Simple Living Archive


Radical Homemakers vs. the Hurricane

Friday, September 2nd, 2011
Devastation and resilience: Shannon Hayes reports from Schoharie County, New York, which was hard-hit by Hurricane Irene.

It was busy in town Friday and Saturday. Stores and restaurants were filled with New Yorkers and Long Islanders seeking refuge from hurricane Irene, slated to pummel downstate on Sunday.

We were safely outside the storm zone, but we figured we’d lose power, so we ground extra coffee, filled the bathtub and several jars with water, and made sure the yard was free of debris in the event of high winds. At the farm, the chickens and turkeys were brought in off pasture. We scattered wood shavings on the barn floor, tied up panels for temporary pens, then secured tarps along the open front to protect them from the rain. Dad and Mom herded the sheep a mile up Heathen Creek road to the other farm we rent, which is on higher ground. We assumed we were over-prepared.

We weren’t. We are too cut-off from the world right now to know what, exactly, came through Schoharie County on Sunday. Maybe it was just the fringe of the storm. Maybe Irene herself was checking out life in the Catskills. All I know was that at 9:30 Sunday morning, we lost power, as predicted. At 10 am, our phone rang with an automated message from our county’s emergency response system. Earlier storm predictions had been greatly underestimated for our area. If we were in an area prone to flooding, the message told us to evacuate immediately. As best as I can figure, only those of us high and safe on the mountain tops got the call. Most folks down below had already lost service. But even high up here, we heard the evacuation sirens.

Schoharie County residents make our lives in three different habitats: on the tops of the mountains, in the mountains, and down in the valleys. Bob and I live on top of a mountain. We played with our daughters and watched the rains with interest. My family’s farm, on the other hand, is in the mountains, flanked on two sides by ordinarily pristine, calm mountain streams. Mom and Dad sat in their house and watched them rage over the creek banks, come frighteningly close to the house, and cause the roads to boil and rip. They were so fast and furious, one lane of the road by of the farm completely fell away, leaving a ten foot drop to the raging water. Two days after the storm, portions of County Route 4 continue to fall away; it is no longer passable on the east side and the west side is not far behind. The bridge to Heathen Creek Road was completely washed away, separating us from our sheep.

We were the lucky ones. Last I heard, we still couldn’t get to the Middleburgh or Schoharie Valleys, where many of our friends (and most of the local vegetable farmers) had their homes. I presume everyone got out safely, but I don’t think they had anything more than the shirts on their backs. We don’t know where folks are at this point.

The best soil for vegetable crops is generally located along the flood plains. But flooding around here is usually a winter-thaw phenomenon. It isn’t supposed to happen in the height of the harvest season. Vegetable producers around here make most of their annual income from July through October. In addition to the incredible damage to their homes, they’ve also just lost half the year’s income, and an unfathomable amount of topsoil and accumulated fertility.

Unsure what else to do in the face of so much wreckage, our neighbors came out to stand along the road and help herd the ewes back to the farm.

There is a peculiar tendency in the face of devastation to fixate on what we do have, what wasn’t lost. The demolished road at the end of our farm’s driveway has become a local tourist attraction and gathering spot. Folks stand around, staring at it and snapping pictures, then begin to recite a current inventory of their blessings to each other. It is easier to concentrate on that than to wrap our heads around the tragedy that will unfold as we learn more about the valleys below.

Life could certainly be worse. Heathen Creek neighbors on the far side of the bridge gathered together yesterday and worked with their hands to forge a dirt and rock passage across the water, just wide enough to allow a four-wheeler to traverse. One resident strapped a can of gas and a milk crate to his ATV and drove off seven miles to Cobleskill to re-stock his beer supply. Another neighbor came down to let us know it was safe to go up and bring the sheep home.

The moving of our flock was the first parade seen in West Fulton in many decades. Unsure what else to do in the face of so much wreckage, our neighbors came out to stand along the road and help herd the ewes back to the farm. Saoirse and Ula rode behind in the mule, waving to all the neighbors, self-appointed princesses of the parade…

Read the rest on Yes! Magazine’s website.


rawmilkrevolution

Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

Can You Be a Radical Homemaker With an Unsupportive Partner?

