Twenty years ago I picked up a copy of Backwoods Home magazine in a little hole-in-the-wall quick-stop in a western Oklahoma town and discovered that the ache I had for a different kind of life was contagious. People were actually doing it. I was done for. It reminds me of the first time I read the Gospel. I ran into the living room, Bible in hand, and asked David, “Do you know what this says?” He replied, “Yea.” Astonished, I scolded, “And you didn’t tell me!!!” But the story of our journey to faith and how it relates to our life on the land is a testimony of its own and I digress.
I was always wired a little bit different. As a young child I remember going to the breaks or the river with my Daddy and thinking to myself, “If I just had the right knife and a few matches I could live here.” My parents were older when I was born, both of them growing up in the depression, so I was exposed early and regularly to their memories of plowing with mules, birthing at home, growing or hunting food, reading by lamplight. . .
Instrumental in shaping my love for agrarian living was my Aunt Ada. Ada was born in the 1890’s and was the most capable woman I ever knew. She grew a large garden with paths that wandered through beds of vegetables interspersed with fruit trees, herbs and flowers. She didn’t know it was permaculture and that 20 years after she died she’d be at the forefront of a movement. She just liked it that way. Her lush grapevines came from cuttings that she collected down by the river. She raised chickens and beef cattle – long wide bodied, short legged, easy going cows of a bloodline that she acquired back in the ’30’s or ’40’s that looked like they had stepped out of an old Orange Judd and Company farming book. When her daughter died a couple of years ago that bloodline was still on their farm. I wish I knew where those cows went. They were living history. Ada didn’t have a modern washing machine and I remember her boiling her clothes in a huge pot on the stove. She sewed on a treadle sewing machine, refinished furniture, played the fiddle and gardened by the moon. She shopped for groceries in a cellar lined with shelves groaning under the weight of home grown bounty and inhabited by a big bull snake that she she let stay because he ate the mice. She could do a full days work then have a dinner that would feed a threshing crew on the table before noon. Once Daddy and I found a chicken on the side of the road that had fallen from a chicken truck and Ada let me bring it right in to her large and welcoming kitchen.
David grew up the farm where they raised pigs, cotton, cattle, wheat and whatever else might strike the fancy of W.C. Bowman. He started working at the cotton gin tromping cotton when he was 13. He was 12 when Mom and and W.C went on a vacation. Dub told him that if the wind started to blow he needed to get out into the field with the tractor and “scratch” it, stir up the top layer of sandy soil where the rain leveled it so it wouldn’t blow. He learned to farm, to weld, to mechanic, to work like a man.
David was doubly blessed by the time he was able to spend with his great grandparents. He has memories of their big smokehouse permeated with the indescribably delicious smells of dry cured hams and bacon. Granny and Grandad were simple people whose lives revolved around home and family. David learned to appreciate the peace that comes with simple living.
For both of us, the foundation was laid.
Peeling The Onion
From my earliest adulthood I understood that our economy was unsustainable and that progress wasn’t necessarily doing us the great favor it portended to. I have never believed that one dime that I’ve paid into the Ponzi scheme we call Social Security would find it’s way back into my hands. I remember when David and I were engaged having a conversation about farming. He was explaining to me how modern farmers operate: Go to the bank. Borrow operating money. Work all year to make a crop. Sell the crop. Collect your government subsidy. Go back to the bank. Give the money to the banker. Borrow operating money. . . I didn’t know anything about modern farming, but I knew that was nuts and I told him so. Still, after we married we tried it.
Between the death of David’s father, a cold wet spring and a crooked banker we lost everything. To this day David is deadly serious about his animals being warm and fed, even before he’s warm and fed.
Testing The Waters
We spent the next few years learning. We rented property and learned to garden, to butcher, to milk, to make soap and cheese. We prayed for land of our own, but with no credit prospects were dim. Southwest Oklahoma like so many other places was dotted with old homesteads that still had houses, barns, cellars and wells but no one wanted to separate them from the larger parcels of land and sell them. It was heartbreaking to see once productive farmhouses used for hay storage and makeshift cattle shelters. In early 1999 we found a piece of property in south central Oklahoma for sale on land contract. Ironically, it was just a few miles south of David’s great grandparents old place.
The land we bought was raw land, and in retrospect not the best land, but it was our land and we would make it work. We found a 1950’s vintage Spartanette park model travel trailer that had been some fellow’s hunting shack and bought it for $100. We had to cut down trees to move it home to work on it. When we had it ready we loaded it and a 16 foot trailer with everything we thought we might need, stored the rest of our stuff, and drove 150 miles east. Pulling through the gate I stuck the trailer in the mud.
We penned the goats under a budding oak tree and by morning had lost the two best ones to tannin poisoning. The rains that spring kept our drive a muddy river and I’ve had to train myself not to get anxious when I awaken at night to the sound of rain wondering if David will be able to get out to go to work. We hauled our water and learned every trick in the book for conserving it. I literally planted my first garden with a digging stick and every evening conversation that first summer went like this.
Me: “Guess what’s for supper”
David (knowing exactly what was for supper): “I don’t know. What’s for supper”
It was manna from Heaven, because that’s about all that grew that year. We had fried squash, stewed squash, squash salad, squash soup, squash chili, squash everything.
We added on a room to the little trailer to house our first wood stove. No insulation makes for a good incentive for one to learn how to manage a fire effectively. I cooked and canned on a Coleman stove. We lived in our little trailer for 3 years.
As time went on we got better at what we were doing and life settled down. We built a house and for period were hooked up to rural electric and water though we never brought the plumbing indoors. Our homestead, though not off-grid at the time, was becoming productive. Soon grandchildren arrived and their family quickly outgrew the tiny storage shed they lived in out back. We moved them into our house and began a new adventure.
On Big Turtle Creek
On the far end of our 45 acres from the original house at the bottom of the canyon that runs through the middle of our land was an old Chickasaw homestead. The rock foundation that was all that was left of a tiny cabin sat next to the seasonal creek right across from a springhouse dated 1923. A practiced eye like David’s could detect a subtle rolling to the land that meant old terraces. Rusty hog wire twisted around the trees on the higher ground. It was actually the spot we first picked when we looked at the land, but it wasn’t until the next year that it came up for sale. It had been a farm, and we envisioned it a farm again.
We built a tiny 9′ x 24′ cabin and I continued to hone my small space organizing skills. We installed the first of our solar system and built a biosand filter for the spring water. David went to Afghanistan the next year and when he returned we added a second larger cabin connected to the original one by a dogtrot. We continued to build, plant and learn – new gardens, fruit trees, livestock housing, greenhouses. We enlarged and tweaked the solar system and bought a wood cook stove.
The new cabin still needs some interior finish work and one more porch added to the south side. David’s getting ready to build a shop for welding, blacksmithing and general tinkering and to expand the barns. We plan new fields “up top” near our daughter’s house for next spring and an enclosure for a free-standing deck to make a summer kitchen. Despite years of progress we’re still in some ways in the same place we were on that rainy day in 1999 that I stuck the trailer in the drive. Every day brings something new to learn or build and reinforces the knowledge that we’ll never run out of things to do.