Commenting on The Rural Solution, Daniel wrote:
“I really like this post, and it was your posts before that made me start thinking about rural life as more than just an interesting idea and in fact as a real possibility. However, I am wondering what kind of advice you would give to someone with no real experience living ‘full time’ outside of the city. Self-sufficiency would not be my goal, I would merely wish to set up a real home for my (future) family, not merely a house which will be quickly sold to move into a bigger and better one. I have heard a lot about how difficult it is to live in the country, and I was wondering what you think it would be like for someone fairly new to it all.”
A note on “self-sufficiency”. Much of the literature seems to emphasize “self-sufficiency” and economic independence – especially “food independence” – to an extent that is, in my opinion, entirely unrealistic. Even if it were possible for a homestead to be self-sufficient, I don’t regard this as a good thing at all. Catholic social doctrine is essentially communitarian: economic independence is not on the radar screen. What we are dealing with, I suspect, is the infiltration of American/Protestant individualism into Catholic agrarian thought.
I agree with what Al wrote in the same comment thread. The goal of self-sufficiency should be seen as applying to communities or regions, not individuals or households. It is true that modern man is too dependent upon far-away factories and farms. This is an extreme situation brought about by an extreme economic ideology. As is often the case, the danger is that an extreme situation will bring forth an extreme reaction that will also miss the mark. The answer to collectivism is not individualism, and the answer to the “global village” is not isolated self-sufficient homesteads. Catholics should work toward building local, regional economies with minimal dependence upon outside corporations. Northern California, for instance, could be almost perfectly “self-sufficient” if the residents here so desired. We have lots of fertile ground, plenty of local water, and a long growing season. We have a large enough population to maintain economies of scale where required. Regional self-sufficiency is within our grasp. There’s just one little problem with this: sacrifice. My neighbors and I would have to sacrifice our illusions of material prosperity. Jetskis, laptop computers, and “fast food” restaurants might disappear entirely. In order for regional self-sufficiency to become a reality, you need to settle someplace where sufficient numbers of people think regionally. Big cities are therefore out of the question.
Back to your original question. If you can, find a place to settle in the country that allows you keep a decent job. That could mean settling near a larger city where employment is available. I would recommend keeping your commute under 45 minutes each way. Here in Glenn County many people work across the river in Chico, a metropolitan area of almost 100,000. I think the average commute to Chico is probably around 30 minutes: not bad at all. The point is that the earlier you move to the country, the better. It gets harder the longer you put it off. I wish we had done this fifteen years ago.
You are young and can afford to start slowly, one project at a time. I would recommend renting a small house or mobile home on a couple of acres and starting with chickens and a little garden. Take your time. Read all the books in The Yeoman Farmer’s sidebar. And don’t be afraid of renting or living in humble lodgings. We have a mobile home on our place that we rent out to another family, for $650 per month, along with about an acre of land. They could easily have a large garden, some fruit trees, chickens for eggs, rabbits for meat, and a couple of goats for milk. It’s enough for a wholesome, quiet, and hard-working country life.
Although the goal may not be “self-sufficiency”, the less dependent you are upon the industrial food providers, the better. Eggs and milk are probably the easiest and most rewarding things a homestead can produce. A garden can supply a large percentage of the food you consume, especially if you freeze your vegetables and eat them year round. Five or ten fruit trees will give you all the fruit your family can eat with plenty to spare. Apart from a couple of chickens and one goat, we haven’t supplied much of our own meat – but we’ve got one steer in the pasture that is almost ready for the butcher. He’ll provide us with a year’s worth of beef. They tell me, also, that rabbits are a very economical way to raise meat for your family. You should ask Mr. Curley about that.
There is another thing to consider. We are blessed to have two good Catholic families who live nearby, both of whom have years of expertise in rural living and various aspects of farming and ranching. We’ve relied on them tremendously – for advice, material help, and also for emergency labor. I can’t begin to tell you how important their assistance has been. Of course we have also relied on kind neighbors and local merchants, but without these good friends things would have been much more difficult for us. So, if possible, choose a place that has this kind of advantage for your family.
