As an urbanite, I had this long-held dream of homesteading, of living off our own rural property, collecting eggs from our free ranging chickens, picking and storing our own organic vegetables and fruit, and working from home. I think I even romanticized it a bit (ahem). The reality of rural living, of course, was a little different.
Here’s the deal – I’m an individualist at heart. Only recently have I learned to ask for help when I can’t figure something out. My usual modus operandi is to just hunker down in front of the computer (I design websites for a living, so there’s LOTS of computer hunkering going on) and sift through blog posts and tutorials til I figure it out. Now, that works for website building, but for homesteading and rural living skills? Not so much.
Back in early 2009 when we moved into our little homestead (and for years before), I spent a LOT of time studying, reading, and taking courses and workshops on a zillion different topics related to modern homesteading, rural living, and self-sufficiency. Books, blogs, website forums, you name it… I visited and studied them all. Then one day after we moved into our little cabin, I realized I didn’t even know how to start a fire. You know, so it would stay lit. Sure, I’d read about it, watched some online tutorials (if you can believe it), but I’d never actually lit one myself. It was a complete mystery to me, and to be honest, freaked me out a little bit. And because I was so afraid of looking stupid, I remember distinctly being a bit offended when my dad came down and showed me how to build a fire like I was a little kid who’d never lit one before. But I hadn’t, and of course, didn’t want to admit it. I told him I ‘got it’ and then tried to start a fire after he left. It petered out so fast you’d have hardly known there was a match near the thing. Needless to say I had to go back and ask him for another lesson, because clearly all that book/web learning I’d done didn’t apply to our particular geography, climate and firewood. So after feeling like a schmuck for not knowing how to do something simple like start a fire, I’m here to tell you that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that will get your skills upgraded fast than working with a mentor.
I’ve been incredibly lucky when it comes to mentors. Not only did I find one mentor, but in our little corner of the world, I managed to connect with many. My dad has turned out to be a HUGE source of skill-building information and lessons: basic carpentry, wood heating systems operation and maintenance, how to look after a shake roof, basic plumbing, water well maintenance, back-up power systems… it’s crazy how much that man knows! I never really appreciated it before, but I sure do now.
And then there was Robin Wheeler, who I was very much blessed to know. She’s the author of Food Security for the Faint of Heart and Gardening for the Faint of Heart, and she was an absolute godsend when it comes to connecting with the people who have the skills I need to know. Through Robin’s Sustainable Living Arts School, I learned how to make saurkraut, prepare herbal wound ointment, grow perennial food plants, and store up vegetables and fruit for winter, and a whole bunch of other skills (like how to build an outhouse – important when the pipes freeze). Her knowledge was both vast and deep, and without her I wouldn’t have developed the confidence to go down this road. Actually, I think I’d probably be living in an apartment instead of in our cozy cabin in the woods. Sadly, we lost Robin in February of 2012, but her legacy lives on in so many of us with whom she so generously shared her time and wisdom. I’ll always be grateful.
My former co-worker at the recycling agency, Liz, also turned out to be a fabulous mentor, with all her wisdom on growing food and making things look stylish while staying low on the consumption scale. And so, so many others I’ve met since, both online (our Facebook page is a HUGE resource) and in person. Valuable lessons, all.
These are/were my most prolific mentors, and the ones I see and talk to often, but there are so many more – on blogs and websites across the internet, the homesteading heroes are there, sharing their knowledge and clearing the way for others like us. So if you’re thinking of moving to the country, or you’ve already moved and are wondering ‘what next’, find yourself a mentor. Look in your local community guides for workshops, or ask at the farmer’s market for those who have the skills you’re looking to gain. Weirdly, I’ve also found the local coffee shop where all the ‘elders’ hang out in the morning is a brilliant place to connect. If you start talking to people, generally someone will know someone who can show you exactly what it is you want to learn.
So here I am, four years into my homesteading journey. I’ve learned so much and feel infinitely more confident about my abilities than I did. But there’s so much more to learn, and I’m sure there always will be, maybe getting proficient at a few things, maybe even to the point where I could say I know what I’m doing! But there’s one thing I know for sure – that my mentors will always be a huge part of my journey, and that without them, I’d be floundering around, making more mistakes than necessary and probably getting frustrated and possibly even giving up. But that’s not going to happen. I’ve got too many amazing people around me.
And my fire building skills since I swallowed my pride and asked for a repeat lesson? We haven’t had a chilly night since (except when the firewood gets wet).
Who are your mentors? Honor them here – we’d love to hear your stories…