This time of year I am engaged in activities that stimulate a lot of memories. During this most recent spell of beautiful but ungodly hot weather, John and I were bent over our nice-sized garden pulling weeds and planting seeds.
It takes hours to till the ground after the long hard winter, adding rotted straw retrieved from around the house where the bales provide great insulation during those bitterly cold months by removing drafts from down around the floors. And then, come spring, they provide an excellent source of garden-bed nutrients. This has been our ritual cycle for the past forty-some years, all for the purpose of growing and harvesting a year’s supply of the best food money can’t buy!
Now nearing seventy, we wonder sometimes if we’re crazy, sticking to this labor-intensive lifestyle that allows us to eat gourmet, stay in shape, spend time in the “great outdoors,” and have blocks of “quality time” together — and all this, minus the expense of eating out, the monthly fee for the fitness center, the high costs that take the joy out of vacationing, or butting up against the all-too-common “nothing new to talk about” phenomenon of long-term marriage. The garden reaps heaps of pleasure throughout the entire year.
Recently we were recalling our first encounter with some old-time neighbors, Elsie and Elmer, who adopted the moniker, “Grandma and Grandpa Hippie”. They were children of “first wave” immigrants who homesteaded this area at the turn of the twentieth century, some of the minority who stayed here rather than migrate to find work in big cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, or Detroit.
John and I like to think of ourselves as members of a second wave of “homesteaders”, young people in the 1970s, ready to leave their hometowns to try their hands at living “closer to the land”. We bought bare forties and erected shelters out of whatever materials we could find, salvaged, or purchased on the cheap. There were some among us who bought original farmsteads, abandoned during hard times when the local cash economy was almost non-existent. In our youth, we were inspired to either build from scratch or bring those rundown houses and collapsing barns back to life!
Some locals didn’t know what to make of us, the new arrivals, while others, people like Elsie and Elmer, enjoyed showing up unannounced to scope us out, share stories and useful survival tips in trade for a few beers which we’d swig together after a day of hard work. In fact, they became frequent visitors until, one day, they would just quit showing up. Over time, we learned that those were the days they were totally busy getting their garden in.
Indeed, these were subsistence farmers — hunting, gathering and growing everything they would need to sustain themselves during the coming year. Down deep in their blood, they knew when and how to have fun, and they also knew when to buckle down and “get her done”.
In our recent recollections, we realized that these two local characters were some of our best mentors. John attributes his love for growing big, beautiful onions to these two. Elsie’s were renowned. She was the one who advised him not to plant too deep. To this day, we plant our onions on the surface, only pressing them slightly into the ground and then, Ruth Stout style, covering them with a deep fluffy bed of straw. It was their frequent deliveries of deer meat, smoked sucker, and an array of roasted small game that helped us acquire a taste for many a northern woodland delicacy. And their homemade berry wines were among the best.
Grandma and Grandpa Hippie weren’t the only wonderful locals who welcomed us into the “neighborhood”. We learned how to grow big, juicy tomatoes here, in one of our nation’s least hospitable climates for vine ripening, from Louis, our closest neighbor who lived a mile down the road. I’ll never forget the generosity of another nearby farmer who gifted me with Thor and Oden, my first little piglets — their “runties”. They were even eventually willing to show me how to render lard. And it was their mis-timed calves, found frozen one morning in their pasture, that fed my sled dogs that winter. The adaptations and learning curve were made a lot easier and more enjoyable thanks to these many kind souls to whom I am so indebted. They helped this become my community, a rich and wonderful place to raise my children.
So, here we are, four decades later, planting our “subsistence” garden, on our little homestead, next to our off-the-grid-hand-built log house, hand operated water pump to boot, with the creek running through still providing the basics, and so much more.
Funny but true, we figured Grandma and Grandpa Hippie must have been nearly seventy when we first met them, about the same age we are now. Ahhh. Now it all makes so much sense.