I’ve been having the best time recently, scrolling through Erin O’Neill’s blog, Seeds & Stones, A Life Home Grown, which chronicles her family’s homesteading experiences in Nambé. Erin and her husband, Joel Glanzberg, make living sustainably look not only feasible for some of us not-so-green-thumbed DIY illiterates, but even doable—and fun! Because the real bottom line to homesteading, it turns out, is not memorizing permaculture techniques or teaching yourself construction and engineering basics. It’s gleaning! Which is just a more polite way of saying scavenging. And not only for materials—wood, appliances, tools, mulching—but ideas. Other people’s ideas. Things they’ve already tried out themselves, so they know they work and they can warn you of how to avoid their own mistakes.
That’s what’s so much fun about reading Erin’s blog entries. She narrates their homesteading experiences, warts and all. Between the two of them, she and Joel have tons of experience, Erin as a community builder, crafter and former farming intern, Joel as a longtime permaculture practitioner and teacher who also has extensive construction expertise.
They live in what was originally the schoolhouse for the Nambé and Pojoaque areas in the early 1900s, a sturdy adobe core out of which they’ve built, by hand, several other rooms plus a greenhouse on a fifth of an acre, along a narrow lane. The neighboring house, formerly the mayor’s hacienda, dates back 300 years. There are irrigation ditches, the soil has been cultivated and built up for centuries and the feeling there is timeless, a piece of vital New Mexico history where the land is still farmed today.
With no acequia rights and a minimal yard, this property may seem a dubious choice for growing your own food. But, says Erin, “I eke out as much of it as possible. The greens section is about 200 square feet so, with the three sections combined, that’s 600 and probably another 600 more throughout other areas of the backyard.” Joel, who initially bought the property, began planting dwarf fruit trees; now they’ve got 30. With turkeys and 13 chickens, they’re able to produce hundreds of pounds of food here. Joel adds, however, “It’s fulltime-plus—the work never ends. We’re very humbled and very much appreciative.” Both Erin and Joel teach; he also travels as part of his work. They coordinate between them to be at-home parents to almost-four-year-old Jaengus and newborn Eva. By doubling their mortgage payments each month, they managed to pay the house off in 10 years. “We heat with wood,” says Joel. “We have solar windows, an insulated greenhouse,” and the walls are all adobe. Still, being time-rich and cash-poor always challenges them; they’re constantly exploring the question, “How can we provide for ourselves and also spend less?”
After recently giving birth to Eva, Erin says that, with no maternity leave from her job teaching gardening at the Santa Fe Community College, “I had to get creative. I’m a contractor and thus have no benefits. I looked to a friend, another mom and contractor trying to bring the pieces of farm, home, family and money together. She’s subbing for me. It takes thinking outside the box and giving up some of the basics that other folks take for granted, but we get a different package of benefits that are valuable unto themselves—like flexibility and freedom.”
Most of her close friends in and around Santa Fe, she continues, have found ways to create productive homesteads. “Many have chickens who produce eggs, eat waste and produce compost. Many have gardens, goats and bees. We all trade among ourselves for these goods. I feel the spirit of the modern homesteading movement is about exchange, not isolation. We’ve discovered that we can’t all do everything ourselves, nor should we. Not only is it exhausting but it’s unsustainable for our spirits. One of the unseen byproducts of these exchanges is community—people with skills we can call on, people who are invested in our lives. I think in this modern day society that this is where we’re most impoverished. Who can we call when we get sick, have a baby or need to catch the goat who got lost in Casa Solana?”
Erin learned a powerful lesson with Jaengus, “mostly through my recovery from the shocking isolation motherhood brought me.” So this time around, for Eva’s baby shower, she and her friends knit a patchwork quilt. “It required lots of individual effort and many collective gatherings to complete it,” Erin says, “but it is truly a work of art, to me symbolizing that only our individual efforts woven together into a whole will warm us through the night.”
