The Why of it All By Eric
For those who aren’t familiar with New Mexico, they call it the land of enchantment. We call it the land of entrapment because, for many, once you land here, it’s hard to leave. We were drawn into the web in 1999 by Anna’s graduate school fellowship opportunity. Neither of us was particularly taken with the place. It was pretty brown in comparison to every place we had lived before. And anyway, we were in Albuquerque which, we later discovered, is one of the least attractive parts of New Mexico. You don’t have to go very far to get to beautiful, forested mountains, which somehow survive with under 18 inches of rain a year. After two years I landed a decent job and we were emboldened to buy our first house in this woe-be-gone city. This allowed us to really start getting used to the place. We took our brown, barren lot and started planting anything we thought might grow in this eight inches a year desert if supplied with a little extra graywater. As our apricots and tomatoes put down roots so did we. After you’ve been here a while the brown doesn’t look so ugly anymore, and every splash of green is 10 times as powerful as it seems when you live in Michigan, Florida or Illinois. None of those places have mountains either. And that’s where we were drawn next. By the time our fourth year as New Mexicans had gone, we had given up any probable future chance of moving away from this place. Trapped, neck deep in a labor of love.
In the process we drew Anna’s parents and one sister here from Florida. They came, practically sight unseen, like lambs to the slaughter (fools that they are). Drawn by undying devotion to Anna, I suspect, more than anything else. It didn’t hurt, either, that directly preceding the final decision to sell their owner-built house on two acres of Florida swamp, Anna became pregnant with Bruce and his vanishing twin sister Taliesin. We thought we were having twins and would need all the help we could get raising them, much less building a new home 30 miles from our urban hovel. It seems in retrospect that Bruce may have been possessed by the spirit of his departed sister, because he is more child than any two children I have ever met.
So began our adventure in the Summer of 2004. Bruce, not wanting to be late for the excitement, came ten weeks early, literally one day after the Grandparents arrived, and smack dab on my birthday, July sixth (also the Birthday of the Dali Lama and G.W. Bush).
Before he was born the work had begun. And what a lot of work it has been. We located a workable 50 acres, close enough to Albuquerque to make commuting plausible, far enough away to be affordable.
At around the time Bruce was conceived we had hatched the “big idea” and pitched it to Anna’s parents, and invited her sisters along as well. Anna and I were frustrated with our permaculture project in the city. Despite our best efforts, and a great many successes, the picture was incomplete. Granted, you can grow a lot of food on a small urban lot, but it’s damn hard to really feed yourself. We watched while our garden flourished, but our grocery bill didn’t get appreciably smaller. Our food was still being grown far, far away, shipped with diesel fuel and sold for significantly more than the farmer is getting paid. And what about the rest of the things we consume? Wood for building or fire, water for gardening and life, animals, compost, bees, etc. can all be grown on the small urban lot with some efficiency but with a low level of self sufficiency.
Urban permaculturalists deceive themselves when they think that they are self sufficient in their little lots. They deserve credit for making as much as they do on as little as they do, but like any giant corporation, anything they consume” be it energy, food, water, medicine”that wasn’t produced in their local economy is an externalized cost. Any ecological-foot-print calculator on the internet will tell you that most any U.S. citizen requires dozens of acres to sustain themselves, even if they only live on a 8th of an acre. How often do people really ponder where the rest of those life sustaining acres are? We were unsatisfied with the number of those acres we had under our direct control and we sought to place as many of them as we could under our feet. Iâ€™m not under the illusion that we will be totally self sufficient (although, if push came to shove we would have a better chance at it than someone on a quarter acre). To sustain the bare minimum level of comfort that we can tolerate the city and the country need each other. We will not make it in the country without the industry that urban life can offer, and they would starve without farms in the green ring around them.
Bruce’s arrival underlines another reason we are seeking a bigger piece of the pie. Our house in the city has nearly doubled in value in the five years we’ve owned it. But what will it be worth in 25 years when all the wells in Albuquerque go dry? What if, and I’m not saying it is likely, a large scale economic collapse or crisis took place? What if the dollar bottomed out, the real-estate bubble burst, and the stock market crashed? All of these things are possible within our life time and some cynics think likely. What would Bruce have then? A very small piece of dirt that was dependent on city water that might not run, corporate gas that might not flow, and farms that don’t exist, because instead of restoring the surrounding environs for productive purposes, we built suburbs and paved over most of the good land. Our current economic system and its methods of counting wealth is a contrived and transitory thing that must come to an end or at least a drastic change some day as all things do. The only wealth and security that has lasted through out all the empires and ages is a good solid piece of land. We intend to leave one for our descendents.
