The last time I wrote anything about where I was, Misty and I were happily in the middle of doing odd jobs at Feral Farm in Washington. We’re not there anymore; we like to stay at places for about a month and then move on to the next place with a lesson. But I wanted to mention something we learned from being there. After all this is a trip that’s all about learning, and although we’re mostly targeting ourselves at learning how to live off the land, a lot of the lessons we pick up will be useful for people who are planning to do nothing of the sort.
At Feral Farm we got a taste of true frugality. Now, here’s a dirty secret of back-to-the-land projects: most of them are started by people with a lot of money. Perhaps that’s why the revolution never got around to precipitating out of the hippies’ communes. The hippies who could afford to buy land were the ones from rich families, which made them, of all the people in the US, the ones who had the least to gain from becoming subsistence farmers, the least stake in changing the status quo that had rendered them and theirs all their filthy lucre, and the ones with the cushiest safety nets if they decided farming was for schmoes. Of course there were poor hippies, but from forty years’ distance it certainly looks like there wasn’t a critical mass of them.
Matt, who founded Feral Farm, isn’t rich. He never was. He grew up in a working poor family somewhere near Bellingham, and he’s been doing manual labor pretty much since he developed motor skills, as far as I can tell. He comes to own the title to the land he’s on through a combination of hard work and luck. The luck part was that he had the connections to get into the weed-growing business, but the rest of the story is pretty much composed of hard work. While he was publicly leveling land and planting fruit trees and making trails and roads to set up a farm, the real sustaining work of the farm for most of its first fifteen years was all the pot plants he’d hidden in scattered locations throughout the dense forest, and his daily trips along clandestine untraceable trails to go tend to them. He didn’t get rich off it, but he did make enough money to buy a piece of paper that says he’s allowed to live on that plot and landscape it too.
That ended years ago, though, when the pot market started plunging from the flood of new growers. Now he’s got a few miscellaneous sources of money to keep the place going—selling “wildcrafted” foods to a fancy restaurant; Airbnb-ing out the cabins he’s incessantly building—but these amount to a trickle.
And yet, the place keeps going. Now, I have no idea what kind of annual revenue Matt is working with. But I do know that he considers onions something of a treat. In the days after we arrived at the farm he showed us where the bins of bulk grains and the sack of potatoes were, and as we got ourselves situated he would, every day or two, wander by and say, with at least mild excitement, “Hey, here’s an onion,” and hand one to one of us. Everything Matt wears is secondhand, and much of it is many years down the path to tatters. We’re not talking Goodwill secondhand either. That’s too spendy. When there’s someone in town who’s getting rid of their clothes, he somehow ends up hearing about it, and inherits a drawerful of this and that that will last him for years and years. He had a friend for a while who was usually a great guy but had manic episodes during which he did things like lead police on a low-speed chase in a giant veggie-oil RV in circles around the ferry landing. When that guy’s life hit rock bottom and he had to leave the state for a while, he gave Matt all his things. If you can wait for something like that to happen there’s no need to go to Goodwill.
The buildings at Feral Farm are made substantially from scrap. Matt has an almost paranormal gift for finding building scraps. A park renovation here, an abandoned building there, all of them have scrap in the yard, and he’s the first to catch its scent on the wind. He’s roofed many buildings with leftover sheet metal, built luxurious shelves out of twenty-year-old porch planks, and even his bucket of nails came from the RV chase guy. What’s not scrap is often trees from right there on the farm. Aside from the odd fittings, chimneys, and deeply discounted second-quality cedar shingles, the only price of the buildings on the property is his studying and hard work.
While I was working a desk job, I was aware, at some level, that you can live and thrive on amounts of income that the US government would call way below poverty level. But I’d never done it. I’ve always lived more frugally than most, because I’ve never really bought in to the ideal of having a TV with a cable subscription, late-model gadgetry, and (perhaps most significantly) a car.1 But I’ve never had to deal with getting by under conditions of true scarcity. I’ve never had to learn the meal-stretching, the making-do and doing-without, that most of this country had to learn during the Depression.