Friday, July 29th, 2011
What happens when one member of a couple wants to live a new kind of life—but the other doesn’t?

“But you have Bob.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that refrain about my husband since I first began promoting the ideals of radical homemaking. I rarely hear it publicly. It usually comes up in private conversations following lectures; it is whispered at book signings; it finds its way into my email inbox as would-be radical homemakers confess the single greatest obstacle to changing their home from a center of consumption to a center of production: the unsupportive partner.

I’ve held hands with strangers as they cried about their marriages, read long anonymously written letters of love and pain. My heart aches for these souls. I’ve repeatedly wanted to post a piece addressing this problem, but it has taken me two years of listening to these personal stories before I could find some universal themes in them that might be helpful for those folks who are facing similar situations.

The truth about radical homemaking is that single people can do it, and married people can do it. But if all the adults in a household aren’t on board with the efforts, it is damned near impossible. It is easy to vilify a partner who refuses to carry a water bottle, buys coffee every day in a disposable cup, discourages anyone from leaving a job they hate and still thinks Hummers are cool. But as anyone who has faced this problem in a marriage will tell you, it is not a black-and-white matter. These unions are typically made when love is true and ideals are high. The person who wants to start down the radical homemaking path cannot always write off an unsupportive partner as ‘a jerk,’ file a separation agreement and simply move on. The people we love are complex. There are reasons a partner may be derisive about this radical homemaking idea and still buy the mocha frappaccino with the domed plastic disposable lid—even if they  love the earth and care about social justice:

The unsupportive partner often wants a better world, too. But he or she has given up believing that it is possible.

Despair. The most obvious difference between the would-be radical homemaker and the unsupportive partner that I’ve observed is that the would-be radical homemakers still have hope. They still believe that their daily choices will have an impact on the future of the world. There is enough optimism lingering in their souls that they believe changing how they live, even if it must be incremental, is still possible. They believe that, with time and perseverance, a new and better life can unfold. The unsupportive partner often wants a better world, too. But he or she has given up believing that it is possible. The act of keeping a garden, of mending one’s clothes, of any earth-saving effort, seems fruitless to a person who feels it may be too little too late. While the wish for a healed planet may be the same, the unsupportive partner may simply be taking comfort from a consumptive lifestyle because he or she can no longer take comfort from hope.

Fear. There are so many things we are taught to be afraid of in our culture: fear of not having a steady paycheck, fear of not having our children enrolled in the best schools, fear of not blending in with the neighborhood,  fear of existing without two or more cars in a household, fear of relying on family and friends for support. The radical homemaking path requires a person to confront those fears. The would-be radical homemaker has been able to do this, and has discovered that many, if not all of their fears, are little more than a hall of mirrors keeping them from a deeper, more pleasurable and empowering way of life. The unsupportive partner may still be clouded by the fears, so committed to them that they are unwilling to engage in a dialogue that might challenge them.

Lack of a Dream. Despair and fear alone are problematic attributes in an unsupportive partner, but everyone who considers a different life path confronts them. In order  to put up half a fight in dispelling them, a person must be able to imagine what a life could be like without them. What does a life look like where one is not afraid? Where one lives with optimism that our collective individual choices will add up to a new earth community? What would a happy life look like?

Fear and despair creep their way into everyone’s life. They overtake our daily decisions without our even noticing, smothering our imagination … unless we take the time to dream. Dreaming about what we truly want for our homes, for our families, for our land and communities, and for our time is the best antidote I know for fear and despair. Each time we reflect on what we most want in our lives, we are pushed to examine the barriers that are keeping us from our dreams. And each time we examine and express them, the barriers grow a tiny bit weaker, the dreams grow a tiny bit more clear.

if you can, try dreaming together again, as you may have done once a long time ago.

