Land Search #1: Lyndell and the Driftless Zone

A newsletter was mistakenly delivered to our mailbox because a previous Sprout House dweller had forgotten to change his address. It was the Land Stewardship Letter, from the Land Stewardship Project—a project whose name I knew already. For a while this summer, I’d been asking everyone I knew who was involved with farming or the country in any way whether they knew of some way for poor young people to find land they could live on. Our former housemate Maddy works on a farm, run by a guy a little older than us who grew up in Mexico, named Eduardo, and at a picnic with everyone from Eduardo’s farm this summer, I asked her about finding land. Eduardo had found his farm through the Land Stewardship Project. And that’s how I heard about it.

Misty, though, was the one who looked through the Land Stewardship Letter and found the ad. In the middle of the newsletter was a section called “Land Wanted/Land for Sale”, and in amid the listings for big giant farms and places in the several-hundred-thousand-dollar range, she found this:

Lyndell [last name left out] is seeking a farmer to join a 22-acre operation in Southwestern Wisconsin’s Sauk County. Lyndell is looking for someone to buy into this produce, herb, certified kitchen and free-range chicken operation. […] The arrangement is 50/50 shares for five years—after that the new farmer can take over complete ownership.

At first it sounds a bit bland and standard. But what’s this about taking over the farm after five years? And Sauk County—that’s in the Driftless Region. Currant’s brother has started a permaculture project in California, but he told Currant that if you’re going to stay in the Midwest, the Driftless Region is the place to go, because there are good people there, who genuinely care about community, and farming well and ethically, and caring for the land. At the pig butchering, I asked about the Driftless Region, and a woman there confirmed everything Currant’s brother had said.

Misty called up Lyndell a couple weeks ago, and when I came home later that day, she told me that after talking to him, the only reservation she had was that nothing is supposed to work out as perfectly as Lyndell’s arrangement looked like it would. He’s in his fifties and very interested in permaculture and more natural ways of living, and when Misty brought up our plan for a community, he didn’t do what you might expect of an older Midwestern farmer and immediately shrink back and tell us hippies to look somewhere else—in fact, he seemed interested. The reason he’s looking for some younger farmers, he says, isn’t so much monetary; it’s that, although he has the stamina of a thirty-year-old, he knows that won’t always be true, so it’d be best to find a succeeding generation of farmers sooner rather than later. Succeeding generation of farmers? Hey, we could be that! So we arranged to go out and visit and see if everything was as good as it seemed. And this is the story of our visit.

The Driftless Region is an island of hilly country in a Midwest mostly flattened by ice during the last glaciation. The various vicissitudes and shapes of the glaciers ended up leaving a lobe of land uncovered in what we now call the Wisconsin–Minnesota–Iowa tristate, and now it’s full of pocket valleys covered with forest and dotted with little towns that time and agribusiness forgot. When we drove through the towns later that night, we may have seen more Amish buggies than cars.

Lyndell’s land is one hillside of a pocket valley, with three acres of field sloping down to the bottomland and a little creek, through Lyndell’s rows of beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, kale, and other things that I never did ask him to list. You come into the valley on a gravel road that sprouts off from an unlined, narrow, paved road, and then hook around to the right, to look back out into the opening of the valley from a flat clearing on the hillside where Lyndell has been building himself a house.

He welcomed me and Misty to the house and poured us cups of milky-oat tea. There are two houses, he explained; he started building the first one, and then his neighbor called the county inspector on him because it wasn’t up to code. He decided to just start a second building to be the house, and transform the second one into a general-purpose other-building, with a produce-cleaning station, a kitchen for baking things to sell at the Dane County Farmers’ Market (seventy miles away in Madison), an accounting and computer-using office, and a vast root cellar. The first building is banked into the hill; the house, a sturdy, concrete-walled structure, is perched on the hillside. It’s perfectly tuned to Lyndell’s life: a thick, rubber roof to keep out radio waves because he’s electrosensitive; a roof with a ventilated attic for drying out milky oats, which he grows for the health benefits from the tea; thick walls well suited to a zodiacal Ox like him who values what’s long-lasting. We drank the milky-oat tea, clear and green, and it not only tasted great, but also just felt healthy.

Once he’d shown us around the buildings, he took us up on the hill for a tour of the land.

Just above the house and into the woods, there’s an old abandoned wagon road that takes you past a few apple trees that Lyndell’s planning to graft with new stock, and leads you to this old cabin. He didn’t build it, but when he had a twenty-something couple stay on the land this summer, this is where they lived. He found them through one of those sites that lets people find farms to spend some time on, WWOOF or WorkAway or HelpX, and had high hopes that they’d stay on with him and steward the land into the future. But they turned out to prefer lounging in a hammock-chair and drinking liquor over growing crops and helping build houses, and they left after a month. Lyndell doesn’t know how the old school bus got there, but it’s clearly been there for a long time and not going anywhere soon.

We climbed up past the bed of the old road onto the higher reaches of the hill.

The forest is young and full of skinny, teenage trees of all sorts,

watched over by a few older sentinels like this venerable white oak. There are also stands of shagbark hickories that have been feeding the squirrels; birches; a couple dozen sugar maples ripe for the tapping; and unnumbered trees of other kinds. The whole forest is broadleaf trees, with no evergreens in sight despite the cold winters.

