Lately there's been a rash of books published on sustainability and self-reliance for people seeking refuge from the economic crisis. A kitchen garden, low overhead and a few chickens pecking in the yard seem like common sense during nervous times.
Readers in need of guidance can snuggle up to "Up Tunket Road," a memoir on homesteading in rural Vermont.
Author Philip Ackerman-Leist is well suited for the task as a professor at Green Mountain College, a crusty liberal arts school where he's the director of the Farm and Food Project.
Earning a bachelor degree in philosophy, it seems, was excellent preparation for the carpenter-turned-homesteader. He’s as adroit framing a life as he is building a barn.
In 1996 he and his wife, Erin, embarked on the ultimate DIY project, in what became a 14-year experiment of living off the grid: purchasing a 25-acre farm on the edge of ruin for $39,000.
As a city guy, back-to-the-land types from middle-class backgrounds perplex me, opting into a lifestyle that our great-grandparents abandoned long ago, even as farm communities continue to struggle. Living on the land was precarious then and continues to be difficult.
My first impression of the couple’s early years of homesteading was that these people are nuts, and particularly hardy ones at that, starting with the decision to occupy a 12-by-24 ramshackle cabin set deep in the woods and braving sub-zero temperatures without the benefit of electricity or running water.
The author, however, proves to be no dilettante, taking on challenges that would send most flatlanders packing. Testy cows, boot-sucking mud and vertiginous terrain are just part of the daily routine on the homestead.
Subtitled "The Education of a Modern Homesteader," Ackerman-Leist's book offers a compelling account of what it means to be homesteader in the age of the Internet. It turns out that leading the simple life isn’t so simple after all. There’s a mortgage to pay, animals to tend and fields to restore amid the ongoing struggle to balance the obligations of work, home and family life.
He emphasizes the value of manual labor and sweat equity in building his home. None of it would have been possible without the help of his like-minded spouse, and years of hands-on experience dedicated to understanding the economics of rural life, tending to his to grandfather’s orchard as well as managing a traditional farm in the Tyrolean Alps.
"Up Tunket Road" lacks the lyricism of "Goat Song", or the humor of "Farm City". As a narrator Ackerman-Leist is too earnest to be truly funny, and too matter-of-fact for poetics. Instead he offers less a how-to on homesteading than a why.
He provides a cogent argument for a lifestyle that our great-grandparents would likely understand: Food is culture, cultivate good friends, and borrow money when you have to, not because you can.
New England is perhaps the most beloved and certainly the most storied landscape in the United States. The compactness and diversity of the terrain attracts all types, from moneyed bankers to the odd recluse. There’s something powerfully evocative about the region’s towering trees, verdant mountains and patchwork of towns that continues to lure many would-be lifestyle refugees to the region. Ackerman-Leist is no exception.
That leads to soaring passages that even armchair naturalists can appreciate:
"The big white pines surrounding the cabin served as sentinels for the forest edge. The first tree species to begin filling the open gaps in the landscape, these pines seemed like greedy hovering family members bearing witness to the dying pasture's last-minute will and testament — uttered in a surrendering tone, fearful of the forest's stealthy advance."