We dream constantly in our family. And every few years, Bob and I write down whatever the current dream is. We write down all that we want for the land—the land that we steward, as well as the land that we impact with our life choices. We write down what we want our time to be used for, what we’d like our financial resources to be, and what we want our home to be like. The dream we write is a shared one. It contains what we both want—no compromises, no negotiations. It sits up on a wall in the room where we meet every morning to share a cup of coffee or tea. And every decision we make together, whether it  is a simple choice about what to get done that day, or a big decision about a financial investment, reflects the dreams that are posted on our wall. It reminds us that playing music together is as important as making sausages for the farmers’ market, or returning phone calls, or doing paperwork. It reminds us that keeping the car turned off as much as possible keeps us closer to our deeper dreams. When we make choices about our money, it reminds us of the world we want to create.

That is not to say that fear and despair don’t enter our lives.  But with our shared vision on our wall, we are constantly reminded to challenge them, and to see fear and despair for what they truly are: obstructions to our dreams. The dream holds fear and despair at bay for us. And it enables us to support each other, because we both know what we are moving toward.

Not every union is worth preserving. Sometimes couples must go their separate ways. But sometimes all the pieces for a happy life together are present, but need help coming out. If you are pining for the radical homemaker path and feel you have an unsupportive partner, before you abandon your relationship, consider if fear and despair are holding the other person hostage. They are very real for the person who is experiencing them, and it is important to honor their existence. But then, if you can, try dreaming together again, as you may have done once a long time ago. Your mutual dreams may not resolve the fear and despair, but I promise they will soften them. And better still, those dreams instill hope and inspire courage. And hope and courage inspire good change, even though it may be slow. The radical homemaker path may have more bends in the road for your family than for others, but the journey will still be interesting, beautiful, and powerful.

Shannon Hayes wrote this post for Yes! Magazine, where you can read it in its entirety.


rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

Radical Homemaking: It’s Not a Competition

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

As publishers of a book about ecological, values-centered living, my husband Bob and I have experienced many moments of guilty squeamishness. Because I spent so much time studying the subject, and because we believed in the ideas strongly enough to pony up the cash and take Radical Homemakers to the printer, we feel we’re supposed to be some kind of paragon of the lifestyle. That is an ideal that is impossible to attain. I write and research to learn more about something I feel is important, not because Bob and I are experts at implementing all the concepts. We published Radical Homemakers as a result of being on that path, not because we have mastered the lifestyle.

Looking around our home, there are plenty of signs that we haven’t. Most of the blueberry bushes limped through the winter, but I lost two of them owing to my imperfect stewardship from prior years. One of Bob’s beehives died out because we divided the colony at the wrong time last year. This year’s mistakes are already forthcoming: Sitting cozy by the fire in February, we decided to plant a small orchard and mail ordered eleven trees. That’s a stupid thing to do. It is fine to decide to plant an orchard, but that decision means the next growing season should be devoted to preparing the soil for the following year, not to planting and watering baby trees. In our zeal, we skipped an all-important step, and now those poor trees must struggle to survive in soil that is nutrient-poor and nearly devoid of microbial life.

Continue reading this article at Yes! Magazine.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

Saying Goodbye: What Do We Teach Kids about Death?

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

My grandfather is dying. He is 92, and just before Christmas he came down with pneumonia. His health and awareness have been in steady decline since then, and his doctors have begun preparing us for the end. Uncle Tommy and Aunt Kimmie, who moved in with him a few years ago, have been overseeing his care. They are now assisted by one day nurse, my Aunt Katie, and my dad, who take shifts to make sure Tommy and Kimmie can rest, and to guarantee that Grandpa can stay in his home.

I called my dad two nights ago to ask if I could join him on his shift for Sunday morning. He agreed, warning me that in the last few days, Grandpa had stopped conversing. I asked if he minded if I brought the girls.

Coping with death was an on-farm necessity. But much of our family still preferred to keep it a safe distance from life.

“I don’t know. Maybe we can talk about it later.” With that, the conversation ended.

That was his code for telling me that I had to make the decision.

I thought back over my own experiences with death as a child. My brother and I cared for pets who were making their passages; attempted to save baby birds who’d fallen out of their nests; carried hypothermic lambs into the kitchen on cold winter nights, and worked to resuscitate them until they died in our arms; removed dead chickens from the coop. Coping with death was an on-farm necessity. But much of our family still preferred to keep it a safe distance from life.

