I don’t want to brag, but this winter my husband and I built a compost bin and installed a fence around our (chicken-less) chicken coop. We count these among the proudest accomplishments of our nearly 15-year marriage, neck-and-neck with those four daughters and those economics publications.
A little background: Last August, we moved to a house surrounded by twelve-and-a-half acres of open land. This move was the result of A Vision. There was absolutely nothing wrong with our previous house, which was surrounded by an acre of woods and rocks -- nothing wrong with it at all, unless you had A Vision of small-scale gardening and animal husbandry.
So we moved to a house where we could turn our Vision into a reality. Where we could plant gardens and fruit trees; where we could establish a small poultry flock and add some pigs or a couple of goats in time. The idea was to buy a little land, really care for it, and use it to grow the things that our family was most likely to consume.
(There is nothing new about this Vision: Since Scott and Helen Nearing first left New York City for Southern Vermont in the 1930s – and perhaps even before then – its various iterations have been called things like “the good life,” “the back-to-the-land movement,” and “homesteading.” Also: “reckless idealism,” “backbreaking labor,” and “folly.”)
Here is one challenge we face: Our new little slice of heaven has never, so far as we know, been used as anything other than a hayfield – and even the hayfield had fallen into scrubby neglect by the time we bought it. There were no gardens, no outbuildings other than an open shed, and no effort had been made to care for the soil. We are starting from scratch.
Here is another challenge we face: Inexperience. Other than caring for polite perennial gardens and one short-lived flock of laying hens, we have no prior experience with growing or farming. We feel like suburban kids playing pioneers, which is exactly what we are.
But here’s what we have going for us: We know how stupid we are.
Also: We have friends and family who are smarter, more experienced, and who give us a lot of good advice.
Two smarter and more experienced people are our neighbors, David and Cheryl. David and Cheryl are legitimate farmers and some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. Not only do they have a productive garden, chickens, and a couple of horses, but they also run a Christmas tree farm, produce their own maple syrup for commercial purposes, and – during their summer free time – they hay.
Shortly before we moved into our new house, when David was over walking our land with us and discussing how to put our hayfield back into production, he offered me some advice. I can’t recall his exact words – although David is a man of very few words – but it was something like this: “Take it slow. It’s going to take a lot of time.”
This was excellent advice; it was also the advice I least wanted to hear. Take it SLOW?!? Between finding the house, buying the house, fixing the house, and five months in California for my husband’s work sabbatical, it had taken us a full year since we closed on the house just to move in!
I am not good at taking things slow.
But the thing about moving in August was that I couldn’t do much right away, even if I’d wanted to. We were already heading into harvest season, with winter close behind. I transplanted some perennials and fruit bushes from our old house, laid down cardboard and topsoil where I hoped to start new garden beds in the spring, and put my sainted father to work cutting down some unwanted willow saplings. We bought a chicken coop, and hired someone with an auger to put fence posts into the heavy clay soil around the coop. Then, we called it a season.
This winter, in brief bursts of productivity, my husband and I spent a few freezing afternoons attaching the fencing to the fence posts, and lashing together four pallets into a useable compost bin. (Although the thing about starting to compost in winter is that nothing really happens: Your table scraps just pile up into a frozen mound that attracts every crow in the neighborhood.) My husband even built a gate for the chicken yard, raising his status from mere economics professor to a useful, contributing member of society by way of some two-by-fours.
We are almost ready. We’re about to contact friends about getting those chickens. I’m about to order all of the seeds I’ve picked out for spring planting. I’ve put in an order for six ducklings (to assist the chickens with egg production and tick consumption), due to arrive in early May.
More than two years since we first had The Vision, things are happening. We are moving slowly, but in the right direction.
And I’m feeling a rising sense of panic.
If I’m not good at taking things slow, I’m also not good at doing anything if I’m not sure I can do it well. This combination of impatience and perfectionism is a recipe for frustration and guilt, both of which are doing battle for my soul as spring approaches.
So, while I should be feeling excitement and relief, what I really am is scared. I’m scared that I’ll kill those ducklings, chickens, and plants -- that, even if I don’t kill them directly, they will die under my watch. Scared that we’ll fail: our fences won’t keep predators away, our soil won’t sustain vegetation, we’ll be negligent or stupid.
And you know what? Those things might happen; some of them probably will.
The other day I was driving to pick up my daughter at preschool, and I stopped at what I consider The Intersection of Death. At this spot, which I navigate at least three times a week, the dirt road meets a fairly major paved road just below the crest of a hill. Each time I drive this route, when I brake at the stop sign and look right, as if pretending that I can see anything over that hill, I think: This is so dangerous! Why doesn’t somebody DO something? Why don’t they bulldoze down that hill, or a least put up some mirrors?
But this particular day, I realized that I was so afraid of danger, so determined to keep “safe,” that I was willing to bring out the heavy machinery – to literally move earth – in order to assure myself of no danger from oncoming traffic.
In certain areas, aren’t we all prone to this fear-based desire to control?
When really, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and peel out from behind that stop sign.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.