When you move to the country you’re going to need three basic things: a pickup truck, a dog, and a shotgun. The truck is indispensable: you’ll use it more than you ever imagined. The dog will guard your place and alert you to problems with critters. The shotgun … well, I’m not sure why you’ll need it, but everyone has one so you had better get one too. I haven’t used mine much – I shoot some clay pigeons now and then – but it’s good to know it’s there. You’re going to need lots of other things you never thought about before. Tools, for example. Tools you have never heard of. If you’re not already familiar with tools, you might want to take a class, do some reading, or start a small building project. I’m not very mechanically inclined myself, but I’ve had some shop experience and can fumble around with some basic tools. You’re also going to spend a lot of time fighting weeds and pests. You’ll need, at minimum, a sprayer and a weed-eater. But these kinds of things are “learn as you go”, and you really don’t need to worry about them until a problem comes up. Take your time, enjoy the peace and serenity that country life offers, and your “education” will take care of itself.
Between my regular job and working on the homestead, I haven’t had much time for blogging. Based on the questions and comments of readers I hope to address the following topics shortly: self-sufficiency, getting started in agrarian living, fighting modern and post-modern ideologies, homeschooling, and male headship. Your patience is appreciated. In the meantime, the tradition and restoration conversation continues elsewhere:
“At age 14, 225 (33.2 percent) of the teens reported that they watched three or more hours of television per day. ‘Television viewing time at mean age 14 years was associated with elevated risk for subsequent frequent attention difficulties, frequent failure to complete homework assignments, frequent boredom at school, failure to complete high school, poor grades, negative attitudes about school (i.e., hates school), overall academic failure in secondary school and failure to obtain post-secondary (e.g., college, university, training school) education,’ the authors write. ‘These associations remained significant after the covariates were controlled.’ These covariates included family characteristics and previous problems with thinking, learning and memory.”
A commenter on the Steps to Restoration thread wanted to add “Smash your television!” to the list. I heartily approve, and toward that end I recommend this article by Fr. John D. Fullerton (SSPX, I know) on the evils of television. The author recalls the prophetic warning of Pope Pius XII in Miranda Prorsus:
“For these new possessions and new instruments which are within almost everyone’s grasp, introduce a most powerful influence into men’s minds, both because they can flood them with light, raise them to nobility, adorn them with beauty, and because they can disfigure them by dimming their luster, dishonor them by a process of corruption, and make them subject to uncontrolled passions, according as the subjects presented to the senses in these shows are praiseworthy or reprehensible.
In the past century, advancing technical skill in the field of business frequently had this result: machines, which ought to serve men, when brought into use rather reduced them to a state of slavery and caused grievous harm.
Likewise today, unless the mounting development of technical skill, applied to the diffusion of pictures, sounds and ideas is subjected to the sweet yoke of the law of Christ, it can be the source of countless evils, which appear to be all the more serious, because not only material forces but also minds are unhappily enslaved. And man’s inventions are, to that extent, deprived of those advantages which in the design of God’s Providence ought to be their primary purpose.”
Television might be – in theory – redeemable and put to good use. But practically speaking it is just too late: the whole project is in the sewer. Furthermore, the dangers of the medium itself far outweigh the meagre benefits you might gain from catching a good show now and then. Some people tell me they have a television so they can watch EWTN or documentaries on the History Channel. Along the same lines, I suppose they read Playboy magazine just for the articles. Good luck with that.
“Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about ‘liberty’; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about ‘progress’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about ‘education’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, ‘Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.’ This is, logically rendered, ‘Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’ He says, ‘Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.’ This, logically stated, means, ‘Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.’ He says, ‘Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.’ This, clearly expressed, means, ‘We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.'”