Continue reading this article at Yes! Magazine.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

My Antidote to Overwhelm

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Yesterday morning, when I finished writing for the day, I signed on to check my email. From the sea of unread messages, one stood out. The subject line, written in all caps, read: HOW DO YOU DO IT ALL?

The more I write, the more I speak, the more I hear this question. It’s understandable. I paint my life as a dreamy blend of farming, cooking, home schooling, canning, lacto-fermenting, music-making, soap-making, crafting, writing, occasional travel for speaking engagements or research and, believe it or not, I even find time to knit. I’ve knit two sweaters already this winter (confession: one was about three times larger than it was supposed to be, so Bob pulled the whole thing out). On the surface, I might seem like a regular Martha Stewart (only with bare feet, messy hair, and no stock portfolio).

Thus, when I hear those six words, HOW DO YOU DO IT ALL, I must be ready with my reply.

I don’t. Radical Homemakers are not one-person wonders, single-handedly capable of heroic feats of self-reliance. Rather, we have some handy skills (cooking, knitting, gardening), and then some meta-skills that work the real magic: savvy functioning within a life-serving economy, an ability to self-teach and overcome fears, realistic expectations, an understanding of what gives us deep pleasure, and, most importantly, relationship skills. I don’t do it all. I am in an interdependent relationship with my family and my closest friends, and together, we get stuff done.

Often, however, that answer doesn’t satisfy the asker. If they are in front of me, they lean forward, grow more intense and say, “Sure. Okay. But what about you. How do you do it? How do you get through your day? How do you write, cook a meal, and homeschool your kids?”

I confess that Bob washes the dishes.

There must be more to it than that, I’m told.

Okay. Here’s another try. Think of knitting as my substitute for prescription sedatives and alcohol. But that answer, too, only partially satisfies.

No television? Well, yes, that’s a time-saver, but often something my audience has already tried.

And then I have to hit on my biggest admission. I’m on a low-electron diet. Ask me the headlines. Or even for a weather forecast. Save for maybe once or twice a month, I can’t answer you. I can’t tell you the names of any pop stars, I have no understanding of what Twitter is, I’ve never held a “hand-held device,” and I can’t find my Facebook page without using the search function.

My computer is turned off every morning, once my work day is complete, usually around 9am. At that point, I tune out the rest of the world and tune into my family, home, and farm. Very often the telephone gets turned off, too. So does the radio.

I shut out the wide world to tend to my immediate world.

I didn’t always live this way. It was a choice I eventually made about using my time. Voices talking on the radio generated mental interference when trying to interact with people in the room where I was standing. Worse than that, I observed that email correspondence throughout the day, habitual Googling, and a steady-stream of web-updates were having a negative impact on my soul. Fixating on the computer made me an intolerant mother to my kids, had me doing stupid things like boiling over my soup pots, and—even if I was reading great news on the screen—it left me crabby. Answering the telephone during the day had a similar effect. It distracted me from taking a walk, cooking, or having a warm drink with Bob; worse, it would break up the rhythm of homeschooling.

Until now, I’ve kept my media phobia under wraps. After all, how could I publicly condemn the Internet (especially in a blog post), when the Internet is what enables me to be a stay-at-home parent, self-publishing books from a room just off my kitchen? How could I poo-poo cyberspace when I depend on it to research my books, to search my library’s card catalog, to get directions for where I am going? How can I turn off my computer when e-mails and reader comments on my Facebook page or blog posts are often the encouragement I need to keep writing and researching? Worse still, what right do I have to engage in social criticism if I don’t even know the headlines?

I grapple with these questions a lot, which is why I’ve been loathe to admit how disconnected I truly am from the wide world. I survive my life by blocking out interference at critical times in the day. My hesitation in admitting this is because I feel guilty. My low-electron diet makes me question if I am a good citizen if I am this out of touch with the world around me. Then I heard a great fact on NPR (I’m not always tuned out): the average person consumes nearly three times as much information today as they did in 1960.

This helps me put my low-electron diet in perspective. I am not “tuning out the world.” I am, however, limiting my information consumption to a level that enables me to function effectively in my life. I’ve learned that I need to be selective about what I let in, and I limit it to those things that I feel that I can influence, or that directly tie in to my most deeply held values.

