I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.
Yet here we are.
It was a snowy March afternoon in 2009 when we moved into our little renovated-with-much-love cabin in the woods and began our rural living journey.
I had BIG plans.
Too huge, it was soon to become obvious. My romantic rural-living naivete was about to be bashed into a muddy, slushy, leaf clogged mess.
Now I don’t mean to discourage – quite the opposite. But let’s just say the path to living well and being true to your goal to be as self-reliant as possible isn’t always a straight one. Or tidy. Or even makes a whole lot of sense.
Sometimes you’ll want to bash your head against a wall. Or throw something at it.
So here are eleven lessons I’ve learned from eleven years of rural living. Most will be obvious to anyone who has lived rural or spent much time in far flung cabins with wood heat and poopy (or fanged) critters – but that’s not who this article is for.
I’m writing for those just starting out on this journey.
As for all you experts, feel free to LOL – I’ve spent much time laughing at myself and how serious I was about all this in the beginning… or skip along to a blog designed for more ‘advanced’ folks who already know intimately the woes and joys of living in the sticks. If you stick around and get a good laugh, you’re welcome. Or better yet, share your own lessons learned in the comments.
Lesson 1: One Isn’t Just a Lonely Number
I have a deeply ingrained independent streak.
One of those ‘I’ll just do it myself’ sort of people.
I had grand plans in the beginning to be all self-sufficient and not need any help from anyone (cue the LOL). But lo and behold, I was missing a whole lot of skills – minor engine repair, basic construction, electrical repairs beyond just re-wiring a lamp, chainsaw operation… oh, and knowing how to build a fire. In other words, all the skills I’d planned on teaching myself, some of which I still haven’t quite got around to getting to the level I’d like to be (I’ve learned a LOT – just not ENOUGH – I did learn about the ins and outs of fire building immediately, out of necessity – yay me!).
All that to say that I quickly learned to reach out, to ask for HELP (such a dirty, dirty word for me back then), and then to accept it without feeling guilty – or stupid. I’ve been blessed with a number of brilliant mentors and of course my parents (who live relatively close by), who have taught me so much and rescued me when things went sideways, or we needed things we didn’t have. Trees falling in inconvenient places, a collision with a deer that totaled the front end of my car, an illness in 2009 that did me in for a good few weeks, and all the little things that invariably happen (or that you find you need) when one lives in the sticks. All went so much better because I asked for help, or people offered and I didn’t really have a choice.
Takeaway: Don’t try to go it alone… build a community. You’ll more likely than not need it. Makes it more fun, too.
Lesson 2: ‘Manual’ Maintenance Tools are Amazing – in Theory
That first summer after we moved in, I bought a scythe.
Spent hours researching the best kind for type of property and grass we have.
Watched countless videos on ‘technique’.
Then promptly realized that keeping a scythe maintained so that it’s actually useful took WAY more time than I had available what with parenting a young child at the time on my own, commuting 4 hours a day for the first 2 years, then later embarking down the entrepreneurial path.
Just. Didn’t. Happen.
It’s still hanging out in the shed, a wee bit rusty, but still serviceable with a bit of clean-up should I find myself with the inclination to pick it up and take the time to learn the skill.
For the rest of the time, the John Deere mower we were gifted awhile back does the trick – and fast. Until they manage to ban gasoline. Then out comes the scythe.
But until then.
Takeaway: Be realistic about the time tasks will take and how much time you actually have.
Lesson 3: Trees are Beautiful, and Helpful… and Messy… and Can Fall on You… or the Hydro Lines
We’re surrounded by big hemlock trees – the kind with shallow root systems that if disturbed by construction, digging foundations, etc., will give way and send the 100 foot tall mass crashing over – hopefully not onto the house or carport. The rest are decadent red alder that have been affected by caterpillar infestations in past years, and have reached the stage where a slight wind or snow load will break off tops and branches. On the positive, they keep the house cool in summer, and of course are lovely to look at.
We’ve had a few hemlock removed over the years, and the alder have provided a good chunk of our supply of firewood the last few winters (not far to haul – and FREE!), but venturing outside when it’s windy is not for the faint of heart.
Or the slow moving.
When my son was young we had a big leaf maple top break off and just about take us out on the grass where we were enjoying a game of catch.
The only time in my life I actually had to run for my life.
Then there’s the more frequent than quarterly cleaning of the roofs and gutters of hemlock needles and maple leaves while perched on ladders and up to my elbows in muck. In hindsight, we should have taken out a few more close to the house when we renovated the cabin – they’ve grown considerably in the 20 years it was originally moved onto the property. But you know what they say about hindsight. Now it’s a huge job that requires professional tree removal.
