving one of its most important functions in our modern world: preserving cultural traditions and conserving a region’s resources, ranging from specific livestock breeds developed and adapted to the region’s ecological niche to stewarding the land out of deep respect and humility. Homesteads harbor native knowledge through living practices. But homesteads are also sites of experimentation—living laboratories, in some ways—places where homesteaders try to wed the parts of a place’s history that still make sense with new ideas and technologies that help us confront our current ecological and social challenges.

That said, there are plenty of homesteading principles and practices that seem to transcend place: a focus on growing healthy food, generating renewable energy, living lightly (not living-lite), balancing independence with interdependence, and making conscious technological choices. In some ways, it’s more about intent than it is about place.

CGP: As a professor, you’re very much a part of the academic world and yet this book is also about the education you received outside the classroom from some old-time Vermonters. What was the most valuable lesson you learned and who taught it to you?

PA-L: It’s a toss up, I guess. Living in Vermont is an ongoing experience in weather extremes. You go from minus twenty degrees one day to unfathomable mud a few weeks later. And when I say mud, I mean mud—mud that will trap a truck or a cow in ways you’d never imagine. Our dairy farmer neighbor, Donald, taught me an important lesson that I don’t think he ever quite articulated—I’ve just watched Donald and his family live it. Mud, snow, rain, drought, mechanical failures—all of the things that can seem insurmountable at any given moment—eventually you work your way through all of them. Sometimes it’s a matter of just waiting it out, knowing that things will work themselves out before too long, and other times you just have to work like hell to fix the problem with a balance of brains and brawn.

And then there was Carl, who deservedly earned his own chapter in the book. Carl was dogged in his determination to make sure that I got to know the people and the terrain that we academics don’t always pay enough attention to unless it’s through a survey, a piece of literature, or some sort of spatial analysis. Academics tend to be very comfortable in confronting local people and places in abstract ways, but we don’t always do such a good job at building relationships with our neighbors and our local terrain—and Carl knew that. He felt like anything I did—whether it was on my homestead, in the classroom, or on the nascent college farm—had to done with the wisdom, lore, and backdrop of the people and places surrounding the college.

In the end, I owe most of my success as a teacher in Vermont to Donald’s quiet lessons and Carl’s famous “Monday night tours” through the region to get me educated and up to snuff.

CGP: You and Erin have faced and surmounted some incredible (and incredibly funny) challenges. What was the biggest challenge?

PA-L: Probably the biggest challenge was building two barns and then a house in the face of winter. Inevitably, with each of those big building projects, winter loomed, even in June…just the thought of how to get any building to the point of being roofed and enclosed before winter was on my mind at the beginning of the summer. There are days you can forget about it and relax, but there’d better not be too many of those days, or you’re gonna end up in trouble come late fall. The epitome of that was the Thanksgiving following the summer that we built the frame of the house.

Erin’s family was here with us, and we had that weekend to get all of the windows and doors installed. As fate would have it, there was also a huge storm that blew in at the same time. So not only were we facing gale-force winds while installing all of those glass-laden wind foils, but the incessant driving rain causing severe flooding that then created a breach in the dam of our new pond. Erin’s folks were troopers on all counts, half of them helping to get the windows and doors installed with sleet flying through the openings while the rest of them were helping to levee the pond and dig out the spillway. Sometimes I wonder why anyone ever returns for a visit…

CGP: What has brought you the greatest joy up Tunket Road?

PA-L: Probably any number of evening meals with family and friends after a long day’s work—or sometimes a long day of play, although the two often seem to go hand-in-hand. Nothing rivals the fellowship that follows a good hard day of tangible work.

Clearing out my email inbox gives me very little satisfaction. But clearing rocks or brush from a pasture or even cleaning out the chicken house every few months—those jobs I find deeply gratifying…and particularly fun when done with friends and our kids. There’s nothing that brings me deeper contentment than watching our children find ways to amuse themselves either by helping or by playing on the periphery of a job. The kids learn about work while they teach me about the spontaneity of discovery.

CGP: You suggest in the end that homesteading is more of a state of mind than anything else. The popular vision of going “back to the land” is still very attractive to some people. But is it just as possible to make a homestead in the suburbs, or even in a city?

PA-L: Absolutely. In fact, it’s vital that we readjust our cultural understandings and expectations of what homesteading is and where it can take place. When we look at the demographic shifts throughout the world—more people now living in cities than in rural areas, a burgeoning global population, and increased fragmentation of our landscapes—we have to begin to reassess our cultural assumptions about what homesteading is. Is it about a close association with nature? Sure it is. But that close association can come in many different forms, and I think that we need to open up the homesteading tradition so that others can join in.