I am forever advocating that we find ways to reduce our consumption to reasonable levels, and maybe information consumption is just one more venue we might consider. Can our bodies and brains truly tolerate the levels of information consumption we are engaging in? If we are in a state of overload, does that prevent us from leading socially and ecologically responsible lives—taking away the time we might be spending with our children, creating simple pleasures that don’t harm the Earth, growing our own food, or otherwise nourishing ourselves, our communities, and our families? I am thankful for much of the media that is available, for the information that helps me to understand how my lifestyle impacts the rest of the planet. But I have personally discovered that my brain simply cannot process all of it and simultaneously allow me to live a life in harmony with my values. If I take too much in, I lose my ability to concentrate.

And that, I think, is the missing component to the ever-present question, HOW DO YOU DO IT ALL? I can, farm, cook, teach, learn, parent, write, knit and best of all, enjoy my life, because, for better or worse, my mind is free to focus on the matters that are closest to my heart.

Read the original article on Yes! Magazine’s website.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

Homemade Prosperity

Friday, December 17th, 2010

It should have been a high point in my life. I had just successfully defended my dissertation and had three potential job opportunities. But I found myself pacing around our cabin or walking the hills of my family’s farm, alternately weeping and hurling invectives into the country air. Bob and I were fighting with a force I’d never seen.

The simple fact was, I didn’t want the job I’d spent years working toward.

“I thought you wanted this! Why the hell did you just spend the last four years at Cornell? Why did we just go through with this? Why did you say that’s what you wanted?”

What could I tell him? Because I didn’t know any other way to stay close to my family’s land and make the kind of money I thought we needed? Because I didn’t believe there was a future in farming? Because the only way I thought I could manifest my talents was within an institution that would offer me a paycheck?

“What do you want?”

“To write and farm.”

“Then do it.”

“We need money. I don’t know how to do it.”

But I did know how. Since our arrival on these shores, every generation of my family has farmed. I was in the first generation that didn’t believe we could make a living doing it. Our neighbors lived, laughed, and loved on these rocky hillsides, and they did it with four-figure incomes. And yet, I’d come to believe that, on these same hills, we needed six. Somewhere along the line, I had stopped believing the evidence that was before me and started believing one of the central myths of modern American culture: that a family requires a pile of money just to survive in some sort of comfort and that “his and her” dual careers were an improvement over times past.

What had changed? Why did I believe we needed so much? It was a puzzle to me at the time. In retrospect I see that my generation grew up immersed in media that equated affluence with respect, happiness, and fulfillment. We heard a national dialogue that predicted the end of the family farm. Those messages shook our security in our lifestyle—we ended up questioning our own experience.

After all, I grew up working on my neighbor’s farm. We had fantastic midday feasts, the house was warm in the winter, and there was always a little spare cash on hand to donate when someone was in trouble. And plenty of pies got baked, gratis, to contribute to the local church bake sale and turkey supper. I was in my mid-20s before I discovered just how little money they lived on.

Read the full, original article at Yes! Magazine’s website.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

Sharing the Harvest

Monday, October 25th, 2010

If I had to choose one food whose flavor fully encapsulates the glory of fall, it would have to be the wild apple. One can close her eyes, take a bite, and know what it is to taste an autumn-blue sky accented by golden rods, deep purple asters, the lush of green pasture, and the first red leaves on the sugar maples.

Bob and I make plans with our friend Bernie for our annual fall cider pressing. Once the date is set, our job is to meander through the feral orchards gifted to us by the earliest settlers on our respective farms, sample each tree’s offerings, and gather fruit. Our “pressing club” has one simple rule: No commercial apples. The best cider should capture the ethereal ambrosia surrounding an untainted orchard. That means foraging and mixing countless old varieties to balance sweet, tart and floral flavors, creating a glorious blend that honors our earliest agrarian predecessors, and nourishes us all winter long.

For this year’s apples, I will have to knock, uninvited, on the doors of strangers and request permission to gather the harvest.