We reached a plateau on the ridgeline at the top of the hill, and stopped to look around and dream about what trees and plants we could invite to grow there. It could be a wonderful place for a chestnut grove, perhaps first made up of Korean chestnuts, then replaced slowly by the new blight-resistant American strains that the American Chestnut Foundation has finally, after generations of hybridizing and breeding in North Carolina, nearly gotten to the point that they can be spread around the country. Underneath them could be hazelnuts and apples and other fruits and nuts. Lyndell used to belong to the Northern Nut Growers Association, and knows a thing or two about raising nuts; he told us about the neighbors’ project in the next valley over to grow black walnuts, and how they haven’t gotten many because they put the trees too close together. Years back, he was with a group that found a pecan tree growing along the Mississippi near St Louis, and they had high hopes back then of growing pecans even farther north than that, perhaps in the form of “hickcans”, half-hickory, half-pecan. The ground on this hill could someday be swimming in mast.

At the edge of the plateau, we found a place that, it seems to me, can’t not be named Meditation Rock. We stood and talked and looked out through the opening of this valley into the land around, and listened to the distant echoing bellows of cows. This is a place I could get used to.

Evening comes on early in a valley when the next ridge over gets between you and the sun. We hiked back down to the house and realized we hadn’t asked to be shown around the field.

In the dusk, during the blurry-photos hours, Lyndell showed us the rows, up on the hill,

and the hoop houses he’s made out of rebar and plastic pipe, a few thousand dollars cheaper than the kits you can buy. They’re still overflowing with kale, as well as a crowd of plants I didn’t know well that he uses for making teas and tinctures.

And off to the side, the foundations for the henhouse, where the first of the humans’ animal invitees to the land would take up residence. After them would follow goats to turn the hill’s invasion of multiflora roses into milk and cheese, and rabbits who would turn our unused produce and grass into hasenpfeffer and slippers.

Done with this first shot at getting to know the land, we went back to the courtyard between the houses and talked for a long time. Lyndell is a talker, and told us a lot of stories. He’s been farming since his dad set aside a patch for him to grow strawberries when he was ten years old. He’s always felt a need to have a place that feels like home, but over the last dozen years or so he’s had a hard time finding that place. In the last few years he’s lived on a couple different intentional communities and poured a lot of energy into building and farming for them, only to discover that at both places, the motives of the people at the helm were less than noble, and centered more around profit than wanting to create a new way of life. He left disillusioned and now he’s cautious of anything that calls itself an intentional community, but he didn’t seem too fazed by our plan that was exactly that, maybe because we’re pretty clearly not just in it for the money.

Two years ago, he found this land and immediately decided it would be a perfect place to live for many years to come. He and another person bought it together, and later he bought her share after she decided country life wasn’t for her, which is how he comes to be in a driftless little Wisconsin valley all on his own. He’s worked hard and tirelessly since he came here, and that’s how he’s managed to not only grow enough veggies to sell in Madison but also build most of two houses. He always works hard: you have to out on the land, and people who don’t realize that have found it easy to let him take up the slack when they get tired and lazy.

We assured him that we wouldn’t do that, and we told him we want to build our lives around a lot of the same values he’d been talking about: caring for the land, not letting profits take over the driver’s seat, doing the work that needs to be done rather than pushing it off on someone else (because someone needs to take the responsibility and put in the dirt time to learn about the land). Across the generations and the city–country divide, we discovered we had a lot of commonalities. And that was one of the greatest things we brought home from the visit: there are people in the country with a vision like ours, and moving out there doesn’t mean moving out into the midst of monocropping, feed-capped, Monsanto farmers with no interest in our project of bringing humans and the Earth closer together. We could live there with Lyndell. A genuine human of the country, living in the land, not on top of it. And we could be that ourselves.

Misty and I agreed that it would clearly be rash to decide we’re building the whole community here after a single evening’s visit from just two people. So we want to come back a few times. And as it happens, Lyndell told us he was planning to build a rocket stove soon. We offered to help out, and he said that would be great as soon as he has enough of the house finished that it’s legally fit for dwelling. (Otherwise his neighbor might call the inspector on him again if there are guests. This guy wishes he had bought the land when it was for sale, so he’s being nitpicky and trying to annoy Lyndell away. Not going to happen—and the inspector’s sick of his calls too.) I’ve always wanted to build a rocket stove: they’re an amazing piece of low-tech ingenuity, a perfect way to maybe halve the amount of wood you need to gather for each winter. Misty and I are both looking forward to it.

We all could’ve pushed ourselves to talk for hours longer, but we were getting tired, and Misty and I wanted to get home at a reasonable hour. So we packed up, put a gift of beets in the car, said goodbye, and drove back to the Cities, excited and chattering. We’d seen a lot to love, and we also had lingering questions that will have to be answered by more visits. (How much astrology do we want in our lives? Are we interested in making and selling baked goods that we know aren’t good for people? Are we sure Lyndell’s standards for hard work can be met by us, or even by anyone?) We realized that it was ridiculous to expect that we’d find a place so perfect that it would take only an evening for us to unequivocally fall in love with it and have zero questions or misgivings—especially on the first try. And we realized that we’ll need to look at a lot of different places before we can say that one of them is where we’d like to spend decades, create a community, and grow old.

With those things figured out, it seemed like our visit to Lyndell and his land had gone about as well as it could. Next is visiting more places. We’ve already got one lined up: tomorrow we’re heading out to an already-started permaculture community near Duluth on the Lake Superior shore. With each new visit, the country becomes more real and a more conceivable place to live. In case you didn’t notice, this is exciting.

File under: homesteading, photos

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