One can lead a life closely linked to the seasons in any environment. Think of the power and pleasure that comes from container gardening—maxing out the ecological potential of a balcony or a backyard patio to produce food. That kind of experience can be as intimate and rich as much of what I do here in the backwoods of Vermont. In fact, one can make the argument that such a life might have a smaller ecological footprint than mine. The key is what we do and why—not where.

Actually, I think that suburban and urban homesteaders have a lot of things to teach people like me!

Philip Ackerman-Leist is the author of Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader, available now.

Radical homemakers reclaim the simple life

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

An inspirational, grassroots movement is afoot in the Bay Area (yes, another one), and it’s going to make the world a better place. No, really. Granted, this region has sprouted its fair share of grassroots movements; however, this particular crusade – dubbed radical homemaking by New York writer and pioneering radical homemaker Shannon Hayes – seems particularly well suited to our socially responsible, food-obsessed, eco-zealous neck of the woods.

In her recent book, “Radical Homemakers” (Left to Write Press; $23.95), Hayes, 36, makes a deeply personal and well-supported case – to be expected from someone who holds a doctorate in sustainable agriculture and community development from Cornell University – for shunning consumer culture in favor of a life of complete and utter domesticity.

Although she had eyes on a college professorship, Hayes jumped off the career track a decade ago, along with her husband, Bob, a former county planner. Aching to “honor their deepest dreams and values” (in the radical-homemaker vernacular, these virtues include family, community, social justice and the environment), the couple moved back to her family’s farm in upstate New York, where, she writes in her book, “subsistence farming, food preservation, barter and frugal living are a matter of course.”

A radical notion

While the idea of banishing all dependence on wealthy corporations to practice an Emersonian life of simplicity, authenticity and self-reliance resonates soundly with many Bay Area residents – these are tenets of the 1960s counterculture, after all – making such a progressive lifestyle change seems, in a word, drastic. But they’re not called radical homemakers for nothing.

“Our society has indoctrinated us with a lot of fear,” says Hayes, who writes books for a (modest) living – fortified, of course, by the money saved from the farm’s ready supply of grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured pork and poultry, and abundant fruits and vegetables. “Fear of living without a formal job title, the security of a regular paycheck, stepping outside of our educational infrastructure or even the corporate food system. Radical homemakers are pretty tired of all that fear.”

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/08/21/HOBM1ET424.DTL#ixzz0xRhUylJQ

Radical Homemakers is available in our bookstore.

Shannon Hayes: On Facing Judgment

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

I thought I was emotionally prepared to publish Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture this spring. For three years, I endured more insomnia than somnolence as I fretted over my choice of language and confronted myth after myth that bound Americans tightly to an unsustainable way of life. My husband Bob would duck into my office with a cup of coffee in the morning, and I’d stare at him wide-eyed, frightened by some of the ideas that were flowing through my fingertips and onto the computer screen. It was OK to try to live by them. It was another matter altogether to collect them on paper, put them out for the world to read, and accept that perfect strangers would be able to peer in on our own home life, free to judge our choices.

By the time the book came out, I felt ready to stand behind the concepts it promoted, no matter how outlandish they seemed to the broad American public. After researching so many households, I was ready to talk about the ideas.

It turns out I was not ready for the Internet.

The vast majority of my life is lived off-line; thus, I didn’t fully understand that the Internet had become a 21st century high-speed public pillory. I have been e-decried for being naive, dangerous, anti-God, anti-public education, anti-feminist; for my reproductive choices, my food choices, my health care choices, my housing choices, furniture choices, livelihood choices. I thought the electronic world would be about debate and discussion. It is often more about judgment.

Admittedly, I’m sensitive to judgment. Like many writers, I have an ego that bruises more easily than an overripe banana. I have, however, discovered the true beauty of an electronic pillory: I can just turn it off when I’ve had enough.

The garden has too many weeds, I didn’t make jelly yet, I’m so disorganized I can’t find a clean pair of socks. Radical Homemaker? Ha. Try radical slob. Or radical procrastinator.

Of course, then I have to face my own self-judgments. The garden has too many weeds, the blueberries seem sepulchral, my house is a mess, I’m behind on the new book, I haven’t inventoried my canning needs for the year, my fridge needs cleaning, I need more exercise, my bangs are too long, I’m not reading enough, I haven’t gone to visit my grandfather lately, I didn’t make jelly yet, I’m so disorganized I can’t find a clean pair of socks. Radical Homemaker? Ha. Try radical slob. Or radical procrastinator.

These past two weeks, I have an excuse. My daughters Saoirse and Ula are taking their annual swimming lessons at the town pool. Bob offers to take them, but each morning, I insist on doing it myself. In part, I am keeping away from the computer, offering myself a reprieve from cyber-judgment. The other reason is because I learn so much watching the girls in the pool.