Steve Skojec’s latest post is a must-read for anyone interested in rebuilding Christendom. Among other important topics he touches upon one of my favorite themes:
“As for the rest of culture, I’m certainly not an isolationist, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that we need to remove ourselves from the culture at large … I want to get out of the city. I want to have land, and enough of it that we can grow some of our own food, tend to animals, breathe fresh air, work the land and contemplate God. I want to control the influences we are under. I want to live an authentic and healthy way of life. I want to produce something good, and find a way to sustain ourselves through it.”
In an earlier comment Mr. Skojec asked me to elaborate on how transitioning to a rural, agrarian lifestyle ties into cultural restoration in general. That is an excellent question, and one that needs more attention than I can give it. But I’ll offer a few remarks for the reader’s consideration.
The restoration of Christian culture requires a healthy dose of realism. In modern cities, a Catholic family is not merely swimming against a strong current: it is overwhelmed by the waves. There is nothing that one family, or one thousand families, can do to change the culture in a metropolitan area of a million souls. Not in your lifetime, anyway. Therefore it is better to find a place where 1) the culture is somewhat more Christian and less decadent, and 2) you are not so ridiculously outnumbered. In a more conservative town or rural district you will be more likely to find allies, and more likely to make a difference. You will still be fighting, but your battles will be different and there will be a realistic chance of success. Here in Glenn County we don’t have to fight the homosexual movement or the pro-abortion movement because they just don’t exist. We no longer plan our every move around an ever-present threat of random, violent crime. We no longer worry about the billboards, bumper stickers, signs, music, images, and ubiquitous perversity that followed us around in the big city. Instead we do battle with Indian casinos, corporate ag interests, out-of-town developers, and corruption in government offices. I can handle that. And I don’t need to explain these things to my children before they are ready.
LIFE ON A HUMAN SCALE
Life in a small community is more human on several levels. In the city we seldom knew our neighbors, even after living in the same place for years. It seems that the more neighbors you have, the less likely you are to know anything about them. We were used to ignoring our neighbors in the city – in truth, I didn’t particularly care to know them – but after moving to the countryside we began meeting our neighbors almost immediately. They would just drive up and start talking. We’ve needed their help on numerous occasions, and they’ve even needed ours. They’ve helped us put up fences and outbuildings, irrigate our pasture, and dispose of dead livestock. We’ve loaned them our equipment, herded their cattle, given them produce, and baked them pies. One neighbor drops by every Monday to sell my wife homemade tamales. Truly, we had more privacy on our suburban cul-de-sac, with 17 crowded homes, than we do with twenty acres on a country road just outside of town.
If you move to the country you must learn to wave. You will be waved at constantly. If you don’t wave, you may be insulting someone: best to wave just to be on the safe side. Once you get into town you can stop waving, but in general you still have to say hello to people. If you’re standing in line at the feed store, you may be expected to say something. You can’t be too busy for small talk.
There also tends to be more tolerance for eccentrics, and we have plenty of eccentrics. In a small town you sort of have to put up with your neighbors’ quirks whether you like them or not. Not that people here don’t argue or complain: they most certainly do, but they complain about their eccentric neighbors in the same way they would an uncle or a cousin.
SILENCE, DARKNESS, AND SOLITUDE
People in the city seldom experience real silence, darkness, or solitude. But these things are important for the spiritual life. Silence is necessary for contemplation and repentance. Darkness is symbolic of many spiritual truths and is the only means we have of appreciating the light. Solitude is required for prayer and self-examination. Given my remarks about community and neighborliness, you would think that rural dwellers would not experience much solitude. Surprisingly, that isn’t the case. Rural dwellers get both extremes: real community and real solitude. The difference is that these are imposed rather than chosen. There are no shopping malls or movie theatres to relieve your solitude. You can’t change the weather, and you can’t alter your surroundings on a whim. Life in the countryside is marked by dependence, and I think this ultimately leads to an attitude of calm acceptance of reality.