Outside of our control of course are the miles of decadent trees (mostly alder) overhanging the hydro lines along our stretch of highway. They’re to the point where the slightest breeze knocks one or more to the ground, taking the lines with it. You’d think the hydro company would find it prudent to do preemptive maintenance rather than having to respond with emergency crews in wind storms. I’m guessing there’s a reason…
Takeaway: I know it’s really hard to do for some (I love trees), but remove big trees from around the house BEFORE you build the house. And have back-up cooking and water heating options for those times the power goes out for trees falling on the lines.
Lesson 4: Trees & Shrubs Need More Space Than You’d Think
I spent years doing technical editing, creating management and communications plans and standard operating procedures, organizing small businesses to be more efficient, and building technical solutions. You’d think I’d know how to follow instructions for planting a shrub.
Now I have a blueberry patch that’s more like an impenetrible hedge (prolific, but a challenge to pick without knocking berries off as I squeeze between the rows), and that is leaning precariously to the west to escape the hemlock tree that has grown up next to it and is now blocking light and I’m guessing creating a drip-line of hemlock-ness that the blueberries aren’t keen on.
Then there are the lindens I planted too close to the oak.
The sugar maple that is now too close to the raspberry patch.
The apple that’s running escape from the black hawthorne.
A mishmash of lush vegetation that would be doing infinitely better if I’d left the recommended amount of space in between.
Takeaway: Read (and follow) instructions. Yes, even you rebels like me who like to wing it… 😉
Lesson 5: Little Cars – Cheap to Operate, Suck in Winter in Hilly Locales
In 2008 when we were planning the move from the city to a rural community, I was faced with purchasing a vehicle (I didn’t have one at the time – didn’t need it).
Umpteen Lemon Aid guidebooks later, and after weighing the pros and cons of car vs. truck, keeping our local climate and amount of driving I’d be doing in mind, I settled on a relatively new pre-owned 4 door hatchback purchased via Craigslist. The school my son was attending at the time was a good 20 minute highway drive from where we would be living, and I knew I’d be making multiple trips a day for a number of years. So a car that was fuel efficient but could still carry a few passengers made the most sense.
Fuel efficient meaning tiny.
Fuel efficient meaning totally useless in the snow.
That first year, it snowed more here than it had in years. Like almost up to the bottom of the living room window – which for this part of the world is unheard of. And our property is on a north facing slope, meaning that snow hangs around for days – and sometimes even weeks – longer than just up the road.
So yeah, a couple of weeks out of most years, the car is useless, and we have to rely on borrowing a truck to get around for those times (which we’re lucky enough to have access to if needed). It’s worked out fine, as 95% of the year the little car is more than adequate. But it’s 15 years old now, and while I’m going to drive it til it falls apart, I am beginning the research for our next vehicle. Let’s just say something a little better in inclement weather will be first on the list.
Takeaway: Know the local climatic conditions of the place you plan to move to and plan accordingly – or get friendly with nice people who happen to have extra vehicles lying around. That works too!
Lesson 6: Finding My Voice
Prior to 2009, I wasn’t in the habit of ‘speaking up’. In any given situation, I was generally the one observing. Participating, yes, but quietly… so as not to disturb anyone. Never wanted to be the center of attention, or make a fuss, or create any cause for anyone to turn in my direction. I enjoyed anonymity. And I don’t think I knew if I could yell or scream even if I had to. Some might call that lucky.
Fast forward a couple of years to our first batch of chickens in 2011.
Let’s just say that it didn’t take very long to find my voice – in the form of yelling (loudly) at bears, bobcats, coyotes, hawks, ravens, mountain lions, and I’m sure a few other critters to get their butts away from the chicken run.
And satellite internet.
I know I expressed rather crudely a few thoughts out loud when the signal failed for the 5th time in a week because a tree grew too tall, or it snowed, or the fog rolled in (we live on the west coast – it’s foggy for weeks at a time some years), or the satellite spun out of orbit (yes, that happened).
Takeaway: Big voices help keep big critters away from your little critters. So do bear bangers. Which are MUCH louder.
Lesson 7: Wood-fired Heat is Messy… and Spidery…
Let me start by saying I LOVE our wood stove. It provides inexpensive heat (our wood sources are ‘free’ from dead fall on the property and trim/off cuts from my dad’s sawmill), a cozy ambiance, a cook top for the umpteen times a year the power goes out (see Lesson 3) and peace of mind that we’ll stay comfortable during an extended winter power outage.
Now, I will say that while it would on occasion be nice to simply flip a switch instead of all the time involved in cutting, splitting, drying, piling, hauling fire wood and maintaining the stove, we won’t be giving up the wood heat any time soon, even if I was rolling in cash and could afford a different system. We do have a small oil heater in the bathroom, as it never quite gets warm due to its location in the house, and we had to install (rarely used) baseboards in the bedrooms in the addition because… ‘building code’. But otherwise, there is no heating source in main part of the house outside of the airtight stove and no near future plans to replace it.
