A Return to the Old Ways | Life in the Kingdom

Ben Hewitt reflects on re-embracing the business and blessings of homesteading in his latest column.

By Ben Hewitt

Aug 19 2020


A Return to the Old Ways.

Photo Credit : Tom Haugomat
A Return to the Old Ways.
Photo Credit : Tom Haugomat

The truth is that life on the homestead was starting to slow down. Penny wanted to spend more time evolving her skills with wood and other natural materials, making intricate and functional baskets, and teaching others how to do the same. I, on the other hand, imagined putting more miles on my bicycle, exploring new places on my backcountry skis, and generally loafing about. For the past two decades or so, we’d devoted a generous portion of our waking hours to producing food and tending to the myriad other needs of our rural existence, and while we had no intentions of quitting the homestead life, we wanted to expand our horizons a bit. Besides, our boys, now 15 and 18, have slowly been emerging into the world beyond our homestead, taking their insatiable appetites with them.

In other words, we simply didn’t need to raise as much food as had long been our custom. Oh, sure, we still had our small herd of bovines and a sprawling garden, and last fall there were two fat hogs rooting about at the height of the knoll behind the barn, and the 40 blueberry bushes we’d planted four years earlier had begun to bear fruit, not to mention that our son Rye’s hunting skills had evolved to the point where he’d become a reliable provider in his own right. But over the past couple of years, we’d also let a lot go: the homemade butter, the maple sugar, even the dry-cured sausages I liked to cut into translucently thin slices that I’d tuck into a corner of my mouth, where they’d slowly release every molecule of their funky flavor. We’d even planned to shrink the garden this year, allowing half a dozen or so beds to go permanently fallow. It just felt like it was time for change.

Of course, the big change, the one we never expected, was the pandemic. Suddenly, the boys and their bottomless stomachs were home for three (if not four or five) meals every day. Suddenly, making quick trips to Willey’s to pick up an ingredient or two wasn’t quite so simple, involving a phone order, a face mask, and the particular sense of unease that’s become all too familiar lately. Suddenly, it seemed as if perhaps this wasn’t the smartest year to shrink the garden after all.

For me, raising our own food has never really been about the food. I realize this sounds absurd; I even realize that it’s not entirely true, because of course it’s about the food, at least to a point. I don’t milk our cow at 10 below merely because I crave the sensation of the ring and pinky fingers on each hand going slowly numb; I don’t undertake the somber and messy work of slaughtering our pigs without daydreaming about home-smoked bacon and inch-thick chops with an equally thick rind of backfat.

And yet the primary motivation for raising so much food has always been in the raising itself. Because for every milking at 10 below, with fingers freezing, there’s one on an early June morning when the cows are pastured in the orchard, and I’ve haltered Pip to a blossoming apple tree, and there are petals floating in the air like the biggest, most benevolent snowflakes you ever saw. You can even catch them on your tongue just like snowflakes (yes, it’s true: I’ve done this). And when I’m finished milking, there’s actually a handful of blossoms floating on top, and it’s with a sense of gentle reluctance that I return to the house with my almost-overflowing pail. Of course, even the hard moments, the hard hours and sometimes entire, interminable days, have their rewards. I guess what I’m saying is that there is purpose and pleasure built into the raising of food that’s often much bigger and more rewarding than the food itself.

It is also true that our family never followed this path because we fretted over disruptions to the food supply, or for any other reasons related to security. I’m not suggesting these aren’t perfectly good reasons, and I know many people whose gardening and homesteading efforts are primarily rooted in their desire to retain a certain degree of control over their food sourcing, a source of motivation that now seems particularly prescient. But that hasn’t been our story.

Of course, the pandemic has changed the equation a bit. Now, maintaining a bit of control over our food sourcing seems like nothing more than simple common sense. Furthermore, like so many families, our income has taken a considerable hit, thanks to the economic fallout precipitated by the pandemic. We’re fortunate to still have enough income that we’re in no immediate threat of true hardship, but the economic benefits of raising our own food are now in much clearer focus.

And so, with the harvest now only a few months away, and a growing chorus of predictions that the virus will be with us for many months past that, we are slowly returning to our old ways. This morning I milked Pip, strained nearly three gallons of still-warm milk into a large pot, and left it in the cool of the basement. Later, once the milk has chilled, I’ll skim the thick layer of cream that’s risen to the top for churning into butter (I’ve made nearly 20 pounds in just the past two weeks and have my sights set on triple digits). The small, glassed-in back room of the house is more crammed with trays of seedlings than it’s been in years; sometimes I like to stand in the middle of the trays just so I can be surrounded by all that new life. There are exactly 63 broiler chicks brooding under a pair of heat lamps in the barn. By the time you read this, they’ll be a half-dozen pounds or more each, pecking and scratching and strutting around the pasture, blissfully ignorant of their impending fate.

It is a tremendous privilege to live this way, perhaps now more than ever. Sometimes I truly feel this; sometimes I have to work at it. In my experience, gratitude is a slippery critter. But that’s OK. I think it’s like that for most of us. We’re all jaded, me in my unique ways, and you in yours. So I’m forgiving myself in advance if there are times this summer when I look longingly at my bicycle, still coated (as it’s sure to be) in a layer of barn dust, before grudgingly returning to the task at hand.

And if there comes a time in the late afternoon of a long, hot summer day, when I’ve been up and moving since 5 a.m., and all I really want to do is lie under a tree and let the minutes slip through my fingers until it’s chore time, then dinner time, then time to make butter, then time to sweep the day’s accumulation of dirt and debris from the kitchen floor, well, then … hell. I think I’m just going to do it.