Man is made to live close to the earth. Grace builds on nature, and faith comes more easily to those who are closer to nature. The city is man-made and tells us something about man, but the countryside is God-made and tells us something about God. The beauty, complexity, and order of God’s creation is unsurpassed by anything man-made. Because man was created to know God and to love Him, he has a deep and primal desire to know and understand the created world: Eden is always calling. In the city, this salutary desire can only be suppressed.
Since moving here 2-1/2 years ago, my kids have participated in planting vegetables and fruit trees, nurturing baby chicks, watching hens lay eggs, butchering chickens, butchering a goat, milking goats, castrating a bull-calf, and training dogs. They have watched dogs grow from puppies to maturity, observed cats catch mice, and assisted with the live births of two goats and five kittens. They have nursed farm animals from sickness to health. They have seen their best goat die and helped to bury her in the ground. They have seen large plants sprout from the tiniest seeds, grow vigorously, produce tasty vegetables, wilt, recover, and finally die. They have seen the effects of water saturation, fungus, and pests on fruit trees and have helped to fight them. They have observed cats, cows, and goats in the act of mating. They have identified more birds and insects in two years than I ever knew existed.
As a result, the children have learned to appreciate nature without romanticizing it. They see nature as the handiwork of God and the source of human livelihood, but also as hard taskmaster and sometimes a deadly threat. They understand the cycles of birth, life, sickness, and death inherent in a world both fallen and sanctified. They know exactly where food comes from and how much work is involved to produce it.
WORK AND RESPONSIBILITY
One of the most important benefits of country living is work. There is always – ALWAYS – some project or another that needs attention. No one is bored unless he wants to be. The children have their rounds of daily chores. For the most part, they do them well and without being asked. Every morning they milk the goats, bottle-feed the kids, pasteurize the milk, feed the dogs and cats, and feed the chickens. At night they do it all again, in addition to collecting the eggs from the henhouse. These days they are also watering the garden. I believe this early training in responsibility is critical. Even the younger ones can be of some help. Last week, for example, we had some work to do on the electric fence. This fence encircles more than one acre. The weeds were so high that the netting was being shorted and the electric charge was ineffective. We had to pull up the fence, cut down the weeds on the fence-line, clean up the energizer and solar panel, and put everything back again. In order to do this we had to tether the animals in the barn and provide for their needs. Everyone was involved, from the youngest to the oldest, working together as a family toward a common goal. It was a beautiful sight. How often does this happen in the city?
THE DISCIPLINE OF PLACE
In addition to poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Benedictines take an additional vow: a vow of stability. A homestead with animals, a garden, and an orchard ties a family down. Gardens need daily watering and regular weeding. Animals need to be fed and milked daily. If you skip more than one milking, the animal can get infected and milk production may go down. Someone needs to be around when an animal gets sick, or perhaps escapes through an open gate or a hole in the fence. While it is possible to have neighbors look after the feeding, goats and cows will not always cooperate with an unfamiliar milker. It is best to have two or three experienced milkers in the family in case someone falls ill or needs to leave for a time. Essentially what this means is that the family does not take any overnight trips together. No more vacations! Like the Benedictines, you are practicing the discipline of place, the only cure for modern restlessness and wanderlust.
PLAY AND CREATIVITY
A final note for now. Restoration means the recovery of reason, imagination, and cooperation. That means that the next generation will need to be free of the pernicious effects of television, video games, and the internet – destroyers of the mind, every one. Children with plenty of space in the country have limitless opportunities for play and creativity and the development of common sense. They learn how to get along, solve problems, and argue rationally. Sometimes I am asked how it is that our children have come to enjoy each other’s company so much. Well, it is simple. They play together, usually outdoors. They don’t have the option of hiding in their bedrooms with a television or computer.
… but it doesn’t make women pregnant. The waste from estrogen-loaded contraceptive pills is contaminating our water supply, essentially neutering male fish. This can’t be good for fertility either. If the contaminated water has the effect of feminizing male fish, what do you suppose it does to men who drink it? Perhaps the birth rate is higher in the countryside because we get our water from undergound wells, not city water systems.
Contraception: the gift that keeps on giving …