Yes, it’s messy – inside and out. We store the wood inside in a big old travel trunk to keep some of the mess contained, and out on the back porch we have an iron rack we fill from the main wood pile via a handy-dandy wearable firewood carrier (keeps the clothes from being covered in sawdust and dragging that into the house too) once every couple of days. But there is still much sawdust, and chips, and bark, and bugs – no matter how much we try to knock it all off before putting it on the porch or bringing it inside, there is still a pile of bark bits and sawdust that has to be cleaned up. And the stove to be emptied of ash once a week or so, depending on usage.
All in all, it becomes part of the routine, but if you’re a neat freak (which I lean towards) and busy – or forgetful – a wood stove might just drive you bonkers. You’ll be warm, but slightly crazed.
Takeaway: Wood heat is a commitment – be prepared for the time, and the mess (and the cost if you have to purchase wood).
Lesson 8: Never Say ‘Never’
Some of you have been following our rural living adventures since I launched the blog back in 2010. You know how I resisted (HARD) bringing a cat into the house. If not, here’s a quick recap: our house is a restored hand-hewn log cabin, with an older addition on one side and a newer one (2012) on the other. Let’s just say that the older addition for years apparently had various cracks and areas where little four-legged critters of the mouse variety could get in.
And ‘get in’ they did.
It was baaaaaaaaaaaad.
We tried everything I could find that I thought might work:
- filling in all of the cracks we could find with foam insulation (helped, but evidently we didn’t get them all)
- traps (lethal and non-lethal – didn’t work much – they generally managed to steal the food without tripping the trap, or tripped the trap but it didn’t kill them instantly so we were left with screaming, injured mice – horrible)
- that ‘non-toxic’ bait (which I hated the thought of almost as much as toxic bait – seemed like a slow, tortuous death)
- those ultrasonic things you plug in (useless in our case)
- essential oil repellents
- and about everything in between.
Every once in awhile I’d report back to the Facebook page that this or that worked for awhile or didn’t work at all. And every time someone would say, ‘Get a cat’. And I would respond with, ‘Never. I’m allergic, and I don’t want a cat out chasing the wild birds.’ Blah, blah, blah.
I think my reasons were valid – I WAS allergic to every cat I’d ever come across. And the idea of a pet killing wildlife (outside of uber-reproductive mice and rats) just doesn’t sit well with me. Didn’t then and doesn’t now.
Finally, I reached the end of my tether with the mice. It was gross. I was spending a stupid amount of time cleaning and disinfecting everything all the time, not to mention all of the things they chewed to shreds (love cotton and paper… and jalepeno peppers – hate wool… who knew?).
So in December of 2018, I gave in and we started looking at the rescues and shelters for a cat. I figured I’d just deal with the allergy part if the result was no more mice. One little face jumped out at me from an adoption gallery, and just before Christmas we went for a meet and greet. ‘Ricardo’ (his SPCA name) arrived at the shelter as a stray and had been there just over a month. They had a bit of background on him, but his previous guardians were not reachable at the contact info they had on record for his tattoo/chip.
We brought him home on December 27th.
He settled in pretty much right away.
Caught (and ate – shiver…) 7 mice the first 3 days.
Over a few weeks he decimated the in-the-house mouse population (there are clearly many still running around outside). Now we can go months before one ventures unwittingly inside to its certain demise. He’s happy (they’re pretty much ‘organic’ mice – there’s no other houses anywhere close that a mouse would travel), the house is mouse-free, and those allergies I was worried about? I’ve not sneezed once. Turns out Bengals (which the vet figures he is part) don’t shed much, and he’s dander free. Bonus!
As for the wild birds, the cat is indoors only, save for his explorations outside on a harness. He’d last probably a day, max, outside on his own with all the predators, so it’s just safer for everyone this way. He’s got lots of things to climb up on inside, and has it about as good as any cat could want.
In the next year or two we’ll be re-roofing the old addition and at that time will reseal that entire side of the building, which should take care of the issue.
Until then, the cat is our pest control.
Keeps him happy. And he’s darned good at it.
Takeaway: Never say ‘never’. Ever.
Lesson 9: Homeschooling and Independent Learning – Best Decision Ever
I never intended to embark on the journey of independent learning with my son. We sort of stumbled into it after the private school I’d enrolled him in when we moved here (part of the reason we chose this location – that and my parents live close by) closed… though I do remember picking up a homeschooling book many years before he was born out of vague interest. But the book just sat on the shelf – I think I might have cracked the first chapter, if that.
So when the school closed at the end of his Grade 5 year, and he had zero interest in going to the local public school (for all sorts of reasons we can get into in another post if anyone is interested), we started investigating our options. We could register as a homeschooler and go completely on our own, or register as a home learner and join a registered online school or other program sponsored by the school district.
