"...it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state."
—Thomas Jefferson, to Reverend James Madison, October 28, 1785.
"That is the glimmering vein
of our sanity, dividing from us
from the start: land under us
to steady us when we stood,
free men in the great communion
of the free. The vision keeps
lighting in my mind, a window
on the horizon in the dark."
—Wendell Berry, "The Mad Farmer Manifesto: The First Amendment"
The dream of owning land has always been with me, from the first that I was aware that land could be claimed & owned. As a child I searched the atlas for likely places to settle. It would be a remote place, nearby a fine river or inlet. It would have a cabin in which to dwell, one that I had made myself: simple, orderly, and suitable for extended self-sufficiency.
This vision has never left me: lighting my window, as Mr. Berry would say. I had quite expected to have this place by now, but adult reality is considerably more difficult than I had anticipated in my earlier plans.
2016 marks my 30th year on Lopez Island. I as yet do not "own a piece of the rock," and my time for the considerable effort of building a homestead is running short: I'm 55 years old, fit and healthy, but the effects of decades of physical work have diminished my strength and abilities. Yes, I've worked hard, doing the things I always anticipated I'd do on my own homestead: clearing land, gardening, building sheds and greenhouses. But aside from the small shop and greenhouse that we've moved with us to our current rental house, nothing of what I've built is mine. I don't regret working hard on other people's places. Leaving something better than you found it is always a good karmic strategy.
Still.... that vision lights my mind.
But how? Through the years that I've lived here, my circumstances have improved considerably, but not nearly at the pace that the cost of ownership has. Buying land has been a receding horizon, a goal always just out of reach. I know that these things never just fall into one's lap: hard work & luck are necessary. But forty years ago when the first wave of back-to-the-landers came to Lopez, there was no building code, and a parcel could be had for what you'd pay for a good used "island car" nowadays. Many of my friends came here in that time, built rough little places from salvaged windows and homesawn lumber, brought in running water and power when they could. Many of them have never carried debt on their land. That kind of bootstrap homesteading is nowadays illegal in this county, as it is in most of the U.S. You can't build here without utilities, including septic systems that can cost as much as a new car. You can't live in a tent or trailer while you slowly build your house, pay-as-you-go. To build new, you gotta play by all the rules, and man are there a lot of rules...
OK, how about buying an existing house? Officially, we can "afford" a 30-year mortgage on a house costing no more than $250,000. On Lopez Island that narrows things down to, inevitably, a sorta-new-ish manufactured home on a tiny lot or a 30 year old manufactured home on some acreage. A 30 year old manufactured home is at the end of its functional lifespan, so what you're getting here is the acreage and, hopefully, functional utilities. So scratch that place with the ancient mobile home, because the first thing you'd have to do is toss in tens of thousands of dollars to build a livable structure.
"Why don't you move somewhere more affordable?" one might ask. "It costs a lot to live in San Juan County!" Fair point. But this is where we live, and we'd prefer to stay here—and besides, the cost of living is high everywhere on the West coast. San Juan County is blessed with several Land Trusts dedicated to providing affordable homes to lower income citizens: the Lopez Community Land Trust has, at last count, 50 households enjoying modern, affordable housing. If not for LCLT our community would be a much different place. The Land Trust is a great fit for a lot of folks, but it's not really for us.
You've either got time or money—never both. If the only way to have a homestead is to sign up for 30 years of payments, the system ties you into the job economy effectively for life. There's no allowance for taking time off to build your house yourself, no extra dough to start a little cottage business. A 30 year mortgage is incompatible with the idea of self-sufficiency: as long as you're beholden to the bank every month for a good portion of your adult life, you're never really free.
The ideals of agrarianism are 180 degrees opposite of the corporatist system of the industrialized world. Where Jefferson thought that all people should have the means to self-sufficiency, corporatism would have every person permanently dependent upon wages meted out by owners of capital; where he foresaw that the farm would serve as the heart of the home economy, the industrial system concentrates citizens in cities & suburbs where they are completely dependent upon sustenance from beyond their households.
I don't want to romanticize too much about the agrarian vision, seeing as how America was settled on stolen land, for one thing. Another undeniable fact is that subsistence farming and homesteading are really hard work, and most people are happy to not worry about whether the pond will hold enough water to keep the garden going in a dry year, or how to store potatoes long enough to last until the spring spuds are ready. But for those who find this kind of life appealing, there must be a way to live it on a human scale: to build a home with your own hands, to feed the family from the dirt of your own land.
So let's not lose sight of the original vision: "a little portion of land." Land. Dirt. A place for a garden, maybe a bit of woods to ramble in, a simple cabin built with one's own hands. That vision is out of reach for all but those fortunate enough to have some outside help—a legacy, a cashout from the corporate world, or some other windfall. The fact that land is now "real estate" and a coveted "investment" means that the land is no longer a place where people sustain themselves, but a commodity that trades to the highest bidder. We're not likely to see the end of that situation, not in my lifetime. But maybe...
I'm not ready yet to give up. There has to be a way to make this work. And, there's no time to lose.
"you see sir seeds give birth to being
what we grow is who we are
it is sacred it is sweet
and greed is the destroyer
takes vision from our eyes
and the land beneath our feet
"the land on which we stand is the only thing we have
that can withstand the weight of our lives
so learn to treat the land like you treat your own two hands
honor its strength cherish the gifts it holds"
—Chris Dorman, "Family Farm"
The Wendell Berry poem was read to me by my husband, Steve. Yes, I have a husband that reads me poetry <3