This is the fourth year that Saoirse has taken these classes. In that time, we’ve graduated through only one swimming level. Swimming may not be her best subject, but she wants to learn. And that’s why I love to watch her. I don’t know if it is because she is not familiar with the protocols of formal schooling (she is homeschooled), or if it is just in her personality, but Saoirse seems completely oblivious to the idea of “keeping up with the class.”

Watching her, I can see she has a list of skills in her head that she wants to master. She stretches on her back and floats on the water until her face is completely immersed and she sinks to the bottom. Then she goes into a bob, and practices blowing bubbles from the floor of the pool. She comes up for air and talks to herself about what she needs to do differently, oblivious to the opinions of those around her, then tries again. She has not developed enough skills to go up another level. But she doesn’t care. She simply relishes the accomplishments that she is having on her own. She has mastered more swimming techniques this year than ever before, and she is truly (and justifiably) proud of herself.

I’m proud of her, too. I find myself inspired by her ability to tune out any judgment that may be swirling around her (She’s the tallest kid in the class! She’s talking to herself! Why doesn’t she stand still in line and wait like the other kids? How many more times is she going to repeat this class?). Instead, she tunes in to what her heart tells her she needs to do.

I resolve to release all the judgment from my mind, to go forward with a free heart, work toward what I feel is important, and disregard the rest.

I think about all the judgment I hear in my own head about my daily failings, or the judgments that I read online about my personal life and work. I resolve to release it all from my mind, to go forward with a free heart, work toward what I feel is important, and disregard the rest.

Saoirse’s assiduousness and dedication pay off.  Two days ago, her teacher noticed her off in her little world, blowing bubbles from the bottom of the pool. It was one of the skills the other kids needed to learn, so she called Saoirse in to the center of the group to demonstrate. I flushed with pride. However humble it may seem, it was still a moment of glory. I watched her smile privately when the teacher chose her, but she maintained her equanimity and concentration as she inhaled a giant gulp of air, stood up on her toes, then (without even holding her nose!), curled her long legs up under her and dropped to the floor of the pool as she blew a glorious stream of air to the surface for her classmates. Above the water, her teacher pointed to the bubbles haloing my daughter’s head and said, “See? That’s how it’s done.”

When she was out of air, Saoirse unwrapped her gloriously long legs and used them to propel herself in a single magnificent shot straight out of the water…

…And straight into the wall of the pool, which she hit with her mouth, slamming her brand new two front teeth (not all the way descended) right into her upper lip. My, how she did howl.

I can be such a clueless parent at moments like this. (Oops. There I go, judging myself again.) I gave her a wave to come join me outside the water, and assessed her lip. It wasn’t too bad. The brand new teeth held up to the accident, and there was only a small amount of blood. I tried to decide what to do. Do I tell her to be strong, toughen up, and re-join the class? Do I coddle her and let her quit for the day? She sniffled and tried to regain her composure, and I encouraged her to put some ice on it, then stay by the water and re-join her class when she was ready. I backed away from her, worried about being seen as an over-bearing parent. Her shoulders shrunk together as I moved back.  Her spine seemed to wither within her. I watched her for a few moments, then brought her a towel, wrapped her up, and led her to the shade of a nearby tree farther from the pool, where we could sit and watch together. Her little sobs continued, interrupted only by the occasional blurting of “Mommy! It HURTS!” I tried to explain that the wound wasn’t really bad, that it would feel better by the next day. I encouraged her to pay attention to the class so that she wouldn’t miss anything. Saoirse tried to calm herself again and focus, but the sobs sporadically flowed forth, regardless. “It HUURRRTTTSSS!” she wailed again.

To hell with swimming lessons. There was nothing more to be gained from this. I wrapped my arms around my little girl and ushered her off to the empty changing room to get her warm and dry. Sniffling, she pulled off her bathing suit and handed it to me, her skinny bare chest sunken in sadness. I toweled her off again, then folded my arms around her. “Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“Are you worried what the other kids think?”

“Oh Mommy!” She crumbled into my arms and began to bawl. “Yes!”

I enveloped around her, making myself as large as I possibly could, in an effort to shield my little girl from any and all judgment that could possibly plague her in her life. We just remained there, dripping water that pooled up around my pants, soaking me through until it looked as though I’d had an accident. I didn’t care. I waited until her breathing slowed before I spoke.

“Can I tell you something?”

“What?”

“I’m always worried what people think. And they don’t always think very nice things.”

“About YOU?”

“Sure. And you know what else? They get to write whatever they want. Up on the computer. Where anyone else can read it. It’s kind of like shouting it out in public.”

“Oh Mommy! That’s HORRIBLE!” And she threw her arms around my neck and resumed her crying, now, in part, for my benefit. Then she quieted a little and pulled away. “What do you do?”

“I do just like you. I get upset. Then I tell Daddy, or Grammie, or Pop Pop. They usually help me feel better. Or I cuddle with you and Ula.”

Slowly Saoirse released herself from my arms and began to pull on her clothes.

