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


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.

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