We chose the former, ‘winging it’ on our own for a a year and subjecting myself to the incredulous side-eye of family and friends. Then (of course), as with many of my ‘I can do this myself – no problem and no help needed!’ plans, it became clear fairly quickly (and painfully) that teaching is NOT one of my strengths. At least not all subjects all the time. Unschooling wasn’t really an option in my head, though having researched it since, I guess maybe it’s sort of what we did for that year, though I didn’t really have a name for it (nor did we do it very confidently, or well).
Roll around to the beginning of Grade 7 and I, finally admitting that teaching was not my forte, signed him up for a registered and accredited online school here in British Columbia called Self-Design. Sweet relief! While the first year was a bit scattered and the school was in transition in the time, we knew we’d found our happy place. At the time of this writing, he’s mid-way through Grade 11, and having been with the same learning consultant since Grade 8, he has found his voice, and his brilliance. I can’t say enough great things about the program, and about how it provides us the space for him to pursue outside interests like guitar and public speaking, and has introduced him to people, places and programs we’d have likely not had the time or inkling to pursue otherwise.
Is homeschooling a good fit for every family? Hardly. It’s a wildly personal decision dependent on so many factors that we’d need a whole other post(s) to dig into, but for us, it’s worked out beautifully. He’s so far beyond what I could have ever imagined for him at this stage in his life – surely leaps and bounds ahead of where I was at his age in so many ways.
Mostly, this method of education has provided him opportunity to build confidence, embark on areas of study he wouldn’t have had access to otherwise, meet mentors and , work on worthwhile community projects with inspiring, creative people, and.
Growing up surrounded by trees and the sound of flowing creeks, with the room and quiet to contemplate and create, and the responsibility of caring for critters through health and sickness, as well as tough physical work as we build and maintain the property, has provided him with a foundation that I feel would have been much more challenging in an urban environment. Not better or worse, just different, and more aligned with his personality and character.
He actually just wrote a post about it here: Homeschooling Resources from a 16 Year Old Home Learner (for Parents)
Takeaway: Follow your instincts and embrace the amazing tools now available to support the independent learning journey no matter where you live.
Lesson 10: ‘New’ is Not Required
We’re all about re-use around here. Rarely have we needed to buy anything new – my mother’s superpower is finding exactly what we’re looking for – usually within days – at a local thrift or second-hand store – and my dad knows lots of retired guys who have garages full of stuff they never use (see Lesson 1). If I look around I’d say probably 90% of everything in the house (and outside the house, in the shed, chicken run, well house, etc.) was purchased either pre-owned or was built from the ground up using mostly reclaimed materials.
You can spend a lot of money setting up for self-reliance (I did spend a bit up front for things I thought I’d need, but haven’t really used much – but we have them if need be… see Lesson 2 re the scythe purchase). Second hand stores, demolition sales, online marketplaces (we have a very active one here – a few, actually), neighbours, acquaintances with lots of stuff in the garage they never use, tool lending banks, renting rather than buying, borrowing… so many options that can work very well.
We borrow a firewood splitter from a friend of my dad’s every summer to split the green/wet alder – makes the work a whole lot quicker for those of us who aren’t especially wieldly with an axe. I can make quick work of dry rounds with an axe, but the wet stuff, not so much.
Something to ponder as you’re deciding on a locale to move to.
Takeaway: Finding exactly what you’re looking for as pre-owned or recycled – it can take a bit longer, but so worth it for the money saved AND potentially finding materials or quality goods you may have had a hard time affording new (if you’re like most of us and are looking to save money where you can but still get high quality stuff). It’s sort of fun, too.
Lesson 11: Humility
Ego doesn’t fare so well when one lives in gumboots and are covered in critter poop more often than you ever thought possible.
Add to that the horror of giant spiders falling on your head, wild fanged critters wandering through the yard, chasing off wildcats chasing your chickens, shooshing wayward bats out of the loft, avoiding trees nearly falling on your head, living through generations of mice making your home theirs, getting stuck in the snow and snapping a strut on your car on roads with potholes that can almost swallow a small vehicle but are invisible til you’re right on top of them, caring for injured roosters and sickly hens, trying umpteen times to get a bear banger to fire before figuring it out (and the bear is long gone from your wild yelling), and many other adventures and misadventures that at the time were infuriating (or terrifying) but can now look back on and laugh for the sheer craziness that this life holds for anyone brave enough to venture forth.
So that’s it – my top eleven lessons from eleven years of rural living.
Now It’s Your Turn!
If you’re a rural living alumni, what are your top lessons to share with those just embarking on this road? Would love to hear in the comments below.
- 11 Lessons Learned from 11 Years of Rural Living - March 23, 2020
- What is ‘Modern Homesteading’, Anyway? - July 17, 2016
- Summer Rural Living Celebration! - July 1, 2014