“So it hurts you, too?”

“Yup. Not for very long, though. Then I usually learn something from it, or I make a joke about it. Or tell a story about it. You will, too, about today.”

Dressed, she curled up in my arms once more, this time smiling just a little. I kissed the top of her head. “You know, I was really proud watching you today in the water.”

“Yeah, but then I felt really, really stupid.” She said the word with such emphasis, it practically took three-dimensional form as it pushed out of her bruised lips.

“It’ll pass,” I assured her, and we hugged some more.

Even my little girl, who seemed so liberated from judgment, was inflicting it on her own self. I thought about all those spiritual teachings I’ve read about, ways to release oneself from judgment. That’s a good idea, but hard as hell to do. I can certainly try. So can Saoirse. But it’ll probably happen again and again. And for that, I am thankful that we have each other, and Daddy, Ula, Grammie, and Pop Pop, and our friends. One of us is bound to hold the key that will unlock the other from the chains. Whatever bonds judgment can put on our souls, thankfully, unconditional love can usually break them.


Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.This article was originally published by Yes! Magazine.

Up Tunket Road review on Mother Nature Network

Friday, August 6th, 2010

This review originally appeared on Mother Nature Network.

Lately there’s been a rash of books published on sustainability and self-reliance for people seeking refuge from the economic crisis. A kitchen garden, low overhead and a few chickens pecking in the yard seem like common sense during nervous times.Readers in need of guidance can snuggle up to Up Tunket Road, a memoir on homesteading in rural Vermont.

Author Philip Ackerman-Leist is well suited for the task as a professor at Green Mountain College, a crunchy liberal arts school where he’s the director of the Farm and Food Project.

Earning a bachelor degree in philosophy, it seems, was excellent preparation for the carpenter-turned-homesteader. He’s as adroit framing a life as he is building a barn.

In 1996 he and his wife, Erin, embarked on the ultimate DIY project, in what became a 14-year experiment of living off the grid: purchasing a 25-acre farm on the edge of ruin for $39,000.

As a city guy, back-to-the-land types from middle-class backgrounds perplex me, opting into a lifestyle that our great-grandparents abandoned long ago, even as farm communities continue to struggle. Living on the land was precarious then and continues to be difficult.My first impression of the couple’s early years of homesteading was that these people are nuts, and particularly hardy ones at that, starting with the decision to occupy a 12-by-24 ramshackle cabin set deep in the woods and braving sub-zero temperatures without the benefit of electricity or running water.

The author, however, proves to be no dilettante, taking on challenges that would send most flatlanders packing. Testy cows, boot-sucking mud and vertiginous terrain are just part of the daily routine on the homestead.

Subtitled The Education of a Modern Homesteader, Ackerman-Leist’s book offers a compelling account of what it means to be homesteader in the age of the Internet. It turns out that leading the simple life isn’t so simple after all. There’s a mortgage to pay, animals to tend and fields to restore amid the ongoing struggle to balance the obligations of work, home and family life.

He emphasizes the value of manual labor and sweat equity in building his home. None of it would have been possible without the help of his like-minded spouse, and years of hands-on experience dedicated to understanding the economics of rural life, tending to his to grandfather’s orchard as well as managing a traditional farm in the Tyrolean Alps.

Up Tunket Road lacks the lyricism of Goat Song, or the humor of Farm City. As a narrator Ackerman-Leist is too earnest to be truly funny, and too matter-of-fact for poetics. Instead he offers less a how-to on homesteading than a why.

He provides a cogent argument for a lifestyle that our great-grandparents would likely understand: Food is culture, cultivate good friends, and borrow money when you have to, not because you can.

New England is perhaps the most beloved and certainly the most storied landscape in the United States. The compactness and diversity of the terrain attracts all types, from moneyed bankers to the odd recluse. There’s something powerfully evocative about the region’s towering trees, verdant mountains and patchwork of towns that continues to lure many would-be lifestyle refugees to the region. Ackerman-Leist is no exception.

That leads to soaring passages that even armchair naturalists can appreciate:

“The big white pines surrounding the cabin served as sentinels for the forest edge. The first tree species to begin filling the open gaps in the landscape, these pines seemed like greedy hovering family members bearing witness to the dying pasture’s last-minute will and testament — uttered in a surrendering tone, fearful of the forest’s stealthy advance.”

The book turns out to be Outward Bound for the soul, a meditation on hard-won luxuries rather than deprivations to be suffered and endured. It’s much like drawing that first sip of beer after a long, hot summer hike — preferably microbrewed.

Shannon Hayes: Leaving it Up to Them

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

This article was originally published by Yes! Magazine.

