It is a snowy day here in Western North Carolina, as I find myself reflecting on where I come from, I am realizing that the choices that I make for my family are based not only on the state of the world today but on my own personal history.
When I was in kindergarten, my family went on a Sunday drive in the countryside on Long Island and stumbled on a goat farm. Now this was back in the 60's and there really was still some country left on Long Island in those days. I remember duck farms and potato farms and other small farms. But we managed to stumble on a goat place and stopped to check it out.. Well my Mom fell in love with the idea of raising goats. Funny how well I can remember that day even now. It was all she could talk about on the way home. But we lived in a township that did not allow farm animals and so began the search for a place where we could have goats. We had always had a big vegetable garden and I remember their first discovery of the hornworms on our tomato plants and the big stir that they caused. Mom and Dad gathered them in a jar and pulled out the reference books so that they could look them up and figure out what they were. So odd looking and morbidly fascinating to us kids. It's been 40 years and yet I still remember that jar and the writhing worms!
Anyway the talk at our house was all about goats after that Sunday drive and "back to the land" and homesteading and where could we do it. I love this part of the story! My parents decided that Pennsylvania sounded like a good place to "do this" and so they got a map of Pennsylvania and blindfolded Mom and she "stuck a pin in the map"! She landed on Middleburg, PA. And we went on our first of many farm hunting trips to Pennsylvania shortly after. We looked at farms in Middleburg and then other Pennsylvania towns and then into New England. Nothing was quite right and eventually another Sunday drive turned up a very old house in Sayville, NY also on Long Island (not far from our original place) that was in a township that did allow farm animals. It was an old center-hall colonial house build pre-revolution and had been in the same family ever since it was originally built. It had no electric and no plumbing, three outhouses out back, an old chicken shed and another big out building. I think it was an acre. They added all of the modern conveniences and my Dad, a cabinetmaker, faithfully restored each part of the house to the period that was built in. It was an amazing process of research and restoration. It was a combination genealogy and archeology project. Old houses always have a story to tell hidden in the construction techniques, add-ons and items lost in the floor boards or tucked away in other places. But add to all those clues, the house and shed were filled with old letters, magazines, newspapers, clothes and more. These people did not throw anything out and Mom was able to piece together the family history of these original inhabitants.
So our first family homestead was on a town lot in a small town setting. We had goats and chickens and a big organic garden. We kids always had our own garden plots that we were our responsibility. We ordered most of our seed from Gurneys back then. Each of us would choose one vegetable that we wanted to grow and we'd each also get several "penny packs". In those days Gurney would package for kids the "penny pack". It is not in their catalog anymore. But Dad always guessed that after a day of packaging seed they must have swept the floor to fill these "for kids only" packs as you never knew what you would get from these seeds. It was a magical things for a kid to have this wonderful mystery only to to be solved as the plants came up and revealed themselves.
Books like Grow It and Stocking Up and magazines like Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening were standard family reading.
Our in-town homestead continued on until I reached the 7th Grade when my parents became restless for that "back to the land" life. They had a real desire to "get out of the rat race" and move to the country.
We started this farm search, as we had begun the first hunt, in Middleburg, PA and there, nearly 10 years later, we found our place. It was an overgrown Christmas Tree farm where the land either went up or it went down.. not much level land there but it was 53 acres with a barn and other out buildings. The 100 year old covered over log house had electricity but no plumbing. Okay it had plumbing.... a hand pump in the kitchen, a galvanized wash tub in the "back room" for bathing, and an outhouse on the hill between the garden and the house.
Whenever I tell this story, I hear that old John Prine song running through my head..." Blow up your TV, throw away your paper, Go to the country, build you a home, Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, ...." because that is just about what we did. No more TV, we grew most of our own vegetables in a terraced garden. Besides the goats, we raised chickens, ducks, and geese. We always had at least one beef calf and a pig or two for meat. We tried rabbit and strange but memorable things like beef tongue. For staples we shopped at the original Walnut Acres in PennsCreek, PA in our same county. (The original Walnut Acres, both the central Pennsylvania farm and the mail order food company founded in 1946 by organic pioneers Paul and Betty Keene, went out of business in the summer of 2000. The name and label is now owned by the Hain Celestial Group.)
This is how I spent my teenage years, milking and feeding the animals before school each day, helping in the garden and with the canning and preserving food for the winter. I am the oldest of five children and I know that I was often not a happy participant in this family experiment and way of life. But today, as I look at my life, I realize just how formative those years were in my view of the world and the choices that I now make for my family. When I look back into my deepest roots, I realize that my own urban plot and the path that I am on today first began in my family's homestead garden so many years ago.