And that’s been one of the greatest hindrances between me and listening to the Earth. As long as you have money, you’re free to ignore everything else in the world. Money stunts personal growth.
Without money you get creative. This is the essence of the lesson that I learned at Feral Farm. A few months ago (luckily in summertime), Misty and I were traveling separately for a while, and Misty left their backpack hidden outside a store in Klamath Falls, Oregon. When they came out, it was gone, along with pretty much everything they had to their name at that time, aside from a few essentials they had in a day pack. I was in Canada and couldn’t help with the problem, and they had no money of their own. Well, they went a bit crazy for a little while, and then sat down to think: What do I do now? They found a good coat in a ditch. They made friends with a trainhopper who was able to give them tips on how to live without possessions. On the next train they slept on a pristine mattress pad they’d found. They dumpster-dived for food. The means for living were all around them, but they were blind to all of it until suddenly they needed it. Once you have no money, you’re forced to pay attention to the world. You listen, or you die. You’ll never pay as close of attention as you will in that situation.
Once you learn to pay attention, you won’t need so much money anymore. And when that happens, you’re free. You can stop laboring so much for wages, and have more time to pay attention so you can labor even less. You might still be working hard, but you’ll be doing it while also feeling like you’re deeply a part of the world. I think there are a lot of people today whose souls can barely remember that it’s possible to feel that way, but who still want it more than anything in the world. Ever feel like you’re living outside the world somehow? Start listening. Come on in.
I began to learn this lesson about listening after Misty’s incident in Klamath Falls. I took a step of faith the next time we were in Minneapolis after that, and left my debit card behind. No longer am I the “rich kid” traveler who steps off a freight train and whips out the card to buy a round of lattes for me and Misty. Now I eat the fruits of the land and of the excess of our society that have always been around me. I work when I can for what sustains me, like I did in California and at Feral Farm. I’ve felt levels and levels more creative since I left it.
But the place where the lesson finally came into focus was at Feral Farm. There I saw that frugality and paying attention don’t just apply to vagabonding across the country. When you find yourself a homestead and stay there for decades, you can pay attention orders of magnitude more deeply. You can stop relying on the stopgap measure of a tent, for instance—which is made in China from petrochemicals—and build yourself something more comfortable, with more of a story, from materials closer by. Matt and his wife are separated, and he has dinner with her some nights. She cooks everything herself and enjoys the homecooked specialness of it. Matt has trouble seeing the specialness. All the ingredients come from a store. Perhaps they’re assembled with love, but how does it compare to the meals he makes, where practically every ingredient has a story? We gathered many nights in his yurt over a full pot of roast, centered on a cut from a roadkilled deer he found while driving around, supplemented with fruits from his trees, carrots from a neighbor’s farm, everything with a provenance, an origin you can trace down and see, a friend standing behind the food. At those meals, between burning candles inherited from the RV chase guy, Misty and I and the other one or two interns who were sometimes around talked with Matt for hours, probing into the mysteries of humanity and the rest of the living world, and telling each other ridiculous stories, like the one about the RV chase. Maybe it’s just because we were in good company, but I think the origins of the food had something to do with it.
This is the way we lived until money was concocted, and the way a lot of us lived even for some time after it was. Everything we got was from the land, and we had to pay close and deep attention for all of it. A fisher didn’t just load a fish finder onto a fiberglass canoe with an outboard and roar out onto the lake. Some birch tree grew the bark for that canoe, and some craftsperson made it, and someone made the paddles too; and the knowing where to fish, well, that’s the most direct kind of paying attention. Nature is speaking. You just have to listen.
Using as little money as possible is the first step to truly understanding the world.
I did have a car for several years, and I don’t intend to deny that. What I’m saying is that I never bought into the idea that it’s necessary to life to have a car. I always treated my car as a backup option. My car was a gift and once it died I gave it up without a thought of replacing it. When you rely on a car you can’t have the kind of financial freedom I got from that. ↩