Shortly after her second birthday, we noticed that Ula (now three) was developing a wandering eye. She had difficulty seeing the pictures in her books, and flatly refused to eat with a fork. We took her to a developmental optometrist, and spent an hour in an examination. She needed glasses.Ula disagreed. The first pair, made extra-durable to survive a child’s play, had various pieces snapped off of them in less than a week. The second pair was thrown off during a hike up a dirt road. We went back and found they’d been crushed by a passing car. Subsequent pairs were snapped in half, had the ear pieces broken off, or the lenses removed. Ula then took to hiding her glasses. We found them in the perennial beds, in potted plants, tucked in my underwear drawer, dangling from a screw underneath a picnic table. Since we try not to be wasteful consumers, I’m too embarrassed to divulge the number of glasses we’ve lost or destroyed in a single year. Our optometrist has grown annoyed with us. He pronounced Ula the most non-compliant patient he’s had in a very long career working with children (We always knew she was destined to be exceptional).

I am often asked how I plan to keep my children on the farm, or at least out of the fray of our consumer culture. My answer is simple. I can’t.

It isn’t as though Ula doesn’t need the glasses. With them, she can find food with her fork, enjoy detailed illustrations, put together puzzles, and investigate garden bugs. We have spent countless hours attempting to get her to wear them, trying everything from coercion to bribery. It doesn’t matter. I am convinced Ula came into our family with the singular purpose of teaching us the meaning of free will.

That lesson has gone a long way. Because our lifestyle is deeply variant from the mainstream, I am often asked about how it will affect my children as they enter adulthood, how I plan to keep them on the farm, or at least out of the fray of our consumer culture. My answer is simple. I can’t. If I can’t make my kid wear her glasses, even when I know they are good for her, how the heck can I expect to control her choices in adulthood?

I received a beautiful letter from a veteran Radical Homemaker recently that really drives this point home. Marie (not her real name) and her husband both chose to forgo conventional careers, raising their daughters with no electrical appliances except a fridge, washing machine, lights and a radio. They’ve managed to raise their family on an almost non-existent income, making ends meet through part-time freelance work, skilled crafts, and music. Both daughters were homeschooled, and completed college through distance learning programs. Now ready to forge her own path in life, the eldest, Angelica (also not her real name) is armed with a boatload of resources. She is an accomplished musician, dancer, and craftsperson, and positively rich in her ability to live on very little. Then girl meets boy. And, much to her mother’s despair, discussions about big incomes, mortgages, and flat screen televisions ensue. The relationship progressed, and the young couple decided to move in together. Angelica began questioning the value of her unique lifestyle, and the young man urged her to “get a real job.”

balloons photo by Scarleth White
The Birthday Balloon
Somewhere in our consumer culture, we have confused material items with expressions of love: Shannon Hayes on taking back birthdays.

Fully aware that similar struggles might lie in my own children’s future, I hung on every word in Marie’s correspondence. I shared her angst in wondering what her daughter would do. One would think, from our level of concern, that Angelica was shooting heroine or breaking into houses. How funny, as Radical Homemaking parents, that the fears we hold for our children are that they should opt for the straight and narrow! But it is a genuine worry. We try to raise our children with the skills to require little from the Earth, to honor their hearts, relationships, and personal creativity. We hope that they will be able to move forward with freedom from our consumer culture, equipped with the resources to enjoy a lifestyle that honors social justice, family, community and the planet.

But as Ula has taught me, there is little we can do if our kids refuse our guidance, even if we think it is for the best. We must know in our hearts that we have lived our ideals, that we have demonstrated it is possible to live in a way that is true to our souls. The rest is up to them.

That seems to be working in Marie’s case. Just before moving in with her boyfriend, Angelica spent two weeks wrestling with his “get a real job” suggestion. Then she dumped him.

Now, if only I could get Ula to wear her glasses …


Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

A Professor Travels a Rocky Road to Find a Sustainable Life

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Scott Carlson is a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering architecture, sustainability, and energy.

Tinmouth, Vt.—During my recent travels in the Northeast, I stopped at Solarfest, a festival where environmentally oriented people could attend seminars on sustainable farming and alternative energy, hear some famous speakers, buy hippie clothes and confrontational bumper stickers, and eat bean burgers.

I was here to meet Philip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at Green Mountain College who was giving a talk based on the subject of his new book, Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader (Chelsea Green Publishing). The book, which recently got a glowing review in the Los Angeles Times, documents Mr. Ackerman-Leist’s views on the homesteading movement, along with stories about his own sometimes-difficult journey back to the land. (He and his wife lived in an old Vermont cabin without electricity or running water for seven years before he built a small, off-grid house on their acreage.)

I haven’t read the whole book, but I have read chunks of it, and they are outstanding—well-written and contemplative, with dashes of humor. In telling his story, Mr. Ackerman-Leist, who has a background both in sustainable farming and in philosophy, not only gives people a guide to homesteading but also grapples with some very big questions: What are the promises and perils of seeking a sustainable life? What is the true meaning of efficiency? What is the role of higher education in teaching sustainability and practical skills?

