Two Generations Living Lightly on the Land in Maine
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By Brian Kent
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Little did we think that 38 years after we settled on our wooded land on Oak Hill, in Maine, that a second wave of “new immigrants” or “back-to-the-landers” would follow.
Along the way we’ve thrived and learned a lot; now we find ourselves mentoring others while still living lightly on the land. Looking back, our lifestyle might now be described as “green.” Back then, it was seen as a “hippie” or “granola” lifestyle. We simply see it as a sensible, rewarding, and a responsible way to live our lives.
MAINE’S NEW IMMIGRANTS
The 1970s saw many young couples coming to Maine. Sociologists wrote about the “New Immigrants.”
We were featured in the Sunday paper as “typical” newcomers. Perhaps so. We bought 70 acres of woodland for $13,000, built a small cabin, cleared land for fruit trees and a garden, and discovered the value of a chainsaw. In winter we burned too-green firewood and hiked or snowshoed ¼ mile to where the plows turned around.
I found a state job. Janet kept the stoves burning in our modest 200-square-foot “starter” home. With a hand pump in the “kitchen” and kerosene for lamps, we were off on a wonderful adventure. Janet grew up in steel-town, Gary, Indiana. I was born and schooled in South Africa.
A United Nations’ scholarship brought me to the United States where I earned a Masters in architecture and urban design. Having traveled extensively in Europe and Africa, our stay-at-home adventure has been shaped by our travels, our backgrounds, and, in the seventies, Whole Earth publications that touted a simple life.
We rejected the consumerism of America and sought a simpler lifestyle. That meant defining our needs, living close to nature, and a “do-it-yourself ” philosophy. What could we do without? How much could we grow ourselves? How much income did we need? Was electrical service essential to our happiness? And, later, could we raise two children while living this “alternative” lifestyle?
The answers came with trial and error, conscious choices, budgets, successes and new found delights. The adventure had many rewards, and we are richer for it. And, healthier, too.
By living without many conventional modern conveniences we saved money for travel and built rewarding, unconventional structures, both practical and frivolous. We did all the building ourselves. The lists below show what we do without, today, and the “luxuries” we enjoy that have been added over the years.
We are neither rich nor poor. But we are very content with the choices we’ve made.
Rich or poor?
- No running water
- No outside electric service
- No fridge or AC
- No furnace or central heating system
- No insurance
- No TV
- No microwave
- No washing machine or dryer
- Wood fired hot tub
- Solar powered freezer 100 acres of woods, field, and stream
- Soap stone kitchen sink
- Two-story gazebo
- Labyrinth, stone walls, and sculpture
- Flower and vegetable gardens
- Stonewalled root cellar
- Solar power for lights and computer
- Greenhouse and guest cabin
- Barn and chicken house
- Large deck
- Cross-country ski trails
Of course, we learned along the way.
For example, our “modular” house, begun in 1974 and enlarged over 20 years to accommodate a growing family, is woefully energy inefficient by today’s standards. Yet, because it’s so small it only takes 4 cord of wood to heat. Furthermore we’ve added energy efficient features. Indeed, our energy, travel, and vehicle choices make a very small footprint.
According to National Geographic’s online personal energy meter, we use 97% less energy than the national average. More importantly, we’re in touch with the seasons and beholden to the whims of nature. We’ve learned to grow our own food and slaughter our animals for lamb, beef, pork, and poultry; we harvest lumber and firewood in the woodlot; and recycle, conserve, and reuse – all while enjoying professional careers.
I’ve been a full-time planning & design consultant. Janet has been a homemaker and part-time massage therapist. I should hasten to add that we’re not self-sufficient. We grow what we can. The supermarket is 15 miles away, as is the laundromat, library, bank, and a food co-op to which we belong. Our kids, Graham and Genevieve, have tolerated and reveled in their parents’ “different” lifestyle. With woods to roam, trees to climb, animals to raise, and adventuresome friends to invite over, they were popular and athletic. Still are, away from home.
THE NEW BACK-TO-THE-LANDERS
Today the surprise is we’re not alone. A new generation of enterprising young people are settling in Maine with similar aspirations. Like us, they are seeking a simple, sustainable, lifestyle; unlike us, many are seeking to make a living off the land. These second generation back-to-the-landers reject mainstream corporate America, market driven thinking, and hand-held screen technology, and a culture of celebrity.
They are coming to Maine because of the state’s commitment to local (organic) foods, the availability of good farmland and an emphasis on the local economy. They believe what the Nearing’s wrote about in 1954 – “the good life” can be lived here.
But, it’s taken dedicated pioneers in Maine to help them on their journey back to the land. This year the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) has placed 175 apprentices on Maine farms. Since 2005 that organization has trained 145 “journey-persons”; about 120 are now farming.
In the 1970s there was one farmer’s market in Maine. Now there are 125. After decades of decline, the number of Maine farms is now increasing. Furthermore, the Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) (in partnership with MOFGA) has established a “Farmlink” program that puts aspiring farmers in touch with older farmers who seek help and can offer land for lease or lease/purchase. MFT’s “buy, protect, sell” program also helps. Working with farmers wanting to retire, MFT places permanent easements on their farms (or buys them) to prevent development, and then finds one or more young couples to steward the land on affordable terms. “Land for Good” does similar work throughout New England. None of this was available to the pioneer back-to-the-landers.
The networking now possible, online, has made it easier for the new generation, as has the local fresh food markets, the success of CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) and much improved food storage and distribution systems. One retired farmer in Bowdoinham, Maine has 14 new farmers farming portions of his land, independently and successfully. With hoop houses to extend Maine’s short growing season they are selling their produce to mainstream food stores and more and more fine restaurants whose chefs demand fresh, local products.
On Oak Hill, two 30 year-olds are reinvigorating our small holding. Looking to find someone to continue to steward our land, as we aged, we contacted MFT’s Farmlink program. Likely candidates called, emailed, and visited. Some were dreamers, but most were serious-minded with specific goals backed by experience working on farms. They wanted to raise vegetables, cattle, goats, and more. Three criteria were paramount: good soil, a place to stay, and inexpensive land. We could offer all three.
After a two year search and talking to about a dozen serious applicants, we found what has turned out to be a perfect match. Here’s the deal. Think of it as a life insurance policy and/or “fragile care” on our home turf.
• Leased land (at a $1/yr) on which to raise goats, cultivate their vegetable gardens and keep bees.
• A small cabin in which to live, temporarily.
• Ten acres (deeded to them) for a house site and future barn.
• Use of our barn (for goats, tools, and hay storage) and green- house (for starting seeds).
• Pine lumber, cut on the land, for framing their future home.
• Shared use of the chicken house.
• All we can eat (fresh vegetables in season, some meat, and root cellar crops out of season).
• Goat yogurt, milk, and goat cheese.
• Shared woods management.
• Assistance with odd jobs.
• Assistance with firewood harvesting, cutting, and splitting.
• House (and chicken, duck, and cat) sitting when we’re traveling.
• Increased help and assistance as we age.
• The pleasure of working and living with energetic, engaged, and intelligent fellow nurturers of the land.
It’s an unusual, perhaps unique, agreement. No money is exchanged; however, we’ve built up trust and seen the partnership work. We hold weekly lunch meetings to review projects, discuss pertinent issues and get to know each better. Our kids fully support the endeavor. Others will have different approaches, molded by their particular situation and personalities.
On Oak Hill we know our land will continue to be productive under this generation’s stewardship. Living simply, responsibly, and sustainably has rich rewards.