Trouble is, this year, there are hardly any apples to be found on our land. A late localized snowstorm that killed our blossoms and dampened our spirits at the start of the growing season haunts us yet again, thwarting our cider harvest. Bernie reports that he’ll have ample apples to meet his needs for pressing. But we can hardly scare up a bushel. Our trees may have borne no fruit, but Bob and I notice apples glittering, untouched, on trees throughout the community—in abandoned pastures, road sides, and forest edges. I should feel buoyed by the abundant potential harvest surrounding me, but I don’t. None of the apple trees sit on land owned by people I know. In order to access them, I will have to knock, uninvited, on the doors of strangers and request permission to gather the harvest.

I believe in the power of building community, of expanding resources and generating abundance by forging relationships. But believing something and practicing one’s beliefs are two entirely different matters. I hate knocking on the doors of strangers. Upstate New York is a pretty conservative area. The cars outside the homes I must approach bear yellow ribbon magnets and jingoistic slogans. In an effort to blend in, our car is unadorned. But upon opening the doors, reusable shopping bags, apple cores, and stainless steel water bottles spill out on the ground around our barefooted family, belying our best efforts to conform to the norm.

With empty boxes in my trunk, I muster my courage and pull into the driveway of the first home where I hope to glean fruit. I knock on the door. A woman opens it partway and peers around the side. Her storm door remains closed to me. Her eyebrows are furrowed, leading me to believe that she is both annoyed and frightened by my unexpected appearance. I tell her where I live, explain my situation, and the absolute worst thing that can happen, does:

She tells me no. Politely.

Scarlet-faced from humiliation, I scurry back to the car and confront the expectant gazes of my girls, who are eager to begin picking. I tell them the bad news and watch their faces fall. Saoirse and Ula do not define winter by Christmas, or by presents. When the first hints of the cold season hit, they practically rupture with excitement over the prospect of cider and popcorn by the fire. The idea of depriving them this simple delight outweighs my faltering courage. With confidence, I tell them that, within 24 hours, I will find enough apples for the cider pressing.

I bring them back home for lunch, leave Ula with Bob for her nap, then persuade Saoirse to join me on my mission. I brush her hair and wipe food off her cheeks, unabashedly taking advantage of her youthful cuteness. Any person who tells me “No” will have to say it to her adorable face. We drive to the next house on my list. We both get out, remembering this time to put some flip flops on our feet. We are successful. Tossing the flip flops in the back seat, we grab our boxes and run barefooted to the beckoning tree. I shake the branches while Saoirse ducks. Then, using our hands and toes to find the drops in the tall grasses, we quickly gather over two bushels of apples.

I sample one. It is scrumptious. With the taste of success now in my mouth, I abandon all reservations about asking for what I need. We ask everyone we meet if they know where we can find wild apples to harvest. The grandmother of one of Saoirse’s friends gets in touch with a downstate resident who owns a second home nearby. The next day, all four of us gather in her front yard and fill my car until we can barely shut the door. Another neighbor directs us to some bordering old pastures, long abandoned but bursting with fruit. My dad sends us up the road to a spot near where he’s been grazing sheep. Our goal for our cider pressing is six bushels of apples. By the end of the second day, the porch at the farm is piled with fourteen bushels. Then Bernie shows up. He’s picked enough for himself, and, concerned that our apple dearth would leave us without enough cider for our family, he has picked for us, too. It is our largest apple harvest ever.

The bounty doesn’t stop with the apples. Because word of our mission got out, our processing team of three expanded to nine. A second cider press appears on the scene, doubling our production speed, making it easy to ensure that everyone who contributed will have cider for their table. Tin cups are passed about as we share in the communion of our bounty, which is extra tasty this year—a perfect balance of sweet and tart, with delightful overtones of generosity and cooperation.

This article appeared originally on Yes! Magazine’s website.

Shannon Hayes is the author of, most recently, Radical Homemakers.