This is not a self-righteous book, and there seem to be no easy answers.

The following is one of the passages that Mr. Ackerman-Leist read at Solarfest—a passage that represents some of the qualities described above. It describes the day he and his wife, Erin, arrived at Green Mountain College. There, the young professor encountered an unlikely teacher, dressed in a campus-security uniform, to guide him on his quest to get back to the land. Enjoy …

Every homesteader needs a Virgil—a rooted local who can help one navigate the probability of purgatory, avoid a self-inflicted inferno (woodstove-related or not), and find the simple pleasures of the local paradise. These Virgils, guides into the geography and chronology of a place, can be found everywhere—in cities, suburbs, and small country towns, although they may be more anonymous and harder to find in well-populated areas. However, the best Virgils have a hard time remaining anonymous in smaller communities—places like Poultney, Vermont.

The Commons

Carl was the first person we had met when we pulled up to the college’s main entrance, towing a U-Haul trailer behind our pickup in May 1996. With his cigarette, slight speech impediment, and bearish belly, it was easy to wonder if we hadn’t run into a backwoods vestige of old New England, poorly disguised in an ill-fitting uniform of a college security officer—the result of questionable casting on the part of a director who had no choice but to work with the locals provided him. But anyone who thought Carl fit into any ready-made role suggesting ignorance or backwoods obliviousness was quickly disabused of that notion.

He would amble into most any social situation and usually interject just the right verbal wedge to work his way into the grain of the conversation. Sometimes he made sure folks felt the force of the wedge, but more often than not they barely noticed how he inserted himself into the dialogue. His wit and charm would soon hang in the air as thick as his ever-present trail of cigarette smoke. The occasional Korean student at the college would be particularly rattled on first encountering him, as he would shift abruptly from an American welcome to a casual greeting in Korean.

An astute observer of human character, Carl had a full repertoire of approaches—and reproaches—that he could use to deal with a spectrum of personalities and situations. Within just a few minutes of meeting him upon our initial arrival at the college, he had us divulging our hopes of homesteading, as well as of establishing a college farm on the campus.

“What do you know about this area?” The question was delivered with what I soon learned was his trademark skeptical glance, replete with a downward tilt of his head and a tightened brow.

“Not much,” I replied.

“Would you go to Wall Street and start investing with pesos?”

I must have responded with a blank look: It was my first encounter with Carl’s pedagogy, full of aphorisms and momentarily perplexing parables.

Carl courteously filled in the blank for me since it was apparently a sample question on my first test—something he would soon refuse to do. “Well, if you don’t know much about the people or the place, then how are you going to figure out what to grow in the garden, much less survive on your new homestead? You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” His eyes sparkled, and he let out a reassuring laugh. But then he looked at me, ready for something resembling an intelligent response on my part.

“Well, I guess I’ll have to start asking questions.” I’m sure my tone exuded more naive optimism than confidence.

“Yeah, but you’ll save yourself a helluva lot of time and maybe even money by asking the right questions to the right people. In my experience, you academic types spend too much time standing in front of the mirror and asking questions of the only person you see.”

He looked at me with constricted eyebrows. “There aren’t many people around anymore who’ve got the answers to the questions you don’t even know you have yet.” His face softened a bit. “I guess I better help you find them before they all die off. Otherwise you might not survive very long in these parts.”

He looked straight at me and took a long draw on his cigarette. “I don’t know if you’re worth keeping around,” and then he smiled and pointed to Erin with the dying red tip of the cigarette. “But I like her already.” Erin blushed, but not before grinning.

This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Up Tunket Road, The Education of a Modern Homesteader is available in our bookstore.

Shannon Hayes: The Real Battle is Elsewhere

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

To author Shannon Hayes, “radical homemakers are men and women who have chosen to make family, community, social justice and the health of the planet the governing principles of their lives.”

Her book Radical Homemakers articulated this concept for the 21st century, and lately the notion has been the ground for some healthy debate. The Boston Review published an issue entitled “Mothers Who Care too Much”, centered around a piece by Nancy Hirschmann who brings up some interesting thoughts about the future of feminism in relation to the renewed popularity of mothering.

A piece by Shannon Hayes in the same issue is a response to Hirschmann:

When my daughters wake up this morning, they will make themselves a fresh breakfast of homemade yogurt, topped with blueberries we froze last summer, and drizzled with honey from their Dad’s bees. My oldest is six, and we will probably spend a few minutes reviewing her math while my three-year-old plays with the dog. If anyone rushes out the door, it will be them, chasing after each other on a quest to find the most interesting bug in the garden.

I might be one of Hirschmann’s worst-case scenarios—women who seemingly have “turned their backs on the social resources invested in them” (I hold a PhD from Cornell). And perhaps even more distressing, I am an uncertified teacher, homeschooling my children. According to Hirschmann’s argument, I am failing in my responsibility to myself and my community in my refusal to join the conventional workforce. I would argue that I am fulfilling it to the greatest extent possible.