Joel describes this as building community versus constructing an “eco-fortress.” “We need to be broadening our perspective,” he says, “of what is sustainability, what is homesteading, by asking ourselves, ‘What really feeds us, emotionally and spiritually, too, not necessarily just literally?’ And not take on more than what’s fun.” Pointing to their modest-sized table, he adds, “Start with a garden this size. If you’re successful with it, next year double it.” Whatever you’re doing in this experiment of living more sustainably, he advises, “start small, don’t be overzealous and go little by little so you don’t make big mistakes.”
Erin and Joel’s perspective is a far cry from the one shared by many bloggers on the subject of homesteading. A few rules from an online list for modern homesteading include: grow at least 50 percent of your food, organically, with visually appealing landscaping; learn to do home and vehicle maintenance, repairs and basic construction; work at home. This school of thought encourages what Erin calls the “I’m not cool enough to be a homesteader” mentality.
Erin, for instance, could never just work at home. Raised a Quaker, she volunteered as a teenager in soup kitchens and worked with orphans. Do what you’re really good at is what she learned, “whatever it is, and contribute to making society more balanced and equitable.” Currently, Erin volunteers part-time with the SFPS Adalante Program, working with homeless immigrant mothers transitioning to a new life. Because they can’t apply for regular jobs, she teaches them how to sew, giving them projects like making shopping bags from free burlap coffee sacks to sell in Santa Fe to support the women’s efforts at becoming sustainable themselves.
“We want our kids to grow up finding their own way,” says Erin. “At the college, I work with a vast array of people so I see the strength of diversity and cross-pollination.” The young students, she says, are yearning to find useful work. Most of them have grown up without being taught any skills. Most, adds Joel, don’t know how to work with their hands. So making sure that their own two kids not only have skills but also the experience of being engaged in something meaningful is important.
Jaengus wakes up every morning with the same question: “What are we going to do today?” The answer the day I was there was bake a cake. He said, “Good! I’ll get my apron!” Jaengus helped in all stages of this applesauce cake’s creation: picking the apples from a family friend’s orchard in Velarde, making the applesauce, and now, sitting beside the mixer on the counter, helping measure the cake’s ingredients, his eyes shining (and, when the rest of us were focused elsewhere, dipping his finger into the bowl). Because he’s included in all the family’s activities, he has a work coat (repurposed by Erin from one that had been Joel’s), kid-sized kneepads, shovel, rake and wheelbarrow, plus a wooden chainsaw, the toy he asked for this past Christmas. He’s a good mushroom hunter, has an amazing attention span, loves pueblo dances and having books read to him and is learning to play the fiddle on his Fridays with Grandpa, who lives two miles down the road.
Not only do they want Jaengus and Eva to be DIY-ers but also DIT-ers (Do It Together). In her blog entry “Making a Baby Swing,” Erin describes how, during their search through catalogs, they found lots of swings (“all kind of shockingly expensive”), got into a fun conversation about design and technique, craftsmanship and quality, “and, of course, our shared love of the homemade.” So they figured out how to design the one they liked best, then “we rummaged around in our stashes” looking for the necessary materials. “It started with an old pair of Mountain Khakis, really nice sturdy work pants, worn, loved and finally ripped at the knee. I stashed them in the sewing box to fix or transform someday and that day was today.” She describes turning them into “a basic bucket seat with sleeves for dowels to slip into” (drilled, cut and sanded by Joel) “so the swing would have a skeleton to hang from,” about four feet above their front porch. Then using an old climbing rope, Joel hung the swing from a carabiner and big eye bolt in the viga. There are photos of baby Jaengus, bald back then, throughout the entry, as well as one of Jaengus and Dad demoing the finished product.
The future for homesteading, Joel and Erin agree, is as wide as the human imagination. Don’t be intimidated, Joel says. He recounts asking an elder how to make a favorite recipe. “There is no recipe,” the woman said. “You don’t measure—you just feel it!” If growing your own food feels right, Erin adds, do it. If not, cultivate some other sustainable interest and “save the water for the farmers!”
Story by Gail Snyder