There is another artifact of modern life that stands in stark contrast to the time tested ways of our ancestors; that is the nuclear family. Our society is dysfunctional enough that people from two separate generations can usually not stand to live in the same house for very long. Consequently we work longer hours each week away from our families so that we can afford the luxury of living further away from our families. This works, so long as the daily grind of sustaining the family can be paid for with cash borrowed from future generations and less fortunate parts of the third world. A house, toaster, dishwasher, car, tv etc. for every two people. If one wants to live honestly, however, not borrowing from abroad or from the future, one needs to combine resources with one’s kin.
It is curious that other sustainability minded folks put so much energy into living in communes or ecovillages with perfect strangers, and remain strangers to their extended families, with whom a great emotional and communal investment has already been made. Anna was different. Her best friend for many years now has been her mother. Anna is unusual in this regard, but not as unusual as her mother Joanne. Joanne, as the senior of the two, not only did an outstanding job raising a smart, responsible, beautiful daughter, but treated her with such respect, providing an environment of equality, that she made their life long friendship possible.
None of this would be possible without money, or at least not as possible. We are all well educated but none of us is rich. Wealth can take a lifetime to build, as it has for Bill, Anna’s father. After earning his pension in the military, he held a job within the defense industry long enough to build up a modest 401K endowment. He will very likely spend it all before this project is complete. We are more than $125K into it already and that’s not counting the cost of the land. What continues to amaze me is that he so willingly gives his life’s savings to such a hair brained scheme.
It is not only Bill’s money that we want. He has by far the most building skills and knowledge of any of us. He taught us all how to drive the tractor, how to use the chain saw, how to repair what little we know how to repair on the vehicles, how to build a metal building, and how to run into it with the fork lift.
What Bill lacks in aesthetic sense is more than made up for by his daughter Bel. I have visions of pots she will make in the walk-in, wood-fired kiln we will make with her. One day, perhaps, each and every planter in our vast greenhouses will be custom made with her exquisite touch. I’m also looking forward to what she will do with the mud plastering and broken tile mosaics that will one day decorate our house. I am confident her sculptures will dot the landscape in a more impactful way than any of the less artistic endeavors of the rest of us.
And let us not forget the long distance input of our film & theatre costumer, Gillian, Annaâ€™s youngest sister. While she lives & works in Southern California most of the year, her artistic & manual labor inputs are valued each & every time we drag her butt out here to help buck trees or move boulders. [Jo] Gilly has now been here a year, working, helping on the farm, helping with childcare, and occasionally getting a film project.
My brother too has journeyed from the far-off Kingdom of Northern California to labor selflessly on our land. Bruce (the elder), after whom my son was named, help build our road, erect our barn and thin our woods, enduring injuries and insults alike. My mother Rosie, while not in a position to provide physical labor has provided a great deal of emotional support over these years. She helped finance Anna’s and my first house, providing the financial footing for us to step up to our current endeavor. For me she is an additional driving force, for I know that although she may never need it, I am also creating a safe, inviting place for her to live out her golden years if times turned unexpectedly tough.
And while we”re dithering in this long list of exultations I cannot forget the many friends who have pitched in when we needed help the most: Patrick Schumann who has given us advice, inspiration, more than 50 container plants, lent us his chainsaw arm and helped us plant several dozen trees; the Altenbachsâ€”who have also provided tremendous inspiration as the builders of the first off-grid, straw bale house that we were able to become intimate with ”have also protected us from fire and poured concrete for our foundations on a moment’s notice; James Burgess who has probably spent more hours working on our land than he has his own, refusing payment and giving us the highest quality help one could ask for from a friend, besides helping me learn how to make biodiesel; Peter Gallo who has lent a long, strong back to our many projects, another biodieselista; and many others who have pitched in where they could, learned a little, earned a little and made this mad scheme possible. [Jo] Our neighbors, Jim and Sharon, have been invaluable resources, for both local information and labor, not to mention the occasional horse back ride. Such a rare blessing, to have good neighbors that are also good friends.
As I write this we are just over two years into this project. All of us thought by now we could be living on the land in a fabulous straw-bale house. None of us knew what we were getting into or how much it would cost or how much help we would need. Now we reassess and estimate that it will be another two years, maybe three, before we are all living on the land as a family. We have yet to fit Billâ€™s sister, Aly, into the project, which will add another facet to this gem we are cutting. We also plan at least one more child of our own who will certainly complicate matters while enriching our lives. [Jo Junie May has now been doing “enrichment complicating” for two years! It has been exhausting! We have flagged from time to time, wanted to quit and do something else, anything else! But we have stuck to it through all that, a fact which is its own well of strength and resolve to continue. If we have made it this far and are still at it, then surely we cannot fail. Our story would make a great reality TV show. Too bad we didnâ€™t think of that earlier, we could have financed the whole thing. But you can stay tuned to find out what happens!
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