I’m part of a growing movement across the United States, Canada, and many other industrialized countries. We are the Radical Homemakers, and we work to promote four ends: ecological sustainability, social justice, and family and community well-being. We see ourselves as building a great bridge away from our existing extractive economy—in which corporate wealth is the foundation of economic health and ravaging our earth’s resources and exploiting our international neighbors are accepted as simply the costs of doing business—and toward a life-serving economy. In a life-serving economy, the goal, as the activist economist David Korten says, is to generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few. Our resources are sustained, our waters are kept clean, our air remains pure, and families can lead meaningful and joyful lives.

We build this bridge by resisting—as much as we can—involvement with the extractive economy (including many forms of conventional employment) and by making up for the personal financial shortfall by turning our homes from units of consumption into units of production on a local scale.

Read the whole article.

Other articles continuing the discussion:

This one is funny: Holler on Salon.com “I am a Radical Homemaking Failure”

This is a response by someone who started off amused, and ended up angry: Astyk response to Holler on ScienceBlogs: Myths of Incompetance or Just Not Made that Way”

The article by Nancy Hirschmann in the Boston Review, to which Shannon’s piece was a response:  “Mothers Who Care too Much”

Radical Homemakers is available in our bookstore.

Live Dangerously: Ten Easy Steps

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

This originally appeared in Yes! Magazine.

by Shannon Hayes

When I first released Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, I was advised to make a list of “easy steps for becoming a radical homemaker” as part of my publicity outreach materials. My shoulders slumped at the very thought: Three years of research about the social, economic, and ecological significance of homemaking, and I had to reduce it to 10 easy tips? I didn’t see a to-do list as a viable route to a dramatic shift in thinking, beliefs, and behaviors. But since the objective of such a list was smoother discussion and communication of Radical Homemaking ideas with the public, I did it.

I came up with the simplest things I could imagine—like committing to hanging laundry out to dry, dedicating a portion of the lawn to a vegetable garden, making an effort to get to know neighbors to enable greater cooperation and reduce resource consumption. I would perfunctorily refer back to them when radio dialogues flagged, when interviews seemed to be getting off track, or to distract myself when an occasional wave of personal sarcasm (I do have them on occasion) threatened to jeopardize an otherwise polite discourse about the book. After about 40 media interviews, I was pretty good at rattling them off, and I began to see their power and significance beyond helping me to be polite.

Every time a person sticks a clothespin on a pair of undies, he or she is saying, “I want a better world. And I’m willing to do what it takes.”

Take hanging out the laundry as an example. At the outset, it is deceptively simple: It saves money and resources, and it’s easy. As I spoke about line-drying laundry more, however, the suggestion took on more meaning. Of course everyone would like to hang out the laundry. But many people don’t do it. They’re too busy. Thus, the commitment to hanging out the laundry represents a commitment to slowing down—it means starting to align one’s daily household activity with the rhythms of nature. In my mind, hanging out the laundry moved from being a simple chore to being an act of meditation and reflection on a deeper, more profound commitment that a person wanted to make. Thus, draping shirts and socks on a clothesline wasn’t just about getting a chore done; it represented the new, sane world so many of us are working to create. Every time a person sticks a clothespin on a pair of undies, he or she is saying, “I want a better world. And I’m willing to do what it takes.” Laundry may be a simple first step, but it ultimately leads to something bigger.

Laundry became the central theme of a talk I gave recently in an affluent community, where golf course-quality lawns are ready at a moment’s notice as the backdrop for the season’s latest fad: large screen outdoor television sets. I was speaking at a community eco-festival, where volunteers were teaching residents about the importance of composting, solar panels, buying locally, and changing light bulbs. In my session, I talked about the power of living by one’s values, the misery of excessive consumption, the importance of social change, the deep fulfillment and happiness that results from living with less and having more.

To help me drive my point home, my husband Bob armed me with a seemingly endless collection of images of fellow radical homemaker’s lives: pictures of happy kids showing off their homemade toys, families gathering for feasts, piles of tomatoes on a kitchen counter following an early fall harvest, a sink full of grapes ready for juicing, friends in their backyard gardens, smiling bike riders. At the end of my talk, I was presented with a single question from a man wearing an expensive watch: “Americans fall on a spectrum with money,” he explained, holding his hands about a foot apart from each other. “Most of the people you’re talking about fall on this end,” he said, waving one hand. “And what you’re talking about may work for them. But what about those of us on this end?” With that, he waved his other hand. “What are we supposed to do to be able to live like that?”

