Earlier on this summer, Misty moved out of her previous, dysfunctional house (it billed itself as a community home, but it was actually a dictatorship, ruled by a matriarch with deep issues but a gift for P.R. writing), and decided to spend the summer camping out: here, there, wherever, just so long as she could sleep outside most nights. That came to fruition during our Colorado gathering, but before that big-time event we took a smaller excursion down to Pike Island. This is a spot south of town where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi, across from old Fort Snelling, the Civil War–era military encampment turned historical monument. Pike Island is extra special because it’s just for walking. There are no roads to it, and before you cross the footpath bridge to get there on the footpath, you have to lock up your bike at a little series of racks in a shady grove. It’s an island with no tracks, only footprints.
We arrived after dark and found a secluded patch of forest to set up our tent. Once we were inside and out of the sprinkles that had started dripping on us earlier, we took deep breaths. It was quiet. I had been living in the city for over a year by this point, with only a few excursions into wilderness areas, and I had gotten used to constant noise. Sprout House is just a block away from an emergency dispatch station, and right next to a busy multi-lane one-way full of commuters and big trucks trundling across town and shaking the ground.
Misty had been in the city for about as long, but before that she’d been in parks and forests and mountains, and she’d come to need the fresh air you get there; she hadn’t gotten used to the city the way I had, so getting out into the trees was for her urgent, and once we were there, it was like coming up from a long dive into a cold, dark lake.
Some people are born into a hospital in New York City, grow up there, and never leave for their entire lives. It’s possible for a human to adapt to that kind of life. But I’m going to assert here that it’s not possible to thrive. And I realized that, that night on Pike Island: I did have my eyes set on a target out in the country, but I was content to complacently live among the buzz and keep waiting for a long time, an amount of time that my city-dwelling side was entirely satisfied with, but that would ultimately cause a breakdown in my wilderness side, the far truer side submerged for so long into the realm of imagination out of a necessity that wasn’t really necessary.
Going to Colorado drastically sharpened that realization, and brought into focus the fact that I can form a conviction to actually do something about it. It seems at first like there’s not really a lot I can do, since at the moment our group of four homestead dreamers is too poor to buy a parcel of land. But getting the land is, to some extent, only one milestone somewhere halfway down the road to our ultimate goal. Before we do that, there’s the matter of gathering people and gathering knowledge and gathering money (and gathering acorns to tide us over). Skills for living off the land and in community can’t really be found in a book. The raw materials for them can, for sure, by the tonload, but the real skills can only be found in your body after it gets used to how the skill and the real world meet. John Michael Greer says it takes most people about five years to really get the hang of gardening and be able to make good decisions, as opposed to the halfway nonsensical ones I’ve made this year, and the fully nonsensical ones I would’ve made if more-experienced Peter and Maddy hadn’t been around to bounce ideas off of. And Sprout House has already been a proving ground for a bevy of potential sticking points that could come from living in community, all of which we’ve managed to figure out how to deal with.
Out there in the Colorado woods we realized we’ve been doing practically nothing in the city to further our dreams, besides amassing a little savings and having a few vague dreams. Now that we’re back I’m checking out library books, putting in time in the house garden and the farm that my housemate Maddy works at, getting a bow and arrow, planning on harvesting wild rice and hazelnuts, and just generally making sure that the things I do are pointed toward my big goal, the main thing I consider important.
Because moving out to the land isn’t going to happen automatically. It would be very, very easy (though in another sense, crushingly difficult) to let the homestead idea turn into an idle, diaphanous dream that’s always ten years in the future. We’ll all need to throw ourselves completely at this idea to make it turn into reality, and even then it’s going to be difficult. The homesteaders of the 1800s in Minnesota had long, cold winters, crop failures, isolation, and a lot of effort in front of them to make sure they scraped by. We have a few advantages in that we’ll have some potential to make money in other ways, but really, it’s going to be a lot of hard work and probably more disappointment than any of us are willing to admit.
So why are we hurling ourselves at it? Well, two good reasons. We want to, and we have to. We want to because living in the city is a plan that we’re all pretty sure has an expiration date for us: we can’t take living amid traffic and sirens and buildings for too long. We want to be able to see the stars at night, not a uniform brown smog. We want to watch our food grow, not buy it from farmers we’ll never meet.
But also, we need to, because the system of cities and industry is a foundation of sand, and the tide is coming in. Right now, most people in this country, and a lot of people worldwide, depend on the industrial system for everything that makes up their lives: food, houses, water, electricity, roads, cars, computers, industrial electric heaters. All fine while the system is working like it’s supposed to. But the system itself depends on the Earth for everything: petroleum, topsoil, rock phosphate, good weather. The Earth only has so much of those that we can take from it.
And that, not any particular corrupt bank or pack of lobbyists, is why everything seems like it’s falling apart. Greece is going into default; a sizeable chunk of the Eurozone will probably go with it eventually. Over here the US insists that it’s still the richest country in the world, and maybe it is, but you wouldn’t know it from the last ten years of news about the infrastructure—interstate bridges have been collapsing, the power grids are famously frail and vulnerable to disasters, water conduits are showing their age, even the recently-constructed broadband networks have outages all the time—and the government that funded the ground-up construction of these things once upon a time now seems to be unable to even maintain them beyond the most basic patches on the surface. Particularly in North America, the fracking boom that was supposed to bring back resilient, ’50s-era days of prosperity has shown that even just a dip in the price of oil can shut down fields continent-wide. I haven’t been keeping up with news of implosions everywhere in the world, but the pace really does seem to be picking up.
People who predict that the industrial world will collapse seem to go through a pattern of maturing. They start out young with an excitement fueled by apocalypse movies and science fiction and predict that everything will go kersplat pretty quickly and they’ll watch from the sidelines. Then they do a little more studying and discover that collapses take a lot longer than one big kersplat, and there won’t be one single day (or even one single year) where all the cities empty out and the buildings get shuttered up and the highways go silent and everyone who was wise returns to 1800s-looking homesteads. Instead, the collapse will look like: everyone gets poorer (except those who are both rich and circumspect), utilities get expensive and unreliable and eventually unavailable to a lot of people, everything gets stretched thinner and thinner, people either make do with less or fail to make do.
There are two ways to live in that kind of era. One is to try to keep plugging along in the old system, with or without the faith that everything will improve one day and you’ll get the prosperity you thought you were implicitly promised. That means a life that’s like what you’re used to, but always makes you feel like you’re failing. The other way to live is to ditch the system entirely and relearn everything about how to live. That’s what we’re doing. It means that every routine you once found comfortable has to be reevaluated, and you have to do everything yourself, and a lot of problems you have won’t be solved by something you can pull off the shelf. It’s scary ground that seems untrodden, even though the reality is that the trails have just gotten a little overgrown.
Faced with that choice, there are a lot of people who would give up. “I don’t want to relearn everything I ever knew. If doing things the way I’m used to means I’ll die early, I guess I’ll die early. It’s easier.” Yes, it is easier. It’s also easy to watch TV all day. But we’re explorers. We have no time for TV and we have no time to do things the way they’ve always been done. We have no time to lose if we’re going to learn a way of life that’s totally new to us. It’s long past time for us to find the old trails and blaze new ones of our own. We’ve just gotten started.