Radical Homemaking for the Real World

Thursday, June 10th, 2010
Home is built where we are, not around an idealized community of like-minded people. Shannon Hayes on why she wouldn’t want it any other way.

by

Since publishing Radical Homemakers, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at a number of venues filled with new cohorts, eager to begin their path toward a more sustainable way of life. I am humbled and honored as they share with me their innovations, ideas, ideals, worries, and questions about the lifestyle path we are about to share. Over and over, as the people I meet express their longing to step away from the trappings of a consumer culture, they tell me how excited they are to “join a community of like-minded people”—often adding, “like what you have in your community.”

In writing with fondness about my life in Schoharie County, I seem to have given the impression that it is some sort of nirvana, where old and young are united in a shared passion for the culture and landscape; where age-old skills for resourceful living are handed down through family and neighbors, enabling each successive generation to carve out a healthy and sustainable, albeit modest, living in these hills and valleys. I do believe that is happening here. But not necessarily as some might imagine.

If one of my readers visited, they might be disappointed to discover the big-box sprawl on the edge of Cobleskill, the blight of fast food establishments, or the unromantic bouquet of chain restaurant grease, motor oil, hot tar, and cigarettes that permeates the air of our villages on hot summer nights. Schoharie County is very much like many other places around the country: We have some good stuff, some not-so-good stuff. What we do not have is “a community of like-minded people.” Around here, a goal of “like-mindedness” would set ridiculously untenable parameters on local relationships. When we make a commitment to permanently call a place “home,” we must accept that “like-minded” relationships are supplanted by complex relationships.

My favorite example of this has always been David Huse. I first discovered his farm after climbing on the school bus in my kindergarten year. I rode up and down his road twice a day for twelve years, each time leaning my head against the window glass, relishing the view of the Cobleskill valley from his family’s fields, studying his cattle, and marveling at how, on foggy mornings when low-lying clouds settled into the valley below, his pastures suddenly felt like an ocean coast. Years later, as I studied local agriculture in grad school, I came to know David as a vociferous member of the farming community, unabashedly sharing his views, delighting in his ability to make me squirm and grow flushed with his questions and observations. He annoyed me. He liked it that way.

After finishing grad school, I made a decision that, as best I can figure, finally met with David’s approval. Rather than leaving to find a job with my new degrees, I chose to come home and join my parents’ farm. The more ensconced I became in our grassfed livestock business, the more intertwined my relationship with David became. Both our families raise grassfed beef, but there has never been an ounce of competition between us. Rather, our businesses became interdependent. We’ve purchased his livestock; my aunt has helped him with his wholesale accounts.

But none of that ever stopped David from making me angry. In recent years, we’ve been on opposing sides of issues that have slashed at the social fabric of our community. We’ve disagreed over industrial wind turbines, land use policies, and hydro-fracturing of the Marcellus shale. I thought he was being socially irresponsible. He thought I was “misguided.” He told my father he didn’t like my letters to the editor. On my behalf, Dad retorted that I’d be pleased to know I had a reader.

At the same time, when he saw me with newborn babies bundled in my arms, he’d fuss and coo over them. He would talk to me at length about principles of grass-farming he felt I needed to understand—the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the importance of animal impact on the soil.

Last week, he came to the farm to see if we wanted to buy some of his cattle. We raised our hackles at each other while discussing the merits and dangers of gas drilling in our mountains; then stood side-by-side and threw sticks for the dogs while we talked about meat processing and watched Saoirse learn to ride her new bicycle. On Sunday he came to our house for a farm tour, brought a plate of brownies, had lunch, smiled through his wiry mustache when my parents asked if we were going to start debating again, then rode up into the higher pastures with my dad to see our Jersey steers. At that point I had been working on this essay for about a week, so I studied him closely. I didn’t dare mention that I planned to write about him. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of my grudging admiration.

On Monday, while he was moving hay equipment, a car collided with his tractor. He was killed. Since I found out, I’ve wandered around in a daze, and find myself periodically bursting into tears of sadness, confusion, and frustration. Bob and I replay the scene as it has been described to us, and we find ourselves daydreaming about the difference fifteen seconds could have made. Then I’m crying again. That damned David Huse. He always did know how to annoy me.

But there it is. Relationships around here are hardly like-minded. They’re complex. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I owe David a debt of gratitude for helping me understand that.

Goodbye, David. You will be missed.


Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.