There were a number of snarky remarks on the end of my tongue. But this man’s eyes were earnest. Perhaps he saw something in those slides that his affluence could not buy.  Nevertheless, my sarcasm propensity meter was no longer registering on the dial. It was time to switch to the safety zone and draw from my 10 easy tips: “Grow some vegetables in your backyard. Try learning how to can,” I chirped at him. Once I re-gained my bearings, I talked about changing the world by moving toward what we love, not running away from what we fear. I talked about the power of small changes to result in a deep personal shift. I suggested he hang out the laundry.

There were no further questions. People politely thanked me for my time and left the room. One other man, who sat in the back corner, lingered. A longtime activist, he expressed his despair at the lifestyles of his neighbors. The social pressure to have a perfect lawn is huge, he explained.  For years, he’d been doing programs to encourage residents to allow parts of their lawn to go wild for habitat—an even simpler step than gardening. The majority of his efforts were unsuccessful. There was too much shame. “It’s so much easier for you,” he lamented. “You can hang out the laundry.” I gave him a quizzical look. He went on to explain local zoning codes. By law, people in his community weren’t allowed to hang clothes outside. It was trashy. It would diminish property values.

But what about home values? I felt deeply sad for his neighbors. They’d devoted their life energy in pursuit of the material affluence required to live in this particular community. At the same time, the number of people in attendance at this eco-festival suggested they truly wanted to play a role in healing the planet. Ironically, the very laws of their community—both social and written—compelled them to turn their backs on their personal values. Henry David Thoreau’s observations about the imprisonment of wealth were spot on: “The opportunities for living are diminished in proportion as what are called the ‘means’ are increased,” he wrote. That day, I saw people who cared about the Earth, who wanted a better world. But their power to act according to these concerns was limited to their purchases alone—to buying solar panels, buy local campaigns, buying new light bulbs. They could try to buy some of their beliefs. But they couldn’t live them.I suppose that is the deepest wealth in the radical homemaking lifestyle. By needing less, we are free to live our beliefs. To us, this seems ordinary. To someone else, a values-driven lifestyle might seem an extraordinary act of bravery.

We need that bravery. Now. Worrying about our planet while adhering to local zoning codes or social norms forbidding ecologically sensible behavior is a recipe for disaster. Such laws require citizens to commit an ecological injustice by using a disproportionate share of our Earth’s resources. They scream out for civil disobedience. As Thoreau reminds us, “break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” Go on and live dangerously. Hang out the wash.

For those who might be curious:

10 Easy Steps for Becoming a Radical Homemaker

  • Commit to hanging your laundry out to dry.
  • Dedicate a portion of your lawn to a vegetable garden.
  • Get to know your neighbors. Cooperate to save money and resources.
  • Go to your local farmers’ market each week before you head to the
    grocery store.
  • Do some spring cleaning to identify everything in your home that you absolutely don’t need. Donate to help others save money and resources.
  • Make a commitment to start carrying your own reusable bags and use them on all your shopping trips.
  • Choose one local food item to learn how to preserve for yourself for the winter.
  • Get your family to spend more evenings at home, preferably with the TV off.
  • Cook for your family.
  • Focus on enjoying what you have and who are with. Stop fixating on what you think you may need, or how things could be better “if only.”

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

Up Tunket Road, The Education of a Modern Homesteader

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

The image of the homesteader has long been one of stalwart self-reliance, but this is the stuff of rural legend. In fact, the freedom found by many back-to-the-landers involves intricate interdependence, and strong relationships, both human and animal.

Up Tunket Road, The Education of a Modern Homesteader, by Philip Ackerman-Leist, re-tells the story of the simple life, showing us the essential benefits of community, and sharing the foibles as well as the joys of a life off-the-grid.

In this excerpt we discover that an itchy ox can pose an interesting hazard, and learn that homesteading is a job that can endanger the fragile ego.

Chapter Six

The Simple Life: An Ecological Misnomert

Education of a Homesteader: The Rutland Herald Reviews Up Tunket Road

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Up Tunket Road was recently reviewed in the Rutland Herald:

It’s a tale that captures the unpredictable nature of life as a Vermont homesteader, but it is also part of a serious narrative about a family’s quest for a self-sufficient lifestyle and a reflection on what homesteading means in an age that is coming to grips with climate change and increasing human demands on the land.

Read the whole article here.

About the book: Up Tunket Road is the inspiring true story of a young couple who embraced the joys of simple living while also acknowledging its frustrations and complexities. Ackerman-Leist writes with humor about the inevitable foibles of setting up life off the grid—from hauling frozen laundry uphill to getting locked in the henhouse by their ox. But he also weaves an instructive narrative that contemplates the future of simple living. His is not a how-to guide, but something much richer and more important—a tale of discovery that will resonate with readers who yearn for a better, more meaningful life, whether they live in the city, country, or somewhere in between.

Learn more about Up Tunket Road in our bookstore.

Buy it on Amazon.com.

Find a Green Partner store near you.


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