I’m a rugged individualist. I like to take care of myself, and not have to depend on anyone else to meet my needs. I think many other homesteaders will agree when I say that radical individualism is what drew me to homesteading and self-sufficiency in the first place. The idea that I could provide myself with not only everything I need, but hand-crafted, high quality versions of everything I need, was kinda mind-blowing when I first started out. I’m nowhere near full blown self-sufficiency, but I have tasted the special satisfaction of eating food you grew yourself, or washing your body with handmade, chemical-free soap.
Being young and inexperienced, I just assumed that part of the territory was “going alone.” Your home versus the world. If the goal is self-sufficiency, why would you want to rely on others? Thus, I was operating as my own little island stead, cut off from others, forging my way solo. But then, Katy Had a Little Farm wrote a post about community that threw me for a loop. She talks about the importance of “finding your people,” those who you “do life” with. I don’t have those people, and after I read this post, I wanted them.
Before I was a homesteader, I was a graduate student, AKA a permanent slave to school. I had been in traditional school for seventeen whopping years. As a student, I was much like I am now – introverted and individualistic. I was the kid that DREADED group work and projects. Much of this was due to my crippling social anxiety, but I also just liked the idea of individualism. I had full control over myself, and I could work at my own pace and not be held up by others. I don’t want to sound pompous, but I have always been a high-achieving student. I didn’t trust others to produce the same quality of work as myself. After seventeen years of operating this way, it becomes a way of life – the mistrust of others, the I’d-rather-just-do-it-myself attitude. Even now, in my position as a manager, I struggle with delegating work. My gut reaction is to simply do it myself so I know it’s done right. I digress.
My student mentality has driven my life as an amateur homesteader. Instead of learning directly from others, I prefer to read and research on my own. I voraciously devour recommended texts, and blogs of homesteaders I look up to – but I don’t usually comment or participate in discussion. I’m still that kid lurking in the back of the room, observing with great attention and detail, but turning around and working secretively on my own. Like other habits that drive my life, this mode of operation never seemed questionable – I blindly accepted it as the right, and only, way to do things, because I had years of academic success to back it up. Last night I was listening to this pretty interesting episode of The Survival Podcast (about building a self-sufficient greenhouse), when Jack Spirko says something to the effect of, “you can read and research all you want, but that will never teach you as much as hands on experience, trial and error, and sharing ideas with others.” Boom. My entire framework for life called into question.
The internet and this blog further complicate my relationships to others. This blog has enabled me to connect with others, study their experiences, and even find inspiration. For example, when I performed my end of the year garden clean up a couple weeks ago, I found myself with a crap-ton of pineapple sage leaves and flowers (flowers pictured above). I had no clue that to do with all of it, but it just so happened I had seen The Nerdy Farm Wife‘s post on pineapple sage sugar scrub on my dashboard a few weeks earlier … so I went ahead and made the sugar scrub. I tested after I cut down our red cedar Christmas tree, which gave me awful rash all over my legs and arms .. and it worked gloriously. See, social networking works! I’m really enjoying finding my people through this blog.
There’s a flipside to using the internet as your primary means of building community. While it’s awesome to connect with other like minded bloggers, thinking this can substitute for face to face interaction is erroneous. The internet still allows us to curate our lives and hide behind anonymity when things don’t go our way. We present the best version of ourselves to the internet, hoping for praise and positive feedback from others. But you know what the best learning experiences are? The times you screw up, the times you forget a step, and the times you just can’t figure out what the heck is wrong. I truly believe that this, not the glowing accomplishments, is the “stuff” of life. While you can seek advice from fellow bloggers, when we falter, there is more going on than just the error. There’s the emotional aspect, and I just don’t think you can get that over the internet. Furthermore, much of my communication over the internet is structured – commenting on a specific post, discussing a specific idea, answering a specific question. I haven’t found a way to simply “talk” over the internet – to bounce ideas off one another and to jabber about the day to day going ons. I think that level of communication is much easier face to face. Finally, I simply don’t think the internet can make up for the hyper-locality of your own tribe, in your region. The internet is wonderful in that it makes it possible for folks who are lifetimes away from one another to commune. But it misses the locale-specific vibe and support of a community.
The first conclusion I’ve arrived at is that I don’t need to operate as an individual on an island. There is nothing weak about finding help in others. Working together with others, although entirely counter intuitive, is just as worthy a venture for learning as personal research. The second conclusion is that it’s best to have both! An online community can get you fast answers, specific data, and instant contact; a local community can provide emotional support and encouragement, a face to face network for candid conversation, and an opportunity to grow together and join forces to make something truly awesome happen in your town. I’m finally getting the online community down, and here’s what I plan to do to find community in my area:
- Volunteer: I’ve been doing habitat restoration (removing invasives from park land) with a group a couple Saturdays a month. Go figure, the same folks interested in protecting our community’s ecology also happen to support local business, eat and live organic, and garden! I used to think volunteering was boring, but the truth is that you can find an opportunity that caters to just about any interest. I’m planning to start volunteering on a local farm come spring.
- Attend learning opportunities: Our local cooperative extension offers many free and low-cost classes that relate to homesteading. Last month I went to a presentation on understanding garden soil. I was too shy to speak up and talk to anyone, but I did enjoy the presentation. I’m trying to build a relationship with our extension agent.
- Make the most of any time you get to meet new people: Like I said before, I have horrible social anxiety. I almost never approach anyone I don’t know to talk; I usually wait for people to come to me. I don’t offer personal information unless I’m specifically asked. Well, this past week, I attended two-day search and rescue training through work with a group called SESARA. I wasn’t expecting much, but the training ended up being amazing. The two men who led it were ex-DNR and worked their whole lives doing wilderness rescue. I was engaged in the topic, so I nervously made a move to approach one of them during a break. Come to find out, he’s a caver who knows one of my favorite people, Christine Rose with Georgia Girl Guides! I love caving, and it’s not everyday you meet another caver. How cool though to build that relationship, and to hear his stories. I could have sat there quietly scrolling through my smart phone, but I chose to battle my fear and reach out. From now on, I vow to make an effort in any social situation, because you just never know when you’re going to meet someone with shared interests.
- Make friends at the farmer’s market: I swing by Athens Locally Grown a couple times a month to pick up our free range eggs. Usually I’m all business – in and out without any eye contact, much less conversation. Why do I do this!! These are awesome farmers committed to all the things I believe in!
I want to end this post with a quote from MaryJane Butter‘s Ideabook/ Cookbook/ Lifebook. She dedicates an entire section of this book to community and connection with others. She so elegantly writes:
Our entire culture as Americans has changed, but what hasn’t changed is our collective longing for community – the “full purpose of heart.” It’s a way of life that’s hard to keep, and it’s an unbelievable amount of work. But the promise to be faithful to the good in each other is a promise absolutely anybody, anywhere can make and decide to keep.